The Hawaii Ironman and more
I get asked about the Hawaii Ironman often and with the race two weeks away there is no better time to write a little about it. Everyone talks about how tough the race is. Yes it's a tough race, but there are also some joyful parts and with proper pacing and some luck it can be not such a tough race. Having finished seven times I have learned many things about this race first hand.
The hoopla. There is no race like the Hawaii Ironman in terms of the media coverage and pre-race activities. The time zone changes, weather acclimation and a few days of vacation and relaxation makes athletes come to Kona more days in advance than any other race. This can be great, but it can also create a huge amount of stress on athletes. Like Mark says, most of the stress is fabricated inside our little heads. Seeing 1700 fit athletes displaying their fitness around town for a week can mess with the psyche of anyone.
The Carbo load dinner. This is a do not miss event. The food is basic and if you are a picky eater perhaps eat before you come. But the videos and the announcers Mike Reilly and Bob Babbitt are top notch. Finally the Hawaiian dancers are just super and the show is worth the price of admission by itself. Come early and get as close to the stage as possible.
The swim. By far my favorite swim. Only 1700 athletes line up and not the 3000 of other Ironman races. The start line is wide and you can spread out if you like. Clear water all the way. The swim does not go one mile into Open Ocean. It actually goes parallel to the coast line not too far from shore. The ocean swim has generally been very nice and not choppy. However, I have gone on practice swims days before the race and the ocean has been very rough. There are no guarantees here. One year there was a nice current coming back and the swim times were rather slow. Finally be careful with the salt water. One can get some serious chafing around the neck and armpits. Swim the course and get used to the salty water. Undoubtedly the racers will swallow some. If you swallow too much you can get GI issues. Use some Hawaiian Sea Salt with your meals to get used to it.
The bike. The Hawaii Ironman bike course is very fair. It is not flat but it is not a huge mountain either. The big challenge can be the Kona trade winds. There are trade winds 71 percent of the time in Kona for October. In addition there are 4 days each October with particularly strong trade winds. Make what you like out of these statistics. What it does say is that one never knows what is going to happen. Prepare for the worst which means make peace with the wind and welcome it if it comes. But if you get lucky and the wind is not as bad then be thankful. Some years you can get a lot of head winds both ways of this out and back course. Or you can get lucky and not get as much and get plenty of tail wind. Finally fast swimmers can get a good advantage as the trade winds do not start until the heat picks up later in the morning. Getting out on the bike course early is a good idea. The Queen K Highway has very good asphalt which makes for a smooth ride. Just watch the reflectors embedded into the asphalt. People have crashed if you hit them just the right way. Avoid the highway line the reflectors create.
The run. The Hawaii Ironman run is all on assault. You can divide this run into two parts. The first 10 miles are in town. Many people can cheer you on here and that always helps. However, this is traditionally the most humid part of the race and if there is no cloud cover this can be a very tough section. The second section of this marathon takes place all on the Queen K highway. No more cheering fans and it's all you against the elements. Right before you get on the highway there is this one hill that needs to be conquered. I have sat at this hill on Palani road and looked into the eyes of the top pros running and sometimes walking up this hill and picked the race winner many times. If you can run up it and feel good about it you have conquered this race. The Palani road hill is a defining hill. Once on the highway the humidity dissipates; however, the in town cloud cover if any usually disappears. If you are a sub 10:30 Ironman athlete the highway heat can be brutal when there is no cloud cover. But if you are an 11 to 17 hour finisher then the heat its not as much an issue. These athletes have to deal with darkness. The sun goes down at the 11 hour mark. Finally if at the 11 hour you are near mile marker 18 you can potentially be running into the famous Kona sunset at the energy lab. The Energy Lab is this 1.5 to 2 mile stretch where the runners turn around. The trip back is slightly uphill. In the pro race during the high heat of the day this uphill trip back can break many champion wannabes. Once out of the energy lab the athletes have a 10K to the finish line. Easy peasy right? Finally many people run on the emergency lane of the Queen K but that part of the road has a canter which can mess with the alignment of knees and tired legs. Many parts of the Queen K highway are closed to traffic and athletes can run on the highway. The problem is having to run back into the emergency lane to get near the aid stations. Use your own judgment here.
The finish line. The Hawaii Ironman finish line is on triathlon famous Alii drive. The finish line is in the exact same spot where the Hawaii Ironman champion has been crowned since 1982. Unless you think you are in contention for a podium spot it is best to smile, slow down, look around and enjoy the moment.
The awards banquet. This is a great occasion to fraternize with all the fellow athletes and share stories. The race is over and there is little stress. Watching all the award winners come on stage is very motivating. The older award winners seem to have the most energy on stage. Finally listening to the Ironman champions is a treat. There is one warning for all of you: both the carbo load and awards ceremony are held outside under the stars and there has been pouring rain in the past. Bring an umbrella just in case. One year the electricity went out, videos went out and all that was left was a few hundred people to listen to Craig Alexander no mic victory speech. Fun times eh? I wish the best of luck to this year's participants. See you all soon.
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