Thanks to Hannah Peel for this race report from the Ironman World Championships 2017 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
So I’m in Hawaii, about to race in the Ironman World Championships. I’d entered Vichy mainly for the holiday, but when I won my Age Group and found out qualification was for the following year, I knew it was a chance I might never get again so had to take. Having had a much better race at Frankfurt this year, yet been out of the qualification spots, I knew it was as much luck as anything else that had got me here.
Arriving just over a week early I got to experience a race week like none other. The swim course was not only open to swim in, but arrive at the right time in the morning and there is bag drop, plus a floating coffee boat about 750m out – perfect for those morning taper swims, when not too distracted by the pretty fish and turtles that is.
First up on our ‘race’ calendar, was the Ho’ala practice swim. Following practically the same course as the Ironman swim, it was a good opportunity to practice the mass start and sighting. The swell of the Ocean made sighting pretty tricky, so I went for following the masses and admiring fish.
After this we headed up the coast so I could check out the ‘hill’ of the course on the bike. After a long slog into a headwind, admiring the views, I realised I’d actually done the hill and headed back. Just where it flattened out and the winds stopped I got a puncture. The sudden lack of airflow when you stop makes the heat hit you like an oven, and the bike was hot to touch. Dismissing the temptation to ring for a lift I soon had it changed and set to work pumping it back up again. CO2 was first on the list to buy when the expo opens – I think I sweated more pumping up my tyre than the rest of the ride.
Showering post ride, I discovered that I had burnt my back through my tri top. I had to rethink my raceday kit. Having failed in the taper week aim of ‘don’t get sunburn’, the next few days I struggled with the heat and my usual ability to cope with it was down a bit. Disappointed to not race in my STC kit, the top I wore for outlaw would have to do. Not being see-through white meant I didn’t have to wear anything under it, and it didn’t rub at all. It did billow somewhat in the wind on the bike given it’s pretty old, so I am eagerly awaiting some new STC kit that doesn’t have a white chest to come out…
Next up was a charity 10k. Having accepted that I am incapable of entering a race and just running it at a sensible taper pace, I sat this one out and acted as photographer and cheerer for Addam. I figured this would make us even in our supporting/racing for the week. I tried not to worry too much about how he had had to slow his normal pace due to the heat at 7.30am, with some nice cloud cover. I had a week to acclimatise and wasn’t planning on running as fast…it’d be fine.
Fast forward to race week Thursday and the legendary ‘Underpants Run’. If ever an event was designed for Philip Smales then this is the one. I think El needs to do the decent thing and race Ironman in order to let you come here to support and enter this one. Started as a protest run against wearing Speedo’s in inappropriate places, it is now a big charity fundraiser. Wearing only underwear (Bikini’s are permitted), with bonus points for heart rate monitor straps and compression gear, the run loops round town, with a stop for star jumps and stretching. Cheering crowds urge us on, along Ali’i Drive, to the finish at the big ironman stage. Sporting boxers, heart rate monitors and our STC buffs we were not going to miss this one… or post a photo of us.
Saturday and it’s race day. The half way adjusted body clock made getting up at 4am a breeze and before long I’d sorted everything and was ready to race. I sat on the beach just taking it in for a while, whilst the helicopters circled above. The pros were off first, then the men, then finally it was the women’s turn to get in the water. I made my way left to try and avoid the melee at the start. The person in front of me had some crazy splashing warm up routine that involved spraying me with water and nearly smacking me in the face so I moved a bit further. Paddle boarders paddle up and down in front of us to keep everyone in line before the cannon. When the cannon fires they spin into position and we all swim round them. I had a good clear view so when the cannon went I clicked my garmin, put my head down, and started swimming. Straight into the paddle board that had stopped in front of me, oops. I stopped and went round and got into a rhythm.
About half an hour in I could feel my hat start to make it’s bid for freedom. This would prove to me mildly annoying as by the turnaround point it was a case of dodging round slow men that had started 15 minutes before us, and having the occasional stop to pull my hat back down. I didn’t learn to swim with one arm for nothing though, and perfected continuing to swim with one arm whilst pulling my hat down with the other every few minutes. It came completely off by the last stretch in, flapping back from my goggle strap. A brief glance at my Garmin read 1.11 – that’d do nicely.
Through T1 and with a third lathering of sunscreen for the day I was off on the bike. After a loop round town, the course is just a 50 mile out and back straight line. The exposed and relentless nature is sold as part of the challenge. Having pedalled 50 miles into a headwind round the flats of Epworth, I felt well prepared for relentless, and the rolling hills and beautiful views passed the time quite well. Every time I glanced at my Garmin I seemed to be putting out my aimed wattage, although it turned out on later analysis the majority of the time I was just enjoying the ride and views and not putting out anywhere near what I wanted to.
Round the turnpoint at Hawi, I got down on my bars and braved it. Clinging on to my aerobars for dear life I pedalled out of gears, knowing a hill would slow me down before worrying about the descent to the one corner. The first few minutes of this are great fun. Then you get some cross winds trying to blow you off course and I soon started to count down to getting a hill to go up again as my shoulders and arms started to ache with the extra pressure. Once over and back to the rolling up and down, all comfortably on the aerobars I could relax again.
The last 40km of the bike seemed to go on forever in the wind, but eventually I rolled back into T2 in 5h 37. I was disappointed with my time, but felt confident having taken it quite steady I’d have plenty left for a good run. Into the change tent and the heat was unbearable. I felt unable to function as I struggled to lock the toilet door and my sunburn was radiating out even more heat. I swapped my shoes and headed out into the burning sunshine.
I started running and just felt awful. I usually feel great for the first part of the run and have to hold back the pace, but my desired pace felt pushed and after 2km I knew I couldn’t sustain it without overheating. I poured ice anywhere I could and it just seemed to melt and steam straight off. I ditched all aims at time and tried to find a pace that allowed me to enjoy it. I tried to keep smiling in the hope that I could convince my body I was happy and this was fun. Addam cheering as I ran past where we were staying helped me fight the temptation to head back in and tuck into the tub of Ben and Jerry’s I knew was in the freezer. Given my time goals were out the window anyway, I could have a rest until sunset, then run a marathon and still make the cut off. It was tempting, but instead I pressed on making sure I ran between aid stations and walked through them, trying to cool down.
I knew the long stretch on the highway was going to be tough – it felt long riding back past it, nevermind running it. Every time I was tempted to walk I just reminded myself that walking without being at an aid station and pouring ice on myself would only serve to make me hotter and spend longer in the blazing sun. I swapped between hoping to finish before dark, and willing the sun to go down. There are no supporters out here so it is just a case of running from one aid station to the next. Going over every timing mat gave me a lift and a smile as I thought of people back home cheering me on with their oversized Hannah heads. Granted I hoped they would all be in bed by now and not watching my demise but I kept running just in case. If I could finish before anyone gets up then I’m sure they would say well done, rather than watching the tracker, thinking ‘oh dear’ as it took an age to come through the next point.
I clicked through half way and checked my watch – 1.55. Not quite as slow as I was imagining, so maybe I could keep it under 4 hours. I’d survive another 10k, then assess the situation. Two laps round Rother Valley, I can jog that easy. The highway seemed endless, but at least I’d managed to get some more salt as I’d managed to dissolve my collection of salt tabs when pouring water down myself and really needed some. The road seemed to go on forever and I was glad to finally turn down towards the energy lab. I saw the 30km mark coming up the other side – I’d done 27km so not long before the turn and head for home. I calculated I could still get under four hours for the marathon if I just kept going, and ticked off each km until I got back to town. I picked it back up for the last 2km to finish just before dark in a total time of 10.52.44.
I’d done it. I hadn’t done it as fast as I’d hoped, but I’d done it none the less. I was pleased to have kept going when things weren’t going to plan, but disappointed with my times. Despite a higher than athletically desirable consumption of alcohol, chocolate and ice-cream, I felt fitter than ever coming into this race, but be it the heat, sunburn, or just too long a season training and racing it didn’t really come together on the day.
Would I come back again? It has a magical kind of draw to it, along with the feeling of unfinished business, but practically it’s not going to happen in the near future at least. I’ll probably not qualify again, but having been pretty anti the Ironman marketing machine, with it’s overpriced races, I’ve been sucked into the magic of Kona and even bought a hoodie.