Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 Kona Race Report

At long last:

2014 Ironman World Championship
October 11th, 2014


Location: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Distance: 2.4-mile swim/112-mile bike/26.2-mile run
2014 Triathlon Race Number: 9
Career Triathlon Race Number: 146
Career Ironman Number: 13
Conditions: Mid-80s, Humid, Very Windy, Partly Sunny early, overcast late.  Water: 79 degrees with a noticeable swell.

It’s pretty hard for me to believe that I was privileged once again to race the Ironman World Championship.  This was to be my third time at Kona, as I had raced here in both 2010 and 2012.  My times for those two races were 13:49:17 and 13:42:59.

I qualified for all three of these races through the Ironman XC program.  I qualified at Oceanside70.3 in 2010, Ironman Arizona in 2011 (for 2012), and last year at Ironman Lake Tahoe.  That very challenging race was the only time I’ve covered the Ironman race slower than my above two Kona times.

As you can tell, by Kona standards I’m not a very fast Ironman triathlete.  While, I’ve gone sub 12 hours at the IM distance several times, the heat and humidity takes its toll on my relatively larger body.  Additionally, I’ve tended to view Kona as more of a “victory lap” to be savored and enjoyed as opposed to the more rigorous training I tend to invest in trying to qualify for this race.

2014 was no exception.  I spent the first part of 2014 down in Argentina summiting Aconcagua—the highest mountain in the Southern Hemisphere.  This three-week effort left me elated but depleted both physically and mentally when I returned to the U.S. in early February.  After a few weeks focused mostly on recovery, I began my Ironman build-up a couple months late.  Further, in the months prior to climbing Aconcagua, I had significantly shifted my training focus to prepare myself specifically for climbing that big mountain and the physical demands of moving at nearly 23,000 feet.  This meant little in the way of triathlon specific training.  For example, I had not been in the pool in three months when I first dipped my toes in the water in late February.

As the 2014 season unfolded I noted a distinct feeling of needing to hold back quite a bit and not get burnt out, neither physically nor mentally.  I was plagued with a series of nagging soft-tissue issues, most notably in my left calf.  I really needed 2014 to be a recovery year and at the same time, I had to get ready to race one of the most demanding single day endurance tests.  As the season unfolded I backed off both my training and racing from my original plans.  I had only raced 8 times prior to Kona (versus a plan of 12) and I got off the plane in Kailua with a lot fewer training miles (with the exception of my swim) and a body that weighed in at 178 pounds (I’m 6’ 1”).  In contrast, I’ve raced IM Florida back in 2007 at 163 pounds, which is about as light as I can go. 

I don’t want any of this to sound like an excuse, but I knew I was not in my normal Ironman shape when I arrived in Hawaii.  Still, I had worked hard by most measures and I was still hopeful I could have a solid race and perhaps lower my course personal best again.

Judy and I went at the end of September as we had once again rented the house we stayed in back in 2012 in the Kona Estates section of Kailua.  This is a wonderful four-bedroom house right on the water, less than a mile from race central.  We were blessed with my mother flying out to join us as well as all four of my adult children (this is the first time that all four have attended any of my Ironman races at the same time).  I was especially excited that Alex, my youngest, was joining us, as he had not been able to come when I raced here in 2010 and 2012.

We did a bunch of touristy things, although not as many in prior years as we were content to relax and enjoy the beautiful Island.  We entertained a number of our XC colleagues as well as Midge and Tim Kerr, our friends from the Jersey shore.  Midge had been my primary training partner throughout 2014 and she was pumped to be racing her first Kona, and indeed her first Ironman!

Soon my family had all arrived and we jumped in and participated in all of the pre-race events such as the Ho’ala Swim, the Path 5K, the Parade of Nations, and the Underpants Run.  I did all of the pre-race preparation as well and soon enough it was Friday evening, October 10th.  My bike and transition bags were safely stowed on the pier and I went to bed calm and collected and genuinely looking forward to the great adventure that Ironman racing provides!

Race Morning

I slept a solid 5-6 hours and awoke feeling very calm.  I had my PB&J sandwiches and some of Kona’s finest Java.  Soon the rest of the gang was up and we all made our way the short distance over to the race start.  I did all of my pre-race activities (body-marking, filling my bottles, pumping tires, etc.) smoothly and efficiently and spent a very relaxing time before the start with my fellow XC competitors and with my friends and family.

The morning dawned with the promise of a beautiful day.  Sunny and not yet too warm.  The wind was non-existent but there was a noticeable swell pushing some modest size long-period swell into the bay.  This swell was not as great as I remember it in 2012.  However, I was aware that there was considerable wave energy coming from the 320-degree compass point.  Since this direction caused Maui to shield us somewhat on the west coast of the Big Island the swell was not as pronounced as it might have been.  I was curious if all that energy would translate into as strong a current sweeping south as we had endured in 2012.  Time would tell.

The Swim

Despite my general underinvestment in training noted above, one area where I felt I was noticeably stronger was the swim.  I had actually worked pretty hard on my swim and had done in excess of 10 swims greater than 2.4 miles leading up to the race.  My long swim was 3.3 miles during which I went through the Ironman distance in 67 minutes.  Indeed all summer, my swim splits in my long swims were very good for me and I entered the race feeling that I was in the best IM swim shape of my life.

I swam the Ho’ala swim the week before Kona on effectively the same course and clocked a 76-minute swim.  This compared favorably to the 80:27 (2010) and 81:20 (2012) I had previously swam here.  I felt that I was in at least sub 66-minute wetsuit swim shape (that being my IM swim PR) and I knew that was roughly equivalent to 75-76 minutes here in Kona (I’m not a particularly efficient swimmer without a wetsuit due to my non-existent kick).  In any event, I felt very good on race morning and was confident I would go sub 80 minutes, and hopeful of going sub 75 on race morning.

The male pros left at 6:30, with the female pros five minutes behind them.  For the first time in Kona history, the Age Group triathletes were also split with the men going at 6:50 and the women at the traditional 7 a.m. start time.  As I did in both in 2010 and 2012, I lined up way to the left of the starting line—just about as far away from the pier as you can get.  I was on the other side of the big red TYR floaty thing.  This approach led to enjoyable, stress free swims in both my prior times here and I didn’t see any reason to tempt fate and try something different in 2014.

I was about 2-3 athletes back from the start-line and at the start I swam at about 90-95% effort and concentrated on trying to stay out to the left of the bulk of the field.  I didn’t feel really good at the start but I thought my body felt just fine—certainly good enough to have a good swim.  Soon, I backed my effort down just a bit and began to try to jump on the feet of faster swimmers as they came by from time to time.

Soon enough I felt my 910 vibrating and I glanced over at my watch to see how quickly the first quarter-mile had transpired.  I saw 6:37, which translates into a 63:31 2.4-mile swim pace!  Wow!  I sure didn’t expect that.  I wasn’t working all that hard and it sure didn’t feel that fast.  I mean 6:37 is a time that isn’t that disappointing to me for a quarter-mile Sprint swim.

Frankly, I was a little skeptical and I decided I’d wait for another split or two before I concluded too much.  Too be on the safe side I did back down my effort just a bit.  Soon enough the half-mile point came up and my 2nd quarter was logged in 7:14.  This was a little more believable but it still seemed too easy.  I upped my pace a bit more to what felt right (I have a very good sense of the “right” pace on my long swims).  I began to consider the possibility that I was being pushed along by a pretty good current and that while my early splits were great and I appeared to be well on my way to a swim PR, I shouldn’t expect these splits to be a true measure of what was actually happening.

The next two quarters were swam well below (effort wise) what I can push an IM swim and they came in at 7:08 and 7:01.  My first mile had passed in exactly 28 minutes (67:12 pace) and I was increasing coming to believe I was going to be swimming into a pretty strong current on the back half of the out and back swim.

The other item that was causing me some mild concern was that the distance to turnaround boat seemed to be quite a bit further than the additional 0.2 miles it should have been.  I’ve often heard that the Kona swim course is longer than 2.4 miles.  My two prior times that I swam here I either didn’t have a GPS or in the case of 2012 I messed up using it so prior to this year I did not have a personal GPS measure on the course length.  At the Ho’ala swim the week prior I measured the course at 2.5 miles.

Not much to be done about it and just about when I hit the first turn buoy my watch vibrated and my 5th quarter mile split came in at 7:07—I knew then I was swimming longer than 2.4-miles.  I made the first and 2nd right turn with little drama and I was soon heading back towards the pier.  Out by the turn buoys the water was too deep to see the bottom and since I breathe predominately on my left side, I didn’t have any physical way of gauging my pace.  I knew if the 6th split came in the low 7s like my recent splits then I was going to swim in the low to mid-70s.

The moment of truth arrived and I looked at my watch and it read 8:48.  Rut-roh!  It now seemed pretty clear there was a current and I did a quick calculation.  I made the 1.25-mile turning point in 35.  Multiply by 2 for the return swim at the same pace and get 70.  Add another two minutes for the length between the two turn buoys to get to 72 and then add 5 X 1:40 for the extra time per quarter and let’s see we are in the 80-81 minute range.  And another couple of minutes to swim the length of the pier and exit the water and ugh, I’m looking at an 82-83 minute swim.  Darn!

About this time the fastest AG women started plowing through us middle of the pack Male swimmers.  This new wave format was definitely a bummer for them.  We were obviously slowing them down and they didn’t have the benefit of drafting the faster AG men.  I drifted to the right to give them space and avoid getting knocked around too much as they went by.

Indeed there was a quite strong current flowing away from the pier on this morning.  When I began to see the bottom again I could see how relatively little progress each forward pull brought me.  I upped my effort as I felt I had a lot left in the tank but this seemed to be of only modest benefit.  I soon drew even with the pier and waved to my family, who were busily waving to someone else behind me.  I yelled a couple of times and then they recognized they were waving to the wrong guy—I have a lot of pictures of some other guy!  I gave them the thumbs up and headed towards the swim finish.  Here are the rest of my quarter mile splits:

Split 7:    8:58
Split 8:    8:49
Split 9:    8:36
Split 10:  8:10
Split 11:  4:02        (0.11 miles)

As the above indicates I swam a total of 2.61 miles.  I don’t know if this confirms the course is long or not.  My Garmin could be inaccurate.  I could have swam a longer than necessary course.  But there you go.

My total swim time was a disappointing 82:30.   My official time was recorded as 82:43.  I was 65th out of 115 in my AG, which translates into the 44.3 %-tile.  This compares to 42.9 %-tile in 2012 and 35.7%-tile in 2010, so despite being slower I was relatively faster than my peers.

Transition One

I reoriented to the vertical plane and glanced at my watch as I climbed up the temporary steps into T1.  I registered my vaguely disappointing time but that emotion was quite temporary.  I knew I was in good swim shape and I gave it a really solid effort.  It’s hard to feel bad about my swim on this morning.

I unzipped my swim skin, sprayed my face with the fresh water hoses and found my T1 bag on the rack.  I ran into the tent, which was quite crowded despite my pedestrian swim time.  I went all the way towards the back of the tent and found an empty seat.  A kind volunteer (they are phenomenal here at Kona) helped me do my stuff and soon I was heading out of the changing tent.

I waved to my family and relished their enthusiastic verbal support.  I ran around to where my bike was racked and chatted a bit while I put my helmet on and the GPS device I planned to wear so that they could track me during the bike and run.  Soon enough I said my final good-bye and was on my way.

My total T1 was 6:28, which compares favorably with the 7:24 I recorded in 2012 and the 6:52 in 2010.

The Bike

I mount up and head out near the junction of Palani and Ali’i with the crowd noise and blasting music registering in my ears.  I maneuver past the Old Airport and up Makala and then after a short stretch on the Queen Ku’ahumanu Highway I plunge down Palani onto Kuakini.  This first part of the bike always seems a bit frenetic here at Kona as there are a lot of slow swimmers/fast bikers intent on “catching the bus”—more on that later.  Also, everyone is pumped up and bursting with energy from their pre-race tapers.  I try to ignore this early madness as most of the Kona folks are better than me and I have no intention of getting involved in the drafting that does seem to plague this race.  I also want to pay special attention to avoiding any accidents—I surely do not want my day to end before 9 a.m.!

I feel pretty good early on but of course it’s way too early to draw any meaningful conclusions about the ride.  My trip up to Kuakini Estates is uneventful and soon I’m heading back down to the hot corner.  I hit the corner and begin the short but steep climb up Palini.  I hope to see my family but I learn later that they are caught up in the crowds and will arrive at this spot a few minutes after I go by.  I’m on my own now!

The early part of the Queen K is unremarkable and I note that there is very little wind.  I’m busy with my hydration and nutrition, as I wanted to do a better job of both than I had done in my prior two efforts here.  I was surprised, however, out around the Four Seasons when all of a sudden the wind picked-up dramatically, seemingly out of nowhere (although from the Northeast).  In short order I was facing a gusty, 25+ mph head- and side-winds.

This climatic development was completely unexpected and I went from cruising calmly well below my threshold to straining to stay upright and maintain 15 mph.  Also, it was clear that my power output, which I had every reason to believe should have been comfortable around 180 watts, was falling well short of that.  The wind was so challenging that it was increasingly a problem to even get my nutrition and hydration down in enough quantity.  I knew I was potentially in a spot of trouble.  The first 40 miles, data-wise, looked like this:

0-5:  15.5 mph/80 rpm/184 watts NP/181 watts avg
6-10:  21.0/80/182/175
11-15: 18.4/83/156/154
16-20: 18.1/80/153/151
21-25: 17.3/75/157/156
26-30: 20.1/80/155/151
31-35: 11.2/73/154/152
36-40: 14.3/71/162/158

A couple of comments.  As you can probably tell, I had problems with my HR monitor so I have no good data there.  Second, you can clearly see that I was not producing the kind of watts I would expect to produce given my training/racing this year.  Why that is, I’m not sure.  Third, the section between 30 and 40 miles is not that difficult.  In a “normal” wind field, I would expect to average 18 mph during this stretch.  In fact in 2012, I did the stretch between 30 and 35 miles with an average speed of 20.1 mph vs. the 11.2 mph today!  Comparing 2014 to 2012, I lost 12 minutes over that five-mile stretch alone!  This is pretty remarkable.

These conditions continue over the next 10 miles as the pros start to scream by in the other direction and as we exit the Queen K at Kawaihae for the run up to Hawi.  These 10 miles look like this:

41-45: 15.9/75/165/158
46-50: 18.1/80/148/145

You can see from my power numbers that I was not doing well as I started the climb—I was running a good 30 watts lower than I did back in 2012.  I kept grinding along however and soon found myself making the turn at Hawi.  I continued to run a couple of mph slower than back in 2012 with a power shortage of a good 25 watts:

51-55: 13.2/75/159/155
56-60: 10.3/73/162/160

I stop and grab my special needs bag and sit for a couple of minutes eating my boiled potatoes and trying to catch up on hydration.  Mark Johnson rides up and we talk for a bit.  It’s great to see him but the fact that he’s with me tells me that it’s not just the weather that is making me slow today—I’m definitely having a bit of an off-day for sure.

We say good-bye and soon I’m hurtling down the descent out of Hawi.  I see Midge and can see she’s not very far behind me—I’m sure we’ll meet again on the run!  With the gusty crosswinds I play it super conservative.  Indeed, I see three people down on the pavement—one lady looks pretty bad with a broken helmet and a fair amount of blood on her face—yikes! (EMS types were attending her to).

As I got to the bottom at Kawaihae and made the turn out onto the Queen K, I found that the strong wind that plagued us on the way our had now reversed directions and indeed, I was looking at another 30+ miles of headwind—I wasn’t surprised and in fact had a good laugh at the absurdity of the challenges the bike was presenting on this day.

61-65: 28.1/78/126/124
66-70: 16.3/76/156/156
70-75: 18.1/74/156/155
75-80: 15.3/71/162/161
80-85: 16.5/71/143/142
86-90: 14.8/72/138/138
90-95: 11.6/69/143/142
95-100: 12.2/70/135/133

At this point, I’m pretty much a basket case.  I’ve covered the last 10 miles at barely an average of 12 mph.  I’m “spinning” at 70 rpm and my power is barely that of a normal recovery ride.  I feel dehydrated and while not demoralized, I’m definitely ready to get off of my bike.  I try to stay in the moment as much as possible and appreciate the privilege that it is for me to be here racing—even if I’m having a pretty rough time of it.

I suck it up and push through the final 12+ miles:

100-105: 15.4/70/133/132
105-110: 16.8/71/136/136
110-112: 19.1/70/133/133

I finish the bike with an elapsed time of 7:13:49.  This is by far the slowest bike split of my IM career.  I was 6:22 and 6:21 in 2012 and 2010 respectively—over 50 minutes slower this year.  Some of this was the wind for sure, but a lot of it was me—it just wasn’t my day today.  In 2010 I averaged 170 watts and in 2012 174 watts.  Today I averaged just 151 watts.  My normalized power was 158 watts.  My cadence was just 74 rpm vs. 80 in 2012 and 73 in 2010.  My average speed was a pedestrian 15.6 mph vs. 17.6 in 2012.

I was 89th on the bike in my AG—just 23.5 %-tile.  I was 41.8 %-tile last year.  Still, I did persevere and get it done and I was happy to give my bike to the volunteer and head into transition!

Transition Two

I walk into T2 and it occurs to me that I am fried—hard to believe that I need to do a marathon, though I’m confident I will.  I see Kara and hi-five her and control my stroll through T2.  I say high to the family and chat with them a bit and head on into the changing tent.

A nice volunteer comes up and puts a soaking, ice-cold towel over my head, which I just sit under for a minute or two—I think it helps.  I make my change and he lathers me up with suntan lotion.  I hit the head and soon I’m on my way.  My total T2 is 9:26, which is, not surprisingly, slower than 2012 and 2010 (7:44/8:28).  I don’t even notice this because my time is not of much of a concern anymore—it’s all about getting to the finish line and enjoying the process of doing so.

The Run

As I jog up the hill towards the hot corner I wave to my family and they shout words of encouragement.  I put on a brave smile and start putting one foot in front of the other.  I know straight away that this is going to be a real “suffer fest”.  I’m pretty much a basket case after the bike today.

I planned to follow the path I followed last year where I would run from aid station to aid station, do my aid station thing and then walk for 1 minute more.  I do this for the first mile and I can already tell that is going to be a struggle.  I make the decision right away that I’m just going to run-walk the whole thing.  I’ve got plenty of time before the cut-off and I already know this is going to be (by far) the slowest IM of my 13.

As I head out Ali’i, I see Tim Kerr around the 5k mark and he tells me I look great.  I tell him that he’s a lair and that Midge won’t be too far behind me.  My first five miles out towards the turn around looked like this:

1: 10:44/129bpm
2: 13:34/114
3: 14:08/114
4: 13:57/100
5. 14:33/111

This is about the pace that my wife typically “powerwalks” but it was all I had at this juncture of the race.  After the turn-around I decide I need to walk even more as I’m feeling a bit light-headed.  I’ve relaxed into a place where I just accept I’m having one of those days.  I see Midge and figure she’ll catch me by mile 7 or so—I look forward to chatting with her and when she does catch me, we talk about how hard the bike was and then I urge her on her way.  She looks great and like she’s enjoying her first Ironman. I also see Mark and he tells me he’s going to try to catch up to me but I caution him to be careful—catching me is no prize today and there still is a long way to go!

My next 5 miles go by like this:

6: 15:42/
7: 16:03/
8: 16:32/
9: 16:39/
10: 16:48/109

My HR monitor dropped out there for a while.  Normally, when I walk this much I expect to recover a bit and then I usually can mount a bit of a rally.  I feel today however, that I’m slowly deteriorating, even at this modest effort.

I hit Palani Hill, which I’m excited to do.  Not because of the climb but because I get to see my family.  They are waiting for me there and it’s a real boost to my morale!  They give me an update on Midge (nasty blister) and then the four kids walk with me for quite a while.  This is a real nice time as we cruise along.  It’s not lost on me how special a moment this truly is.  At one point I hand my sunglasses to Anders and tell him “I won’t be needing these anymore” (it will be dark soon).  After about a beat: “or if I do, I’ll have even worse problems than bright light in my eyes”.  We all chuckle at this and soon I say goodbye and that I’ll see them all at the finish line.  My next five splits:

11: 17:27/112
12: 16:55/108
13: 15:37/119
14: 16:09/112
15: 16:24/109

It’s very dark now and pretty lonely out there on the Queen K.  An official on a motor scooter drives by every now and then and encourages us to walk together for safety but I can find no-one who’s pace approximates mine—I’m either materially slower or faster (yes there are some people out here that I’m passing!).  In my 3 races here it always seems to take forever to get to the Energy lab cut-off, but I finally do.

I’m enjoying the night sky and all the stars.  Every now and then someone passes the other way with their glow sticks and an occasional light.  I’m making steady progress and rather enjoying myself as it cools.  I keep reminding myself I’m doing Kona for the 3rd time and for a low-talent like myself, that is pretty remarkable.  Around 18 there is a giant video screen and my four kids pop up and yell out taped words of encouragement.  I hadn’t expected that—really nice to see friendly faces out there.  I also see Mark and we stop and chat.  He’s struggling and worried about making the cut-off but we do the math and I urge him to stay conservative and he’ll make it (which he does on both accounts).  My next 5 miles (my HR monitor stops functioning here):

16: 16:56
17: 15:22
18: 15:06
19: 17:21
20: 16:50

Back on the Queen K I soldier on and soon familiar milestones present themselves.  I dance at one of the aid stations and am increasingly looking forward to my imminent trip back down Ali’i.  Nearing 25, Andrew Mesick, the CEO of Ironman, rides up and accompanies me for a half-mile or so.  We have a nice chat (pretty cool that he’s out there) and he tells me there were 231 drafting penalties handed out today (over 10% of the field—this never ceases to amaze me here at Kona.  I may be slow, but I do follow the rules!)  My next five miles leading up to the top of Palani Hill:

21: 16:54
22: 17:19
23: 17:52
24: 17:48
25: 17:05

I turn right onto Palani and head down the hill.  I can hear the party up ahead.  I make the left at the hot corner and I’m hearing tons of words of encouragement.  Us back of the packers seem to be crowd favorites here at Kona—I think people relate to our struggles.

Soon enough I’m on Ali’i—perhaps for the last time in this race—and I’m hi-fiving and having a great time.  A bit of a tear or two slides down my face and finally I run down the final chute.  I weave from side to side slapping as many hands as I can.  I can see myself up on the big screen and it truly is amazing to see everyone and all the sights and sounds!

I stop before the final chute and pull an imaginary arrow from my imaginary quiver and fire it at the clock.  I run up the ramp and I can see Alex ahead of me with a big smile.  At the finish line I hold my hands up pretending to be a “tree” and say, “I am Groot”, which is the family joke of this trip. 

Alex gives me a lei and a big hug and soon all of my kids, my wife and my mother are around me giving lots of love.  Yep—it’s a great moment!  I see Troy and Frankie and thank them and then am delighted to see Midge and Tim as well.  I get my medal and finisher’s t-shirt and we all get our pictures taken in various groups.

My run ends up taking 6:56:25.  The slowest marathon of my life.  I end up with a total time of 15:48:57—my slowest IM by over two hours.  I finish 1907 out of the 2187 finishers (12.8 %-tile).  I’m 108th on the run in my AG and I finish 100th in my AG for the race (13.9%-tile).  I do manage to beat the great Laurent Cali, the famous cyclist.  Most older competitors today have trouble finishing and indeed none of the 80+ competitors can make it today.

We retreat to the King Kam where I grab a shower and then Jen, Anders and I head down to watch the 17-hour party.  It was a real blast and great to see the pros out there supporting the back end of the field.  One poor guy stumbles in after the 17-hour cut-off and collapsed in front of the finish line—what heartbreak!

And so another Kona draws to its end.  I didn’t have the race I wanted nor expected to have but it really doesn’t matter.  It’s my favorite race in the world and now I’ve managed to finish it three times—hard to believe.  The best part though was having my whole family there—it doesn’t get any better than that!

Thanks for reading!

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