Sport can be fickle. One minute things can be going great and the next they can be upside down. Three and a half weeks out from my second trip to Kona and the Ironman World Championships I was in the best shape of my life and everything was on track.
I’d had a small hiccup ten days earlier at the 70.3 World Champs on the Sunshine Coast where I missed a turn on the bike and to cut a long story short I ended up riding 92km, completing the run and finishing fourth, 45 seconds off second place. I wasn’t the only one that made a mistake on the bike course, 44 other people also did similar and despite less than adequate marshalling and an unlucky sequence of events where no one was making a turn in front of us and we got caught up in a group that were sailing straight on through for their second lap and we followed oblivious to the turn in our slightly hypoxic state, at the end of the day it was my mistake and my responsibility. Disappointing? Yes. Not everyday do you get a chance to stand on a World Championships podium. Even as an age grouper. But I got a great hit out off a very short taper so I knew I was in good shape and I had Kona coming up in five weeks so I wasn’t too worried.
I started getting a little bit of knee pain on a Monday run a week post the 70.3 World Champs. 3 x 3km @ 4min k pace- nothing too hard but enough to cause some niggle. Wednesday’s run was slightly worse but nothing to worry about. It felt like some mild bursitis which I’d had before and wasn’t too bad so I just managed the symptoms. The next weekend, three weeks out from Kona was a biggie- two long rides, one Friday afternoon and a long one Saturday, both with short runs off the bike. I was aware of the knee a bit more when running but again manageable. Sunday’s three hour build run wasn’t so great. The last thirty minutes I was sore but I’d covered nearly 39km so I figured things would settle now that the mileage was banked and I was tapering. I booked an MRI for Thursday in case the next run didn’t go well. Wednesday was bad. 75 minutes and I was struggling to run by the end of it so I was off to the magnet on Thursday and my worst nightmare was confirmed. An old medial meniscal tear that I’d most likely had for years without knowing about it had opened up a little more and had caused some swelling in the bone directly below it. There was also some synovitis in the knee but thankfully both cartilage surfaces of the knee joint were reported as pristine. I was relatively happy with that as I was dreading getting a result back showing some advanced osteoarthritis in the knee. After a discussion with the Radiologist the plan was to not run until race day, avoid any impact to let the bone swelling settle and fingers crossed we would have enough time on our side and things would be ok to race. I was on a steady diet of ice, anti inflammatory gel, Voltaren and loads of calf raises and single leg hopping on the good side to try and keep some conditioning in the legs as I knew two and a half weeks of not running would mean that I would lose some muscular conditioning and that would cause some serious calf overload on race day. Fitness wise I wasn’t too concerned. I’d got my last long run in and I was only going to miss two key run sessions and had completed all of my long run sessions in the build up. I chatted to coach John and we put some aqua jogging in and a couple of harder bike sessions. On the bike the knee was fine. I figured that the timing of the injury wasn’t too bad- if it had been six weeks out from the race I’d miss too much training, if it occurred a week outI wouldn’t have enough time to settle. My gut feeling was sixteen days would just be enough time as long as I didn’t have a flare up. Keeping me mentally engaged was the hardest part in the week before we flew out. Thinking that all the hard work might not come to fruition and not being able to run meanwhile staying motivated was a challenge. The day before we flew to Hawaii things were significantly better but I took up the Radiologists's offer of draining some fluid off the knee and having a cortisone injection to help settle it. 12mls off fluid was taken off and the cortisone made a significant difference to my comfort levels so things were looking up.
We touched down in Kona eight days before the race. Flying in over the lava is always a reality check and the first breath of thick, heavy and hot air as you get off the plane always resonates with a realisation of how tough this race is going to be. The week before the race I’d planned to do a reasonable amount of volume on the bike to help with heat acclimatisation and to get my blood plasma volume up which is a physiological adaptation that happens in warmer climates. No hard riding, all below threshold. I’d had a mini four day taper before we flew to allow for the extra race week riding. Out on the Queen K it was hot, windy and pretty relentless as I got to work over the week and clocked about 360km which is a big weeks cycling for me. I swam six of the seven days going into the race which is something I hadn’t done before. Again nothing hard, one long swim of an hour and the others were 20-30 minutes. The water is fantastic for open water swimming. 26 degrees and lots of fish life so you can’t help but enjoy it. The knee was improving daily and I could walk downstairs almost pain free, I wasn’t aware of it on the bike and the last couple of days before the race I felt like I could run but I held back. With Mum and Dad over for the week and some extra help with the Oscar and Coco, Holly joined me for most swims which was a great thing for us to be able to do together. With this much time leading into a race, the extra help, sleep and recovery I’d never felt more relaxed and ready to go. We went thru all the pre race logistics which are all amplified in Kona. Bike check in is an event itself with all the worlds triathlon media present and counting every frame, wheel, helmet, shoe combo down to the last detail. Pro’s everywhere, media, the trade show, hangers on of all varieties and nationalities combined with all the other race week events in the stifling heat make up quite a circus. Race week for me is all about doing enough but keeping it low key. We’d done a day trip to the Volcanoes National Park and Turtle Beach which are two things I’d highly recommend doing and helped keep me relaxed.
Humility. Respect. Patience. These were three key words that I’d been thinking about and playing over in my head in the last six weeks going into the race. Humility to keep things in perspective and to not get ahead of myself. Respect for the course, the heat, the wind, the hills and the race- too many good athletes have come here and failed to deliver due to not respecting the above. Kona has all of these elements and a world championship field which makes it what it is. Other races are tough but they rarely have all these components. Patience- it’s a long day out there and if you burn your matches early on the bike it can make things very, very tough later on in the day. Every year in Kona is different, the weather conditions, the wind and the water all do different things and the race plays out in a different way. I was excited to get underway and on race morning I wasn’t nervous, just focussed and ready to get the show on the road. The plan was to have a strong swim and I figured best case scenario I’d swim a 57 or 58 minutes which would be a minute or two better swim shape than 2013, ride with a normalised power (NP) below 250w and keep the HR below 140bpm and then head out on the run at 4:30 km pace which equates to a 3:10 marathon. A flexible plan is key to any ironman race.
Race day atmosphere in Kona is awesome. There’s something about this race that makes it special and has led to it developing legendary status. There are races that are more scenic, races that have harder bike courses and races that are in hotter climates but the combination of a beautiful tropical open water swim contrasted with the hot and desolate bike leg through the stark lava fields and a marathon that again sends you out into the harsh and lonely lava fields all set against the backdrop of a 4000m active volcano on a tiny island in the North Pacific Ocean make Kona what it is. Treading water for twenty five minutes waiting for the gun to go after the pro women have left you can feel the tension in the air building. The cannon fires and you are off. The world’s hardest single day endurance event is underway and a year worth of qualifying and training is put to the test. I started far right and managed to get on good feet straight away. The swim start is pretty physical but it didn’t seem as rough as 2013. I got into a good rhythm and managed to stay on feet the whole way and didn’t have to go anaerobic at all which was a good thing. I exited the water and saw a couple of people around me that are usually a couple of minutes quicker so knew I’d had a good swim for not too much effort. 55:04. I knew I was off to a good start. Through transition and onto the bike I settled in quickly on the loop through town and along the Kuakini Highway. The legs felt good and I started getting fluids on board. Up Palani without getting out of the saddle and then out onto the Queen K. The race doesn’t really begin until you get past Waikoloa and make the left at Kawihae and start the 30km climb up to Hawi. Patience was key early on so I let rider after rider go past me for the first 90 mins. I was very careful on keeping the 12m drafting distance as I didn’t want a penalty and last year there were about 200 given out, 10% of the field, so I was playing it very cautious. Passing through Waikoloa I was getting a bit worried as so many people were going past and my NP was down at 238w so I knew I had to do something or I’d be giving away too much time and get caught up in the drafting packs on the return to Kona. Looking ahead the line of cyclists was seriously long; it looked to go on forever and was probably about 2km. I decided to commit to putting some work in and getting to the front, nothing that was going to send me above threshold but I wisely looked for any gaps greater than 12 metres where I didn’t have to pass a large number of riders and went to work. It didn’t seem to take long to reel most of them in. Just before the start of the climb to Hawi I put a solid 10min effort and bridged a gap to the last small significant group I could see. I caught them, sat in behind for a while and then on the way up to Hawi passed a few more riders. The wind was blowing as per usual, nothing crazy but I knew it would be breaking groups up which is just what I wanted. I saw the fragmented group of leading pro’s come down and then I sarted watching the leading age groups come through. I reached the turn sooner than I thought and there were probably maximum 15 age groupers ahead of me so I knew I had worked my way through most of the field and was starting to get towards the pointy end of the age group race. Hawi marks 95km and the start of a long and wind affected downhill. My NP at Hawi was 245w so I knew I hadn’t overcooked it and the plan was to wind out the big gear for as long as I could on the decent. Again I picked up a couple more riders on the way down. It is at this point, about 120km into an Ironman that you first start to feel the pinch of a long day.
From here it was a case of concentrating on making sure adequate hydration and nutrition was going in and the watts going out were under control. I had a good group of 3-4 to work with to the top of the Waikoloa look out climb and then we turned into a very stiff head wind for the last 30km home and it soon became very hard work. There are four long rolling climbs from the lookout to the Kona airport turn off and they seemed to take forever to reach as you could see them shimmering in the distance. I’d been religiously pouring water over myself at every aid station in an effort to keep the body temperature down and it didn’t feel overly hot, the calories had been going in but by now I had a sore butt and was struggling to keep the watts up. I’d been taking Panadol on the bike and hadn’t even thought about the knee. Getting into transition and off the bike is always a relief and my NP was at 245w, 5w below the maximum I’d set for myself so I was confident my running legs would be good. Fingers crossed the knee would obey. I got into T2, got my running gear on as fast as I could, managed to pass a couple of athletes in transition and hit the road in 2nd place in my age group. Patience. In the past I’ve had loads of cramping issues in the first 2km off the bike, mostly due to trying to run too fast. I could feel the knee in a very minor way as soon as I got off the bike and started running but wasn’t too concerned as I expected this to be the case. The first 3k through a packed and cheering town the knee was worse than I’d wanted it to be. Nothing major but 42km is a long way. I was tracking a little hit faster than I should have been at 4:10 k pace once my Garmin started giving me some reliable readings so I buttoned it back along Ali’i Drive. The legs felt ok, not great, but they usually take 6-7km to settle into a good rhythm after 180km on the bike. The knee wasn’t getting any worse, I was aware of it but nothing I wasn’t confident that I couldn’t tolerate or wasn’t going to do any damage and I had reeled in five or six more athletes. Game on I was thinking. As I was approaching the Ali’i Drive turnaround the lead age groupers were coming back at me and there didn’t seem that many by the time I reached the turn. The only problem was that the knee was now getting worse. Holly, Oscar, Coco and Mum and Dad were at the turnaround so that they could see mecoming both ways and Dad held up three fingers letting me know I was in 3rd place. Ok, I reasoned with myself, if things don’t get worse I’ll be able to tough it out. My running gait wasn’t affected so I figured I could stick it out. However within a kilometre things went from being manageable to bad. I was trying to run on the outside of my foot to unload my knee, then within a short space I was limpng and soon struggling to run. I had to make the split second decision to pull the pin. Yep, race over.
Walking the 6 kilometres back along Ali'i Drive with a constant flow of athletes running past gave me plenty of time to reflect. Yes I was disappointed but I knew it was the right decision. I didn’t want to do anything to endanger the long term health of my knee, and hobbling 33km, even if I was able to do it, may well do some serious damage. I had no interest in walking a 5 hour marathon. Racing on a personal level, especially over Ironman distance is about how you measure up when the moment comes. Sure there are sections of the ride that will be tough and you’ll feel the screws being turned, early parts of the run will be hard but there will be a point, usually in the second half of the run, where you really find yourself in a dark place. In a world of hurt wondering if you can keep going. When it’s all boiled down this is the challenge. How will I respond in the moment when I need to deliver? Have I done the work? Am I mentally tough enough? How will I get through this? These are the questions that come up. This is what you train and prepare for. Some physical challenges, but often many more mental challenges. To not be able to get to this point, as much as we may not like it at the time, to not be able to see if you are tough enough, to not be able to see if you can deliver, is where the real disappointment lies. Especially if it’s in a race like Kona. As Muhammed Ali said- the fight is won or lost long before I dance under the lights, in the gym, out there on the road, away from witnesses is where all the hard work goes in. It’s fair to say I experienced the full spectrum of emotionsin that long walk home. From feeling like I’d let down Holly and all the effort she puts in to make this happen and the ongoing support she gives that allow me to follow a dream, to Mum and Dad for making the trip over, to the local support that I’d had from home and the feeling that I was looking forward to of seeing Oscar and Coco when I crossed the line. A certain amount of obsessive behaviour is a key ingredient to become accomplished and succeeding at anything in life. I thought about how much I enjoyed the preparation and build up and the idea that sometime when I raced well the feeling of success was sometimes a bit of a let down, and the enjoyment was derived from successfully applying myself to the task at hand to achieve the outcome, rather than the outcome itself. As I got near the finish I saw some of the established pro’s who were having a bad day, grinding it out to the finish and not pulling out. Inspiring to see them finish and affirmation of what this race is about. I thought about how this wasn’t a great way to finish at this iconic race.
By now the knee was really sore and I could feel it swelling up and could only bend it to about ninety degrees. I’d dropped off the live athlete tracker so Holly knew I was out. I bumped into Lauren and Dean from BTC who did a great job of lifting my spirits, caught up with Holly and Dad, handed in my timing chip and that was it. All over. Project 2016 went down a bit like a flat balloon.
I’d said that before we flew out to Hawaii that no matter what happened we’d have a good time and enjoy the experience. Going back to the finish line that night and watching some of the slower athletes come in was an amazing and inspiring experience. One guy had climbed all of the world’s highest seven summits on seven continents including Everest in May ad done 133 Ironman races, another guy had done over 200 Ironman’s, Turia Pitt crossed the line and there were plenty of other amazing stories. It made me realise that it was an achievement to just be there. As I always say to patients, getting to the start line of an Ironman in one piece is an achievement in itself. I realised that the process had been enjoyable, fulfilling and satisfying. I’d got significantly stronger over the last year in the build up and had been having a great race and was doing really well until something that I couldn’t control ended my day. Sometimes it’s the close losses rather than the wins that really forge our character. How we deal with them and ultimately come back stronger is where the real growth lies. Children certainly give you perspective and don’t give you time to dwell on things. We’d a great family holiday pre and post race. Now it’s time to get the knee right, catch up on a few overdue things around home and work out where to next.