Kona – A First Time Coaches Perspective

February 21, 2020

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While this year was not my first time to the Big Island of Hawaii for the Ironman World Championships, it was my first time there as a coach. Although it may have been 5 years since I was last there, and although not much has changed there (aside from the relocation of Lava Java and the introduction of tourist bike hire), the experience was incredibly different this time around. In 2013 I attended as a nervous athlete with high expectations of myself. In 2018, I returned as a relatively new triathlon coach nurturing four athletes – three first-timers, and one repeat offender. Although I was relieved it wouldn’t be me venturing out into the depths of the Queen K for hours on end come race day, the nerves were still as real as they were 5 years ago.

Quite often I get asked if I wish I was competing, or if I suffer from ‘FOMO’ watching my athletes compete. I think it’s easy to watch someone on race day – especially coming down that finishers chute (with the one on Ali’ I Drive is one of the best finish line experiences in the world) and say ‘I wish I was out there’ or ‘I want to do that one day’, but the reality is that I know how hard my athletes have worked. After working alongside them for the past few (grueling) winter months, at no point writing their programs did I ever think ‘gee I wish my weekend involved 10 hours of training in the dark, wet, windy depths of winter’. Surprising I know, but it’s true, I honestly did not envy them once. So I think it’s all well and good to see the glory of race day, but when you know the details of what goes into that one day, my response is decisive – ‘nope, I do not wish I was out there, and I have zero FOMO’. But what I do enjoy, is the challenge and satisfaction of investing my experience, research, and study into helping my athletes have their best possible race and watching that unfold in front of my eyes – that is truly amazing stuff!

So going back to the start of this ‘Road to Kona’, with three first-timers to the island, I knew it was going to be critical to help them to best understand the extremity of the elements they would be facing and the effect this was likely to have on their race day. Physically I knew I could get them into shape, but I also knew that these guys would need to have an understanding of the cumulative toll the elements would have on their day and to best help them prepare mentally for this.

Educating the athletes on their nutrition was something I considered to be really important. None of the first-timers had experienced a full distance race in extreme conditions before, which is where any flaws in nutrition/hydration/pacing are fully exposed. A session in a heat chamber where we measure sweat rate and sodium content was conducted and instigated conversations with each of the athletes about their nutrition plans. This was done 7 weeks before the race to allow sufficient time for each of the athletes to ‘fine-tune’ and practice their fuelling plans. This session was also used as a bit of a ‘shock factor’ for the athletes with an aim to increase their awareness of how carefully they need to manage their pacing in the heat. Mission accomplished. Not one of the athletes went out too hard on the bike on race day, which is incredibly tempting when everyone around you is.

Off the back of the heat chamber session, the athletes commenced the introduction of heat exposure into their weekly routines. Through intermittent sauna sessions and wind trainer sessions under heaters (one athlete even went to the initiative of purchasing heat lamps for his sessions), the athletes accustomed their minds (as much as their bodies) for racing in the heat. They were starting to get a good feel of what they were in for on race day.

In addition to heat acclimation, the athletes spent plenty of time in the early stages of their programs working on their strength endurance on the bike. Kona is a very undulating course. While there are no steep climbs, for the most part of the course, you’re either going up or going down on undulating rollers, typically into a headwind or a crosswind. So the athletes worked on steady climbs in an aero tuck and practiced descending in aero tuck too.

For the run, we incorporated some undulations into their long runs with the aim of mimicking Palani and the Queen K which occur in the second half of the run. Holding a steady HR up these inclines is key to limit overheating and spending too much time in an elevated zone and essentially ‘burning matches’ each time you do (every athlete has a set number of matches in any given race, once they’re all burned, there is nothing more to give). An emphasis on the need to set out at their target race paces was stressed for the duration of their prep, with a constant reminder for their runs off the bike that ‘you will race how you train. If you go out too fast on your run off the bike in training, you will do it on race day….until you can’t, and you’re walking your ass home with 12km to go’. This was a comment often used in my feedback in their training data, a message I relentlessly delivered. I am proud to say that only one out of my four athletes went out too hard on the run. I shall persist with that one, but happy to know the message got through to the majority.

Preparing for the open water swimming skills can be a little tricky in an Australian winter, and so the athletes were encouraged to include intermittent open water swims into their weekend recovery swims to test their swim skins, practice their sighting and swimming in choppy water.

Attending the event with my athletes was quite an honor. I joined the troops in Hawaii one week before the race and took the opportunity to help them all become familiar with key segments of the course. Driving out to Kawaihae and talking through the climb and descent and getting a feel for the trade winds (which actually didn’t show up on race day!). Running in the energy lab in the early afternoon to experience the conditions. Getting a feel for the ‘dead air’ along the initial 16km on Alii Drive, getting in the water at the same time of day as race start to notice landmarks, water conditions, and sun position.

Being there also gave me the opportunity to sit down with each of the athletes one-on-one to discuss their mindsets before the race. Having worked as a mentor previously, I often find it helpful for the athlete to go through some questioning techniques that help them to recognize where they are and guide them to determine their best mindset for race day. More often than not, triathletes are usually guilty of ‘forgetting’ or ‘underestimating’ the work that has been done. A week or two of taper and they feel like they’ve lost their fitness and their body has ‘forgotten’ all those months of training. They’re so used to operating in a state of deep fatigue, that to feel fresh is so foreign that they associate it with being ‘unfit’ rather than ‘race-ready’. Some probing questions, and reminders of their journeys to that point, finished off with a conversation to crystallize their race plans, and my job as a coach was done. While I was nervous about race day, the final meeting with my last athlete came with a great sense of relief. I had done all I could to get them race-ready, and the rest was up to them.

Race day itself was simply a case of getting out on the course to see and support them as much as possible. As age-group racers, all my athletes were out there to compete against themselves in the conditions that they faced on the day, and so providing race splits was of no use. Giving them my energy, sharing some support and cues on form was about all I could do. I watched them all perform with so much pride knowing how hard they had worked to get to that point.

While most race days often come with great results and athletes who fall short of their goals, there is something about Kona that seems to polarise these two groups of athletes even more so than normal. As a coach, to watch one of your athletes fall into the latter group is something I am going to have to learn how to handle. It is inevitable that an athlete will not always be on form for every race, but to watch it unfold, and to be there at the end to see the look of disappointment in their face was so much harder than I expected. To have an athlete apologize for their performance was so hard to hear. And while I have my suspicions as to why this was the outcome for the athlete, none of which I could have changed myself, it doesn’t make that gut-wrenching feeling of sadness for them any less. I guess as a relatively new coach, this is one of the experiences I will need to learn how to deal with – I just need to make sure it’s not very often!

On the flip side of this result, the joy from watching your athletes achieve their performance potential at the biggest race of their lives so far, was immensely satisfying. I would go so far as to say it is as satisfying as if I was out there competing myself. As their coach I invested so much of my time, energy and resources into their race preparation (like most coaches in the industry, this was well in excess of the financial reimbursement received) but driven by a deep passion to see these athletes achieve the outcome they were capable of and so deserved. The results, appreciation and humility of my athletes absolutely made it all worthwhile and I would do it all again in a heartbeat. For me, this is a reminder that life was meant to be lived. To wake up each day with a greater sense of purpose, knowing you’re contributing to the betterment of yourself and to share that with others. It doesn’t get much better than that!