The Island God’s of Hawaii are said to be great influencers on the Islands great race – that there is some sort of ‘juju’ that influences the race. I have heard people say that in order to do well on the Big Island, you first need to ‘pay your dues’ to the Island Gods. From my experience, this theory proved true – it was only after greatly suffering to Madame Pele in the lava fields in my first visit to the Island in 2011 (‘paying my dues’ so to speak), that I was able to return to the Island in 2013 and have the race I knew I was capable of. In hindsight though, I feel there are some more calculated reasons behind my disappointing first attempt, and my age group podium two years later. For those of you who are about to embrace the graces of Madame Pele come this October, please allow me to share some of my reflections…
In 2011, Kona was to be my second attempt at the Ironman distance. Ignorance and naivety were a big factor for me at this race. One critical area that I lacked understand of was nutrition. My ignorance on this subject was disguised by mild conditions at my first Ironman race in Busselton in 2010, and magnified in the heat of Hawaii. I lacked an understanding of how many calories I would burn per hour at race pace in 30+ degrees, how much fluid I would lose and how much sodium was in the fluid I would lose. Knowing these numbers second time made the difference between running the marathon and walking it (swiftly followed by hours in medical on IV to treat hyponatremia). First time around I went with the nutrition provided on the course, which was high sugar, low sodium electrolyte drink that did not adequately replace my losses. By the time I was heading back past the airport with 30km left on the bike, I knew I was in trouble but had no idea why. It was not until I was admitted into medical after the race that the staff checked the sodium levels in my blood and explained why I was in such bad shape and had such a rough day out on the run course.
Having learnt the hard way just how significantly nutrition can impact on your performance in hot conditions, I returned in 2013 armed with my ‘numbers’ (sweat loss rate and sodium content). Darry from Shotz Sports Nutrition helped me to calculate what my losses would likely be in Hawaii, and it was shocking! Knowing what I know now, I wonder how I managed to even finish the race in 2011 – my body was operating at such a great loss from about four hours into the day and I didn’t even know it. So, when I had my second chance in 2013 I arrive on the Island fully equipped with all my own nutrition, of which I knew the precise content of it and the rate I would consume it on race day in order to sustain my performance for a little under 10 hours. It worked a treat!
Moving on from race conditions, my approach to my preparation for the course itself was different second time around. First time around, I spent a lot of time preparing for the climb up to Hawi at approximately 80km into the race. So I would start my long rides on some rolling hills before practicing a climb on fatigued legs a couple of hours in my ride. What I didn’t prepare for was coming back down. At speed. Descending from Hawi looks like a ball of fun when you watch the pro men go down eating their aero bars, but in reality (for me at least), I found it terrifying. The lava rocks along the side of the road shelter you from the strong winds, expect there are big gaps in these rocks, which create a wind tunnel effect…side on..at high speed. For the most part you can predict when the wind gusts will hit you and you can brace for that. Watching the riders ahead of you shift across the road is a good indicator. Having experienced this in 2011, I worked on my confidence descending on my TT bike. Going down from Hawi with your brakes on creates a big gap in time and energy between the confident descenders, and the not so confident descenders. So, I would suggest work on being one of the confident ones.
Now, separate from the course and the conditions, another aspect of the race I was better prepared for the second time around was the build-up to race day. The days leading up to the race is kind of like going to Disney Land just for triathletes. Alii Drive has it all going on. Now depending on whether you have been to Disney Land or not, from my experience (as a hyperactive 12 year-old who loved Mickey Mouse), you get caught up in the hype, run around look at all the really pretty overpriced goodies and celeb spotting at Lava Java, while feeding off your bodies adrenaline stores. First time around I allowed myself to be apart of the action, most days this involved a few trips into town (a 1.5km walk each way) for various activities….parade of nations, the undie run, various pro signings and plenty of other events that I didn’t want to miss out on, a little FOMO I guess you would call it. But, what I didn’t realise was the toll this would take on my energy levels at the end of each day. I would come home exhausted and troll through the photo and show bags I had collected throughout the day. A day or two of this may be fine for you, but I would encourage you to be aware of how much energy you are spending unnecessarily.
Also, while I am on the subject of the hype and the build-up, be prepared for some serious ‘foxing’. Now I’m not actually sure if this is a real thing, or just a term I cam e to learn while in Kona, but there are some seriously, I mean seriously fit looking people kicking around town in the days leading up to the race. On my first visit, this completely freaked me out – it had me second guessing everything and questioning what I was doing there amongst such a calibre of low skin folded people. But, what I found to be most humorous, was that after race registrations were closed, a lot of those people didn’t even have a wrist band on – they weren’t even racing! Here I was trying to predict what age group some of these women were in for fear they may have been in the same age group as me because they ‘looked’ fast. Again, unnecessary energy expenditure and an inaccurate reflection of a persons ability to perform. My advice would be to work your tail off and demo everything you can to best prepare yourself for your best performance, and when you get the the Big Island, be confident in your preparation. Trust that you are ready and that whatever your race shape may be, know that it’s yours and be confident in that. Don’t allow last minute self-doubt to creep in – if you have done the work, remember that. If you can find ways to best manage this ahead of your arrival (practicing mindfulness, meditation, mantras, photos…whatever works for you), it may come in handy.
And so there you have it, a little on the conditions, the course, and the event. A few small reasons behind the difference in an age group podium, and a night in the medical at the Big Dance. Finally, just a little reminder that no matte what the result may be, it is a privilege to be able, fit, healthy, and wealthy enough to be able to partake in such an incredible event. Enjoy the journey and make it count!