Thursday, 29 October 2015

Ironman Kona 2015

As I bobbed around in the tropical swell off “Dig Me” beach I had to metaphorically pinch my self....

Was I really here?

Had I really made it to the start line of the biggest show in Ironman triathlon? A start line I'd never experienced yet somehow felt weirdly familiar from the many hours of TV coverage and internet live feeds I had consumed since I was a teenager.

Was that pipe dream of one day racing Kona now, finally, about to be realized?

Although crowded amongst over 1500 other eager athletes, their sounds were muted. The water felt alien to me. Warm and clear. That familiar sense of foreboding that I normally associate with Ironman swim starts was weirdly absent.

A gap appeared between the line of swimmers in front of me affording me an unobstructed view of the line of orange buoys stretching off into the distance. The famous turn boat, some 2k into the distance was, for now, hidden by the swell.

A peace washed over me.

And then, over to my right, on the famous Kona Pier.... the cannon fired.

The canon fires!

Rewind a year to the finish line at Ironman Tenby where I'd finally managed to bag a qualifying slot for the Ironman World Championships in Kona. I'd finished that race completely drained. I'd grown to accept the physical demands of Ironman racing and training, enjoy them even. But the mental pressure had begun to weigh heavy. After several near misses over a number of years, the drive to keep coming back, to keep trying, was waning. That damn “Kona itch” was dangerously close to becoming an unhealthy, all consuming obsession. But now I didn't need to worry. I'd bloody done it.

In that sense at least, the emotion of finally gaining my official qualifying spot at Wales was one of complete and utter relief. Now, at last, I wouldn't have to go through that season long cycle of training and qualification ever again.

For me, Kona had always been about the getting there. Qualifying to race there was, in many ways, enough. Racing Kona itself was the reward, the icing on the cake – or even the cherry on top.

But with a year to prepare, the racer in my head had started chattering. Maybe I could make a good fist of this thing? A top age-group finish? An Ironman PB perhaps? 2015 had been a good season for me with a number of age-group wins and a smattering of Tri England silverware. Sod it. Maybe I need to race this thing!

A battle of ego versus reality ensued.

No racer's ego takes well to having it's ass handed to it. But reality bites and the harsh reality of Kona is that most of my competition would be as good, or far better, than me. I really could not expect to trouble the “pro-bothering” sharp end of my age-group. I know my limits.

So my ego struck a deal. Head out to Kona, make it an incredible experience, race the course, take on the challenging conditions, have a strong run and finish smiling, sufficiently content to finally move on. 

Back to the race...

I swam the opening 400m strongly, and maintained my position in the melee. I'd elected to start on the extreme left of the bay which I hoped would give swimmers room to spread and form groups. And so proved to be the case. I felt so liberated by the warm water and lack of wetsuit. I was able to work hard, and genuinely enjoyed the straight swim out to the turn.

The start - surprisingly civilised

Although I was swimming amongst MANY more people than usual, I rarely felt impeded. At one point I got the impression the entire field was moving forward as a boiling frothy mass of arms and legs – but never once did I find myself whacked, kicked or fighting for breath.

At a little over distance (2100 meters) I reached the “Body Glove” turn boat and after a bit of argy-bargy was soon heading back to shore inside 30 minutes. The congestion never seemed to ease but everyone was moving along at a similar pace. At times it felt like a swimming peleton.

At one point I felt like I maybe wasn't working hard enough so tried to bridge across to the next group, only to drift backwards the moment I pulled out from the swimmers in front of me. So I resigned myself to staying put and conserving some energy.

The return leg presented some heavier swell and and after over 4000m I was glad to be running up the famous steps to the Kona pier. My Garmin showed 1:05. That'll do donkey, that'll do.

Climbing the famous steps onto the Kona Pier (that's me in the red Zone 3 skin)

While not a super swimmer, I'm used to T1 being quite sparsely populated in Ironman races. Running into the change tent on Kona pier I was greeted by what looked like a triage in a busy A&E department! Bodies / kit / equipment / volunteers everywhere! A complete war zone. I found a small corner of real-estate and began quickly preparing myself for the bike leg. A volunteer jumped to my aid pulling up my speed-suit from around my waist and clearing up the equipment I had sent flying. I was soon running around the perimeter of the packed transition area (plenty of bikes left thankfully!) before grabbing my bike and exiting to a deafening roar from the crowds supporting.

The ride starts with a short 5 mile out and back section on the Kuakini Highway before heading up Palani Road to the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway. From the start, Captain Cautious was calling the shots. I dialled in 230 watts and that's where I stayed, only allowing my power to drift up 20-30 watts on the climbs. People were flying past me like they were in a sprint race! The words of the super experienced Kona Age-Grouper Declan Doyle echoed in my head...

”Cautious athletes do well at Kona”. That would be my mantra for the rest of the ride and, in fact, my entire day.

At various points in the ride my reserve was tested. Friends Stu (Anderson), Mark (White) and Nico (Van Der Westhuizen) cruised by me looking focussed and in control. Brian (Fogharty) and Declan (Doyle) shot by me like I was stationary! Others, seeing the “GB” on my skin suit gave encouraging cheers as they sped past. Glancing at my power meter, I was where I needed to be so, for now at least, my powder was staying dry.

Onto the Queen K - Holding steady
There really isn't much more to say about the ride. The winds at Hawi (Har-vee) were gusting, but not as bad as I had experienced in the weeks previous. I had a bad patch at around 3 hours where my power really seemed to ebb. This is familiar territory for me in Ironman racing and I know it's usually a passing phase. Today though, it coincided with the hottest part of the course when my Garmin recorded 39 degrees C for a number of hours. I felt like I was being fried. I was dousing myself with cold water from the feed stations. I'd tip it through the vents in my helmet and it would feel warm by the time it ran down my back! The wind offered no more cooling effect than an industrial space heater.

Like a car running it's air conditioning robs power from it's engine, so does the athlete trying to cool themselves. Precious blood volume normally put to use carrying oxygen, is directed toward the skin for cooling. You simply can't maintain the same power in extreme heat as you can in the cool. This is where some pacing flexibility is required. The athlete doggedly following their power meter will likely come unstuck.

For the majority of the return leg, I decided to go with what my body was telling me and largely ignored the numbers on my bike computer screen. 

True to form, power returned with 30 miles to go and I began overtaking a steady stream of athletes, many of whom I recognised from their earlier, overly ambitious, high speed fly-byes. As the head winds strengthened, my more cautious approach started paying dividends. I even felt a twinge of excitement at the thought of tackling the Marathon... So I kicked on back to the pier to sneak under 5hrs 20mins for the bike.

Trying to stay cool on the return leg

Swinging into T2 back at the pier, I dismounted and launched my bike at a volunteer who scurried off with it to transition. For me, those first few steps off the bike are telling. My legs felt good but man was I hot!! I had been battling the stifling headwinds for what seemed like an eternity and it had been some 20 minutes since my last feed station “shower”. Safe to say I was feeling pretty cooked.

Into the carnage of the change tent I was quickly into running shoes, cap (with sun blocking flap at the back ) and a home-made cooling scarf which I planned to fill with ice at each aid station. Once again, the volunteers jumped to my aid applying an ice cold towel to my head and providing me with some cold Gatorade – man it had never tasted so good!

The run starts with a straight 5 miles out along Ali'i drive, a dead turn and a run back to Kailua Kona. There was not a cloud in the sky, little wind and the heat felt oppressive – almost heavy. However, having filled my scarf with ice I was able to settle into a pace of 7:15 per mile which felt manageable – at least for now.

Heading out into the furnace on Ali'i drive

I have to say, the legs felt great, but then they very often do in the opening miles of an Ironman Marathon. I felt tempted to up the pace, but experience has taught me this feeling NEVER lasts! So I kept to my pace and held steady at 7:15.

A few miles in I spotted the distinctive pink kit and tanned limbs of Tom Ward. Tom and his lovely wife Loren had spent a good bit of time with us in the weeks before the race. Tom, had burst onto the Ironman scene and shown impressive natural ability over the distance. I knew I'd been happy if I found myself in the same zip code as him on race day. A shot of adrenalin surged through my body and I felt my pace increase. Whoa..... easy tiger!! No rush I thought. I'd let Tom come to me.

A mile on and I'd made the pass. We exchanged a few words of encouragement. Now Tom is one of life's good guys, but I really felt this was the attitude of most of the athletes racing Kona. Never have I experienced so much encouragement and respect from fellow competitors. It's unlike any other Ironman race I have ever done where competition regularly verges on aggression. This “mutual respect” is one of the many aspect that makes Kona so special.

Still over two miles from the Ali'i Drive turn-around I crossed Charlie (Pennington) and Paul (Burton) running back toward Kona. Both had come here to race hard. They had grasped the nettle and were looking imperious in the heat. Both would go on to record incredible results. Charlie would be denied an age-group win by a heart wrenching 6 seconds, but could surely take solace in the fact that, in doing so, he'd beaten both Frederik Van Lierde and Ben Hoffman. THAT'S how good you need to be to podium in your Age-Group at Kona.

Heading back to town the heat was now really making it's presence felt. Once again the temperature would prove to be my limiter. I had taken the decision to walk each aid station to ensure I was taking on sufficient fluids (Coke + Gatorade) and to refill my ice-scarf which would last 1 or 2 miles at best. This method ensured my body temperature stayed in my “safe zone” (Thanks for that advice Matt Malloy).

I was dropping ice blocks the size of my fist into my skin suit only for them to melt away inside a mile!

The aid station re-fuels bought my pace down on the return to Kailua. Although hot and tired I felt, if the Coke and Gatorade kept going down, there should be no reason why I could not maintain 8:00 per mile, with a few extra seconds at each aid station. This pace was still seeing me pass a steady stream of athletes who had rolled the dice on the bike and were now paying the price.

Heading back to town I spotted Mark heading out to the turn. I'm not quite sure how that happened as I thought he was up the road ahead of me? I later learned that he had been taken out on the bike, picked up a few grazes, lost some nutrition, making a tough day, even tougher. But this is Kona and, while you still have limbs that function, you soldier on to the finish no matter what the course throws at you!

Once back into town it's back up the Palani Road, a nasty little rise at this point in proceedings. Spotting Nico half way up was just the impetus I needed to keep running and make the pass before turning onto the “Queen K” . Now I had a mind numbing 7 mile stretch of highway before turning off into the Natural Energy Lab. Thankfully some cloud cover had rolled in and temperatures were perhaps a degree or two cooler. “Cool” is a relative term of course!

Queue next “out of body experience” as my mind wandered to the many times I'd watched the sports greats running along this very stretch of tarmac – and here I was, doing the same. At times, it almost felt like I was watching myself running. I felt incredible, like I could increase my speed to 5k pace! And then, moments later, I would be snapped back to reality, metering out my effort like the precious commodity it had become.

Although amongst other athletes, the Queen K can still feel lonely

Athletes were stretched out into the distance along the Queen K, some running, others barely moving, but each one serving as a carrot to keep me moving forward. I passed a broken looking Declan – wheels well and truly detached. I passed Tom McGlashan also broken. I admire the guts of those guys who gambled on the bike to race as hard and as fast as they dared. On another day it might have come off, but today, in this heat, I was glad I had taken the more cautious approach. Kona truly takes no prisoners and it doesn't respect an athletes history over the course.

Heading along the Queen K I had a front row seat for the pro race. Frodo was in a league of his own. Raelert was flying, as was Dave McNamee (fastest run of the day). Daniela Ryf seemed to be miles clear of her nearest rival. Others seemed to be in various worlds of pain.

Before dropping into the Natural Energy Lab, I saw Charlie heading for home still looking in complete control and giving plenty of the Pros cause for concern. Paul also looked well on top of things, my gap to him had not diminished. I had completed two training runs in this most desolate of places. Both had been in crippling heat. Today though, the air seemed cooler and rather than draining my energy, it seemed to be recharging me! At the turn, 2 miles in, Tom W seemed to be practically in my shadow! Although I'd passed him inside the first few miles of the run, he'd hung on doggedly and was not letting go. Hunter had now become the hunted and this served as terrific motivation to keep trucking and minimise time spent in the feed stations.

The climb back out of the Energy lab is not particularly steep, but at this point in the race it certainly tests tired legs. My speed dropped for two miles, but once out and back on the Queen K I really felt homeward bound. It's 10k back to town from here, with only a few rolling gradients to contend with. I began ticking the miles off with increasing positivity.

Out of the Energy Lab and heading home

My speed remained steady and I soon had the top of Palani Road in my sights. Although my approach to this race had been cautious, I still wanted to put in a performance I could be proud of. For me, on the more testing courses I tend to favour, that has always meant sub 10hrs. Today though, I had decided to race very much on feel, as the conditions were likely to decide what I was (or was not) capable of. With that in mind, I'd largely ignored my watch all day. However, as I reached the 24 mile marker, I stole a glance at total race time. 9hrs 45minutes. 15 minutes to cover 2.2 miles including the rise to the top of Palani Road. At any other time... a doddle. Today? Not gonna happen.

I wasn't remotely disappointed though. I was actually pleasantly surprised with how close I'd come to my target time, given the severity of the conditions and the slight over-distance in the swim. It also meant I could truly enjoy the remaining miles of this incredible race.

Down Palani Road and we hung a left to put a short loop in around town to emerge back on Ali'i Drive for what has to be the most iconic end to any Ironman Marathon.

I was running on air.

400 meters from the finish

I sped along, for a precious few moments, feeling no pain or fatigue. Since starting the run, I had moved up 253 places, 46 of which were in my age-group. I crossed the line elated with a 3hr 30minute run split and feeling 100% corpus mentis. I was immediately gathered up by two volunteers who stayed by my side and escorted me through the finish to the athlete recovery area. They were most concerned for my well being and needed some convincing that I actually felt ok.

Total race time: 10:04:10 I'll take that.

So in the cold (wet, rainy) light of day, how did I feel about my race?

The swim could really not have gone any better. It's my weakest of the three triathlon disciplines, but the non wetsuit sea swim really played to my strengths. I can even say (whisper it) that I enjoyed it. Well, it's not every day you get to swim in a giant tropical fish tank!

The bike. This is where it gets tricky. The bike has always been my strength although perhaps less so over the Ironman distance. I've learned to play the waiting game. To my mind, a super fast bike leg just don't count if you don't back it up with a solid run.

On race day, I rode to power and perceived effort. Having analysed the data (geek alert) the ride was completed at an Intensity Factor of 0.7. So in other words, I rode VERY cautiously. While this enabled me to run well, it begs the question, could I have gone harder on the bike without impacting my run? Well, that's the million dollar question and, with the benefit of hindsight, I can probably say “yes” I maybe could have given a little more. Maybe...

But any fool can be wise after the event and that strategy could so easily have backfired, like it did for so many. Personally, for my first (and, who knows, maybe my ONLY) Kona, it was not a risk I wanted to take, but “chapeau” to those who did. And massive congrats to the ones who pulled it off.

The run, I have to say was great. My restrained bike leg, plenty of calories and fluids, sensible pacing and the ability to keep my temperature in check with my various cooling strategies delivered a solid marathon performance. As expected, it was the temperature that limited my running speed. Although at times I felt I had more to give, any increase came with a dramatic increase in body temperature which this Englishman was ill equipped to accommodate.

Ultimately, for me, my time and position didn't matter. I'd put together a performance over a course, and in conditions, that I am not best suited to and come through it all relatively unscathed, with a time, not all that far away from my best for the distance.... and with a huge grin on my face.

A post race beer...... or two

Did Kona live up to my expectations? You bet your ass it did. And then some.

For sure the race is about as special as Ironman gets, but what makes it so special is somewhat intangible. I'm sure, in some part at least, it's due to the event's history, the epic landscape, the unique (read challenging) conditions and the 1000's of volunteers and supporters. But it's also due in great measure to the attitudes and respect of the athletes who race there, whether pro or amateur. I guess that's borne from that shared knowledge of what the vast majority of us have been through to get there.

I consider myself incredibly privileged to have competed on this most famous of Ironman stages. That I was able to share the experience with my wife Claire was something I thought we might never pull off. Claire battled through a really tough day, lacking top end on the bike. Tenacious as ever Claire dug in and, once onto the run, moved up over 350 places to finish strongly in 11hrs 47 minutes. She's one tough cookie.

Claire was able to share her finish with American Pro Meredith Kessler (who had started 40 minutes ahead of her). Clearly, tough days happen to the best, but it's how you deal with them that is the true mark of the athlete.

Claire finishes a tough day in fine style

There is another Shea-Simonds who I need to thank. And that's my Mum Janet. Without Mum, Claire and I would be living in tip, buried under a tonne of unwashed training kit and dirty dishes and most likely starving. In another life I'm pretty sure mum would have been an Ironman. She coped with the heat on race day better than most and was on her feet all day, cheering and taking photos. She was, and is, amazing.

My coach Jack, does an incredible job. His uncanny ability to get me exactly where I need to be come race day has stopped impressing me now - Because it happens.... EVERY time. Jack - you are a legend.    

Finally there is no way we'd have made it to Kona without the support from our team “Racetime Events” and it's boss (and dear friend) Johnny Nicol.

Also to our wonderful sponsors:

Sketchers Performance Shoes Skechers Performance 

Giant bikes Giant Bicycles 

Zone 3 wesuits  Zone 3 

USN Performance Nutrition  USN UK 

Fast Forward Wheels  Fast Forward Wheels 

Wattbike  Wattbike