Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Ironman Kona 2017

What can I say....

I’m a dyed in the wool Hawaii Ironman fan boy. Or should that be dyed in Lycra?

I can’t help it. I just love the place and the race that is held on Hawaii’s big island each October.

I’m not sure why. Maybe it was all that grainy Trans World Sport coverage I was glued to during my early, formative triathlon years. Maybe it’s the beauty / harshness of the island, it’s landscapes and it’s wildlife or maybe it was watching way too much “Magnum PI” as a kid (I still want a Ferrari 308).

Whatever the reason. I have an affinity with the place and I just feel at peace when I’m there. Oddly I don’t feel the same pressure or stress I feel at other races during the season. Racing is stressful if we want to do well, make times and beat people. The stress is a direct result of the pressure we put on ourselves to achieve a certain outcome. We get stressed because the result matters. And often, it matters beyond anything else.

Throughout the racing season, for many (myself included) goals are painfully tangible. We might want to finish on the podium. Go sub (pick a time). Or just stick it to (pick a person).

For me, my goal was clear. I wanted to qualify for Kona so I could race alongside my wife Claire who had qualified the previous year in Tenby.

Goals like these are binary. You reach them or you don’t.

Reach your goals and everything seems worth it. Don’t and the disappointment can make you question your life choices. I’ve fallen on both sides this year.

But take those extrinsic goals away and you’re left with all the other stuff that’s far less tangible. Stuff like “enjoyment”, “pleasure”, “fun”.

Remember that?

It’s so easy to get tangled up in the process of performing that the other stuff gets squeezed out or at best, marginalised. And that’s a shame. A waste.

So when I’m in Kona, for me, is different. If I’ve made it... then I’ve made it. My main goal for the season has been achieved. The rest is all gravy. Kona has always been about making it for me.

That may sound like a cop out. It’s the “World Champs” after all. Shouldn’t I be targetting a certain position or going after a fruit bowl?

Maybe. Maybe not.

In classic management speak, goals should be S.M.A.R.T. That’s Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. The same can apply to sporting / athletic goals.

Attainable... This is key.

I’m under no illusions. Qualifying for Kona sits at the periphery of my ability. Bagging a fruit bowl I think goes beyond it. Or at least beyond it based on my own personal level of natural ability, training and sacrifice. For the most part, hard graft is rewarded in Ironman and I know there will always be people who are prepared to train way harder than I do and sacrifice way more. Good on them. They deserve the spoils of victory.

As the saying goes... You can’t complain about the results you didn’t get because of the work you didn’t do.

No, I know my place. And without wishing to sound too self-deprecating, in Kona I’m kinda making up the numbers. I’m cool with that. These are the best Age-Group athletes in the world after all. Getting stressed and missing out on everything the island has to offer seems like a sacrifice too far for someone just hoping to make a good fist of it.

Accepting this is actually quite liberating. I can take pride in making the Kona grade (someting which thankfully, for most, is still quite tough). But then race for the intrinsic rewards of tackling the Kona course and conditions without the stress of direct competition for places or prizes.

Ok, so it does sound a bit like a cop out. But that’s the choice I’ve made.

After all, for Claire and I, this is still a hobby. Spending thousands of pounds, travelling half way around the world and pinning everything on a certain outcome would be a huge wasted opportunity. Particularly for a race like Kona where one’s performance often feels like it’s in the lap of the island gods.

No, we go to Kona to “smell the roses”.

And to swim with dolphins, meet turtles, party with friends and dance in the rain...

True to that ideal... the two weeks before this year’s race were treated very much as a holiday (with a little bit of training thrown in). We were shacked up in a beautiful condo set in the foothills above the Queen K. Sharing our Hawaiian digs with good friends Mark and Caroline Livesey and their American pals Devon and Curtiss. Mark and Curtiss were also racing and Caroline and Devon would form our cheer squad on race day.

I have to applaud Curtiss and Devon. They were such amenable house guests with the sort of chilled out, easy going personalities that made them a pleasure to be around during the race build-up. They soaked up Mark’s relentless piss-taking with aplomb. As such, the condo was always full of laughter.... And some shockingly poor attempts at the English accent.

But this is is a race report, not a holiday review, so I’ll fast forward to race day....

Race morning 3:30 am, the condo seemed pretty chilled and everyone was in good spirits. If anyone was nervous, they were hiding it well. I for one felt incredibly calm and was just looking forward to testing myself. I’d slept soundly and had a good breakfast.

Caroline drove us down to the King Kam hotel near the pier and we all headed off to make our way through the processes of “special needs” bag dropping, body marking, weighing and bike checking. All went off quickly and seamlessly thanks to the army of Ironman volunteers.

The skies were still dark but ominously clear. It looked like we might be in for hot one. The atmosphere was relaxed and the preparation area was packed with athletes going about their pre-race rituals by traditional flaming torch light. High fives, hugs, laughter (and some tears) abound.

We met up with Paul (Lunny) and fellow Brit Jamie Allen. The ubiquitous banter / piss taking kicked off and everyone seemed at ease.

It wasn’t long before the famous cannon boomed out over the still air, sending the pro males off on their way. It also served as our 30 minute warning so I issued a few man hugs (and a smooch for Claire) and made my way through the hectic transition area and down the famous steps into the warm waters off Dig-Me beach. Ok... So now I had a few nerves.

With 15 minutes until go time, I started swimming out to the start line a few 100 meters off shore. I opted once again for a start spot on the extreme left. In 2015 this afforded me good opportunity to find clear water if I felt the need.

After 10 minutes of treading water – it was time to get my game face on. I allowed myself a few seconds of reflection on my season and what it had taken me to get here. The lump that started forming in my throat was quickly quelled by the sound of the cannon shot and the instant transformation of the still clear water around me into a boiling mass of arms and legs.

I started “swimming” much like a man who had been thrown off a boat into Class 5 white water. The melee continued for about 200m until I felt space starting to form around me. I LOVE swimming without a wet-suit. I find it so liberating and even the usual argy-bargy of an open water swim start didn’t phase me. This was great, I had clear(ish) water and I was able to settle into a comfortable rhythm, unencumbered by other swimmers. On occasion I felt I was drifting a little wide of the buoys, but it afforded me a clear swim and I knew that it would have marginal affect on my yardage, providing I aimed in a generally straight direction.

After an uneventful opening 2k leg, the turn boat was rounded in a bit of a scrum and I was soon heading back to shore in a noticeably increasing swell.

The return leg did drag but I felt like I was fading less than those around me. I was able to move from pack to pack making use of the draft when I could. Things got a little hectic as we neared the pier with swimmers jostling for position at the narrow exit steps.

I made the pier in just over 1:05. A little slower than other swims for me this year, but with no wetsuit, the swell and 4k showing on my Garmin, I was happy that my time represented a solid swim by my standards.

T1 at the Kona Pier is a fairly lengthy processes. A sprint through the the showers, grab the bike bag and then into the carnage of the change tent. Shoes and helmet were on my bike so my bag was empty, save for my white cooling arm sleeves. I stashed my swim gear, handed off my bag and began running through transition, donning my sleeves as I went. I arrived at my bike good to go.

Helmet on, bike yanked from it’s stand and I was off in a little over 3 minutes from swim exit.

It was now around 8:15 and the air was already warm and the wind not particularly strong. There was no doubt now that we were in for a hot day as I headed up the out and back on the Kuakini Highway. My legs felt amazing and race power seemed easy. I had to work hard to keep myself reined in and not get carried away with the streams of over-eager riders shooting by.

As I headed back into town I was passed by a flying Lunny. He looked to be pushing on and was hoovering up competitors in front of him. I hoped he knew what he was doing!

Once onto the Queen K I was able to get stuck into the meat of the bike course. Race pace of 230 watts was yielding 25-28mph – this was going to be fast.

The temperature seemed to be rising by the minute and by the first aid station I was feeling the urgent need to start getting on top of my body temp. I grabbed a bottle and emptied it over my arms, back and inside my helmet. It was blissfully cool. I had to be vigilant as I knew the affect that excessive heat could have on my power output. The feed station “shower” would become an essential ritual every 20 miles or so.

I’m pleased to report that the riders around me were all respecting the draft rules. Yes there were one or two who maybe stayed “in the zone” a little longer than allowed, but making clean overtakes of multiple riders was proving pretty hard due to the high cruising speeds.

But the huge draft packs I was in fear off before the race were not in evidence. Not around me at least. There may have been some up the road and I get how that would tick off any “wet runner” aiming for a podium. But they weren’t affecting my race against the course and that’s all I cared about.

For a big chunk of the bike leg I found myself in the presence of fellow Brit Scott Whittlestone. I owed Scott a debt of gratitude as it was him not taking his Kona spot at Bolton (having already qualified) that threw me my qualification life line. I knew Scott and I swam and biked in the same ballpark at Bolton so figured he’d be a useful barometer of my effort.

We chopped and changed the lead which helped ease the tedium of the largely featureless Queen K section.

At the Kawaihai turn, power was still feeling great. Again I tried to moderate my effort. I was still well under half way and it was way too early for over-confidence – particularity as I’d face less favourable winds on the return leg.

As I started swinging east onto the climb to Hawi, the wind had really strengthened. Combined with the gradient, my speed was now diminishing fast. For the first time, the effort was starting to tell.

A few miles from the turn I spotted Mark heading for home. I estimated he had a good 5 miles on me and was looking good. Mark was in great shape and was here to race hard. It looked like things were going his way.

Next I spotted young Brit Alex Bradley. Sadly on the side of the road with his bike in an alarming number of pieces. Alex is a prodigious talent (sub 9) but has been dogged with bad luck this year. I felt gutted to see him on the side of the road. I hope he can look back with relief (and a healing broken wrist) that his handle bars had parted company with his bike on the 15mph climb UP to Hawi, not the 40mph + decent back DOWN. I know Alex will come back to nail Kona.

I rounded the Hawi turn myself and spun down to the special needs station where I had two fresh bottles waiting for me. I had frozen these overnight and they were still wonderfully cold as I slotted them into my rear cages. The marshals at Kona are so experienced. The whole process took maybe 10 seconds – as opposed to the several minutes I spent hunting for my bottles at Bolton!

I now had the glorious wind assisted descent back towards Kawaihai. As I hurtled along in the blustery conditions, I felt thankful for my wheel choice. I shot past other athletes wrestling with their bikes in the cross winds.

From Kawaihai to the Queen K turn off, things started getting tough. The air is so still here, it’s like being in an oven. I was in between aid stations and my temperature was escalating. Turning back onto the Queen K, the hot wind made it’s presence felt again – this time as a head / cross wind.

I experienced my usual mid ride slump. I wasn’t too concerned, it often happens and if I focus on holding my position and fuelling regularly I’m confident of coming out the other side unscathed. And so proved to be the case as I soon felt some power returned to my legs.

Race effort was still feeling significantly harder now but I was moving ok and passing plenty of fading riders. Glancing at my clock it looked like a 5:10 ride was on the cards. This would be around 10 minutes quicker than 2015, when I’d run a solid 3:30 marathon. If I could repeat that run off the quicker bike, then a sub 10 could be on the cards.

I remained steadfast and kept my power where it needed to be. I knew biking too hard in the last hour could derail my marathon. Passing more riders bolstered my confidence, but maybe tempted me into burning a match or two. It wasn’t long before I was descending Makala Boulevard back towards the pier as a hot and sweaty mess.

Feet out of shoes and a rather inelegant dismount saw me hand off my bike to a waiting volunteer with bike shoes flying in all directions! Two other volunteers scurried to collect them.

T2 starts with a lengthy run around the perimeter of transition. Man it was hot! I desperately needed the shade of the change tent. Everything ached.

I grabbed my run bag and slumped down in a chair. Another volunteer ran to my aid, providing me with cold Gatorade. Transition was fairly brisk and I was quickly heading out of the tent and part way up Palani Rd before turning onto Kuakini and then down onto Alii Drive to start the 5 mile slog to the first turnaround.

In the distance I saw buddy and serial “pro-botherer” Brian Fogarty reduced to a walk. My heart sank a little as I knew just how badly Foggi wanted a result in Kona. I asked if he was ok and instantly thought “what a stupid fucking question”. Foggi should have been an hour up the road so it was safe to assume he was pretty far from “OK”. Kona had dealt another cruel blow to a monumental talent. I hoped Foggi can take huge positives from an amazing season.

The heat was now overwhelmingly oppressive and I knew I had to get things under control. The first water / ice station seemed to take an eternity! Eventually I saw it in the distance and knew I needed to take some time to cool myself. I loaded up my scarf with ice, put a handful under my hat and doused my arms and body in cold water....

I squelched off down the road. That was better. I felt my run could start now.

Glancing at my watch I could see I was comfortably up on my pace from 2015. No heroics required. I just needed to equal my 3:30 run split from 2015 and I’d have a huge Kona PB.

I trotted on happy at my 7:30 mile pace. “This feels good - I can cope with this” I thought.

I settled into a rhythm of running between aid stations but I was having to spend 10-15 seconds refuelling, cooling off and repacking ice wherever I could! I had to do this. Whatever happened, I couldn’t allow my temperature to escalate.

The heat seemed every bit as tough as it was in 2015. I looked enviously at the athletes running back to town. I clocked Charlie Pennington at a similar place to 2015 and we exchanged a high five. I felt little power boost. It didn’t last long.

I finally reached the turn and started the return leg to Kailua-Kona. Just moving forward was now taking considerable effort. Waves of strength were followed by waves of crippling weakness. I’d only run 5 miles. How the hell was I going to run another 21 and change. I didn’t remember feeling this bad, this soon in 2015. Bugger.

The demons started goading me.

“5 miles in and you’re already suffering like a dog!”...“This is too much, you’ll never get through this”... “Why don’t you just walk for a bit or have a little sit down”

I retaliated with the best positive self talk I could muster. “It’ll be cooler on the Queen K”... “You ran really well there in 2015”... “Everyone else is suffering”...

It helped a bit. But not much if I’m honest. This was purgatory.

Heading back to town I started seeing some of the faster female Age-Groupers heading out. They’d started 20 minutes or so behind the men. Ali Rowatt, Ruth Purbrook, Elaine Garvican and Jane Hansom all seemed to be hauling. I tried some simple mental arithmetic to work out the likely time gaps, but the sums were beyond my addled brain.

My mile pace suffered on the few rises back into town – I felt like I was creeping along. I searched out any spectator armed with a water hose.

Back in Kailua-Kona I felt the energy from the crowds lift me a little – I even managed to stay running up Palani Road – of a fashion.

The cooler conditions I’d promised myself earlier didn’t materialise. I felt cheated. I wasn’t even half-way through the run and things didn’t look like they were going to get any easier any time soon. The sun was still high in a cloudless sky and it was roasting me.

Running in these conditions is utterly bonkers and it’s pretty hard to describe. I consider myself an ok runner with ok times to my name... but crawling along the Queen K you wouldn’t believe it. Maybe it was the fatigue from a long season. Maybe it was a simple intolerance to the inhumane heat and humidity. Whatever the reason I knew for sure I didn’t have my 2015 run legs and this was going to be a survival slog.

This is the ultimate cruelty of Kona.... I’ve spent all year training hard.... REALLY hard. I’ve sweated hell on my Wattbike and knocked out some killer track sessions and tempo runs. I’d tapered well, played it cautiously on the bike and yet here I was on the Queen K trying desperately to avoid 10 minute miles. There is no rhyme or reason and it was proving a tough pill to swallow.

Any time goals had now evaporated. My aim was now to just keep running. If nothing else, it meant I’d reach the salvation of each aid station before I blew a gasket.

I tried disassociating myself from my torment – I pulled my sun hat down and tried to shut everything out. I just had to focus on moving forward. In the distance I spied Declan from team Freespeed. A hugely experienced Kona athlete. It lifted me from my self-pity. Right Dunc... Pull yourself together. You’re catching Dec... Go get him! A clear case of my reach exceeding my grasp.

At some points I did seem to be clawing my way back to Dec, I was still having to walk every aid station, to get my temperature back under control, while my Freespeed “carrot” was able to run though to re-open and then extend his gap.

I spotted Charlie running for home in the opposite direction. Another high five. Another, even shorter lived, power boost.

Soon after I saw Lunny! Wow he was crushing his first Kona (and would go on to finish 5th AG). Hugely impressive. I was so chuffed for him.

Curtiss a few moments later also looking solid.

My frustrating yo-yo with Dec continued for about 3 miles before the solar panels of the Natural Energy finally came into view. It’s funny how this section of the course fills so many people with dread. But I relish it. There’s normally a breeze here and once back out it’s a mere 10k home. It marks a significant physical and mental turning point in the course for me. If I’ve made it this far. I know I can run it in.

It was clear now that I wasn’t making any in-roads on Dec. He had things nicely under control. I didn’t.

Entering the 4 mile Energy Lab out and back I spotted Mark heading back. He gave me a big cheer. He looked to be having fun but was not as far ahead as I had anticipated. I guessed his day wasn’t going quite to plan. I later learned that he’d punctured on the bike and stomach cramps had scuppered the run he needed and wanted. I really felt for Mark, but that’s Kona. You can be in the shape of your life and the race can still kick you square in the arse. Kona can be cruel and sometimes it really doesn’t care how hard you’ve trainied.

The run into the Natural Energy lab descends to the coast. The running is easier and the heat was no worse. I could take that.

An aid station pumped out music at an uncomfortably loud volume. It wasn’t what I needed. I was happier suffering in silence.

Making the turn, I would soon be heading back along the Queen K. The same shallow rise that I’d clipped up at 6:30 mile pace in training now felt like a wall of tarmac at 9:00 mile pace! But once onto the highway I knew the bulk of the work was done.

Just 6 more aid stations to tick of. I started visualising the finish line the feeling of not having to run any more.

I slogged on counting down the miles.

About 3 miles from home, I ran onto the shoulder of John Mead. Another Brit and in my Age-Group. We were both pretty well spent. Like two dying embers in a fire. I pressed on but again the heat was to be my limiter and forced me to stop and “ice up” at the two remaining aid stations, John was able to jog through and retake his lead.

The decent back down Palani was crippling. Pain shot through my joints as I tried to control my momentum. The final 400m along Alii drive was, by contrast, a joy. It filled me with an energy that’s impossible to describe. I was in no rush though. I soaked it all in and savoured the moment before crossing the line in blissful relief.


49th out of 293 in my AG.

Looking at the results I could take solace in a higher AG placing than 2015. And was happy to have turned the tables on many of my Age-Group who had out-qualified me at both Lanzarote and Bolton. It was also clear from the results how many “melt down’s” there had been on the run. It had been a tough day for sure and something which served to underline how impressive many of the top Age-Group run spits were.

My second time in Kona bought home a reality for me. Unless I can come out to Kona and acclimatise for 6 months, I think I’ll always struggle to perform at the level I train to. And that’s frustrating. The heat and humidity mean for me, on race day, all bets are off. Looking more positively, I’ve had two “OK” races at Kona and no catastrophic system failures, no doubt due to my cautious approach to the race. On balance, l think I’ll take that.

But when all is said and done, Kona is so much more than “just another Ironman”. It’s the sun around which the Ironman planets orbit. Enjoying everything this beautiful island has to offer, sharing it with Claire and so many brilliant / talented friends, rubbing shoulders and partying (a little too hard) with pros and amateurs alike is something totally unique in the sport.

If I’m honest there ARE better races than Ironman Kona...

But there are a few experiences that even come close.

A few shout outs....

Thanks to my team Race Hub.

Team boss Johnny and all the members of Race Hub Tri Club are so incredibly supportive. We have something truly special and unique.

All our amazing team sponsors

Skechers Performance, Huub, Giant Bikes, C.E.P Compression, High 5, Snow Software, Lake Cycling, Vittoria tyres

Others who have helped me along the way. Parcours Wheels, Wattbike

All of team GB, the amazing Umeke winners, but particularity my awesome condo mates Caroline, Mark and honorary Brits Devon and Curtiss.

And lastly my beautiful wife Claire who finished her 3rd Kona Ironman in impressive style with a run split only a few minutes short of mine! Incredible. I never forget how lucky I am to be able to share my crazy addiction with the one I love.


  1. Great blog Dunc. Wow. What a season and to have finished Kona top 50 in your Ag. Your other blogs leading up to the World Championships with so little time in between races shows just how awesome an achievement it is. Breca Swim-Run. Bolton IM. Lanzarote IM. as well as guiding Haseeb Ahmad to an IM World Record Barcelona October 2016. Not forgetting supporting Claire Shea-Simonds to her KQ at Wales IM Sept 2016 (Now that’s stressful��).

  2. A fantastic piece of heartfelt writing. Congratulations on a superb season. True grit and determination and so inspiring.