After three flights, a very stressful transit in LAX and approximately 30 hours of traveling we had finally arrived in Kona, Hawaii. They say that the training, instead of the race itself, is the hardest part in the massive task called the ironman but I would be inclined to say the “getting there” part is pretty high up there as well, at least as far as Ironman Hawaii goes. Fortunately it was still 10 days before the race so I had plenty of time to recover. A good four days more than the last time I was here racing in 2013.
In addition to being better acclimatized for the 20-degree temperature difference (Celsius) and the 11-hour time difference, I also felt that I was a more mature triathlete now and not nearly as nervous about the race as before. While my season hadn’t been quite as good as the few preceding ones, I felt my fitness was peaking for this final endeavour of the year.
I even had secret hopes for a new iron-distance PR which would require a nearly sub 9-hour finish. On the other hand I knew time goals, especially in Kona, are always a bit tricky as the conditions and race dynamics can influence the race so much. Furthermore, based on my previous Kona experience, I had decided that no matter what happened, I would do my best to also enjoy the day, as it would unfold.
On paper I had it all figured out. My commitment to swim training would see me through the opening discipline in around 1:05. A small, yet significant, improvement compared to my previous swim of 1:08. In Kona, there are a lot of triathletes coming out of the water between an hour and 1:10 and every minute counts for a little less congested early miles on the bike.
For the bike split calculations I’ve been trusting in Best Bike Split’s incredibly accurate predictions. Normally for an ironman, I would have set my target Normalized Power to 265W but for Kona I decided to settle for a little less, 255W, because I knew the later parts of the race would require digging deep anyways. Based on Best Bike Split’s advanced weather model for the race day, my predicted bike split was around 4:45.
Deducting the times for the swim, the bike and the transitions, maybe 6 minutes together, from the total of 9:03 (in order to get a new PR), would leave me 3:07 for the marathon, which should be totally doable, even in the scorching heat of the lava fields.
As I said, all figured out on paper.
HEI HEI ‘AU KAI (swim)
Similarly to my previous Kona I positioned myself to the left side of the startline to avoid the crazy washing machine near the buoys on the right side. The tactic worked well in the sense that the start wasn’t too much of wrestle, but pretty soon I started to want to catch a good pair of feet to draft behind. In order to find those, I pulled slowly to the right and closer to the action. I felt I found some suction and the halfway turning point indicated by a few bigger boats was getting closer.
At the turnaround I checked my Garmin for the time and 32 minutes had passed. In theory I was on time for a 1:05 split but I recalled there’s something odd about the currents or something on the way back. Last time it took me 8 minutes more to get back to the pier and, as I was about to find out in 39 minutes, this time was no different.
Climbing the steps up from Dig Me Beach I checked the 920XT again in disbelief and all I could do was laugh. 1:11! I mean, you put all this energy and effort into getting better at something and as a reward you get even slower times. But it’s the currents, right?
Well, at least I felt pretty good and now even more eager to tackle the bike course.
Because of my disproportionately slow swim, once on the bike, I was surrounded by somewhat slower riders. I immediately switched the blinkers on, took the left lane and blasted away. The Felt IA2 superbike under me responded swiftly to the increased power input as my legs were pumping the prescribed wattage out of the Garmin Vector 2 power pedals. Dozens and dozens of riders were left behind and the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway got shorter by every revolution of the crank arms. The sun was on its way up as well and I could see there’d be no cloud coverage for most of the route today. It was going to be a scorcher.
By the time I passed Waikoloa Beach, the wind had started to pick up and it was a headwind as expected. I was actually happy because we would have a tailwind on the way back to Kona, nice thing to have when the legs start to be tired.
Around the turnaround at Hawi we got a little bit of very welcome rain as well. Normally I hate riding in the rain but when it’s 30 degrees Celsius and your fighting constantly against overheating, I can’t think of many nicer things Mother Nature could offer to help.
At the turnaround my Normalized Power was right on the mark at 254W and I had spent 2:37 on the bike course, three minutes less than predicted! Also my heart rate level was well inside the desired zone the average being 142 bpm. I was glad because during my training rides on the island, elevated heart rate levels plagued me and my Garmin reacted by showing alarmingly decreasing VO2max estimates.
Only 85km to go!
After the speedy descent down from Hawi the temperature started to really rise as the protective cloud coverage over the mountain was left behind. It was getting increasingly difficult to stay within the power zone but I was still passing athletes constantly and soon the tailwind would join me for a little boost in the pace, no?
Here’s the thing about the bike course in Hawaii. It’s really not that difficult as such but the unpredictability of the conditions make it really, really tough. And sure enough, back on the Queen K the wind had reversed direction. What was supposed to be a tailwind was now quite strong headwind. Especially the last 30-40km was straight into wind. As it wasn’t difficult enough anyway!
My power levels were down quite a bit and a further look at the power file reveals that I dropped the ball already soon after Kawaihae. My total Normalized Power back into town had dropped drastically to 240W and thus my total bike split fell back to 4:59:59. I still managed to pass a total of 435 athletes on the bike!
HOLO HEI HEI (run)
In the past, the run has always been my strongpoint and could be trusted to be decent enough even after hard bike rides. But soon after slipping into my Newtons, I knew this was going to be a difficult one. For some reason I couldn’t keep my form and could feel my hips dropping back. The heat was getting unbearable as well. I muscled my way through the first 10km in 44 minutes but then I just couldn’t take it anymore. First the pace dropped back a little and I walked just the aid stations. Soon after Palani hill the pace fell a little more and by the halfway I had spent already 1:37.
The turn to the dreaded Energy Lab seemed to be much farther than I remembered. Athletes were starting to pass me, a rare feat when I have my running shoes on. The spectators saw my struggle against the inevitable and were amazing trying to cheer me on. I just couldn’t help it; I had to start walking even between the aid stations spaced by a mile or so.
In the Energy Lab I had a little pit stop and while at it, did some calculations. Of course, my lofty goals were out the window a long time ago already and the primary thing now was just to finish but I wanted to also race the sun. Unless I walked the whole 14km back into town, I should be at the finish line on Ali’i Drive before sunset.
On the way back, I walked quite a bit but every now and then there were athletes still coming back from the bike course and I thought: Man! THEY have a lot of work ahead of themselves! I just had to suck it up and start jogging again. Until, I couldn’t after a couple hundred meters. This sequence repeated itself for the seemingly endless few miles before turning down on Palani Hill.
Just before turning to Ali’i Drive for the finish line, I tried to gather my dignity and zipped up my awesome new custom speedsuit. I high-fived the spectators on both sides of the road and also saw my family who were happy to see I was ok. They for one had expected me to finish a long while ago but also knew that in the hardest one-day endurance event in the world, not always everything goes as planned despite all the preparation and fitness.
As I stepped under the finish line arc the sun was still up there above the horizon. And once again, I heard the legendary voice of Mike Reilly announcing; Jens Dahlman, YOU are an IRONMAN!