KONA RACE REPORT by Claire Davis
This year's world championships theme was Kupa'a. It means strong, steadfast and immovable. It was something I thought about in the lead up to the race. I got to Kona just over two weeks prior to race day and managed to see all parts of the course. There is nothing easy about it. The swim can have a current and waves, the bike course is hilly and windy and despite being an out and back course, riding out into a headwind does not guarantee that you will have a tail wind coming back. The run is for the most part lonely, and the lava fields are beautifully barren and never ending.
Kate and I had spoken about the importance of being patient until at least the last 10 kilometers of the run. I hadn't raced an ironman since November 2015 and on my training rides on the Big Island, the lure of blasting out of town was difficult to ignore. I hadn't raced an ironman since Malaysia in November 2015 and I couldn't help but feel like I had forgotten how to do one.
Getting to Kona early meant that I got to experience the town without the craziness of ironman. By Monday of race week it all changes. Everywhere was busy and you could feel the tension in the air rising. I stayed about 2 miles from the pier and only went down Ali’i drive when I absolutely needed to. Friday rolled around and I went to bike check in. If you assume that everything is easier at Kona, compared to other races, think again. When I got there the line was all the way up to the traffic get lights on Palani. I sent Luke off to get some more water as it was going to be a bit of a wait. Then there is a line of people from all aspects of the triathlon industry hanging over the fence and looking at all of the components you have on the bike. Bike brand, saddle brand, rear hydration, front hydration, handle bars, peddles, power metres. You name it, they wanna know how many of each there are. When you finally get in to transition, you are assigned a volunteer to personally takes you to where your bike needs to be racked, gives you a run down of how it will work and then takes you to drop your bags. There are almost 5000 volunteers for 2500 Athletes and they are all amazing!
I couldn't help but shake the feeling of "what happens if I have a bad day" But just before I fell asleep, I thought about what was going to happen the next day. I knew my swim was close to my best; I was running pretty well and had done so much work on my bike. I did a quick calculation on what I thought I could swim bike and run and told myself to stop being ridiculous, as the time I guessed was still pretty good and refused to let myself think about having a bad day again.
I was stupidly calm on race morning. Nothing was going to faze me and I even tried to gee myself up about being at a World Championships because I felt so relaxed. There were long lines to get in to transition and so many processes to go through, but I hardly had to do anything other than pump my tires and put on my bottles and I went to meet Luke, Kate and Guy near the hotel pool for last minute pep talk, hugs and sun cream application.
I made my way to the pier just before the men started so I could make sure I got into the water with time to swim to the front as the start is about 50 odd metres off shore. Once I go in I was excited. I was now part of the iconic ironman images that I had looked at so many times. My friend Jackie swam over to me and I was happy to see her as we can swim about the same time and if I am on her feet, I can trust that she is going the shortest way possible and sighting regularly. It was pretty relaxed on the front. Half a dozen of us were trying to attract the underwater cameraman's attention but he was too busy snapping sea turtles he didn’t look at us. And then we decided that maybe holding our breaths underwater trying to be photographed was not the best use of energy and oxygen before the start of an Ironman!
BANG! The cannon went and I took off. My plan was to sit in the group until the turnaround and hopefully launch myself off the front towards the end. However after about 200m, I found myself with Jackie, off the front with another girl about 10 meters ahead and the group already about 15m behind. We caught the leader after about 750 and sat on her hip but I noticed a significant slowing in pace and the chasers catching us quickly so I went around and Jackie came with me. So much for sitting in and letting the pack do the work!! We swam side by side to the turn around.
We started catching AG men and I worked really hard making sure I was following Jackie’s feet. At about 3km I started to lose contact and she took off and I got to the pier about 40 seconds after she did. She was still in the tent when I got there and we had a bit of a laugh about how it was a bit of Ironman Malaysia déjà vu.
On to the bike. I was racked almost as far from the mount line as you possibly could be. And I can’t do a flying start. So I carried my shoes and bike about 150m closer to the line and saw a gap where I could put them on without cutting off anyone else. Winning. That bit was causing me some stress. Up Palani and first time round the “Hot Corner” There were so many people. Luke was up on the Queen K where there was not many spectators and was good to see a familiar face. Down Palani for Hot Corner again. The crowd was about 10 deep and so loud. I think I cried a little bit because I didn’t really believe I was racing Kona!
The road was crowded and you had to sit up to make sure you didn’t touch wheels. I managed to jump into a gap and get around and went past Jackie. She said she was boxed in and I told her to be aggressive and push your way in!
We had a tailwind to Waikaloa but it soon turned into a straight head wind. I led the women’s race until almost the end of the Queen K. I was thankful for a headwind up Hawi as it is easier to manage than the cross winds. You just have to keep working in to it, but at least the wind is not trying to flip the bike out from underneath you! I was pretty happy to get to the turnaround. I decided against special needs as I still had a full rear bottle. About a kilometer later that blew off going over a bump. Argh. Thankfully I remained calm, and had run through this possible scenario in my head, I have enough concentrated infinit for about 1.5 more bottles but Oh well Gatorade Endurance for the rest it is! Not the end of the world, I just had to realise that I would not be getting as much calories and salt as anticipated to adjust what I was doing through aid stations.
Despite having a headwind up Hawi, I also had a headwind coming down. Which is not unusual on this course. I was pretty happy to get back on the Queen K but I didn’t feel like I was riding that well. I can’t explain it, I just felt I was lacking some power and speed and never felt as comfortable as I had been on my bike. A couple more girls past me, although not in my AG and I had to tell myself that I was passing more men than there were girls passing me, so I can’t be riding that bad. I was happy to get to Scenic Point as there was only 30km to go. And there was a tailwind. BOOM I’m going to be back so fast! Nope. About 2 mins later is was right back to headwind. I tried to keep positive as although I was not riding as well as my training had dictated but was still going to ride a PB. My legs were hurting and I tried to make sure I got to T2 in the best shape to run a good marathon.
I felt awful getting off the bike. I had diluted the Gatorade Endurance to make sure I could process it, but probably left myself short on calories and salt. My legs did not want to run a marathon but after standing up in the tent, they were slightly better. I took a salt tablet and off I went. 4th place exited the tent just in front of me. I sat about 20m back from her but was running too fast. Kate was on the bike and she asked what my pace was. I told her 4.20 and she said “You know you can’t run that for a marathon. Slow down and don’t worry about anyone else”. It was now more important than ever to embody Kupa’a.
I felt so nauseous for the first 15km. I was running fine, but I felt like I wanted to throw up. I adjusted my aid station strategy, diluting the Gatorade and taking my Clif blocks. I turned up Palani as Daniela Ryf was coming down to the finish line. It was pretty cool to cheer her on and boosted my spirits. Once I got the Queen K I felt instantly better, and it became slightly overcast and more comfortable to run in.
I was leapfrogging with a German girl in another age-group. I was running quicker uphill and she was rolling down them quicker than me. Kate was trying to encourage us to work together as we weren’t impacting each others place. She was NOT INTERESTED! She sort of half-annoyed, half amused laugh/groaned at me as I caught her up another hill so that was that. Fair enough some people hate running with others. She was moving quicker through aid stations and I lost sight of her.
Spectators are only allowed up to a certain point and then you begin the lonely stretch of about 10kms up and back to the Energy lab. I hit another bit of a low point as, there is nothing to look at other than the sad faces of other competitors experiencing the same thing. I saw the leader of my age group exit the Energy lab as I went in. Damn. She was 6km ahead of me at that point. I descended the mile into the energy lab and every step I took forward and didn’t see another girl made me feel better and better. I saw second place at the bottom, meaning that she was probably only 2km in front of me and 3rd and 4th were even closer. At that point I couldn’t compute what I needed to do other than to keep doing what I was doing. Once I got out of the Energy Lab I told myself there was less than 50minutes of running to go. I was breaking the course down too. 2km to Kona Mountain Coffee. Then 2km to Hina Lani St. Then a mile to Kate and Guy and Luke. Then about 5kms to go.
Once I got to Kate and Guy and Luke, things got manic. This part just flew by so quickly. Kate said to me “ This is the real race now. You have been patient all day and are in a good position. We are racing NOW!”. I frantically told her there was someone coming up quickly behind me and she told me to focus on the girls in front and I could potentially catch them if 6th caught me.
Guy and Kate and Luke circled back to me on their bikes every 200 m or so giving me encouragement and willing me onto the podium as I thought about how 6th wouldn’t be so bad. “You don’t deserve to miss that podium!” Kate screamed at me. At the bottom of the last hill on the Queen K I accelerated. I sprinted down Palani, and was probably lucky that my quads didn’t cramp. I was hovering dangerously close to the edge. You can hear the finish, but you start running away from it. The run to Hualalai St felt like forever! But down on Ali’i Drive, the crowds are Tour de France-like and everyone is screaming your name.
I hit the chute and it was pretty crowded. A friend told me never stop, as he was passed in the chute and finished 6th in Kona. Two guys were lapping it up carrying their flag. Part of me was jealous I didn’t get the opportunity to do that, but I had no idea how far ahead I was and I had sprinted the last 2 miles of an Ironman marathon to get here. I squeezed my way around them and saw my German ‘running mate’ cross the line 1 second ahead of me.
It was over. I had done what I desperately wanted to do. The finish was a blur of bright lights, loud noises and so many people, volunteers, officials, Photographers and other athletes. I walked down the ramp and dropped to the floor. My legs said ENOUGH! Two volunteers pulled me up and walked me to recovery (which is about 600m!) I had a cry, some pizza and a massage and shared a big plate of hot chips with the girl who came 4th in my age group.
It’s so hard to explain how to race this race. There is nothing else that comes close. It was the hardest thing I have ever done and I have never forced so much pain on myself. I feel like I understand it so much better and would love the opportunity to do it again (although people who have qualified multiple times tell me each year is different!!!)
It’s finally over. Something that really started straight after Ironman Melbourne in 2015, when Kate suggested attempting to qualify at Malaysia. I am such a different athlete compared to then and even compared to Malaysia. Thanks so much to Kate and Guy for getting me to where I am and I’m looking forward to getting even better!
For now, it’s back to normal life. Although just when we though October 2016 couldn’t get any better, Luke and I got engaged in Siem Reap last week!
CONGRATULATIONS CLAIRE & LUKE! xxx