World Ironman Championship
Route To Kona
Friday 25th September K Day -15
I arrived in Los Angeles from New York having spent a week on business on the East Coast. The idea to arrive early was to acclimatise (the Americans say acclimate) to the heat and to reduce the effects of jet lag. I stayed at Venice Beach, close to LAX, which is famous for its hippies, skateboarders, drug dealers and all kinds of other strange forms of life.
Saturday 26th September K Day -14
I made up the bike in the morning and set off to check it out. The main priority today was to get some miles under my legs, not having ridden much in the last few weeks. I headed off south along the coast, past Los Angeles airport and a series of white sanded beaches. There were fewer skateboarders here, but lots of cyclists, roller bladers and runners - just what you would expect along the shore front of California. Second priority was to find a sports bar that would show the rugby (England v Wales). This turned out to be impossible, but it took an hour or more to find out that it was only showing on pay per view and or no interest to Americans. In the end I am glad I didn't watch... I carried on south towards Long Beach, which included some climbs around the Palos Verdes headland, and then back to Venice. It was a good gentle work out and I followed up with a 5km run in the heat.
Sunday 27th September K Day -13
13 days to go: was it going to be unlucky? The plan today was to have a serious work out on the bike. So I headed out early going north, past Santa Monica and along The Pacific Coast Highway. There were many cyclists along this route and one chap I met said that he had quite often trained with Chris McCormack (aka Macca and ex Ironman World Champion). I was able to go at a good pace through the rolling hills along the coast, past Malibu, where many of the Hollywood stars live (not that I saw any out on their bikes) and to the turnaround point of Mugu... The views coming back towards Los Angeles were spectacular and I felt really good despite the heat. I decided to head up Sunset Boulevard to see what this famous road was all about. Big mistake! Despite all the wealth in this part of town, the road surface was the worst I had been on so far. Sure enough I hit a big pot hole and went splat! Fortunately I was still on one piece, although bits of my skin were left all over the road. The bike was less well off; the front brake was locked on and parts of the aero bars were splintered. The brake took some fixing, so that I eventually had to limp back to Santa Monica and Venice (via a pharmacy to buys heaps of plasters) without a front brake. I am less fond of Sunset Boulevard that I expected to be.
Monday 28th September K Day -12
Heading off to Kona Hawaii today, but first I went out for a steady 8km run shortly before midday for more heat acclimatisation. It was harder than it should have been, but I maintained a good pace and kept it going. By the time I had finished even my shoes were soaked through with sweat (yuk!). Kim, my wife, joined me in LAX and off we set for the Big Island.
What a place! Even though we arrived at nearly 22:00 it was hot and humid. It already felt very special. The Arrivals Hall is open to the stars and the moon was shining brightly though where the roof might have been. It clearly doesn't rain very often here. We were met, along with one other Iron Lady, by Endurance Sports Travel (EST), with whom I had booked a package, including accommodation, transfers, shuttles to and from town and, most importantly, a programme of training support for swim, bike and run. EST is run by Ken Glah, who is an ex-professional triathlete with a third place finish at Kona in the 1990's. Although now an Age Grouper again, this will be his 32nd consecutive race at Kona, which is extraordinary! No excuses for not finding out how to do it...
Tuesday 29th September K Day -11
First day in paradise and first opportunity to "appreciate" the heat and humidity! It will need a lot of acclimatisation. There were already dozens of people out running and I started to feel guilty that I was not one of them. Having made up my bike and fixed the brake problem, I went out for an easy ride around the first part of the bike course, which winds its way up and down through Kailua-Kona before heading out on the Queen Ka'ahamanu Highway as far as the airport (about 40km in total). I was already sweating buckets, but the road surface was smooth and the wind moderate. First reccie was OK.
Wednesday 30th September K Day -10
First swim today and a realisation of how incredibly salty the sea is here. I would not have expected it in the Pacific Ocean. It was an steady swim, but I learned very quickly that the salt water causes chafing and I was already sore around my neck where the tri suit was rubbing. After breakfast I met up with others in the EST group and headed out in the EST van to Hapuna Beach, which is about 55km from Kona. The ride back was not too intense, but we experienced the cross winds for the first time and the changes of wind direction. At one point I was riding against a modest breeze, but that could still not explain why I was going so slowly downhill - except that it wasn't downhill at all. I have heard of false flats, but this was ridiculous. We ended with a Kona Coffee at a cafe overlooking the sea as a welcome reward for our efforts.
Thursday 1st October K Day - 9
Swam again for 30 mins. in the sea this morning. It is getting busier now and you had to keep your wits about to stop crashing into swimmers coming the other way. But the main purpose of the day was to ride from Hapuna Beach to Hawi and back. This is meant to be the toughest part of the bike course because of the long climb to Hawi and because of the cross winds. The climb is OK, although the last 10km were (and typically are) straight into a head wind. But the cross winds are really scary! They gust up to 90km/h and can easily blow you across the road. Not fun with heavy traffic thundering by. Although I became better during the ride, I was still hanging onto the bars too tightly and was far too tense. The technique is to relax, stay on the aeros and keep peddling. It is easier said than done. However, I survived and now at least know what to expect on race day.
Friday 2nd October K Day - 8
A longer early morning swim, but this time using my Bedford Harriers tri suit, which I shall use in the race. It is a good job I tested it out, because I suffered terrible chafing. I had not realised how bad it could be in sea water, as I had never had a problem with the suit before. It is all part part of the learning experience, but a very painful one. At midday, we set off for a run through the famous Energy Lab. This is the hottest part of the run course and we chose the hottest time of the day to do it. The temperature on the road in the sun was supposedly over 65 deg C and it felt like it too. But I had a good run and managed to push hard back up the hill to the Queen K Highway. I cooled down with jog back towards town, but cool is not the word. I was still sweating 2 hours later.
Apart from all the training and talking triathlon, we I was determined to experience part of what Hawaii is about. One of the main activities is snorkelling and tonight we went snorkelling with a difference. At 21:00 we kayaked out to a reef off one of the big hotels and our guide shone a light down to the coral to attract the plankton. Minutes later, giant Manta Rays came up towards us with mouths wide open as if they were looking to swallow half a dozen triathletes whole! But these are friendly creatures and were only interested in the plankton. They are so graceful and completely non aggressive. We stayed watching these giant sea creatures until we were all cold - for the first time since landing in Hawaii.
Saturday 3rd October K Day - 7
First serious competition today with a full chip-timed training swim around the course. What a disaster. I came in nearly last in a time of 1:45. It seemed like for ever going out to the turn-around buoy (pronounced booeey in America) and was even longer coming back. I could not stay on anyone's feet and at one point felt like I was the only one out there. Fortunately, I was not the only swimmer to find it difficult, but my lack of technique was the main problem. Time to reset my goals for the race proper...
After breakfast I went for an easy run along Ali'i Drive, made famous by Ironman Kona. At least I can still run, although this was a more of a gentle jog to keep testing my heat endurance.
In the afternoon, Kim and I went to Kahalu'u (aka Turtle Beach) to snorkel with turtles. These beautiful reptiles are completely unafraid of humans and come so close that you have to back off to avoid contact. It was a wonderful experience to be so close and watch them feeding and swimming. I wish I could swim like a turtle...
Sunday 4th October K Day - 6
I can feel the big day looming, but am not yet too nervous. No swim today, thank goodness, but I signed up to a 10k charity run out and back along Ali'i Drive. Although we started at 07:35, it was already incredibly hot. I decided to start out slowly and come back stronger. In the end I started out slowly (as planned) and came back even slower. Although my legs felt fine, the heat was intense and the humidity meant that I looked as if I had just come out of the sea. But despite being surrounded by the world's top triathletes, I managed to podium in the 55-50 age group and won a water bottle for my efforts... It was, however, a good test for what is to come and a lesson that ambitions need to be revised downwards again.
Having warmed up with the running race in the morning, I decided to ride out to Hapuna in the afternoon. This was to ensure I had ridden the whole bike course. The wind seemed to be mostly against, which is not a bad thing for my training, but also because at this time of day I should be cycling back to Kona, so if the prevailing winds hold true to form they will be tail winds at this point in the race. Nevertheless it was hard in the wind and my feet were killing me. I need new shoes! The reward for the hard work on the bike was a swim at one of the loveliest of white sandy beaches. The sea at Hapuna Beach is clean and warm, and the surf is fun, though I did not venture out too far or attempt any kind of training swim, having learned of a recent shark attack...!
Monday 5th October K Day - 5
Today was a shopping day. The Ironman store opened today and I bought a whole load of stash, as my daughter calls it. More importantly, I bought new cycle shoes, a swim skin (anything to help me go faster) and had my bike checked and serviced. Once all this was done, I did a couple of short rides to test everything out. I also had a free swimming lesson in the Endless Pool, which is set up in town, and was told that I was doing most things wrongly - tantamount to thrashing! A few tips from one of our new EST friends, Val, also helped, especially when I tried to put into practice in the sea what I had learnt in the pool. I felt better after that, although I can't definitely say I was quicker.
Tuesday 6th October K Day - 4
It is getting serious now. Suddenly elite athletes are running and cycling everywhere and there are hundreds of swimmers down by the pier each morning. Somehow you can tell who the good ones are from their physique and from the effortless way they run and swim. The atmosphere is electric and the facilities provided by the sponsors and the organisers make you realise that this is a very special place to be. Today was also the first day that the famous coffee boat was out on the water. This is a catamaran which anchors about 500m off shore and hands out free coffee to swimmers in the water. Perhaps I splashed too much salt water in mine, but it tasted really good. There is a good deal of banter among the athletes hanging around the boat, but also generally in town. I think everyone knows that something big and scary awaits all of us a few days hence. I tested my new technique and skin suit today and was happy with both.
Today also marked The Parade of Nations, the first big official event of the week organised by Ironman. I joined 147 other UK athletes under the Union Jack wearing our red "God Save The Queen K" T-shirts and walked and danced through the town. The crowds and the noise had to be believed, and this was not even the race. It really did feel special being cheered on my supporters from all over the world. I proudly waved my "Go Nick" Union Jack and was quickly becoming more excited about the real thing. It needed a few beers in an Aussie pub to bring me back down to planet Earth.
Hydrating has been a focus all week. With Ken Glah helping us with the benefit of his experience, we have all been drinking plenty, and eating well too. I fear I have put on weight, but maybe this is not a bad thing. It is not easy to keep the weight off with so much good food around and so many pretty restaurants overlooking the sea and the lovely sunsets. Sometimes it is easy to forget why I am here, though not during the Parade of Nations.
Wednesday 7th October K Day - 3
I started early with a gentle jog to the pier followed by a swim to the coffee boat again. I decided my swim skin was too loose (I had bought a size Large), but Roka offered to change it to a Medium for free and even gave me an upgraded version. Now that is what I call service! It felt like I was being sponsored. The Ironman Expo was fully up and running now and there were all kinds of freebies, most of which focused upon hydration, energy, salt, not bonking, etc. Oh dear! After all the grim stories I have heard (including that if your stomach packs up and becomes bloated, such that the liquids are not getting through to the muscles, you have to make yourself throw up!), I decided to attach a Torpedo water bottle to the bike, even though the aid stations are every 5 miles. It seems that more people blow up at Kona because of hydration issues than anything else.
The afternoon was something completely different. The Big Island of Hawaii is made up of 8 volcanoes, and three are still active (though one is under water). We went to visit one today and it was a extraordinary experience watching the red glow of the molten lava become brighter as darkness fell. There is even a restaurant where you can watch the volcano erupting and every 30 mins. they switch the lights off in the restaurant so that the diners have better view.
Thursday 8th October K Day -2
Two days to go and I am getting nervous. However, as light relief I have opted to take part in the Underpants Run. This is a charity event that traditionally takes place two days before the Ironman World Championships. It is advertised as good, clean fun, which it is, but very risqué by American standards. Men and women jog around Kona is various styles of underpants (or bra and panties, depending upon your preference). There are certainly some sights for sore eyes, as well as some that I would rather not remember. Probably I would have been one of the latter in my pink undies with "Hello Ladies" written across the backside. What this has to do with Ironman, I am not quite sure, but we all had a good laugh.
The rest of the day was spent focussing on last-minute matters on the bike and making sure I had everything ready for bike check-in the next day. What else? Should I, or should I not go for one more last run? I decided not to...
Friday 9th October K Day -1
I am not good at relaxing, so I decided to run down to the pier this morning. It was only supposed to be a gentle jog, but I felt really good and ran quite quickly. This is why a I need a coach to stop this kind of nonsense. The swim also went well, testing out my new, slightly smaller swim skin, and a new improved swimming style. Let's see if it works on the big day. After breakfast, I was off on the bike to have a massage with a top masseur who takes care of some of the pros and came highly recommended. The ride was longer than I had planned, as I had put the wrong address into Google, so a 10 minute bike ride became 20km! Not quite what I had planned. He pushed and pulled and contorted and even taped up my back. He said I was all misaligned, but I think he must have been referring to my brain. Why else would I be doing this Ironman stuff?
Off to bike check-in, and now it really did become exciting. The atmosphere was incredible, with TV crews, paparazzi, thousands of spectators, pros with fancy bikes (each with their own entourage), age groupers and me. It certainly racked up the tension, but the set up, the efficiency, the professionalism and all the razzmatazz made it feel very special. And this is only bike and bag check-in! Each athlete is assigned an escort to see you all the way through, guide you to where you have to be and make sure that nothing has been forgotten. So this must be what it is like to be a professional sports person...
Back to the condo and more preparations of the pre-swim bag, nutrition, drinks bottles, Garmins, and anything else that I would require for tomorrow. Half the stress is making sure that everything has been organised and that nothing will be forgotten. It is not helped by not being able to access bike and run bags in the morning, so if something has been overlooked, it would be too late.
Final routine was a big pasta dinner, a glass of wine to help me sleep and then off early to bed.
Saturday 10th October K Day is here!
A good night's sleep would have been nice, but it was probably too much to expect. I normally fall asleep quite quickly, but wake up several times. It was no different tonight. My alarm call is "Pretty Vacant" by the Sex Pistols, which annoys my wife, but it even annoyed me this morning, because it kept ringing in my head long before the alarm actually went off at 03:30. I was already wide awake by then, still trying to make sure I hadn't forgotten anything.
Having eaten breakfast at 04:00, I set off to be picked up by EST for our brief ride to the pier. The roads were already blocked, but I had plenty of time. One of the traditions of Ironman Kona is body marking. There are 5000 volunteers at Kona, two per athlete, and the first job on Saturday morning is to have numbers put on your arms by the volunteers. The line then proceeds through to timing chip check, pre-swim bag check in, final bike prep (includes re-inflating tyres, as we were told not to leave them inflated the day before, because of the heat) and finally the long line up for the mass swim start for male age groupers. The first to go were the pro men and five minutes later the pro women. Each are launched by a cannon, which adds to the atmosphere.
1700 age group men trod water at the start awaiting the same cannon at 06:55. There were boats everywhere, kayaks, paddle boards, underwater frogmen with cameras and a helicopter hovering just above us.
The cannon fired and we were off. It was bedlam at the start, but I had started well left and kept out of trouble. Though I didn't know it at the time former pro racer and our mentor, Ken Glah, nearly drowned because he was swum over by so many in the battle for the leading groups. He has done this race 32 times, and says it has to change before someone does drown. I tried to stay on as many feet as possible yet still concentrate on my new smooth swimming style. The turn came quicker than I had expected, marked by a large boat rather than a buoy, as is common in other races. I checked my watch to find that my half time split was the same as the training swim and not very good. Although disappointed, I determined to come back quicker, but just as the week before I drifted off course slightly and then the female age groupers, who had started 15 minutes later, came surging past, taking no prisoners. The swim back to the pier felt like it took ages and it did. I came up the carpeted steps in 1:46:14. What a disaster! It was even worse than the training swim the week before and it had taken me more than 1 hour from the turnaround boat. I was relieved to see than the men's changing tent was still full, which was a surprise. The mantra is that you can't change the past, so you have to move on, so I tried to stay positive. At Kona, you don't have to do much for yourself, as there are so many volunteers. So whilst I was putting on my bike socks and shoes and sorting out a few other bits and pieces, I was being covered in sun cream. Wow, did it sting! I was aware of two new chafing points around my neck during the swim, and this sun lotion reminded me big time. I desperately hoped that it would be effective, because I was about the head out into the sun for many long hours...
The bike began well and I soon started overtaking lots of male and female competitors. This is not uncommon for me because the people who swim as badly as me are usually quite slow on the bike and the run. This is the only advantage of being such a slow swimmer, but it is good for morale. It was already very hot and I had finished three bottles within the first 45 mins. I had been told repeatedly to keep hydrating, so I started drinking from the Torpedo on the front of the bike. The early part of the course snakes its way through the town, including down Palani Road. This is a fast steep hill, but we had been told that any overtaking on this section would result in a DQ. So I took it really easy, having to stay behind a rather slow young female age grouper. As soon as I reached the bottom, I stepped on the gas and started powering along the Kuakini Highway. I leaned down to take another swig from the Torpedo and it was gone! It had obviously bounced out when I turned the corner at the bottom of Palani Road, but I hadn't even noticed. So the three bottles became two. OK. Deal with it and move on... (Ironically, my wife, standing by the side of the road, saw the bottle fly off, but assumed I had thrown it away. So, I have it back already.)
Soon we were out on the Queen K Highway and into the lava fields. At this stage all was well. I could stuff bottles from the drinks stations into the Torpedo holder and was able to keep my hydration levels up. We had a tail wind up as far as the airport and perhaps a little way after, but then the wind changed, as it often does, and it became either a battle with cross winds or a headwind. In truth, the cross winds were not as bad as they could have been, and I was making good progress, only being passed by three or four competitors in total, and having overtaken many. I reached Hapuna Beach in less than two hours and arrived at the turn around at Hawi in three hours 15 minutes. Bang on target. The winds on the climb up to Hawi are always into your face, and light rain was a welcome relief from the sun and the heat. But the rain cloud was only above Hawi and lasted no more than 15 minutes. Enough to wet the roads for the decent (not good), but not really enough to cool. However, I had been hydrating well and I remembered to pick up my special needs bag. This is the first time I have used a special needs bag, but my experience of Bolton was that I needed more solid food. So special needs in my case was Sour Cream and Onion flavour Pringles, M&S flapjacks and my wife's/daughter's Almond Thins. They were a welcome relief from gels and energy bars.
As is often the case, though taking care not to draft, I enjoyed a good few battles with other cyclists, as we kept passing each other on the way back to Kona. However, it was becoming more difficult as the wind strengthened, and was now straight into our faces for the last 80km back to Kona. My hopes of a 5:45 bike were disappearing fast, but there was not much I could do about it, and I had to keep drinking and eating. Eventually I finished the bike leg in 6:16:42 having seen off most of my "rivals" with whom I had been trading places earlier in the bike. Although I would have liked a better time, I had done OK and was probably a good balance between caution and risking not finishing. It was still incredibly hot and humid, so more sun cream was required, a change of socks, cap and into the running shoes.
As I set off, I was a little wobbly, but probably in better shape than many. Two people fell asleep in T2 and took more than an hour in transition (though still finished). Others did not make it beyond the bike. Once I had climbed the first short hill, I felt better and set off at a decent pace (sub 9 minute miles). The first part of the run is along Ali'i Drive and is packed with people, many of whom take great delight in spraying the athletes with water; and the athletes take great delight in being sprayed. I was conscious of the need to keep cool, but I was also aware, less than two km into the run, that my feet were already soaked, which always means blisters. I also have a rather painful verruca on my right foot and this was already hurting. I should have had it treated a long time ago, but I didn't want to risk being out of action in the preparation for this event. Time to switch off the brain and the pain receptors...
Ali'i Drive is where everyone hangs out, and it is easy to be swept along by the atmosphere. The Queen K is completely different. It runs through the lava fields, is hot (reportedly 49°C), almost devoid of people and undulating. But having walked up Palani Road, I was feeling food and only walked again to drink and eat. I was enjoying it now. The highlight was running down into the Energy Lab towards the setting sun. I was interviewed by a camera man trotting beside me, whom I believe recognised that I was having a good time. And I was. Dare I say it, I don't think I wanted it to end at this point. I was still ahead of my "bike rivals", none of whom had passed me on the run. Come to think of it, not many had passed me on the run and I was still feeling good.
At the top of the Energy Lab it was becoming dark and we were given light bands so that we could be seen. Tonight was a new moon, and it was soon pitch dark. We could not see much at all, but that made it all the more fun. People were struggling at this stage; some were throwing up, others were becoming distinctly wobbly, but I was still feeling good and only slowed because I wanted to make sure I kept well fed and hydrated. I had a slight hiccup at 35km when I felt a little light headed, and a blister burst on my toe. I definitely felt it go 'pop' and it was suddenly very sore. But the end was near and I felt myself pick up the pace. Palani Road was in sight, which meant it was all downhill from here. The crowds were back, along with the music, the cameras and the atmosphere. There was an even announcer at the "Hot Corner" - Paul Kaye, who will be familiar to Ironman triathletes - high-fiving the competitors as they came past. My Garmin beeped my 26th mile split; I was on Ali'i Drive and could hear the Ironman announcer at the finish. The end came into sight and I was skipping and punching the air. I ran down the chute like a lunatic doing aeroplane impressions and waving and smiling. It was my best experience of a finish ever and suddenly it was all over. I had made it and the announcement boomed over the loud speaker "Nicholas Beardow - you are an Ironman". This was my 6th Ironman and my 3rd this year, but nothing felt as good as this.
True to form, I was suddenly all wobbly and dizzy and had to be helped to the grassy sit down area by two more volunteers, to whom I apologised that I was all sweaty and smelly - which was true. But these volunteers don't care about such things; they only care about helping crazy athletes who do crazy things like Ironman. Having spent some time recovering, eating, drinking, showering and having a massage I made my way out to meet my family. Apart from my sore feet, I felt fine, though I needed a beer to wash away the taste of Gatorade, of which had consumed at least 10 litres.
The final act, which is traditional at many Ironman races, is to cheer the last few finishers, who come in just before midnight. This is especially so at Kona, as many will never race this event again. The crowds were as deep and as noisy as ever, and the last few men, and especially the last lady, a 61 year old who made it inside the time limit by less than 1 minute, were cheered just as if they had won. "You are an Ironman" rang out one more time, before the crowds dispersed and the lights were turned off. What a day! What a place!
The morning after the day before...
I slept quite well considering the euphoria, though woke early. Hungry too. Athletes with sore feet were a common sight, but most seemed happy. On reflection, this was one of the most enjoyable races, indeed two weeks of my life. I definitely want to come back and do better. I believe I can improve, now I know what to expect. I could probably have pushed harder on both the bike and the run, if I had known how well my body could withstand the heat. But if I want to become a serious contender for a podium, I have to train smarter, get older without becoming slower and, most of all, learn how to swim. Anything is possible...