Kona Race Report – Nick Wenban-Smith

Three years ago I did something very terrible and I qualified for the 2020 Ironman World Championships. Ironman Wales was my sort of race: cold and technical, requiring a hardy constitution. I hate racing in the heat, but hey can’t really turn down the chance to race Kona so I’d better go for it.

Excitedly I planned my trip, bought the guide books to see all the best sights of Hawai’i (early on I knew I was not going to be a podium contender, and I doubted I would ever be able to justify a trip to Hawaii ever again), booked the flights and accommodation.

Then along came covid … I cancelled my flights and accommodation, took my refunds and deferred to 2021.

2021 … ditto.

So, finally … 2022 and all systems go!

To tell the truth I did not have a very good preparation and run up to Kona. A lot can happen in three years: bike stolen, hit by a car and a trip to A&E for some stiches and a broken nose, several injuries and illnesses, plus of course Life Changes and not getting any younger in terms of racing against my fellow competitors in the 50-54 age group. However I did get plenty of hot weather training over the summer in the south of France and UK, and my cycling was not too far off my best and so I headed off in good spirits to the Big Island. My principal objectives: firstly, get to the finish line and collect the t-shirt; secondly, not get injured or so broken that it would spoil the experience; thirdly, Not Come Last (TM)!

Doing any Ironman race is pretty stressful, but Kona definitely is a level up. It’s a very long way to travel, the jet lag, bike transport and race admin are in many ways equally as challenging as qualifying for the event itself. Once you arrive the place is full of lean muscular triathletes either posing with finisher t-shirts from years past, or running bare-chested down the Alii’i drive. There are A LOT of fancy TT bikes on view!

As a holiday destination though, Hawai’i does not disappoint. The ocean is beautifully clear and warm and there are dolphins jumping in the bay, with palm trees and fabulous sunsets. There are bananas and avocadoes growing outside the kitchen window, emerald green geckos, exotic butterflies and moths to spot and stunning birds of paradise flowers, bougainvillea and hibiscus everywhere. The food is really great with plenty of local seafood and amazing local tropical fruits and coffee. You can view volcanoes erupting at night, visit icy mountain summits and dip in waterfalls in lush rainforests.

Anyway I digress, there’s also a triathlon race so back to the report …

As a participating athlete you certainly get to feel like a VIP – it really is a special experience with free bike servicing and help in the expo, and the registration and check into transition was all very smooth and well-organised. You really feel like you’ve joined the serious triathletes club as you pick up your championship merchandise. There are a whole load of peripheral events going on including the parade of nations and underpants run which are good to get you into the spirit and break the ice to meet other participants.

On race day I actually felt very relaxed and positive, no pre race nerves or anxiety at all and I didn’t feel any particular pressure to perform. Said a quick hello again to Jan Frodeno who was volunteering in transition, and then out to queue for the swim start, watching Lucy Charles-Barclay finish first out of the water in the women pro wave and set off on the bike course. I could already feel the sun getting hot though … pretty ominous for a long day in the saddle followed by a marathon.

The Kona course is the most straightforward one you can imagine – the swim, bike and run are all essentially straight line out and back, old school style and no frills. However what the course lacks in technical challenge is more than made up by heat, humidity and wind. Basically the complete opposite of Wales!

The swim is lovely – more swell and choppy waves than my reccie a few days earlier. My wave of over 600 was pretty chaotic with plenty of contact, and once it had settled down a bit it was going well – until the faster swimmers from the 25-29 wave started to come past amidst us catching up with the slower swimmers from the waves ahead. However all redeemed by the clear seas, tropical fish and scuba divers filming at the turn point. There’s also quite a bit of current depending on the tide. A proper challenge and pretty unique experience.

Once through T1 and on the bike all was good for the first hour, but unusually for me I started to feel a lot worse as the bike went on and the heat built up. I stopped worrying about the watts I should be averaging and kept my focus on getting the calories in and especially on hydration, taking on one and sometimes two full bottles of water at each aid station. Since the bike split starts in earnest after the Hawi turn I needed to not overheat on the first half. I saw Rebecca on the Hawi return which was a morale boost. They say that the gusty cross winds are a challenge but it all seemed pretty ok and the descent from Hawi was a joy. However after that there’s a dip where it’s very hot and airless and I found my mind wandering. As I had started late in the day I was overtaking bikes for most of the time and I distracted myself looking for the coolest bike design and colour, oddest tri kit (Japanese in speedos!) and ugliest Ironman tattooes etc. It got hotter and hotter and I started to hallucinate. I passed a lady on a large bright yellow fat wheel bike, teddy bear, picnic and vase of flowers in the front basket. (From race photos I saw after the event this actually happened). On a long hill I start to sweat heavily and combined with all the dry salt on my face my eyes fill up until I literally can’t see the road ahead. I tell myself that I am too old and too fat for all this nonsense. I have to stop at the next aid station and pour some fresh water over my face and then I start to feel much better. Then the final hour into a brisk (relatively!) cooling head wind I realise I am feeling good, my legs are strong and I overtake dozens and dozens of other riders while holding a good aero position. My core temperate is under control and my head is clear, if only this had been the case earlier! Anyway it was a thrill to swing back into Kona town and past all the supporters and spectators after the loneliness of the lava fields. I pat myself on the back for getting down over 500g of carbs plus plenty of salt and water and I’m actually feeling pretty ok now.

As a consequence of my easy bike ride I start the run with quite a spring in my stride and I’m hitting my target pace with ease. Toe, hip and ankle injuries which had bedeviled my training totally absent, this is a great feeling. The crowd yell and cheer me on, and then some women absolutely scream ‘We love you’ in my face which is a bit unexpected; sexy in sweaty salt crusted lycra and I know it, this is what the world championships are about! However then Lucy Charles-Barclay appears up just on my shoulder for a few seconds before turning towards the finishing chute, aha I see now what happened there she’d obviously been approaching behind me for the past couple of minutes. Back to reality but still a very memorable experience! The first few kilometers of the run are out through town on the Alii’i Drive and as I pass the beaches I wonder what I’m doing and whether I should just jump into the surf with the tourists. The second half of the run was definitely a bit of a tough test but seeing Grace running strong coming out of the Energy Lab was a lift and I thought I might catch her by the end of the race (I didn’t!). Moving from walking the aid stations to put ice down the back and front of my trisuit and under my cap I got into a good rhythm and even skipped a couple of aid stations towards the end of the race. That might have been a mistake as I hit a wall going up the last hill back into Kona, but the final mile to the finish line was pretty epic. Job done!

A massive thank you to all of my friends, family and supporters, plus of course especially coach Sean for the inspiration, motivation and planning. All such a brilliant experience that I might even do it again if I ever have the chance.

Now I’m back in England and it’s cold and raining, situation normal. My sunburnt skin is still peeling but my chaffing and blisters have healed up. My seventh full distance race delivered my slowest swim, bike and run splits so far, and there’s a definite feeling of anticlimax. Yet the credit card bills are yet to arrive, I had a great holiday and I did Not Come Last.

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