Tammie and I decided almost a year ago to do this destination race. We had been to the Big Island for a few days ten years ago when I had a conference, and we had both wanted to come back ever since. We arrived mid-day Thursday on a direct flight from Oakland and headed straight to race HQ. The race has two transitions with the swim and T1 at Hapuna Beach (frequently listed as a top 10 beach in the world) and T2 at an oceanfront golf course resort a few miles south. We got our packets, set up our T2 (run) bags, and then headed about 20 miles south to Kona where we’re staying. Friday was spent assembling the bikes, dropping them at T1, and going for a short swim in the amazingly clear waters at Hapuna Beach.
We were up at 4:00 AM race day for the drive to park at T2 and then take a shuttle up to the swim start. The race was a beach start with a new hybrid method that used both waves and a rolling start. Each age group wave had a five-minute window to start. You self-seeded based on expected swim time and then queued up into one of four starting gates. Every 5 seconds, four swimmers were released. The system issued tones once per second that are familiar to anyone who has watched ski-racing. The fifth tone is higher pitched which is the signal to go. I have to say I love the system, as I was able start and get immediately into rhythm without any body contact at all, a rarity for sure.
I had thought that no triathlon swim would ever eclipse Lake Tahoe for underwater scenery. I was wrong. The water was crystal clear and the bottom dropped off very slowly so you could see the ocean floor for the entire swim. Once I got maybe 100 yards off shore I could see numerous coral formations, and despite being in a race, noticed lots of tropical fish swimming around. I kept a steady rhythm, and except for having to navigate around swimmers from earlier waves, had a smooth, relaxing, steady swim. My time of 32:35 for 1.2 miles is a bit slow for me normally, but about what I would expect for a non-wetsuit swim. My split ranked 12th of 162 in my age group.
After the run up the beach I paused briefly under the showers to rinse off the salt water then had a quick transition to the bike. A huge topic pre-race at the expo and the course talks was wind, which was forecast to be severe on race day. For anyone who has watched the Ironman telecast on TV, you know what the bike course looks like, as this race also heads up and down the Queen K Highway. And there is nothing taller than a lava rock to block the wind. Fortunately, the wind was off shore for the swim, so the water wasn’t all that choppy. But that meant cross-winds on the bike that started out to be troublesome, and then developed into full-fledged craziness. The course has long, rolling hills that aren’t that steep, but they do produce long sections of subtle climbing as well as fast descents. I was racing on my new deep dish wheelset (88 in the back and 60 in the front) which has proven to be very fast. Perhaps it had to do with onions, but I was able to take the descents a lot faster than most of those around me. Due to the cross winds, most riders weren’t willing to descend on their aero-bars, and many were obviously riding the brakes at times.
At the north end of the course, you turn east and begin about a 10 mile climb to the turnaround in the town of Hawi. The climb itself is only about 4%, but it was into a 25 mph plus headwind the entire time. And there was even a brief rain shower to add to the fun. Which of course led to a 10 mile tailwind descent with most of it spent spun out in my highest gear. Then the course turned south and the wind was a dangerous cross-tail of at least 30 mph the rest of the way. I did have to get off the aerobars a few times in this section and was honestly grateful to finally reach the turn into the resort with the rubber still down. My 56 mile bike split was 02:42:11 for an average speed of 20.7 mph, ranking 7th of 162 in my age group.
By the time I started the run, the heat was on full display. It was about 90 degrees, humid, and of course, windy. I felt pretty bad from the start, and ran very conservatively, hoping to avoid the “survival shuffle” later in the run. The course is two loops through the golf course community, with much of it on the course itself. Long sections running up fairways is kind of cool, but the soft grass does sink with every step and seems to suck some of your energy with every stride. There were lots of very well equipped aid stations and I made a point to get some fluid and ice at every one. I went for the coke fairly early, and also had some banana pieces that seemed to help with cramping that I would feel coming on from time to time. I actually felt a bit better as the run went on and finished the first lap in 57 minutes at about 8:50 pace. I did slow some on the second lap, but never fell apart and only walked briefly through the aid stations. While I was happy with that, I was still disappointed to not have run faster. But the conditions definitely had a lot to do with it. My 13.1 mile run split was 2:00:44 for an average pace of 9:13 per mile, ranking 12th of 162 in my age group. My total time of 5:22:41 was good for 12th of 162 in my age group and 88 of about 1500 overall.
I didn’t realize until after I finished just how overheated and dehydrated I was. Clearly ten years in California has eroded my acclimatization to humid racing conditions. I grabbed some fluid, stood under a shower, then found a spot in the shade to sit down. I started to cramp almost immediately, and actually had to sit there for quite a while until they subsided. I thought about visiting the med tent, but some Gatorade, pretzels, and time eventually had me feeling better. I watched Tammie finish, and then we shared stories of the crazy winds and other events of the day while we enjoyed some of the post race beer and food.
I convinced her to stick around for the awards ceremony, which includes allocation of 50 qualifying slots to the 2017 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as well as a very unusual drawing for 10 spots to the Ironman World Championships in October (the big one). We didn’t win any of those, but I was fortunate to get the 4th slot for 70.3 Worlds in my age group on roll down. Now the vacation officially starts with another six days to enjoy the Island.