Friday, October 17, 2008

There and Back Again (Kona Race Report)


Often I struggle mightily when I try to capture the magic and suffering that is Ironman in a simple race report. Relaying times, places and splits can never do a race of this nature justice. Once, I think I did a decent job of briefly holding onto the ephemeral Ironman experience in this report/essay. For a variety of reasons, I'm not having any writer’s block concerning Kona.

I came to learn that the part of Kona where the race is contested is mostly stark, desolate and brutal. I think the course conditions will influence this race report, in fact, I had some of this report written in my head even before crossing the finish line. At the Ironman World Championships there is much less nuance for me to tease out of the race. Everything is in sharp contrast. You either have it or you don't. Cut and dried. This course, this year, did not cut anyone any slack, and that is how it should be.

Race Morning

Getting up at 4am was not quite as jarring as usual since I was still hanging onto Illinois time a bit. The night before the race we had sent Jonah off with my mom so that I could get a full night's sleep. There were also a number of Belgians staying at the same bed and breakfast with us and we would have felt bad if they couldn't sleep before the big day. While I'm on this sleep thing, I have never had a problem sleeping the night before a big race. I'm very conscious of how hard these races are and how important it is to not waste energy by being nervous. At breakfast with my Belgian friends, I broke my rigorous month-long caffeine fast with a Red Bull along with Hawaiin Sweet Bread, a bagel and PB and a banana.

Body marking was very efficient as there was always a surplus of volunteers during all aspects of this race. There were 1800 competitors and 5000 awesome volunteers! I got the coolio stamped numbers instead of the plain 'ol magic marker. Turns out this ink is REALLY good sunblock! Caught up with Cara, Tricia and NK as I headed into transition.

Three Navy officers parachuted in to do the race and that was one of the many, "Huh, you don't see that at every Ironman" sort of moments.

To me the early morning blazing sun all week was more intimidating than the swarms of the fittest athletes in the world. As the fierce sun came up on a crystal clear race morning a little bit of Ironman wisdom from Bob Marley(who knew?!) popped into my head:

Rise up this mornin,
Smiled with the risin sun,
Three little birds
Pitch by my doorstep
Singin sweet songs
Of melodies pure and true,
Sayin, (this is my message to you-ou-ou:)

Singin: dont worry bout a thing,
cause every little thing gonna be all right.

Bob's on to something here. Ironman veterans will tell you that there is no such thing as the perfect race- even for the winners. Everyone has dark bits that they have to get through, but best not to spend any time worrying about the things you can’t control!


At Kona the pros start 15 minutes before the age groupers. As soon as they were off, I started jockeying for a decent start position which meant at least 15 minutes of treading water in a sea of thrashing bodies prior to our start. Way before the cannon went off the start was (pardon my pig latin) nucking futs. Kayakers held the start line very tightly, but there was a huge crush of bodies from behind as hyped-up age groupers tried to get to the front. I started near the front, but absolutely as far away from the inside of the course as I could get. This added some distance to my swim but kept me out of the true madhouse during the first quarter mile.

My swim workouts prior to the race had been going quite well; better than I had swum in years in fact. Furthermore, I am always happy to not have to swim in a wetsuit. I went out fairly hard and cut into the course slowly. It was more physical than other races because of the level of the competition- many more people in the sub-hour category where I should have been. There were definitely some smallish waves and some current, but nothing to write home about. I caught a number of good drafts and thought I had found the right group based on my effort level. Kona is a one-loop, out-and-back course. The 1.2 mile turnaround was not nearly as bad as I anticipated. I was comfortable and (I thought) on pace for a PR swim. The water was fairly clear and probably less than 20ft deep most of the way. Before the race I thought it would be fun to do an IM swim where you can actually see the bottom, but I wound up doing less sightseeing and more defending of personal space! I did get to see the NBC scuba guys with the underwater cameras very clearly near the finish; yet another reminder that this was a whole other ballgame. Swim time was 1:01:44. My worst swim besides Lake Placid where Iwas recovering from a broken collarbone. Talking to other racers I think the swim was a few minutes slow for most. The combination of waves, tons of fast swimmers and no wetsuits slowed things up just a bit. No worries, what difference is a minute or two in a 10 hour race, right?


Reflecting back on the bike leg, I think the main theme was smart management of both course conditions and setbacks. My first mistake is usually a rookie one in the first transition. I don't change clothes, so I skipped the changing tent like I always do. I put my shoes and helmet on at my bike and headed for the exit looking for the rows of sunscreeners. Guess what? The rows of sunscreeners were back in the change tent. The other 5 Ironman races I have done, I've always gotten sunscreened right before jumping on the bike. There was no direct route back to the change tents, so I took off knowing that I was going to get roasted. Someone told me that the bike pace the first ten miles is insane and to hold back. That advice was spot-on. You'd think people were racing a criterium the way they attacked the hills and corners. It was the first of many times during the day that I was happy to have my Powertap to keep me in line. Whenever I tried to hang, I'd spike up to 300-400 watts. My goal average watts -including zeroes from coasting- was 210 +/- 5 watts. Heading out of town I was surprised to see that it really wasn't thinning out at all. For the last few years I generally work my way into the top 5% of any race- but without sounding like a broken record here- this wasn't any race! I saw a couple of people ride too aggressively through the first few aid stations and wipe out- a silly way to ruin your race. Aid stations came almost every 5 miles, compared to every 10 in most races. It was a good thing too, because I was going through about 5 bottles an hour trying to stave off dehydration. I'd grab an extra bottle at an aid station, dump it over my head and back and then be dry in 5 minutes. Scary.

Everybody knows about the legendary wind and heat at Kona. I knew about it and prepared as best I could during a cooler-than-usual late summer and early fall. Turns out the winds and heat (this year at least) were much worse than I could have imagined. I always thought the stories about people getting blown off the course were lottery winners who couldn't handle their bikes. WRONG! There were many times that I thought the wind was going to just knock me over or push me off the side. I hope NBC got some good footage out there because riders were just leaning into the wind at seemingly impossible angles. Fortunately the majority of the winds were crosswinds with shorter headwind/tailwind sections. The other thing that people tell you about the Kona bike course is that it is mostly flat with a big climb up to the turnaround in Hawi. The climb part is right- that was a long, grinding climb for about 4-5 miles and a 40 mph screamer on the way down. As for the rest of the course being flat? I bet you would be hard pressed to find 10 "flat" miles out of the whole 112. Granted the hills aren't terribly long, or terribly steep, but they do keep coming.

Most of the bike course looks like this!

I mentioned earlier that race day consisted of lots of small problems and obstacles that experience helped to neutralize. Early on in the bike, my flask of 5 Espresso Hammer Gels worked its way out of my Evotri jersey pocket. Whoops, there went 500 calories I was counting on. Don’t worry ‘bout a thing…. I just made a mental note to start picking up gels at every other aid station. The special needs bags in Kona are a little past halfway at the Hawi turnaround. I had an extra bottle of concentrated Infinit (750 calories) waiting for me. I came to a full stop and politely asked the awesome Jr. High kids for my bag. They couldn’t find it anywhere! Oh well, looks like I’ll be drinking nasty, syrupy Gatorade for the next 50 miles. When people ask me about nutrition plans I always tell them to figure out what works for you under ideal conditions, but be ready to scrap the whole plan and go with something else if necessary on race day. Adaptability is key.

Typical "flat" section of the Kona course!
I'd prefer not to have to recount this next bit, but then I'd be giving everyone an inaccurate version of what really happened on race day. Somewhere around mile 70 one of the many race marshals gave me a red card for drafting. Due to the huge concentration of athletes that came out of the water between :57-1:05 and could also ride sub 5:30 the course was very congested compared to what I am used to. There were always people around me, which has never happened before. There was actually less blatant drafting overall at Kona then I've seen at other races. When I got my penalty I was probably 3 bike lengths back rather than 4 and just not paying close enough attention to my positioning. I eventually composed myself and said 4 minutes isn't the end of the world. Around mile 85 I stopped for 4 minutes at a penalty tent. I left the tent and things really went downhill. Within 10 minutes of leaving the tent a marshal comes up and asks me if I stopped at the last tent and I said, yes. He then said that I needed to stop again at T2 (meaning another penalty!). Unbelievable. As you can imagine after the first penalty I was scared sh..less and riding very, very safely. I'm sure I wasn't in anyone's draft zone for more than 30 seconds, but you really can't argue these things. I was almost completely demoralized and just let people pass me to avoid the potential of another call which would have meant disqualification. No excuses, but for context, I do know that many penalties were handed out. Rutger Beke, Andy Potts and Timo Bracht were all in the top 10 and all had penalties. I served my penalty along with two of the women pros. A few last words on this subject. I have probably done 75+ triathlons in my career. Up until this point I had only one other drafting penalty total. Hopefully this lends me a sliver of credibility here. This is an individual contest and that is how I always try to race it.

Looking at my power file after the race there was definitely a drop-off the last 20 miles when I started backing down. I was only watching power and letting speed and overall time come out in the wash. Back in town I clicked through my Powertap computer and saw that even with the penalties I would turn in a decent bike time -way off what I needed to be in contention for placing in my age group- but decent nonetheless. Final bike time: 5:21 good for 20.8 mph ave. Average watts were 203 (a bit low) but normalized power was much better at about 216.


You can bet that I didn’t miss the sunscreeners in T2! I took off for the marathon in kind of a funk. My swim was slow, my bike was decent- but I was still agonizing over the penalties. I’ve never raced well in the heat and was glad to be holding up thus far. I started off on what I think of as my distance-eating pace. This is a relatively comfortable pace that I knew I could hold for most of the race. The run starts off with a long out and back section on Ali’I drive. This is mostly right along the ocean and the most scenic part of the bike or run. The first 10 miles of the run also had the highest concentration of spectators (because of its inaccessibility the bike only had a few pockets of spectators). I had two friends from the Tri-Sharks in the race and they came with their significant others. Beyond them we had a group of 8 awesome supporters –including my mom and step-dad- who all made the trip.

Jonah supporting on race day!

The heat sort of capped how hard I could push it. I could do my steady pace and that was pretty much it. Fortunately even though I was running slower than I had hoped, I was still picking up places. I had made up the 15 minute gap on many of the women pros and was running with, or passing, many of them. Once you make it up the nasty hill on Palani, you are back on the Queen K and things go back to mostly bleak and barren. As a whole, the run is somewhat flat, but there are still a number of really long hills with small grades going out and back from the energy lab. One of the things I did very well was hydrate. Barring a crash, dehydration is pretty much the only thing that could take me out of the race. I was grabbing as much liquid as I could at every aid station. I’d love to know how much liquid I went through in the course of the day. 3 gallons? 4? I can tell you between the bike and the run I “evacuated used liquids” more than a dozen times!

The turnaround in the infamous Energy Lab is actually well past the half-way mark. I didn’t get my special needs run bag until about mile 16. In my bag was a glorious can of Red Bull! Just this season, I’ve experimented with having Red Bull before races. I’ve never tried it during a race, but at that point I was craving the calories and caffeine boost. I diluted it in a cup of ice water and sucked down the whole thing.

To people checking the weather on the internet the race doesn’t look too bad. Highs are generally in the mid 80’s. Out on the course, on black pavement, surrounded by black lava, the temps are much higher. There was a thermometer in the energy lab reading about 100 degrees that I thought was a joke. Later I heard this was actually accurate. The wind was still blowing, but off the bike it was more of a relief than anything. It wasn’t until about 20 miles that I was confident I could finish the rest of the race running. I spent most of the next few miles running with a female pro (looking at the results, I think it was Kate Major). Pounding down Palani hurt almost as much as going up it. Coming off the downhill was the only time during the race that I worried about cramps as much calves started to seize a bit.

The finish line on Ali’I drive has to be one of the classics in all of sport. This vaguely registered in my brain as I turned the corner and saw the massive crowds. I didn’t race with a watch (if you race all-out I don’t see why you need one) so I didn’t know where I was at time-wise. I figured a decent run would put me really close to 10 hours. I saw Dave Ripley from Zipp and he yelled that I was going to break 10 which was a nice boost. Ironman has recently changed the rules and doesn’t allow anyone to cross the finish line with family members which is understandable, but still kind of a bummer that I couldn’t carry Jonah. I had it in my head to stop and walk and enjoy the finish line, but really all my body wanted was to stop for good. I always forget that I am being videotaped and photographed at the finish so my finishing pics show more of a grimace than a smile.

Marathon: 3:24 Overall time: 9:58
I was hoping for a sub-3:10 marathon, but I still managed to pick up 40 or so places during the marathon.

This link should take you to the athlete tracker where you can get the nitty gritty details on my splits and watch a video of me coming across the finish.


As you can see, I got a bit of sun on race day! A week later as I write this, I am quickly losing my Kona “tan” in big gross chunks. When I looked at the overall results I was surprised to see that I was 5 minutes behind pro TJ Tollakson and 2 minutes behind Patrick Evoe. I was ahead of pro Tim Snow by a bit. Of course, this doesn’t mean I am anywhere near their league, just that I can hang with these guys when they are having a lousy day. I barely made the top 50% of my age group and top 15% overall. I finished in 298th place overall and about 200th among the amateurs. One of the best things to come out of the race is that it is the most balanced IM I have ever had. I’ve spent 6 years killing myself on the bike to bring that leg up to the level of my swim and bike. In my age group, I was finally very balanced: I came out of the swim 43rd in my age group, finished the bike in in 46th and ended up 44th after the run.

Finally, a big congratulations to long-time friends N.K. and Tricia who got engaged the night before the race! N.K. must have been pretty excited because he went on to swim the fastest time in the world in his age group (:55 minutes!).


It is a running joke among Ironman competitors that a first-timer will finish and say "I'm never doing that again!" Sometimes as soon as the next morning their tune changes and they sign up for next year, or start scheming for another race. Out of the hundreds of triathletes I only know one who finished an IM and said “That’s it. I did it. No more.” (and we still think there is hope for Maneesh!). After finishing Kona, I definitely wasn’t ready to come back again the next year, or anytime soon (on my own dime, anyway!). The other IM courses like Placid, Wisconsin and Coeur ‘d Alene are just so much nicer. Outside of being the world championships (which is an awesome experience) the Kona course is just rather boring and hard. I have some desire to go back and try to prove that I can go sub 9:30 and crack the top 100, but I don't think it will be soon.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due!

During the race, I was reminded over and over what a great group of friends and family that I have- both those that traveled with us and those who watched from home. Ironman is a hugely self-centered and time-consuming endeavor. I never would have made it to Kona without the support of my family. First and foremost,Cara and Jonah gave up a lot of time with me so that I could do the necessary training and racing this season. My extended family helped with babysitting on weeknights. My mom said for years that she would cover my entry fee if I ever qualified for Kona and I definitely took her up on it! My brother put in tons of bike training miles with me that I will sorely miss after he moves next month.

My Evotri team and sponsors are the best and supported this race in a multitude of ways. A huge thank-you to Saris/Cycleops, BMC, Zipp, SRAM, 2XU, Vision Quest Coaching, and Infinit Nutrition. In particular, I owe my improved bike split to Vision Quest coach Stan Watkins and the killer workouts he conjured up for myself and fellow "Ratz" teammates!

The actual Ironman may be an individual contest, but for everything else surrounding the sport, I am extremely reliant on others. Thanks again to everyone that had a hand in making this a great season!

If you want to see even more pics from the trip check out Cara's collection on Snapfish!


JP Severin said...

unreal... two penalties... you flew buddy.

SimplyStu said...

What a great race report. I have been waiting to read it. I want so badly to qualify, but for some of us, it will take a great deal of attrition or a switch to a qualifying time. Anyway, it was so exciting to watch you all day and get updates. In my mind you exemplify the best of the best in our sport. You take the time to teach us all, and are the reason this sport is the best in the world. Thanks for all you do.

GFOQ said...

Really nice race man. Don't kid yourself, you had a good day. That course was HARD and conditions made it even HARDER!! You stayed focused even though you had so much adversity with your penalty and nutrition. Don't kid yourself, you will go back. Who cares if the course is baren and boring, you want to kick it's ass don't you? I'd like another chance.... cd

Phil Shils said...

Great race man..We followed you all the way to the finish here in Decatur. Nice one!!

AJ said...

Awesome race Chris!

ckell101 said...

Hey man-
Congratulations, It's super cool being able to tell my riding buddies down here that I know a guy who did Kona. Super proud and happy for you. Don't worry, I'll be home soon, I'll ride your legs off and get you that 1st on that bike leg next year.

Way to go man!

Chris K

:) said...

congrats on a great race, man!

Katie said...

Penalties, mishaps, heat and all you kept it together.

Congrats on a great race!

earnd193 said...

Just another typical IM right... everything goes haywire all day, but turns out great in the end! Great job out there!!!!

Unknown said...

Chris! Great job! Congrats from everyone here with the Fighting Illini Triathlon team.
While it won't be the IM World Championships, I AM trying to find a job in Hawaii for the summer... at least I can get a taste of it then!
All the best!
Robert Trimble

TriCajun said...

Great report on a great race, Chris. Congratulations!

See You at the Finish Line said...

Congratulations Chris! I talked with Dennis as he was out on the bike course watching for you. He told me about the tough conditions w/ wind and heat. Well done!

I know Gary was busy tracking you all day long. We're so proud of you!

Maggs said...

great race and report. And you ran the columbus marathon a week a later too? (from Sara's blog). DAMN!

Trisaratops said...

Amazing job. We are all proud of you!

Those pictures are unreal!


I was out there spectating with my husband and saw you at Mile one on the marathon--you looked anything bu frustrated!!! Great Race!!

Steve Stenzel said...

Nice report! It's great reading it from some who is SO fast!!! That stinks about the 2 penalties on the bike - I got one at WI by just zoning out, so I can see how it can happen so easily.


TriFilmer said...


Awesome race report! You are why this sport is the best! You share your highs, lows, triumphs and achievements! You show that this sport is MORE than about yourself, it takes a "family" to get you across the finish line. Best of everything to you and the family.

Tracy said...

EPIC and awesome. Coming in sub 10 out there is just sick. Way to go!