On Racing in Kona

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Five days until the Ironman World Championship. My athlete in Kona, Mike O’Brien is on his way; cutting it fine, but it was probably best he stayed in Ireland to attend his own wedding. Having survived and qualified in the heat of Ironman Austria earlier this year I’m optimistic he’s capable of coping with the limited acclimatisation and with two months of hard work since qualifying I know he’s ready to race. The preparation is done, all that remains is the execution. So some final words of advice for Mike and those racing in Kona.

Ironman World Championship 2010: Russ Cos Running on the Queen K

There is a conflict of interest between the requirements of the carefully tapering athlete about to compete in the world championship and the excitement of the circus that surrounds the race. As tempting as it is to do everything and as much as you want to make the most of the once-in-a-lifetime experience, ration your time. Assuming you want to race your best – and Mike does – the priority is getting to Saturday morning in top form, which may involve watching a lot of TV versus wandering Ali’i Drive checking out the other athletes. And on that note of checking out other athletes – everybody is fit and lean, don’t let it get to you, fit and lean may not equal as fast as you (but be prepared to meet some very fast athletes). So go to the expo, pasta party, please do join the athletes’ parade and – if you really have to – the underpants run, but more importantly do your taper training (early), ensure your equipment is working and if you can, drive the course. On Mike’s limited schedule I’d be tempted to drive out to Kawaihae and ride the Hawi section in particular.

Get through race week in one piece and early Saturday morning you will find yourself fit and in form, nervously shuffling among the crowd heading towards Dig Me beach before entering the surprisingly cool waters. Front-of-pack and back-of-pack swimmers have relatively easy choices at this point, for the rest of us placement is more difficult. Your Kona swim will be rougher than any you have experienced, forget about trying to avoid this, embrace it – place yourself reasonably boldly, everyone else is. This is the World Championship, nobody is going to disadvantage themselves by seeding towards the back. Find a point far enough forward to make you slightly nervous, if this is the front line, move back. Once there relax and do your best to enjoy the countdown. When the canon fires don’t think, swim and follow the crowds. If a middle-of-the-pack swimmer has one advantage it’s company for the entire length of the swim.

I have no special advice for transition. Although, if you have been training in Ireland for the last few months and have only been on the island for four days take any suntan lotion you are offered. It will be roasting out there.

From transition to the Queen K, the beginning of the bike course is crowded. Kuakini Highway is virtually a procession of athletes jostling for positions before the race has really begun. Forget about it. Watch your effort, keep yourself controlled and don’t worry about how you are going until you’ve left the village behind and are out on the Queen K. From there it’s rolling and windy, but you can settle onto your aerobars and ride. Pacing should be relatively easy and assuming you have power – as Mike will – you can simply hold your targets until you reach Kawaihae and the climb to Hawi. The climb isn’t hard, it’s the winds that are blowing into your face that are tough. Stay aero, choose a sensible gear that keeps the legs turning and accept a rise in power. Once you turn around in Hawi it’s hard to really push the descent if the wind is gusting – do what you can, but know the real work begins on the Queen K. The return leg is again rolling, but potentially the wind is on your back; whatever the conditions, work. If you’ve paced correctly good ground can be made as others begin to fade. Count down the miles, hold the aero position and move up the field. Check out this power file from Nick Baldwin for a great example of how it should be done.

Aid stations in Hawaii are good. They are long and what they stock is cold. This is important considering the heat. I use the stations both for fresh water and to douse myself, grabbing one bottle at the start to take with me and a second at the end for cooling. Don’t forget to drink or to cool yourself, it will help assuming typical heat. Don’t forget to eat either, even if it feels harder in the conditions.

By the time you start running it will be hot, or rather hotter. The first ten miles on Ali’i Drive offer some shade and a lot of support do not be lulled into a false sense of security and check your pacing. Aid station rules still apply, everything is cold, so use it. I found ice down the shorts or held in my hands was a great way to help control my temperature. Once Ali’i Drive is done Palani and the Queen K beckon, pace yourself up the hill and settle in on the Queen K. You will be more exposed and hotter and you will still have a long way to go. Stay in control. The Energy Lab is where it can go wrong, there is nothing special about it except its position 18 miles in – perfect for implosions. Assuming you’re smarter than I was on my second trip to the island you’ll be fine, but just in case place something sweet and delicious in your special needs bag. Dark chocolate M&Ms are my recommendation.

Once you’ve climbed out of the Energy Lab, if you feel good – in relative terms – push it. But don’t forget there’s still six miles to go, take on drinks at the aid station and don’t relax until you are descending back down Palani. There’s still one mile to go, but chances are you’ll make it (try not to think about Julie Moss at this point). Enjoy the final run back along Ali’i Drive and the finishers’ chute.

After it’s all done. Grab as much pizza and ice cream as you can in the finishers’ area, get a massage and then get out of there to find some real food. Kick back, relax and at some point mail your coach a report and power files.

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