Where were we? Oh yes. Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Slightly stocky, very annoying bloke from Essex who keeps wearing a flat cap everywhere because he thinks it’s funny has survived the swim and is about to hop on his bike for a leisurely 112 mile jaunt before running a marathon. What could possibly go wrong?
First job successfully negotiated; I jumped onto my bike and I was away and riding. If there was someone with a bigger smile on his face then I challenge you to show me a picture of him or her. This was incredible. I was riding through Kona, with crowds everywhere, music pumping and adrenaline coursing through my veins. (Not steroids, I promise).
The opening miles see you take in a glory lap of town, passing ‘hot corner’ twice before heading for a short out-and-back up the Kuakini Highway. I was trying to spot friends flying back down the other way, but this was near on impossible with the sheer volume of riders on this part of the course.
We climbed up to the turnaround point before flying back towards town, where I spotted Katie frantically waving and jumping up and down, clearly super relieved that I hadn’t been eaten by a shark. Her enthusiasm and energy when out supporting is always so infectious, and this gave me another shot of adrenaline as I motored past a few that were taking the descent slightly more cautiously.
Once passing hot corner for one final time, you climb up Palani Hill and onto the infamous Queen K Highway, where you pretty much spend the rest of the ride. Having been told that people charge up Palani like lunatics, I was content to spin my way up, shouting a greeting to John and Bevan from the podcast IM talk, that I listen to regularly.
Once on the Queen K, it’s a case of getting your head down, tucking into the aero position and cracking on. Sporting director and chief coach of Burton’s Bellends, Paul Burton, has been an integral part in improving my bike immeasurably over the past 12 months, and I’ve dug myself into a hole of debt I may never recover from. But I do let him draft off me in training; swings and roundabouts I guess.
Unfortunately, for one reason or another, I don’t feel like I was able to tap into that hard work on race day. I’ve never felt so flat on the bike before – from about mile 10 onwards, everything was feeling so much harder than it should have. It was like I’d forgotten to charge my legs overnight, and they were running on low battery.
Thankfully, I wasn’t going to let anything that happened today ruin the experience. I was here to race hard, but at the same time savour every single moment. I was actually surprised at how miserable or super serious others around me seemed; how could you not be grinning from ear to ear – you’re riding in the world championships, with the Pacific Ocean to your left and lava fields all around you – this is amazing!
There is lots of chat around Kona and drafting. For those not fully clued up on the triathlon rules and regs, you have to leave a gap of at least 12 meters to the rider in front of you so to not gain any aerodynamic assistance. Once within that distance, you have 25 seconds to make the pass and move forward, or else a 5-minute drafting penalty is coming your way. This has always been a big issue in Kona, as everyone is coming out of the water at the same time and the course immediately becomes very congested.
However, as coach Paul kindly put it on Twitter, this wouldn’t be an issue for me as all the drafting packs would be way up the road after my 1:12 swim. To be fair to him, I think he probably hit the nail on the head. Although there was some congestion, from what I can gather, it was much more an issue further ahead, and I was able to slowly move my way through the field without having to step off the gas for too long.
Despite my heavy legs, I was moving well and ticking off the miles. The aid stations were amazing – nearly half a mile long and manned by super-enthusiastic volunteers who would run alongside you to perform a relay-style hand off with water and energy drinks, meaning you barely had to slow through these. They also had the music pumping and I couldn’t help but wave and say thanks to as many as possible, as they made the race that bit more special.
Apart from these stations and pockets of support at resorts along the road, it was just you, the bike and a long line of cyclists ahead as far as the eye could see. We dropped into the harbour town of Kawaihae to begin the section that ends with the climb and turnaround point at Hawi. I still couldn’t believe how quickly the miles were passing, and if it wasn’t a race I’d have definitely been tempted to slow down and make the whole experience last longer.
I was eagerly anticipating the professionals coming back down the other way, and soon enough I could hear the helicopters hovering overhead as the lead vehicles charged past, quickly followed by Cam Wurf at the front of the race. This was another ‘pinch yourself’ moment – how cool is this?! I seemed to be enjoying it far more than everyone else. Chrissie Wellington always said she used to race with a smile on her face; if it’s good enough for her, it’ll do for average Joe over here.
After a few more of the top men came through, I spotted Lucy Charles leading the women’s field. As a fellow Brit, I felt obliged to give her a massive shout; us Pom’s have got to stick together, right? Then I settled in to the 6-mile climb up to Hawi, as the landscape and surroundings got greener and lusher as we ascended. I passed the halfway point of the ride in just over 2:30, tracking towards a bike time of just over 5 hours.
At some point around here I passed fellow Chaser Ben Hall and we exchanged a friendly greeting. It was crazy being on the other side of the world and sharing the road with three others from a club in South London (Rory and Brochan were also racing). I also chuckled at the sign that informed me of required minimum speed of this road being 40mph – I was going at about 12.
Reaching the small town of Hawi, which really does look like a town from the Wild West, with the tumbleweed now replaced by the empty plastic bags that had contained everyone’s special needs items. It was like dodging traffic on a busy motorway as I tried to weave through the bags without getting one caught in my wheel and tumbling off. I hadn’t left anything to pick up here, so just grabbed some more water and carried on my merry way.
Just a small note on nutrition for those (few) people that are interested. I started the bike with a large bottle of UCan (carb-based drink) and a few chopped up cliff bars. After drinking three quarters of the drink (some complete tool had put it in the oven, so the taste wasn’t superb by that point), I chucked this in one of the litter zones and kept grabbing bottles of water and Gatorade. Lots of this water ended up over my head in attempt to keep as cool as possible. I felt hydrated and really needed a wee flying down from Hawi, so I knew that I was drinking enough.
There had been lots of chat with Paul beforehand about pacing the bike well during the first 60 miles, to enable me to reap the rewards when the race blows apart during the return leg to Kona. Despite the legs not entirely playing ball, I still felt like I was holding something back and spreading my effort out evenly.
Riders were much more strung out now, and me and a chap from team ‘Everyman Jack’ seemed to be (relatively) scything through the field. I felt like I was in a black and white comedy duo from the 60’s; team Everyman Jack from the US – meet team Average Joe from the UK. Or Burtons Bellends. I’m not too fussy.
Through mile 90 and I was feeling the best I had all day, with the HR rising slightly as the power rose and I really started to enjoy myself (as if I hadn’t been doing so already). It seems as if the local piano salesman had been doing a roaring trade, as those who had maybe started off a bit too eagerly seemed to be towing one back on the final approach into town – I must have passed nearly 100 people in the last hour as I was passed by just one.
As I rode the final few miles on the Queen K I expectantly peered into the distance, awaiting the leading men to come running past on the other side of the road. I spotted Patrick Lange already in top spot before the half marathon mark and thought immediately in my head: ‘well, that’s the race over then’.
Coming back into Kona, I could scarcely believe the bike was done as I slipped my feet out of my bike shoes. I was actually gutted to be getting off – two thirds of the experience already over, with just the run to come. Spotting Katie again was ace as I knew she’d be thrilled that the ride was complete without any major mishaps. The town was once again bouncing and I took it all in and made the most of every second.
Suddenly transition was ahead of me, and I jumped off and handed my bike to a volunteer who carted it away for me as I began the long run around the pier.
Bike: 4:53:59. 62nd in age group. 592nd overall.
I was pretty stoked with my bike split all things considered. Granted conditions weren’t as tough as they have been in previous years, but I still had to ride those 112 miles, and this was by far my fastest ironman bike split. It probably helps that I didn’t crash into a car this time (anyone hear about that?), but I rode to the best of my ability on the day and executed pretty well.
I moved up from 91st to 77th in my age group, with a normalized power output of 221w and an average power of 210w. Average heart rate was 135bpm and average speed was 23mph for 112 miles. At this point, I’d like to thank Paul for all his help. His two 4:59 bike splits in Kona were admirable efforts, but it’s clear the baton has been well and truly passed on. I’m sure the consolation of being a better swimmer will help him sleep at night.
Back on two feet, I barreled all the way around the outskirts of the pier, snaking past those taking the first few steps slightly more cautiously. At the far end I finally slid into the loo for that elusive pee that I’d been craving since the halfway point on the bike; bliss. After this I grabbed my run bag from the super efficient (as ever) volunteers and plopped myself down in a chair.
A quick change of socks followed, before I repacked my gear and was ready to scoot, only after again instructing a volunteer to plaster me with more sun cream (where had this sensible Joe come from). Just before running out, I had a mini-meltdown after realising I’d forgotten my hat, which I really wanted to put ice under and keep my head cool during the run.
I frantically asked the volunteer to grab it for me, but he confirmed it wasn’t in my bag. I ran around like a headless chicken for 15 seconds, with another couple of volunteers assisting in what was turning into a fruitless search. Cue mass hilarity as someone else sauntered out of transition, shouting back; ‘isn’t it on your head mate?’ Spraggins, you absolute plum. Best get running then.