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Lessons from Kona: Ironman Hawaii 2012 Race Report

October 22, 2012

Twelve years ago I completed my first triathlon.  It was a sprint triathlon – a short distance, but a huge disaster.  I was armed with a Brazilian-style speedo during the swim and lacrosse shorts for the rest. My swim barely resembled freestyle, and at one point a kayaker stopped me because he suspected I might be drowning.  I spent most of the bike ride dry heaving from all the rancid lake water I ingested.  Tremendous cramps hampered my legs through the run.   After crossing the finish line, I collapsed in pain and exhaustion.  Again, this was a sprint.

Seven years later I attempted my first half-ironman.  For me, this event was a 6-hour death march through upstate New York.  I almost cried during the last miles of the bike.  I was delirious during the run.  I ran bare-chested as I left my tri top back in Virginia.  Once again, I stumbled across the line in pain and exhaustion, with a wicked sunburn to boot.

I’ve certainly experienced my fair share of failures in the sport.  But I fell in love with the ongoing learning process in triathlon.  Twelve years of these learning experiences culminated in a Kona qualifying performance at Ironman Cozumel.

The 2012 season has been my best to date.  I registered my first overall podium spot at Luray, narrowly missed the overall podium at Kinetic, and qualified for the 70.3 World Championships at Eagleman, which led to a breakthrough race in Vegas.  Although my mistakes during 2012 weren’t as egregious as those I made as a rookie, I still had plenty of learning experiences from which to benefit during my last race of the season – the Ironman World Championships at Kona.

Lesson – Bring your family to your “A” race

My support crew had its own office at the Kona Beach Hotel

I was on a mission to recruit family to join me in Kona.  My brother, an avid surfer, was an easy sell.  My father, on the other hand, had recently undergone surgery on his leg and the trip looked to be difficult to handle. I employed several tactics, ranging from an excited sales pitch (“Imagine how much FUN we’re going to have!!”) to the classic guilt trip (“I may not make it across the finish line without you there to cheer me on (insert pity face)”).   Eventually he gave in.  When he emailed me his flight itinerary to Kona, I was so overjoyed I cried testosterone-laden tears of manliness.

Lesson – Get to transition early on race day

Oatmeal O’clock

During several races this year, I hit transition with just enough time to get my things organized and rush to the start line, which proved to be surprisingly tiring.  On race morning in Kona, I woke up with plenty of time to eat my oatmeal, banana, and bagels, get my tires re-pumped, and socialize a bit with Kendra and Fabrice.  I calmly meandered down to Kailua Pier, high-fived Chrissie Wellington, and made the 100m swim towards the starting line.

We were promised a big, booming cannon would start the race.  Suddenly, Mike Reilly yelled something over the loudspeaker which sounded like “Mmmph! Mmmph! Mmmph!” through my swim cap.  My neighbors exchanged confused looks with me.  The front of the pack began swimming hard, so I figured he was telling us to go.  I put my head into the water and began my second ironman.

I’m the one in the blue swim cap

The mass start included 1900 age groupers, each of whom were determined to be the first out of the water.  Elbows, fists, and feet flew in every direction.  The rhythm of my swim felt much like my rhythm on the dance floor – awkward.  My form was shit and I was expending WAY too much energy to go forward.

As the pack thinned slightly, I found enough space to get down to business.  Drafting was a cinch.  Keeping my head down and elbows high, I found my zone.

Then we hit a bottleneck at the first turn buoy, forcing an abrupt stop.  Nobody in the type-A swim parade was willing to make a wider turn than necessary.  The swimmer on my feet crashed into me.  Another traffic jam awaited me at the next turn, which was an exaggerated spike around a sailboat.  Kona can take a lesson from Savageman – large inflatable turtles work better for turn buoys.

The swim back to shore was smooth and strong, with the only thing keeping me from completely going into zen-mode was the idiot drafting behind me, touching my feet with EVERY stroke, and occasionally raking fingers down my soles.  I kicked like crazy, the international sign for “back off dude”, but this was largely ignored.  I burned a match and surged ahead to the next pack.  I felt strong but in control, with the foot molester eating my wake.  I carried this pace back to the pier.

Chunks of my feet were embedded in the fingernails of mob behind me

Swim Time: 1:06:59

Place after swim (Division/Overall): 114/646

Lesson – As bike metrics go, power is king

Despite some issues with the setup, my Quarq power meter was finally ready for primetime the week before Kona.  Power is the most effective way to measure work in the saddle.  During my 2012 races I used heart rate to dictate my pace, which meant certain variables – altitude, climate, and possibly biorhythms – could unduly impact exertion.  With my technical ducks in a row, I was ready to bike with optimal efficiency and consistency.  Or at least stay entertained reading the numbers.

The heavy winds moved everything except the salt buildup on my shorts

The bike course is surprisingly barren.  Perhaps the lack of distractions served my competitors well, as they were able to focus on forming draft packs.  Thankfully I managed to avoid these clusters, since the draft marshals were diligently sending offenders to the penalty tent.  Among the four penalty tents on the course, the first two were as PACKED as if Rudy Project was giving away more free helmets.

Lesson – Bike the second half stronger than the first

I actively backed off my target power by a few watts during my trek to the turn-around point in Hawi.  During Eagleman I went out too hard on the bike and paid the price during the final 20 miles.  Knowing the approach to Hawi would be uphill and into the wind, I prepared myself for a slow crawl with minimal power spikes.  My patience was rewarded; upon reaching the turn around, my bike erupted like the Kīlauea volcano.  I began passing some of the overzealous riders who had overtaken me at the beginning of the bike portion.  I couldn’t stop smiling.

Another reason to smile – I am in FRONT of my competitors’ pee-streams

My smile began to ebb around mile 80, when the direction of the course shifted towards some less-than-friendly headwinds.  These winds stayed with me for the remainder of the ride.  Up until that point, a sub-5 hour bike split seemed possible.  Now it was clearly out of reach as my pace dropped to 18 mph.  Pace notwithstanding, my power was right on track with my target average power.   As I rolled off the Queen K Highway, down Makala Blvd, and into transition, the toll I took during those last 30 miles was evident in my legs.  Looking ahead to the run, I felt like the Apollo 13 recovery team; I was about to open the hatch, uncertain if there was life on the other side.

Bike Time: 5:10:40

Placement after Bike (Div/OA): 86/347

Lesson  – Time Goals are the enemy

At Boston I held too closely to a pre-determined time goal.  Instead of revising my goal based on adverse weather conditions, I locked into a pace that was detrimental to my overall race performance, and consequently I blew up.  While I was determined not to let that happen again, I REALLY wanted to break 3 hours on the Kona marathon.

The first part of the run is a 10 mile out-and-back down Ali’i Drive.  It was glorious.  Fans were spread out throughout the entire, mostly flat, slightly shaded stretch of the road. My legs felt fantastic.  I had to slow myself down after a surprisingly fast first mile of 6:36.  I passed people by the dozen.

Some say the race doesn’t begin until mile 10.  After clicking off the first 10 miles I hit Palani Road, which showcased the first real spike in elevation.  My climb was strong, but my pace never recovered.  I was starting to get gassed.  Shit, did start the run too hard??

Lesson – Challenge your central governor

As I merged onto the Queen K Highway for the final 16 miles, the contrast with Ali’i was stark.  No crowds.  No scenery.  No shade.  With the sun and heat intensifying, it was gut-check time.  Internal negotiations began.  Hold pace until the next aid station, then slow down a bit… Pick it up until you pass the group ahead…  Down another gel like your life depends on it…

The idea behind the central governor theory is that the mind regulates energy usage during exercise to prevent overexertion, and to ensure an emergency reserve of energy is maintained.  From an evolutionary standpoint, this allowed our ancestors to flee predators in sudden bursts despite feeling otherwise depleted.  Athletes can push their bodies to new limits if they can convince their minds to harness this reserve energy late in a race, despite the absence of any life-threatening danger.

By the halfway point of the marathon, I was deep into the hurt locker.  The pain intensified as I reached the Natural Energy Lab, which is surrounded by lava fields and solar panels.   The road temperatures in the afternoon normally reach the 100s.  If the big island was a frying pan, the stovetop burner was just set to “HI”.  I played every mind game in the book to override the central governor.  My rational approach: I don’t have to slow down, there’s still energy in the tank.  My imaginary approach:  The lava is chasing you – run for your life!

The Natural Energy Lab takes energy from both the sun and nearby runners

Exiting the Energy Lab, I continued to pass people.  One person particularly stood out – a DC-area tri-stud who many predicted would podium this race.  This dude crushed me in several races this year.  He was walking.  I was not.  Though I had no business passing him, I gratefully accepted the opportunity.  With my spirits raised, I embarked on the straight shot back to the finish line.

Upon reaching mile 22, my left calf began to seize up with a wicked cramp.  I downed my first salt tablet in over an hour.  My pace took a hit, but by mile 24 I was in the clear.

As if a bolt of lightning hit me, I took off.  I had a renewed sense of determination.  The cramps were gone, the terrain is downhill the rest of the way, and for Pete’s sake my brother and father were waiting for me!  Though I experienced a new level of hurt, the pull of the finish line was too strong.   I passed two guys on Palani.  Another few people on Kuakini.  Turning the corner to Ali’i, I passed two more.

Lesson – Be prepared to finish strong

I lost finish line sprints at three races this year – the Capitol Hill 10K, Kinetic, and Eagleman.  With a quarter mile to go at Kona, I decided to sprint to the line regardless, even if nobody challenged me.  30 meters ahead, one more competitor was holding the Panamanian flag high above his head and soaking in the cheers, while taking his time in the finisher’s chute.  While Kona protocol may dictate that you should respect someone’s finish line processional, I had no desire to ease off the gas pedal.  When I passed him with 10m to go, he was clearly surprised.  But he wasn’t going down without a fight.  With fists clinched and flag by his side, he charged.  I responded with every last bit of energy I had.

Run Time: 3:05:52

Final Time:  9:29:42

Final Placement: 17th M35-39 Age Group, 65th overall amateur, 99th overall male (including pros)

I wanted to collapse.  The finish line catchers immediately surrounded me.  I asked them if they would let me collapse.  Refusing my request, they took me to the medical tent for a sprite and some chicken broth.

Making friends over chicken broth is the norm at Ironman events

Checking the results, I learned that FOUR of the people I passed during that final surge were in my age group.  As for my friend at the finish line, I edged him by a second.  US-Panamanian relations may have plummeted as a result.

My Dad and bro joined me outside the med tent.  We spent the rest of the day walking (in my case, shuffling) around Ali’i Drive, eating pizza, and enjoying Mike Reilly’s animated screaming at the finish line.

Lesson – Our success comes from respecting our roots, taking value in what we have learned, and embracing our journey

Aa Na Maka O Na Aa, the theme of Kona 2012, means “the sparkling eyes of my roots”.  How fitting that my dad and brother, two of the most influential people in my life, joined me on the big island.  Their presence during this week, and particularly on race day, meant the world to me.  They cheered for me all day, took pictures, yelled out my placement, and took my stinky belongings up to the hotel room while I was in the med tent.  Throughout the week they made sure I was fed, rested, and entertained.  Kona was not my race; it was OURS.  Sharing this success with my “roots” couldn’t be sweeter.

My family’s Sherpa services include a guided tour around the island after race day

Mahalos are in order for:

  • Ignite Endurance – My teammates and training peeps who inspire me, push me to new limits, and make triathlon life so much fun.
  • Tri360 – The best triathlon shop around.   They provide me with a ton of support, including a Quarq installation on short notice and bike troubleshooting the day before my Kona flight.
  • Kate, Nelson, and the rest of Team Strike Out MS for letting me race for a terrific cause.  The time and energy you put into raising funds and awareness for MS research is truly inspiring.  I am honored and humbled to have raced in the SOMS kit this year.
  • Coach Eric – Four months of guidance have reaped huge results.  I cannot say enough about how well he prepared me for this race.  Plus, a big congrats for getting hitched this weekend!
  • Cervelo – The Cervelo tent hooked me up with a free tune-up, where Jason the mechanic spent an hour changing my shifter cables, adjusting my brakes, and cleaning a season’s worth of dirt off my frame. Their services made a big difference for me on race day.
  • Finally, a HUGE mahalo to everyone for the kind remarks over Facebook, Twitter, email, text, in person, and through any other medium!!  The amount of love I’ve received is both humbling and at times overwhelming.  I feel extremely fortunate to be surrounded by so many supportive and caring people.

A chisel was required to remove the baked-in energy gel residue

Finally, a look at the numbers, for all you data geeks:

Summary Bike Metrics:

Run Heart Rate – notice the spike at the end:

Run Splits:

25 Comments leave one →
  1. keith giles permalink
    October 23, 2012 3:01 pm

    Brilliant! I’m getting ready to start training/pacing w/ power. How do you determine a target power goal for a given distance? is it some percentage of your FTP? I figured that many of the pro’s were using about 75% of the FTP for a half IM, and about 70% for a full. Does that sound right to you? Again, great great race.

    • October 23, 2012 6:02 pm

      Yep, my target was 70% FTP for Kona (though I hit closer to 73%). What kind of power meter device are you getting? Are you getting a Computrainer/PowerBeam as well? The PowerBeam Pro has made a world of difference for my training.

      • keith giles permalink
        October 24, 2012 10:13 am

        I haven’t decided. But what did you use for pacing during the race? I was looking at the ibike newton. It gets mixed reviews, but I’ve seen the side by side comparison w/ the quarq; and for normalized power/average power, its pretty good. It seems to struggle w/ some instant power measurements. That, of course, would be important to roadies b/c they are all working on short bursts to generate separation. But, since short bursts end your day in triathlon, I don’t care about that. Its also nice b/c it is easily portable b/w wheelsets and bikes.

      • October 24, 2012 10:29 am

        I held as close to 210 watts as possible. Used my Garmin 910xt to display the data. Set the data fields to Time, HR, 10s average power, and total average power. The 10s moving avg gives me the best read on “current” power, since there is too much volatility in the direct power readings to be meaningful. Perhaps the ibike has the same issue, where some degree of smoothing is necessary. Here’s another option to consider (untested, but much cheaper than the alternatives):

      • keith giles permalink
        October 24, 2012 2:27 pm

        I thought powerbeam was a trainer?

      • October 24, 2012 3:35 pm

        Yes, powerbeam is a trainer. I use it in my basement, along with a CycleOps Joule. For the road I rock the Quarq + Garmin combo.

  2. October 23, 2012 3:55 pm


    Way to rock the island in champion fashion! When we howled at each other on the Queen K, I knew you were having the race of your life! I could see it in your step. ow-ow-owwwwww!


  3. October 23, 2012 4:00 pm

    That was awesome! Enjoyed your race summary, especially the finish. Best to you in all your events. Kemper (Friend of Melany)

  4. Amy Carson permalink
    October 23, 2012 7:13 pm

    Fascinating window into the hardcore life of triathletes…truly inspiring! I think I might go for a run tomorrow.

    • October 23, 2012 8:28 pm

      Thanks Amy! Triathlon life is only as ‘core as you want it to be. I think you’d enjoy the lifestyle. Enjoy the run 🙂

  5. Bob Ramsey permalink
    October 23, 2012 7:56 pm

    Uncle Bob

  6. Chris permalink
    October 24, 2012 4:21 pm

    Amazing race. Way to push through. Congrats! I’d like to talk to you about the Quark.

    • October 25, 2012 2:58 pm

      Thanks Chris! Drop me a line anytime. I’m still learning a lot about riding with power, but so far the Quarq has proven to be very beneficial.

  7. October 25, 2012 8:51 pm

    Absolutely LOVE your race report!! So entertaining to read, especially the picture captions! Congratulations on finishing the race in a super fast time, you must have been one of those guys who flew past me on the bike. I might need to try that salt tablet idea in the future. I was holding on for dear life for the last 16 miles of the run 🙂

    Anyways, congrats again on not only qualifying for Kona but for having an awesome race. Best wishes for your winter training and for your races next year!

    • October 25, 2012 9:42 pm

      Thanks for the kind words Allison! And a big congrats to you for destroying your AG! Very impressive.

      It’s always a good idea to consume extra salt for a hot race like Kona or Vegas. I learned this the hard way at a mid-July half IM in upstate NY. After an especially hot run, my cramps were so intense I couldn’t move after finishing. Five minutes and a bag of potato chips later, I was good to go. Of course, it’s better to be proactive with your sodium consumption 🙂

      Here’s my go-to product for sodium (and other electrolytes):

      Have fun tearing it up next year!

  8. Andrew Simpson permalink
    November 10, 2012 8:20 am

    Great race, AMAZING run time!! Congrats!

  9. September 13, 2013 3:41 pm

    Great race report and I liked the humor. Congrats on being one of the top 100 in the world.

  10. November 20, 2013 8:46 pm


    I really like your bike picture with the footnote: “The heavy winds moved everything except the salt buildup on my shorts”… are you open to sharing such great pics for Ironman promotion?

    Thank you!


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