I remember, as if it as yesterday, being home in Northern Ireland on a Saturday afternoon in 1982 at the age of 16, watching World of Sport with Dickie Davis when they did a piece on this crazy race in Hawaii where an athlete called Julie Moss staggered, fell and crawled the last few meters of the race only to be passed and beaten by Kathleen McCartney. Little did I know, but I was hooked, even though I couldn’t swim a length, barely rode a bike and couldn’t run out of your way. Hawaii was a million miles away, an out of reach exotic place where cool people get to do cool stuff like this, not boring rural Ballywalter in Northern Ireland (I was 16 after all).
I was the kid at school who was always picked last for soccer with not an athletic bone in my body. Years passed before I did my first triathlon in Lutterworth in Leicestershire where I dried my hair with a hairdryer in the changing room between swim and bike.
Fast forward 36 years!
From almost the minute we arrived in Kona, one week from race day there was a buzz and electricity in the air surrounding this race. Up early the next morning (Sunday) we went down for a swim at 7.30am and it was as if there was a race going on, there were so many people around. The next day, Monday, Gatorade had set a huge tent up close to swim start with an official bag check for everyone so that we could swim and leave our belongings in a safe secure location with swag and free Gatorade at the same time – bonus.
This is how the week progressed with the anticipation and excitement being ramped up a notch each day especially with the Pasta Party on Thursday evening, but we’ll kick things off here at bike check-in on Friday afternoon.
Bike Check-In – As you wheeled your bike toward T1 each major bike manufacturer had a tent erected and as you went by you were given a gift depending on your brand of bike. As I ride a Cervelo I was given a lovely towel inside a dry bag. Each athlete was allocated 1 dedicated volunteer to escort them to their bike rack and to show them the flow to hang up their run bag and bike bag. My chaperone was from Los Angeles and he had taken vacation time to volunteer during race week and he could not have been happier to be there volunteering. They were also there to stop you wandering all around transition and to get you in and out efficiently but it was still a nice touch.
Race morning there is almost something spiritual about pre-dawn on race morning in the stillness before the chaos of race start. I’ve felt that as I’ve stood on the beach in Katy’s Cove before dawn in St Andrews on race morning waiting for the athletes to arise and watching the sun slowly rise in the distance, its very calming and I felt the same way in Hawaii until we went through to body marking, weigh-in, bike check and then swim start when the chaos starts.
Swim – if you watch UFC fighting then you have a feel for a mass start of 1500 swimmers all aiming for the same buoy. The gun goes off and all that nervous energy is channelled into those first few strokes while you battle for space, battle to see the buoy and battle to find your rhythm. I got kicked in the face with such force that I felt my goggles had gone through to my brain and I couldn’t stop to adjust them for fear of being swum over. Suddenly there is clear water and you can swim normally until everyone pincers together again. It was the age-group women who had the toughest swim, they started 15 minutes behind the age-group men and in the last 1k of the swim they caught and passed hundreds of us. They had 2 methods of doing this, weave in and out and around us or over the top of us, both methods for the ladies as I found out were effective, nevertheless they were at a disadvantage and probably a 25 minute time gap between men and women would be fairer. Being a mid-pack swimmer I never really had clear water for long, so its was tough to get a really good rhythm going but there were no more major issues and I was thrilled with my swim time of 1hr 16min without a wetsuit.
Bike – This could easily have been the World Drafting Championships, for the first 45k of the bike course large packs of bikes would just fly past completely unconcerned about drafting penalties. There were no bike officials to be seen to this point and then 4 motorbikes all rode by together. Great, I thought, now they will do something about the drafting but at each Penalty tent there were no athletes, just a big empty yellow tent. Thinking about it its probably worth the risk, draft off a pack, save energy for the run and go what, 15 or 20 minutes faster for the ride and save your legs for the 7 mile Hawi climb, certainly worth the 5 minute penalty IF you were caught, but the old school athlete in me can’t bring myself to cheat. I lost some time but who cares. Drafting penalties should be increased to 15 minutes for a first offence to act as a deterrent but it still needs to be effectively enforced. Also, with 2500 bikes on a 1 loop fast course with no major hills or wind this year to break it up was always going to be a draft fest.
If anyone has ever watched the Giro, Vuelta or Tour de France you will know that feed zones are most dangerous parts of the race as riders try to grab their food bags amongst the other riders and the same applies to Triathlon. For some reason a few triathletes decided that its better to gain 4 or 5 seconds by not slowing down to grab a bottle and the result – a heap of bikes and athletes on the ground after a crash – race over! Other athletes shouting abuse as you ride in slowly and safely to grab a bottle because he lost 3 seconds waiting for me to pass. You just shake your head in disbelief.
The section to Hawi was 19 miles long but its deceptively fast with a few downhill portions to help with the pace. The views are spectacular and on race day there was little wind on the way up or down which made the actual 7 mile climb much easier than in previous years where sidewinds can cause havoc.
This is the only time in my life when I have sprayed cold water over my legs and down my back on a bike ride to try to cool my body down. At the bottom of Hawi on the way back to T2 it was like a cauldron, no air, no wind, just heat and it sucked the energy out of everyone around whose pace dropped noticeably until we climbed out of this section into a cooler breeze.
I decided not to look at my watch all day and just enjoy the race but somehow I sensed that I was close to breaking 6 hours for the bike, not super fast for sure but a nice goal which would have averaged 30k per hour. Sadly, I had to stop for sunscreen at an aid station as my face and nose were burning in the heat and I was too leisurely and chatty (most unlike me) applying the sunscreen. That 2 minutes meant I had a 6hr 01min bike ride which is still pretty decent.
The Marathon – after my bike crash 11 weeks prior to race day I missed 6 weeks of running and was put on a back to run program by Earle Burrows from Human Performance Centre with 5 weeks to race day. I managed to get back up to 21k, 10 days out from race day I so knew going in that the run would be a long slog.
Our first run when we arrived in Hawaii was 5 min walk followed by 1 min run x 1 min walk and repeat for 5k. After about 15 minutes I felt a short sharp pain in my right calf and I knew there and then that I wasn’t running a step on race day as I am something of an expert (dumbass) on calf strains and injuries. We spent the next 5 days icing, massaging, we did Normantec boots for recovery, Quiro ice pants for cold, purchased a Pain Pod (a Tens treatment) to help with recovery. I elevated my leg, took salt tablets and howled at the moon to help my calf get better.
I figured I could walk the marathon in 6 hours and was mentally prepared to do this, but after 2k I tried a little trot for 100m and it felt OK, walked another 800m and then jogged 200m. I started to pick out brightly colored signs or tents and ran to them and then have a long walk in between and soon I was at 10k and ecstatic, if I felt any twinge I walked and was having fun. Now I wanted to get to 21k like this and then see if I could run a bit more, perhaps a slow negative split.
Aid stations on the run were a little over 1 mile apart and I soon got into a routine. Water for a drink, ice down the front of my tri suit and ice down my back and ice under my hat, glass of Gatorade, grab a gel, thank everyone along the way and run a little more. I tried ice on my head under my cap but it hurt and gave me ice cream head so that was quickly abandoned.
You could hear the aid stations before you could see them which was great when it got dark. I just about managed to exit the Natural Energy Lab just before dark and coming back to Kona on the highway was an eerie experience with no lights for large sections. If it wasn’t for the glow sticks we had to wear we could easily have run straight into oncoming athletes it was so dark. The only lights came from traffic lights, aid stations and some overhead lights around the traffic lights, aside from this it was pitch dark with no traffic on the closed highway to shed light on the road or reflect off the cats eyes.
Soon I was turning right onto Ali Drive and you can hear the cacophony of noise coming from the finish line, a mix of music, cheering and Mike Reilly stirring up the crowd. You round a slight bend to the left and suddenly you are on the magic Ironman carpet and you can see the finish line. The fatigue fades away and there is a surge in your legs as you are carried along by the cheering crowd and up the slight incline to the finish line to hear those words you have been dreaming about all day – “Garth Millar – You Are An Ironman”.
Race Finish – as soon as the glory of crossing the finish line is over and Mike Reilly is calling other athletes over the finish line, each athlete is ushered away by 2 volunteers who chat away while checking your mental and physical status. Once they deem you are OK you are on your own for a sit down, massage (1 hour wait which I declined) and the finish line food which in truth was very disappointing. Fries, Pizza and more Gatorade with some profiterole desserts was all that was available and it was hard to find & digest. By comparison the Mont Tremblant finish line food was far superior in every way. Rather than hang around I exited to find Helena and trundle our way back to our condo for toast and a shower.
17 hours – at 11.30pm we left our condo for the finish line and watched an 86 year old Japanese man called Hiromu Inada become the oldest ever finisher of an Ironman in 16hrs 53min 49sec. Shortly before this Marcus Cook crossed the finish line in 16hrs 51min 08sec carrying a huge cardboard cut-out of himself when he was 500pounds, almost 300pounds more than race day. If that’s not enough then check out the Pease brothers and their amazing day or Valerie Lindeborg who was doubled over and came staggering down Ali Drive barely able to stay on her feet, crashing into the barriers, falling over and stumbling along until with the help of Mike Reilly and the support of thousands of cheering supporters she crossed the finish line in 16hrs 51mins 04sec and was quickly whisked away to the medical tent. Its these stories and so many others that make Ironman such a special event.
Volunteers – these guys made the race what it is, selflessly giving up their time to set up the event and help the athletes. Each aid station must have had 50 volunteers working in shifts for the runners, taking a break in the shade of their tents while another team comes into the heat of the day to hand out water and nutrition. Volunteers everywhere, no question too dumb, no request too stupid all done with a smile on their face, they were genuinely pleased to be a part of the event and we were genuinely pleased to have them in Kona.
A few thank you’s;
Thanks to Earle Burrows from the Human Performance Centre for putting me back together after my bike crash. When I sat on the side of the road seconds after the crash I really thought I had screwed up Tremblant and Hawaii but Earle’s fantastic treatment and exercises got me back on my feet again.
If you are going to take one of these events on, get yourself a coach and there is none better in the business than Daryl Steeves as he will guide, cajole and encourage you through a day to day program as you work through your schedule and he is always available with a helpful word of encouragement when needed.
Thanks to Steve Morris at Bikes & Beans for the loan of a set of Cosmic wheels designed to help nullify the effect of side winds in a wheel with a deep set rim and they did the trick, the wheels were fast, smooth and did not catch the side winds giving me a smoother ride rather than fighting the bike.
Its been great this past year to ride so much with my brother Keith both in Mallorca and back home in Northern Ireland, we had a great memorable 140k ride down to the Mournes and back which helped enormously with pre-Mont Tremblant prep.
Its takes an enormous amount of willpower and mental strength to deal with all the demons on race day when its dark on the run course and you think you are in last place and that everyone has finished and is enjoying themselves. There are a few people who helped me more than they can ever know, my Auntie Carole, my Auntie Norma, and Clayton Clark who were with me every step of the way.
I wouldn’t do any of this nonsense without my “Support Crew”. Helena lives every step of the way with me and she adds so much fun to race day. I learn from her every day, its so much easier to do things with a smile on your face and through Helena and Daryl I learned how to race Hawaii happy – I came to have a good time, not a fast time.
Someone once told me that Ironman is 80% mental and the rest of it is all in your head – I think he’s right.
This whole Ironman training and racing thing is completely nuts and insane which is why I think everyone should do at least one.
Thank you to everyone who replied to all my silly FB posts. I can’t always express myself verbally how I feel about a race but I absolutely love the triathlon / running / cycling and even the swimming lifestyle, I love to race and I love and respect everyone who has taken the time to read this more than you will ever know, you inspire and amaze me every day.