My journey in triathlon started by watching Julie Moss crawling across the Kona finish line in 1982, and it’s only fitting that my Ironman journey ends on these same hallowed grounds.
It certainly wasn’t my best race ever, but it was by far the best experience I’ve ever had at an Ironman.
Going into this 24th and final Ironman, I was not expecting much in terms of performance. It’s been an injury plagued year, but when you get a ticket to Kona, you don’t pass it up.
I was all set to train hard, and I had all my coaching lined up to make this final Ironman a great one. However, my right shoulder (which has dislocated often at recent Ironman swims) is at it’s all time worst (you can hear my shoulder making crunching noises each time I rotate my shoulder). And my arthritic foot that doesn’t allow me to do runs longer than 90 minutes. Normally, I’d be racing 8-10 duathlons during the summer but I shut down all running after the Gravenhurst Duathlon where that run was super painful. I just raced a bunch Swim/Bike events, and saved the running for Ironman Mont-Tremblant and Kona. So the preparation for this was far from ideal. Not being able to race like I want to is big reason why I decided to close the book of this Ironman chapter in my life, but to also dedicate more time to my daughter as she hits her key formative years.
So with those parameters, the goal was simply to finish and enjoy the whole Kona experience. I estimated I was in 13.5 hr shape, but Kona is a different animal, and I knew the conditions would not be favourable to me, but I’d give it my best shot.
Got up at 4am, had 2 tasty Bonk Breaker Salted Caramel Bars (it came in the race goody bag so why not), some water and sports drink. Then changed into my gear – so much easier not to worry about carrying around a wetsuit. Just before heading out the door, my daughter woke up and said she wanted to give me a hug to “pass on her energy to me to use for the race.” How about that to start your day? My father in law drove me over to grab the athlete shuttle into town (that way he could head back home and chill out for a bit before heading into town the the rest of the crew. The shuttle dropped us off at the Ironman Village/Expo area and from there I made the walk to the pier. This was a nice way to burn off some nervous energy. I must admit that I felt like it was my first one all over again as I sat on that shuttle. I took that as a good sign. I was calm but excited to start the day.
It is quite the operation at Kona. You are funnelled around the King Kam Hotel with the first stop being body marking. With lots of volunteers ready to place the race tattoo numbers on you. From there it is the weigh in, and then off to transition to do final bike and transition bag prep. Of note is the fact that you are provided with an escort to get to your transition bags. It only makes sense as it eliminates the opportunity for someone to tamper with your bag whether intentional or not. The day before, the same applied when doing bike drop off.
After taking care of some bike business and to drop off my chilled itsthenerve (Check the link to find out more about the product. It’s a new way to help athletes with cramping issues and I’ve been a test subject for a few months. Kona conditions tend to stimulate cramping for me so I was glad have it available to me) bottles in my bags, I headed over to the King Kam beach area to prep for the swim. Dropped off my Pre-swim bag (after the volunteer reminded me I still had flip flops on), then went over to the pier to check out the swim start.
I watched the pros go off, which was pretty cool to experience it in person and not while watching it online or the NBC broadcast. The anthem, traditional Hawaiian blessing, Red Bull parachutists driving down from the sky, and of course the blast of the start cannon. The atmosphere built right to the age group men start at 6:55 am.
I had a bottle of #itsthenerve right after the pro women went off at 6:30am – I cramped while getting out of the water after a practice swim earlier in the week, and the product representatives suggested a dosing schedule for me to follow, starting with that first bottle 30 minutes prior to my swim start.
I applied Vaseline to my underarms (to prevent chaffing), then made my way down to the water. I must say, Kona is probably the safest swim you’ll ever do. The course is blanketed with water safety crew the entire way – no so excuses Lindsay 🙂 I started at the back, the cannon went off and so did I. I swam easy and solid for the first half, I made the turn to head back home at 47 minutes. This is slow for me but given my shoulder deterioration over the past year, I was gladly accepting that. However, soon afterwards, my right shoulder blew apart and I could not muster up any propulsion from that side. It was painful before, but even more so now.
From that point on, I swam one armed the rest of the way. Man is it so much fun to do one armed drills for close to half of the ironman swim 🙂 My left shoulder wasn’t liking it that much either, especially with an unfavourable current that was making things a bit more challenging on the way back.
I glanced at my watch an knew it would be my slowest swim ever, so once I reached the pier, I tried to enjoy and remember that final stretch as much as I could before making the exit and up those steps into transition.
With an epically slow 1:57 and change, I walked up the stairs and sucked in the moment I’ve seen many times on tv, knowing I’d never do it again. It hosed off all the salt water at the rinsing station, realizing that my tongue and lips were shrivelled and wrinkled from being in the salt water for so long. And not to be gross, but to be helpful, you might want to consider applying Vaseline to your “rear”, that can get all affected by the salt water too. It bugged me all day and post race.
Made a full change. I swam in Tri shorts, so I took that off and put on my Ignition Fitness Tri top, cycling shorts, cooling arm sleeves, socks, HR monitor, cycling shoes, and made the long run around transition to get my bike. It’s all carpeted so it does not beat of the cleats of your cycling shoes. No surprise, with my stellar swim, my bike was the last one on the 45-49 rack.
Aside from a few brief test rides, this was my first ride on the QR PR5, which Quintana Roo provided for me and saved me from the hassle of packing, unpacking, and shipping. You can do the same with their rental program. The PR5 is a great bike, it’s just too bad I wasn’t able to take full advantage of it.
I rode an easy and controlled effort. It was already smoking hot and I drank all of my fluids (aero bottle and bottle on my downtube) by the 10 mile mark.
Thanks to sponsor and new Ignition Fitness partner PowerTap, and Product Manager (Justin Henkel) in particular, for getting the new and high in demand PowerTap P1 pedals pedals to me a few days before the race (easiest setup ever), I planned to ride an easy and manageable 155-165w. I put them to good use until the cramps began.
My first hurdle of the day was a flat tire at just before the 50km mark. I actually rode with it for a while, thinking I could make it to the next aid station, but I was just pushing too hard and going nowhere. So I pulled off to the side, and got the front wheel off and got on with changing the tube. I got everything going and was ready to do a final check of the tire when tech support drove up. He asked if I checked the tire for any cuts and as he did, he found a piece of metal embedded into the tire. He then told me to pack up my repair kit, have a drink and he’ll take care of the rest. It made for a convenient time to have a second bottle of itsthenerve.
At each aid station, I refilled on Orange Gatorade Endurance (I decided to use the on course nutrition rather than my usual own preferred formulation), sipped on water and used the water to douse my arm sleeves to keep cool, along with dumping it all over my head, front and back. I also picked up GU Gels, and chews along the way. I periodically stopped off to get some cold Red Bull and mixed some in with the Gatorade in the aero bottle for some extra kick.
As expected the ride along the Queen K is not particularly tough on the way out. The only real challenge is the heat and wind and making sure you are managing the effort so you can get through the later part of the ride and then the marathon.
The ride up to Hawi is a kicker and where the fun begins. It seems never ending and just keeps going up and the headwinds pick up during this section. The positive, is that you’ll be flying back down all that climbing but will have to deal with those legendary crosswinds. Thanks to the slow swim and flat delay, I was heading out to Hawi in some serious heat.
I pulled off at the last aid station before Hawi and had my third bottle of #itsthenerve, with the heat and sweat rate increasing, I could sense some cramping coming on if I didn’t moderate my effort and take care of my nutrition. It was crazy hot, with breathing being quite a chore and even a bit painful with the sensation of my ribs digging into my sides. The awesome volunteers hooked me up with , Red Bull, cold water to pour all over me, and one insisted I have some Gu Chews for energy and did a dance to show what it was doing for her all day. Quite funny and lifted my spirits.
It was such a tough slog to get to Hawi with all that climbing, wind and heat. So close, yet seemed so far. 10 miles seemed like forever. But I knew on the way back, I’d be flying with the wind at my back and all that downhill. But this is where you encounter the crosswinds too, so I was careful to not just carelessly fly down at top speed. I took the time to stretch and shake out the legs. However, to no avail, after finishing the downhill the cramps attacked in relentless fashion.
The first cramp came at 104 km, then I had some more at 109, 142, 150, and 155km. With each cramp, I one legged pedalled until that side cramped too (or until the other leg cramped so hard that it was unsafe to keep going) and then dismounted to shake the legs out, stretch, and take some backup salt tablets I had stashed just in case the #itsthenerve didn’t work. Plus, I only packed two bottles if #itsthenerve for a planned dosage of one bottle at 60km and another at 120 km.
The headwinds heading back to Kailua were horrible. That’s the problem when you clock a slow swim time, and have some difficulties on the bike. You get caught in the windier conditions heading back home and into those wonderful steady inclines and building headwinds. The pros don’t face these conditions plus they are faster (lucky buggers), but the mid to back of the packers get slammed. I feel for those older athletes like Lew Hollander.
The cramps also put a halt to my wattage goals. Maintaining even 155w was hiking heart rate and would bring on cramping so it was simply a ride easy plan to make sure they wouldn’t come back. I developed a bit of camaraderie with the whole group I was riding with. I’d cramp, get off my bike, they’d come by and ask if I was ok, then I’d recover, re-pass, and meet up at the next aid station where we’d all stop and douse ourselves with ice water to get cool. The volunteers were prepared for us and were quite awesome all day. Plus, they all thought I was a local boy so I got extra special treatment. With the flat, aid station stops, and cramps, my Garmin indicated close to 45 minutes of stop time. I clearly was not breaking any records today.
I managed to cheer on a few athletes on the run, while riding back into town, like the great Jim Sunners. He is a true inspiration for every age grouper. The guy kicks butt at the age of 53 and he’s just keeps getting faster.
Dismounted and a volunteer took my bike away. I took off my cycling shoes and ran in my socks on the carpeted surface and right into transition.
There were not much dudes in the change tent by the time I got there. And I had one on one service from one of the volunteers – these guys were there from when we got out of the swim and now at the end of the bike. Talk about dedication and they were incredible as well.
I immediately opened my bag and drank a bottle of #itsthenerve. It has a peppery and slight burning sensation when you drink it (the cayenne pepper) so it’s good to have it get into the system while you are doing other stuff so it is settled by the time you are ready to run. All was going well until it was time to put on my socks. As I put on socks on my right side, my left side began to cramp. But with some modifications (Like not bending over so much or straightening it out) I could keep them away. The volunteer asked if I wanted to get medical over to massage it out but I said no and that I would be fine. However, as soon as I tried putting on my left sock, a major cramp hit and the volunteer ran off to flag down medical staff. Meanwhile, he gave me a cool cup of Lemon Lime Gatorade Endurance to drink immediately, and one filled with ice cubes to sip on. At that point, I drank another bottle of #itsthenerve (my fifth of the day) which I was saving for the 10 mile mark of the run. It clearly didn’t work for me throughout the day, but I figured I might was well drink that last one so I can provide detailed feedback to the makers of the product.
A doctor came over and did some ART on me for 10 minutes and got the cramp right out of there. I could bring them back on with certain positions, but I said I’d be okay and that I better get going since this could very well be a long marathon and I’d need all the time I could get. I quick lube of all chaffable parts, some sunscreen, and I was on my way after a 20 minute pit stop. Maybe I should have had a sandwich and fries while there eh?
I ran easy and got into a groove. With all those people out there on Ali’i Drive, I am glad I was able to run steady and not suffer a major crampfest in front of them.
I took in a steady diet of Coke, Red Bull with ice (sucking on the ice cubes the whole way to get in some water), gels and chews. The run felt easy, and I was managing my foot with 1 minute walk breaks every 10 minutes. At that point I was even thinking I’d be able to run in the 4:50 range after such a horrible rest of the day. But with my lack of long runs, knew that the wheels could come off at any time. I could feel that point coming on just before the climb up Palani, and I tried to stave them off by rubbing my thighs and hamstrings with ice for the two aid stations leading into it.
I’ve seen that famous Palani climb year after year and I was not going to walk it. Once I got there, I ran up that sucker. Not like Jan Frodeno or Jeff Symonds to be sure, but a run nonetheless. Once I got out of town, I soon realized how darn tough this run is, and the pros are running this blistering fast in the severe heat. I’ve got a new appreciation for them. It’s a mostly gradual steady grade right out to the Energy Lab. Even in the desolate darkness of night, it was still hot out there and I was thankful I was not running it in the full heat of the day. A lot of the athletes were prepared and running with headlamps. I was not expecting to be out there that late so I was the invisible man all in black, until I got my glow stick upon exiting the energy lab.
My quads were seizing up, and my right foot pain kicked in so it was mostly a walkfest until the Energy Lab. I also had a goal to run that epic section so I saved up an effort for that and gave it a go. Not the same vibe as the daytime but a unique one at night where it’s pitch black and all you can see are lights off in the distance and athlete headlamps.
I did a mix of run/walk (mostly walk when the quads screamed at me and punching them and saying “shut up legs” no longer worked). With 5km to go, I started feeling decent again and started “running”, I decided to save a bit of energy once I hit that final incline before the Palani downhill, and once I hit the top of that (roughly 1 mile to go), I let it fly. I finished with a 10:50/mile (my fastest mile of the day – that says it all right there, but it felt like I was running a 6 minute mile). All the crowd support and cheering felt awesome, and I sucked in all of the final section along Ali’i. I high fived everyone I could coming down that finish chute (one of those being my wife although I didn’t know it at the time) and once I crossed the finish line I jumped and yelled out with joy, and soon after shook the hand of Mike Reilly. A perfect ending and at approximately the same point where I got inspired to get into this sport by Julie Moss back in 1982.
A couple of volunteers soon grabbed me and put a lei on me, wrapped me in a towel, and walked me to the finish area behind the King Kam. I told them I’d be fine on my own, and continued on to get my finisher shirt, hat and medal. Which they had organized by bib number. Where upon checking in, you’d get your morning clothes bag and a bag with the finisher swag. Once again a smooth and first class operation.
Food was next if you were so inclined. Pizza, ice cream, chocolate milk, pulled pork sliders, and fries.
Massages were available too but I was fortunate that my wife was crafty enough to get back to me and we got my transition bags quickly to get out of there (she already picked up my bike earlier and got it back to QR, saving us from doing so the next morning). So a smart tip would be to establish a meeting point with your family post race. Or you can pack your cell phone in your morning clothes bag if you feel good with that. I didn’t and left it at home. I also had use of the Time One GPS+ where I could text from the device so I didn’t really need it. I also made use of it so my family and friends could track me live throughout the run and send message — Thanks for all those notes of encouragement, it was all read by me but I could not reply at the time. Thanks to everyone who sent well wishes before the event too. Much appreciated.
It would be easy to be disappointed with my finish time but I was grateful and thankful for the opportunity to race at this esteemed event, and just having seen first hand and to be inspired by people like Hector Picard, Alex Zanardi, Lew Hollander, and many others in this event and many others around the world, I have deep gratitude for having the ability to get out there to complete this race. There are a lot more things to life than a crappy finish time.
If you’ve race Ironman before, you know how these things can go. You try to show up on the start line as well prepared as possible, and try to get through those inevitable rough patches as best as you can. There is no guarantee that you’ll finish an Ironman. There are so many things that can happen. Injuries, technical and equipment issues, medical intervention, accidents, or even just making it to the start line. There were any few times during the race I doubted that a finish would be possible. But I am not one to quit a race, and especially not Kona. Pride might make it tempting to bail because the day was not going according to expectations and what people might think, but for me pride kept me going. I wanted to respect my position on the start line and the thousands of triathletes that would love the opportunity to race here.
I wanted to enjoy the entire Kona experience because I knew it would be my last and I knew my body was not ready to throw down a fast time. But as I said earlier, you show up on the start line as best you can and play whatever cards you’ve got. I did that.
I had an incredible 2 weeks in Kona with my family and I will be forever embedded in my memory. Having the opportunity to share all of this with them was more valuable than anything and all of the post-race time made for the perfect end to my 24th and final Ironman.
I am truly blessed to have a super supportive and loving wife and daughter. Unfortunately for them, the end of Ironman racing means they will see more of me. No more long training days or Daddy putting in hours of trainer time in the basement. It’s now my daughter’s time, who knows, maybe I’ve planted the seed for her to aspire to race in Kona too someday. Major thanks goes out to the greatest in-laws that you can possibly have. They’ve always been supportive, and once they found out I was going to Kona, they did not hesitate to make plans to be there. Thanks to my parents for holding down the fort at home while we were away.
I wish all of my triathlon pals could have been here in Kona. It was truly a mind blowing experience and you would love it. I hope you all have the chance to experience it. It really does live up to the hype. The race is first class all the way, and all of the activities surrounding the race are not to be missed. Thanks to all of you who sent messages prior to and after the race. It meant a great deal to me and I won’t forget any of them. I am privileged to have such great friends and supporters.
As I stated, this will be my last Ironman. Unless of course, my daughter wants to do one. Only that would top this experience. Luckily, I have 14+ years to prepare for that one if it happens.
You can look up the all the race stats if you want, but there is nothing much to look at. For me, it was all about the finish.
This note by the knowledgeable, classy, and simply great guy, John Salt, hit the mark and my heart. Thanks again John.
“Ironman on race day is a crap shoot at the best of times, what with weather, nutrition or mechanicals all playing a part. Some people may look at an athlete’s time and wonder what happened. I see a time being posted by a tough and smart competitor who went into his race having been injured for much of the most important of training and still being ready to take on this beast of a race because of his dream. It looks like you had an incredibly tough day and you should be proud of staying in there and giving it everything you had. I am proud of you Roger!”
Thanks for reading this far. Here is a bit more, as the purpose of this post is to both tell you what happened out there, and to provide some useful information for your own racing.
Some advice if you are going to Kona for the Ironman:
Get in some swims from Dig Me Beach. Any time of day is fine, but early mornings is where you can do some people watching and where most show up. The Gatorade Bag Check is there too until 9am.
Do the Underpants Run. Don’t be a spectator. It is a lot of fun and get the whole family to join you.
If you’ve got kids, make sure they do the Ironkids race. $10 for a great race and race kit well worth more than that or even better than most race kits offer adults.
March in the Parade of Nations. It was a great experience and I got to march and represent Canada with fellow Raptor fan Jeff Symonds who had an epic race day of his own. If he can march in the parade and still run 2:50 on race day even after one legged pedalling for 30km due to a broken crank, you can march in the parade too. He will win Kona one day. He is a great guy and tough as nails.
The Expo is a bit of a walk from the pier but it’s well worth going to. A nice selection of vendors and lots of giveaways and deals. I picked up my race kit and went there afterwards. It was stuffed by the time I got out of there.
If you like raw fish, eat lots of poke. I’ve got lots of restaurant recommendations too for both poke and other type of food.
Visit the other parts of the island. There are lots of places to discover like Volcanoes National Park, Hilo, etc.
If you are serious about performing well here, come to Kona to train on the course in the heat and wind. Or get in some similar training at another location if you can’t get here. Even then, nothing is like Kona.
I’ve definitely made a bunch of mental notes about every aspect of that course. I plan to share that info to the athletes I coach and the rest of the Ignition Fitness crew who I know will get there someday.
I’ve used my Ironman racing to raise money for charity in the past, and did so again this but without soliciting anyone. Just my own personal challenge. But now, I’ll make you aware of Kiva. With this organization, you can lend people around the world, money that they need and will pay back to you so you can then fund another person in need. Your investment just keeps helping people over and over again. Do me a favour and check it out.
Thanks to my sponsors Running Free, QR/Litespeed – both have been there since 2006, PowerTap, Honeymaxx, and of course my great partners at Ignition Fitness. If you are looking for coaching, we can help you.