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Triathlete Blog

It’s Kona Time

By October 6, 2013July 21st, 2015No Comments

While everyone has been training or tapering for their late season races, I’ve been training for my off season A priority events:

Oktoberfest and Kona spectating

Both require serious conditioning, freakish endurance, laser-like focus and tolerance – for alcohol, sun and long periods of time either standing or shouting zicke zacke zicke zacke hoi hoi hoi OR you’re almost there (I challenge you to say either of those 6 times with a straight face)!

I’ve assessed my data, I’ve looked at my performance management chart and all things are trending towards peak performances for the next two weekends!

Yes, folks, I am no longer at race weight and I have lost tons of fitness.  Probably due to the “training” I’ve done which has required a fair amount of indulgence and my new favorite workout, the task of deciding what sort of junk food should I have today?

Feel free to send me a page from your Food Fantasy Log and I’ll make or eat your dreams come true.

I’d tell you how much fun it is to be surrounded by a few people tapering for Kona but I don’t want to spoil it should you ever get to experience it yourself!  Trust me, it’s a special kind of craycray!  In the past 2 weeks, my husband has done two things proving his taper is right on track.  First, he made the bed. This is one of the marital “discussions” that will go round and round until death do us part.  In his defense, he’s right – what is the point of making the bed if only you’re going to get back into it 16 hours later?  In my defense, the day has not begun until the bed is made!  Turns out tapering makes my husband finally see my logic or get desperate enough to fill his time with anything now that he’s doing less training.

It gets better.  The other night we went to the World of Beer to get some sampler paddles.

Did you just get drunk off of 14 ounces of beer?

He did.

We depart in a few days.  And by “we” I mean: 4 children and 11 adults.  Do the math, folks, that’s 15 people.  Just when you start to get jealous of the 11 days I’ll spend in paradise, I want to add this: most of the 15 people are my in-laws.

I’m packing fins in case I need to swim to another island.

Our last trip to Hawaii was back in 2011.  I was on the other side – competing.  With my job as tapering, resting and doing as little as possible, I was completely hands off with everything – cooking, cleaning and watching my child.  This started the moment we stepped into the airport and realized I had left behind my suitcase.  The one with ALL OF MY RACE GEAR.  Leave it to my husband to drive 30 minutes back to the ‘burbs, grab said suitcase from the lawn and still make it to our flight on time.  We had our then 15-month old child whom Chris walked up and down the aisles of 9 hours worth of flights.  Chris has reminded me of this many, many times and I’m expecting that the demands might get a little outlandish. Like the time he crashed at a criterium and demanded sponge baths for a week.  The point is if you see me walking up and down the aisle of the plane from San Francisco to Kona, I’m either entertaining my child or getting more peanuts for my husband.

I wanted to pass along some thoughts on the race in Kona.  Hopefully if you’re racing now (or in the future!) you’ll find something to help make your day go by a little better.  Here goes!


The days leading up to the race are an awesome display of everything triathlon – companies are out in full force at the expo and along Alii Drive.  Every morning there will be a pre-race swim at “the pier” – the small beach by the King K hotel.  There will be a two hour window for gear check in but you can swim at your own risk any time of the day.  Don’t leave your stuff unattended though.  The swim will make you rethink how you survive staring at a black line all year in your indoor pool.  You’ll encounter coral with colorful fishes before a drop off where you can see dolphins or turtles.

One of my favorite pre-race workouts is to park across from the Energy Lab (there’s a street off of the Queen K by an orchard), do my bike along the wide shoulder of the Queen K and then run a bit in the Energy Lab.  There’s no bikes or cars allowed in there.  Run in and take a look at the incline leading out with the volcano rising boldly in the background – it’s really an impressive sight.

Take the time to drive the courses.  Rush hour traffic is a real thing in Kona so try to get out after the morning rush but get back before the afternoon rush starts.  The drive to Hawi will allow you to see the entire bike course as it rolls through a few different landscapes.  If you’re looking for a great place to shop or eat along the way, turn off at Waikaloa.  You’ll also be nearby one of the most beautiful beaches in the area: Hapuna Beach.  In Hawi, there’s a small coffee/ice cream shop.  If you’re ambitious and can’t resist sightseeing, head to the where the road (literally) ends after Hawi and hike into Polulu Valley.  It’s not long but it involves some stairs.  You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Waipaio Valley on the other side of the island.

Race week can be a lot of time on your feet walking back and forth to the pier, expo, registration, etc.  There is very limited parking close to everything you need to do.  The best place to park is by the grocery stores up Palani or behind Lava Java.  Still, expect to do a lot of walking.  Wear your walking shoes and don’t forget sunscreen and hydration even on these “little” walks to get things done.  The walking will add up.

Even with all of the walking, try to avoid too much time in the heat – acclimation should have been done before you left!  When you get to Kona, it’s time to stay inside and store rest.  Stay out of the sun and don’t make the mistake of trying to acclimate by living without the air conditioning or training during the hottest part of the day in Kona.  All that will do is leave you depleted and tired on race morning.

As far as what to bring, very much like Disney World: half the clothes, twice the money.  Island life isn’t cheap.  Expect to pay over $3 for a basic cup of coffee.  And remember too that you’re on island time.  Which is about 10 time zones slower than Chicago time.  Relax.  The beauty of an island is that no one is in a hurry.  You shouldn’t be either.  Hawaiian culture has a rich history and connection to the natural world.  It’s something that you can truly feel crackling through the pavement when you’re there.  Soak it all in along with the spirit of Aloha and be respectful of it.  Remember that you are a guest in this truly magical place!

Race morning will arrive before you know it.  For some of you, it’s been a year or maybe lifetime working for this moment.  It’s like the kid on Christmas morning feeling: today I get to race an Ironman!  You’ll get dropped off a little before Basil’s (restaurant) before the road will be closed down.  You’ll have to walk behind the King K (which is about a 5 minute walk) to drop off your special needs bags.  You’ll see a lot of volunteers with number stamps to stamp your race numbers on to your body.  Next, you’ll get weighed.  Do yourself a favor – cover your ears and close your eyes.  You don’t need to know the consequence of tapering, carbo-loading and heat edema!

Then, you’ll head to the pier by walking on the other side of the King K.  It will be busy but the crowd moves efficiently.  The sky will be dark (sunrise around 6:15 am, sunset around 6:15 pm, all year round) but quickly brightens with the sunrise.  Transition will be quiet and serious compared to other races.  Don’t forget the top notch pro watching (or drooling).  If you don’t like the hubbub in transition, a great place to relax while waiting is behind the King K restaurant.  There’s an outdoor hallway where you can sit away from the crowd and bonus that it’s right near an indoor bathroom.  Bring headphones and relax.

Expect to be called into the water early and tread for about 15-20 minutes.  Get suited up and in line earlier than you think you need to be there.  You will want the best shot at a position.  I’ve started in three places: far right along the buoys, far left, middle/front.  The worst?  Far right.  Everyone is swimming towards the buoys and the guys on surfboards will spend the entire race yelling at you to get off the buoys.  It was nervewracking.  The best?  Far left – I might have swum a little further but the “ease” of the swim was worth it.  In 2011, I chose the middle, front and it was chaotic but I was prepared for it.  In any case, mentally prepare for annoying and aggressive full body contact the entire time!  You can waste a lot of emotional and mental energy on this swim.  Stay relaxed and use the least amount of energy possible.  About one minute prior to the cannon, you will notice “the creep” – or the tendency for the entire race to start creeping forward beyond the starting point.  It is what it is, the race has changed, folks!  Once the cannon sounds, keep moving forward!  You swim out to a boat, swim a short distance beyond it and make the return swim to shore.  The way out will be faster than the way back.  Each year, the difference for me was about 5 minutes (slower on the return).

You’ll run up a set of stairs upon exit and through a series of hoses with freshwater.  Do take the time to rinse the saltwater off – it’s very chafing.  The changing tents are staffed with plenty of volunteers willing to help.  Direct them – politely!  Don’t make the mistake of relying on the race for sunscreen – pack your own and apply it liberally.  Any skin you can keep covered will also pay off huge later on in the day.

The bike starts out by climbing the short (but relatively steep) Palani Hill before making a right turn at the “hot corner” on to smooth and fast Kuakini.  There will be tons of spectators.  But beware getting caught up in the rush of the race, spectators and pace.  The pace and energy will be frenetic.  These days, athletes will “gun” the first 40K to get into a faster “group” out on the Queen K.  Unless you plan on drafting, this isn’t a great strategy.  Like in any other Ironman, take the time to warm up into the race and let people pass.  Chances are you will pass them in the last 10K of the marathon.

After Kuakini, you finish the short climb up Palani before making a left turn on to the Queen K.  This is where the work begins.  Settle down into aero and get ready for quite the ride.  The Queen K will roll out long, black and hot in front of you.  To your left, you will see the beautiful blue of the far off ocean.  To the right, lava in thick rolls with occasional wheat-colored tufts of grasses.

The terrain itself is not difficult – think a series of long, gradual inclines or declines, you’ll stay aero and shift just a few gears.  The difficulty is that for all of the work you put into this course, you might not get any reward back.  In other words, just because you rode 20 miles into headwind, doesn’t mean you’ll turn around and get tailwind. The winds shift constantly – in speed and direction.  In my experience, I’ve had tailwind for the first 20 – 40 miles.  The road quality is smooth and with tailwind, the course can be fast.  Power is useful but you also need to account for the “work” your body is doing internally to stay cool.  A conservative strategy on the bike pays off in Kona because of this.

You’ll ride past a few landmarks: the airport, Waikaloa and then you’’ll make a left turn at the sign for Kawaihae.  Here will begin a series of smaller but steeper hills before you make the gradual 9 mile climb towards Hawi.  It’s subtle at first but once you see the windmills on your left, you’re smack in it and probably noticed a bit of wind too.  As in, wind that is literally bending the plants over!  I remember climbing 9 mph at times, with the feeling of getting nowhere.  You’ll see an increase in power too.  Don’t obsess about it, just move forward relaxed but strong.  You’ll regain some of the time coming back down.  Stay mentally relaxed and stay aero when possible.
The turnaround is just beyond Hawi at mile 60 of the bike.  The volunteers are plentiful.  I’ve always stopped to get my bag and refill bottles.  It might be wise to reapply sunscreen.  The way down from Hawi is usually quick with tailwind unless the crosswinds start blowing.  In that case it might be very sketchy.  To prepare, as you climb Hawi, see what athletes are doing on the way day.  Are they sitting up holding on for dear life?  Coasting?  This will give you a clue as to what the wind is doing.

In 2011, I had a 30 minute segment where I did very little pedaling and held about 90 watts.  Tailwind!  As you get back towards Kawaihae you’ll have those small hills to climb before you make the right turn back on to the Queen K.  This is a pivotal mental moment.  If you spent yourself heading up to Hawi, you will feel like the Queen K spreads out forever back to Kona.  If you doled out your mental energy wisely, you will be ready to stay strong and connect to the challenge ahead.

In my times at the race, this part from Kawaihae back to Waikaloa and then Waikaloa to the airport can bring some of the most challenging times of the day.  The winds will constantly shift.  You will sail at 20+mph with crosswind only to emerge 5 miles later pushing 15 mph into the headwind.  You might encounter rain.  Not only that but you just noticed it’s really, really getting hot. You’re staying wet by pouring water on your body and drinking adequately but the air you’re breathing in is warm.  Your body is working harder to keep any exposed skin cooler and if you didn’t get covered up or sunscreened, chances are your nutrition plan is sitting in your stomach not getting digested.  Mistakes multiply quickly in Kona.  Cover up, sunscreen, stay cool and pace yourself.

Around miles 80-90 you will quit the sport, divorce your triathlon friends and have the overwhelming urge to ride into the ocean.  You will denounce your fuel plan and probably spit half of it out.  You will think to yourself, very honestly, I will be out here forever.  Or at least until tomorrow.  And then, you will see the palm trees leading up towards the airport.  It’s only 10 miles away!  You’ll find newfound skills in math when you start calculating how long that will take at your current pace.  You’ll see the boats, Makala, the Target and before you know it you’ll be dismounting as someone wheels your bike into transition.

And, then, it will hit you.  I have to run HOW FAR on these legs?  Don’t think about it.  Just run to get your bag and into the changing tent.  By the way, this is a somewhat long run around transition.

There will be an aid station right outside of the run start.   Use it.  Because the next one isn’t for another 1 ½ miles!  The run starts along Alii Drive.  This is perhaps the best part of the race.  It is lined with spectators, beautiful, along the ocean and you feel pretty good. You’re in Hawaii, doing an Ironman!  How could anything possibly go wrong out there!  It’s 5 miles out and back on the rolling terrain of Alii.  At the little blue church, you’ll make the turnaround.  There will be aid stations every mile laid out in the same pattern.  Pay attention to it so you know what to grab and when.  The volunteers are amazing – they will say inspirational things to you in the Hawaiian language.  Listen to them.

After Alii, you make a right turn on to Palani and up a fairly steep and at this point long climb.  Some will walk.  Others will slowly chug.  Whatever gets you up the hill using the least amount of energy is what you should do.  This hill is lined with spectators and the Germans usually hang out on the corner at Palani and the Queen K with a couch and some fun techno music.

Then, you’re out on the Queen K.  There are nearly 2000 other runners with you but you can feel very alone out there.  Unlike other Ironmans, there isn’t much walking nor much chit chat.  Occasionally someone will puke or poop.  You’ll pass a lot of people if you can just move forward at anything under an 8:15 mile.  It’s hot and people are tired.  By the time you get to this point in the day, you’ve been through a lot physically and emotionally.  Most people spend their emotional energy too early and don’t have any left for when you really need it – the second half of the run.  Which you just hit soon after getting on to the Queen K.

Break it up in chunks you can manage.  2 mile to the Kona Mountain Coffee Shop.  2 miles to the Energy Lab.  3 miles inside of it.  And once you hit the exit, it’s only about a 10K to go.  The terrain is rolling and will appear more uphill to you than it really is.  You might be lucky and cloud cover just rolled in or the sun might be baking in the sky.  Use the aid stations like your race depends on it.  Employ any cooling strategy necessary and take it mile to mile.  On the Queen K, expect to encounter very few spectators but many mental demons.  Stay in the moment, focus on what’s important now and gut the last few miles out.  Above all, don’t forget to enjoy them.  I always had the moment of wow, this is really sad, there’s only 4 miles left to my Ironman.  You never know when you’ll get the opportunity to do those last few miles again in Hawaii.

The energy lab is a buzzing place.  This is the point in the race where some breakthrough and others breakdown.  If you can mentally lock in to the task at hand without straying too far from  yourself, you’ll get through it like any other segment of the race.  You’ll run a slight downhill into the lab, make a short out and back at the end of the road.  And here, at mile 18, you’ll encounter your special needs bag.  Coming back out of the lab, you’ll notice the incline looks like a mountain and you’ll do anything it takes to run by the DJ booth just to see what your spectators typed in when your chip is read.

Finally, the right turn on to the Queen K.  The crowds of athletes are thinning out and you can see Kona ahead of you in the distance.  These are the toughest, longest miles.  22, 23, 24 – they click off slowly along the Queen K.  Get gritty, dig deep and stay tough.  See how many people you can pass.  Don’t worry about your pace, chances are it’s dropped off a bit, that’s normal just keep digging to get what’s left out of your legs.  At some point, you’ll see Makala (almost there), Palani (run down it – watch the quads!) and take a left on to Kuakini.  This part is sneaky – it’s not long but not short either.  Turn right on to Hualalai and take note because your Ironman adventure is nearly over.
When you are finally on Alii Drive, enjoy the experience.  The crowd will be lined thick and going wild.  You’ll see the finish and once you run under the big tree, this is your moment – get across the line!  You did it.

Overall, this is not a difficult course.  The conditions are challenging but what makes this race difficult is two things: the heat and the fact that it’s Kona.

For the heat, use any cooling technique possible.  Apply sunscreen before the race and in both transitions.  Consider reapplying at the bike halfway point.  Try to keep as much skin covered as possible (arms, back).  Stay wet to stay cool on the bike and run.  On the run, use ice in your hat, shorts, top, hands and on your neck.

For the head, ego management is critical for staying focused on what you need to do to have a successful race.  Put your blinders on, head down and race yourself.  Remember that many of the athletes arrive in Kona tired –they’ve already done an Ironman and chances are they’ve panic trained their way into too much training or fatigue to prepare for the world championship.  When you’re tired you make many stupid, emotionally charged decisions.  Don’t follow.  Use your head.  Manage it but use it – connect to the course and focus on the task at hand.  If you’re struggling, don’t get caught up in the downward spiral.  Keep asking yourself what you can do to keep moving forward – do you need to drink more, eat more, slow down?  Let go of the outcome.  Whether you finish in 10:30, 11:30 or 12:30, no one cares, you got to Kona and they think you’re a rockstar for that.  Go and have your best day no matter what time you finish.  Expect to problem solve many times on race day.  Check in with yourself constantly by asking what’s important now?  And remember, anything you do to save a few minutes on the bike will likely add many minutes on the run.  Kona is a race that rewards patience and smarts: stay on top of hydration, fueling and expect to problem solve many times throughout the day.

After the race, it’s a little chaotic in the finish area so be sure to set a specific place to meet your family.  Give your family a likely, best and worst case scenario as far as your splits so they know when to look for you.  Enjoy a post-race massage and get your picture taken on the stands they have.  Then, get the heck out of there.  Shower yourself, find some food and get back out to watch the rest of the finishers.

The next day?  Eat a cinnamon bun at Lava Java (you’ve been eyeing it all week, go for it!).  Go buy all of your pictures.  Get some finisher’s gear.  And finally – enjoy yourself.  Mai Tais, macademia nights, sightseeing – the work is done, it’s time to celebrate!  Venture beyond Kailua-Kona.  There is so much more to enjoy on the island!  And by all means, mind the “3 week zone” after Ironman.  That would be 3 weeks where you make NO major decisions in your life, including:

1 – no haircuts

2 – no puppies

3 – no marriage

4 – no signing up for another Ironman

I, myself, got caught by #2.  GUILTY.

To all racing, good luck and enjoy every minute of it!  For those spectating, in the years past, someone has attached Twinkies to a piece of cardboard that they’ve posted on a street sign around mile 22 on the Queen K.  Remember, there are no aid stations for spectators!  Every damn one of those Twinkies was taken…