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K is for Kona

K is for Kona.

Bet you couldn’t see that one coming!

Kona.  The Ironman World Championship.  The big dance.

Since 2006, I’ve qualified for Kona 4 times and 4 times competed on the Big Island.  The first time I qualified was by winning my age group at Buffalo Springs 70.3.  I remember waiting in line for food at the awards banquet when a much older gentleman and I got to talking.  He had been to Kona a few times.  At some point, he simply said to me:

There’s something about it.  It gets under your skin and you have to go back.

At the time, I didn’t believe him.  I had been in the sport nearly 8 years and the thought of doing an Ironman had never once crossed my mind.  Mostly because I couldn’t understand the point of running a marathon.  My only marathon experience had been in 2001 when my then boyfriend/now husband convinced me to join him on his quest to break 4 hours.  We trained 6 weeks, doing a 2.5 hour run 2 times a week.  TAKING IN ONE GEL THE ENTIRE RUN. But you can get away with that kind of stuff when you’re in your twenties.  We got to mile 18 of the race when (surprise!), Chris succumbed to cramps forcing us to run/walk the rest of the way.  We still broke 4 hours (barely – it was 3:59) but I didn’t catch the bug.  If anything, I was convinced the marathon was dumber than ever.  All of these people shuffling, walkling cramping – who would want to do this again?

Needless to say, when I qualified for Kona, I wasn’t sold that it was something I “needed” to do.  In my mind, I questioned the man in the buffet line.  Under my skin – WHAT is he talking about?  That night I remember waking up with that feeling when you get a bad haircut.  You know something is different but you’re not sure what until you remember…

Dear lord, I signed up for an Ironman.

The first time I went to Kona, I did the absolute minimum.  I had set my sights on competing at the short course duathlon world championship in late July.  That would be a 10K run, 40K bike and 5K run.  The training was absolutely nothing like training for an Ironman.  But as I would learn many times with my own training and coaching others – the 8 week Ironman build is sometimes the most effective!  I did the bare minimum of long rides and runs.  I truly enjoyed every moment of race day, finishing in 10:45.

The second time I got to Kona via winning my age group at Eagleman 70.3.  For those who think/thought qualifying at a 70.3 was easier, I went 4:32 and was 2nd overall – there was NOTHING easy about that!  To this day it still stands as my half Ironman PR.  I punched my ticket to Kona determined to do better.  That old guy?  He was right.  SOMETHING got under my skin – whether it was hot lava or a little bit of insanity, I wanted to go back in 2007 and do better.

I made the classic training mistake thinking more would be more.  But as I’ve since learned, again through training and coaching, more is only more if you can recover from more and balance it all out!  Rather than arriving in Kona undercooked, I arrived slightly overcooked.  It wasn’t pretty.  But good enough to go 10:32 and crack the top 10 in my age group.

My next trip to Kona was in 2011.  In 2010, I sat on the sidelines pregnant with my first child.  Shooting for Kona was the perfect goal.  Again, I won my age group at Eagleman 70.3 and secured my Kona slot.  Having shed years of fatigue and burnout, I had the perfect build up and experience leading into the race.  Again, I did the bare minimum, with 3 x 100 mile rides and maybe 2 or 3 times where I hit 20+ miles on the run.  I arrived in 2011 feeling fit but more importantly – fresh and excited.  I ended up going 10:22 and another top 10 in my AG.  To this day, that still stands as my Kona PR.

Fast forward to 2015.  Another pregnancy, another what seemed untouchable dream of qualifying for Kona just 9 months later.  I did the absolute minimum in training and did all but two of my long rides indoors.  My long runs were mostly 2 hours – week after week – in the coldness of Chicago winter.  I was anything BUT prepared on paper but fresh enough to tackle the day in body and mind.  I qualified for my fourth trip to Kona by winning my AG and taking 2nd overall at Ironman Texas.  I finished in 10:06 which is my current Ironman PR.

You’d think one would learn from past mistakes.  But life and learning isn’t always so cut and dry.  In 2015, I arrived in Kona a little overdone.  In retrospect, I should have taken 7 to 14 days completely off after Texas, wiped my slate clean and started all over again.  I’m one of those athletes who gains fitness really quick and once there risk going over the edge of fatigue.  But hindsight is always clear.  Instead, I worked a little too hard in the draining heat of Chicago while trying to give the rest of myself to parenting, coaching, real life.  It wasn’t easy.  But I lived by the motto – it’s not supposed to be easy!  At the end of the day in Kona, I went 10:50, still cracking the top 10, but not at all what I worked for or wanted. Some of our most powerful lessons come in difficult packages.

In the same amount of time, I’ve watched my husband qualify 4 times.  Chris and I are two completely different training animals.  He can handle ridiculous amounts of intensity that would leave me in a crumpled ball in the basement.  What continues to amaze me as athlete and coach is how many different paths you can take to reach the same end goal.  In my own coaching, I’ve had many athletes qualify for Kona all in different ways.  There are commonalities in mindset, approach and personal qualities but HOW they get there training-wise is always different.

For Chris, he’s done it both ways – qualified by earning a slot in his AG three times at a 70.3 and once at an Ironman.  He’s one of those athletes who demonstrates the power of consistency year to year.  Chris wasn’t a standout athlete when we first started but consistency and what I think is a generous recovery/regeneration period each year has paid off.   Sure, he trains hard but more importantly he takes about 4 to 6 weeks of either no or very limited training at the end of each year.  And when I say no training I mean NO training – he eats, drinks beer and stays up late playing video games.  The man knows how to recover, trust me.  He does it all while balancing a full-time outside of the house job with a commute and making his training as invisible as possible – if it doesn’t happen before 7 am or during his lunch hour, it doesn’t happen.

What can we learn from all of this?

Everyone wants to chase the goal of qualifying for Kona but I’ll say this – it’s not easy.  People try to make it easy – boiling it down to a specific CTL (chronic training load number), power to weight ratio, etc but if it was that simple, we’d all do our training, plug our numbers into a calculator and collect our awards behind our laptops.  I’ve qualified with a CTL well under 100 and also with things like 135 mile rides under my belt!  Qualifying is much more dynamic (and complicated!) than a bunch of numbers.  The person who does the most doesn’t do always the best.  The person who has ran their 20 miler the fastest doesn’t necessarily win their AG.  It’s a complex process of smart preparation, strong health and execution on race day.

Dare I say, even luck.

Getting to Kona isn’t impossible but it’s getting harder.  There are fewer slots and the athletes have more talent, experience and know how.  Now, I don’t think you need to be a former Division I athlete (I wasn’t) or rare talent to qualify.  But you do need to have mastered these three things:

1 – Consistency in your training

2 – Proper nutrition

3 – Recovery

These are the things I call the “99%.” If you read closely, they are actually the EASIEST things.  They are all free and entirely within your control EVERY SINGLE DAY.  Yet most athletes chase the 1% of things that won’t really make a damn bit of difference – helmets, shoes, how to test your FTP the best way, etc.  All of those things are meaningless until you’ve mastered the 99% that actually matters.  If you are serious about qualifying for Kona, look to ways to improve your consistency (no zeroes), your nutrition (eat well, eat often, eat real food) and your recovery (sleep more, stress less).

Here are some other takeaways on qualifying for Kona that I’ve collected over the years from my own training and coaching.

  • Take the long range view
    • Outliers exist but for most of us it takes a really long time to get good
    • Think big picture in your season & career
    • Value longevity, health & life balance
  • The only training factor that really matters (not intensity, duration, volume) is consistency
    • Without consistency – nothing else matters (equipment, talent)
    • Protect your consistency above all; make good decisions on a daily basis
    • NO ZEROES, something is better than nothing
  • Never miss the window of opportunity
    • 30 minutes post workout – put something with carbs + protein in your mouth
    • Missing this window increases stress, risk of getting sick, lowers immunity, threatens consistency
  • Look for the low hanging fruit
    • Opportunities to get faster without training more
    • Optimize your form, position, equipment
    • Practice transitions
    • Train your brain
  • Train for performance not perfection
    • Athletes don’t exercise – they train, they are driven & goal-oriented
    • Lauren Fleshman said, “there is no such thing as perfect preparation, only excellent adaptation.”
  • Establish your support crew
    • Devise your support crew; social, emotional, physical
    • Family, spouse, babysitter, ART, massage, physical therapy, dietician, coach
  • Leave no stone unturned
    • Be brave enough to ask for feedback & humble enough to listen to the answers
    • Prepare for the race by reading reports, knowing the nitty gritty, heat acclimate, taper, carbo load – do all of the little things; together they will make a difference
  • Respect the recovery
    • Sleep an extra 30 minutes a night vs training an extra 30 minutes (Gordo Byrn)
    • Proper nutrition; find a way of eating that is simple, sustainable & successful
    • Compression boots, socks, ice baths – fluff, the 1% that most of you don’t need until you learn to master the other 99% (sleeping, eating, consistency, pacing)
  • Go towards the discomfort
    • Get more comfortable in your zone of discomfort to expand yourself; this is where learning takes place
    • Make adversity your advantage
    • Chase the gap between where you are & where you want to be
  • It won’t be easy but it will be worth it
    • Doing something great isn’t going to be easy.” (Tim O’Donnell)
    • Life, marriage, racing – all hard things; if you’re waiting for that magical moment when it all feels easy – stop waiting
    • Don’t let the process wear you down; see hardship as a challenge not threat
  • Obstacles as opportunities
    • Injuries & illness: Opportunity to work your weakness, see the sport from a different side, gain perspective
    • Being great is a process of preparing for & weathering the ups & downs
    • Stay the path
  • Be all in
    • Be a 24 hour athlete
    • Own the journey – the good and the bad

Some people chase Kona for years.  Others don’t even bother.  As one coach said to me, it’s just an Ironman on a hot island that happens to be a world championship.  This is true.  As race venues go, I can list a dozen others that are more scenic, more motivating and even more challenging!  But there’s something about putting yourself up against the best of the best in that particular place.  If your dream is to get to Kona or get back, hopefully you can take something away from the experiences and lessons I’ve shared above.  Take action on your dream – live it, breathe it, chase it every single day.  Because without that action, it’s only a dream.

Good luck in your journey to get there!