by James Lawrence
Wow! I am still in disbelief that I actually did this race! When I started triathlon over 10 years ago Kona was just a dream, the impossible dream. Everyone talks about Kona…. Kona, Kona, Kona. I’ve done a few Ironman races over my career, and without fail the one thing I hear about the most is Kona and the buzz of qualifying. Everyone talks about it, but few will ever accomplish this triathlon dream. It is hard to qualify in any division, and I know first hand how difficult it is for men 35-39 to qualify. My best IM is low 10 hours… respectable yes, but in order to qualify I need to be low nine hours. I’ve done the math and with my God given talent, five kids and real life, the sacrifices necessary won’t work for me. At any given race there are just a handful of slots available for the big show, the World Championships. Typically it is the genetically gifted athletes who have realized their gifts and developed these gifts with lots of hard work. In 2012, Ironman announced a new program called the Legacy Program. This is a program for loyal Ironman competitors to have a chance to grace the Kona stage, based on the number of Ironman races completed in a lifetime. One of the requirements of this program is a minimum of 12 WTC Ironman races to be completed. Most individuals take a lifetime to achieve this mark. When they announced this program, I was just wrapping up 30 Ironman races in one year, this satisfied the 12 minimum races in a single year with ease. Another requirement is to have done an Ironman race the year you meet the 12, and to also be registered for another Ironman the following year. I met this requirement as well. You are then put into a pool and they pull “so many” names to be invited to race in Kona. Two years later my name was pulled and it was my time to go and dance.
I couldn’t believe I was at this race…. I wasn’t nervous at all and ate my bag of rice and quinoa, like I always do prior to an Ironman. Cam and I left the house with plenty of time and walked down to the race start. The pier was already buzzing and the energy was awesome! The winds seemed calm and it looked like it was going to be a perfect day. For some reason, they decided to do tattoo race numbers and all the athletes were herded into these lines so that volunteers could apply the numbers. The system was HORRIBLE and I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with a good old fashioned sharpie. Anxious and not willing to stand in the ridiculous lines, I sacrificed some of the water in my bottle and applied both Cam and my numbers.
There’s not much to do in transition race morning of an Ironman. Most everything should be done in the days proceeding the race. I quickly pumped up my tires and placed my bottles on my bike. Walking back out of the transition area, I stopped at a series of tables where volunteers where doing last minute ART (type of massage) work. My right leg had been bugging me all week, so I plopped onto a table to see if he could work out any last minute kinks. I actually felt better and headed toward the swim start.
On my way there I saw Macca and walked over to him and gave him a high five. I had hoped some of his Kona Championship pedigree would transfer to me during this high five exchange…. as you will find out later, it did not 🙂
I zipped up my BlueSeventy speed suit and walked off the pier into the famous swim start. This was the first year they separated the woman and men age groupers. The men went off first and the woman 10 minutes after. With this being the world championships and swimming not being my strongest of the three events, I positioned myself near the back of the pack treading water and waiting for the deep water start. I was calm. Totally at peace with whatever the outcome was going to be. Sitting in the water, I felt very little pressure to perform. I was honoured and overjoyed with the simple fact that I was there. I was in the same spot as so many triathlon greats.
BOOM the gun blows and I start out super slow, super chill. I am near the back of the mass start and wasn’t concerned about a fight or separating myself from other athletes. In fact, this was one of the least violent swim starts and swims I have ever experienced.
Three reasons for a calm swim experience:
1 – I positioned myself appropriately, given the quality of the field and my swim skills.
2- I started out super slow and controlled. I have found in my training experience that when I start out slow, I seem to end up with a better net swim result.
3- Most of the field are seasoned athletes and decent swimmers, meaning they swam straight. There were very few swimmers making random left and right hand turns, swimming across the paths of other swimmers, and very few swimmers doing the dreaded underwater breast stroke kick of death.
I was told there is typically a small current against us when swimming out to the boat and to not be discouraged when I look at my watch at the half-way point. I found some great feet and just settled in. The water was clear all the way to the bottom and the ocean was alive with fish. I swam easy and the guys I was following did a great job swimming the buoy line. I reached the boat, swam across the top and made the right hand turn for home. I glanced at my watch and it was right at 35 minutes. I was so happy since my goal was 1:10 and after swimming out and across the top I should easily reach this goal, only having to go straight back in and now I should be swimming with the current.
Well, this was the first cruel trick this island had in store for me today. Due to the winds that had rolled in, I guess the current or tide had switched and was actually hurting us coming in. I felt as if my effort was equal to my swim heading out, but when I popped up out of the water my swim time read 1:18…. meaning an 8 min slower swim on the way in.
Overall I was really happy with my swim. My effort was consistent, my swimming was straight, and I didn’t overdo it. I quickly picked up my transition bag and headed through transition to my Fezzari bike that was patiently waiting for me. Off towards the Queen K I go!
I had no issues through transition and felt really good coming out of the swim. I was ready. The first part of the bike was a short out and back on the Kuakini Hwy. This section is in town and mostly protected. Everyone is super excited at this point of the race and most are going too hard, myself included. I was 20-30 watts above where I should have been and people were still zooming past me. I kept saying to myself, “Chill, chill, chill. Focus on you, your race and what you are doing. Chill, chill, chill.” So chill I did. Early in the ride, I rode up to my good friend Sonja, who is a beast and ended up second on the day in woman 35-39. I joked with her before the race that she wasn’t allowed to catch and pass me in the water (remember the woman started 10 minutes after us men). Well, she did just that! I joked with her for a second on the bike and then she took off like she was coming out of a cannon…. I never saw her again ’till late in the run.
The ride really started once we turned onto the Queen K. Right out of the gates, the winds were present. I thought nothing of it and knew that this was Kona and that it was suppose to be windy. So bring it on! I put my head down and just dialed in my watts. I settled in nicely and started banging out the miles as David Warden had instructed. David has been instrumental in getting me back into shape and will be the man to get me ready for my 50/50/50 challenge. As we progressed down the Queen K, the winds got worse, and worse, and worse. I knew I should stay down, stay in aero, but I was scared. The winds had become angry! They had become violent! I found myself up, out of my drops, white knuckled, trying to just keep the bike upright. One gust in particular scared me silly, which set me up for a disastrous rest of my ride. There were four us, legally spaced, and suddenly this gust hit us from the right, blowing us through our lane, over the center line, and into on coming cyclists. Luckily none of us crashed. Some cyclist weren’t so lucky and there were many reports, post race, of crashes caused by the wind.
Sitting up in the wind is the worst possible scenario to achieve maximum speed. I started to get passed left and right, but couldn’t force myself down into the aero position. I was getting defeated mentally which is rare. Usually I’m mentally tough! “Bring on the elements!” I say. A guy wearing a chocolate milk kit biked past me that looked like Apollo. I asked if it was him and he said, “No, I’m his stunt double. I believe he is 10-15 minutes up the road.” “Bummer,” I thought…. my Cowboy vs. Apollo undefeated streak wasn’t looking good. I KNEW once I got to Hawi that it was going to be a magical ride back to Kona. It HAD to be a tail wind! I surveyed the trees, the bushes, and the resistance against me. There was no possible way we’d be riding into the wind on the way back. I FINALLY made it to Hawi and made the turn.
BOOOOOOM! It was like a different island! It felt like I was shot out of a cannon. On the way out my watts were in the 220 range with my MPR coming in between 14-20…. After Hawi, I was pushing only 160 watts, in total recovery, traveling at speeds in excess of 30 mph. This was about to be a 50 mile PR for me. I was so excited. I thought how perfect this was that I was going to be able to go this fast, with this little effort, and save so much for the run! I was re-motivated and super excited – I was back! This state of euphoria lasted only 5 very short miles before making a slight right back on the Queen K and back towards Kona. I couldn’t believe it! Dead into the winds again! How is this possible?! I mean, I’ve heard them say it on TV; but still, how on earth is this possible? A head wind? Come on, really?
My hopes of a record time back to town were dashed and I settled in for the long ride back. Due to the winds, I was out there much longer than anticipated. We had planned for specific watts, but not for a 6 hour ride! My legs grew heavy and I was short on nutrition. I started to not feel well and coke from the aid station was all I wanted. I limped into town, but still had a smile on my face. I saw Sunny and my parents and they looked concerned. I was a good boy, stayed at my watts and just kept peddling. Eventually I would get to the finish and would be able to start the run.
I was in the best run shape that I have been in in a long time. I was pain and injury free (thanks to Dallas at Utah Spine and Sport and Natalie R for their magical hands). I had PR’ed (personal record) at a run earlier this year in a half Ironman. I was ready to run! Coming off the bike I felt good, but not awesome. I noticed my heart rate was high on the bike, based on the watts I was pushing. David wanted me to go out hard and just hold on for as long as I could. He wanted to see how far I could make it at a certain pace. He said that slow down in an Ironman is typical, so let’s cover as much ground as possible before this happens. This race really wasn’t my main focus (it is Brazil in 4 weeks), and again I was just happy to be there amongst so many greats. As I ran out of transition and up the road, I could hear them announcing the winner of the race coming in. Holy cow! I must have really been out on my bike along time 🙂
I came out of the gates at a conservative 7:45 (slower than David wanted), but that was all I had…. and it only lasted 4 miles…. ahhhhh! It was going to be a long marathon. I was hot. I was tired. I was beaten. Mentally defeated. This just isn’t me. This isn’t the IronCowboy!!! I knew there was no point turning myself inside out over the next 22 miles. I would save it for another day – I would save it for Brazil. Even if I had run a PR marathon on this day, it wouldn’t have mattered. The competition here is unbelievable. So what was the difference between 100th and 200th… at this point, nothing.
My goal was now to smile, thank the volunteers and cheer on the others around me. Remember the winds on the bike course? They were now a blessing on the run course. We had cloud coverage and a light breeze, which is rare and welcome. Oddly enough, I was slightly disappointed (I will explain in a moment). My cramping became worse. It was the worst in my upper inner leg. So running fast was out of the question and my stomach was starting to turn. I couldn’t figure out why. I had practiced my nutrition A LOT and have had minimal issues. Unfortunately sometimes it is just not your day.
I had made it all the way out to the turn in the ‘energy lab’ and committed to run through it and experience it’s infamous heat (insert disappointment). The cloud coverage made the ‘energy lab’ normal… somewhat cool. At mile 18.5, I buckled over to the side of the road and threw up a bunch of liquid; man I hoped that would help.
I started to run and a guy that had passed me while I was pulled over remarked, “Oh my! You are running again! I’d be down and out after what you just did! Go get ‘em!” I laughed and said, “Thanks,” and finished up the ‘energy lab’ out and back. The next 6 miles were full of emotion. Happy… Sad… Tired… Energetic… Excited… Disappointed… Stressed… Relieved… but mostly gratitude Grateful for Sunny, my kids, my health, the journey, all of it. I turned the corner and started to head down Ali’i drive.
I heard cheers from the crowd and tried to hold myself together. I’ve crossed a lot of finish lines, but none more meaningful than this one. This was bigger than 30 in a year; this was Kona.
Total side note – the most inspiring person on the course was by far Apolo Anton-Ohno. He REALLY impressed me! We raced in Boise earlier this year. I ran him down and beat him overall. I didn’t think there was any way he could take himself from that performance in Boise to what he pulled off in Kona. On his first Ironman, on that stage, in those conditions, he managed a sub 10 hour race. Of all the celebrities/athletes that have graced this course, who didn’t deserve to be there taking the spot from a deserving athlete, Apolo earned his right to be there with that performance. Hines Ward, Tera from the Biggest Loser and chef Gordon Ramsey… THAT IS HOW YOU DO IT!
Check out James Lawrence’s Blog here. Big things to come!