(Lisbeth Kenyon won the 45-49 AG in Kona this year after winning the 40-44 AG last year. She broke the 45-49 course record by 25 mins and the 40-44 record by 2 mins with a 10:01:30)
It is hard to believe that Kona has come and gone once again, and that I managed to win my age group for the second consecutive year. Even though I aged up this year I knew the competition would be no easier, and that I would have to be faster to even have a shot at repeating. This would be my fourth Kona – the first being pre-kids in 1996 at the age of 31 – my first Ironman since back in the good old days you could qualify at an Olympic distance race. That year I toed the line with naivety as my greatest asset; plus it was my honeymoon so what could go wrong? I had spent the first four years of my tri career doing mostly sprints with some Olympics and one half. Thankfully, 1996 was one of the calmer years (the year Luc Van Lierde set the still-standing course record) and I got through it albeit with some major nutrition and cramping problems. I was passed in the chute as I hobbled, unable to stand up straight, missing the podium by one spot with a 10:40. The depth of the athlete pool back then was much shallower than it is today. After two hours and a few IV’s in the med tent, I was fine. It would be years before I returned due to the reoccurring babies, but Kona stayed in my blood – I knew I would return.
Fast forward to 2008 where I would try again after winning Ironman Florida (my 2nd IM) overall in 2007. This time I had the knowledge gained from my new training partners on the FuelBelt Race Team. But I still didn’t have the nutrition thing totally wired, and I made some mistakes descending from Hawi that haunted me the rest of the race. This time I spent the last 18 miles of the run leaning to the left, had major stomach issues, and once again was passed within a mile of the finish line. At least I barely stayed on the podium with a 10:35. For a few hours I swore I would never do Kona again, then before I went to sleep I could feel the desire to have another go creeping back in. So I went and did Arizona 6 weeks later and got my spot for 2009. Although I obviously had a good race in 2009 (I had started working with Coach Al, the first time I had a “real” coach), I still didn’t run to my potential. Since I won a spot for 2010, I was already planning. I wanted to finish Kona with a strong run, and get my nutrition right. Reservations were made in the Spring, and we decided to tow all 3 kids with us this year. I am not sure Todd got a vote on that.
Since I killed two flies in one smack last year in Kona by qualifying for 2010 and the Boston Marathon, my race and training plans were decided: train like a runner for Boston early, race a few half irons and shorter races, and then build for Kona. Although I worked some with Coach Al for last year’s Kona I hadn’t been with him long enough to be able to train the way he really wanted me to. So now he had a whole year to prepare me for what he considered an ideal ironman build.
Todd and I left for Hawaii the Sunday before the race with three extremely excited kids (no school for a week, what is there not to be psyched about?). Never seen them bounce out of bed at 3:45am already talking a hole in our heads. Having the kids took the pressure off as I had zero time to think about the race – however, I would be lying if I said my ultimate goal wasn’t to win my age group. That was a sweet feeling last year and I wanted some more of that. Todd and Al were certain I was faster this year, especially on the run, but in Kona anything can and does happen.
The kids fell in love with Hawaii – it’d be tough to not bring them should we go again. Ingrid wants to go back to her favorite art store (of course) and they discovered snorkeling, coral reefs, giant turtles, body surfing & boogie boarding among crazy good locals, shave ice, 1000 folks racing in their underpants, and they might even have started to sense the mystic vibe of this lava covered island. We stayed in a condo on the beach within walking distance from Lava Java (best breakfast and iced vanilla latte ever) and Lulu’s (best fish tacos and beer ever).
The week before the race had Todd and I doing some short runs on Alii and rides on the Queen K. Plus we did the obligatory swims at Dig Me Beach but avoided the early morning mayhem so the kids could snorkel while we swam. No dolphins this year but you can’t beat the reef scenery. In general it didn’t seem as hot as usual but past experience has shown that the heat almost always shows up for race day.
Pre race: Got up at 4am and did not feel terrific; congested. I was wondering why I wasn’t freaking out. I knew what to expect, I had done this 3 times before – the swim would be hell, the bike would be windy and the run burning hot. There is a huge advantage to having done this race and knowing how you are going to feel in those elements. It can be shocking to first timers. I think you have to learn to be at peace with the conditions in Kona. Hoping for light winds or less heat won’t help. Embracing and preparing for the conditions will. I tried to eat my 1000 calories and downed a ton of coffee. Todd drove me to the start where I met up with our buddy George from KY who had clearly had his share of coffee – this was his first time racing Kona. Body marking went super quickly; assembly line style number stamps. Arranged my nutrition and pumped my tires. The announcement that Chrissie Wellington wasn’t racing brought a gasp from the crowd – what a shame. Watched the pro race go off at 6:30am – it looked slow; there was a swell. Put my TYR Torque over my race singlet and got a camera in my face asking me to say something nice – I said volunteers are the reason we can do this. Swam out to the floating Ford truck to hang out with 1800 of my best friends – why did they look like piranhas…
Swim:15 minutes of treading water while boxed in; there should be a mandatory toe nail clipping. I asked a surf board if I could go to the other side of the floating Ford truck but the answer was no. Later I learned, and pictures confirmed, that lots of people started there. I was exhausted before the cannon went off. Whatever plan I had was drowned in the froth and I instantly went lactic. So much aggression. White water madness all the way to the turn-around boat. My goggles got knocked off but I had them under my swim cap so they rolled back. My swim cap came off this year also – not sure how to deal with that. Glue? I stopped and pulled it back on. It was slow out so I expected the swell to push us in as it had every morning. Except this morning. A male in a tiny speedo insisted on swimming over me – it wasn’t congested anymore but he wanted MY space. He scratched me and the resulting sore would bleed and hurt for the rest of the race. I moved over so he could have my line – you’re welcome. Then I drafted the skimpy-suit. Swim time 1:04. Shoot, whatever notion I had of sub-10 hours may have drowned with that swim, but time goals in Kona are a terrible idea and needless distraction anyway. I had swallowed a lot of water and would later ‘discard’ that on the Queen K during the first 12 miles of the bike.
Bike: Felt good but settled into 75% of my FTP and was a good girl to watch my power meter and not go much over. Focused on the salt/fluids/calorie plan; had my beeper go off every 30 minutes to wake me up in case my mind drifted; which it did. The first out and back was congested as usual; better to accept that and not waste any energy over it. I had forgotten it was so hilly. Then up Palani Hill which is lined with loud cheering energy. Out to Queen K where it rolls and you have a nice tail wind. Spotted Todd and the kids near the airport. Some large packs went by and it was frustrating in spots but shortly after the draft marshals started working their magic and people were busted right and left; each penalty tent was packed to the rim. Things started spreading out nicely. It was warming up. The car spotters said the temp showed 104 degrees. It didn’t take too long for me to catch a few fast swimmers in my age group. Things were going well but I knew the real race starts on the 18 miles up to Hawi.
As expected they were windy; I was going 8 mph at times. I could tell the trip down was going to be scary due to the gusty cross winds. I made sure my Speedfil was more or less empty during the stretch up; I didn’t need added weight and relied on aid stations. It was a bit stormy on top of Hawi, the winds were howling, the clouds were dark and it was sprinkling. It felt good but the wind was insane. Turn around at mile 59 and fill up with fluids for the way down; having some weight would perhaps be more stable in the cross winds given that the Speedfil sits within the frame and not on my handlebars. The storm was behind us and the sun came out. The cross winds didn’t disappoint – 35 mph. Not the worst ever there by a long shot but the worst that I have experienced. I tried to relax my shoulders in between bad spots and drank from the straw; while keeping a death grip on the bars. I was nearly thrown off my bike in the gusts a handful of times, how I stayed up I don’t know. One trick is to keep pedaling. Others were not as lucky. I learned that George was so freaked out that he got off his bike and said to himself that he did not want to be there. But he made it down. As did Harriet Anderson who is 70!
Back down to the Queen K I suddenly realized I had forgotten sun screen on my face! I tried looking at my nose to see if it had burned up and shrunk, which may have been a good thing. Nothing I could do, though. I started feeling really strong with 34 miles left which surprised me and I thanked my bike, power meter, and race plan for that. I was passing a lot of people at this point and I could tell some of them were going through a tough time. I had been there and knew exactly how they felt. This stretch is mostly lonely, so lonely I was talking to myself. Todd and Lars were cheering for me on the Queen K near the end but I missed them completely. Bike time 5:20 and feeling quite good after the initial stiff run to the changing tent. 21.2 mph. Put sun screen on my face.
Run: I felt remarkably good starting out but took that with a grain of salt – literally. Looked at my GPS, too fast. Slowed and enjoyed the crowd and the ice cold towel the changing tent women had wrapped around my neck. I love the changing tent. The people in it are from heaven. They put your socks on and pamper you. I wish I could have thanked them more. Had my 2-bottle FuelBelt filled with electrolyte powder to keep it light which I filled with water at aid stations later. I started with a hand held with the same contents. Ingrid and Tor Anders were stationed at the condo a mile down the road and told me I was 6 minutes up and first age group. That was good information. The out and back is 10 miles, the terrain rolls gradually and it is – you guessed it – hot. But once in a while we had a cloud cover the sun and the difference was night and day! The weird thing about Kona is that the air temperature is typically only about 83 degrees. But the sun and radiant heat from the lava and black roads can quickly make the air temps that the athletes feel crest 100. So any respite from the sun is huge.
I drank like a sponge each aid station and sipped my salt. I saw Caitlin Snow; she was not in top 10 (yet) but absolutely flying and she was yelling and cheering ME on – she was doing that while in the process of running the second fastest marathon in the history of that course! Back to town I spotted Todd and Lars who confirmed I was in first. Time to conquer Palani Hill. This hill is long and it’s steep and I dread it. Craig Alexander came bolting down. I have never run up it, but today I ran and ran – at 11 minute per mile pace but still.
Back up to Queen K there is a down and then a loooong gradual up that never seems to end and finally you see the solar panels and you turn left into the Energy Lab. The reported temp emanating from the asphalt was 124 degrees. That’s on the ground and luckily I wasn’t crawling. A mile before this turn I took a gel and instantly my stomach knotted up – whoops!! I had been drinking so much Perform because it was so hot – I was overdoing my calories big time. My 1996 incident of hyponatremia had me mentally scared of water. Water is not so bad if you take enough electrolytes, which I was today. Lesson learned.
What happens in the Energy Lab stays in the Energy Lab but it did include a porta-john session at mile 17. Shoot, whatever notion I didn’t have anymore of sub-10 definitely was down the toilet now. I got a side stitch and frantically thought of every trick I had read about – tighten my opposite fist – or was it same fist – so I tightened both, breath all the way to the belly, relax, etc. Slowed my pace, felt quite sick and started sipping water and ice for a while. At the Energy Lab turn-around I looked for my competition to see if maybe I could continue to take it easy. Nopes, the great Donna Kay-Ness came charging 4 minutes later and her face looked mighty tough. I figured if I ran 9 and she ran 8 pace – which she is more than capable of and beyond, she could exactly catch me. So the race was on, no more feeling sorry for myself. HTFU, HTFU. You can do anything for 7 miles.
My legs wanted to run but my stomach was setting the pace. I switched to coke and was able to get my running below 8 again. There is a gradual incline at the end of Queen K and then the last mile is mostly down. Regardless of how you feel this is the best mile in the entire world because it is soon time to stop; people around you are super happy for you, the journey is over. I didn’t think I was going to be able to enjoy the last stretch on Alii to the finish; I was falling apart by now and leaning to the left (what else is new). The folks on the left had to take some steps back to avoid me; I just watched my finishing video and I almost took out half the crowd. The Alii finishing stretch is the best on the planet – I am amazed every time, it is loud and it is loud FOR YOU. This short stretch might be the reason I want to do it again and again. Todd and the kids were in that crowd behind the fence and they were louder than anyone, but I never did see them. They had to run 1/2 mile to come around to the family reunion entrance. Run time 3:31 – PR for me. Nothing left in the tank. So happy to see the family – it is no easy task to spectate one of these and especially with 3 kids to consider. Called Coach Al who was ecstatic. Hobbled back to the condo with the kids and Todd and promptly drank a beer.
There was the small matter of a mystery “woman” who was ahead of, or slightly behind me all day, and in the end was listed as beating me by a mere 11 seconds. No one out on the course saw “her” and Todd had guessed by this time that “she” must be a man. Ironman Live finally announced on the live feed at 11pm that I did in fact win as she was in fact a man, but they didn’t update the results for 4 days. I sure got a lot of “sorry you just missed the win” messages though.
Total time 10:01:30. I was close. PR by 14 minutes on this course in tough conditions. New course record for age group women over 40. The fitness got me to the line but one mile more and I would have walked. I can pinpoint a good nutrition plan for the future based on what I learned; will make some adjustments during the run. It is hard to simulate these conditions in training in New England even in 90 degree temps, but I know how many calories I can handle and I overdid that. Can’t underestimate how scientific and focused race nutrition needs to be when you try to be at your limit for 10 hours in Kona conditions. If you don’t nail this part of the race plan, no amount of fitness will get you across the line in good shape. Kona is really a unique event that is unforgiving of the tiniest errors. Mindset is hugely important on top of getting the technical aspects right. You have to accept what the course gives you, and take advantage of the small gifts along the way, whether they be a moment of tailwind, some cloud cover, or some clear water. The rest of the time you must embrace the hardships, knowing that everyone out there is sharing them with you and that it just wouldn’t be Kona without them.
Huge thanks to my family! This doesn’t feel like a sport as much as a long term life style. Big thanks obviously goes to Coach Al for getting me fitter and faster than I was at 31 when I did Kona the first time. You’re a genius. And to FuelBelt and team for amazing support in all aspects all year long every year – it’s a dream team to be part of. Thank you FuelBelt! To Linnea for my good luck flowers – they worked! And to my single member fan club: my mother-in-law Jayne; she emailed so many people so frequently her email provider got angry. Thanks also to my other product sponsors Kestrel, K-Swiss, Speedfil, ISM, PowerBar, VASA, Lazer Helmet, TYR and Tifosi! It is a rare privilege to be able to pick the best products as sponsors, and they all played a significant part in my victory.
Training: For those interested; the actual build started 10 weeks before the race but everything prior set me up to absorb what Coach Al threw at me for those 10 weeks. I am not getting any younger (ahem), so recovery is crucial to being able to back up and nail key sessions. Plus with kids and a part time job, I don’t have time to waste; every session needs to count. Those factors have to be taken into account and is the reality for most age groupers out there. Al adapted each week and often daily based on my ongoing recovery and performance. His famous saying ‘your next workout is only as good as your last recovery’ are words to live by.
To make a long season short, I PR’ed in Boston this spring by 16 minutes which gave me confidence in what has always been my weakness. My 3 half irons went great and my biking came back up to speed. The next task during the Ironman build was to increase my bike FTP (functional threshold power) while inserting high intensity running and of course prepare me for the distance itself. The sessions were arranged in a way that I didn’t feel over trained and I recovered well between. Todd sometimes could not believe I pulled off some of the expected sets but Al seemed to know what I should/would barely be able to make. It worked and my FTP increased by about 10W in the process (lots of death interval session in the pain cave sprinkled with very foul language) even though my cycling frequency and volume was comparatively low. So a 10 week build with no more than 15-20 hours per week of training which included lots of intensity, functional strength training and flexibility work. I also had a massage by the world’s best (Sara Riley) every other week. To keep improving as an ‘aging’ athlete (aging but not old!) I do believe intensity rather than long and moderate is the right strategy, and since the hours per week is relatively low it’s a win-win within a busy life. Strength and flexibility work becomes increasingly important for staying injury free along with correct movement skills. 10 weeks of focused work rather than building for 6 or 8 months is bearable for the family and your personal sanity and doesn’t cause conflict when you want to do it again. Guess what – I want to do it again! But there is also this certain small “Extreme” race in Norway that I would like to do. We’ll see…