Kona Report: Ride to Hawi

Everyone has heard about the difficult conditions on the Kona bike course near the turn at Hawi. If you get classic Ironman weather, which you almost always do on race day, the Hawi winds can only be described as shocking. It is unlikely you will ever have ridden your bike in anything approximating the jet blast blowing from your right-front quarter as you climb the last 7 miles to the turnaround.

The winds along the Kona bike course, not just at Hawi, conspire to make what could be a very fast course indescribably difficult. As I drove out to Waikoloa, 25 miles out on the Queen K yesterday morning, the wind were moderate from the ENE, meaning they were a cross headwind. I Left Waikoloa on my Kestrel 4000 at 8am, a bit earlier than the first pros will hit the same spot Saturday. For the first 9 miles to Kawaihae, the Queen K rolls as it does for the entire 34 mile stretch from Kona. Yes you must climb, but all in all it is fast. Except for that bothersome wind. At this point it was merely bothersome, but enough to take what should have been an easy 21-22 mph average at IM watts to something notably south of that.

After a quick 1 mile descent to the boat harbor (and sea level), you make the right at the sign for Hawi. From here it is 18 miles of climbing. Although you see the water quickly dropping away, most of the climbing is gentle enough to maintain a good pace. And you actually have a tail wind helping you. The terrain quickly becomes parched desert wasteland, a stark contrast to the gleaming sapphire Pacific constantly present to your left. All proceeds reasonably well until a small green sign, “Hawi 7”, appears up ahead. The sign might as well say “Hold on for dear life” or “Abandon all hope ye who pass” for it is here that Pele flips on the afterburners. One second, serene calm, the next a gust smacks you on your right side and nearly blows you over. A few hundred meters pass where Pele toys with you – gust, calm, gust gust. Then all Hell breaks loose.

Did I mention that this is the point where the real climbing begins? It is also where you begin to see the first signs of living vegetation in quite some time. The roar in your ears is deafening, as 30 knots of gusty blast pounds you from the right front, and then head on. Speed drops to 9-11 mph, and watts creep up towards FTP. Staying aero is worthwhile for sure, but also extremely sketchy. You have no choice but to grind away as the miles slowly tick by. If you stay upright, Hawi eventually appears. Your average speed has been annihilated, your ears ring.

Expecting relief at the turn, it does come. For about a mile you fly downhill as fast as you dare, like you have a rocket pack on your back. But almost as soon as the fun begins, it turns ugly. The wind starts to shift more to your left, and you get shoved over towards the lava. Let the swerving begin. Here is where you burn calories via the death grip on your bars. Aero is just too risky, and you find your hands squeezing the brakes. So depending on how much of a daredevil you are, you never really get the full benefit of the wind at your back, and end up using energy fighting your bike when you could be resting.

The little green sign appears soon enough, and the terror largely subsides, now replaced with a headwind. Yes you mostly descend, but there are also some climbs and false flats. A power meter is a huge advantage here. In some spots your brains is saying – “dude 14mph – quit slacking!”. But the power meter says, “dude 300 watts – chill out!”. The course here, and in many spots on the Queen K, is hugely deceiving, and the power meter really keeps you in line.

Back in Kawahae at sea level, you are greeted with a fairly steep one mile climb back to the Queen K. The other time I rode this part of the course the winds were blasting in my face, but it was cloudy and actually rained a little – not typical. Yesterday there was just the heat, no wind. The sign at the top of the climb says it all: “Kona 34”. For most of the 9 miles back to Waikoloa the wind was calm and speed was good. But then a mile or so before Waikoloa the winds returned, having clocked about 180 degrees since I left. Which of course means that they are once again in your face, like some kind of a cruel joke.

Lessons learned: This half of the Ironman bike course tests you constantly. It tests your ability to dose your effort. It tests your bike handling skills. It tests your patience as it throws obstacle after obstacle at you, gnawing away at your average speed. Ultimately it tests your resolve to plow through and come out the other side fresh enough and sane enough to run a good marathon.

I think it would be a huge mistake to have any preconceived notions of average speed or time for this course. The conditions are so extreme and variable, both from day to day and from minute to minute, that they will decide how fast you go. I could easily see a 20 minute delta depending on what the course throws at you. Staring at your average speed as it dwindles could drive you insane. Hence the value of power meter – at least you know you are putting out the right level of effort.

Early this week temps were relatively mellow, and winds were calm. Get a day like that on race day and many records will fall. Even last year the winds at Hawi were largely absent, and competitors (or at least the front part of the field) didn’t face real winds until nearing Waikoloa on the way back. Most of the time though the conditions follow the classic script. The successful athlete will do the same – follow his own well-rehearsed script, stick to plan, control what he can control and not allow the elements to dictate his race.