Ironman
World Championships
Kona-Kailua, Hawaii

David Labouchere OBE
 

Gregory!  I’m pregnant!

I smiled.  Not my Wellington smile, which triggers pain-suppressing chemicals in the system, but a deep amused smile.  The sign, roughly felt-penned on white cardboard, was propped up on a black lump of lava on the side of the Queen Kaahumanu Highway (the ‘Queen K’) about 20 kms North of Kona-Kailua, Hawaii.  My immediate reaction was: Oh, Lucky Greg (whoever you are)!  How exciting, and what a lift for you as you toil southwards back towards Kona and T2.  I read it again; I had plenty of time as I was travelling at under 20kmh and had been for the last sixty wind-blasted kilometers.  The small print read ‘and it’s yours.’  I reflected on the relationship implied by this message.  I now questioned whether the note would improve Gregory’s performance.  Gregory would be surprised.  The couple – if they were a couple – had clearly not been trying to make little girls or Gregories.  My grin faded back to the Chrissy smile and I reminded myself not to disassociate, to continue to pedal smoothly, to watch the wattage and keep low, pulling and pushing through 360 degrees rather than stamping down.

I was four hours into the bike ride and my brain was in an overdrive of multi-tasking.  Gregory’s surprise had triggered a thought that was, with nearly 80% of the bike completed, just one of a plethora of random reflections fitted in around functional and physical concentration.

I thought back over a journey to this point that had started in 2009.  Now I was approaching a major milestone in my life: completion of the Kona Ironman.

Pedal, breathe, steady the upper body, relax, check power.

In 2009 I had learnt to swim crawl or ‘freestyle’ as the purists would have it.  I had also taken the basket off the front of an old 62 cm Raleigh touring bike complete with downtube shifters, detached the pannier carriers at the back and bolted on an aluminium tri-bar to the mountain bike handlebar.  The straight bars were an ‘improvement’ made by one of likely several previous owners.  I had paid 25 Canadian dollars for that bike in a police auction of lost or stolen/recovered assets in Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1993.  So I completed my first triathlon on a shopping bike that I had owned for 16 years.  The 80th place (7th in age) achieved at the Winchester Fastwitch race was enough to persuade me to find a better bike.
  Enter the draft zone, count the seconds, use all 20 of them to get your wheel in front of his.  Make sure there isn’t another bike close in front of him or you’ll have to keep going until that one is dispatched too.  Keep your head still, check power.

I acquired  a Felt AR4 and took it two months later to my second race, the IMUK 70.3 Championship at Wimbleball, qualifying in age for the World Championships in Clearwater.  I was already entered for the UK Ironman at Bolton, so I tried that too coming third in age and qualifying for Kona.  Of course I didn’t go to either of the World Championships that year, partly because it was too expensive for a government employee in the UK, but really because my early success gave me a misplaced confidence in my ability… this Triathlon thing wasn’t too tricky, was it?  I thought I’d better save up and go next year...  And then my beginners luck ran out.  And I learned an abject lesson: there’s a lot of luck in who turns up for your race!  If you get a Kona qualification, go.  Sell your house, sell your prized collection of Marvel Comics/Penthouse Magazines/Matchbox cars/Snowglobes, sell your Golf Clubs (actually, sell those first), sell a child if you have one spare, but whatever happens: Go.

Review nutrition, when did I last eat, or drink, or pee?  When will I eat again, or drink, or pee?  Check power.

Urination on the bike is a vexed subject.  When racing, there are those can but won’t, those that can’t but want to, those that can’t and won’t and those that can and do.  I am in the last bracket.  I pee whenever the mood takes me.  I don’t want to carry any extra weight at all, so the moment I feel like it, I let go.  Heaven help the poor (cheating) soul tucked in on my back wheel.   But it leads me to wonder; am I hastening the onset of incontinence – a subject that looms larger as I get older?  Caroline has long expressed the intention of ‘knocking me off’ once I start to smell like a telephone box, so this is an important subject.  And I have always opined that when one of the dogs gets so old that it is easier to quietly wet itself rather than rouse from the bed for a sniff and a wander in the garden, then it is perhaps time to think of a trip to the vet…  So perhaps I should treat outflow like nutritional racing intake and do it with discipline.  So far I had taken a gel every twenty minutes.  So perhaps a pee on the hour would be appropriate?  Or should I do it more hygienically and plan the pee after a feed station when armed with a fresh bottle of water to squirt at my nether-regions after the act?  But then coming out of a feed station one is always juggling bottles and gels, and dodging empties on a wet road, and dumping rubbish (littering outside the aid stations = disqualification) and avoiding the ‘late deciders’ who cut in at the last moment.  Ah, the plethora of planning decisions necessary for a successful IM!  Oh and by the way, I wouldn’t get too close to me on the run either…
  Oh, wandering mind, get back to how I got here…  In 2010 I targeted 2013 for an all out effort to race the World Championships in the year that I was 50.  I then put together a three year plan, which culminated in a second successful qualification for Kona at the 2013 Ironman South Africa.  I had learnt my lesson and trained as hard as my work and family situation would allow, maximizing my chances.

High to my right a jetliner on short finals for the airport.  Start thinking about preparing for the run.  Pedal smoothly.  Ride the sideways wind gust.  The airport means only another 10kms.  But the jet is still high.  5 kms out? Then 15 to transition.  Check power.

Ironman takes time.  The race is long.  The training, even longer.  Thus pacing, whether in the three years it took me to get here, or on training swims, rides and runs, and most importantly during the race, is the number one factor in achieving success.  Get it wrong and your body will break down and you will go into a cycle of train, injure, rehab, train.  Wrong also means you will run out of family support, health, inspiration or energy, or your priorities will change.  Get it right and it becomes a way of life, and affects everything you do.  You will eat for Ironman, sleep for Ironman, work for Ironman and bore any non-triathlete.  Non-triathletes will not understand. If you are lucky your closest friends and loved ones will embrace your passion and support you – as mine did.  I had come a long way.

Keep pedaling; the heat of the sun absorbed by the black laval rock on either side of the road cooks you from the sides.  The surface isn’t mirror smooth like the Al Qudra cycle path, but it is not bad like the UK roads, or IMSA.  I’m still overtaking about one bike every minute.  Slow progress through the 2000 strong field of athletes.

There are two sorts of male cyclists… those that are impotent, and those that are going to be.  This forms the basis of a very powerful argument: the less time I spend on the bike the better!  Keep pedaling, smooth, smooth, smooth.

The people I was racing were all fit, all well prepared.  Some, no doubt were injured - lots of people overdo the training in a Kona year.  Most amateurs race one Ironman a year, but if they are lucky enough to qualify they will have to refocus at once on the next challenge.  And Kona is the biggest challenge of the lot.  So instead of resting and recovering they are forced not only to continue training but to up their game.  Almost all of those who race in Kona have qualified and are therefore in the top three or so of their national cohort.  And while some come with hope, prayers and inhibiting physical damage, most come at the peak of their potential.  A few, including Gordon Ramsey, come because they are celebrities with something to sell and others because they have been lucky enough to pick up one of the lottery places.

Check power.  By now I know that my target power is proving too hard; maintaining it is driving my heart rate up, so execute my pre-planned contingency, sacrifice a good bike leg for a good race.  I reset the target mentally and back off a little.  This way I will have fresher legs to achieve my only hard and fast target for the day: a sub 3:30 negative split marathon.

In the week before the race I had met an athlete in my age group who was doing his 100th Iron distance race (and his son had joined him for this one – having qualified at only 18 years old).  I had chatted to a youthful looking ex pro-swimmer who was doing his 11th Kona World Championship – he was in my age group too.  I met and congratulated Ken Glah now racing his 30th Ironman World Championship and there have only been 35!  And he’d qualified for every one, so he had to have 60 Ironman performances under his belt.  Oh yes and he was 50 too.  They were just a few characters amongst 175 in my category, all at that moment, somewhere on the Queen K with me.  All squinting against the harsh glare and struggling to relax as the wind threatened to knock us sideways and backwards.

The wind is a big factor in Kona.  On the way out it had been relatively light and what little there was was mostly on my rear quarter fluctuating gently from three o’clock to nine o’clock on the clock face; sometimes boosting me, sometimes knocking me sideways, but rarely impeding progress.  On the way back, starting from the top of Hawi (pronounced Harvey) Mother Nature was less generous.  Gone was the comforting rumble and moan of carbon wheels and tubs on smooth tarmac, replaced by wind noise much closer to the ears as your helmet channels the roaring air up and over your back.  Sailors will know the crack of a sail left to flap downwind in a strong breeze.  But on the Queen K you ride that sail as it snaps, bellies and whips between your legs, launching you and your bike from left to right on the road; physically throwing carbon and 82kgs of flesh two meters off the chosen line.  And the more you try to control the sail the more it pulls you around, and tires you out.  You have to have confidence and relax and with luck the road will be wide enough to accommodate your lateral deviations.  And so it had been for me.  I had sucked in my cheeks a couple of times when overtaking and ambulances passed twice with lights strobing and sirens wailing, but all was well on my TRIbe green-painted and much photographed Cervélo P5.

Check power against the new target.  Take on another gel, grab a bottle of isotonic drink, avoid an ambulance stopped in the aid station.  Someone is down on the floor – an early casualty of exhaustion.  Push and pull the pedals, maintain cadence, check heart rate, look for signs of cardiac drift and perhaps the decoupling of power and heart-rate.  Nothing.  On target.  Keep it smooth.  Check power.

With less than half an hour left on the bike I switched mental topic to reflect on the ride to that point.  I had left Kona oblivious of my swim time, and headed out for the short circuit of town that precedes the long hours in the blackened bare rocked coastline to the North.  Many competitors stood up and blasted up Palani, a short sharp hill that meets the Queen K above the old town.  The frenzied cheers of the gathered crowds, predominantly camp followers with individual allegiances, had wrung in our ears.  The American announcer halfway up the incline had a field day butchering pronunciation and countries of origin.  Names, ages and exhortations to ‘Go, Go, Go!’, encouraged even the most experienced to overdo it a little.  I hadn’t brought my family and knew that while I had friends in the crowd it was friends in Dubai for whom I was racing.  I had enjoyed a wry smile, recognizing their mistakes as those that had cost me time on at least two previous Ironman outings.  Go hard early and you will regret it on the run.  Training and racing with a powermeter had persuaded me of the import of pacing.  My insistent and informed coach had explained the science with repeated patience, and I felt that I had finally learnt the lesson.  So I had let the hotheads stand on their big gears and dump power into the hill, while I was spinning efficiently up the rise, and felt sure that I would see them all later, if not in the wind, most certainly on the run.  I was repeatedly overtaken and kept my eyes down, watching the digital display and concentrating on my wattage.  It felt ludicrously easy.  Part of me worried that I was losing this race.  Everyone who passed looked to be male and between 50 and 54 years of age.  I struggled to keep the rage and red mist of racing at bay and as the cacophony of the town receded, the rolling hills unfolded on the way North.  I had averaged 40kmh around town – this wasn’t slow!

Stay low on the bars.  Stretch the legs by shifting weight onto the forearms and shift myself just off the seat.  So much relief for a moment as the pressure is lifted from the undercarriage.  Don’t cruise, keep pedaling.  Slip back onto the seat.  Smooth.  Check power for the thousandth time.

Reflecting on the ride again… after a little over an hour and a half in the saddle, fixed on the aerobars and concentrating on overtaking victims smoothly within 20 seconds of entering the draft zone (10m in Kona), I had covered the first third of the bike course.  I ticked off the landmarks as they passed: the entrance to the Natural Energy Lab, the Airport, the Veterans Cemetary, the donkey crossings.  The average was down to 38.7kmh by then which was above my target, but my wattage was spot on and I knew that what help had been given by the wind in this early part of the ride, she would take away when it came to riding for home.  I had ridden this section on my first training ride on the big island, exactly a week earlier and there were no surprises.

Passing the Natural Energy Lab.  Now biking on the run route.  About 15 minutes from transition.  Back off the power and spin for a minute.

Surprises.  Reconnaissance is vital for me.  I hate the unknown and the week had been spent reducing training volume while experiencing the race course in as much detail as possible.

On the first day in Kona, a rampantly jet-lagged Saturday one week earlier, I had swum the swim course, logging 4.4kms in an hour and twenty minutes.  I had also biked this section of the Queen K the same day, training with some intensity for a little over four hours.

Four week tapers are not for me.  Long tapers used to be favoured by marathon runners in the last part of the last century, but today’s ultra-runners hardly taper at all, and long distance triathlon is more akin to the longest footraces than any 3 hour effort for a marathon.  If form requires freshness and fitness then it follows that you can achieve it by resting more, rather than training less.  So I was unconcerned by the volume and intensity, and I trained hard through race week and in between sessions I lazed around in the rented apartment, eating well, sleeping in short bursts and bantering with family and friends, albeit with a 14 hour time-difference, through the wonderful communications afforded by Whatsapp, Facebook and Skype.
But I was in Hawaii!   I executed a good 14 km run to complete my recce of the first section of the marathon on the previous Sunday, and on the following day a full ride of 18 miles uphill to Hawi that nets you much of the 1300m in climb that this course delivers.   I headed off on the Tuesday, after a short swim, to explore the Big Island with my flatmates (my old friend Glyn – IM Wales AG Champion 40-44 – his wife Vicki and Glyn’s protégé Becky; a young Army Corporal who had won the female 20-24ag at IM Wales).

We drove over the spine of the Island high above the Queen K for nearly two hours, arriving on the lush and lawless Eastern coast before driving South towards Hilo.  There we paid a paltry $5 to park our car and walked in faltering warm drizzle to a viewing point whence we could see the stunning Acaca Falls, whose 135m pure drop is nearly 3 times as great as that of Niagara.  Waterfalls it seems, come as either cascades or pure falls and the Acaca is second only to the almost incredible Angel Falls which plunge 807m without cascading in Venezuala.  For Dubaians, think Burj Khalifa, and suspend your disbelief.

Tourism completed, and a rest day logged – albeit with an hour of swimming in the crystal clear Pacific Ocean.

Nearly in town.  The review of life and race must be placed in abeyance.  Concentrate on transition.   And the start of the race.

The start?  Well, the run is where Ironman is won or lost.  The swim is a warm up and while for the professionals mere seconds can mean losing the advantage of the pack on the bike, it has relatively little bearing for the competitive age-groupers.  We are heavily policed on the bike and in Hawaii you cannot infringe the drafting rules for a second without hearing your number called by the dreaded stealth motorbike.  And if you cheat, you spend shameful time in a penalty tent.  4 minutes of hard-earned racing.  You never know, it might be the difference between 5 places, or a sub-10 Ironman time.  The bike is all about preparing the body for the marathon.  It’s about nutrition – the fourth discipline – and energy conservation.
 
Now I’m running.  No, I’m running! Really running!  Check pace.

In training triathletes practice ‘brick’ sessions;  so called because when you get off the bike your legs feel like bricks.  But on race day in Kona, I got off the bike and ran.  My legs were not heavy.  A friend, Andy Holliman, always says that Marathons turn ‘ugly’ at about 20 miles (or 32Kms) but that Ironman Marathons start ‘ugly’.  Not for me, not on that day at least.  On that day I could run.  I had to concentrate hard on keeping my pace down to 5mins/km.  This feels painfully slow when you feel fresh and are racing.

Focus!  Technique.  Knee lift.  Relax shoulders.  Head up.  Check pace.

The course takes you round the little town centre – Kona is no more than a large village – and out along the coast to the South for about 5 miles (8km) before you turn and retrace your steps.  This gives you a chance to spot any opposition either ahead or behind you.  Those ahead you see as they come back into town, those behind as you do the same.  I had hoped to be quicker than my fellow Dubai triathletes, and spotted the first of them as I returned to town – I was ten or twelve kilometers up, so far so good.

Eat.  Drink.  Cool down with a sponge under the hat and ice down the front of the suit.  Check pace.

At every aid station I slowed for nutrition, ice and cold sponges.  We were blessed with perfect weather.  It was hot and very humid, but there was a little cloud cover that meant that we were not ‘cooking’ in the sun.  And ‘hot’ is relative.  I had trained through and come from a Dubai Summer, running all my runs on a treadmill as it is physiologically almost impossible to train the run properly at over 40 deg C.  Three hours on a gym treadmill is mentally taxing.  The only time I enjoyed one of these weekly sessions was when The Ashes were on the TV just above my head.  A test match is perfect accompaniment to 30-40kms on a machine.  Endless replays of every wicket with ‘Beefy’ expounding on how England are superior to the Aussies – such a short memory, Sir Ian!  And my bike rides had been testing too.  For 16 weeks I rode early and covered 100 miles (160kms) every Friday.  And every week I had friends ride the whole thing with me (Chris Knight) or join me for part of the session (Garry Whyte et al.) – did I mention the import of the support of family and friends?  It is one thing, when training for the biggest race of your life, to get up at 0230 and ride for 5 hours before breakfast on your day off, it is another to do the same for a friend.

The local residents were also out on the road with hoses.  ‘Point it at my middle, I just had a pee!’  Check pace.

I walked up Palani (thanks for the advice, Glyn, you Star!) and suffered the jibes of the less informed public.  And then ran smoothly off the crest and out of town, again on the Queen K.  Now I was settled and running just faster than goal pace, 16 kms down, 26 to go.

Technique.  Land with your feet under you.  Keep your feet fast.  Don’t let them loiter on the hot tarmac.  Quick feet.  Check pace.

The mile markers came and went.  My rhythm was settled, metronomic.  Running was no longer ‘easy’ but it wasn’t ‘ugly’ either.  I mused.  I thought again about the journey and the day.

The swim had been the aspect that I had worried about most.  All week I had gone to the course and swam.  It had been hard to concentrate at times.  I don’t think that I ever overtook anyone on any of those swims.  Kona qualifiers, it seems, are all fish.  So as the week went on I worried more about the swim and moved my ‘self-seeded’ start position from the first third to the second.  I am robust and figured that I would rather be swum over, than be held up by swimmers in front of me.

Technique. Breathing.  Land square.  Lift knees.  Do some maths.  Hips forward.  Check pace.

Those training swims characterize Kona for me.  Crystal clear water, with coloured fish inches from your flailing arms, ignoring you.  The sign on the ocean floor that you swim over with ‘Coffees of Hawaii this way’ and a big arrow.  The coffee boat anchored a kilometer offshore, just off the course and dispensing delicious ‘peaberry’ Hawaiin Coffee espressos.  Being able to sight swimmers coming towards you from 50m away, underwater.  Turtles, rays, coloured coral.  The ocean swell lifting you gently.  Light winds and sun on your back.

But when the gun goes off it is nothing like that.  One thousand nine hundred six packs. No where in the world will you find a larger gathering of the obscenely fit.  Alpha males and females sharing the same small piece of ocean with only one aim – to go faster than everyone else.  In a ‘normal’ ironman there is a vast discrepancy of ability in the water.  Some swim the 2.4miles (3.8kms) in 52 minutes, others in one hour and 52 minutes.  In Hawaii the best amateurs defeat the swell and the slight current in about 55 minutes and the worst in about one hour and 15 minutes.  So the pack never spreads out.  From start to finish you are ‘in traffic’.  Early on I battled a hyper aggressive ‘ripped’ German female on my left and a twenty something bodybuilder on my right.  Sandwiched in the middle with nowhere to go, I was bumping them both and they me.  Hilda took umbrage, stopped and kicked.  Hard.  And with deadly accuracy.  I spent the next 1500m wondering whether I would ever recover.  Her aim had been so good.  One tiny part of me, the extremity of an appendage, was sending lightening rods of agony to the receptors in my brain.  I imagined a ripe fruit, split…

But in time endorphins dulled the pain and I found myself on my way back down the course,  still hitting and being struck by other athletes. The bodybuilder was close by, but my Teutonic assailant was gone.  Probably off battering some other poor innocent in her quest for world domination and Ironman supremacy.

The half-way point in the marathon! I must stop day dreaming and focus on finishing faster than I started.

Technique.  Nutrition.  Slow through the aid stations – it’s no good pouring it over your nose and chin, it’s got to get to the gut.  Check pace.

With 10kms to go I was still feeling good and decided to up the pace to 4mins 30secs/km.  This worked well, but those ten seemed to take as long as the rest of the marathon put together.  Was this ‘ugly’?  I don’t think so. I didn’t visit those reputed ‘dark places’ or have to really dig deep.  And turning onto Ali’i Drive for the last time with 500m to go I was strong enough and thinking clearly enough to take off my hat and glasses and zip up my TRIbe top.  Photos, don’t you know! 

The crowds at the finish are amazing.  You run through a wall of noise, elation and celebration, up the ramp to pose briefly for digital memories that you will cherish forever.  And there is emotion; deep welling, lump in the throat emotion as your body starts to shut down and recover.  As if on a magic carpet you float through to the athletes’ recovery area for a massage and a smorgasbord of delicacies that have been forbidden for so long. 

And then, suddenly, you feel stiff, and old – but happy.

Post race, muscular failure snuck up on me regularly, at least for a couple of days.  This meant that there were two basic static positions when awake: standing and sitting.  And nothing in between.  Going to the loo, for instance, meant positioning myself above the porcelain, standing.  Then a split second later I was sitting.  Boom, no transition, just ‘bump’ and I’m there.  And walking is also a challenge.  I always try to carry off the ‘I’m fine, hardly any stiffness, feel great!’ walk the next day… if it is windless, the way not too winding, on the flat.  It is of course an act.  And if you ever needed to test me, wandering along ostensibly in prime condition, just get me to descend some stairs.  Immediately my deception becomes obvious.  My hand sneaks to the banister and my knuckles tighten white as I try to support my bodyweight with my upper body.  There is a noticeable loss of body control between each step… a steadying moment on reaching the next firm flat safe surface.  Extension working is anathema to chronically exhausted muscles.  I’ll still be able to bluff it well enough going upstairs, but going down I age 40 years!

What next?

My thoughts have now turned to Ironman South Africa 2014.  06 April next year should see well over 50 Dubaian Athletes competing in Port Elizabeth.  I hope that some of what I have written here might help them achieve their goals.

And if anyone is lucky enough with the opposition to qualify as I did, I hope they take their chance and go to Kona, they will never regret it. 


Afternotes:

I owed it to all those who have followed my journey to the Big Island to tackle the diary entry that supports this period enthusiastically.  It is a tome for which I make no apology as I have spent well over 1000 hours (mostly of my friends’ time) preparing myself for this race in the last year alone.  If you therefore found this a little long please accept it as a reflection of the abundance of material available on which to write – and if necessary suggest to anyone you might pass it on to, that it is best digested with two visits to the loo instead of the customary one.

The official video of the swim leg shows a school of dolphins breaking the water next to the pack and swimming with us.  Amazing.  Shame I was too busy racing to notice them.

I was not permanently damaged by the low blow in the water.  All ten toes now correctly sized (well what were you thinking?).

I swam 1.09, biked 5.13, and ran 3.27 (negative split) for a 9.56 finish.  19/175 in age.

I came in just two seconds behind Glyn and was the first Dubaian by nearly an hour.

On average I have spent around three hours of every day for three years damaging muscle in the vain hope that the ensuing repair process might leave me stronger, more durable and faster.  And these are hours that the family man might normally spend with his devoted wife and developing children.  Family neglect is a major downside of the selfishness of a dedicated amateur athlete.  I can only say thank you with all my love to Caroline, Max and Mimi for putting up with me and my obsession.  I wish that I could promise that it will end soon.

And after family, to my friends: Thank you for supporting me for so long.  For keeping me awake on those long rides (falling asleep at the wheel is well-documented, but falling asleep on a bike and crashing out into the desert would be embarrassing), for keeping me focused and for the wicked humour that fuels the strongest friendship; particular thanks must go to Garry Whyte and Chris Knight.  Go TRIbe!

And finally to Nick Tipper, who knew me well enough to train me.  He gave almost as much of his time assessing, analyzing and designing my training as I did executing it.  Mine is a shared success. Nick is an outstanding young coach, loyal friend and remarkable elite athlete in his own right. He netted a 50 year old retired Army Officer a ‘Sub-10’ at Kona!