A 50-54 age-grouper’s 2018 Ironman World Championship build-up and race report, by Finn.

The qualification for and then build up to ‘Kona’ was almost routine. After securing another 4th place and getting the coveted Kona slot at Ironman South Africa in April, a great little holiday in Bhutan with Sam my wife followed. Strangely, despite not seeing anybody swimming, biking or running, Bhutan claims to be the happiest country in the world? We embraced the Buddhist spirit, although breaking the Strava record for the fastest trek up to the temple at Tiger’s Nest at 3,120m above sea level perhaps wasn’t quite the right mind set. I passed two monks who were taking about a week to make the 900m almost vertical climb, but their devotion had them crawling in prostration every mindful step of the way. Or perhaps they were on a low intensity training block.

What followed was, frankly, a long hard and depressing Dubai summer of training. While I had an intermediate goal of racing the 70.3 (half distance) World Championships in Port Elizabeth early September, this proved to be too far away to stay properly motivated. I got to level 20 on Zwift, the popular indoor bike and run trainer app, which meant spending hours grinding away on the Wahoo Kickr bike trainer and on the treadmill inside the ‘pain cave’. There is only so much music, Netflix, ITU coverage, Giro, Tour De France you can watch or listen to. Besides, during the hard parts I can’t really do anything else but concentrate on the effort. Up to a point this makes you mentally stronger, after that it just makes life miserable. Lesson learned; if there is another Dubai summer of training to be had I need to build in some sanity breaks by training outdoors elsewhere, somehow without breaking the bank or costing heaps of leave days.

Perhaps one advantage of the indoor training is that it was all very controlled and safe which may have helped staying injury free unlike the previous summer where I picked up a hamstring tear.

70.3 World Championships

4HR 42MIN 8SEC

At the end of August there was finally a break from the outdoor summer heat and indoor sweat when I landed in Port Elizabeth for a mini ‘Kona training camp’ with the half distance Championship race thrown in. What a joy to run and ride surrounded by the African bush with a view of the Ocean, to feel rain on your face and to pass (or be passed by) real people instead of virtual ones. And to brave the sharks, cold, waves and current of the Ocean rather than following a blue line at the bottom of the pool. You have to watch your back a little bit, but otherwise Port Elizabeth is a great little city and South Africa a wonderful country to race and travel in. Amazing food, super accommodation and cheap.

My race was OK, but nothing more than that, about what I expected considering my focus was more on the lead-up to Kona.

I must have slept through the swim as I can’t think what else I was doing after coming out in a very average 33 minutes or so.

On the bike I went out with nothing to lose pushing out 270 W normalised and 250 W average resulting in a time of around 2 hours and 32 minutes. That is quite typical for me, reasonably respectable power output translating into only average speeds. Carrying a 1.94M frame at 84KG doesn’t help, but there are many others with similar dimensions squeezing themselves through the air more efficiently and possibly having superior bike skills for faster results. There may be a lesson in there again in that indoor bike power does not directly translate into outdoor bike speed. Apparently the first person across the line wins, so speed is important…


Thankfully the race isn’t over until after the run and that went quite well when I ran the 21.1K in just over 1 hour and 29 minutes. The TriDubai kit I was wearing shaved minutes off my time as I always tried to look in control and fast whenever I heard shouts of support from the many other athletes and partners from the club and from Dubai who were at this race.

 Who? me?

Who? me?

To Kona

Back in Dubai Kona suddenly wasn’t so far away. With most of the long endurance work done, the last few weeks were about keeping fitness up with shorter high intensity training, lots of stretching to prevent injuries and trying to sleep and eat well in order not to get sick. Flying via Narita and then direct to Kona proved much easier and faster than going via the USA mainland which is what I did last year.

Although it was my second time, disembarking in Kona the heat and humidity was still a bit of a shock. The islands of Hawaii are a tropical paradise, but racing an Ironman triathlon there at the end of summer has created a beast of a race (during the first decades the race used to take place in winter – February, still humid but less hot).

Arriving a week before the race there was plenty of time to get over the jetlag (14-hour time difference with Dubai), some time to acclimatise to the weather (after the Dubai summer it was the first sleep without air-conditioning for months!) and of course to soak up the atmosphere of the biggest race on the Ironman calendar.

Once again being part of it was an amazing experience. To witness how seamlessly the race is organised and to experience the way in which the town changes from normal to total Ironman circus and back again all in a few days. It’s always a buzz to run into Ironman legends at every corner. At the opening banquet where, spurred on by Ironman High Priest Mark Allen and more than a few Hawaiian gods and past Kings, where we all vowed our allegiance to ‘Church Ironman’, it’s easy to forget ironman is all just a money-making machine owned by a Chinese tycoon.

The legendary morning swims out to the coffee boat in the middle of the bay to sip espressos and take underwater pictures are unforgettable. We explored more of the island, this time with a trip to the northern valleys which are dark green and in contrast to the black barren lava surrounding Kona itself.  Other highlights include trying to get as many freebies as possible at the expo and breakfast and endless coffees at Lava Java café with all athletes and supporters from Dubai. And very special and most significant, spending time with my wife Sam and biggest fan who flew in from Auckland.[!!!! 😊]

 My number One fan. Can't you tell?

My number One fan. Can't you tell?

Racing the beast

10HR 39MIN 07SEC

Race morning came and having done it all before certainly helped to control the nerves. Breakfast, stretch, walk to the start, body marking, load nutrition, pump up tires, calibrate power meter, interspersed with cueing for the loos.

The starting cannon for the men and women pros going off meant our race was not far away. I got into the water and swam to the start line with only a few minutes to spare. Boom! We were off!

SWIM: 3.8KM, 1HR 13MIN

Starting at the ‘soft’ left side of the course where the gentlemen swimmers hang out was a bit chaotic at the beginning but quite soon there was room available to get a decent stroke and rhythm going. Breathing to my left I had a nice view of the shore and the volcano in the background giving a sense of speed and progress. This and an outgoing current kept me going at a reasonable pace. I passed the turnaround buoys in just under 30 minutes. Great!
Then it became a loooong way home. Will my children achieve their dreams? Will house prices in Dubai go down further? How will the Americans vote in the midterm election? Will I make it out of my next embassy visit alive? And many other random thoughts went through my head. I tried to shake them by concentrating on drafting off other swimmers which, once I focused properly, went better than usual. Still, now without a coastline to look at, getting tired and swimming against the current my progress slowed significantly and the return leg was about 42 minutes or 40% slower than swimming out. Towards the end dolphins, who had started 15 minutes behind me, started over taking me. (Ok, possibly they were women, but they went too fast for me to see them clearly.)


T1: 6MIN 37SEC

I wiggled out of my swim speed suit and struggled to put the top of my wet tri-suit on. I was pretty nifty in putting on and rolling my arm sleeves up - a melanoma scare will make you take the time to get that kind of protection on. Socks, shoes and run to the bike. I noted that there weren’t that many bikes left in transition. Possibly the level of swimming is quite high at the World Championships, who would have guessed?

While running with the bike to the mount line, my bike bumped into another competitor and it fell to the ground. I picked the bike back up quickly, but the cover of my front bike bottle had gone inside it and it took a bit of time for me to fish it out and put it back in place. This ensured my place in history as I made the Ironman FB Live coverage: About 2:10 into the footage you’ll see an annoying presenter in the foreground distracting from your hero in the background making an expert recovery from his near disastrous bike crash.

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BIKE: 180KM, 5HRS 19MIN

The bike for me is a job to be done on the way to the run. Like last year I used BestBikeSplit and my Wahoo bike computer to give me my target power every step of the way. This time I fine-tuned the plan using the very latest weather and wind forecast, which was different from usual with a lot less wind overall and a bit of tailwind. Adding a drag factor of 10% over the predicted one based on my bike, wheels, tires, road surface I ended up biking a time within 1% of the BestBikeSplit plan. Geek race data at its best.

Watching out not to draft, eating every 15 minutes while sticking to my power targets I made my way up to Hawi, the halfway and highest elevation point. Going uphill I dropped my chain once...After mis-selecting gears several times last year and dropping my chain that way, this year the issue was mechanical. I had made the beginners mistake of one last small bike service in Dubai just before the race. During the service my bike chain was found to be stretched out of limits and replaced. Unfortunately once in Kona I discovered that my front chain rings had worn quite badly and the new chain did not co-operate well with the older rings. I had things tuned as well as possible in Kona, but clearly it wasn’t enough. I would drop the chain two more times during the race, each time taking a minute or so to put it back on.

The men and women pros passed us on their way down back to Kona. Ironman is unique in that way: In what other sport are you in the same race as your idols?

After the descent from Hawi it was still a pretty long way home, but the ‘do-not-draft-target-power-eat-repeat’ routine and worrying about chain drops kept me occupied. With some tailwind, partly overcast and even a bit of rain on the bike I was looking forward to the run. Sub-10 hours started to look possible. An injury free run-up period meant my run was solid. Great Expectations….

T2: 4MIN 21SEC

Bike catchers, what a luxury not having to rack your bike yourself. Shoes, hat, sunglasses and onto the run.

Lava Java Café Postrace breakfast with some of the Dubai crowd (clockwise starting left with age group and race time):

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Mark Fourie (45-49) 10H31MIN. Best Kona debut. Mark was always a good swimmer and biker. He then lost 10KG and discovered he is a great runner too and deals well with the heat. Saves Royals and Airmen in his spare time.
Gamal Aboshabana (30-34) 11H16MIN. Gamal has a young family and a demanding off-shore job and not much time to train. He made sure that what he did counted and had a great race.
Who? ; ) David Labouchere (55-59) 10H13MIN. 10th in age group! All around legend David defied what is humanly possible as this was his fourth Ironman in 6 months. Showed us how it is done by being the eldest in the group and still beating almost all of us by a large margin. Great swim, superior bike, solid run.
Caroline Labouchere. Finally made it to Kona with David after supporting him from home on many previous occasions. Now a model she hardly landed in Kona when she swooned off to New York for a photoshoot. Made it back just before the race. How Jet Set is that!
Stine Mollebro (35-39) 10H24MIN. The talent. Supermom of 3 and Kona batch mate. Stine beat me big time, but she respectfully crossed the finish line just after me (the women having started 15 min after the men). I may keep her on the EK friend ticket list…
Lisa Hancox (40-44) 11H2MIN. Goes for every life experience in full and with a smile. She’ll probably climb Everest next.
Missing in photo:
Lucy Woollacott (40-44) 10H25MIN. The upcoming talent. Expect more from this girl.
Joao Marcela (35-39) 9H43MIN. Man or fish? Great work Joao. You’ll be back.

RUN: 42.2KM 3HRS 56MIN

I found my running legs soon on Ali Drive going out of town. This part of the marathon is quite shady, full of people and right next to the beautiful Ocean. “But, it is pretty hot. I better get some ice at the next aid station. That feels better. Get some more ice. Why are my legs so painful? Maybe walk the next aid station. Damn, my shoes are so heavy from all that water…” And it was downhill from there. Very soon it became walking every aid station to get ice and later on hats full of water to hose and cool myself down. Once out of town to the energy lab and back my run form dropped further and it became an Ironman shuffle.

Making my way out of the Energy Lab I passed Ken Glah the 55-59 year former pro who was announced at the opening banquet as being on his 35th consecutive Kona Ironman World championships. I said, “Are you the 35 Kona’s man? Keep it up!” He answered, “I am trying to be, if I manage to finish this one.” He got his 35th in 10Hr 55MIN, suffering through an almost 5 hour marathon after swimming and biking much faster than me.

Despite the controlled effort on the bike and being run fit, the run ended up being the same sufferfest as last year. The only difference being that the pain lasted 2 minutes shorter.

 Passing my coach (and Podcaster-Supreme) near the finish line. I am smiling as I know it is nearly over.

Passing my coach (and Podcaster-Supreme) near the finish line. I am smiling as I know it is nearly over.

RACING WITH ROB?

Rob was an Emirates colleague and fellow Ironman triathlete. I met Rob and his wife Kerry in Dubai when Rob had just qualified for Kona via the Legacy Program. This meant that Rob had completed over 14 Ironman races. Ironman had been a real lifestyle for him and Kerry, travelling to races all around the world. After Rob had booked his trip to Kona he was diagnosed with a fairly rare form of cancer. He had his first round of chemo therapy and doctors advised Rob against racing, but he still went to Kona as a fan expecting to get better and come back to compete.

Over the next few years treatment seemed to work quite well and I understood that the disease wouldn’t go away but was controllable.
I made one very small gesture last year after I came back with my Kona finisher’s medal by posting it to Rob as encouragement for him to get better. Besides, he deserved that medal more than me having qualified through sheer effort. But, the medal never made it to Rob as he passed away in the UK before ever getting to his mail in Dubai.

This year Kerry came to Kona with George, Rob’s young son, to witness the race Rob and Kerry had dreamed about being at together for many years. Kerry had taken a small part of Rob, a wisdom tooth, with her. I carried this tooth with me on the race allowing Rob to finally complete the Ironman he had wanted to finish most. I held ‘Rob’ up in the air passing the finish line.

Later, after the race, I left Rob’s tooth into the Ocean right at the swim start line where Rob now lives on. I wish Kerry and George all strength and happiness in life without Rob.

 On the finish line holding Rob high in the air in my right hand (desperately trying not to drop him – Rob would have laughed at that story!)

On the finish line holding Rob high in the air in my right hand (desperately trying not to drop him – Rob would have laughed at that story!)

NEXT
Last year I made Ironman plans and promises I didn’t stick to. I won’t make the same mistake this year. Clearly, I haven’t cracked this race yet. Perhaps the mental battle was lost on the bike when I created expectations of the good and ‘easier’ run I would have.
There is no such thing as ‘easy’ in Kona. Plenty of lessons were learned and experience gained. Improvement will be a mix of incremental gains balanced with change as doing the same thing over and over again tends to get the same result.

Of course this story is the ‘Facebook Glamour Version’ of an Ironman journey. In reality it takes a lot to qualify and then actually get to this race. Racing Kona well is on a whole next level for me.
I hope to be back one day sooner or later. If I do make it again I’ll remind myself just how fortunate I am to be there as I pass Rob at the swim start line.

Capt Finn Zwager

October, 2018

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