By: Stefan Schreiber
I arrived in Kona on Wednesday night. I stayed at the Pineapple Park Hostel about 20km south of Kailua-Kona. It is a very basic but nice hostel with great people.
On Thursday morning I assembled my bike and headed to town to register for the big event. I took the famous Ali’i drive right along the coastline and everything was exactly as people told me before. Guys without shirts but heart rate monitor straps, the newest pair of shoes, visors, sunglasses and faces chiselled in granite while maintaining a – “It doesn’t feel hard, I am just cruising along” – 3:40 min/km pace.
Yes, I finally arrived – this must be Kailua-Kona. Free drinks and gel samples all over the place. I passed the K-Swiss and Zoot mansions on the left hand side, Hannes Hawaii tours on the other side (the most famous travel agency in Germany when it comes to Ironman Hawaii), and while riding along, I felt the humidity hitting me for the first time. Even though I took it fairly easy I was sweating balls. The registration took place at King Kamehameha’s Kona Beach Hotel (KKKBH). Since I forgot that name already two minutes after I left my hostel (I wonder why), I was now asking people for the “registration area”. I felt a bit embarrassed – everyone was pronouncing all these names so confident and fast: Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway, Kuakini Highway, Hualalai Road etc. My response was usually, “Oh yeah that’s right! Thanks so much! Have a good day!” Since I am keen observer 😉 I finally found the KKKBH. Actually, It wasn’t that hard. In essence there were just two lines of people: The first line snakes itself through the expo (which was small compared to IM Canada), and the second line headed straight to the KKKBH. Anyway, I got there at last but didn’t bring a lock and was a little bit worried when I had to leave my bike unlocked. I went inside, managed the registration procedure (so many friendly volunteers; incredible), walked out (my bike was still there) and went back to the hostel.
The way back was hard since it became hotter and I had to bike uphill all the way to my place. I also had two backpacks to carry now: The one I brought with me and the other one I just got at the KKKBH. Usually you just get a plastic bag with all your stuff, but here in Hawaii you get a backpack. Packed like a donkey I climbed up the hill and was sweating like a pig, but always trying to keep that face made of granite. Back at the hostel I got ready for a run and did a nice downhill/uphill on a really lonely side road. It took me about 40 minutes and I probably lost about two litres of sweat. Luckily though it was cloudy and hazy which means no direct sun exposure. I was hoping this weather would stay till Saturday, but it didn’t.
At 6pm I found myself back at the E Komo Mai (Welcome) Banquet at the KKKBH parking lot. It was the regular “we are all part of the Ironman family and we are doing something really special compared to all the other people in the world” – talk, which I am not a big fan of. At the beginning native Hawaiian people performed some traditional dances, which were pretty nice, however, it felt like no one actually wanted to see that. This was a bit sad – but maybe I just perceived it that way since I was sitting in the far back of the parking lot. After the dinner we had a quick race briefing and I called it a day.
On Friday morning I rode again to Kailua to check my gear bags and my bike. The difference between other IM races is that you are not allowed to see your bags again once they are on the hooks. You also get your personal volunteer that shows you everything and walks you through the entire transition area; and then as soon as you left you are not allowed to re-enter. So, you better make sure all your stuff is in there. After I was done and triple-checked everything, I headed straight to the beach and swam in the pacific for the first time in my life. It felt great and the waves were awesome. The water is so clear and you can see little fishes all over the place. I just swam for about 15-20 min and then decided to invite myself for a coffee at Lava Java the most famous coffee place in Kailua, particularly during the Ironman week. That was pretty much day #2 and I was happy when I finally got back the hostel and went to bed.
I got up at around 3am and felt quite well. I was a bit nervous though, but that was okay. I like this little bit of nervousness on race morning. I skyped with Sanja for about 20 min and even though she wasn’t there, her support was tremendous, and it actually felt like she was there and is taking care of everything. She told me that she is watching the pre-race coverage live, using Pat’s projector (Thanks Pat for that!!), and wished me all the best. I left the hostel at 4:45am and Annie, the owner, gave me a lift down to town. I headed straight to the KKKBH to get body marked, and decided to visit the toilet immediately after. There was a small line up, maybe eight people, and a light nervousness was in the air. It was an interesting feeling though, and a very special silence. After finishing up this very important business, I headed to my bike and double-checked everything. I filled up my bottles, checked the tyre pressure, the gears and the breaks one more time and tried to relax as much as possible. My biggest fear in every race is arriving at your bike and realizing a tyre is flat – and it always happens to someone, so it happened that morning as well. People were freaking out, trying to repair what they can. Once again I saw a guy covered in this white quick repair foam which one actually has to inject into the tyre and not on the tyre, spokes, frame, hands, shoes and legs (apparently it’s not as easy as written on the instructions). Luckily though, there were quite a few bike mechanics around and it looked that everyone who needed a hand also got one.
I was ready! I headed towards the beach, applied some sunscreen on places I thought it might be necessary and lined up for the beach area. Almost everyone was racing a speed suit. It’s a super tight one-piece suit, which is above your actual racing suit. I didn’t have one and was swimming in my two-piece FIERA racing kit. I was early but it was already packed with athletes. I entered the water and swam as quickly as possible near the front where I found a spot in fourth row on the left hand side and began to tread water for about 15 min. And of course I needed to pee again. Since there was no chance to exit the water I tried to pee in the pacific but it just didn’t want to come out. I can tell you, water treading is anything but relaxing. So I sucked it up (I mean the situation) and after an eardrum rupturing cannon shot the game was on. The first couple hundred metres were super slow and it took forever till the pack was finally moving. I tried to escape the business on the surface by paying more attention to the sea floor and it worked. I started to settle into a comfortable rhythm but couldn’t really tell whether I was moving fast or not. The first half felt pretty good and after the turn I decided to pick up some speed and caught someone I could draft off. The second part of the swim felt harder since the guy in front of me was racing back to the shore, which reminded me that I also should start racing now. And while I was working hard to stay on his feet, I saw a body floating in about six-metre depth. For parts of a second it gave me the chills until I realized it’s a scuba diver taking pictures. I was relieved, but almost lost the guy ahead of me. About 500 metres away I could see the beach but this last stretch felt awfully long; but I finally made it. Like in IM Canada, I couldn’t see a race clock and asked a fellow competitor for the time and his answer was 1 hour and 13 minutes. At first I was a bit shocked about my time but then I realized that I actually enjoyed the swim very much and had a good time out there. I headed towards the freshwater showers, spent some seconds to wash the saltwater off, got my bag, headed into the change tent, put my shoes on, helmet on, sunglasses on, applied some more sunscreen, ran to my bike and left the transition area.
The bike course was BUSY!! As usual I worked pretty hard in the beginning to pass as much people as possible. The first couple of miles went through the city, up a longer gradual incline, then a turnaround with the first bike split, downhill and eventually onto the Queen Kaʻahumanu Highway (short: Queen K Hwy) heading north to Hawi. It was early in the morning but I could feel the sun already. My bladder reminded me that I should pee anytime soon. “Damn, I forgot to pee while I was in transition”. Anyway, I sucked it up again, put my head down and focused on cycling. A few minutes later I found myself on a road with lava rocks to the left and to the right. It looked strange, like a desert somehow; a picture I have never seen before in my life – and it became warmer and warmer. Good thing I wore my cool wings. At approximately km 35 I hit a bump on the street and my Garmin hopped off my wristband and landed on the street. Since it happened in an aid station I decided not to stop, hoping someone will take it to lost and found. This may sound pretty stupid but I really didn’t want to slow down after I passed all these people. So it came that left my good friend behind me. A friend who accompanied me through all my hard training; a friend I yelled at when its honesty and objectivity were making me sick, but also a friend who cheered me up with numbers that looked great. I would never see him again – RIP my old friend, wherever you may be.
At every aid station I started first with water, followed by a half banana – which I can peel and swallow in less than 3 seconds – and finally a last water bottle to pour all over myself. That was my routine and it worked well for me. After about 2 hours we turned left, rode through a little village and the gradual climb up to Hawi had begun. This was the time when the pros came back and the time when the wind started to become awfully strong. The problem was that the wind wasn’t predictable, like our constant wind in Alberta, instead it was very gusty and you never knew when the next gust would hit you. Actually, the weather completely changed there and it even started to rain a bit when I passed the turn-around point in Hawi. Then, for a second, while I was going down the hill, I forgot about the wind, which resulted in a big swerve to the right almost hitting the ditch. From that point on, I never went back on my aerobars until I reached this little village again. That was also the point when the weather changed back to just hot and humid. The entire downhill stretch was very exhausting and I was glad I made it without crashing. I got back into the lava field section, which was now even hotter than before. This was the toughest part of the bike course. You are pedalling along, there is no end in sight and the sun is burning merciless. At that point I really didn’t know how I would run a marathon now. So far I have asked myself this in every Ironman and I am pretty sure it will be the same for every other Ironman to come with the difference though, that the intensity of this feeling may become less with every Ironman I will finish. After I finished this little conversation with myself, I realized that I am about to arrive in T2. The crowd was cheering and all the doubt I had about me running the marathon was gone. I handed my bike to a volunteer and the first thing I did was running straight to the shit house where I peed about 5 litres that accumulated over 6 hours which I already felt earlier that morning while I was treading water. Have you ever entered a frequently visited porta potty in 40˚C under full sun exposure? It’s gross! You open the door and the air is so thick that you have difficulties to step in. Inside you can barely breath and you lose about an additional litre of liquid via the skin instantly. At that point though, I had other needs and managed this task smoothly, grabbed my run bag and started the most feared part at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii: the marathon. It’s a run through incredible heat with around 40˚C in the air and 60˚C on the asphalt and no shade. It’s a run that will definitely take you to your limit, physically and mentally.
In retrospect, the first part of the run (up and down Ali’i drive) isn’t that bad compared to what lies ahead of you. People are cheering like crazy, which was pretty awesome and really helped to ease into the run, but after the first turn around point I got my first mental crack and it took some effort to fix it. I was pretty much ready to quit and when I felt a blister developing under my foot I had the perfect excuse. It was all worked out in my head. I will stop when I get back to the transition area and will not run onto Queen K Hwy. I will tell everyone that I had this awful blister and it was impossible to run. I would take a picture of it and post it on FB with a status update like “See, I just couldn’t run with this thing under my foot even if I wanted to”. And then I realized that this is stupidest, most ridiculous idea I have ever had and was ashamed of my thoughts. I flushed that crap out of my head and ran up Palani Rd wondering who put that hill here – I thought the run is supposed to be flat. Then the first pros come down the hill. It was all so fast that I couldn’t really see if it was Macca and Andi Raelert who were flying by me. I turned left onto Queen K Hwy where I saw Faris Al-Sultan. He is one of the very few, or even the last pro athlete who keeps the “speedo and ultra short tank top” – era alive. More and more pros where coming by and it was pretty cool to see them running on their last little bit towards the finish line. It was great! They also distracted me a bit, which was great, too! The run on the Queen K Hwy is everything but nice. It’s awful!! It’s a straight highway with rolling hills and no shade whatsoever. Since I never inspected the course beforehand, I didn’t know when exactly the left turn into the energy lab would come (the most feared part of the run). So, at every intersection I was hoping for a sign that pointed to the left. This was the time when the real mental battle had begun. At every aid station I drunk and tried to cool myself with sponges but the temperature rose and rose. Then finally, I reached the turnoff into the energy lab. At that point however, I was already cooked. I was walking now with cups full of ice and coke. I had to cool down from inside. Basically, I walked the entire out and back and poured iced coke into my stomach. People, which I passed earlier in the race, were passing me now and it didn’t bother me at all. I was in surviving mode. I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible; and if that would include walking then that it is. Luckily, when I got to the end of the energy lab, I started to feel better, and once I turned right onto Queen K Hwy I couldn’t believe how quick I was able to run again. I passed again those people that passed me minutes ago and I even started to pass other people I haven’t seen before. The next couple of kilometres were passing by relatively quickly, but soon I started to struggle again, but kept on running this time. The last kilometres took forever and were really painful. Whenever I saw a kilometre sign, I converted the remaining distance into laps and told myself, “Only x-laps to go”. This was very helpful since I was training all summer long on the track. Knowing how much laps I had left was mentally better for me than knowing how many kilometres I still have to go. And then, after finishing another “hill” (not steep but awfully long) I saw the magic street sign “Palani Road” on the next intersection. That was it! Now it’s almost over. I turned right onto Palani, ran down the hill, skipped the last aid station, and kept on running but still no end in sight. “Damn, this last little bit is longer than I thought”. I hit Ali’i drive and ran the last little bit enjoying the view and the spectators. And then I crossed the finish, “I made it, I totally made it”. The pain disappeared immediately and I was close to tears. This never happened to me after a race. I never became that emotional. It was a great feeling and it was the toughest race I ever did!
To sum it up this Ironman was a great experience for me (except for the awful sunburn on my back). Unfortunately though, Sanja couldn’t be here with me (it really helps if you have someone around who takes care of the little things and gives you mental support). Also, the time before and after the race was too short. For the next time I will definitely plan at least 10 to 14 days for this trip. Yes, there will be a next time! My goal is to come back in 2012 and place top 5 within my age category! My qualifying race will be Ironman Cozumel in November 2011. This will give me almost 11 months to get ready for Kona – if I qualify. I am already signed-up and my 2-year training plan has started on November 1st.
The first year will focus particularly on swimming and running. I am already a good enough cyclist to achieve that goal, however I need to exit the water earlier in order to avoid permanent passing of other people, which takes a lot of strength and energy. As for running, this year showed a big improvement compared to last year meaning that I will repeat my running program in essence with little adjustments to become a better Ironman runner. Next year, I will compete in two Ironmans (Challenge Roth in Germany, and IM Cozumel in Mexico), which will reveal parts that still need some polishing in order to meet my goal for 2012.