Kona Ironman World Championship - magic on the island
Every triathlete's dream race is Kona. It is the original, "the one" and magical. Even just to qualify to be able to compete is a goal most amateur triathletes never achieve. In our age group (W45), you basically have to win a race to get a ticket. At least that was the case in 2021 when I qualified. Now with the new 2-day race format it will be easier for women to qualify which is great. I love it that more women can experience this race, a dream that was so hard to fulfil until this change.
That is, because the slots to the World Championship of Ironman have been allocated based on the number of participants in each age group. All of them got 1 slot but then categories like men's 35-39 or 40-44 would have 5-10 slots each while our age group would have 1-2 (depending on the total slots for the race and the number of women entered in our category) or very rarely at big championship races where the competition was very tough 3. Basically impossible to qualify for anyone not at the very top of the field.
Every competing athlete's name is listed on a huge board outside of the race HQ
With the new format, from next year, some races have an additional 100 slots just for women which is huge. The last race, Chattanooga had 16 slots in my age group! Compare that to the 1-2 in previous years! Some people are worried that it will be less prestigious to qualify now but I don't agree. The more people get a chance to race at this iconic event the better so I'm all for it.
I qualified last year by winning my age group at Ironman Waco where I also came 4th overall female. The winner of that race, Jana won her AG (W40) at Kona in 2019 as well as this time around. She is such a beast!
There is so much happening in Kona during race week. I loved the events I attended including the Parade of Nations where all the countries represented march along Ali'i Drive and the Underpants Run which is a charity event where - yeah, you show up and run in your underwear!
Underpants Run! The atmosphere was absolutely amazing, huge groups in matching kits, I'm guessing 1000 people showed up! All funds raised are donated to local charities.
Lots of parties with free food, drinks and give-aways. And of course the island is full of triathletes, their families, parents, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandchildren and friends, proudly talking about their loved one who they came to watch in the race.
At a party with eventual women's World Champion winner, Chelsea Sodaro
Now, the stupid mistake I made with my asthma meds. I basically just threw the bag with all my meds that I brought back from the last race in my backpack, not checking how much was left in them. Unfortunately the main puffer was almost completely out. I even found another one in my coat going to the airport but I left the coat and the extra puffer in my van at the airport.
So I arrived to Kona and the next day the puffer ran out. No way to get a new one in the US. I could have tried to see a doctor but then I might or might not have been able to convince him to give me a prescription. I was hoping that I would be fine because it was hot and humid which is very good for my asthma. I used to race without even knowing I had asthma up until two years ago, including winning the Hungarian Long-course Triathlon National Championship overall female title in 2020. Back then I had thought that the difficulty of breathing is normal with such hard efforts.
Unfortunately the big difference is that now, because I take these meds on a daily basis, my condition is worse when I don't take them than it was before I knew I had asthma. Also, now that I know what it is like to be able to breathe during a race unobstructed, it bothers me much more when I can't get the air in as I should.
I was already feeling the lack of air in my lungs on the bike leg. Photo: Scott Flathouse
I was wrong in thinking it might not effect me at all during the race. I could already feel it during the bike and it was worse during the run. It was never as bad as at the 48 World Championship where I couldn't get the air down at all. It was just a bit harder to breathe than normal, requiring effort, which, when you are trying to exercise at the top of your abilities, not a welcome distraction and obviously slows you down. How much of me underperforming was due to the lack of unobstructed breathing, I'm not sure. The strange thing is that I had absolutely no issues with my breathing during the swim, only on the bike and run. Maybe because the swim breathing is restricted in its timing, not sure. It is what it is, I made a stupid mistake that might have cost me a good race. At the same time, when I think about it, does it matter if I'm 58th or 28th in my age group? Probably not.
Swim start. I'm the one putting the green edged goggles on. People clapping every step of the way.
I was a little bit worried about the swim start but it all went really well. First you swim in and have to be staged behind the group that is starting and tread water there. Then once the previous group is gone you are allowed to line up for the start and the iconic circling surfer volunteers keep you from going too far forward. Luckily when I went in the previous group was already gone so I could swim up right to the start.
At the starting horn the surfers turn sideways so you can swim past them. I positioned myself in the 3rd line on the inside knowing that I'm one of the weakest swimmers in my AG and I didn't want too many people swimming over me. I didn't want to be too far back either because I was hoping to finally do a race where I can draft well and for that I need to have people swim by me so I can make sure they swim faster than me but not too much faster.
Swim finish. Normally that means to me the hardest part is over. Except this time that proved to be the easiest part.
My plan worked brilliantly and right away I was able to get on a girl's feet. She had neon yellow grips on her thighs on her swim skin so it was really easy to follow her. I went with her for the first 500 meters but then I had to realize that the pace was just a tiny bit too fast for me so I let her go. I was able to jump on another girl's feet for the next 3km and that was perfect.
It even felt too easy sometimes, I guess when she was sighting and slowing because of that but I also knew that I couldn't keep this same pace without being in her draft so I was patient and just accepted that potentially I could be drafting behind someone a little faster but my best course of action was just to stay put where I was.
She was sighting extremely well and swam a very straight line which is really important to me. I hate drafting behind someone who is not swimming efficiently. We covered only 33m extra for the 3800m course. I didn't need to sight for the whole race, I was just following her feet.
The moment I realized that I swam a PB - absolutely unexpected
This was the first time I was able to draft for the whole race, I'm not good at it but I have been getting better. The mass start by AGs helps this because there are more people around, more opportunities to catch the perfect feet. For the last 300m I even switched to a guy who was coming from the group behind us so he was 5 mins faster than we were and noticeably swimming faster but I could keep up for the last 300m and ended up getting out of the water before the girl did who I was drafting off of.
The waters were beautiful, we could see to the bottom, lots of fish and corrals. Just amazing. Although I prefer not to be able to see through the water, but I was still overwhelmed by how beautiful it all was. I like swimming in murky water instead because to be honest I'd rather not see what is down there. It was worse during my practice swims when I saw a ray and a turtle and all sorts of animals swimming underneath. Ok, the bright yellow schools of fish were really pretty but again, I'd rather not know who are down there. But, at least during the practice swims there was coffee!
There is this boat that used to be run by Blue Seventy, one of the wetsuit makers but now has been taken over by Ironman - I guess it was way too successful for them to let another company keep doing it. During the official practice swims at 6-9am in the morning for the few days before the race you can swim out about 400m and get a coffee from the boat. They also take free pictures of you. Then you can keep going out on the course, turn back and hit the coffee boat again for another coffee and swim back out. I had my morning coffee there two of the mornings! I absolutely loved the experience.
That's me in the pink swim cap! Morning coffee for the win! I would swim every morning if there was always coffee!
1h 25 mins for the 3800m swim which was 144th out of the 202 who lined up for the start in my AG. It was a 2-min PB for me, so I was happy. My game is the bike and the run anyway - but mostly the bike. Usually... not today.
My transitions were uncharacteristically fast - similar to what the top 10 girls were doing rather than what the mid-pack was doing, so I made up 11 places in T1 coming out in 133rd! I didn't even rush anything, I just didn't stall, I kept moving and getting on the next task.
I started to chip away at the field as I usually do but I just wasn't feeling great and my head wasn't in the right place. I was so happy after that swim but by the end of hour 2 on the bike I was panicking. About 40 mi/65km into the ride I was up to 86th but I had no idea about it. I only knew that I was riding at around 30km/h (18.5 mi/h) speed which equals a 6h bike leg and we were going out which was the easier half of the ride! Usually the wind is at your back on Queen K for the first half of the race, then when you turn around the cross winds and towards the end of the ride the headwinds are a killer.
Early on the bike when I was still happy
Even though I was not feeling horrible yet, I was just panicking that I would be riding well over 6h if things go like this. I'm reading this book about toughness and it describes very well that if your expectations are very far from reality then your mind is prone to just "let go". This is basically what happened. Last year when I was not riding well in Waco, I did 5:23, so I expected to be slower this time, do maybe 5:30, 5:40 or even 5:50, but certainly not 6:30!
When I looked at the results after the race, I realized how far off that expectation of 5:30 was from reality. My friend, a Hungarian girl who ended up biking the fastest split in our age group rode 5:24. She says she also underperformed for herself, but the fastest bike split of our AG was almost 5:30. I was never going to ride anything like that. She can ride under 5 hours on a flat course. Our age group has some ex-professional triathletes and really bad ass women in general so winning the bike leg is nothing shy of extraordinary.
I didn't find the heat being a problem, I love the heat, I had a good heat training protocol for the race and I usually do very well in hot races. The wind didn't bother me much either so I just couldn't understand why I was going so slowly. My only guess was the elevation, I much prefer flat courses and I'm not a good climber although I am a really good downhill rider.
Another early bike photo. I was clearly still in a good enough mood to strike a pose.
Just for context, in my first ever Ironman 5 years ago, when my bike training consisted of one long ride per week if that, and the maximum distance I rode prior to that race was 135km / 83 miles, I biked 6:21 although that course was flat. I was riding an entry level bike as opposed to my current high end one. And now, after 5 years of good training, it looked like I was going to ride slower than that on a much faster bike. It was very demoralizing.
I said prior to the race that I didn't have any time goals or expectations and that was true. The swim PR was a nice unexpected surprise especially because it was non-wetsuit. Although I didn't expect much and I truly had no time goals, it was shocking to be so much slower than what I'm used to. Eventually I managed to let go of my frustration over my expected ride time and just kept my focus on the task - until the climb to Hawi.
All the pros and most top age groupers ride the climb to Hawi prior to the race but because I only got there Sunday evening for the Thursday race I didn't get a chance to do that. This being my first race in Kona, I only heard about it so at least I knew what to expect. As I mentioned, I'm not a good climber but I was prepared for what was to come and I didn't find it too bad, after riding at the 70.3 Worlds in Nice, France in 2019, this was a piece of cake. Well, ok, it wasn't a piece of cake but you know what I mean. I've seen much worse, it was fine.
That is, until I dropped my chain when I was trying to switch to the small chainring. I dropped it on the inside. The problem with that wasn't the issue of putting the chain back, that took me 10 seconds. The problem was my new pedals... long story haha...
On one of the many climbs
My power meter broke before the World Championship in Samorin in August. After determining that it is a manufacturing defect, Rotor was going to replace it but it didn't get to me by the time I was leaving for Kona (more than a month later it still hasn't arrived!). So I took my 5-year-old Vector pedals with me to at least have a PM. However, they were selling the new Wahoo Powerlink pedals at the Expo at a discount and I had been eyeing those for a while. I didn't like the Rotor PM anyway so I decided to get the Wahoo and once I get the replacement from Rotor I can just sell the whole set-up which I'm going to change anyway.
The Powerlink uses Speedplay pedals like the ones I had on my bike originally with my Rotor PM. I know those pedals and I also know that I'm not heavy enough to be able to clip them in. After about a year, year-and-a-half they loosen enough so that it is not a problem any more, but these were brand new pedals! For the start of the bike leg it is not an issue since I clip my shoes on the bike pre-race. But if I have to get off the bike, eg. put my chain back on, then clip in again, now, that is a problem! It took me 3 minutes each time to be able to clip in by holding the back of my saddle and pulling myself down to add some more weight. In the middle of trying to tackle the hardest climb of the race. I was barely moving. That was the only section of the bike course where I actually dropped 2 places instead of making up ground. I dropped my chain twice so I had to go through this whole process twice, each time taking 3 minutes to clip the pedals in and becoming very frustrated with it.
Out on the lava fields of Kona
After dropping the chain twice it was clear that every time I would try to switch to the smaller chain ring it would drop again. So I made the decision to finish the climb to Hawi on the small chain ring, then switch to the big one and never switch back to the small. I rode the second half of the race on a 52 front ring! At least I had my 52 on instead of my 53, that was a blessing, and that was because Rotor has no other spider compatible with my 53 other than the INSpider which was the power meter that broke.
I told you it was a long story! A lot of times I was riding at a 60 cadence up the hills - all that big gear work in training paid off! At the end I was very happy with my 6:01 including the two chain drops and getting stuck on the big ring. It turns out the second half was no slower than the first which was a very pleasant surprise.
About an hour into my ride I noticed that my glucose level was getting low and it stayed there for the next 3 hours. I was taking a gel every 20 minutes giving me 75g carbs and 300 cals per hour which should have been plenty but it wasn't, my glucose dropped below any kind of minimum that I should have had so I upped the intake to 100g and 400 cals per hour and that helped. By the end of the ride I was back to an acceptable although still relatively low level.
This was pre-race fuel. A must have in Hawaii, the famous acai bowl. A large portion was due on a daily basis!
T2 was again better than expected, coming in at 66th and leaving at 61st. I was hoping for a good run since I didn't feel that I pushed the bike as hard as I could / should have. It is so strange that when this happens (that I'm not feeling good on the bike) it seems that I can't run well either. Logic would dictate that if you are riding hard because you are feeling good then it is harder to run well too but that doesn't seem to be the case.
I went out and again, I just didn't have much in me and I was unable to explain why. I still didn't think it was the heat, I managed it well. There was a lot of elevation on the run too, so that could have been it. I could have been tired from a whole year filled with races. It could have been the asthma and that I couldn't breathe too well. Or I was just having a bad day for some other reason that I can't pinpoint.
I settled to a similar routine that I did in Waco when I wasn't feeling great on the run which was to walk all the aid stations and run in between. There were 18 aid stations on the run, one every 1.5 mi / 2.5 km . That is a lot of walking but it gave me something to look forward to. I also walked up the Palani hill which is a short steep hill around the third of the run course. The big difference compared to Waco (where I qualified) was that this time I only jogged the distance between the aid stations, I simply wasn't able to put any kind of effort into my running. That was very disappointing especially because I had originally thought that an under 4h run is well within my reach even on a bad day (I ran 3:57 in Waco). It was another shock to run an over 4h marathon (4:19). Again, as a comparison, in my first ever Ironman I ran 4:45. So after 5 years of hard work this seemed way off from where it should have been.
One of the rare moments when I was smiling on the run - probably because I was running downhill
I kept taking a gel every 15 minutes and at least that part was ok, my glucose was fine. After about 3 hours I found it hard to take them any more so I took one last one at 3.5 hours and that was it, but as I expected that carried me to the finish line keeping me in the acceptable range. It didn't make much sense to take a last one at 4h because it takes 15 mins for the gel to metabolize and I only had less than 20 mins of running left.
I didn't think the famous Energy Lab was any hotter or worse than the rest of the course, actually, I quite liked that part because it was less hilly than the rest. I feel that again, there was a big mismatch between my expectations and the way I did and the way I felt on the run and that is what made it so difficult. I would normally consider an Ironman run just under 4h to be a weak performance but actually here, even some of the top girls in my age group barely break 4h on the run. I guess I should have looked at past times when setting expectations!
Another fact that was screwing with my mind was my expected finishing time. I actually predicted that I was likely to finish somewhere around the 12h mark so that was spot on, but my watch doesn't show overall time in triathlon mode. Our start was at 6:50 AM and I knew the sun set just before 7 PM. And I saw it set as I was turning back onto the Queen K, so I had thought I was around 12h at that point in the race which would have given me a 13h finish time. As a comparison, my first ever Ironman in 2017 I finished in 13:17. So again, 5 years of consistent hard training and I'm only where I was back then? It was depressing.
The finish line is magical no matter what
After all those negative thoughts and fighting through the last hour of the race it was actually a very welcome surprise to see that I was under 12h. I'm not even sure when I realized that, maybe only after I paused my watch at the finish or maybe when I saw the clock in the finish chute. My 11:55 put me in 58th out of the 202 in my AG.
Coming back down Palani Road and turning towards the finish line was almost as magical as I had expected, minus that good feeling of 'I left it all out there'. It was more a feeling of 'ok, I've done it' and the finish line does feel amazing but it left a void that makes me want to come back. I came for the experience and I don't feel that the experience is complete. Regardless of my finish time or position, I would like to feel that I had a good race and I did on the island the best I'm capable of.
I had thought about it many times before and always expected this to be a one-off. A bucket list item to tick off and move on. But now I feel I have to come back, at least once more. I will do Ironman Arizona in a few days and currently my thoughts are that if I qualify there, I will come back to Kona in 2023. If I don't, then I might put it off for a few years and chase other goals. But, nothing is final in an ultrarunner / triathlete's mind when it comes to race schedule...