Kona Race Report 2018

by Campbell Hanson

With 2018 coming to a wrap I thought I’d better get my Kona 2018 thoughts out. For all the triathletes out there or anyone that’s interested, here it is.

With 2018 coming to a wrap I thought I’d better get my Kona 2018 thoughts out. For all the triathletes out there or anyone that’s interested, here it is.

Sport can be a great metaphor for life. It can be a medium that filters out noise, provides clarity, and elements of a performance can be isolated and distilled down to equate to an outcome. The outcome is usually binary, you play well or you don’t, you execute or you fail, you win or you lose. It’s a platform that with analysis and planning allows purpose and direction. From this process comes clarity and focus. Commitment to the process is really the difference between good and great, it’s what makes elite performers excel in their chosen field. These elements all provide great lessons in life. I’ve taken several weeks to reflect on my post Kona thoughts. One of these reasons is that I’ve simply been flat out getting back to work and I wanted to wait a while to decompress. I didn’t see a lot of value in writing something when I’m still charged from the heat of the battle. A Kona campaign with the intention of performing well is an all consuming task.

Cast back to 2016 when I didn’t finish the Ironman World Championships. I walked back along Ali’I Drive after a knee injury forced me to stop running. One thing I don’t like is not finishing something. I remember watching some of the world’s best professional triathletes coming in well after their expected finishing time and rather than pulling out they were finishing and paying the race the respect it deserves. This is something you don’t always see in other races. My disappointment at not being able to push myself in the race was immense. All the work that goes in and not being able to compete on the day hurt. The outcome of this for me was either going to one of two things- make me throw the towel in and think it was all too hard, or light the fire to come back fitter, faster and stronger. I think I’d already made the decision before I flew off the Big Island two years ago that if my knee allowed, I’d be back. Stubborn- yes.

After two weeks of limping around we made the decision to operate on my knee. My meniscal tear had got worse during the race, it had propagated compared to the pre race MRI. As Physio’s we see patients post operatively and within 2-3 days we get them doing basic quad strengthening exercises to offset the muscle mass they lose as a result of the pain, swelling and surgery. I woke up in the recovery ward doing static quads exercises and I reckon I’d done about a thousand before the nurse wheeled me out to be picked up.

2017 was a very slow and patient build up. I had some good luck on my side but I took the return to running very slowly to give my knee every chance that it could to settle down. I didn’t know how it would go and I’d left Kona with the very real possibility that I may not run again. December 2017 I snagged a Kona qualifier in Busselton at Ironman Western Australia. My build up wasn’t ideal as eight weeks out I came off my bike and suffered a small fracture in my hip that meant no running for a month and missing all my key long run sessions. Race day wasn’t great but I managed to get my ticket and it gave me Christmas and New Year to recover.

My thinking for Kona 2018 was that a podium finish was on the cards. Historically in my age group it looked like a 53-57 minute swim, a mid 4hour 50 minute ride and a sub 3hr 10 minute marathon. This is where I was in 2016 and I knew I’d be at least as good come October 2018 but I knew that I had to do something different in my build up. The task may seem immense at first, even week by week, but breaking it down into digestible chunks that I could work on is key. I structured my year around making sure I could improve in all three disciplines. For swimming this involved improving my arm turnover speed and my catch phase and removing the dead spot in my stroke so that I could hold 100 metre repeats on a cycle of 1 minute 25 seconds or quicker in the pool. Three swim squad sessions a week or 12 km a week in the pool was the minimum I needed to hit to achieve this. Cycling wise I knew there were plenty of gains to be made that didn’t involve training. Improving my aerodynamic position with a revamped bike fit and moving to shorter cranks allowed me to get my back flatter and disturb less wind. Two seconds per kilometre is six minutes over a 180 km Ironman bike leg- a gain that takes a lot of hard work to train for. I knew that I had to hold around 240 watts for five hours on the bike with a heart rate under 140 bpm to run well in the heat of Kona. March to May I invested in a ten week cycling block that culminated in a 60 minute all out FTP (functional threshold power) test that would give me a good indication of how I was riding. It’s only the second time that I have done one of these and they are the hardest, most painful and most mentally demanding training session that I’ve ever done. A complete battle of the will. It resulted in an FTP of 347 watts. At 77kg this equates to 4.5w/kg which I figured would put me ball park about where I needed to be to ride well in Kona. Run wise I’m no greyhound but I have a diesel engine that can keep going and that’s what you need for long course triathlon- strength in the back half of the run. 4 minute 30 seconds per km pace is a 3hr 10 min marathon. Not that fast but very challenging in Kona. I knew there were plenty of improvements I could make to my run efficiency. Arm swing, leg turnover and hip position were all worked on over winter. I had a few weaknesses and imbalances from old injuries that I knew needed addressing and 24 one hour sessions of Pilates over the year took care of these and ironed out a few kinks. I’d improved my diet to better support training and reduced the overall sugar content- bread, pasta, rice, breakfast cereal all but gone and an improved efficiency as a fat burner was the result.

A solid training plan provides structure and structure is where I thrive. Technical aspects aside I know what I do well. I can prepare well and I can make myself hurt, for long periods. I thrive in situations where I’m hurting, where the physical pain is intense. In training I look for the dark places and push myself there. It’s something that I’ve trained myself to do, it’s somewhere that I find peace and it’s somewhere that I can push my boundaries. I know it’s far from everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s by no means pleasant but I’m comfortable with it and more importantly, most of the time, I enjoy it.

Landing in Kona eight days before the race and immersing myself in the now familiar heat, humidity, wind and harsh landscape felt good. Early morning training sessions to adapt to the heat, familiarise myself with the roads and generally enjoy the week leading into the race was the order of the day. This would usually be followed by the afternoon at the beach or pool with the kids and as it was Oscar’s third trip to Kona he’d play “spot the pro” as we drove around town. Race week in Kona is a great experience. No negative attitudes, everyone has earned the right to be there and there is a lot of respect amongst the athletes and their families. As race day approaches the excitement builds and now having done a few of these there are no feelings of nervousness or anxiety, just a feeling of wanting to get underway and put all the hard work to test and see what I can get out of myself. There aren’t many opportunities in sport to line up as an amateur against the world’s best and this is one of the draw cards of Kona. Seeing the likes of Daniella Ryf and Lucy Charles a couple of metres away at the swim start and watching the male pro’s warmup and file past to get into the water adds another layer of legitimacy to the event. There’s always a feeling of respect and humility for the enormity of the task at hand at the start of an Ironman and this is amplified in Kona. Age- groupers and pro’s, there’s a feeling that everyone is in it together.

My race plan is always to have a plan but to be flexible and adjust depending as to how the race unfolds and what the conditions and day throw at me. The swim start was as manic as ever with 25 minutes of treading water after the pro women had started. Fighting for space in a congested mass of athletes I’m already aware that this is using precious energy I’d rather have for the day ahead. The canon fires and we are off. The swim is more physical than I remember and I get my goggle’s knocked at one point and have to briefly stop to empty them. 200 metres from the swim finish and I’m still fighting for space at times but I generally manage to sit on good feet for the whole 3.8km and exit the water in 55:39 (1:26 per 100m). First box ticked. Out onto the bike and the first loop on the Kuakini Highway is always fast and my power numbers are higher than I want (260w) due to the gradual uphill climb. Back through town, up Palani Hill and out onto the Queen K it’s time to settle into a good rhythm. Thankfully I’ve swum well enough to have relatively clear roads and not too many cyclists around. We hit Waikoloa at 50km and the power numbers are dropping back to where I want them (250w) and the hint of a fast day ahead comes to mind. So far the legendary Kona wind hasn’t been felt and temperatures feel cooler than usual. Training and racing in Kona usually involves a constant stream of sweat running from your face and splashing across the top tube of your bike but I look down and see no sweat. We pass through Kawihae and hit the 26km climb to Hawi. So far I’ve encountered a very fair race with 6-8 of us in a group all sitting at legal distance with no drafting. I know that not too far behind there will be a pack of 200 plus riders chasing us down where drafting will be rife and sometimes unavoidable. I feel very comfortable on the climb to Hawi and see a couple of familiar faces. Strong bike riders so I know I’m in good company however I’m aware that there are quite a few riders ahead. My power numbers continue to drop (240w) to where I want them to be as I hit the turn at Hawi. A rough count at the turnaround and I reckon there are about 40 riders ahead of me. I check the clock and estimate that I’m around 10 min ahead of schedule and confirmation that it’s all on, it’s going to be a fast day.

Descending from Hawi there’s a hint of wind but it looks like the Mumuku, the name given to Kona’s trade winds that can wreak havoc on the Ironman competitors, isn’t coming out today. On the long 80km haul back to town where the bike leg can be blown apart I feel increasingly stronger and gradually haul in more competitors. Knowing the course in detail combined with my improved bike position and aerodynamics I feel like I am able to ride a really smart bike leg and conserve energy where I could, recover on the downhills and push on the flats. The last hour I didn’t experience the usual physical and mental fatigue and resulting power dip that comes at around the 5-6 hour mark of an Ironman as you feel the screws beginning to turn. I feel great and am constantly having to hold myself back as I approach town. I get off the bike having had my best ever Ironman bike leg. Checking the clock I’d ridden 4 hours 37 minutes which blew me away as it was 15-18 minutes quicker than expected and I hadn’t had to dig too deep (237w). The legs feel great and I get through transition and out onto the run course feeling like it is game on. With the work that I’d put into my running over the year I had developed a lot of confidence and had run a low 77 minute half marathon off the bike at the Sunshine Coast 70.3 6 weeks earlier. The course was a bit short but I’d managed to hold 3:47 per km so I knew my run legs were in good shape.

Running along Ali’I Drive I quickly found my legs and someone yelled out that I was sitting around 35thplace in the age group race. This put me at 6thin my age group and I settled in to a rhythm, tried to relax as much as I could and make sure that I got as much ice, sponges and water as I could at each aid station. I continued to pick people off at the first turnaround and I remember feeling how hot it was on the return leg through town. One consequence of no wind on the bike is that there is no wind on the run to cool you down. I’d moved up to 3rdat around the 10km mark and was closing on the leaders without having to put any extra effort in. I remember getting to near the bottom of Palani Hill at around the 12km mark and feeling like my body temperature was starting to get out of control. Within 500m my legs turned to noodles and my mind was pretty fuzzy- I knew that if I didn’t walk and get my temperature down I wouldn’t finish. I’d already see one competitor keel over in front of me and I didn’t want to follow him. It was a case of the mind wanting to go but the legs not being able to follow. What followed was a 10 minute walk up Palani and out onto the Queen K. The plan was to start running at the top of the hill but the legs wouldn’t work. I knew my competitive race was done and it was now about getting to the finish. What followed was a 30km “me vs me” battle through the lave fields of the Queen K and the Energy Lab. I got back to a good run pace for large portions but had to have two significant walks when the radiator was about to blow again. Watching people pass me wasn’t fun and the bottom half of the Energy Lab was grim, it felt hotter to me than it had ever before. Seeing Holly, Oscar and Coco at the finish line was the driving force that kept me going. I finally made it back to town, down Palani Hill and through the finish. I made sure I took in the atmosphere and enjoyed the finish line experience more than usual. For the record I crossed the line around 140thoverall, 12thin my AG and with an Ironman PB of 9 hrs 6 minutes.

Kona is a leveller. It’s hot, humid and far from flat. The landscape is harsh and fits the nature of the race. It is a huge privilege to race there and to be in the same race as Patrick Lange and to see him smash the race record and becomes the first person to go under 8 hours in Kona. It is the sub 4 minute mile of our sport and to see him running back into town as I was heading out is a an experience I’ll remember as a fan of the sport. Seeing Daniella Ryf break the women’s race record by 20 minutes was probably even more impressive. Kona also takes no prisoners. For each winner and record breaker there are plenty of broken dreams. Seeing pre-race favourites such as Olympic silver medallists Javier Gomez completely broken and finishing in 11thand Lionel Sanders hobbling along like an old man out in the lava fields reminds me of this. Was I disappointed with the result, yes. But I’ve also got to be happy. Five years ago I came here to finish, now I came here to have a crack at winning. What went wrong? It’s probably a combination of lots of small things rather than one big thing. I’ve raced in heat of Asia and Kona before and have coped well and never had an implosion. Adequate acclimitisation may have been one factor. Recovery is always an issue with balancing two young children and a busy work schedule. I also felt like the level of the age group race had gone up a notch or two from previous years as the gap between the age group bike times and the pro’s was closer than usual. Yes it was a fast day with good conditions but there was a bunch of Europeans at the front of the bike leg who were prepared to throw caution to the wind and ride hard. If you didn’t go with them the race was all but gone. The reality is that Kona is just one very tough beast and you need to get everything right on the day and have a sprinkling of good luck. Nine hours of racing at just below your threshold in that heat doesn’t leave any room for error. To have a proper crack you can’t be scared of failing. Did I enjoy the experience? Absolutely. I’d had a great year in all my previous races and learned a lot. But that’s sport. You never lose. You win or you learn, and I learned a lot.

There is a huge amount of help and support that goes into getting to the start line of Kona. The commitment level is high and the training is relentless. There are lots of people to thank for helping me on this journey. Firstly our SquareOne Team for putting up with me when I’ve been tired and cranky (and hungry!), Alexa for nailing me in Pilates, Ben at Central Performance for the run coaching and great, honest feedback, Jack, Gabby and Josh at EzySwim Mosman for the swim sessions, Bevan from Fitter for some key swim coaching, Coach John Newsom for tying it all together, Steve at Manly Cycles, Jason at Asics Australia, Premax and Ride in Workshop for all their support. Also to Ryan at 3D Bikefit for giving me some free speed. Thanks to Mum and Dad for coming to Kona again to help out and watch your son seek out some 1stworld punishment and probably wondering why he does it! Thanks to Grandma for all the babysitting, ironing and dinners. And thanks to Oscar and Coco for not caring what the outcome is.

And lastly thanks to Holly for making all of this happen- triathlon is inherently a selfish sport but you can’t do it without good people around you and you are one of the best. Thanks for picking up the pieces when I’ve been exhausted, thanks for putting up with me when I’ve been on the ragged edge and thanks for giving up your time to allow me to follow this crazy dream. Grateful is an understatement.

Kona you are beautiful, harsh, unforgiving, humbling and enriching.