So here I am. Saturday October 14, 2017. A day, but not this date, that I have been working towards for over 30 years is finally here. I’m excited, scared, and nervous. I want to be here so much, but equally I want to be somewhere else. I’ve done so many races now that I convince myself that it’s just another race. Except that it’s not. This is Kona, baby! I also know that once my feet touch that water everything will calm down and I’ll go into race mode.
I’m awake at 3.30am because Fiona is also occupied this morning with some volunteering work and has to be in Kona for 4.45. I slip straight into my pre-written race schedule and begin to work through the various tasks. This is something I do before every race, and today is no different. The plan requires us to leave the house at 4.30 to travel down to Kona which is a 20 minute journey at that time of day. Graham, Georgie, and Vicky are ready on time and we set off exactly as planned. I start to read some of the messages on my phone and immediately I have tears rolling down my face. It’s been emotional at times and even now talking about certain parts of the race make my voice go shaky. We arrive at our pre-arranged parking spot and walk the 10 minutes down to the pier. You can already feel the atmosphere building. Excitement among the spectators and a quiet contemplation among athletes, like warriors going to war except that we will all come home.
It’s just another race!
First job is numbering up. There’s always a long queue and I have heard of people still waiting with just 10 minutes until race start time. I’m straight into the queue and even at 5am there is a 15-minute wait to get through security. This is where Fiona is volunteering and I see her quickly, give her a quick kiss and go towards my volunteer, excitedly waving his arm to attract my attention. Apparently, my hairy arms mean the tattoo won’t stick very well but he tries anyway. They subsequently come off in the swim. Who knew that I had gorilla genes? Next, a short walk to transition via timing chip checking. All good, but then I feel the need for a visit to the loo. At least I find some public toilets in the hotel with a short queue and I’m relieved (no pun intended) to have got another task completed (yes, it is on my pre-race list!) without too much of a wait. I head to transition to check my bike and add the final few things to my race bags. It’s still dark, and the floodlights make it a surreal place.
There is lots of chatter and noise, but it’s mostly from the spectators, volunteers, and “The Voice of Ironman” Mike Reilly warming up on the mic. It rained heavily overnight so it’s damp in transition. There are so many bikes tightly packed together that I wonder how they manage to squeeze more in each year. Several years ago, they said the limit was 1900 and now we are up to almost 2400! I walk through the transition zone and approach my bike as I will after the swim. I find it easily which is a good thing, and check my tyres. As per my discussions with Garreth Humphries and Graham, I didn’t let them down the day before despite the superstitious behaviour of many other competitors. I did test them with the pump (Ironman provides these and there must have been over 50 available on race morning) and they were spot on 100psi. The occasional pop of a tyre blowing punctuates the sound as if to perpetuate this myth. Just another over excited athlete pumping up a badly fitted tyre, I think!
I add the water bottles, load my top tube container with 1 caffeine gel, 1 Clif Bar and some OTE salt tablets, attach my shoes to pedals, and leave my bike. Usually I have my earphones in listening to some music but on this occasion, I want to soak up everything. It’s so important to this part of my journey that I enjoy every single moment, that I leave them out. Even that indistinct chatter means something.
I go to the area where all the T1 and T2 bags are hanging. Officially, you aren’t allowed to touch these on race morning. Unofficially, WTC have plenty of volunteers to “escort” you to your bag. I find Beth who gives me a big hug before escorting me to my bags. I only had sunglasses in my T1 bag but Ironman insist you hang the bag even if it’s empty. I guess this is because you need it to put your swim things in when you exit the water. I took the precaution of double bagging my T2 bag (run kit) in case of rain and I’m glad I did. I decant everything so it’s easy to access, add my gel bottle, and hang it back up again. Another hug from Beth and I move on. Just a couple of items left on the list and it will be time.
I’ve taken the precaution to wrap an inner tube up in my special needs bag. I can collect this at Hawi, 60 miles into the bike. I do this in case I have a puncture on the way up there. It means I’ll have a backup for the last part of the ride, just in case. I have to walk right back across to the other side of the hotel to drop my special needs bag, and it eats up a few minutes. On the way I bump into Fiona again who has finished body marking and is now leaving to go and do her stint in the penalty box out on the highway. Another hug, kiss, and some words of encouragement and she is on her way. Bag dropped and I head off back to the other side of the hotel. It’s getting light now and there are only a few minutes to go until the pro men start at 6.35. Mike Reilly is ramping up the volume as I get in line for some sunscreen.
My two volunteers go to work on my face and neck. It’s like a pre-race Indian head massage and we have a few laughs to calms the nerves. All of a sudden the cannon fires and there is a massive cheer. Reilly is right on it now as the pro men start, and it also signals the time to go to work. I de-robe down to my skin suit, pack the post-race, white bag, and hand it in. 30 minutes to go. It’s just another race!
Getting in to the water can take a while. There are 1500 people that need to make their way across a timing mat and down some narrow steps onto Dig Me beach. I had decided to get onto the beach as soon as possible and then hang around there just to ease the nerves. I meet one of the athletes I coach, Richard Gibbs, and we line up together. There isn’t much chat as we are both deep in thought. We wish each other well and make our way forward. The cannon fires at 6.40 accompanied by another huge cheer and the pro women are underway. It takes another 10 minutes to get onto the beach but at 6.50 my feet are on sand. It’s exactly as I had planned and there are 15 minutes to complete my warm up while making my way the 200 metres or so out to the start line. I take a deep breath, exhale, and push off into the water. This is it, the day I’ve been waiting for. It’s all going to happen. This is not a dream.
Along with several hundred other swimmers, I start making my way out to the start. As I do so I pause for a moment. Before the race I’d asked my Facebook friends that have competed in Kona to give me one piece of advice. Nick Rose said “turn around and look at all of the spectators sitting on the walls on Ali’i Drive. It will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.” It did! Thanks Nick, it was golden advice.
The Voice of Ironman announces that there are 5 minutes until race start. I finish my warm up and make my way towards the start. The best day of my life is about to start.
I feel strangely relaxed as I tread water in the relatively calm waters of the Pacific Ocean. I take a moment to look underwater at the coral and see a school of yellow fish calmly nibbling at the coral. Then I see the diver with his camera, way below us. This is how they get those great shots of the swimmers’ legs. If you see the start line photos, about half way between the pier and the farthest start point is a square black Roka buoy. I position myself slightly to the left of this and about 10 metres back. As more swimmers join us from the back, and the current does its thing, I drift closer to the front. As a strong swimmer, I’d normally be happy to back myself and go at the front, but not today. Today I’m happy to be a bit more cautious, so this is further forward than I wanted to be. Anyway, I’m here now so I take a chance to wish those around me good luck. A final few fist bumps before a louder-than-me American starts shouting, “This is Kona, baby! Let’s do this thing!”, and 30 seconds later the cannon fires for a third time. I start my first stroke of the Ironman World Championships, but not before I have time to hear the crowd cheering.
Based on stories from athletes and friends, I was expecting the first 800-1000m to be a real fist fight with swimmers almost drowning each other to get a position. My experience was different. Maybe I got lucky. I found space very quickly and it was easy to get into a rhythm. I maintained this for 100m until I started to get squeezed by a couple of guys on either side of me. I could see a long line to my right that were close to the marker buoys and I tried to make my way over towards them. Generally though, I was cruising along, enjoying myself and constantly reminding myself that I was racing in the Ironman World Championships.
The halfway point and the turnaround is a couple of right hand turns 100m apart at the Body Glove boat. You’ve seen it on every Hawaii race coverage, and now here we were. You can spot the boat several 100 metres away and despite the swell which occasionally left you swimming “blind” it was easily visible. I kept slightly wide to avoid the usual scrum and headed for home. As I turned I looked up to sight the radio mast on top of one of the buildings in Kona. At the same time, I saw a group about 50m ahead. I set about swimming up to them and once on the back realised it was a decent enough pace so I just dropped on to some feet and stayed there. The sea felt much calmer than the previous day and I felt like I was swimming a bit easier than in the Hoala Training swim the week before. Today wasn’t a day for PB’s. Just stay in the moment and enjoy it. I smiled. Can you smile under water? Maybe I just thought I was smiling, or maybe I was smiling inwardly. Whatever. I was happy.
As we closed in on the finish I saw the bright yellow Gatorade bottle on the end of the pier. It was a good navigation point and the guys in front of me were obviously swimming towards it as well. I stayed at the back but as we got closer, the paddle boarders started waving us over to the right. I saw swimmers there as well, made the correction, and focussed on the last few metres. Almost at the end of my favourite part of the race. Remember this, Simon. You won’t be doing this again. All of a sudden we were at those famous steps. The volunteer gave me a hand up and I heard Mike Reilly call out, “799, Simon Ward, one of our Legacy athletes from the UK”. Part one complete. Transition in Kona is tight, but luckily I had a clear route through and in no time I was running under the archway and over the mount line.
The crowds were immense in the first few hundred metres up Palani Hill. I just couldn’t stop smiling. I’ve been there cheering with them but it’s different being on the other side of the barriers. I’d decided not to get carried away, so I just twiddled away. After 5-10 minutes we made the right turn back down Palani. It’s a 400m drop and quite steep with a 90º left hand bend at the bottom. It was surprisingly bumpy and my aero water bottle started to shake loose. Here I was descending at 40kmh, with one hand covering the brakes, the other trying to stop the water bottle falling out, and approaching a tight left hander, in front of thousands of cheering spectators. I just focused on getting around the corner and not going straight on into the barrier, over the top, and ending my race. Less than two minutes later I was on the flat section of the out and back on Kuakini and saw a drain grate in front of me. Moving slightly to my right and closer to the shoulder of the road, I heard this voice shout, “No! Watch out! No, no, no, fuck …..”. I felt the vibrations from the front wheel of his bike, and simultaneously heard the noise, as it touched my rear derailleur. For that one split second I sensed that we were both going down. Without thinking really, I put extra power into the pedals to accelerate away and as I felt the separation I glanced back to see him pulling in. I didn’t stop so I hoped his bike was OK and that he got going again. At the same time I was thinking, “What the fuck was he doing trying to overtake me on the inside anyway? It’s his fucking fault. Stupid bastard.”
The return leg of the out and back is downhill, super fast, and super bumpy. Yet again, the aero bottle was trying to get out so I had to grip it with my forearms as I stayed in the aero position and hope that I didn’t need to brake. The final visit to Palani was a great charge up with the spectators. As soon as I got onto the Queen K Highway I managed to flag down one of the support vehicles. As I rolled to a stop, the mechanic was out of the side door running towards me with a roll of tape. In less than 60 seconds he had strapped down the bottle and given me a push start to get going again, Tour de France style. It was amazing. The first 60k was fast with what felt like very little wind and just a long line of bikes. There was some drafting but it’s always difficult to tell if it’s just the fluidity of the pack, or blatant. Either way, I just focussed on my own pace. Just before I left, I was supposed to have a power meter fitted but it hadn’t arrived in time. My ride was therefore done on feel with the occasional reference from my heart rate. I’d been advised by several experienced Kona competitors to not over-ride the first 60-70k. Doing so seriously burns matches and, when hitting headwinds on the way back, the suffering really kicks in. Nevertheless, I was still averaging 32kmh and feeling pretty relaxed. Having decided I wasn’t going to murder myself and just enjoy the day, I felt no pressure as the streams of cyclists passed me. “The race is long and in the end, it’s only with yourself.” (Lyrics from “Sunscreen” by Baz Luhrmann).
The climb to Hawi wasn’t as bad as I thought, and soon the dead turn at the north of the island loomed into view. Hawi is a small village further up the coast from Kona and I have spectated here on race day. It’s hard to get to, as you have to take the mountain road and it’s a 2-3 hour drive. There was a small group of spectators, less than 100 I guess, but by heck they were noisy. After retrieving my inner tube at special needs (note, Yorkshiremen never waste anything!!), I headed on to tackle the long downhill stretch back to the Queen K. It was windy and some riders did get blown around a bit in front of me. Personally, I didn’t notice it much. Maybe it’s the years of riding in Lanzarote. I just focussed on keeping the HR low and staying relaxed. More advice I had been given was that the stretch from Waikoloa to the airport is very challenging mentally. It’s windy, relatively featureless, and HOT! Again, I didn’t notice this too much and quite enjoyed the solitude. By now I was starting to pass some of those guys (and girls) who did override the first 60k. I was still averaging 30kmh and on for a 6hr ride and still feeling comfortable. My nutrition plan seemed to be working. Approaching the last 20k of a ride I normally start to really dislike all forms of energy food. This time, having chosen to intake much less, it was all going down nicely.
I emptied the 500ml bottle of liquid which contained about 200g of carbs, downed the last of my energy bars, and with 10k to go consumed the caffeine gel.
My nutrition plan was working well. In many of my previous Ironman races I have tried to consume the recommended intake of 60-80 grammes of carbohydrates per hour but just ended up feeling queasy and ultimately throwing up on the run. For this event I was trying something new (just in case you are thinking “never try anything new on race day”, I had tried this in training many times!!) My strategy was to consume 40-50g/hour, ride a little easier, thus using less carbs and more fats. I could then get through the run with no gastric issues and avoid those moments stood at the side of the course dry retching or throwing up. Aid stations at Kona have plenty of water. Sadly it is handed up in water bottles of the type you would buy in the store, not a cycling water bottle. This requires a different approach to just throwing your used one and inserting a fresh one in the cage. I borrowed a Torpedo bottle with a top that I could open and replenish the water. To this I added an OTE salt tab. The rest of the water I drank or splashed over my head or down the back of my skinsuit. The process was well practiced but with excitable triathletes only focussed on their own ride it occasionally turned into a circus act with one hand on the bars and the other simultaneously opening a water bottle and the flap on the Torpedo whilst avoiding bikes on the road, empty water bottles while aiming to lose as little speed as possible. Some people just gave up and stopped by the side.
One of the little games I play to keep my mind sharp in a race is make constant calculations about pace, speed, and roughly what time I’ll end up at each point. In this race, I had been working out where the leaders might be as I finished the bike. My calculations were that the leaders might have just emerged from the Energy Lab and be heading back into town. Sure enough, the helicopter came into view as I went past the turn to the harbour. I passed Dave McNamee who was in fourth but gaining on Keinle. Lange was charging along, Sanders was still ahead but looked to be limping badly. I had plenty of time and to be quite honest I did think about stopping to watch them for a few moments. I soon dismissed this and got my head down for the last few km’s.
The bike seemed to pass really quickly. I was still smiling, and I’d really enjoyed the whole ride. I didn’t even get those feelings of fatigue which I (and many others) get at 80 miles. The ones where you think you will struggle to finish the bike, let alone a 26.2 mile run. Part 2 of the day was almost over and it was proceeding exactly as I had scripted.
Running into T2 is like no other race. Firstly, there are thousands of people cheering as you descend Palani hill and run into T2. Next are the catchers who take your bike and rack it for you. All you do is hop off and start shuffling. My back was a bit tight, so I just walked briskly through T2, taking in the atmosphere and thinking of the run. Into the change tent and it’s awash with water mostly from the buckets of cold water the volunteers are dipping towels into to give the runners so they can cool off. I took one of those, as well as a dry one to take care of my feet before donning shoes and socks. A quick pee (my first since just before the swim) and I set off for the final 26 miles of my day. Back out into the heat and the noise and Paul Kaye shouting my name as I ascended back up Palani for a 3rd time that day. Crowds still 3 deep cheering and shouting, and among all of them I saw Beth and also Georgie and Vicky, our housemates. It was hot and humid, probably due to the storm the previous evening, but no worse than I expected. I was running, but if you saw me it probably didn’t look like that. My plan was to run between aid stations and then walk through them. In Kona, they are roughly 1 mile apart. There were lots of people that I knew along Ali’i drive and I saw them at one time or another. Their encouragement, along with the random things I saw, spurred me on.
- One guy running along in a thong
- A lady with a sign offering free beer
- The other lady with a sign that said, “Ironmen are sexy”
- Groups having parties outside their houses, playing house music and spraying runners with water. Each one of them an experience to be soaked up, excuse the pun.
The first run turnaround is at approximately the 5-mile marker on Ali’i Drive. About a mile or so before reaching this I’d seen Graham who I expected to be way ahead of me. He shouted some encouragement and said he was suffering. After the turn, it’s a 5-mile run back into town. The legs had felt a bit woolly in the first mile but now they were feeling OK. I decided not to be too ambitious. Carry on as planned.
It’s surprising how quickly you make progress when you are in the zone. Pretty soon I was approaching Kona town and passing Lava Java. It was busy, but no sign of Fiona yet. Turning the corner by the community centre and there they all were. Fiona, Scott, Teresa, Hunter & Amanda. I had hugs from all of them and some advice from the Admiral. “Simon, once you get on the highway do not walk. Run! You can stumble if you like, but don’t walk.”
“Ok, Scott. Thanks”
“You are doing awesome. You got this!”
Palani Hill is a beast. It feels like 10% (it is 10%) and it’s 400m long. I know. I measured every step before the race.
I power marched up and actually passed a few people. When you get to the top it’s 5.2 miles to the Energy Lab. I measured this as well. On the CompuTrainer, on my bike, and in the car. The first part is downhill.
OK. Just get your head down, jog to the bottom, and get to the next aid station. My nutrition plan was working well. I’d consumed less calories than normal on the bike (50g/hour) and I’d been sipping gel from a flask at every feed stop. So far none of the usual queasiness.
The Queen K going out to the airport just goes on forever. Did I say it’s actually 5.2 miles? The feed stations were well manned and the volunteers were fantastic, so enthusiastic. Each one was their own private party with each athlete one of the VIP guests. I cannot thank these guys enough.
By now my hip and Achilles were getting very sore. I started running for 200 steps and walking for 100. Still in good spirits I made the turn into the Energy Lab. Thankfully it was very late afternoon and much of the heat had gone. In fact, we were going to be treated to a spectacular sunset. The photographers were just lining up for “the shot”, athletes silhouetted in the foreground and the sun setting on the ocean. I remembered another friend, Catherine Hilton, remarking how happy she was to experience this. The Energy Lab came and went and was nowhere near as fearsome as I expected. In Hawaii the sun sets very quickly and darkness arrives just as quickly. By the time we exited the Energy Lab it was dark. Very dark. There are no street light and with no cars it was eerie. In fact, some of the cones left out as part of the highway reconstruction were positively dangerous and once or twice I nearly tripped up. That would have been a disastrous end. I could see the Kona glow in the distance. Many of the runners had the luminous green glow bands and looked like aliens dancing along the road, running both in front and toward me. I’d now changed to 300/100 steps and kept going forward. “Keep moving and you’ll get there.”
The volunteers were still going strong. At one aid station, there was a DJ with a mic. He was loud and funny. I grabbed the mic and shouted some encouragement to the other runners. With my kit and number belt still on, one of them shouted back, “Hey, are you still racing?”
“Yes, but there’s no reason I can’t cheer you as well!”
He laughed and carried on. He still had 10 miles to go. I had 3.
It was almost at an end. The day I’d been dreaming of for 30 years. I just had to make it to the top of Palani Hill and I was home. As I got there a well-meaning spectator ran up beside me. “C’mon man, only 2 miles to go.”
“No, it’s 2 miles man.”
I was past arguing.
“You can speed up now and sprint to the line. C’mon, I’ll run with you.”
Oh, the energy and enthusiasm of youth (and someone who hasn’t been on the go since 7am).
Then, as if by magic, there it is. The junction at Palani lights!
Time to get my finisher head on.
A right turn and drop down the hill.
High five a few spectators.
Actually, not as many as I thought. They are probably all at the finish.
Round the corner and share a joke with MC, Pete Murray. He’d been telling people different ways of referring to friends, like mate in Australia and buddy in the US. I told him it was “pal” in Yorkshire and he laughed.
“He heard me from way up there! You’d think he would be exhausted”.
“Good work 799, Simon Ward from Yorkshire. Almost there!!”
Take the left turn onto Kuakini and I’m now looking for Fiona with the Yorkshire flag. She wasn’t where we agreed. F**k. I hope she hasn’t forgotten.
It’s almost over. I don’t want it to be. Normally I’d be willing the end to come sooner but not today.
I’m smiling like a lunatic. Just 2 turns to go.
Onto Hualalai Street. 200 metres to the bottom of the road and then that last right turn onto Ali’i Drive. I had rehearsed this so many times in my training runs. Keep smiling. High five anyone who offers up a hand. Try not to cry.
Where IS Fiona?
I make the turn on to Ali’i.
Lots more people here.
Just as I pass the Kona mall, Fiona appears with the flag.
We stop for a hug and a quick photo.
I tell her I’ll see her at the finish. I jog on slowly, wanting to savour every step.
Past the banyan tree.
Crowds getting noisier and I can see the lights of the finishing chute.
I keep looking behind. There’s another guy with a flag. I’m not fussed about outrunning him, just hoping that he wants to have his own moment on the red carpet.
All this time I’m trying to get the damn flag unfurled so I can hold it up properly, but I keep grabbing hold of the wrong part. It’s like when you are really tired and you can’t figure out the simplest of problems. Actually that’s probably what it was, tiredness. Anyway, I finally manage it as I hit the carpet. There is no one in front and no one behind. What a way to finish, just me, the crowd, and now Mike Reilly calling me across the line.
I walk up the ramp, lift the flag. I can’t stop smiling. Previously I thought that I would turn and bow to the crowd. It seems a bit cheesy, but I remember and do it anyway. Reilly actually mentions this before saying, as I walk down the ramp, “Simon Ward, YOU. ARE. AN. IRONMAN!”
30 years, and it finished just like I imagined.
In the last 2 years I have volunteered to catch the finishers as they cross the line. Each one gets a 2 person escort from the finishing area to the athlete garden. Now it’s my turn. This is where I first met Beth, my assistant, and tonight she is waiting for me. I get a hug from her, and the lei from her fellow catcher, and they help me to start walking out of the finish line area. All of a sudden, my legs hurt but I’m elated so it doesn’t matter. Nothing much matters right now, apart from getting that medal.
They keep me taking to make sure I’m “with it”. This is another of those services you only receive in Hawaii. They catch your bike and then they catch you. Last year, we helped many athletes in various different states of fatigue to this area and I can remember how good and bad some of them were. I’m determined not to be like some of the worst, who just collapse and can’t move. Finally, we reach the Imu gardens outside of the King Kamehameha Hotel. There are hundreds of athletes standing, sitting, lying on the grass all with their finisher T shirts and their medals and now I’m one of them. Finally, I sit down. Beth goes to find pizza and ice cream for me, and then ends up providing a concierge service for a few other finishers unable to move. I’m so happy… and disappointed. I thought I would cry as I crossed the line, but I didn’t.
Never mind. I’m crying as I write this.