Wednesday, July 11, 2007


Keauhou Kona Half Ironman:

"Holy Sh........!" These were the first words from my mouth as I stepped out of our plane and onto the stairs leading to the tarmac. Here I was at Kona - the Mecca for triathlons, an Ironman's Holy Land. Yet, as soon as I passed through the open door of the plane, I was almost pushed back into the fuselage by the force of the wind, a hot wind at that. I came to Kona to do the Keauhou Kona Half-Ironman - held almost entirely within the course of the Hawaii Ironman. This was to be my shot at a Personal Best for that distance - my first ever sub-5:00. Standing there at the top of the ladder as my glasses fogged up from the humidity and my shirt instantly stuck to my skin from the hot wind I told myself "Great choice for a p.r. course Alan. What's next? Dante's inferno." (I also had two other goals - to break the top 100 finishers and to do the half-marathon in a sub-1:30 time. But the sub-5 hour was my big goal. )

The entire Kona airport is about the size of Kezar stadium. I walked over to baggage claim, picked up my bags and my bike case and headed out. I was thankful for my USAT membership. It would have cost $75 each way to transport my bike - but thanks to the USAT, I used both my bike case vouchers and got the bike to and from Kona for free.

I picked up our rental car and headed to our condo. A friend set me up with her timeshare and it was perfect. About 1.25 miles from the starting line at Kona bay, right on Alii drive. After unpacking I did what a triathlete would do: I donned my running shoes, tucked my goggles in the back pocket of my SF Tri Club tri suit and jogged down to the Kona bay. When I got there, after an easy jog, I was already drenched in sweat. I kicked off my shoes and went down to the water's edge. I could see a couple of swim caps about 200 yards away, so I put on my goggles and started swimming. Wow! This was great. I immediately understood why wetsuits were not allowed - the water was so warm, it was like a bathtub. Beats the hell out of Aquatic Park in the SF Bay. The water was warm and calm. Fish of almost every color swam beneath me - some close enough to touch. I passed over a dark reef of volcano rock and right under my nose slowly glided a green sea turtle. This was fantastic! I did about 800 meters and got out. I started talking with a couple other swimmers next to me as we all dried off. They had done the course before and pointed out a rough outline for me. One, from L.A., had been drawn in the Hawaii Ironman lottery and was using this race as his qualifying race. The other, from the Netherlands, had done the race multiple times.

Afterwards, I jogged back home and after a quick shower I headed out for a bite to eat. I noticed B&L bike shop across the street from the grocery store. I had to stop here at the flagship bike store for IM Hawaii. The staff was very friendly and after dropping a few bucks on some new sew-ups and Gu, said good-bye and headed home.

The next morning I jogged back down to the bay to do another swim. As I was putting on my goggles I looked down at my feet. No more than 6 inches from my toes was a large green sea turtle floating in the water, glancing at me. I couldn't decide if it was welcoming a fellow swimmer to his bay or telling me to move away from his breakfast. Either way, I stepped over it and went out for a swim. I did about 3/4 mile that day and hooked up with a contributing writer for Inside Triathlon. We swam together for a bit and chatted about the race and our goals. Then, it was back to shore and a jog home. I was amazed just how drenched in sweat I got after a short run.

The next couple of days, I did the normal sight-seeing. When you go there - these are what you should do: Volcano National Park - a 2 hour drive. If you have been to Lassen, this is a smaller version, but still very interesting. On the way home, take the east side of the island and stop at Hilo for a bite. The Hilton - this is located at the bike turn-around, near Hapuna Beach. The Hilton is built right onto the ocean and they have about 10 dolphins, hundreds of fish and some turtles swimming around the grounds. Great pools and even though you are supposed to be a guest to use them, no one seemed to mind when we took advantage of the pools and waterslide. Hapuna Beach, voted one of the top 3 beaches in the U.S. is a huge white sand beach. Great for some fun and easy swim practice. That's about it. Of course, the mountains are beautiful and you can get the freshest Kona coffee, but to be honest, Kona is a place where you go to either do triathlons or to do very little.

Me and fellow triathlete Willy Nevin after a swim work-out at Hapuna Beach:

A few days before the race, I got on my bike and headed north on Alii Drive and then up onto the Queen K. This was fantastic. A huge smile was on my face as I pedaled through the black lava fields - complete with names and images "drawn" in the lava fields along the side of the road with white coral pieces. The wind was definitely there, but not horrible. I had certainly encountered worse along the SF Bay. The road had some climbs, but overall it was mostly rolling. I did 6 miles out and then turned around to go home. After I got back, I drove the bike course. I noticed that further out than I had just rode, the course had more climbs and the wind got stronger. Each time I stepped out of our car, the heat, humidity, wind and the course itself made me think again that I had picked the wrong race to try go sub-5 hours.

The next day we headed to the pre-race meeting. This was well organized and I had my race packet in my hand in a very short time. The meeting was held outside on a lawn, the Pacific Ocean about 50 yards to our right. The race directors chatted about the race and introduced a few racers. They announced that Paula Newby-Fraser decided to join the race the next day. One director walked around and just tossed out free goodies to the crowd. Then some USAT reps gave a discussion on rules and penalties. Then we were done. I passed out some SF Tri Club tattoos and we all headed out. That night, I did a final check on my bike. I filled up my Gu flask, filled the water bottles, laid out my race clothes and turned-in early. The race started at 6:30 am and we were expected at the start by 5:00 a.m.

The next morning, I woke up about 10 minutes before my alarm. I crawled out of bed, took a quick shower and did a quick shave on my head and legs (got to cut down on all that wind/water drag you know). Then, I got my race stuff together, got on my bike and rode down to the start. Once I got there, I realized that I had forgotten to place my PowerBar pieces on my bike frame. Oh well - I had plenty of Gu, hopefully that would suffice.

I found my bike space - they were divided by race numbers. Knowing where we exited the water, I set my bike up near the water exit. Then, I laid out my stuff. Race number on the race belt looped on my bike seat. Gloves speared onto my aerobars. Helmet cradled in the aero bars with my glasses inside the helmet. On the ground, I placed my shoes with my socks sticking out of them I dusted the inside of each sock with some baby powder to ease entry after exiting the water. Next to this, I placed a small towel. I then headed over to check-in and got my swim cap and bodymarkings.

I walked around a bit and found some PEPS! We chatted for a short bit and then I decided to go for some practice swims. Along the way, I borrowed some sunblock from another triathlete and covered myself with it - the skies were absolutely clear and blue at 6:00 am. It might be a hot one. I entered the swim course and began to do some strokes. Oh-oh. My right side of my goggles was leaking. I never had any previous problems with this pair, so I figured I could adjust it and it would be fine. Twenty minutes later as we were waiting for the final countdown to the starting gun, they were still leaking. "Screw it!".

I watched the other swimmers line up. The announcer shouted to everyone to back up - the race was to start from waist-deep water. Still, even at the start, there were a good 50 triathletes 20 to 30 yards in front of everyone ignoring the race announcer in neck-deep water. they never did move back. The announcer counted down and then "Boom!" we were off.

I started swimming and almost immediately my right goggle filled with water. I fell in behind a pair of feet and started drafting. The one plus of being "blessed" with my swim speed is that there were always plenty of feet off of which I could draft - and to lead me since I had trouble seeing where I was going. We were told that the swim turn-around was a BodyGlove boat - but I couldn't really see any boat so I just played like a lemming and followed the crowd. My breathing felt great and before I knew it, we were swimming around a boat. Then, we headed back to shore. I begin to pass some people and pick up some new feet from which to draft. About 90% through the swim course, I was drafting off of one pair of feet and upon closer inspection noticed that they were sticking out from a San Francisco Triathlon Club tri-suit! So, whoever you were, thank you for the draft.

We entered the channel leading to the finish line on the beach. One unique thing about this course is that the swim-finish is almost harder than the swim. The water gets shallow and it is full of sharp volcano rock/reefs. Everybody slowed down and tried to weave through the rocks without getting sliced. Finally, there was clear sand and I stepped onto the shore. I looked at my watch 37:55. Not bad, I thought. About 4 minutes faster than my Half-Vineman time from last year, but still a couple minutes slower than I had hoped. Oh well, on to the bike. (Official swim time was actually 38:30 - maybe due to the beach run up to the timing chip pad).

I ran up the beach and through some fresh water showers (garden hoses) and to my bike. I grabbed my race belt and tried to slide it on. Damn - that didn't work. I just unsnapped it and snapped it around my waist. I slipped into my socks (that powder really helps) and put on my shoes. I pulled on my glasses, snapped my helmet tight and headed out the transition area. Total T1: 1 minute 40 seconds.

I hopped on my bike and headed out of town. People were cheering and clapping. We went up a short city block, made a left turn and followed the road towards the Queen K. Right before the Queen K, I passed another SF Tri Club as I started picking up the pace. By the time I hit the Queen K, I had both my gloves on and fell into my aero position. My legs felt good and I headed away from town.

One thing I noticed earlier in the week was the large amount of glass on the race course. I was constantly wiping my wheels with my bike gloves after seeing glass around me. The race day was no different. We weren't even one mile into the ride when I saw the first flat tire victim. I saw at least 15 others during the day.

I was watching my speedometer. The last few weeks it had been acting really screwy - adding about 10% to my average speed and distance. It appeared to be doing it again - either that or I was feeling really great! Anyway, I rode the first 10 to 20 miles at around a 21 mph pace (adjusted down from the 23mph+ that showed on my faulty cycle-computer). I was feeling good. I was drinking a lot from my water bottles. I had one that was plain water, the other was a mixture of Ultima, RedBull and water (actually doesn't taste that bad). The water stops were every 5 miles which worked out perfect. I was emptying a bottle about every 5 miles. At each stop I grabbed two bottles . I replaced the empty one in my cages and dumped another over my head. At mile 20 I downed a Thermotab as I was beginning to feel the heat. By Mile 30 I was taking down closer to a bottle and a half each 5 miles.

I had been steadily passing people, probably around 25 riders between each water stop. I didn't know what place I was in, but it was fun to be actually passing people. Every now and then., someone would pass me - but I counted no more than 10 passes on the way out to the turn around. Then somewhere around mile 20-25 (I think) I saw the leader. Man, was he booking on his way back to town. He had a nice lead on second. Then there was a huge gap before third. I started counting riders. By the time I hit the turn-around, I had myself almost exactly at number 200.

"Time to make up some places" I thought. I made the turn around and started picking it up a bit. The wind, coming from the North West was now a bit of a tail wind. I started picking off people here and there. I tried to count and subtract from the 200, but after about the 40th mile I lost track at around 165. Besides, the times that I was passing people were getting fewer and far between. It appeared I had entered into the group of riders that was riding about my pace so I had only a few passes. I started climbing a hill. I passed this guy who had passed my about a minute earlier and then just started cranking. I could see the airport ahead and knew that I was getting closer to town.

I entered the town and turned off of the Queen K and dropped back down to Alii. There, I was pushing about 25 mph through town, weaving among tourists and cars (speed limit is 15 mph). Then it was a few miles left to the bike-to-run transition. I entered the transition and someone immediately grabbed my bike. Total bike time: 2:36:30.

I ran over the timing chip pad and shouted my race number. A volunteer handed me my bag and I sat down. My helmet and shoes were off and my running shoes on almost immediately. I grabbed my fuel belt and started running. Total T2 time: 40 seconds.

I started up the road and snapped on my fuel belt. God my legs were tired. "Should have done more bricks in training" I thought. I looked down and realized that I was still wearing my cycling gloves. Almost laughing, I took these off and shoved them in my back pocket. I passed a water stop and welcomed the ice-cold sponges and ice water they offered. I was only 100 yards into the run and all I could think was "Sub-1:30. Yeah right." I had hoped to break a 1:30 half marathon on this race. My P.R. is a 1:17 and I had recently done a 1:19, so I thought 10 minutes was quite a cushion. As I headed up a long gradual climbing hill about a half mile into the run, I began to wonder if I would break 2 hours for the run.

At the top of the hill, I thought I had just finished running out of "The Pit". The Pit was an infamous climb that had been part of the Hawaii Ironman course for years. But, unfortunately, I was wrong. After nearly another mile and a half, I dropped down into a deep dead-end road. A volunteer greeted me happily with a "Welcome to the Pit." Then, it was a turn-around and right back up. My legs were really heavy as I left the Pit. I got to the top and picked up the pace a bit. As I approached the mile 3 table, I glanced at my watch. I expected it to read 24 minutes, but was surprised when it showed 22 minutes and a few seconds. Still, this was quite a bit off of my goal of just under 21 minutes. Oh well, just keep running.

I grabbed some water and a cup of crushed ice at the table. I downed the water and dumped the ice down the back of my tri-suit. About this time, I saw a SF Tri Club member running towards me. He shouted "Get some energy." He looked much stronger than I felt and I assumed that he would be passing me within a few miles. I continued on the run and passed the finish line around mile 4. I believe that it saw the eventual winner run past me at that point. Bastard! I thought - it wasn't fair that he looked so fast and relaxed :) Oh well, just keep running I told myself again.

Each mile, I was amazed at how heavy my legs felt and how hot I felt. I was completely drenched - in sweat, in wet sponges and in cups of water. I began to look at my watch and do some mental calculations. I was still on course for a sub-5 hour finish, but just barely. Every mile I re-did the math and each time came up with the answer that I would finish with less than 30 seconds to spare. All along the run, I was slowly passing runners.

At about mile 6 my legs were really beginning to feel bad and I wondered if I could do the whole run without stopping. I had long given up on my sub-1:30 effort, I just wanted to try to break the 5 hour mark. I entered the aid station and someone shouted "ice" another shouted "Cola". I grabbed both. After dropping the ice down my tri-suit, I downed the soda. Last year, Orange soda gave me a second wind on the Ironman Florida bike course. I hoped to feel a similar reaction. After a while, the only thing I felt was pain. I was gasping for air and my legs were screaming. I entered the run turn-around at a place called Huggo's. There I heard some feet approaching me. Up to this point, not one runner had passed me. Now, I was afraid that this trend was about to end. Right before the aid station, a triathlete came along side me. I said "Hi". He replied with an Australian or New Zealand accent. Then he stopped at the water station. Well, that was one streak still secure. I headed out of the turn around and actually began to feel a bit of a second wind.

I started to pick up the pace a bit. At mile 9 I glanced at my watch. Strange, I thought. I knew I was running faster, but I calculated that I would finish at around 4:59:50. That was too close to risk, so I tried picking up the pace a bit more. I now realize that in my state, I must have miscalculated my time, but at that point I seriously doubted that I could maintain that pace all the way through and thought I'd miss my mark by less than a minute.

I kept running, drinking, dousing myself and glancing at my watch. Along the way, I saw a few other PEPS! I high fived one - actually - it was a low five, my arm was a bit tired. Some PEPS yelled "Go Alan". But I have to admit, I was too tired to even respond. I just kept running. At mile 11, I was gasping and my breathing was getting pretty loud. Then I approached the 12 mile marker. I came up on this runner and asked him if he thought we'd get the 5 hour mark. He said "Oh yeah. Easily." I was surprised and looked at my watch. He was right. I realized that I must have been miscalculating. I picked up the pace a bit. After a while I turned a corner and could see the red cones leading down to the finish line.

I turned right and dropped down into the driveway of the finish line. I glanced at the clock over the finish line as I crossed it: 4:54:28 (my official time came out as 4:54:34 - but I'll take it).

I almost fell to me knees. A volunteer cut my timing chip off of my ankle. I could hardly speak. I just knelt there gasping in air as volunteers doused bottles of water over my head. After a while I got up and slowly walked over to a bench.

I headed over to the refreshment stand to get them some watermelon and snacks. As I entered the food tent, a volunteer asked me if I wanted anything. "Morphine" I replied. He chuckled and instead handed me a chocolate chip cookie. I was beginning to feel like I would throw-up and my thighs were cramping. I mentioned that I was going to get a massage. I went over to the massage area and put myself on the wait-list. I turned around and almost bumped into Paula Newby-Fraser. I said hi and congratulated her on her recent Ironman Japan victory. I asked her to sign my race number and as I was leaving, I heard her mention that a drafting penalty she had been slapped with was totally bogus. Almost everyone around her echoed that sentiment. Then I limped away for my massage and almost collapsed onto a mat and a volunteer came over and started massaging my legs.

Afterwards, I headed over to get my finishers' shirt. Due to computer problems, they only had the first 77 finishers names printed out, so I couldn't get my shirt. (After waiting for more than an hour, they just took people at their word and gave out the shirts. Turns out I was finisher number 78. One person off of the list....but within my goal of the first 100).

I turned away from the table and my legs went out. I was kneeling on the lawn when two medical volunteers came over. I was breathing really hard and was beginning to feel like I had the chills. They helped me up and led me over to a cot. By the time I got there, I was shaking with the chills. It was 90 degrees outside and I felt like I couldn't get warm. I asked for a blanket and was wrapped up. The medics took my vitals and dumped ice water down me. After about 10 minutes, my breathing began to return to normal and I was no longer feeling the chills. After a bit, I stood up, lost my balance and fell right back down. Lucky there was a bench there. I tried again and felt like walking. About 15 minutes later, I was tired and sore, but much better. God - triathlon is fun!

After a hot shower and a nap. I felt much better. I enjoyed a great diner at a place called Merriman's. I enjoyed a mai tai and ate some of the best seafood. That night, I broke down my bike and put it in the bike case for the next day's return trip. I then fell asleep and slept like a rock (much the same way I swim). The next day we left Kona. I will return!

Goals: Sub-5:00; Top 100; sub 1:30 run.

Results: 4:54:34; 78th; 1:36:30.

Hey - two out of three ain't that bad :)

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