Sunday, October 30, 2016

What Makes the Big Island Bike Course Different From All the Rest?

I've been to the Big Island several times.  Although the bike course is not rated as difficult as some of the other Ironman courses, when you ask a finisher who's just battled the heat, humidity and terrific winds, they may differ with that assessment.  A lot.  The Kona Athlete Guide notes " 'Challenging' and 'inspiring' are terms often used to describe the IRONMAN World Championship presented bike course."

They also note "Kona’s highways are only two lanes, and drivers are not accustomed to large numbers of cyclists and runners on the roads. The IRONMAN World Championship has become famous for special care of athletes during the race. This “Aloha” is given freely by our 5,000 volunteers. When training, please be courteous and aware that those sharing the roads with you are the people you will count on during race day to fulfill your physical and emotional needs. Please ride single file."  Hmm, the athletes help the volunteers; turns out life really is a two way street.

With the swim behind him or her, the athlete heads north for Kawaihae and ultimately the turn around at the village of Hawi where they experience a great sense of relief knowing that in one sense, the race is half over. 

Their hair is drying, they're thinking about the first bike aid station, their fueling plan, not getting a drafting penalty, stuff like that when right by the roadside, living in the lava so to speak, they get a glimpse of something they've not seen before.

A solitary cross on the Kona bike route

And they don't ride more than a couple more miles when they spy:

If they were to come back after the race, stop and carefully examine these, about 35 of these lava memorials are found on the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway north of Kailua-Kona. Many are anonymous but some have elaborate poems, contents that likely belonged to what you can only assume is a lost loved one.  There are basketballs, base ball gloves, necklaces and hats.  You learn that many of these are for children.  Children who used to play with that basketball or those beads.

 This 112 mile bike is unlike any other.  The whole Hawaiian experience, Kona is so much more than just another race.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Can You Have 3 Flats and Still Finish Kona?

Can You Have 3 Flat Tires and Still Finish Kona?  Ask Tim Johnson

“It was an epic race, but one I hope to never repeat.”  It was with these cryptic words that I agreed to dine with Legacy athlete Tim Johnson from St. Louis at the finisher’s banquet the day following the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona.

Johnson was one of the folks I had the privilege of profiling for before the race so I knew much of what got him to the Kona starting line.  Already a veteran of a dozen 140.6 mile efforts, he’d raced under many conditions, some pretty awful, and a host of different terrains. “Ever read the magazine know-it-alls who say that this course or that course is may be harder than this Hawaiian one?  Bunk, all bunk.”  This from a gent who’s raced IRONMAN Lake Placid, IRONMAN Wisconsin and (get the right name) the old St. George Utah IRONMAN.  “This one beats them all.”

It didn’t help, of course, that Johnson was nursing an ailing Achilles and under chiropractic care for a recent flare up of a sore back.  It’s even more sore today and here’s why.  This athlete is a real student of the sport.  From pre-race reading and reconnoitering he knew precisely where to line up for an excellent swim.  A good T1 followed. It would be the last good thing in his day for the next 15 hours.  He only made mile 4 on the bike before flatting.  Then he flatted at mile 5.  Now out of tubes, you guessed it, he flatted at mile 6.  As he described his race preparation prior to departing St. Louis, he sounded pretty thorough with new tires and tubes a couple weeks out, several rides to make sure all was well, etc.

So he waited 20 minutes for the bike mechs, who also couldn’t explain the etiology of his situation.  They gave him a new tire and tube.  Including one for the road, so to speak, but not before separating the rubber off one of his brake pads.  Hard way to start this race.  By now, he was basically cooked.  He missed the needed bike interval so he had headwinds “about 70% of the time."  You read that right.  The out and back Kona bike course snakes through the rugged Kawaihae region of the Big Island well known for this blowing both ways phenomenon.  It didn’t help this northbound athlete to view the southbound pros, already having been to the turnaround, “about 1000 miles ahead of me.”
He made the bike cut off, although not by much.  "I was spent."  Able to run only the first few miles of the marathon, he had to walk the majority saving the small reserve of kindling remaining to actually run the final mile to the finish.  Cramping badly, Johnson was taken to the finish line medical tent, weighed, and found to be 17 pounds down. Seventeen!  Through all this he still laughed when he told me, “Yes I was at the finish line at midnight....Ha.  Receiving my second bag of IV fluids in Medical.”

But if anything, Tim Johnson is a glass is half full guy.  Despite his misadventures this day, he was still terribly impressed that he, Tim Johnson from Missouri, was able to watch one of the most glorious sunsets he’d ever seen as the sun plunged into the Pacific. How dark and peaceful it was there, "the stars are really something.  And you know, I’m doing it in Kona.  How cool is that?”

Sunday, October 16, 2016

No Athlete is an Island: Ironman Done the Right Way

“No Athlete is an Island.”     

With apologies to John Donne

Hold it right there.  This is not a story of an athlete who over comes unbelievable odds to become an Ironman.  Rather, it’s a story about sport, love, sharing and support.  It may even serve as a model for other endurance athletic families.  You cannot do this sport alone.

“If they can’t find the turn-around boat, they shouldn’t be doing the race,” Mo Matthews, Swim Director, early years in Kona.

Even the most skilled triathlon Houdini cannot make training invisible, much as he or she might try.  Or as much as they tell others it is.  Take Julie Billingsley, prototype tri spouse 1.0.  “It’s easy,” she says referring to tri hubby Dan.  “I have a certain number of things I need to get done and Dan is very considerate giving me his training schedule a week or more in advance.  Then it’s just filling in the holes.” 

Some spouses look at the sport and then expect some sort of pay back, a quid pro quo. You got yours and I want mine sort of thing.  “We’ve never worked that way in this family.  Everybody’s schedule, mine, Dan’s, the kid’s, they’re all intertwined.  Everybody gets to feel important, special, at some point.”  As I listen to her say this, I realize that the whole blueprint for this relationship starts with the athlete.  Dan is self-coached, has run the 140.6 miles under 10 hours which isn’t bad for pushing 50, right?  Although he trains 20 plus hours some weeks, he knows that his training plan, his annual training plan isn’t a stack of cards.  “I think I realized a long time ago that if I miss a work out here or there, it’s really not going to diminish my total fitness.  I take the sport a day at a time.”  Say, is this guy too logical to be in this sport?

He was attracted to triathlon in part by the way it all originated, particularly the stories of John and Judy Collins.  I told him that Collins raced in the original 3 sport race organized by triathlon co-founder Jack Johnstone* in Mission Bay, CA 1974.  It was originally run, bike, swim.  In that order.   The Navy transferred then Lieutenant Commander Collins and family to Honolulu with the tiny multisport seed embedded somewhere down deep, like the calamity that was high school prom night.  Later, as Collins recalls the birth of Ironman, “It was at the awards ceremony for the Oahu Perimeter (running) Relay,” tough guy talk about whether runners, bikers or swimmers were the best athletes.  So Collins suggested putting 3 existing Oahu events together including the 2.4 mile Waikiki Rough Water Swim, Round the Island Bike Race of 115 miles (less 3 miles so they’d be at the start of the Honolulu Marathon.  Collins didn’t know the bike was a two day event.) “Let the clock keep running, and whomever finished first, well, we’d call him the Iron Man.”  But there was just one small detail.  Unimportant really.  They didn’t know if anybody could it.

Springfield, Illinois’s Billingsley caught the fever, the triathlon fever that is, in 2010.  Perhaps against better judgement, Dan’s wife Julie’s better judgement that is, Dan entered and finished Ironman Wisconsin.  “But he was kind of grey, really grey, especially below the elbows,” laughed Julie.  “Then he threw up and was taken to the med tent!”

“Well, I wasn’t that bad,” Billingsley sheepishly admits trying to slide into the conversation.  A quick look at Julie, however, and you know Dan was.  But like others with the fever, perhaps even the reader, there was the Las Vegas 70.3 championships, IMAZ, Boulder and Chattanooga.  And then one magical day, just like something from Willie Wonka, came the golden ticket.  The Kona Lottery slot!

You see when Commander Collins was transferred back to the mainland following his Hawaiian tour, he gave control of “his” race to Hank Gruenman whose Nautilus Club had helped with the first two races.  In turn, Gruenman passed the “race box,” little more than a shoe box of notes really, to co-worker Valerie Silk saying, “take care of this.”  Collins final request was that there always be a way for the common athlete to be part of the field.  From the original field of 15 in 1978, race popularity sky rocketed as nearly 1000 athletes toed the line in October 1982.  By then, Silk had moved the race to the Big Island having wildly out grown the Oahu site. Following the wishes of John Collins, the Ironman Lottery was created and used for the first time the following year.  Of the 1000’s entered into the 2015 World Championship lottery for Kona, “Somehow they got my name” Billingsley admits almost incredulously.”

The author’s index Ironman was the last year before the lottery, 1982, the only year there were two runnings of the event to make it more friendly to the training cycle of non-Hawaiian entrants.  The ones who understood the meaning of the word winter.  Early on, all one did was fill out the entry form and cut a check for $75.  Anyone who wanted in was accepted.  Fast forward to 2015 where nearly 100,000 competitors finished Ironman event in 2015.  To say that entry fees have also increased might be a bit of an understatement.  It appears that Billingsley may have raced the last year of the old lottery, the IRS finding fault with it recently, and its future is in question.

That 6th Ironman held 34 years ago in Kona was quite different from the event of today.  Sure, the distances were the same but there were two transition areas 6 miles apart and no swim buoys.  “If they can’t find the turn-around boat, they shouldn’t be doing the race,” crusty Mo Matthews, swim director of the time was very fond of pointing out.  The 2015 Lottery of 200 also had half its slots cleverly dedicated to Legacy athletes “as Collins intended,” noted WTC President Andrew Messick.

Billingsley tells me his official work title is webmaster to the Illinois Education Association, although he serves in a much greater capacity.  His supportive wife Julie is the accounts manager for a Behavioral Health Association.  They have two daughters, Chloe and Sophie, neither of whom plans to follow in Dad’s triathlon footsteps.   And while some kids are actually embarrassed by their tri parents, this pair say they may not totally understand the sport but they’re very proud of Dad for the Ironman choices that he’s made.  As noted above, some athletes feel their training is “invisible” to the family, which you and I understand as delusional thinking.  Julie immediately adds, “but that’s who he is!  Dan chose to…or maybe needs to… work out and race.”  She’s almost bursting with pride here.  Perfect tri spouse, very nice woman.

When asked if now having been to the Mecca of triathlon in Kona, he plans to back off, maybe learn to play an instrument or spruce up the yard, he pauses briefly, looks at Julie, then back at me admitting “I’m signed up for Ironman Louisville.  I’m so close I’d really like to qualify for Kona.” Then, with a far away look in his eye he asks,” say, you don’t have John Collins address do you?  I got a new stack of these Ironman thank you notes while in Hawaii and I know where the first one’s going.”

*Died 1/28/2016, Obituary

Monday, October 10, 2016

When to Just Bag It on Race Day

"He knew right then he was too far from home." 

                                                                   Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band

We've all been there. Over our heads.  Maybe even afraid.  Or just plain whipped. Beat. Thinking "I don't need to be doing this to keep my log book happy."


Note in physician's log, men's changing tent 2016 Ironman Kona - "Athlete reports earplug stuck in ear.  Forceps extraction." Just like that, the racer is on his way with hardly any time lost at all. Thanks for being there Dr. Charles Johnson. 


One of our local sprint triathlons has an ocean swim which is parallel to shore.  They throw a buoy into the water, see if it goes up or down the beach, and then swim that way so the athletes are going "downstream."  I've done this event several times.

Once the swim course is set, athletes then walk the 1000 yards down the beach and swim back to center and the transition zone.  While walking with the entire field, my friend Niel and I were just talking, with three young women in front of us chatting animatedly.  As the group approached the start line, the three women pointed toward the modest waves and a somewhat angry ocean, pow wowed, looked back at the ocean shaking their heads.  And walked away, leaving the race course.  Using excellent head work, they realized that the swim requirements for that day exceeded their abilities.  Or at least their comfort level.

The race proceeds.  Those athletes with a little more experience see the big waves, wait 1 or two seconds, swim though a smaller set, and things just quieted down.  Since many can breathe just as easily on one side as the other, since you swim parallel to the beach, they just stay mostly breathing on the left, watching the tourists, the hotels, folks on the boardwalk.  When reaching the end, they'd pick the waves they would body surf to shore when the final buoy appeared.

  All in all, it was a pretty good time.  In my case, the only thing needed was to think my way through the first waves.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Staying Out of the Medical Tent at Ironman

Do your best to stay out of here if you can

Ironman medical tent waiting for its first customer

Kona is one of the venues where all athletes are weighed at registration.  An unlucky few repeat that when they hit the medical tent.

No athlete plans their race by thinking “OK, body marking, check tires, pre-race pee, good swim and then crash my bike so I end up with medical.”  Right?  Neither do the folks who actually end up partaking of the services offered by the medical team.

Racing triathlon is not an exact science.  There’s a good deal you can do, however, to lessen your chances of an unplanned visit to the tent just as you can plan your transitions thoroughly to require the least amount of time.  Like Crocodile Dundee says to Sue Charlton when describing how the Pitjantjatjara aborigines can walk at night through the forest without hitting anything, “They think their way through.” If, well before the gun goes off signaling the start of the race, like the Pitjantjatjara you “think your way through” the event you’ll have a safer, more enjoyable day.  I’ve heard it said that your race planning should be broken up into at least three major areas of consideration including conditions, mechanical issues, and your current overall level of race readiness.

On Sunday morning after the 2014 Hawaii Ironman I talked with one of the med tent docs about how things went from his perspective in the big tent next door to the King Kamehameha Hotel, Ironman Race Headquarters.  His initial impression was that the harshness of the conditions led to both an increased number of “customers” and a setback in their arrival.  In other words as the day progressed and the famed ho'o Mumuku* winds picked up.  The ferocity of the famed Hawaiian winds bearing that name, which roughly translated means ‘the winds that blow both ways.”  One of life’s little pleasures on the Kona coastline.  It’s how you can have a head wind both ways on an out and back course.  During my reconnoitering of the course on Sunday the winds were as fierce as I've ever seen them. A direct cross wind out bound really making the bikers lean into it and a quartering head wind in bound so they even had to pedal going down hill. 

  This was especially evident in the northern part of the island not far from the Hawi bike turn around and described by uber-coach Joe Friel “as bad as I‘ve ever seen it.” And he’s seen a lot.  It slowed the second half of the bike for many putting athletes far behind their race plans. In fact, those who’d had a slow start to the day after encountering swells in Kailua Bay were the most affected.  But they were the racers who could afford it the least, the older triathletes who generally spend more time on the course and can ill afford an event more difficult than it already is.

During my reconnoitering of the course on Sunday the winds were as fierce, blowing the leaves of the trees straight sideways. A direct cross wind out bound really making the bikers lean into it and a quartering head wind in bound so they even had to pedal going down hill. 

There were (almost unbelievably) 46 athletes over 70 with 4 men and 1 woman in the 80-84 year old age group, none of whom made the bike cut off in 2014. Compare that to 2013 where four of four elder statesment did in the almost eerily calm conditions. Many of the age group course records were set in 2013 due to the conditions.

When recalling the goings on in the med tent, the doc felt “ there was nothing we couldn’t handle” describing the expected dehydration, exhaustion, minor bike crashes, etc. One biker was injured in the Waimea area up north and taken to closer medical facilities near there, further details unknown.  It was also a testament to the harshness that there were, somewhat usually, 14 athletes receiving care late into the night instead of the more common 2 or three.

So do your best to stay hydrated, race within your own personal limitations, don’t allow the monotony of 112 miles on the bike get your guard down, and you’ll never know the sensations  of lying on a cot watching the volunteer nurse trying to decide which vein to start big bore IV.  With perfect pre race preparation, the next tent you see will be Ringling Brothers Big Top with camels in it, not doctors.

*Mumuku - Hawaiian dictionary definition is "Strong wind that blows at Kawaihae"

It's said that ancient Hawaiian warriors, the Alapa, would train in the Kawaihae and Waikoloa region of the Big Island (the bike course, naturally) due to the harsh conditions and intense winds.  The first Ironmen of Hawaii perhaps?

Monday, October 3, 2016

-Race Volunteers - You Need to Give Kona Some Thought

A genius isn't a person.  It's more like a spirit that lives in the house of a creative person and helps.  Some times. You're in the zone, with the flow.    Tom Maglozzi, Car Talk

A brown shirted race volunteer seeks an answer to an athlete's question

Thank the volunteers.  Cliche right?  Not at all.  The races we do couldn't function without the volunteers and we know it.  One reason why it's good to volunteer occasionally.

I was asked by Ironman to profile 9 athletes for the World Championships in Kona this year. Sure is interesting that half of them serve as race volunteers from time to time feeling it important to do so.  One couple I wrote up has 22 Ironman finishes between them and they worked one of the run aid stations at Ironman Chattanooga a couple weeks ago.

Why not think about your local sprint or olympic distance race?  Or maybe even Kona.  I'm sure they could use your help as well as your expertise as a wily veteran of these kinds of things.  If your time is tight, tell them and pick something with a narrow requirement like course/transition set up or awards ceremony where you could be of assistance but not take all day. 

Every athlete in the 2016 World Championship is listed here.  Pretty cool.

How to go to Hawaii and still be able to afford airfare home.

I've been to Kailua-Kona, or simply Kona as most refer to it a few times and learned that I don't need to break the bank. In other words, I haven't run the race in a number of years, but still volunteer for Transitions each year, and can do it without a second mortgage on the house.  This way, even folks who know they'll never qualify for the race can be an important part of the event as a bike catcher or transition tent volunteer.  Or both!  The Hawaiians call it "Share the Aloha" and, like Woody Allen says, "80% of life is just showing up."  So don't just assume it's out of reach.  Do the math, take a chance.

These two "hot chicks" just finished the Underpants Run, an essential in your Kona stay

 So where do we start?  How about the biggies, transportation, lodging and food.  The instant you decide to commit, book the flights trying to use frequent flyer miles.  I did.  An example would be as follows: I just looked at United Airlines, Dulles to Kona, and would be able to book a round trip 10/1 - 10/9 with frequent flyer miles and $10.  But it might not be available tomorrow.  Or even this afternoon.  I've been told to start looking daily, 332 days in advance for the lowest ones.  The lesson here is if you see flights that work, even if they're a day, maybe two off of your plans, book 'em right then.  They change all the time.  It'll work out.  Remember that the penalties for overweight luggage can be significant.  Many of us hit the Ironman store to bring IM gifts for the folks back home.  I suggest you pack a canvas collapsible bag in your suitcase so if you're reaching the weight limit, you only pay a 2nd bag fee instead of the penalty. 

The other big part of transportation is a rent-a-car.  I just checked Budget, and, unusually, they offer one car for $214.09 for my theoretical week's stay but all the rest are over $300. If you wait until close to race, since they sell out, rates can go to $1200!  However, most of the time you don't need a car here.  Walk, hitch, take the Keauhou Trolley that goes up and down Alii Drive all day for $2.  Just get a copy of the schedule.  Ride/rent or borrow a bike.

As for a place to stay, that's usually not very hard.  I book a condo every year, about a mile from Lava Java - "where the elite meet to eat" - as they used to say.  And, at the moment, I only have one roommate, there rest will come from sources like this, Slowtwitch, VRBO, Twitter, etc. where folks are looking to split expenses.  I think we were $425 each or so for the 9 day week last year.  For some hotels that would only get you two nights.

There are a host of options for food.  If you stay in a condo with a refrigerator, you're set.  A visit to Sack N Save grocery store on Palani Road will help.  As you go in, stop at the service desk and ask for a Makai card (discount shopper.)  It will save you plenty.  Pick up what you need for breakfast, snacks, beer, soda, whatever so that you're not paying restaurant or convenience store prices later in the week.  That said, you have to plan on a couple of meals at Splasher's located right at the IM start/finish for unparalleled people watching, or Lava Java where the company is good and the food better.  Thursday night before the race is the E Komo Mai (Welcome) Banquet.  It's fun but not inexpensive. A number of people seems to have extra tickets that they're not using and if you keep an ear out you might snag one.

Bring everything you might need with you.  Snacks, gels, sunscreen, goggles, tubes, etc. except CO2 cartridges of course.  Grant Miller or Vern Sekafetz at Bike Works can be a tremendous help with the rest.

In short, for many of you, if you think through the numbers and the benefit you get being at the finish line at midnight of the World Championship screaming to help the final finisher across the line, it's time you'll never forget.  See you on Alii Drive.