What Makes Kona Awesome?

Quite a bit of time has passed since I took my first steps onto the Big Island. Is has allowed the dizzy high of the experience to subside, and reflection to take place. Part of me still feels the Kona buzz, with the other half thinking it could only have been a figment of my imagination. To paint a bit of a picture, Kona was my seventh Ironman. Why is this relevant? Well, it means that since I first started doing this crazy sport, every October for the last eight years, I’ve sat up all night watching the World Championship of Ironman coverage. So even before I set foot on the island, it felt as if I knew it like the back of my hand. And this worried me.

God Complex

Kona sits on a pedestal. From the moment Paul Kaye asked if I wanted my Kona slot, the significance of the achievement hit home. Whoops, high-fives, applause and hugs. Seconds later, Paula Newby-Fraser (8-Time Ironman Triathlon World Champion) placed a lei around my neck. Suddenly I was standing on that very same pedestal.

Fast forward several months. I nervously approached a ‘built-like-a-brick-shithouse’ US Customs official in Seattle. Seeing my bike box, he asked, “Are you goin’ to Kona?” “Um, yes sir, I am.” Out stretched his hand, with a look of respect in his eyes and a booming voice, “Congratulations man, that’s awesome! Please come this way.” I felt like royalty. Sat on the plane, the Captain welcomed and congratulated all the Ironman athletes. I didn’t need a plane, I could have floated across the Pacific Ocean on my own cloud.

 Tourist Attractions

Like any destination, there’s a list of tick box attractions. Where Kona differs, is that most of them mean nothing to a non-Ironman. I can’t imagine a honeymoon couple jumping around excitedly in their seats, as they fly low over a huge set of industrial solar panels. Hello the Natural Energy Lab. Hallowed ground. Pack hire car, three left turns, one right – fucking hell I’m on the Queen K! It’s a motorway FFS, yet I’m staring at it in wonder, as if it’s the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God save the Queen K, and its adjoining lava fields (thanks Rich). And so it continues, crossing over Palani Road, marvelling at how steep it is in the flesh. Unpack car, drive into town for a swim…only along bloody Ali’i Drive (AKA Witness the Fitness Drive). The biggest ‘pinch me’ moment however, is reserved for those first footsteps on Dig Me Beach. How they even came to giving a five metre section of white sand a name, I have no idea. Yet there I was, warm water lapping at my ankles, grinning wider than the adjacent pier – home to the most viewed triathlon transition area in the world.

Dig_Me_Beach

 Volunteers

Ironman races would not be possible without the amazing dedication of the countless volunteers. Add ‘Merican, and a world championship event into the mix, and the enthusiasm and helpfulness levels sky rocket. Nothing is too much trouble. It feels like you’ve got two personal assistants at all times. They’re knowledgeable, engaging and ever-smiling, regardless of the scorching heat and energy-sapping humidity. I worshipped a few that handed me ice during the race. They truly go above and beyond. Just ask Paul Burton.

 Swag

Who doesn’t like free shit! Nearly every single triathlon brand is represented at the expo. They must bring container loads of swag. Having a cap fetish, I was in heaven. I came home with more nutrition than when I left. I could clothe a small army with the tees I collected. Admittedly, these weren’t all free, but the quality and variety of cool stuff was staggering. Kid in a toy shop comes to mind.

#UPR15

It was said to me that the Kona experience is not complete without participation in the Underpants Run. Now I know why. Aside from ogling all the extremely fit bodies wearing virtually nothing, it’s a chance for competitors and their support crews to jog/walk around the streets of Kona together. All in the name of charity. It’s simply a vibe. Strangers take photos together. People wear customised underwear (we made sure we didn’t feel left out on this accord). There’s even an oath recited before the start.

UPR

 Island Vibes

2,500 of the world’s fittest individuals in a 10km radius can be a little overwhelming. Too much at times. Drive 11km and you’ve got an island paradise all to yourself. Palm trees, crystal clear waters, turtles and dolphins. This is where you really get to soak in the laidback, Hawaiian lifestyle. It’s easy to forget you’ve still got an Ironman to complete at the end of the week. Hawaii is a bucket list holiday destination. Everyone’s chilled and happy. You feel this energy.

Believe the Hype

We live in a world of hype. Searching for the next best thing. My biggest worry was that the hype wouldn’t live up to the expectation. I get overexcited easily and place huge expectations on life events. What if all the time, money, sacrifice, sweat and tears wasn’t worth it? Well, I’m pleased to say I was being silly. Kona blew me away. Thankfully not literally, as Madam Pele is known to do at times. It superseded my dreams.

If you’re close to qualifying, don’t stop trying. It can take a while. And it should. And maybe it’ll only happen later in your life. For many, Kona starts as a dream. A bar set by individuals who want to see what their minds and bodies are capable of. Nowhere is this more tangible than standing under the massive banyan tree on Ali’i Drive, 50m from the finish line. Last finisher, 61 year old Sharman Parr comes staggering down the red carpet with 16 hours and 49 minutes on the clock. 11 minutes before the cut-off. I get gooseflesh just thinking back to the roar of the crowd, with Mike Riley saying those famous words……

YOU! ARE! AN! IRONMAN!

Shit, I forgot about MY race…

A 100km Run and I’m Not Sure I’ll Make It

UTCT-10

October 2004. London. I’m about to step out the door for a 5km run and I’m not sure I’ll make it.

October 2014. Cape Town. I’m about to step out the door for a 100km run and I’m not sure I’ll make it.

The driving factor to get my arse out the door in these two situations was remarkably different, but ultimately, it boils down to one common thread.

The Comfort Zone.

Following that run in 2004, I’ve been extremely privileged to be able to complete many races. Half marathons, marathons, triathlons and a handful of Ironman events. I say privileged because not only is competing in these races expensive; the act of movement is not something everybody gets to enjoy. I’ll stop there before I go too deep.

So why 100km? Over mountains. With a 15 hour time limit? Because that’s exactly what the Ultra Trail Cape Town involves.

That common thread is why. To move outside of my comfort zone. My focus over the last few years has been on Ironman triathlon. The goal of simply finishing my first one quickly moved to finishing the next, and the next, and the next, as fast as possible. Chasing a time. Or a Kona slot (more on this in a future post). Admittedly, there were other, superficial, influencing factors. A first for Cape Town – my ‘hometown’. On ‘The Mountain’. Trail running. A route I’ve invested much time exploring, in awe.

(For the record, Cape Town is trail running heaven. If you don’t believe me, check out my Instagram feed.

Hovering the cursor over the enter button, my mind was clear. It said, “You’re biting off more than you can chew here dude. 100km is a LONG way. I don’t think you can do it.”

Click.

I’m a socially motivated athlete. I obviously compete for ‘myself’ and any pressure to perform comes from within, but I find sharing goals with friends and family massively motivating. That’s why I tend to make a campaign out of it. I guess it’s a poor excuse to rally up support. Or, a way in which I help apply pressure on myself to do something. Ask anyone who’s done a race where they’re able to be tracked and they’ll tell you – it helps to know people are following you online. It keeps you going. Each time you cross a timing matt – they’ll know I’m still going.

Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” That’s where #keepgoing came into it. My campaign mantra. My driving force. It’s what I trained my brain to say every time the thought of “This is too hard, just stop” entered my head.

If you asked me to write a report on what I did during my fourteen and a half hours of racing, I couldn’t. Some parts are vivid, others a blur. Even days after, I’m getting flashbacks to experiences of the race. Some that make me smile, others wince. So here’s a short summary…

Making my way to the start line, I bumped into Raynard Tissink doing his final race pack checks. It was good to see Ray as we’d done a route recce together a few weeks before and had agreed to not shave until after the 100km. We wanted to look like ‘proper’ trail runners. The mood at the start was jovial. Still pitch dark, with the nervous flashes of headtorches darting about. Soon we were ambling through the streets of Cape Town, with Ray complaining about the slow pace. Slowly, slowy catch the monkey Ray-man.

Lion’s Head (not the top), Platteklip Gorge (the almost 1 hour climb that gets you to the top on Table Mountain), MacClears Beacon. Not that I could see the beacon. The top of Table Mountain was covered in thick cloud. Thankfully I’d enjoyed the view on other occasions so no view meant I could focus on moving forward.

A few kilometres from the Constantia Nek check point, a friend, Kevin Flanagan, caught up to me, meaning I had some welcome company from the check point, pretty much all the way to Hout Bay (halfway). Running across Llandudno and Sandy Bay beaches was beautiful. The Atlantic Ocean looked massively inviting.

“The first real bit of suffering was soon to follow”

The section off the beach, over Karbonkelberg and down to Hout Bay was painful. Kev started dropping back on the climb. Eventually he’d find a rock, sit down and have a few words with himself. I wanted to do the same. It’s when the doubt set in. Running downhill became excruciatingly painful. And Hout Bay was only halfway. Feeling that sore, with 50km still to go, had me stressed. Keep going. Keep going. KEEP going. I made the 50km check point and with fresh reserves (in my Camelbak), I shuffled out of Hout Bay.

UTCT-11

Constantia Nek, the Constantia winelands, the Contour, the University of CT (UCT). By this point, it was a simple matter of moving from check point to check point. On average, about 8km apart. Coke and water being my saviour. It really is the best sports drink in the world.

Leaving the final check point at UCT was a huge confidence boost. It’s when the belief came back. I wasn’t going to come this far and not finish! The final mountain to climb is the aptly (on this occasion) named Devil’s Peak. I felt like I was in the Devil’s cave. That familiar, dark place. I’d been here before, only this time it was pitch dark. Keep going.

As I ran around the Devil’s Peak contour, the city once again revealed itself. I actually let out a massive WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOO, and proceeded to run off course. Shit. I’d run (downhill) 600m in the wrong direction. It was at this exact point that I learned that the body (and mind) always have more. From struggling to move my legs, the adrenaline kicked in and I started running back, uphill! It felt effortless. I was floating. If I didn’t run, I wouldn’t make the 15 hour cut-off.

As I found my way onto the correct path, I saw a familiar face. KEV! Without a word, we knew the task at hand. 10km to go, less than an hour and a half to make cut-off. I ran that final 10km in absolute fear. Fear of failure. Fear I’d celebrated too early. What a fool.

Only when I turned the final corner onto the finishing field did the fear fade away. 14 hours and 38 minutes. I crossed the line, thanked Kev for the company and doubled over. I stayed like this for a minute or two. Time became irrelevant. I’d done it. Then came the tears. I’ve never been ashamed to admit I’m an emotional being. I wear my heart on my sleeve. Someone in the crowd thought I was retching, when in fact I was sobbing.

I sat down, pulled my phone out for the first time since I’d put it away on the start line, called my parents, and allowed tears of joy to stream down my face as I let them know their son was safely home.

I made it.

UTCT-9

These incredible photo’s were taken by Andrew King.

London Marathon Tips

You’ve done the hard bit (well nearly), you’re fit, healthy and raring to go so here are some London marathon tips I’ve put together from my own experience of this amazing event. Obviously stick to whatever you’re used to and only take advice on the things you might find helpful

  • Get a good night’s sleep on Friday, it’s the most important night. Stay off you your feet on Saturday (you could go for an ultra slow 15 minutes jog), drink water (don’t glug it down, it will only make you wee it all out) and relax on the couch all day!
  •  Pack your marathon bag and lay your race day outfit out, the night before. It will help you sleep as you won’t be thinking about what you need to pack/remember.
  •  Take your race number, scrunch it into a small ball and then open it up fully again. Making it crumply stops it from acting like a sail while you’re running. (Trust me, this is one of the best tips I’ve ever been given & I do it to every single race no. I get.)
  •  Smear your feet (esp. toes) in Vaseline when you put your socks and shoes on in the morning. It will feel squidgy for a few minutes but then your feet absorb it and it stops the blistering. Honest.
  •  Pack a loo roll to take with you to the start. Loos there will ALWAYS run out.
  •  Rather get there early and sit around at the start than have to jog to the start if you’re late. It’s a bit of a walk from the station. Going early also means you might get a seat on the train on the way there. Rest those legs, you’ve to 42.2km coming up.
  •  Take an old ‘throw-away’ t-shirt and a bin bag (cut 3 holes for head and arms) to wear once you’ve put your finish bag on the truck. If cold, run with them on for a few miles until you’re feeling warm and then bin them. Don’t waste energy trying to keep warm while you wait in the start pens.
  •  Take water to sip and a banana to eat before the gun goes off.
  •  Stretch a little before the start but don’t worry about doing a jog to warm-up. You’ll have plenty time to get warm.
  •  Make sure you run self-sufficient. Don’t hope to receive something from a supporter/loved one. If the trains have issues and the person isn’t where you expect them, you’ll be stressing. It’s a bonus if you do get something extra along the way but don’t rely on it.
  •  Don’t stress if the going is slow at the start. Think of it as a blessing as starting out too quickly will come back to haunt you later on. Seriously don’t worry if you feel the pace is too slow. Because you’ve trained well, the first half of the race will feel easy. It’s the second half that you’re saving it for.
  •  Run consistent. Stick to your mile splits but if you feel it’s too hard to keep reaching them, slow down a few seconds and reassess your goal time. (Better to slow down than blow up.)
  •  Take water from the end of the watering tables. It’s less busy. There’s so many watering tables, only drink when you feel you need to, not at each one. Don’t carry the water you pick up. Take one, have a few sips and throw it. Energy is wasted carrying it.
  •  Most importantly, enjoy it. Soak up the atmosphere. It’s incredible! You’ll get goose-bumps. It’s like running in a stadium for 26.2 miles. People will shout your name; raise a hand and smile (if you can). It’s so much fun, but don’t get too excited in the first half. All the adrenaline will make you want to run faster. Save it for a sprint finish.
  •  The last bit on the Mall will blow you away. Tears will flow, you’ll feel as light as air, and that’s it, you’ve done it!

Extremes

Mallorcan Snow

It’s safe to say that most triathletes are extreme. Why else would we choose to do 3 different sports?

I’m a fan of extremes. It follows my nature. It can be a massive plus but also a huge hindrance. But now’s not the time to discuss my issues.

What got me thinking about extremes was yesterday’s run here in Mallorca. With some storm clouds brewing, we decided to can the planned ride and take to a trail that follows a beautiful little river that normally trickles towards the ocean.

5 minutes into the run, the hail came down. At this point, three quarters of the group turned. Sod this. With a few runners off the front, it fell on me to catch up to them to ask if they wanted to continue. With the hail plummeting my head and face, I reached the group. I was greeted with grimaces but their eyes were alive. I didn’t even have to ask.

By the time we walked back into the villa, the river was a torrent. Crossing a small footbridge, I stopped to soak (no pun intended) it all in. Not many people would be seeing what I could see.

This morning we set off for a ride, which scales an 8km climb. Not long after setting off, we turned a corner, which presented the backdrop of a snow-covered mountain. Our rendezvous point. I spent 90% of the time getting to the foot of the climb staring up at the peak. I was mesmerised.

Cars had been stopped but we were allowed to continue. Slowly but surely the snow lining the road got deeper and deeper. I felt giddy. To see and feel the climb in these new extreme conditions filled me with an unbelievable energy.

The buzz amongst the group at the summit was palpable.

It felt special. We were being treated to something out of the ordinary. Certainly for Joe Average that doesn’t leave the couch. We’d achieved.

Life can’t always be extreme. We wouldn’t survive. But when I happen upon these situations, it’s like having the reset button pushed.

We all need our reset buttons pushed once and a while.