Ironman World Championship 2019

IM Hawai’i is my Iron race #22. A nice round number, and my wistful goodbye to ordinary Iron distance triathlon. The siren of tougher races has been calling for quite some time. But as the saying goes, ‘Never Say Never Again.”

Swim Kona … Bike Kona … Run Kona … Finish Kona

I originally hoped to race Hawai’i in 2016, but after a year of honing my skills in 10 Ironmans, I broke a bunch of bones instead. My bike slipped on a 30 mph downhill at IM Chattanooga, when my training was at its peak: a 1:05 swim and 22.6 mph up to the crash at 80 miles (extrapolates to 4:57 over 112 miles). I put IM on the backburner and stuck to my planned ultraracing schedule of Paris-Brest-Paris (2015), RAAM (2016), 100 mile ultraruns (Keys 100 and Honey Badger 100 in 2017) and 100+ mile ultraruns (Pigtails 150, a failed Badwater 135 in 2018), finally leading to a successful Badwater Ultramarathon in 2019 after 3 years of long distance run and heat training.

Doing these races reminded me of my true fascination with ultra-distance racing: finishing is uncertain when you push the physical or mental limit. It may be a marathon for one person, or the Barkley marathons for another, but Ironman was no longer it for me, barring an accident. Even at my least trained, there is always a comfortable multi-hour cushion to the cutoff. Still, after 21 Iron races, I thought I had earned a trip to the World Championship on the Big Island, and I signed up for the Legacy Program (athletes with at least 12 Ironmans).

Fast forward to Kona: Preparation was not ideal, with little swimming, no heat acclimatization, and not having run 7 weeks prior because of a foot injury. On the bright side, I convinced my family to come to Hawai’i, which made the trip a lot of fun! We picked up my packet at the Kamehameha Hotel on Ali’i Drive, the location of start and finish lines. When we got my rental bike at Kona Bike Works, the mechanic was amused to be installing Frog pedals on a Cervelo P2. Next Nancy, Valerie and I checked into the Kona Beach Resort near Kealakekua Bay. It’s right next to Keauhu Mall, which has a convenient shuttle service to the start line on race morning. On Thursday, Alex joined us and we drove to Hilo to take a look at our Hawai’i properties and met a neighbor. On Friday, I did something slightly imprudent and went on a 5 hour snorkeling tour with the family, getting a bad sunburn on my feet and lower legs and feeling really tired. Otherwise I felt fine before the race. We dropped off transition bags and bike on Friday afternoon. Like IM Boulder a few months earlier, when I borrowed Mike Balajewicz’s road bike, I think I had the lowest-tech bike at this race!

The race day forecast was 88 °F, 60% humidity, partly cloudy. Could be worse. I maintained my jetlag, going to bed around 7 PM and waking up around 4 AM local time, so it was easy for me to jump out of bed, get into my Wild Card trisuit, and make it to the shuttle on race morning. After taking the protective bag off my bike bento box (filled with baby food pouches) and shaking the night’s condensation off my helmet (it must be kept on the bike at Kona), I toured the transition zone once more. The transition bags are inaccessible on race morning, and transparent – which I appreciate after racing the Boston Marathon in 2013. 

I queued up with the Legacy wave for a 7:30 start (they now have waves at Kona?!), over an hour after the pros. We were corralled between two buoys, and off went the conch. The water was clear, and I found someone swimming in the 1:20-1:30 range (my expectation based on recent swim times) to draft on. At the turnaround yacht, my sighting guide slowed down, and I swam alone for 2 minutes before finding someone else who was slowly passing me and drafted the rest of the way to the beach in 1:29. A slow swim, but no complaints given my training status, and I felt well-rested. Valerie actually got footage of me swimming, a first in 22 IMs.

I double-checked at T1: I had my caffeine, baby food pouches, ibuprofen (for just before the run) all stashed away. But I made a bad mistake and forgot to get sunscreen slapped on after the swim. On to the bike, we hustled up steep Palani Rd. to Queen K highway, and then onward north to Hawi. It was a hilly 60 miles, and I did not pass many people. At this race, everyone either came in on the podium of an Ironman or had done over 12 Ironmans – the field was a little more experienced than usual! At the Hawi turnaround, Nancy, Alex and Valerie cheered me on and got a video. 

Mile 60-75 went by pretty fast, but sunburn was beginning to kick in pretty badly, and I needed something to lower the perceived exertion. I grabbed for the caffeine pouch in my rear pocket – and it was GONE. I really need a dose of caffeine about ½-way through the race but I resigned myself to my fate. Inquiries at aid stations did not produce any caffeine either for the rest of the race (gels contain too little and make me sick on the run). I trudged on about 2 mph slower than the first half, and eventually got to the finish in 6:36, beating my previous slowness record at Coeur d’Alène. My shoulders were burning deep red by then. In T2, I wished I had put spare caffeine in my bag.

On the run, I alternated jogging 11 minute miles and walking slowly through the aid stations, picking up a cup of Cola and a cup of chicken soup at each one.  The bike nutrition (water+baby food pouches, and occasional gel) and run nutrition was just about the calorie intake I needed (200 kcal/h) and never made me feel sick. But I really felt the combination of sunburn, lack of caffeine and pain in my left foot, which had not fully healed. Once the sun set (around 6 PM), it felt quiet and peaceful, and I was now beginning to pass a lot of walkers. I methodically jogged my way to the finish, one brightly lit mile marker after another: 13 (half-way), 18 (over 2/3), 20 (only a 10k left), etc. The 5:33 run-walk did not quite beat my slowness ‘record’ of 5:38 at IM Louisville, but close.

The finish line was energizing, and I picked it up to 9 minute miles. “Martin, you are an Ironman” was duly announced. I thought, “Yeah, 22 times over. I’m done-done!” Huge crowds were yelling and cheering, and my family caught a video of me passing under the arch. I ended up with 13:55, my slowest IM by a wide margin, slower even than my very first in 2010 at Louisville. I thought there was a certain cosmic symmetry to those two bookends of my IM career. Avoidable mistakes (lost caffeine, no sunscreen) and a foot injury nibbled away at my energy, perhaps adding 1.5 hrs to my pre-race estimate. Fortunately nothing went drastically wrong anywhere in the race and I was happy to get the final one done with many hours to go before the cutoff. The after-race party on Sunday had a good show of the pro and age group winners. The 80 year-old age group winner was amazing. The beer was good, although the food could have been better for $55 per banquet ticket – like Kalua pig and roasted veggies instead of packaged chicken and pea-carrot mix. And off we were to our 11 PM flight home.

In 2020, I’ll up the game a bit: Decaman is a triathlon with 24 miles of swimming, 1120 miles of cycling and 262 miles of running. Definitely a race where finishing is uncertain.

POST SCRIPTUM: The sunburn was bleeding in several places a couple of days after the race even though I avoided touching it. Moral: DO NOT forget your sunscreen on subtropical islands near the equator! And Decaman was canceled due to COVID-19.