October 10, 2012

The Real Kona Experience: Part 1

So you’ve watched the videos, seen the pictures being posted at Dig Me Beach and you`ve read about the famed Energy Lab. You’ve been living vicariously through thousands of others for this place you want to get to. You dedicate hours of time. No, screw that – you dedicate years of your life, to get to Kona.

Is it all it’s cracked out to be? Did you rub shoulders with Chris Lieto at Lava Java? Did you feel the energy at Hawi? Was the boat serving coffee in the sea filled with ripped euro-dudes-and-dudettes?

These are the questions that come to me. I wanted to talk about the typical race week at Kona to give those of you who want to go an idea of what it’s really about. What you don’t see in the videos. What you don’t see in the images of the pro guys at the front. You are getting but a glimpse of the real experience.

The real experience starts in July, when you are training in the rain, putting in five hour rides where you struggle to shift gears in the freezing rain and where it takes you the better part of the day to warm up before heading out for a run on smashed legs and a tired head. Oh, then you have to do it tomorrow again because there are no easy weekends when prepping for Kona.

Then you have to add the real financial cost of going to Kona. You will fret over new kit and you need to be there 9 days before the race. Its 12 time zones away. You`re looking at 50k before you`ve blinked.

But I would say the experience starts when you hit the airport. Nerves, logistics and the stress of trying to book emergency exit seats as you start the 40 hour trip to get to Kona. The plane ride into Kona is emotional. It’s all coming together. You are dressed in 18 items of compression gear and the plane is filled with people who look faster than you, who look stressed and tired. It feels crowded. But really, you have no idea what’s about to happen. If you are landing after lunch, you’ll notice how the plane rocks on the descent. It’s a little windier than landing at OR Tambo.

You step off the plane into the sauna. Its thick, the air – thicker than you would like. The afternoon haze has set it and the volcano spreads it like peanut butter on toast after a hard ride. The airport is a mess. Bike boxes everywhere, athletes freaking out for lost luggage and a hundred taxi drivers demanding to drive to you to your hotel. Your t-shirt is soaked by the time you get into an airport transfer van and as you drive down Alii to your condo, you see hundreds of ripped people sprinting down the road, doing intervals and looking like mean ass mofos. Your throat swells as you realise you have hit the big time.

You unpack and realise you are shattered. Time to shop for food and get a swim in perhaps, so you try and find a supermarket, but they are all filled with junk food, so you buy minimums and decide to ask for help at the pier with regards to healthy food options.

The pier is manic. 200 athletes are in the water. They are all fast. You suit up, put on your goggles and you dip your head into the water to be confronted by the most beautiful swim in the world. There are turtles, a plethora of colourful fish and the tide is not that bad. You feel fresh, fast and easy as you swim out until a euro-dude in a white speedo knocks you over the head as he swims straight into you from the front.

You finish your swim feeling fresh and head to the health store and get back to your condo to cook dinner, sit back and relax. You are amazed at the beauty of this place and there is energy in the air that is just incredible. At 10pm, you head to bed. At 11:30pm, you wake up and you are WIDE AWAKE, realising its 11:30am in South Africa and time to eat. You are wide awake till 3am, and then get to sleep and wake up feeling wrecked at 7am.

This repeats for 3 or 4 days. During the day, you see thousands of fit people everywhere. You see the sights – Lava Java, Dig Me Beach, you take a ride out on the Queen K, and where it feels like your skin will melt off at the end of the ride. You avoid doing anything but panting around midday as the heat sets in and by day 4, you are adapting a little. You can head outside at lunchtime. You ride an hour on less than two bottles of fluid. You realise that not everyone is fast as you start passing some fast looking people on Alii Drive.

You ride out on the Queen K and it seems easy going out. You are astounded by how stark it is out here. No trees. No grass. Just lava rock. The tar is super smooth and you feel utterly strong. Around Waikoloa you turn around and get your first taste of the winds and you are blown to shreds on the way back. The heat from the front and the wind from the sides blow the wind out of you sail and you crawl home. You try and run in the afternoon and it goes better. You realise that there are no gifts out here.

The morning swims are incredible. Kona is the best place to swim in the world, without any doubt in the world. The Coffees of Hawaii boat is awesome. Everywhere you go, there is a vibe. The queue at Lava Java is out the door by 8am and if you can get a table, you’ll see that everyone stares at everyone. There is a lot of ego around and a lot of nervous people.

You head to the underpants run and it’s a laugh. It’s the perfect break against the serious backdrop of imminent pain and suffering. You came here to suffer well and this thought sits in the back of your head at all times. You get your bike serviced and go out in your race gear, fine tuning the engine but all the time feeling the need to push hard. You try hold back but it’s a mind battle when 50 year old guys are whizzing by you all the time. Doubt creeps when you sit still, so you try and keep busy. It’s not ideal at all. Everyone asks you how you are doing and everyone is dressed in tri gear, everyone has a ridiculously good looking bike and slowly but surely the pressure builds like a time bomb. It’s very real in Kona, more than anywhere else I have ever been. It’s no bigger than Camps Bay. There is nowhere to hide.

You head down to the pier to check your bike in after triple fussing over getting everything right in your special needs bags. You try and memorise where your bike is and take in the energy around you. Your morning workout went smoothly and you feel adapted to the environment, the pressure and the weather is not really bothering you anymore. It is what it is.

Your evening dinner goes down slowly and you try getting a good nights’ sleep in but it’s just not on the cards. Nerves are at the forefront and you are imagining every scenario possible for race day. The alarm clock goes off too soon and you struggle with breakfast. The trip down to the pier is quick and into the madness you go, head first. Gear bags, warm-up and trying to find a quiet space go by in a flash and before you know it, you are toes in the sand on Dig Me, looking at the water ahead. Your heart wells up a little as you know this is going to happen. You are going to race in Kona. You feel alone on the tiniest beach in the world, despite there being at least a hundred people around you. You’ve made it. A special moment. A life changing experience waits in the next few hours.

Tomorrow we will get into the actual race as it deserves its own post. Till then…



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