October 11, 2012

The Real Kona Experience: Part 2 The Race

Yesterday we spoke about race week and what to expect. There is a lot in there that people do not realise. The queues, the pressure, the euro-dudes in white speedos swimming into you and standing in line in the health store in the same white speedo, with compression socks, a headsweats visor and nothing else.

The thing about Kona is that it’s very hyped up. Just like everything in life – it’s very hyped up. But the experience of race week far surpasses anything I can write here or anything you will read anywhere. Kona is everything and more – a rare jewel in the landscape of overhyped events, products and sandwiches.

So let’s get back to race morning, shall we. You are standing on the beach and you put your goggles on and set off on your first few strokes into the water. The calm of the beach is done. There are bodies everywhere. Its 40min to go and people are lining up at the deep-water start. There are no gifts, so you warm up for 10minutes, long easy strokes with 2 short 15 second efforts to get the system going and you swim over to the start line. There is a Ford SUV floating on a plastic island and there are 20 guys on stand up paddle boards, holding the line. Its 30min to go and you realise for the first time that you are going to have to float for 30min to stay in the front. You don’t have a wetsuit on, so this is going to require energy, and effort.

With 20min to go, you are in a crowd of people already. You are all upright. Space is becoming tighter. With 10min to go you are between 8 other people. Your hands, arms, legs, feet all intertwine at times and there is no space to move. People start freaking out and every now and again someone bolts from the masses, claustrophobic and panicked. The life savers are shouting at you to stay put and the pressure keeps coming from behind to move forward.

It’s less than ideal.

3min to go and it’s mad. People are shouting. Life savers are freaking out. The Ford SUV is tilting as people hang on the plastic island.

1min to go and calm descends upon the madness. Inevitability sets in. Here we go…

The first 5min is chaos. 1500 bodies have gone from perpendicular to being horizontal and the chaos for space it causes is mad mad mad. Its desperate stuff to get out the front and I am forever grateful for the 10 000 hours I swam as a kid. I am out in the top 30 guys easily and I feel for the guys sitting in 300th in the biggest washing machine of all.

Kona is a non-wetsuit out and back swim. 1900m straight out into the ocean. You can’t see the turnaround until about 400m to go, so for 1500m you just swim, no idea of how far you are or how far there is to go. The little boats that mark the turnaround are one of the most welcome sights of the day and every time I have been, I have swum a few strokes of backstroke, enjoyed being out there, and smiled as I saluted by buddy Andy Gowans for suggesting I pause out there.

The swim back is faster. The current pushes you back and you are back at the pier unexpectedly – better get ready for the ride of your life buddy!

As your fingers touch the sand, the noise is deafening. From the quiet of the water you are thrown into the noise of Mike Reilly, 15 000 spectators and German house music. You grab your bag, run down to the far end of the pier (your bike can be as far as 200m away) and get your ass on the saddle. The first section of the bike is a short out and back up and down a hill. It’s SO fast. In 2010 I was going 34km/h up the drag, in the aero position, pedalling hard and guys were coming past me in droves. I opted to keep calm and sure enough, I saw a lot of the guys come back later in the day, but there are many age group guys who can ride sub 5 in Kona.

You come through Hot Corner where there are at least 5000 people and you climb up Palani, a steep little sucker. Guys come by out the saddle, full tilt. Groups of guys.

You hit the Queen K and its 10km down the drag to start. 50-60km/h you go by, trying to stay legal as the guys push the limit on drafting the whole way. Guys go all the way here. Marginal gains go a long way and if they can ride at 9m and be considered legal they do.

The marshals have 1500 strong guys to police, so they take no bull on race day. They make calls quickly and move on. It’s a dog eat dog world out there. You do your best to watch the wheel in front of you, but it takes masses of concentration to remember that when a guy passes your front wheel, you have to drop quickly or face the penalty. Just stopping pedalling is not enough, you have to hit the brakes as the effort to pass you has cost the other guy as you are all going fast and you are all trying your best. It’s not the time to get emotional.

You have a tailwind for the first 55km to Kawaehae (where they filmed Waterworld) where you make a left, then a 1km descent before you hit the climb to Hawi. It’s the first time you notice the wind as you hit the climb. The wind will be from the right, coming down the valleys. By now it’s hot and the landscape to Hawi changes from lunar to looking like the Highveld. They grow Proteas in Hawi.

The climb is close on 30km. I kid you not. It drags steeply then flattens, drags steeply then flattens but never down. It’s like riding 6 Chapman’s Peaks from Hout Bay side in a row, with a 30km/h side wind. You see the guys who went out too hard start struggling here – their day is certainly over.

The turn-around is frenetic. Its small and nothing like the NBC shows. As you get to the special needs area there is total pandemonium. I am there with about 20 other guys; I cannot imagine it being 200. It takes longer than you want to find your bag and your drinks are hot, not what you hoped for. You froze them overnight but hey, its mid-thirties already and they have been standing in the sun for 3 hours.

The road back to Kawaehae is the scariest piece of road I have ever ridden. The wind has picked up to 40-50km/h now and it blows you across the lane and almost into oncoming cyclists not once, but at least 10 times. Still, you ride at 50-60km/h because that is what everyone is doing. You have no option or you are going to lose serious time. Suddenly not having big mountain passes to train on seems like a massive disadvantage as the euro-dudes own the technical skills you dream you had. Their white speedos are distracting but they are flying.

You get to Kawaehae white-knuckled and a little distraught. It sapped more energy than you thought and your body is tight. 60km to go and the body needs to relax but wait… you are back onto the Queen K and the wind is now head-on, 40km/h and the heat coming off the tar is about 50 degrees Celsius. Your feet are hot. Not the kind of hot you get from running but like they are being burnt – which they are. Tomorrow morning you will wake with chipolata toes and gigantic ankles.

So you tuck into the aero position and start working your way back to town. Its 1km drags up, around 2-3% incline, then 1km down, same decline. Like 30 long, energy sucking intervals, 120km into the day. The bike course has almost 1600m of vertical in it and it’s not surprise. Ironman South Africa has 600m in total, for reference.

The heat is searing and it feels like your energy drink is burning your throat. It’s a real suffer festival out there. The landscape gives you nothing in return. There are no spectators, no trees, and no beauty. It’s barren. It’s raw. It’s the best place in the world to discover if you have it when it counts. When the chips are down, can you muster the awesome to get back to town through the sunburn, the heat, and the winds that relentlessly blow you to a near standstill at the top of every drag?

The answer is yes. You hit the airport, and the last 8km drag back to town seems to go better. The afternoon haze is setting in. Your carnival horse kicks in and you find something to get back home.

Hot corner is amazing. 8000 people welcome you home and you enter transition feeling like it’s time to smash out a marathon PB. Hope – it’s a beautiful thing.

Your first steps feel great. Hot corner does that to a man.

Alii drive is a special place. The slightly rolling hills and the crowds propel you. You cruise along. It’s the polar opposite to the vastness of the Queen K. Condos, girls in bikinis spraying you with garden hoses and every spectator yelling your name, telling you “GOOD JOB” make you feel great. You cruise along a little too fast, but who cares, this is Kona and you survived the bike through a place as dark as you have ever imagined, so let loose a little, right?

You get to the stone church and the turnaround is just ahead. The run back is good, even if the drags start to hurt a little. There are hundreds of people around. My first lap in PE, I see hardly 10 athletes running. Here, there are 10 people around me at any given time and I am in the top 100, despite having debilitating stomach explosions. The field is so strong.

You make the turn off Alii just after Lava Java and Huggos, where the party has been going all day. It’s like a carnival. You walk Palani. It’s where reality sets in and you know you have 24km to go. Sure, there is an 8km down the hill drag, but your quads are already sore and that means 8km drag back here, right at the end, right?

Palani has Hannes Tours’ crew on it. Couch, Beer stand and all. They perk you up, just at the right spot as you hit about ¾ ways up and you trot to the top. The vastness of the Queen K is all that is up there and you hit a left and work your way down the hill. It rolls down and the aid stations motivate you as you get further and further down the road. The top pro guys are coming back up the Queen K, in their own battle. You encourage them and their effortlessness spurs you on. You find some form and soon you can see the Energy Lab ahead of you.

The air is so thick you swear you could chew it. Its cooling down now, thankfully and there is a throw of broken bodies around you. The overbikers are walking, and it’s a long day ahead for them. You just keep moving, simply putting step by step aid station to aid station intervals together.

The Lab is a strange place. A nondescript entry leads you into a place that is a natural phenomenon. It’s hotter down there, for some reason. The road down is 1km down, right turn, 1km flat. Nothing to it as you enters, you think. But it’s like they suck the air out of that place. It’s like the tar has a shoe magnet in it. I have loved the challenge of that place, every time. You think to yourself going into it that you’re going to rock it. You get halfway and think WTF is going on here. You grab your special needs down there and make your way up the hill, crawling, feeling completely broken, but happy. Happy to have been witness to this place. Happy to have been able to travel 40 hours to get to this place where you are a broken man, surrounded by other broken men who are also broken, but smiling.

It’s quiet down there. Nobody talks. There is a unison that happens. I imagine it exists in war as the only other comparison, when the chips are that down.

And just like that, you are out of the Lab. Now what?

Looming in front of you is an 8km drag back to the top of Palani. Then the 600m down Palani, an achievement in itself, followed by 2km to get home.

The 8km goes by in a haze. I am not really sure what happens there. You aim for the aid station, then aim for the next. Everything is tired. If your ears could hurt, they would. It’s empty. You are empty. But you somehow drag your carcass up the hill. There are no spectators here to encourage you.

When you hit the top of Palani, you realise it’s almost all over. It sneaks up on you like a Russian superspy and stabs you with a blunt object in the heart. It’s been awesome. Now it’s about to be over. Palani brutally brings reality back as the worst quad pain you will ever experience finds you there. To run down hurts but because there are spectators for the first time in roughly 2 hours, you do. Otherwise it’s embarrassing. Who wants to be embarrassed this far into the World Freaking Championships of Ironman & Suffering, right?

The left turn leads to a nondescript road, before you turn right down to Alii, then right into Alii and 1.25km to the finish. It’s another strange place. Inevitably, the race is over. You are about to finish. People are cheering you on and you start rejoicing with your fellow athletes. They are all around you. Every few meters, an Ironman. 3-5seconds apart, you make your way to the finish.

Mike Reilly is there. Doing this thang. It’s big. 8000 people welcome you home, shouting “YOU ARE AN IRONMAAAAAAAN” but the queue to the finish is fast and before you know it, your feet feel the carpet. You see the clock. Time is not important. Place is not important. Despite the pop music, Mike Reilly & 8000 people cheering for you – it’s quiet. There is a massive calm.

Then, just like that, it’s over. You are asked if you are ok, given a space blanket, and ushered off to the war zone where you get pizza, water and your bag. Behind you, you leave a world behind. Just like that it’s severed. For many, you see them staring back at the finish line, severed like a daemon in The Golden Compass.

You share stories with strangers, laugh with a new friend and the memories of the day start rolling in.

What happened out there…?

Will we ever know…?

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