This year’s Kona was, by all accounts, one of the hardest races in the last five years. I can personally attest to that (having raced 4 of the last 5) and it was confirmed by none other than Andy Potts — who also has raced the last five years. It was wavier, windier and just plain hotter on the run.
I’m certainly not complaining, and neither are any of my Endurance Nation teammates pictured above. In some strange, sick way, you actually are hoping for a hard race. Nobody wants to come home from Ironman® with an asterisk next to their time for “the easiest race in recent memory.” This is all just a way of saying that the 2012 participants got their money’s worth…and then some.
There is no race week like Kona race week. From events to the expo to the Pro sightings to training on the ultimate stage, the electricity of being at the epicenter of arguably the fittest town in the world for that seven day period is palpable.
Team EN kept things pretty low profile, with just a Team Breakfast the day before as a last chance meet and greet session. By all accounts some had done the Parade of Nations, the Underwear run and several other “official” events during the week…but you could tell that everyone was ready to race.
Simply put, the swim was very “real” this year. In years past you could see the bottom and watch the coral go by…perhaps even spotting the odd school of fish or the watchful bubbles of a scuba diver.
Not so in 2012.
The swells were pushing in; the current was pulling us away, and the flags were blowing with an easterly wind (think 10 o’clock on the dial as you head out, 4 o’clock on the dial as you came back in). This meant that it was hard to stay on the start line because of the currents pushing out out, but when swimming you were being pushed right into the buoys (way out) and away from the buoys (way in).
The wind meant a bit of spray, and there was precious open or calm water to be found. Once again the surfboard volunteers kept the swimmers outside of every single buoy instead of just the turns, making those of us with dubious direction skills work just a bit harder.
The first few miles were full of the usual bravado and mayhem, as the stronger bikers work quickly to assert themselves on the open road. There are quite a few short hills, plus the significant climb up Kuakini that test you early before you get to hit Palani and then make it out to the Queen K highway.
That easterly wind from the swim? It was pushing us out early, with a sick tailwind. Most folks recorded an early segment well over 30mph, simply due to the terrain and the winds. But unlike years past, the crosswinds kicked in pretty soon after the airport. This made riding in a straight line a pretty challenging affair.
This situation was only compounded by the large groups early on the bike. When you have that many fit folks together at one time, it’s hard to find free space for some time. While not everyone swims the same time, I think a full 4/5 of the field is out of T1 by 1:15 race time!!! Things spread out once we made the turn towards Hawi when the road went up.
Of course, this is where competitors got the first taste of a nice solid headwind. Usually the tradewinds make for some sick gusts that really mess with your body and mind; these were mitigated by this headwind that slowed everyone down.
Not to mention the fact that it grew stronger as the day went on; the later you got to Hawi, in other words, the more wind you had!
The return trip was pretty comparable to previous years. The tailwind shifted to a head and there was much suffering to be had on the Queen K back towards the airport (where the road tilts a bit downward towards Kailua Kona). If you went out too hard or weren’t very aero, you really felt it here.
Keeping with the theme of suffering; once folks made it through the bike they were greeted with a hotter than usual run. Granted, it’s Hawaii so you expect heat and humidity. But if you had raced the past few years, you would also have expected the clouds to roll in off of the volcano…but they didn’t.
This meant that we got the full heat of the sun, not to mention the regular humidity. That wind from the bike was nowhere to be found on the run, which made running even a regular pace really, really hard.
You could really see who was ready to race in the conditions by the time the athletes reached the top of Palani or by mile 12. The transition from racing along Ali’i (miles 0 to 10) is starkly different than running out in the lava fields.
The rolling hills along the Queen K were as challenging as ever, especially given the heat on the day. The Energy Lab was longer than anyone could ever remember; even if you know you “only” have 10k left to run by the top of the Lab you still feel like it’s another marathon to the finish line.
I got (and gave!) plenty of Endurance Nation love to my fellow teammates up here on the open road. Nothing beats seeing a friendly face out there, and having 10+ folks out there meant a friendly face was never that far away.
Once you made it past this dark hole and found yourself on Palani, the finish line is tantalizingly close. And oh, what a finish line it is. Families and spectators line Ali’i Drive, ushering the finishers into what amounts to the most epic finish line scene in all of triathlon. Just crossing that line is a memory that most will never forget.
The appearance of new champions on the pro side, and a hotly contested women’s race showed just how challenging this event is for even the fittest of triathletes. Nothing can be taken for granted here; the island goddess Madame Pele tests your mental and physical limits before letting you across the finish line. If you manage to survive, however, you will have earned your place in triathlon history and amidst the world’s best. At least until the next year, when the playing field levels out and the process of searching for a new crop of athletes to test begins anew….will you be there in 2013?