Ironman World Championship Kona Race Report

Everything about the IM World Championship was world class. I’ve raced at over a dozen Ironman venues, all are great, some are excellent, but this one tops them all. If Kona is on your bucket list, leave it on there and continue to strive to add this race to your list of accomplishments.

It’s also world class in terms of difficulty. The heat and winds are unrelenting. They make the 4,500 ft of elevation gain seam like at least double that. The fact that the top 10 pro men finished in under 8 hours is a testament to their super human abilities.

Getting here a week prior to race day made a huge difference to me. Details on that here. I got to registration as soon as it opened to avoid the rush. It went super smoothly and I was out of there in under 10 minutes. That left more time to hit the merchandise tent yet AGAIN. That place was just printing cash for World Triathlon Corporation (owner of the Ironman brand).

Turning the kitchen counter mess into organized race bag piles was as stressful as always with the ever nagging “What did I forget?!?” feeling. I always check and double and triple check my packing list before traveling. I can’t believe I still haven’t made a gear bag list to make this process easier. Always room for improvement!

At bike and gear bag check-in you’re made to feel real special with the never ending warm welcomes, attention, and professionalism of the volunteers. Bike racks are Olympic style that hug the rear bike wheel instead of a bar you put your saddle over like in every other triathlon in the world.

With check-in complete is was back to the carbo loading program with nothing else to worry about. This was the first time I didn’t have pre-race jitters due to the fact that I’ve swam in the Kailua-Kona bay, and rode the Queen K highway several times. I even ran 5k in the Natural Energy Labs to see what running in it’s intense heat would be like. Not sure why I thought I would be there in daylight but more on that later.

The 4 AM alarm was no where near as jarring as at other races because going to sleep early kept the jet lag (minus 6 hours) in near full effect. BTW – there is nothing to do past 9 PM in Kona so this was not hard.

We moved from a hotel which was a mile away from the start/finish into an AirBnb which was even closer. This made getting to transition very easy. Body marking was replaced with race number temporary tattoos included in the race packet. Real nice touch to further raise the level of the event.

The cheering started even before sunrise as you entered the tent to clapping welcoming volunteers. Next stop was to drop off Personal Needs bags before heading to the transition area on the pier for one last visit with the bike. Personal needs bags are ones that you access approximately half way during the bike course and half way during the run course.

Part of my nutrition plan during the race is a carb and electrolyte mix in water bottles so I had two of those that would wait for me on the bike course. I got a great suggestion to put something I would really look forward to in my PN run bag so I put a Mountain Dew in mine. I figured I would be sick of the coke and red bull from aid stations after 127 miles.

After topping off my tires to 120 PSI, putting my first two bottles of water + nutrition on my bike and filling the bento box with gels I was unpleasantly surprised that they weren’t allowing access to the bike and run bags. You access the bike bag after coming out of the water and run bag after completing the bike course.

In all other races I put the nutrition I plan on using into these bags on the morning of the race. I don’t do it at gear checkin the day prior because of the heat they will be in. Now I’m stuck with more jells, 8 Stroopwafel and a PB&J sandwich which I planned on devouring after the bike and no place to put them.

So I ate half the sandwich just to get those carbs on board and stuffed the rest into my bike jersey that I was going to wear anyway under my swim skin. The extra bulk was not ideal but I’m not a fast swimmer to begin with and I didn’t want to deviate from my bike meal plan.

As I walked past the section where the bike bag was hanging I asked a volunteer if they could smuggle 8 waffles into my bag. With a wink the response was “Your doctor said you needed these in your bag?” To which I replied “Yes he doesn’t want me to die.” So they confirmed with “Ok, since your Dr doesn’t want you to die give me those waffles #1981”. I love these volunteers!!

With final transition setup complete at 6:15 AM it was off to the starting coral to await the National Anthem. As it was performed I thanked g-d and my lucky stars for getting me to the event I’ve been dreaming about for 157 months.

Shortly there after my race was almost over before it began. Many folks stretch and get their blood flowing by air swimming. This monster of a man started a back stroke without looking behind him and I got whacked pretty hard right in the face. One inch to the right it would have been my nose and 1 inch higher it would have been my eye. It was a HARD hit but my cheek bone took the brunt of it. He started apologizing in a language I didn’t recognize (91 countries represented this year) and I gestured “I’m fine” and walked away.

The start cannon went off at 6:30 and the pro’s officially started the 2022 Ironman World Championship. Following the pro’s it was wave after wave by age group. Mine wasn’t up for another hour. I killed the time by continuing my morning carb up with a final cliff bar, gel and bottle of Gatorade.

Instead of starting the 2.4 mile swim several at a time like in most races, here the entire age group swims out about 100 yards and treads water for an in-water start. My age group is so large that it took several minutes to get everyone in the water and out to the start area. My official time actually began before I even got to the actual start. I didn’t mind as I wanted to be in the back to avoid the turbulence. Being punched on dry land was enough and I didn’t need any more contact in the water.

That strategy was short lived as many of the younger faster age groupers who went next swam over me. Fortunately with no memorable damage. Other than that, swimming in this bay several times already this week made for a really smooth start. I made it to the half way point in 40 minutes which gave me high hopes for a decent swim split. Unfortunately the current and increased chop on the 1.2 mile return killed that ambition.

Since I was in the 2nd to last wave of the day and not one the fastest swimmers, the life guards who were out in full force on paddle boards started gathering on the sides to see us slow pokes home. I knew I had enough time to make the 2 hour and 20 minute swim cutoff but the feeling of being tapped on the shoulder and being told otherwise did creep into my mind. Total swim time ended up being an hour and fifty minutes. 30 minutes slower than I hoped for but that didn’t phase me much.

I found out afterwards that the Ironman tracker apps glitched for my wife and daughter tracking me. It showed me finishing the swim in under 40 minutes and stuck in transition for a LONG time. My wife made her way down to the officials by the swim exit to try and check on me. I was happy to see her when I came out and she was happy to see me in OK shape and not laid out in the transition tent.

I don’t think I have any swim exit pics from other races with me smiling. I was ecstatic to finally be out of the water after almost 2 hours in there. Being this was Kona I hammed it up a bit for the camera for the 1st time ever after the swim. The 2nd pic shows how I really felt.

There were hanging fresh water hoses right by the swim exit to rinse off the incredibly salty water and then it was off into transition to get my swim skin off and my bike shoes on. After a walk/jog across most of the pier I found my bike with helmet attached and my wife and daughter on the other side of the fence cheering me on.

The anticipated and practiced Queen K highway ride would have to wait as the first 8 of the 112 bike mile bike course was in and around hilly Kailua-Kona. My legs weren’t even warmed up yet and they were already being stressed. Then I was finally in anticipated territory and got down into the aero position (yeah that’s Aero for me) to brave the legendary bike course through the lava fields.

The heat and winds were definitely a force to be reconned with but relatively fresh legs and race adrenaline allowed me to average 16 mph for 50’ish miles until the climb to the town of Hawi began. I was hoping to average at least 17 but was happy with 16 considering the heat and cross and headwinds. The average came down to just over 15 MPH by the time I hit the turn around.

Right after that I was able to access my Personal Needs bags that had two more bottles of 400 calories and over 1,000 mg of electrolytes waiting for me. By then it was about 3:45 PM and the extreme heat had turned my upcoming liquid meal into hot soup. I had no choice but to take them in over the next hour. I was optimistic that the headwinds up to this point would be a welcome tailwind but there was no such luck.

The common buzz amongst athletes post race was how we all had to endure head winds both ways. Thank you Kona! Grrrr. Having to pedal hard even downhill to maintain a pace was not easy and mentally draining. It was definitely going to be a grind for 50 more miles but no one expected this to be easy. I think my posture in this pic says it all. I was definitely hurting and no where near done yet.

I have the utmost respect for my friends, teammates and others that averaged over 20 MPH for this course. Kudos to your skills and ability! Maybe one day.

As my average MPH was very slowly but surely decreasing I started having flashbacks to Ironman Wisconsin last year where I missed the bike cutoff by 90 seconds. I can redo Wisconsin when ever I want but this was my one shot at Kona so I continued to dig as deep as I could until a sign totally took the wind out of my sails.

“Bike cutoff 5 PM” it read.  Switching screens on my Garmin bike computer I saw that it was approaching 4 PM and I still had 22 miles to go. I cranked up my speed to 22 and immediately knew that it would be impossible to maintain this for even 5 more minutes. That effort brought on some serious cramps in both legs simultaneously. Fortunately I was able to deep breath them away.

I pulled up to the next rider ahead of me and asked what time the bike cutoff was. Officially it’s 10.5 hours after you enter the water or a certain time of day, which ever comes first. His reply was “Hi, this is my first time Kona”. Like I said, 92 countries. Pulling forward I posed the same question to the next rider I approached. He explained that the sign we just passed had a 5 PM cutoff and we were one hour ahead of that. I breathed a massive sigh of relieve and continued to crank away.

It’s well documented how extreme exertion depletes cognitive ability so I stopped trying to do math and pedaled as hard as I my legs would allow. At mile 100 I started seeing a light at the end of the tunnel but them cramps reared their ugly head again. Oh how I love my new breathing secret weapon. They were gone as quickly as they appeared.

I pulled into transition seven and a half hours after I hit the saddle. Sun burned and exhausted but rejuvenated by seeing my family just after I dismounted and started walking / jogging my bike back to its spot. I grabbed my run bag, exchanged my bike shoes for sneakers, lubed up my feet to prevent blisters, donned a pair of running socks, replaced my bike helmet with a run cap, and it was off to complete a 26.2 mile run so I could claim a World Championship finish.

As disappointing (for me) as my swim and bike splits were I still had 7 hours to complete the marathon before the 17 hour cutoff. With running being my strongest of the three disciplines I knew I had a sub 5 hour marathon in me regardless of how fatigued I was. As I started running I remembered the sage advice I received just the day prior from my good friend and 2x IM World Championship finisher which was “No one asked Neil Armstrong how long it took him to get to the moon. He is known for just getting there”.

After a quick’ish first mile I slowed down and speed walked / jogged the majority of the run course. I knew I would be a hot mess and quite a chore post race my for my wife and daughter had I pushed my pace for the run. I wanted to savor the finish without hobbling and hurting and wanted to recover quickly to enjoy the rest of our time in Hawaii so I enjoyed the sun set, stared at the stars and moon and let this all sink in over the next 5 hours. I must say, after 20+ marathons, this was the most special 26.2 miles yet.

I made a friend at the end and jogged the final 5 miles with him to cross the finish line at 11:19 PM, with a total finishing time of 15:43:34. I did not beat my 13:01 PR but it was far better than the 16:53 it once took me to finish. I didn’t care one bit. I officially finished the Ironman World Championship to the welcoming words of retiring legendary announcer Mike Reilly bellowing “Steven Pivnik , you are an Ironman!” over the mic.

What contributed to this triathlon addiction was my younger daughter running up to me after I finished my very first sprint triathlon 13 years ago and saying “I don’t care how wet you are I want to hug you I’m so proud”. As if scripted she ran up to me with outstretched arms and I yelled “No, I’m soaked!”. Her reply was “I don’t care!” as she hugged me. This was followed by hugs and kisses from my wife as I shed some tears and congratulations from my coach who was there too.

We all walked together to collect my finisher medal, hat and t-shirt. Took some pics, I got my bike to ship home and it was back to the condo for a quick beer before some Advil PM and bed. We had a plane to catch at noon to start the vacation and celebration in earnest in Maui.

I’ll save the complete list of Thank You’s for my upcoming book but for now … Larisa, Stephanie, Rochelle and mom – this dream would never have materialized without your encouragement and support. I love you more than word can express.

Mahalo & Aloha All !!

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