Following my race in Kona this year, I have decided to opt for something a little different than your run-of-the-mill race report. To summarise my day for those interested, I swam well, exiting the water on the hip of last years 25-29 world champion, biked well, dismounting with last year’s overall amateur world champion and ran into 1st place 25-29 and 4th overall early in the marathon which I held until about 12km before I was overwhelmed by the heat. I’ve never been so confident of a victory at the start of the marathon which is a testament to how cruel a mistress this Ironman game can be. I’m sort of like a modern day Paula Newby-Fraser just without the 8xWorld Championships and faltering much farther from the finish.
With that, I’d like to get a bit controversial on this one. I am going to explain how to ride (or rather how I rode) the Ironman bike course in Hawaii as an age grouper. Please don't think this as a pompous, self-glorifying article, I am simply trying to write the text I wished I could have read prior to my first race in Kona in 2014.
As a bit of a preface to this article, I have been fortunate enough to qualify for this race twice now which, by no means makes me an expert but; I did knock off 12 minutes from last year’s bike split, I have spent 2.5 months in Kona and ridden parts of the bike course almost daily in this period, and finally; during this time I was fortunate enough to live next door to Ironman Legend and American Uber biker, Chris Lieto who is always generous with his advice when I hassle him. Finally, before I get started, you might hypothesise that given my slow run split this year, I biked too hard. My Intensity Factor (Normalised Power/Functional Threshold Power) for both bike splits was 70%. So what was the difference between the 2 bike splits…knowledge and a bit of sense. Let’s get into it.
The course can essentially be broken down into 3 parts, namely:
- Kona to Hawi (0-95km)
- Hawi to Kawaihae (95- 120km)
- Kawaihae - Waikaloa - Kona (T2) (120 -140 -180km)
The Queen Kaahumanu Highway runs from Kona to Kawaihae (T- junction), from here you drop down into the harbour before climbing a few rollers and making the final 10km (6mi) ascent into the fishing village of Hawi. N.B. the descent into Kawaihae harbour on the way out becomes a considerable climb coming back.
This is the term given to the pace lines from Kailua Kona out to the turnaround point in Hawi (roughly 95km). This exists in both the professional and age group races though the dynamics of how this beast works is very different. The “carriage” you first board is entirely dependent on your swim. The quicker you swim, the more likely you are travelling first or business class and the less congested the pace line will be. Last year I boarded the Hawi Express in economy or coach and the pace line really didn't thin out for me until around 80-90kms (by this time lead groups had solidified considerable gaps). This year, with my slightly faster swim, I was working with a fairly select group by the time I hit Waikoloa (45kms). In this first portion of the race I consider power to take a slight backseat to tactics. You want to secure your place in a fast group which may mean you need to venture slightly above your target power (most will anyway but from what I saw, in a less calculated manner). I cap myself at about 90% of my FTP for the first 20-30km. I won’t sit on this number for extended periods of time but if there is a surge or a group splits early on, I will allow myself a bit extra to cover that surge or move away from slower groups so I can work with stronger bikers. The first 10 kilometres is a hilly circuit around Kona before you head toward Hawi. I was weary of riders going hard here but was still blown away this year when athletes were passing me on Palani road like I had training wheels on at 350 watts. These sort of spikes cannot be undone with a few deep breaths and a sip of gatorade once on the Queen K, this is what cyclists term “burning matches” so expect bonfires for the first 10km.
To the left, to the left
If you’re accustomed to driving and racing on the left and are right handed, you should have an absolute field day with the aid stations in Kona. I don’t want to give all the credit to right-handed Brits, Aussies, Japanese etc. as the aid stations in Kona are pretty special given the variety of fuel and length of stations. You should have no issues picking up 3 bidons at every aid station. Personally, I use the first two bidons as fuel and grab a final water to pour over myself. As a word to the wise, make sure you hit every aid station but ESPECIALLY the last one returning to Kona. If you miss that one (approximately 20km from T2) it will be a long time between drinks.
Don’t get too attached
After the initial 20-30km, start being more diligent with your power output. What I mean by this is, if your numbers are way too low, you need to go off the front of whatever pace line you’re in, if they are too high you need to consider letting your pace line go and working with another group coming up. These decisions get harder after you make the turn at Hawi as the groups spread out more and you become more fatigued. In both years the groups coming back from Hawi are very sparse for me (see next paragraph). Bridging large gaps to riders ahead often proves fruitless as, if you have made that gap on sensible power output in the first place, the riders you've bridged too are going too slow for you anyways. Don’t get sucked in to a pace that is not comparable to your own, be it too quick or too slow. Instead, use these riders for reference. When you make the turn at Hawi, try and gauge the number of riders ahead of you. This will give you a reference to your position in the field as you return to Kona, hopefully giving you the pep you need to return to Hawi with haste (caffeine may help here too).
Most athletes should notice a dramatic thinning of riders on the return from Hawi. I liken this to a bomb being dropped on the field at the turn and in some senses, there is probably some truth in this. You pedal out to Hawi with such enthusiasm and are often riding at a power a little above your target. The climb to Hawi and then the realisation of the remaining journey, leaves some athletes shell-shocked and in both years I have noticed riders fall away immediately. I am always very considerate of my power going up Hawi and perhaps even more considerate going down (think about your gearing here, is your 53/39 chain ring a sensible combination or can you descend faster with the same effort using a slightly larger ring). I will allow for a little extra power going up a hill and a little less going down to allow for gravity and momentum. The other factor in the dwindling age group numbers is that there are two tents which a lot of competitors visit in Hawi..special needs and the penalty box.
Hawi is not THE climb
There IS a gradual climb to the turnaround point in the centre of the old fishing village of Hawi. It’s approximately 10km in length and around 3% average grade. I climbed this in the small chainring in both 2014 and 2015 but it can fairly easily be climbed in the big ring. Don’t get me wrong, you can definitely burn some matches up Hawi (and athletes do) but there is another climb which is seldom spoken of when the Kona bike course is discussed. Kawaihae harbour is essentially at the foot of Hawi (there are a few rolling hills between Kawaihae and Hawi which have a net elevation toward Hawi, meaning you return through them a little quicker). Once at the Kawaihae harbour on the return journey, you need to climb back up to the Queen K. This climb is short (1-2km) but brutal due to grade, lack of wind and boisterous crowd support. It is very easy to overcook this climb and be toast when you take the turn back onto the Queen K and make the final push for home. A close and reputable source tells me he used to put 10+ minutes into the main pro group during a short interval after this climb and his advice to me was to “sit up and ride Kawaihae real easy, small chainring”.
Flat is not always fast
You are now back on the Queen K and a mere 60km from Kona with most of the elevation behind you. There is likely far fewer athletes around you now as has been the case for me both years. This final section has probably been well traversed by most in training rides and that sense of familiarity often gives rise to expectations of speed…unfortunately this is not necessarily the case. You have essentially been descending for 20 minutes from Hawi before climbing out of Kawaihae so finding your rhythm on the flat roads of the Queen K may take a few minutes. Once you hit Waikoloa you’ll often encounter winds (in my experience these can be tail or headwinds but in both years I have had considerable head winds). For me, these have always followed me all the way back to T2. Be smart with power here, I like to try and keep my momentum and use a the same rule as I do with hills (a little more power into a headwind, a little less with a tailwind). This year I was either solo or with 1-2 other riders coming back and the power and pace was good making it a no-brainer to use one another to pace off. Riders at this stage of the race may be showing signs of fatigue (as might you) so make sensible decisions with power, if pace and power of the group drop you will need to make the call on whether to go it alone or work with the group and conserve. This decision should be entirely dependent on just how far below pace or power you are. Don’t be afraid to cut groups loose as some athletes lose big chunks of time in this final push back to Kona.
About 30km from Kona you will climb Scenic Point which, similar to Kawaihae can be hot and easy to overdo. For me, this means another foray into the small chain ring and out of the pads. The next roller is around 20km from town at the Veteran Cemetery. This climb is shorter and not so steep, big chain ring should be fine, especially if you have a 25 tooth cassette. Once this final roller has been traversed, the net gradient is downhill all the way to Kona. You first pass the airport, then the energy lab, the flats though Hina Lani and then past the harbour. I use this time to take final gels, liquid and salt, all of which should have ample time to hit your system before the run. Power for this section should be ridden close to target power but I try to ride it a little easier as gravity is on your side.
You exit the Queen K at Maklava Boulevard which takes you down a hill and past a bunch of shops before you make a left hand turn at the T-junction and continue on past the pool. Not something that’s likely going to impact your day to any great extent, but I will come out of my shoes as I pass the car dealership on the right. From the car dealership, you can carry enough momentum to make the final right hand turn down Palani and into T2 where the bike catchers will valet your carbon.
How well have you ridden the course? The lengthy run around the transition area will often give you a good indication. I didn't take any Strava segments around there this year but all indications were that it was a well measured effort, which was supported by my Intensity Factor (a metric I review throughout the bike.) One interesting metric from this year’s ride was my VI or Variability Index, something I will touch on shortly.
For the Geeks
I use the Pioneer pedal monitoring system which gives me independent left/right leg measurements, as I fatigue more, the discrepancy between the power output of my legs increase. I like to have average power L and average power R displayed on one of my screens to ensure I keep to form.
I record shifting information through my Pioneer cycle computer with the use of Shimano’s Di-fly device. In Kona this year I made 17 shifts on my Front Derailleur (n.b. shifting down to the small ring and back up equals 2 shifts) and 1759 on the rear (top to bottom is 10 shifts). My average shift interval was 9.6 seconds. Was I a little trigger happy? Perhaps, a touch on the rear but I think it’s of the upmost importance to constantly seek out that ‘sweet spot’ in your gearing. This is made all the more difficult when you have an undulating course with unpredictable and gusty winds to contend with. I think this information is really in its infancy and I will be looking to work with my sponsors to improve the usability of this data as both a training and racing tool.
Variability Index is the ratio of Normalized power to Average power and is a good indication of how evenly paced your bike split was. My Variability Index for the bike this year was 1.08. Roadies will often have much higher VI’s as a result of all the surging in the peloton making and countering attacks. The common rule of thumb for long distance triathletes is to ride 1.05 or less. Course undulation, gusty winds and surgy riding will all result in a higher variability index. Did I surge in 2015? The simple answer is yes, but I think within reason (nothing above 90% FTP). When gaps open in Kona it is often in your best interest to close them down, leapfrogging groups until you are eventually in a group that is of similar ability or on your own. If I’m going to be honest, VI is one of the few metrics I leave until after the race to review. Put quite simply, you could have Avg. Power and Normalized power on a screen next to each other and just make sure they stay within 20 watts or so of one another (generalisation for ironman power ranges). I’ll leave it to the brains of Training Peaks to make the call on a sensible VI for Kona but I’m not shocked at 1.08 especially considering I rode 1.09 last year.
To the critics
If you've made it this far, thanks for reading and I hope you and/or your athletes benefit from something I’ve mentioned in this article. I truly believe a great race in Kona can’t be achieved in the AG ranks simply by being a great cyclist or a master tactician, you will benefit from employing elements of both.
I would like to close by addressing my use of the following words/phrases: groups, pacing, conserving, working with and pace lines. At 7 metres (draft distance for AG in Kona) you will gain an aerodynamic benefit from sitting behind another rider. Plain and simple. At 12 metres (AG draft distance for Australian and most other long course races) you may not gain much, if any aerodynamic benefit from sitting behind another athlete but you most certainly gain a pacing benefit. If you are riding with a bunch of guys or girls all vying for age group glory, chances are they are going to be riding within the realm of sensible power ranges allowing them to run well off the bike. Even for the most elite, 180km is a long time to hold concentration. Having that wheel, be it 7 or 12 metres in front of you, will undoubtedly aid you in your pace and power rationing. When there is a lapse in concentration or someone tires physically, then the next person in lines assumes control (working together). Sometimes riders get dropped from these groups but I believe Charles Darwin has already covered off that topic.
All the best to those racing this race in years to come. Kona is truly a spectacle, perhaps I’m biased, but I can honestly say, I've never experienced anything like it…even when it’s bad, it’s still so, so good.
Thanks for reading,