Ironman World Champs: Getting To Kona
We speak to two British age-group athletes who’ve made it to the Big Island for Saturday’s race.
The journey to the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii is always hard, but not impossible. Through dedication, consistent training, belief and a healthy dose of natural talent, Marie Kirton and Sam Baxter will be taking on Kona this weekend. Here they tell you their stories, tips for beginners and the secrets of reaching the hallowed lava land of Hawaii.
Day job Works in financial services in Bath
Kona record In her second year of trying, Kirton qualified for the World Champs at Ironman UK in July in 11:19:04. This year will be her first attempt at Kona.
“The very first tri I did was back home in New Zealand. We did one as part of our PE class. Then I left it for a few years. We started off small in New Zealand with women-only tris and progressed from there, getting longer. My friend suggested we do a standard-distance race and I remember thinking I could not do that, there’s not enough time to do the training. She said ‘Let’s just try it, it’d be an extra maybe 10 minutes per session.’ I did it and loved it.
“When I came over to the UK, someone at work said, ‘You do triathlon, why don’t you do an Ironman?’ They kept on at me and then I thought, ‘Blow it, I’m just going to sign up!’
“My first Ironman was Switzerland in 2008. My first year, I got in touch with a guy who was a swimming coach. It was a semi-coaching relationship, I would write down what I wanted to do and he’d look at it for me.
“My first Ironman was tough. After each section I was just over the moon to have finished part of it. I got off the bike and threw a mini tantrum and just said ‘I’m not doing it!’ But you just have to get through it. I just felt elation going down that finish chute, it was just the most amazing feeling. I did 12:41 in that race and I’d wanted sub-13 hours
“I do one Ironman a year and every year my time has come down by about half an hour, so then when I seemed to be knocking the time down every time, I thought, if I applied myself to it, then I could get competitive instead of just completing.
“Last year I went on a training camp with my coach at the time, Jon Fearne (jfmultisportcoaching.com) and another group and they sat me down at the end for a post-training interview. They said, ‘If you wanted to move up to the next level then you would be more than capable.’
“Until that point I just liked pushing my body, it wasn’t really a big thing what position I came. I couldn’t believe these guys had seen that ability in me. Then my husband said to me, ‘It’s true, you keep chopping your times down so why not try and qualify and do the best you can?’
“The biggest change when I started training towards qualifying was my mindset. My training changed a bit but I don’t remember thinking my hours had suddenly gone up.
“I first tried to qualify at Ironman UK last year. I came fourth in my age group and was really disappointed. When I tried again at the same race this year, I was really amped up. I’d found the run really difficult last year and I just remember thinking, ‘Every step is pain, I hate this, I wanna stop…’ Then I read these articles by Chrissie Wellington and she said you’ve always got this voice in your head saying ‘It hurts, why don’t you just stop’, and she’s like ‘No, I’m not going to give up!’ I suddenly thought even pros have this voice in their mind and if they can control it, why can’t I? It really worked.
“This year at Ironman UK, I came third in my age group. I actually got my place after the roll-down. Another slot had become available but they’d awarded it to another age group, but at the end of the roll-down a lady who’d taken her slot couldn’t go so the slot got awarded to our group, so I got it. I was literally walking away when they phoned and told me to come back!
“The things you have to be wary of when you’re training for Kona itself are that it’s a non-wetsuit swim, it’s really hot and humid and it’s really windy. So I’ve practised doing a race not in my wetsuit – that was interesting! I’m also starting Bikram yoga (where the room is heated to a high temperature) which someone said would help my body acclimatise. And then wearing lots of clothes when I’m cycling and running. It’s pretty uncomfortable now but it’s probably going to be twice that on the day!
“I’m looking forward to just being in Kona and racing against the world’s best – what more could you want? It’s this legendary race and it’s always been a dream to actually be there, so I think it’ll blow my mind.
“I’m hoping mentally I can just maintain the pain and have different strategies ready. When I qualified, I originally thought I just want to get over that line, but my husband’s really competitive and he said I should go for a time, so I want to do a PB. As you get closer your worries start to get more and more intense so my first aim is just to complete. I’ve been sick and came off my bike so my training hasn’t really gone to plan so you have to keep reassessing it.
“I’m feeling good about the race – a little bit anxious, because it’s going to be really tough, so it is nerve-wracking – but I’m excited.”
KIRTON’S TIPS FOR FIRST TIME IRONMAN ATHLETES
Get a support team on board
My husband Nick Broker is always trying to help me out and tell me what I’m doing wrong, which is frustrating at times but helpful too. It’s good having someone to talk to about silly things like what shorts should I wear.
Do something – anything!
Think about what you can do in winter. As long as you’re doing something most days, you’ll get there, even if it hasn’t been the sessions you wanted. You won’t realise you’re making progress, but you’ll get there.
Make it easy
You need to enjoy your training so do whatever motivates you. For me it’s training with others. Make it easier for yourself instead of having to use 100% of your willpower every single session, just make it enjoyable so you don’t see it as a chore.
HOW I REACHED HAWAII
Change your mindset
You need to change the way you think when you’re trying to qualify for Kona. You’re not in it to complete, you’re in it to compete, so no mucking around in transition, thinking ‘do I need to put on an extra layer?’ You’ve got to be focused.
It took someone else saying I could qualify to make me believe it. I thought if only I was this amazing world-class athlete then I might get to Kona… Believing in yourself is really important, not giving up and thinking ‘I’ve missed a session, I’ve blown it’.
Control your mind
This year I focused on setting my mind to it. As soon as I put on my running shoes, I could hear the voice in my head moaning, and I’d think ‘Shut up!’ And I smiled, because it makes things easier. I just tried to feed off any positive influences.
On the bike in Ironman UK this year, my strategy was to hold back, so my time was nine minutes slower than the year before but it really helped on the run. Even if you’re a little bit fresher, it’s so much easier for your mind to flip straight into positive thinking.
Wait for the roll-down
My age-group was really strong in Bolton, we had the top three amateurs overall, so it was frustrating at first that I didn’t get a Kona slot. I got my slot after the roll-down because another place became available.
“It was a couple of years ago I first thought of doing an Ironman. I wasn’t really a triathlete, I just did a couple of triathlons. To be honest it was an ego thing, everybody was starting to do triathlon, so I thought I’m going to have to do something else. So that was why I did Ironman.
“I didn’t know about Kona then. When I thought I’d better get training, I got a coach, Terence Collins (triforfitness.co.uk) and he said, ‘Let’s try to get to the world championship’, so I said, ‘OK, that sounds great!’ I had no expectation of doing it really.
“By the time I got to my first Ironman in Bolton, I did kind of realise Kona was within reach. I’d qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas when I raced Ironman 70.3 UK in Wimbleball a month earlier, and I took that spot purely on the basis that I was worried I wouldn’t get to Kona. Even on the start line at Bolton there was still an uncertainty. I knew from my bike times and from the results of the previous year’s race that I’d be there or thereabouts but I wasn’t sure how my swim and run would go.
“It was a relief more than anything to know I’d qualified because I’d invested a lot of time and effort and a lot of people had given up their time for me over the months leading up to it. It’s a great feeling having set a goal and achieved it, too.
“After Bolton, I took three or four weeks of very easy training for recovery, by which time it was almost time for Vegas. That turned into a great if very expensive training event because of the heat. I didn’t race as well as I wanted to. There was a bit of fatigue from Bolton and I suffered in the heat, so I think it was a learning experience which really helped when I got to Kona.
“When I started training for Kona itself, I had the endurance from having qualified, so I started to do more speed-work, although it was for a long-distance event. Except for that it was much of a muchness and I carried on training as before – I’m sure my coach would say there were lots of differences but I just did as I was told! I had total trust in what Terry was doing; if he wrote it down, I would do it.
“Getting to Kona was the goal for the season and then I just wanted to go out and enjoy it. There are all these glamorous Ironman races – Lanzarote, Nice, Austria – that I could have done, but I decided to go to Bolton and get the job done and then the fun race would be Kona. The reward was just going there.
“I was looking forward to the whole experience. The more I got involved in Ironman, the more I heard about how it was a unique and iconic place to go. Before I went I didn’t really understand what it was all about; I think you have to be there to see why it is what it is and why it has such iconic status.
“It’s a beautiful place. I just love the landscape, it has beautiful beaches, it’s an amazing place to go in its own right. And then during the world championship everything is driven towards Ironman. Everyone is super fit, even the spectators; everyone has perfect bodies and are beautifully tanned. I was the pasty white guy, trying not to burn.
“My race in Kona didn’t quite go to plan. I expected the swim to be tough because it was non-wetsuit, but I did a 1:06 swim, when I’d done 55 minutes in Bolton. The thing I was most pleased with was that I didn’t panic. When I was in Vegas I had a bad swim, pushed myself on the bike and tired myself out early on; I didn’t do that in Kona, I’d learnt my lesson and actually had a great bike that exceeded expectations and was able to keep a steady pace on the run, too.
“There’s nothing quite like running down the finish chute at any event, but it’s amazing in Kona. There are people 10 deep all the way down cheering you on the way in. To be honest, I didn’t feel great when I actually crossed the line. I’d missed the last feed station thinking there was one more to go so by the time I got to the finish I was dizzy and waiting for the catchers to grab me and rush me off to the medical tent.
“I was really pleased to come seventh in my age group. I didn’t go with any expectations so I would have been pleased with anything but to PB in Kona is an amazing experience. I went out there thinking I’d do it once but as soon as I crossed the line I thought, ‘Right, I’ve got to get back here next year!’
“I qualified at Ironman UK again this year, and had a great race there, so hopefully I can continue that in Kona. I have joined a team, Team Freespeed Virgin Active, and with that I’ve changed all my kit. I’m fortunate to get a complete stock of Compressport kit, and we’ve got race team kit. I’ve also treated myself to some new race wheels, Enve Composite 6.7s. This year at Kona, I’m aiming to reach the podium in my age group.”
BAXTER’S TIPS FOR FIRST TIME IRONMAN ATHLETES
Boost your confidence
In the early stages a lot of it is confidence. Get a coach to take you through the processes, or get a structured training plan from a book
Build up slowly
The earlier you start training the better, but you don’t have to be doing 100-mile rides now, it’s all about building a long-term base.
Race your own race
One thing I’ve learnt from Kona and other races is a general Ironman learning: don’t follow other people, stick to your own race pace.
HOW I REACHED HAWAII
Enjoy the training
I’d go and do five or six hours’ riding on a weekend and people would think that was a long way to cycle but I’d never really realised it was that big a thing. It definitely helped that I was quite relaxed about my training.
Do it for yourself
I wouldn’t say my coach Terry had me on a strict training regime; he had me on a regime which I took as being strict in that I didn’t want to miss it. He was actually quite chilled out, so if I missed a session he’d say not to worry about it, but I knew if I was going to do it, I wanted to do it properly.
Get a coach
I couldn’t have done it without a coach. If there was one bit of advice I would give to people, it would be to get a coach straight away. Just for their knowledge, they’ve done it with other athletes or done it themselves, and they can give you a lot of confidence.
Train with a group who push you
I trained with some really great guys which gave me a bit of a team environment. Triathlon is a very lonely sport, especially when you’re doing the long-distance events. I did two group sessions a week and often did a weekend ride with a couple of the guys as well; we egged each other on which really helped.
Pick a qualifier that suits you
For your Ironman World Championship qualifier, pick a course that suits you. A lot of people go to Ironman Lanzarote or Nice because they’re iconic courses but these are really tough cycling courses, so don’t go if you’re not a strong cyclist.
Triradar.com is the online home of Triathlon Plus. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.