Caution: Athletes in Pain – the 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship

A part of the Big Island scenery unique to Ironman time are the warning signs along the Queen K highway.  “Caution:  Athletes in Training,” a warning to drivers to watch out for the myriad cyclists out getting their final training days in on the often-brutal Ironman bike course.  About 11 miles of the run course are also out on that same desolate, lava-lined highway, and some jokester had modified one of the signs to read “Athletes in Pain” around the 14-mile mark of the marathon.  After a ridiculously hot, hard day, with some tough work remaining, you need some comic relief.

I alternated between asking myself what the hell I was doing in the Ironman with all these great athletes and pinching myself, reminding myself to enjoy the moment that might never come again.   Some people do Kona year after year – the top pros, the former winners, the consistent top-of-the-age-group amateurs – but for most of us, the hardest part was getting here.  I had punched my ticket in Lake Placid after 4 years of trying, but only by virtue of participating in the Ironman Executive Challenge (XC), a great new program that pits corporate officers against one another for bragging rights and Kona slots.  Basically, XC levels the playing field somewhat – at least you’re competing against guys who have demanding day jobs instead of former pros and what I call “professional age groupers.”  I still had to race my butt off in Lake Placid to get a slot (and have more than a little luck to boot), but I got it, so there was no way I was coming to Kona and not finishing.

Ironman week is crazy – a bunch of the fittest-looking athletes you’ll ever find congregated in one place, each with a kind of glassy-eyed “what have I gotten myself into?” look on their faces.  There’s a great temptation to get in that one last hard session – that 90-minute run in the heat, that 3- or 4-hour ride, that last swim of the full 2.4 course from Dig Me Beach – but you have to remember to leave as much as you can for race day.  The one thing I did was a couple of key workouts in the heat early in the week – a mid-afternoon 10K run when I got in on Sunday and a 2-hour ride on Tuesday with some of the guys from Epic Camp.  I also tried not to run the a/c in my hotel room too much, though I did use it at night in order to sleep.

I knew a number of athletes in attendance at Kona this year:  a few from Team Sheeper in Menlo Park, two of whom like me were first timers; my fellow XC athletes from the Lake Placid race (as well as the ones from the other races that I would get to know over the course of the week), and a few athletes from Epic Camp, all of whom are faster and much more talented than I am.  Then there are the pros – Craig Alexander and Chris Lieto were both staying at the same hotel that we were, which was pretty cool.  I also got to see all of the folks – Paula Newby-Fraser, Heather Fuhr, Roch Frey and Paul Huddle.   Those guys are fun – triathletes are some of the nicest people.

Race day finally dawned – the anticipation was almost harder than the race itself.  I kept telling myself it was “just a long training day,” that the hard part was getting here.  We got herded into the body marking lines; a perk of being in the XC program was that we were in the same line as the pros and the “NBC athletes” – the ones chosen to be profiled on the TV broadcast.  I’m not sure who they were this year, but I did see last year’s second-place female, Yvonne van Vlerken of the Netherlands, a couple of people ahead of me.  A male pro, number 69 (turns out to be Austria’s Michael Weiss) was right behind me.

Once marked, we were allowed into the transition area to complete our bike setup.  I filled my drink bottles, turned on the bike computer, adjusted the helmet, pumped up the tires, and I was basically done, so I went over to the VIP lounge to hang with my entourage, which included my wife Jeanne, both my parents, and my friends Amelie and Greg.  My friend and “Run to the Sun” teammate Michael had flown over from Maui for the event as well, and I would see him a bunch of times during the day.  I couldn’t have asked for a better support crew, even though I would have liked to share this experience with even more people if I could have.

The swim start was a little congested at the beach until the pros were sent off separately at 6:45; the age groupers went off at 7.  The start area was very wide, and since I don’t like the melee of the swim very much, I got over to the far left (the course buoys were on the right, which is in theory the shortest line).  I’ll trade some extra distance for not getting kicked in the face or pulled under any day – the swim and bike are events where I wish I were a bigger guy (say, 6’3” and 185 lbs).  No one messes with you.  My relatively skinny frame is only an advantage on the run.

The cannon sounded, and we were off – this was it!  I was starting the Hawaii Ironman, the race I had been actively trying to get into since 2005.  Scary, exhilarating, and fantastic all at once.

I collected myself, though, because the big task at hand was to finish each event and let my race build.  My positioning to the left worked out well – I didn’t get punched or kicked all day.  I did feel the occasional hand on my feet, but a brief increase in my kick did the trick in warding off further contact.  The swells in Kailua Bay were bigger than I remembered even from my practice swim earlier in the week, so I began to suspect that this wouldn’t be a fast swim.  I was swimming easily, not working particularly hard – just trying to keep the stroke long and efficient.  The water was warm and pleasant.

It seemed like forever until I reached the turnaround buoy, and I took a brief glance at my watch – 43 minutes and something!  That, folks, is slow – I would normally hit that in about 35 or so – but I told myself not to worry, that today was not about the time.  I continued my return to Kailua Pier focused on swimming steady but controlled, experienced in the knowledge that the swim is the appetizer, not the main course, and it would only get tougher from here.

I finally reached the pier and exited the water in 1:24, not my worst swim time ever but 13-14 minutes slower than my last 4 Ironman swims.  I went through the showers and washed as much salt water off as possible, grabbed my bike bag and then entered the changing tent.  Bike shorts on, white long sleeve top and XC tri top on, sunglasses and race belt with number and GPS tracking device.  (The astute reader will note that this is a fair amount of stuff to put on.  That explains my slow T1 time.)  With such a slow swim, finding my bike was easy.

Moving a little slowly in T1

Moving a little slowly in T1

See you in a little over 6 hours!

See you in a little over 6 hours!

Off on the bike – the longest part of the day was beginning.  The advice I was given was to take the initial out-and-back in town along Kuakini Hwy very easy and focus on re-hydrating and getting some calories in.  It already felt pretty warm at 8:30 in the morning, but this was just a teaser for what was to come.  Off of Kuakini, up the short steep climb of Palani and then left on the Queen K.  So far so good.

One effect of the heat is that your heart rate spikes much higher than it normally would at a given level of effort.  I am normally comfortably aerobic (less than 130 bpm) at around 200 watts, but on race day once I hit 200 watts or above, my heart rate was a good 10-15 bpm higher.  I decided to back off and let my heart rate rather than my power meter rule.  There are lots of little things to think about as you’re riding along – obeying the no-drafting rules, passing groups of riders while someone else may be coming up on you, taking some sips of fluid, popping an electrolyte caplet every 20 or so minutes – so the time passed quickly.  I finally got into some familiar territory as I passed the Mauna Lani resort at around mile 33 – now I was on the part of the course that we do in the Honu half-IM race in May.  That was both good news and bad news – good news because I knew what to expect; bad news because I knew what to expect:  uphills and wind.

On the downhill into Kawaihae, I got my first reality check in the form of race leader Chris Lieto coming the other way.  At that point, he was probably 90 minutes in front of me, even though he only had a 15-minute headstart at the beginning of the day.  I’m used to the pros being way in front, but I’d never experienced this far in front.  A little depressing.

All along the way up to Hawi, I saw a steady stream of riders on their way back – first the male pro chasers, then Chrissie Wellington and all other female pros competing for second place, all intermingled with second-tier male pros and top age groupers.  The journey to Hawi doesn’t get difficult until about 7 miles to go, when it turns into a steady uphill.  There was a steady headwind on the climb, but it wasn’t ridiculously strong as it has been in some years, most recently in 2004.  I thought I was going to luck out with a relatively benign day, and I was on pace to ride a conservative 5:45.

The turnaround in Hawi Town came, and now I was on the downhill slope – about 50 miles to go.  The descent initially felt great; I was moving at 30+ mph, was tucked in my aerobars and was not feeling any of the dreaded crosswinds that can blow you across the road.  Thing was going to be fun, I thought.

Then came the curve at Mahukona, and BOOM, the wind hit.  Strong gusts occasionally, but mostly a steady headwind, one that I would combat all the way back to Kawaihae.  I was otherwise doing pretty well, though my left foot was beginning to hurt, so I loosened the strap on my shoe, which gave me some relief.  Nutrition-wise, I was doing pretty well, though I felt a distinct lack of power in the legs.  Perhaps the inability to ingest calories early in the ride was catching up with me.  There’s a pretty steep uphill out of Kawaihae that is actually one of the toughest on the entire bike course, and then we turned onto the Queen K for the ~30 miles home.

Tailwind?  Not a chance – I was greeted with the worst headwind of the day, one that I would battle against for the next 30 miles.  I was going 12-13 mph on the uphills and only 17-18 on the downhills!  I started feeling a little sorry for myself, but made myself get a grip.  “This is the Ironman,” I told myself, “it’s supposed to be hard.  But just remember:  it always gets better.”  I started counting down the landmarks:  Hapuna Beach, Puako, the Mauna Lani, Waikoloa, the Hualalai resort, the airport, at which point I knew I would be at least getting an interesting sight – the lead runners coming out of the Natural Energy Lab.  Interesting, but depressing.

I’m a realist, after all – I’m not a pro.  I’m not even a particularly good amateur.  But I had been improving steadily at the Ironman, and yet this would be the one in which I came the closest to not being off the bike yet before the winner finished the run.  I could see a number of the lead pros on their way back, and was trying to spot who was who even as I was getting prepared to get off the bike.  I came up on Lieto, who  seemed to be running pretty fast, so I thought he might still be in the lead, but a minute or so later I passed Craig Alexander.  It looked as though history was going to repeat itself.

Fortunately for my ego, they still had a couple of miles to go, so I easily made it into T2, notching an all-time personal worst in the Ironman bike of 6:22 (PW by a lot), with time to get changed and out on the run course before the winner came in.  As I turned on Hualalai to get down to the first out and back on Ali’i Drive, I heard the crowd cheering loudly all of a sudden, so I figured the lead runner was somewhere back behind me but closing quickly.  I believe I narrowly avoided being passed by Craig Alexander as I turned onto Ali’i.  I probably missed some good NBC camera time – d’oh!

Now it was time to settle into a steady pace and deal with my own race, which first meant addressing my overheated body.  My plan was to walk the aid stations, taking in as much fluids and ice as I could – a kind of Gallowalking, I guess, but one that 8-time champion Paula Newby-Fraser used to use.  Mile 1 was a surprisingly quick 7:51, so I definitely needed to simmer down.  There was no way I was going to run a sub 3:30 under these conditions.

First mile of the run

First mile of the run

One thing I had never tried before in an Ironman was a tip I got from Roch Frey:  dumping ice down my shorts.  That sounds weird and potentially painful as well, but I can attest to its effectiveness – the part of the course on Ali’i (the first 10 miles, basically) was an absolute sauna, and as soon as I put the ice down there, my heart rate dropped by a few beats and my pace picked up.  Things kind of jiggled, but what the heck.  I was hitting my miles right around 9:00 each, give or take depending on how long I lingered at each aid station, and while I knew that 3:30 was out, I thought I might be able to break 4:00, which would be an accomplishment under these conditions.  A quick bit of math told me that would also bring me in under 12 hours, and that would mean that I would continue my Ironman streak of never going over 12 hours.  That settled it – I made that my new goal.

Not that it really mattered in the grand scheme of things, but at that moment it became my all-consuming focus, and let’s face it:  when it’s broiling hot, you’re tired, your feet hurt and your shorts are full of ice, you need a reason – any reason – to keep running.  So my motto became “Sub 4 Or Bust!”

10 miles down; 16.2 to go!

10 miles down; 16.2 to go!

Back in town at mile 10, I caught up with my entourage, and they claim I was smiling.  That might have been a grimace, but if people thought it was a smile, all the better.  I walked up the steep uphill of Palani in order to keep my heart rate low, and then we turned onto the Queen K.  One more out and back (16 miles’ worth), and I would be done!

All the miles were though at this point, though mentally the ones from 11 to 16 before the turn into the Energy Lab were probably the hardest mentally, just because I had so far to go and was seeing runner after runner on their return journey home.  The key to retaining focus during the tough times was to take the race one mile at a time – just run aid station to aid station.  My miles were still in the 9:00-9:30 range, which meant I was still on track.  Just keep grabbing what I needed at each aid station, I told myself, and I would be able to maintain the pace.

The Energy Lab was magic – as I descended into it, the big Pacific Ocean was in front of me, and the sky was setting up for a beautiful sunset.  With 7 miles to go, an impending sunset meant I was going to be finishing in the dark for the first time ever, but it was kind of cool to get the glow stick a volunteer handed me.  At mile 20, I calculated I needed to run about an hour for the last 10K in order to break 12 hours.  My pace was still steady, but I was working.

I felt a cramp starting to form, but being in between aid stations, I didn’t have any liquids so I tried to swallow a Succeed cap dry.  It wouldn’t go down my throat – it just sat there in the esophagus, and I was starting to get the dry heaves as my throat tried to force it out.  I kept my breathing controlled and tried not to swallow, and then I got a brilliant idea – I had put some ice down my shirt, so I grabbed a few cubes and put them in my mouth.  Soon enough the cubes had become cold water, and voila, I was able swallow the cap.  Crisis averted!

Now it was make or break time.  Starting after mile 22, I decided not to walk any more of the aid stations and just make a steady push for the finish.  It was dark, but I was coming up on the occasional runner or group of runners and going by pretty quickly.  With about 5K to go, a guy running a strong steady pace went by me, and I think he was the only guy to pass me all day long (not that that was a huge deal given that I was in the bottom half of the field, but I’ll take anything I can get).  The miles counted down quickly, and pretty soon I was making the steep descent down Palani in the last mile of the race.  I tore down Hualalai and this time got to make the right turn onto Ali’i, at which point I had to remind myself not to just sprint home but to enjoy this final stretch, the final parade to the finish line.  Coming into the fenced-off chute in the final few yards, I saw my friend Michael and gave him a high-five, then high-fived every spectator whose outstretched hand I could see.

About to execute a front handspring?

About to execute a front handspring?

Over the finish line I did the biggest vertical leap I could muster and pumped my fist.  11:52:44 – “Ian Hersey….you…are…an IRONMAN!”  I was quickly surrounded by volunteers, my wife Jeanne and my parents and friends.  The next few minutes are still a blur, because I felt both exhilarated and also somewhat ill.  It was still very hot out, so I collected my finisher’s medal and shirt, and then headed for the comfort of the air-conditioned race hotel.  After some couch time, food and drink, I started to feel better.  As some evidence of the effort I had put out, though, I should mention that I peed blood for the next 3 days.

My finish-line entourage!

My finish-line entourage!

There are some memorable lines from some of the recent NBC broadcasts of the Ironman – I particularly like Al Trautwig’s dramatic delivery:  “You can learn a lot about life…on the Big Island of Hawaii.”  Perhaps that’s more than just good television – I certainly learned a lot about myself.  Despite subpar times in the swim and bike and some very challenging conditions, I never gave up and in fact put in the most evenly-paced run I’ve ever done in the Ironman.  And I accomplished a goal I had been pursuing for over 4 years, one that took blood, sweat and tears to accomplish.

So at the next social gathering where I tell someone I do Ironman triathlons and they ask, “oh, have you done the Ironman in Hawaii,” my answer will be, “why yes…yes I have!”

The tale of the tape:

Ian Hersey







Menlo Park CA USA / USA

Business Executive













One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s