Return to Racing (and Blogging): Ironman 70.3 Hawai’i 70.3

The two readers of my blog may have noticed a dearth of race reports since my last one in 2018. Hey, I’ve been busy – we packed up, sold our house in Menlo Park, and moved full time to the Big Island in early 2019, and it’s been a whirlwind of house buying, house removating, dog fostering and sunset photos since then. Not much racing, thanks to the pandemic, other than the occasional local cycling time trial, and the racing scene on Zwift.

The 70.3 Hawai’i is the race I love to hate – it’s always around my birthday and rarely gives me a present. It’s hot, windy and humid, with little shade to shield you from the scorching sun (late May / early June is when the sun is most directly overhead in Hawai’i). Since living here full time (our house is just off the bike course a few miles north of Kawaihae), I have become more accustomed to the conditions, but since I’m, er, melanin challenged, I do have to watch my sun exposure.

The race was postponed multiple times during the pandemic, so it was bittersweet news to hear a month or so out that the race was likely actually going to happen. Sweet, because it’s good to see events coming back, but bitter because I wasn’t properly trained for the event. The main culprit besides the usual stuff (work, lack of motivation, etc.) was my right knee – running in particular had become very painful, so I was pretty much unable to do very much of it.

Various medical terms were bandied about – chondromalacia, patellar-femoral pain syndrome (aka “runner’s knee), some arthritis and deterioration of the cartilage. I was finally able to see one of the few ortho doctors on the island, and the X-rays showed nothing except a healthy knee, so he ordered an MRI and some physical therapy. The MRI showed no meniscus tear or anything – the only “findings” were these:

JOINT / CAPSULE: Moderate right knee joint effusion noted with mild synovial

PATELLOFEMORAL COMPARTMENT: There is focal full-thickness articular cartilage
thinning and irregularity over the lateral trochlear groove with mild
irregularity of the subchondral plate and mild subchondral sclerosis along with
moderate bone marrow edema extending within the lateral femoral condyle.
MEDIAL COMPARTMENT: Low-grade articular cartilage thinning and irregularity
without subchondral bone marrow signal change.
LATERAL COMPARTMENT: Low-grade chondromalacia.

In plain English, there’s nothing that requires surgery, so HTFU.

Since there was no tear, the plan – not necessarily enthusiastically endorsed by my medical team – was to go ahead and do the race and see how the knee felt when I got off the bike. Based on how the last couple of 5K training runs I had done had gone, I expected to have to stop at some point during the run portion once the pain seemed counterproductive, and I was fully prepared to do that.

The swim had moved to a new venue this year – the Fairmont Orchid’s Pauoa Bay instead of the traditional swim at Hapuna. I heard the move was partly a result of difficulty getting a permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR – which some locals say stands for “Do Little to Nothing Regularly), which manages Hapuna State Recreation Area. Whatever the reason, the big upside to this move was having one transition area for both T1 (swim to bike) and T2 (bike to run) – it made things so much easier logistically. Pauoa Bay can’t accommodate a big mass swim start, but now that Ironman is doing rolling starts (athletes basically starting a couple at a time), it worked perfectly. Pandemic protocols were followed as well, meaning we had to wear masks up to the point where we were at the start line seconds before send off.

I swim up the road at the Mauna Kea resort (Kauna’oa Bay) at least once a week, so I’m familiar with the pattern of winds and currents along the Kohala Coast. It’s almost always fast going south, then turning north you are fighting both a current and wind-driven chop/swells. So when I got to the third turn buoy and headed into swells and chop, it wasn’t a surprise – the main challenge was sighting, as we were heading directly into the rising sun. Luckily I could follow the shoreline and was pleased to find myself on track for the buoys as I drew near enough to them to actually see them.

I exited the swim and was surprised to see 42:xx on my watch, which was 6-7 minutes slow. I figured it was probably slow for everyone, though.

Gorgeous swim venue in Pauoa Bay

It was a longish run to the transition area, and then a longish run out to the mount line. I had my shoes on the bike already, and despite no racing in a long time, I was able to execute the mount and get into my shoes without issue. The first couple of miles were in the Mauna Lani resort, including an out-and-back section just to add the correct distance. I settled into position on my Dimond and consciously held back on my power output – I didn’t have many long rides in me, and also I wanted to give my knee the best chance of feeling good when I got to the run.

The DeSoto arm coolers are more for sun protection on the bike than for cooling

The climb out to the Queen K was against a pretty strong headwind, so that mean once we turned out of the resort we would be hit with some crosswinds. That’s pretty early in the ride for those to start, so I already had an inkling it was going to be a long day. Once through Kawaihae, the rollers start – this is where our neighborhood is, so I know them well. A couple are “stand up” steep.

I could ride this section every day, but I don’t

The crosswinds on the rollers out to the turnoff for Māhukona Beach Park were there but not as bad as they can be, and the same could be said for the headwind on the climb up towards Hāwī – challenging but normal by island standards. At the turnaround at Upolu Airport Road, my normalized power was at 198W, which was conservative for me in a half Ironman; moreover, my average heart rate was 131 bpm up to then, so I hadn’t burned many matches. On the other hand, I wasn’t exactly lighting it up speedwise – I was heading for a 3-hour ride vs my heyday of sub 2:30.

I kept it similarly conservative on the return, going by feel and heart rate more than power.

Not a poster child for flexibility, but I’m somewhat color coordinated

I hit the dismount line back at the Fairmont in 3 hours and a few seconds change, and felt probably the best I’ve ever felt coming off the bike at this race. I still had no idea how the knee would hold up, but I did notice that I was running without pain, so I took that as a hopeful sign. The run was three loops that included the infamous “Hell’s Kitchen” out-and-back section on the exposed service road, as well as a number of sections of grass on the golf course fairways. There were also a few short, steep uphills and downhills on cart paths, and the uphills were the one place where my knee complained.

Who doesn’t love 13.1 miles in the heat?

The right knee aside, the biggest problem I almost always have in triathlon runs is cramping, and this race was no exception. The good news is that it was less bad than in my last few races, and I chalk that up to the more conservative bike.

Still, the run was a grind, pretty much because my longest run in training had only been 5 miles or so, and I really didn’t have much running to speak of as I was trying to let me knee heal. I know how to soldier on, though, and eventually I got to the finish line, feeling much better than I had a bunch of other times I did this race.

Smelling the barn
A pro always stops his watch

What did we learn from this race?

  1. Training adequately is not strictly necessary if you have experience and know how to pace yourself.
  2. Sometimes just getting to the finish line is a victory.
  3. If you buy the race merch at the expo, you pretty much have to finish.
That was the last non-alcoholic beer I had that day, but not the last beer

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