On October 8, I will line up for the fifth time at the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Much has changed since my first race 11 years ago. The race is bigger. The field is more international. I’ve aged up… a few times! The buzz and excitement around the race is greater than ever, and so are my personal expectations for the race.
Part of me wishes I were lining up for my first Kona again. What do I wish I had known? What advice would I give myself? What experience do I not want to miss? What do I most want to take away?
As with many first-time experiences, perspectives vary on what is important and what to savor, so I reached out to several experienced athletes and coaches for their "just for rookies" advice. What should you do to make the most of your first time racing in Kona?
Hands down the most consistent piece of advice I received was to manage your expectations. Five-time IRONMAN champion and American world record holder over the distance, Linsey Corbin describes Kona as a "completely different beast," and that athletes should be "prepared for anything." IRONMAN Master Coach, Matt Dixon agrees, counseling athletes to "completely remove all expectations of place, time, or result," and instead, "cement in your mind an approach of management and commitment to process throughout the day." According to Dixon, the results will take care of themselves if you remain process-oriented.
Ten-time IRONMAN Champion, Meredith Kessler, suggests athletes see and experience as much of the course as possible in the days leading up to the race. This gives a mental picture of what race day will bring. While you will not be riding or running the entire course during the week preceding the race, you can take your bike for a spin around Hawi or go for a run in the Energy Lab to experience some of the key course features prior to race day.
"Nothing can compare to the Big Island and the chaos that is the race course of the Kona," says Kessler. "And you can find comfort in the fact that you have been out on the actual course."
With its lower stress on the body, athletes can (and should!) afford to take on the entire swim course a week ahead of the race. Your best opportunity to do so is by signing up for the IRONMAN Ho’ala swim. (Click here to register.)
Soak up the pre-race atmosphere…a little bit
There are many sights and sounds unique to race week that you'll want to experience. Whether it’s a swim at Dig Me beach, the Parade of Nations, professional athlete meet and greets at the IRONMAN Village or the annual Underpants Run, there’s no shortage of things to entertain you. However, as Corbin cautions, if you try to see and do everything before the race you will be exhausted by the time the race starts. She advises saving a few things for after the race.
Ben Hoffman, who placed second in 2014, agrees that athletes should enjoy the "energy and hype that is Ali'i Drive during the week of the race," but to not leave your race out there by over-exerting yourself.
Moments of reflection
With all the pre-race hype, the mood in Kona can feel tense so for amateur and professional athletes alike. Thus, it makes sense to schedule in some quiet time and prepare mentally. Kessler makes a point of finding time before the race to think about the "why." "Why are you toeing the line in Kona? Everyone has their own story, their own authentic journey to the start line," she says. Understanding this will help you and motivate you during the darker moments on the course.
Pre-race meditation is a daily pre-race ritual for Hoffman who recommends that athletes "make time to sit quietly each day to calm your mind and visualize your race, both the good and the bad." Mental preparation is also important for Corbin. Her recommendation is to develop "a few mantras and positive things to keep in the back of your mind for when it gets challenging during the race."
Keep your cool
Environmental conditions are typically the greatest challenge of the IRONMAN World Championship with the heat, humidity and wind offering more significant obstacles than the terrain itself. "During the race, I do everything I can to keep the heat off," says Corbin. While she dumps a water bottle on herself at each bike aid station, Corbin’s mantra during the marathon is "ice, ice, baby" to help keep her core body temperature down.
Enjoy the moment
Dixon has two professional athletes, Kevin Collington and Jesse Thomas, who are Kona rookies this year. He will be advising both that the first time racing Kona is special: "Don’t let worry and nerves cause you to allow this special occasion to bypass you," cautions Dixon. "Soak in the atmosphere and the occasion as it will set the tone and enjoyment for the day."
Kessler agrees that athletes need to cherish the moment and soak in the magical atmosphere, relishing in the achievement of qualifying and racing in Kona. With the hullabaloo surrounding the IRONMAN World Championship, the nerves can build. She reminds athletes to stay away from over complicating things, and "setting yourself up for success before the cannon goes off."
Jordan Blanco is a multiple-time IRONMAN finisher, Kona qualifier, and writer living in San Francisco.