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Inside Triathlon Special Report: Letter From Kona

  • By T.J. Murphy
  • Published Oct 8, 2012

Despite the relentless pace of change that swirls around the Ironman World Championship every year, the race—as breathtaking as ever—remains the same.

This article was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

I had a revelation this year during pre-race week at the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona.

As in the “Hawaii Ironman.” It was about the pre-race nervous panic that seizes the place more than the infamous humidity that saturates it. If you have never been to the Hawaii Ironman and you imagine a serene village, with slack key guitar music floating on the sea air, rich with the scents of tropical flowers and freshly ground Kona coffee, exuding the spirit of aloha, then you are wildly and insanely mistaken. If you have been to the Hawaii Ironman, then you know what I mean and you’ve no doubt seen one of the deer-in-headlights-stricken tourists who doesn’t know a triathlon from a decathlon. They don’t know why in-town traffic is locked up, or why every other person walking or biking past them has been seared of all body fat. No, they just happened to book their trip the one week of the year they shouldn’t have.

For years I’ve observed this high-strung emotional energy and pegged it directly to, and only to, the 1,800 triathletes in the Hawaii Ironman field who had to dogfight their way to qualifying—to the amped feeling they get from their success, which was wrought from toll and sacrifice. Yes, this is part of it for sure—but just part. Intensifying this tension is the sport’s overall growth, the rapid increase in the number of Ironmans and spiraling Ironman tendrils (70.3s, 5150s) and the assorted corporate pressures to spur further growth and brand development that come with private equity and big business. Issues of profitability and growth, monetization, marketing and their ensuing bureaucracy collide with the red-blooded passion for triathlon that got its start, not long ago really, because of a bar bet between running buddies. This year the prize purse was $580,000. If you won in 1978 you received The Hole In the Head Trophy.

Consider just a handful of the things that have transpired in the recent history of Ironman: Acquired by Providence, a global private equity company that manages $23 billion in capital. The announcement of an Ironman Passport program, a $1,000 per year program that would give members the opportunity to register for popular events before the general public could. The retraction of the Passport program within a day of the announcement in the wake of an uproar. New Ironman races in Texas, Quebec and Wales. Growth and construction in Kona. The “Underpants Run” that started out as a prank some years ago by six or so guys making fun of Speedo-wrapped tri geeks and has grown to the point that they’re going to need to start closing streets. The move of the 70.3 world championship from Clearwater, Fla., to Las Vegas. A new points system for pros. A revamped lottery system.

I’m not knocking any of this but rather pointing out the change that is the inevitable byproduct of growth and financial success. Things change, grow or die. Full disclosure: Inside Triathlon is owned by Competitor Group, a private equity operation of its own, so I’ve seen this stuff from the inside.

My point is that we as endurance athletes got into this for the love of it, and for most of us it’s more than just a sport—it’s a way of life. We’re worried that this passion will be taken for granted, or worse, betrayed. Call it the Ford Ironman World Championship or call it the Hawaii Ironman, but the race is sacred and central to the mythology of triathlon.

Walking around Kona during race week, it seemed to me that the 1,800 triathletes competing and the other triathletes watching all brought in their collective psychic stress stewing in and around their love for the Ironman. People seem afraid that someone might go too far and mess it all up.

But then the race begins and we’re reminded why we fell in love with triathlon in the first place. It’s a world championship of a sport that routinely delivers heroic battles and a yearly apotheosis, and 2011 would not fail in this regard.

***

The new point system for professional triathletes wanting to compete in Kona was announced in September of 2010.

This may have been the most significant change of the year. The KPR—Kona Points Ranking—is now the ranking system that determines who will and will not compete at the Ironman World Championship at the pro level. If you’re a pro, your KPR is amassed by adding up points gained from your five best “races”—races that are “Ironman branded full-distance and 70.3 events worldwide that are authorized by the World Triathlon Corporation.” The window for gathering points for 2012, for example, started Sept. 4, 2011, and will end on Aug. 31, 2012. You may rack up the points from whatever combination you bake up, but one full-distance Ironman is required, and a max of three 70.3 finishes can contribute to the score. If you have won an Ironman World Championship in the previous five years you’re exempt from having to battle through the KPR, but you need to “validate” by finishing an Ironman—not Kona—within the window. Kona slots are available for the best 50 men and 30 women, numbers that have restricted the field as compared to the past.

“I’m all for a qualifying system,” said 2008, 2009 and 2011 Ironman world champion Craig Alexander, who was forced to race Ironman Coeur d’Alene with a broken rib so that he could validate his 2009 world championship with enough time to race well in Kona this year. “All the big sports have structure to them and this adds structure. It’s a point system where the more important the race, the greater the points and prize money. I wasn’t as impacted as some; I only had to validate by racing Ironman Coeur d’Alene. But even there, I put out the best performance I was capable of. So maybe there needs to be some tweaks, but the way I see it is that we found out about it last September and it’s a pro’s responsibility to schedule your season. You need to go to the races that have the most points and most money. Having to qualify for Kona adds prestige and status to the race.”

Alexander added that any tweaks would likely be related to preventing pros from getting wiped out. “Ironman racing is not like racing two- or four-hour events,” he said. “We need to be careful that we don’t over-race.”

Germany’s Andreas Raelert, who walked the marathon portion of Ironman Regensburg to validate his Kona entry, agreed with Alexander. “Every sport has a ranking system for the world championship, but there are some important issues—mainly how can you protect the athletes from not doing too many full Ironmans? You can do one or two of these at a peak level per year. So you have to do this right in order to get the best athletes on the starting line.” Raelert referenced what 1972 Olympic gold medalist marathoner Frank Shorter has long maintained about running high-level marathons—that there are only so many top performances that can be extracted from a human body. Raelert seemingly chose to use one of these limited performances to break the iron-distance world record at the 2011 Challenge Roth, a non-WTC sanctioned event, with his 7:41:33 victory.

“I personally feel that this is the Ford Ironman World Championship and that you should have to do an Ironman to qualify,” four-time Ironman world champion Chrissie Wellington said. “I believe there’s a credible half-Ironman series and its world championship is a fantastic race in a challenging location, and a 70.3 series race should count toward that. But if you want to race in Kona you should have to validate your entry with an Ironman, whether you’re the returning champion or otherwise. However, not every pro has the luxury of having financial sponsors so that they can travel and race strategically, and lower-tier pros might not be able to afford the flying around.”

Wellington, who is known for racing several Ironmans a year and racing them hard, suggests that for her, a fix might be in order, but all in all she applauds the new system.

“I think it’s working fairly well. The smaller field size produces a much more fair race by minimizing the drafting. I give it my whole-hearted support.”

Some athletes are a little more outspoken about the dangers of racing too many Ironmans, however.

“I do think the point system is a good thing, but Chrissie and I have had some heated arguments about this in the past,” 2010 Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae said. “I don’t agree with her. I think the top five finishers at the Hawaii Ironman should get automatic selection. If you prove yourself in Kona you shouldn’t have to go out and race [another Ironman]. Chrissie can perform fantastically well at three Ironmans a year. For me, it’s about longevity in the sport and looking after your body. So I think it needs some tweaking.”

Carfrae added that there appears to be room for adjustment. “They’ve been listening to our opinions.”

To whatever degree the point system affected the elite field at Kona, it was nothing compared to what life threw at them. This was particularly true in the cases of Alexander and Wellington, who both arrived in Kona with the explicit, impassioned purpose of regaining crowns lost in 2010. Wellington, sick with a viral infection, never started the race in 2010, and Alexander finished fourth last year after Chris McCormack rallied a fleet of other top contenders and simply punished him during the bike leg, granting McCormack his second title in the process.

It was a day that was painfully hammered into Alexander’s memory.

“Getting beaten in 2010 hurt me a lot,” Alexander said. “Not because I got beat, but because I had a good race and got beat. And beat up.”

Alexander exudes precision—in the past years we’ve watched him wield sports science as if he were running a small space program, using everything from aerodynamic wizardry to ingestible thermometers that help determine optimal strategies for governing one’s response to heat and humidity. You can see the precision in the way he walks and talks. He walks as if plugged into a source of electricity. Ask him what happened in a race and he can report the specifics—the splits, the moves, tactics, speeds, problems—in excruciatingly minute play-by-play detail.

But whatever master plan he began to engineer with the sting of his 2010 defeat still fresh in his mind, everything began to unravel when a virus struck and forced him to withdraw from May’s Ironman Australia, his target for the newly required validation. Recovery came slowly, and in the ensuing weeks he would cough so hard he would tear intercostal muscles and break a rib.

“I hadn’t had a forced layoff since 2002 when I had the chicken pox,” Alexander recalled. “But I didn’t panic. As you get older you understand that things happen for a reason.”

In fact, Alexander, now 38, decided to go after both the 70.3 world championship, moved from November to September, and Kona in October.

“I still think the half-Ironman distance is my best distance,” he said.

Indeed, on the new course set in the Las Vegas area, Alexander won the 70.3 worlds for the second time in his career. A few weeks out from the Ironman World Championship, Alexander zapped his system with a long, high-altitude bike ride spiked with a race-pace tempo finish. Looking back, Alexander believes that the springtime illness that forced the unscheduled downtime may have helped set him up for the best championship season of his career.

“In 2010 I raced nine times,” he said. “This time around I had fresh legs.”

The fresh legs were a bonus to the central core of Alexander’s plan—to not allow a McCormack-led posse to drop him during the bike. While Alexander wouldn’t get the chance to test his reconstruction on the reigning champion, as McCormack was not racing (although he was on the island, ironically enough, autographing copies of his book, I’m Here to Win), he did silence the nonbelievers on race day.

With fresh legs, a 51-minute swim and relatively good conditions, Alexander took out whatever remaining frustration he may have harbored from getting worked during the 2010 Kona bike leg by unfurling a 4:24 split—faster than all but one other rider.

Out of T2, Alexander was in the realm of his greatest strength, the run, and he had three minutes on Raelert, his biggest rival.

But danger still loomed.

“I was getting splits. I was running 5:45 pace, but Andy was making up 10 seconds a mile on me. Andy was going for it. But I was all in,” Alexander said.

“There’s no guarantee in sport at all,” Raelert said, explaining why he went after Alexander hard so early. “You have to put your cards down on the table.”

“From mile 4 to 18 I was really uncomfortable,” Alexander said. “It can be like a game of chess.”

Although the wind conditions were favorable to fast racing, Alexander noticed that Belgian Marino Vanhoenacker’s black race suit was coated with salt, indicating that it was indeed as humid as it felt, and in an aid station mix-up he had missed out on some planned salt tablets. Still, he wasn’t keen on playing it safe.

“I wanted to race like I was an athlete who had won in Kona before,” he said.

With less than 3 miles to go, it appeared as if Alexander had the race won. Raelert had wilted in the humidity and was running near Australian Pete Jacobs, who didn’t appear to have enough real estate in front of him to catch Alexander. But then, suddenly, cramps cut into Alexander’s hamstrings and calf muscles. A historian of the sport, he recalled the images of previous Kona bonks. “If Paula Newby-Fraser can collapse on Ali’i Drive [in 1995], anyone can,” he said.

With a six-minute lead intact over Jacobs, Alexander took time to stop and stretch and down Powerbar Perform electrolyte drink at the aid stations—noticing, if not chuckling a bit, that the bottle’s packaging proclaimed the fluid to be “cramp crushing.”

On Ali’i Drive Alexander says he heard the voice of race announcer Mike Reilly say, “He’s going to do it!” and it was then he centered his remaining energy on breaking Luc Van Lierde’s record in Hawaii that had stood since 1996, 8:04:08.

“I went into a little sprint,” Alexander said.

It was a good thing he did: The new record is now 8:03:56.

At the post-race press conference, Alexander was thoughtful in talking about the nature of records on the Big Island course and said that all things considered, it’s hard to truly gauge how performances rank against each other over the years with the nature of the weather at play.

“Wind can change everything,” he said. “Every year is different. For me it’s about trying to win the race.”

Photos: 2011 Ironman World Championship

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FILED UNDER: Features / InsideTri / Ironman TAGS: / /

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