Chasing The 2:40 Hawaii Ironman Marathon

  • By Kim McDonald
  • Published Mar 20, 2013
  • Updated Apr 1, 2015 at 4:04 PM UTC
2012 Ironman world champion Pete Jacobs. Photo: Jeff Clark

On the Horizon

Ask the man who has the best chance of breaking the Kona marathon record what it takes to go sub-2:40 off the bike in Kona, and he’ll sum it up with one word: efficiency. “I always say that to run well in Kona you need really good efficiency because the heat raises your heart rate that extra bit,” said Jacobs. “If it’s in cool conditions a guy might be able to hold a 2:45 marathon pace comfortably at 80 percent of his max heart rate. But you put him up to 85 percent heart rate in the heat, because his efficiency is blown out, that extra 5 percent blows his run time to a 2:55.”

Jacobs said he went from a three-hour-plus marathon runner in Ironman races to a 2:41 marathoner in the heat and humidity of Kona largely by focusing on perfecting his run technique to become more efficient. “I work really hard on that,” he said. “I think about it every single day in training.”

When he prepared for his first Ironman in Australia as an age grouper in 2002, a friend advised him to run by bending more at the knee, so that he would squat down before pushing off with every stride. But when another friend remarked, “‘You’re a bit of a heel striker, Pete,’ like it was a bad thing,” he picked up a copy of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run and changed his stride, becoming a forefoot striker with a slight forward lean. “It opened my eyes to improving my running, what technique is and how the body was made to run,” he said. “It all clicked and when I ran 2:41, I went, ‘Wow, this works.’ What I’m doing with technique works; I’m on the right track.”

Jacobs said he notices that many of his competitors in Kona, particularly the strong cyclists with bigger glutes and quads, suffer more in the run because of their poor running technique. “Once you start to get hot,” he said, “you bend at the hips a little bit and once you do that you lose 10 to 15 seconds a kilometer.”

Those who have competed at the top level in Kona believe it’s only a matter of time until another cooler, cloudy day combines with a steady paced bike in Kona for Jacobs, the Raelert brothers or another super runner to dip under the 2:40 mark. “I do think it’s likely the record will fall sometime soon simply because of the number of good runners these days and the chances of two or three pushing each other all the way, similar to how Mark and Dave ran that day,” said Ken Glah, the fourth-place finisher in 1989.

Once that mental barrier is broken, expect to see a slew of faster times. “If [Javier] Gomez or [Alistair and Jonathan] Brownlee can make it to Kona from short course with success as Raelert, Crowie and Macca have done before them, I believe we could see run splits in the 2:35 to 2:37 range on the absolute ideal day and race,” said Torbjørn Sindballe, who was third in Kona in 2007 and extensively studied the impact of heat and humidity on running ability.

“The current best Olympic athletes are close to a minute faster on a 10K in a triathlon than any of the guys on the Ironman circuit have ever been. And in a full marathon that could turn into much more.” Welch agrees that “a 2:36 to 2:38 is probably the best someone is going to end up doing one day, with the women going 2:50 to 2:51.” But Scott is more optimistic, predicting that the men will eventually run 2:31 to 2:32 and the women 2:43 to 2:44.

Making It Happen

No one doubts the men’s marathon record will eventually be broken. The women have already provided a blueprint of how to do it, and the formula closely matches elements mentioned by the sport’s historians and pundits.

Lori Bowden set the record in 1999 with a 2:59:16 split, which stood for almost a decade. In 2008 Wellington dropped the record by 90 seconds, then Carfrae lopped almost three minutes off the following year and another two and a half minutes the year after that. In 2011—while Cave ran a 3:06 to reach the podium in third place—Carfrae set the course record with a 2:52:09 marathon, but only took 32 seconds from Chrissie Wellington, who won her fourth world title. It was the fourth consecutive year the women’s run course record was broken.

If the men are able to ride the Kona bike course more like the women, without the accordion-like procession that saps their legs from unnecessary accelerations; if they have more head-to-head run battles like the ones involving Carfrae and Wellington; and if someone can finally break the mental barrier of running faster than 2:40, the men could be on their way to a succession of marathon records in Ironman Hawaii.

Some take exception to the idea that the women have been able to break their marathon records year after year because they are putting less effort into the bike. “The women have to ride just as hard,” maintains Cave’s coach (and Carfrae’s former coach) Siri Lindley. “There’s a huge handful of girls who can ride, so we’re racing basically the same way the men are.” She also believes a marathon PR is possible after a hard 112-mile bike, and the training she put Cave through last year to run faster than she’s ever run in Kona is proof.

With Wellington taking a hiatus from the sport, Cave’s goal in 2012 was to avoid being passed in the run by her main rival, 2010 Ironman world champion Carfrae. Cave ran with Mary Beth Ellis, who would end up fifth, for much of the early miles of the run until she broke away and passed Steffen at mile 23 for the win. “I didn’t feel good when I started the run to be quite honest,” Cave said. “I felt pretty average.” But at around 14 miles she began feeling stronger. When Carfrae caught up to her a mile before the entrance of the Energy Lab, a lonely stretch of the run, Cave was focused. Over the next five minutes, Carfrae ran up on Cave’s shoulder and remained about half a step behind. Then Cave surprised everyone by pulling away from the women’s marathon record holder, which proved to be the defining point of the women’s race. “I had no idea that Rinny was coming up, I really didn’t,” Cave said. “I had no idea she was that close,” adding that she was so focused she also didn’t see or hear her coach yelling at her on the side of the road to pick it up.

Lindley said she modified Cave’s run training slightly over the past year so she could access that extra gear late in the marathon. “What I knew was likely to happen was that someone like Rinny or a Caitlin Snow would run up on her,” said Lindley. “So what we had to focus on was giving her the tools to be able to handle that mentally, and, most importantly, physically.”

After winning the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in mid-September, Cave headed straight to the Big Island more than a month before the race. It gave her the extra edge to tackle the extreme heat and humidity on race day. “Training in Kona the five weeks before allowed me to realize how much I needed to eat and drink,” she said. “I think all those things you discover when you’re out in those conditions training [helped my race] as opposed to coming in from a cooler climate and going, ‘OK, good luck on race day.’”

Scott, who coached four-time Ironman world champion Wellington for four years, said after Wellington ran a 2:44 marathon off the bike at Challenge Roth in 2011, “I thought she would go 2:46 or 2:47 in Kona, and that’s what we were shooting for before she got into that [bike] accident two weeks before the race” last year. “So I think the women collectively are getting faster and faster,” he said.

Lindley, who coached Carfrae to her three Kona marathon records, agrees and believes there’s no reason why Cave can’t have another breakthrough day and eventually run 2:52 or faster herself. “Anything is possible,” she said. “People put limits on themselves because something seems impossible. But the way I’ve always been is anything’s possible and we’ll do everything we can to make it happen.”

Like Scott, Lindley believes the barriers to running a fast marathon in Kona are as much mental as physical. The key is believing you can do it.

“I knew Leanda could be one of those girls who could lay it down on the bike, but my goal was recognizing her potential to run faster as well,” added Lindley. “She had a breakthrough in Ironman Arizona last year where she ran under three hours. I thought to myself and told her, and she agreed with me, that there’s no reason why we can’t do that in Kona. So it’s just believing that it’s possible and not being afraid to go for it.”

RELATED: How To Nail The Ironman Marathon

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