Although Dirk Bockel has seen the breadth of race tactics during his 25 years of racing (including four years in Kona), he says Ironman Hawaii is a different story every year. He describes the race as a “learning curve” because there’s always new people, new tactics, and unpredictable conditions that make racing in Kona like no other experience.
“Hawaii is not just an Ironman, which is tough on its own, but the conditions with the wind changing…even going 10 miles straight, it changes all the time and you can’t really predict it. The temperature is a factor, even the swim can change by a couple minutes based on the swells,” Bockel says. “It’s out of your control, you can’t change it, and the fact is it’s going to be a bloody tough day.”
Bockel simplified his Kona tactics like this: Swim well so you can get to the main pack on the bike, but don’t go out too hard. “Everybody swims really well here, which is surprising,” he says. “Then they hammer the first half of the bike and fall apart. This is not ideal for a lot of people racing. If we could all do our own race, I think it would look a little bit different.”
“It comes down to keeping the second half of the bike pretty steady and not overdoing the beginning of the run,” Bockel says. “As soon as we hit the highway on the run, we’re all cooked and it’s all willpower. Of course there’s a lot of physical capabilities involved, but it’s a mental struggle out there. Every year I tend to say it’s getting harder.”
As for whether or not he has his eye on specific competitors, Bockel says he picks and chooses his battles. “It depends on which stage of the race—if it’s a similar tempo, I’ll go with it, but if it’s too fast, I have to stick to my game plan,” he says. “I know what I can hold for 4:20 and if I go significantly faster, I know it’s going to hurt me down the road and I’ll need to make up for that at some point.”
“Hawi is very important—you’re way above your average there,” Bockel says. “It depends who’s going with you, who’s there and who’s not. There are some guys, like Andrew Starykowicz, who want to go so hard just to get the bike record, but I don’t think he’s going to be a factor afterwards. The question is will he ruin the races of a few if they go with him? But that’s racing.”
His end goal: Know what you’re capable of and be able to make quick decisions. “I try to do my best to stay out of trouble and analyze everything up front so I know how to deal with it,” Bockel says. “It’s also a gut feeling sometimes. You’ve got to do what you think is right and stick with your game plan.”