The Big Five on the Big Island
In 30 years covering the big dance on Kona Island, Hawaii, we have never seen more than a handful of IRONMAN World Championship age-group podiums. With more than 75 000
hopefuls and only 2 500 slots, simply qualifying for the hallowed event is reward enough. Kyle Buckingham famously delivered South Africa’s first AG win in 2013, and with the
incredible level of the best of the best, earning a singular top five Umeke is deemed a lifetime achievement in triathlon. We have steadily matured as a triathlon nation and in 2019
SA achieved five age-group podiums! These incredible Saffa ambassadors share their stories with us.
STICKING TO THE PLAN
Things started far from perfect after arriving in Kona, Hawaii. Amid a flurry of athletes from across the world, I was the lucky one whose bike never made it. I pretended to be calm. Heck, I think at that stage I was so tired, it actually didn’t matter.
I just wanted to get to my ‘condo’, shower and lie down.
I figured things would work out. Well, after two days of no bike, the panic kicked in, but in hindsight, it was probably my saving grace in terms of training stress leading up to race day.
You see, in Kona, two weeks prior to race day, everything is about triathlon and speedos. EVERYTHING.
You cannot find a person to talk to about anything but triathlon, but that’s what makes it special. The place is damn intimidating too – the lads and lasses are lean, ripped, tanned, full of veinage, and I, with my half a bicep and weighing in at an almighty 77kg, was the most
non-lean oke on the island.
On to the dreaded taper.
With no bike, I opted for a few sessions on a spinning bike at the local gym – damn
uncomfortable and not ideal – but this forced me to shorten my bike sessions for the first four days while I waited for my bike, and allowed some rest time, which was needed. My bike
did arrive on the evening of day four and the next day it was an immediate 150km
ride. Sounds excessive, but the roads are so smooth and nice to ride on, it took me just
over four hours. It was very pleasant and very HOT.
The one thing I was really stoked about in Kona was that the main pool was under
construction. I don’t like open-water swimming, but with the pool closed, I was forced to see more than I normally would have. There was a 20-yard pool quite a distance away where I did
a few speed sessions; all the rest was open water.
One of my most memorable sessions was with Annah Watkinson and her coach.
Swimming was the only discipline I did with other athletes; the run and bike I stuck to my own agenda and pace, as it is way too easy to get caught up in the hussle on the island.
The closer to race day one gets on the island, the more the build-up. For local races we normally arrive three to four days prior; there is a quick peak at the expo, then it’s race day.
This monstrosity builds and builds over two weeks, transforming the entire town into one massive expo with athletes everywhere. I’m not easily intimidated, but here, it was different. Maybe it was more a feeling of respect, I’m not really certain, but I sure as hell was trying to
identify who the real race horses were just by looking at physique, etc. I was wrong.
The show ponies were taking pictures at the back end of the race, and the quiet ones
I never saw were giving me hell upfront – just the way I like it.
I have to give massive thanks to fellow age grouper Lars Stormo. Many days we bumped into each other and he was always willing to share some wisdom, from the swim-start tactics, to the bike riding, everything.
A must-do as part of race prep is the Ho’ala Training Swim. It’s a massive measuring contest between athletes on the actual race course and normally sets the tone for what race day
swim times will be. It was a mass start, 800 athletes, in a massive tumble dryer from hell. The first 400m is carnage but once that settled, the cruise around the course went perfectly, spot
on the time I wanted, with all the athletes I hoped for, so another tick on the “things to get ready before race-day list”.
The last few key sessions included a 23km tempo run along Ali’i Drive, a 100km ride in race gear that felt amazing and the training swim – all key sessions that made me feel relaxed
and content. After my wife arrived, the last three days were pretty calm. I was very relaxed, sleeping well and not too bothered by the heat.
The previous year’s overall winner, Dan Plews, was not there to race in 2019, but he set the mark for Age Group racing, breaking the Age Group record the year before and his numbers were my guideline all along. For race-day markers, I only knew Lars Stormo, so the idea was that while I’m around him, I’m doing OK. His experience in this race and his track record
certainly ensured that he was a contender for overall win for sure.
Race morning I was very calm. I ate the usual guilt-free breakfast of oats, and a few scoops of peanut butter, chased down with some coffee. I like to be at the race start early to unpack
and prep the bike and just generally calm down. We, as human beings, far too often get joy from someone else’s failure and, as a result, I hate racing at home. There are so many people wanting us to get it wrong or not have the day we deserve; however, I do like proving all those people wrong. I’m not a very social oke and when racing internationally, like at Kona, I literally know five people in the race and another five in the crowd.
I feel less pressured and more loved because no one knows me.
For all those AGers out there, not wanting the best for their fellow athletes, change your mindset. Wish success and happiness for others and your own fortunes might change. Until then, you will not get to the top and will get beaten continuously, I guarantee you that.
SWIM I stuck to Stormo like glue on the morning of the race: when he zipped up the tri suit, so did I; when he put on the swim skin, so did I; when he got into the water, I followed. We were right in the front and things were calm. He kept reminding me to hold my line as things will get hectic. With five minutes to go, I was floating on my back calmly. When the life guard shouted two minutes to start, I found myself five rows back in a cat fight not to drift any further back. The gun went and for the first 200m my only goal was to try to breathe every fifth stroke and not to drown. It was truly unpleasant. I was right in the middle, and all I wanted to do was get to the left or right side to take a break and breath, but I couldn’t get out!
This carried on for at least a mile until the field started spreading out a little and a small bunch of us got away.
I knew I wasn’t in the front batch but felt like the one I was in was moving nicely.
The longer the swim went on the better I felt. The time was spot on. Now the mad dash
for bike position started.
“I DECIDED TO RIDE SOLO AND I MOVED THROUGH THE BATCHES. BY 150KM I STILL FELT AWESOME...”
BIKE The bike starts with a small out-and-back section which is useful to see where you are in the race overall.
My goal is always to bike in the front or off the front so the first 10 minutes of the race is crucial; push all the watts to get to the lead pack, settle down for 140km and then push on even harder and that’s exactly how things played out.
As I was warned, the first 60-70km would be very scary as guys try to bike off the front and chase unrealistic numbers but that didn’t last very long. I rode comfortably at my goal watts, staying around the front till the turnaround and then the plan was to push on. The hardest part of the day was the push down from Hawi; the pace was really insane and the wind there
can get scary. I fell off the pace quite a few times as my bike-handling skills are not the best, but managed to ride back on at the bottom, by which time the group had broken into small batches of three to four riders across the road. Once on the Queen K again for the final stretch, I decided to ride solo and I slowly moved through the batches. By 150km I still felt
awesome and I got to T2 in a good position and shape, ready for the stroll to follow.
RUN The first 12km along the beach front on Ali’i Drive is magic. My coach gave strict instructions to slow it down along Ali’i and keep it for the Queen K. The keeping it slow part was tough. Like with any race, you have unrealistic AGers running sub-four minutes per km coming up from behind, which causes some anxiety, but I stuck to the plan and by the time we got to the turnaround, I noticed only one AGer up front with me running in close
proximity to five other guys.
By the time we got to the end of Ali’i, about 12km into the run, I was in a comfortable
second place and things were about to get lonely and real.
The Queen K is daunting, its undulating and by now bloody hot. The best part about racing upfront was the roads were quiet. My pacing was good, right on goal, and all I could do was
try to avoid the slowdown as much as possible. At the Energy Lab turnaround, one athlete in front was about three minutes ahead of me.
I knew I didn’t have anything to push the pace, so unless he slowed down significantly, I would have to settle for where I was. Behind me was another making a charge and
behind him was a massive gap. At around the 25km mark an overall podium was in the bag, I just needed to keep composed. At the 38km mark, I finally started slowing down. At this point, it felt more like I was ice skating than running as I couldn’t lift my feet and my cadence was so slow.
At the top of Palani, 1.5km from home, the athlete in third place finally caught me and I had nothing left to fight for the second spot.
I was wanting to enjoy the final stretch without killing myself, so I made peace with third overall and just coasted home.
Other than excessive hurt, the last 5km of the race was magic. I really couldn’t have asked for much more, other than knowing what I subsequently found out: the top two would be DQed: one for racing AG as a pro and the other for a doping violation.
I can only imagine the excitement of running down the carpet knowing you are winning, winning overall.
There is, however, still lots to look forward to. I want to break the AG record of Dan Plews, I want to cross the finish line first, overall.
A REMARKABLE EXPERIENCE
MARK PELLEW & KIRSTEN SCHUT
The IRONMAN World Championship was a journey with friends and team-mates that has provided fantastic memories.
Certainly, Kona offers the usual experiences that all qualified IRONMAN athletes enjoy, and those lucky enough to qualify and afford the travel will enjoy it yet again. But I was very fortunate to have my entire triathlon crew, whom I coach in Johannesburg, qualify for the event – and with us hitting the Big Island together, that’s what made the difference.
Our full ONE80 Multisport team racing 2019 included Andrew Robinson, Nicholas Chapman, Andrew Botha, Kirsten Schut, Shannon Lourens, Chris Vosloo, Justin Gaffney, Shawn van der Meulen and Mark Pellew.
We were very proud that so many of our athletes qualified, considering the tri club was newly formed and committing to race the best tri athletes in the world.
Arriving in the little town of Kailua-Kona between seven and 11 days prior to race day to acclimatise and resolve the 12-hour time zone jet lag was the soonest we could get there with our demanding jobs.
Believe me when I say the jet lag for this kind of long-haul travel is real. It did, however, work out and we were able to execute most of our final taper training sessions on the race course
during the midday heat, easing up slightly closer to race day with morning and evening sessions.
By race day we were finally ready to hit it and felt as prepared as possible. Sure, some of the team members were more nervous than others on the morning of the race, but once the siren went off for our ‘age group swim waves’ – and knowing that Saffas back home were
glued to the live feeds/and the IM trackers – it was time to rock and roll.
We had great team results for the race and it was clear that our winter dedication, training through the early dark mornings and evenings, shined through. Based in South Africa, we’ll always be placed at a disadvantage compared with most athletes in the northern hemisphere with their summer season rolling into the IM World Championship event.
This is not the case with the IMWC 70.3, which rolls its jurisdiction annually and provides a level playing field, but I wouldn’t ever expect the World Championship to change its venue,
considering the history of the race and the island.
So, as Saffas, without the opportunity to conduct long training camps in countries with warmer and/or higher humidity climates during the build-up to IMWC Kona, we have to suck it up and make do with what we can prepare ourselves with.
In the end, team-mate Kirsten and I managed to grab podium spots in our groups and were kindly awarded with IRONMAN Umeke bowls to bring back home!
What further stood out is how well other fellow Saffas performed this year, not only in terms of championship podiums, but also with the general race results showing the depth of the
athletes racing the event. It is encouraging and can only bode well for racing in South
Africa and our international representation.
As a team, the experiences we enjoyed together on this trip no doubt stand out for me, and the ONE80 Multisport crew has already started planning for the 2021 World Championship.
Some of these experiences are worth mentioning, and we share them in the hope that you’ll get the opportunity to travel to Kona and see for yourself!
The gathering of the fittest human beings on the planet (and some of the best-looking ones too!).
No wetsuits and no washing-machine swim starts – like the old times.
The side headwind on the bike after the half-way turnaround at Hawi – ouch/just lovely.
Disappearing cyclists on the Queen K, when passing those ‘cut-through hills’. Where did they go?!
The initial euphoric feeling during the first 8km of the run past the crowds on Ali’I Drive.
The crowd support into the start of the marathon run leg, with them shouting: “You’re nearly there!”
(Errr, you just want to slap those people.)
The climb up Palani Road on the run course, turning left onto the Queen K highway with 30km to go, and as you approach the aid station, being blasted by the pumping tunes of Bad Wolves’ version of ‘Zombie’ by The Cranberries.
Seeing double amputee Roderick Sewell leaving the Energy Lab with sheer determination on his face, reminding everyone of the IRONMAN mantra ‘Anything is possible’.
The usual bloody bonk/ wall crash when running the infamous Energy Lab … argh!
Desperately looking for a shady spot to lie down for a short rest while running through the Energy Lab, only to discover endless lava fields as far as the eye can see
The final 2km into town on the Palani Road downhill, knowing you got this, you did it … So special.
Every single person I have met who has been to Kona always speaks of the island with so much love and passion. I didn’t understand why until I experienced it for myself. I now have the same longing to go back, and I frequently relive the memories through videos and photos taken during our magical time on the tropical island.
Getting to Kona was a two-year struggle, but every setback made the goal so much sweeter in the end.
My year started off with a disappointing race at IMSA, where I came second in my age group and missed the slot to the World Champs.
Little did I know that an entire year full of opportunity was about to unfold and that that race was just another stepping stone towards the bigger picture. I realise now that I had to train my mind first – I had to have the mental strength to keep on fighting when things didn’t
go as planned. Because that’s life. You can’t control situations, but it’s how you handle what is thrown at you that makes you stronger.
My build to race day was 18 weeks. That’s one-hundredand-twenty-six days of tunnel vision: swim-bike-run. I was petrified that I’d get to the race and not be fit enough to pull off a solid race. I didn’t want to get to Kona and be average, but at the same time I wanted to have realistic goals. I have come second many times, and this is the World Championship, where
every athlete basically had to win their age group to qualify.
I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy race – I’d heard many war stories about Kona – so instead of focusing on placing well, I focused on nailing my training sessions every day.
I was extremely lucky to have the support of the Specialized Zwift Academy Tri Team for 2019. They had invested so much in my year and provided an opportunity I could only dream of! That also motivated me to keep working hard, as I didn’t want to let the team down. I do believe that incorporating a lot of indoor Zwift riding prepared me well for Kona. It was a
mental and physical challenge: riding for hours on end in a heated room, visualising my race over and over again, overcoming obstacles that might appear on race day. I do believe that the mental aspect of an ultra-distance race is huge and you have to be comfortable in your own head to be able to push through dark and hard times. I knew the race would be brutal, and I wanted to make sure I was ready for it.
I arrived on the island two weeks before race day to acclimatise. The humidity greets you with a sticky hug and overstays its welcome the entire trip. You’d think you’ll get used to it, but you never do. You can accept the fact that the pair of jeans you brought most definitely would not be worn on this trip.
The first weekend I stayed with my Zwift Academy teammates at the Sugar Shack on Ali’i Drive, overlooking the ocean, before moving over to the Zwift House up on the volcano. You could feel the incredible vibe and energy on the island. Immediately you want to meet up with friends, go for a swim or a long ride to
“YOU GET SO SUCKED INTO THE HYPE OF ALL THE FIT ATHLETES, THEIR INCREDIBLE GEAR AND THE BIKE PORN...”
Hawi, or run in the Energy Lab in the middle of the day to test how hot it is … and whether you can handle it! If someone was riding four hours, you’d want to ride four hours too, regardless whether it’s on your programme or not. You get so sucked into the hype of all the fit athletes, their incredible gear and the bike porn and you start psyching out your competition right away. You can seriously get carried away in those first few days; you can throw away months of hard work if you don’t stay focused on your own taper plan.
My parents raced Kona back in 2010 and 2012, so I’ve heard many stories of the ‘show ponies’ running shirtless along Ali’i Drive, showing off their fitness. I am happy to report that eight years later nothing has changed, and it’s quite fun sitting on the balcony with a cup of Kona Coffee in hand, watching the athletes.
Every now and then you’ll spot a pro run past, then the magnitude of the race dawns on you, your stomach does a flip and you retreat to your room for more visualisation and general faffing.
Race week is quite busy, with registration, briefing, expo visits and media obligations.
The Zwift House hosted a few events we were lucky to attend, like the Kona Legend Pro Panel with Mark Allen, Craig Alexander, Sarah True and Tim Don, who shared their experiences and tips on how to race on the island. A highlight of the trip was lounging around after dinner picking the brains of our mentors, Tim and Sarah, for advice on how to conquer the race. Another exciting event was the traditional Underpants Run. As if it wasn’t a competition of who looks best in lycra, stripping down into our skimpies and running a mile around town would definitely expose any insecurities you might have.
Race day came in a blink and there was literally nothing I could do to ease the nerves.
While waiting, I chatted to other athletes about their qualifying races, trying to size them up to tell whether they could be a threat or not. The swim start was, as expected, unpleasant and rough. I had planned on starting far le. to try to get away from the washing-machine effect, but as we were treading water I found myself smack in the middle of the wave. Great.
The race was everything I had hoped it would be: incredibly tough, windy, hot, humid and 100% a mind game.
I focused on how my body was responding by keeping an eye on my heart rate and breathing. Every ache and pain was acknowledged – I then had something to eat or drink, stayed positive and prayed for it to go away. I truly had the race I had worked for, and enjoyed every minute of it!
My fondest memory is having my incredible support system out on course. From my husband and the Zwift
crew to Chris Howes, who gave me a crucial split out on the Queen K, and my parents, friends and family back home, who were supporting via the tracker app. I think it’s so special, because it’s years of hard work, selfishness, commitment, dedication and a lot of sweat and tears that come down to this one day; you have to make it count.
So, what makes Kona so addictive? Exactly that. This is the one day you’ve been working towards, dreaming of, visualising, obsessing over.
And whether you get it right the first time or it takes you a few times to master, that feeling of accomplishment and euphoria makes you want to come back and experience it again.
My goal was to have a good race. A small part of me hoped I could podium on my first attempt, but I was also very reserved to say it out loud. So, coming third amateur overall and winning my age group was just unreal.
I am extremely proud of my Saffa team, bringing home five Umekes, showing that we can also compete on a world stage.
My husband and I stayed on a few extra days in a tent high up on the volcano. We enjoyed snorkelling and eating ice cream, and went on a night snorkel with manta rays. Very touristy, I know. The island has the same feeling as Mozambique, except that everything is well kept albeit old. It was an amazing end to a memorable trip.
1ST PRINCESS: I’LL TAKE THAT!
I salute each and every athlete who embarks on this journey called IRONMAN. It leaves me emotional, in awe and wonder.
So, how does one go about topping a World Championship podium in 2018? I was like, is this for real, did I really win? I can’t always comprehend what I have accomplished when I cross the finish line. It’s always, “No way, grab my head, I can’t believe I have finished.”
My husband, Chris, asked me what I wanted to do. I said I wasn’t sure. I’m still in awe and disbelief after my last win.
So, we kind of said, let’s see how the year pans out. I was feeling so strong and so good for IRONMAN South Africa 2019 and was going to use that as my gauge as to whether or not I should hit the Big Island again.
I had an awesome race. It was insane. Travis Johnstone took me with him on the run of my life.
What a man!
As reigning World Champion, you have a guaranteed slot, so I was not under pressure to win IRONMAN South Africa. But, hell, I wanted to race hard to prove to myself that my victories were not flukes.
Sitting in the bathroom one night, I said to Chris, “Babe, what am I going to do this winter? No racing for me.”
He turned around and looked me in the eye and said, “What do you mean?”
I said, “You said after Kona we are done.” I respected the fact that I had been to that amazing island four times and have won eight slots, so my cup is full. I felt blessed and so grateful, so wasn’t expecting my husband to fund another journey to Kona.
He asked, “So, do you think you can win again?”
I looked at him and said, “I will die trying.”
“My love,” he said, “you are fierce and not afraid. I love your attitude. Let’s go show these girls you are not afraid to stand in the middle of the fire and try again.”
Wowee, I love this man.
To say I wasn’t crying would be a lie.
Beautiful people of this amazing sport, I can carry on for hours with my stories about things that happen and the amazing people I meet, but there is only so much paper. I trained like a beast.
I worked like we all do, did not back down, did not falter.
I love racing. I love the human spirit. I love what we are able to do with our bodies.
I raced my ass off. My body did not arrive for the big dance but, man oh man, she wouldn’t give up.
I gave it my all, I just couldn’t find my groove on the bike.
I said to myself, “Settle down, chick, keep calm, eat and drink. You have been running like a Kenyan, so let’s just get off this bike so you can run.”
Well, I think I got off the bike in sixth place. But the Kenyan in me didn’t arrive ... It was pure freaking guts and determination.
I think I caught the girl in second place at about 23km into the race.
Chris shouted, “Keep it steady, Babe, you’ve got to run now. They’re right behind you.”
“They not going to catch me,” I replied. “How far is chick number 1 in front of me?” I asked. “Don’t focus on that,” he said. “Focus on staying ahead.”
I said, “No babe, I can chase – let me know.”
He looked at me and said, “I think she is having a beer already.” We both had a lekker lag, but I kept on chasing.
So, for about 27km this dude had been running on my heels. We came out of the Energy Lab and were heading back home, and as we turned onto the Queen K, I said, too loudly, “F**k this headwind.”
This dude says, “Michelle, you have pulled me for 27km.”
Then he ran like a gazelle for 5km and eventually fell over vomiting.
I said to him, “Get up, have some Coke. I can’t wait for you, I have to race.”
He said, “Go, Michelle, go!”
Listen, people, I ran the next few kilometres crying my heart out. I have so much to share and so much to say.
I want to encourage you all never ever to give up. Believe in your dreams. Always be grateful.
My body is healthy. I am alive and loved.
Race for a purpose. Race for Team Orange. I was so proud to race in orange on the international scene. I get so excited about everyone’s potential and how they can influence people and help change lives. So exciting!
Oh, ja, I came second …
Do I have regrets? No ways.
That chick who won was the better athlete on the day.
Freaking hell, second-best in the world? I’ll take that!
And all the girls I beat in 2018, I beat again by 10 minutes in 2019.
Thank you, coach Richard.
Thank you, my Cass, my light. Thank you, Chris, my balance, my world. I’m forever grateful to IRONMAN for taking the ordinary me and making me see I can be extraordinary.