THE SWIM - IRONMAN World Championship Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
The 3.8km swim course of the IRONMAN World Championship holds a special place in my heart. After competing over 12 full IRONMAN distances in various conditions, I still believe it is the most spectacular swim course out there.
Challenge Henley in the UK with it's foggy canal swim where everyone couldn't see literally further than 10 meters ahead and IRONMAN Wales where I swam over a huge (I mean huge in 1.5m width) jellyfish and had to laugh out loud while swimming, the hawaiian islands still find in adventure-feel and just feeling alive.
I believe part of the charm of the whole race is the concept of putting a triathlon, not just any triathlon but a world championship where it's hard to even get a starting slot, on a small island in the middle of the pacific ocean about 2500 miles away from the coast of the U.S.
Let's go back together to the 2nd weekend of October to a very early morning when most Hawaiian's are normally still deep asleep. This morning is different. The whole town of Kailua-Kona is awake and buzzing. Nervous vibes of thousands of athletes with their families and friends that support them for the race.
After you finished the body marking for the race, checked on your bike in transition and added the race nutrition that is supposted to get you going for the upcoming day you slowly head down towards the bay where the swim start takes place.
You hear familiar commentators over the speakers reminding you what it took to even get to this starting line. You listen to uplifting music mixed with voices of athletes and nervous facial expressions of everyone around you. They all sacrificed a lot to even get here and they feel that pressure.
We are 15 Min. out before the Age Group start. You head down the red carpet towards the sand, the same stairs you will run up, high on dizziness, after swimming the 3.8k out and back course in the ocean.
Your feet touch the wet sand and waves splash over your ankles. At this point you feel free. Triathlon is so much about gear and not forgetting anythings, even if you did now it is too late. All you have on you is your swim googles, your swim cap with the race number on in your hand and the swim suit itself. That's it.
This is also all you need for the upcoming task of swimming the 3.8k as fast and energy efficient as you can. You've heard the horror stories of people gettung dunked under water, swalloing lots of salt water and vomiting, getting kicked in the face and ribs. These are all things you cannot control, so why worry about them, right?
Once you put on your googles and swim cap, check that the sit tightly and well without leaking, you make the first dive in the wave and take the first few strokes. The first strokes tell all of us how the arms are going to be that day. You've had it many times in training, you know right away if your swim is going to "feel" good today or bad and uncoordinated.
I felt good and fresh and swam really easy and relaxed for 200meters, avoiding athletes who are also warming up more and zick zacking across the space before the starting line. The last thing I want is to headbutt someone else and our race is over before it starts.
I do a couple of sprints to get my muscles warmed up and activated, swimming easy in between. The race announcer tells us that it is 5 Min. left to the start.
Time to head towards the starting line of the race, which is about 200m out towards the ocean right at the peer. It is marked by two huge ROKA buoys, you cannot miss it.
There are several therories and tactics to the race where you position yourself along the about 200m wide starting line of the race.
One theory is that if you start very close to the peer the current of the bay itself will help you to push yourself out and get going quicker. It is known that many want to swim the straightest line and start at the center of the line. That place is also known for getting your head kicked in by the way. You can start far out on the left side, far from the peer, where you might have a tiny bit longer to swim but you often have a bit more piece to swim, focus on yourself and get a bit out of the washing machine.
I decided to go a bit closer to the peer but still not right at it, about 10m away of it.
I wasn't the best swimmer swimming 50 Min., but despite my bike crash 6 weeks ago which allowed me to swim only one-arm for a while, I felt comfortable to swim under 60 Min. today, at least I hoped I would. I reckoned that being in the 2nd to 3rd row of the front might be a good place to be.
"2 Min. to the start!"
Suddenly I hear some guys getting noisy and screaming out towards people at the peer. It took me a moment to see what was going on. One fellow athlete was shouting and holding his swim googles in his hand and up towards the sky. Suddenly realizing that they are broken and in pieces, i felt just as nervous as he did himself although my own googles were fine. Every athlete around me felt the same thing. About 20-30 athletes all shouting towards the spectators at the peer "swim googles!" "we need a pair of new googles!". After a few seconds one nice man threw a pair on the the crowd! One by one the new pair was handed along the line of athletes swimming in the water in one spot towards the only athlete that had no googles on.
Once it reached the athlete, all athletes around cheered and screamed out "yeaaaah" "yesss!" just like we just got the new pair of googles outselves. That energy was incredible I still feel it today and tear up a bit. Such a powerful emotion and what a moment to be alive and united as humans, something we do get very often anymore in our society.
"1 Min. to go guys get ready"
Lifted from that energy we all returned mentally back to the task at hand and focused. Positioned ourselves in the water, everyone edgy and the whole line of athletes slowly creeping further across the starting line. IRONMAN has surfers swimming along back and forth that mark the starting line, and once the magical canon goes off that signals the start of the race, the sit up on the board so everyone can swim past and get going.
It all got quite from there, nobody talked anymore. Everyone was waiting for the loud bang of the canon.
"10 seconds" - and suddenly - BANG!
At this point you just try to move your arms as quickly as you can and swim. Trying to hold any technique you thought about, but to be honest in the first 100m none of that practice in the pool helps you. You have feet and hands everywhere. People swimming over one another left and right. You have hands on the back of your thighs for a good while which of course drags your body down and you have to swim even harder with your arms to keep moving.
I loved this part. Yes it's a bit of a gamble and kick of a foot might come your way any second but it all went fine and everyone got out well. The reason someone kicks out is that they panick and change to breaststroke, which knows a few people around behind you, so please dont every do that if you're there. Change to backstroke or whatever but don't do breast-death-stroke haha.
After the initial hassle of about 200-400m of the swim, things settle down and you have a group. Mostly even if you wanted to you cannot change position at this point. You still have athletes everywhere so you cannot really overtake or anything. Realizing that I just tried to focus on my breathing and my stroke. All things I have done hundreds of times in training. Now it all has to pay off!
You try to head towards the yellow buoys that mark the way towards the famous white "Body glove" ship that markes along side with other boats, the turn around point of the race.
Swim conditions vary on this course, the two times I've been there I wouldn't consider them do be very hard. A few waves but nothing stormy. You do feel the current though. On this day we had a current going out towards the turning point, which you don't really notice while you are in it.
Once you reach the turn around point and you take a right and right again to head back towards the white church tower of Kona, you do notice it though! You feel an instant resistant pushing you back.
This is also the point of the race where I wanted to "push" and stay strong, since if any athlete went to hard in the first 400m he or she could hold it together maybe until 1900-2000m but then it's still a long way home.
I overtook a few athletes and just swam on my own for the rest of the race. Although you are that far out in the ocean, one thing that fascinated me even in the practice swims in the week before, is that you can still see super far down towards the ground! It is so clear. Something you cannot imagine watching the footage on Youtube or the live race itself. You can see fish and all other life down there. I found it key to really enjoy and soak all this incredible nature in BEFORE the race, since during racing I just want to focus on swimming the best way possible. Too many times did I head to the pool beforehand, not feeling like going, to now be distracted by a damn fish to slow me down haha.
From this point on in the race you feel like you overcame the hardest part in the race, all the nerves are definitely gone and you are just focused on swimming. You are aware that you swim in a major race and the helicopter is flying above you filming it all.
You know the best athletes and people you admire for their performances are swimming the exact same course and conditions as you do, just a little bit ahead of you.
After years of watching and dreaming on Youtube about this race, to be able to swim here and participate feels like an honor. Like a dream come true. You've seen and researched all video and picture material you could in the years beforehand, so none of the surroundings are really foreign to you so this makes it feel even more like a dream.
If you have this dream as well, I can promise you that if you really committ yourself towards this, it is possible! It will take years probably, but with time you can make it. I also promise you that every bit of sacrifice you took will be worth it.
This race and experience is something will take with you to your grave. You will never forget it and have the emotions always close to your heart, never forgetting how it felt to swim in that ocean or to run on that pavement on Ali'i drive.
As I am swimming, I realize that the peer where the transition is set up upon, comes closer and closer. I beforehand took a huge antenna behind the famous King Kamehameha Hotel as my landmark to swim towards, since it is in line with the peer. Swim buoys are often hard to spot because of either athletes splashing or waves.
About 200m to go and we are swimming along the peer. We quite of jst splashing water and your own breathing over the last 3.6km comes to an end. You start to hear spectators cheering, music and the commentators that are all right there.
You swim back to civilization in a sense. Last few meters, positions and all that are kind of irrelevant at this point. I start to kick a little more to get blood transfered to my lower body who from now on has to do all the work cycling and running around.
The last meters. I see the legs and shorts of volunteers standing at the beach front underneath the water. As I come up they welcome us with a big smile and words of encouragement for making it. All this positivity and love shown from strangers you never met, feels refreshing and uplifting. You feel powered up and ready to tackle anything.
Then you take the first steps into the sand, lift up your googles and get blinded by the bright sun which has remained hidden underneath your tinted googles.
All you see is the red carpet and stairs in front of you which lead up to transition. Like a bull chasing you follow the red steps one by one. Now is about the time the dizziness should set in? Boom, there we go. I can't see shit basically.
All this is normal since your body was busy pumping blood around to mainly your core and arms, less so to your legs. You were floating in your swim suit on top of the salty buoyant water of the pacific ocean.
Now reality hits and my legs have to go back to carrying my 85kg frame. Your run underneath a tent with water hoses coming from the top with fresh - non- salt water running out of them.
In running my I wash off the salt off my face briefly, not to have salt at my mouth which can cause you to overhydrate and feel especially thirsty in the early stages of the bike.
I run along the outside of transition, as all the other pro athletes, have done ahead of me.
Your legs are starting to feel more normal and your body adjusts to the new gravtity situation.
I run towards my bike, which was at the 3rd speaker from the right as a landmark to run towards. If you try to read a number while running with fish eyes like that, good luck. You'll run straight past it, as I did before at IRONMAN Frankfurt in 2014 spending 4 Min. searching for my bike.
Helmed and sunglasses on my head with my trisuit sipped up and pulled in the right places especially at the elbows for the best possible aerodynamic, I make my way towards the "mount-line" at the end of T1 / Transition 1 of the race.
Time to head out towards the famous Queen K Highway for the 180km bike course, which I will tell you about in a new blog very soon...
Mahalo for reading and enjoy your training.
Dare to dream my friend!