photo by Jay Prasuhn

Every race course has its intricacies: places where dynamic terrains intersect with athletic prowess to create turning points in the race’s outcome. Perhaps no race has more pivotal segments than Kona. It’s a course where some will be overwhelmed by the challenge while others find a way to harness each critical section’s latent potential. There are no grinding climbs or hair-raising descents on the Big Island, but there are sections on its iconic course where history has proven that the herd gets culled, smaller and smaller, until in the end, one is victorious.

The start is key point number one. Getting into the right group is critical because missing the draft on the right pair of feet can potentially cost minutes by the swim exit. And while the swim is a relatively small part of the total day’s time, every chunk of lost time makes the challenges waiting down the road more difficult.

A more subtle challenge hidden in the chaos of the cannon shot that sends thousands churning south in Kailua Bay is your actual swim pace. Long days are best hatched when their efforts are doled out smoothly and steadily. Nerves, months of training and seeing 2,000 of the fittest humans on the planet can dull your sense of personal pace to the point where the first 500 meters of the swim may be the fastest of your life—but you’ll pay for it later if this happens.

Regardless of whether you are trying to be a world champion or simply cross the finish line on Ali’i Dive before midnight, take that first 500 meters at about 80 percent of what you think is a safe pace. Then, and only then, will the interaction of nerves and anticipation be quelled enough for you to set a sane pace. This isn’t unique to Kona, but the impact of overexuberant speed early in the race gets magnified more there than at any other race. The day is defined by how well you manage your energy and enthusiasm and are able to keep your emotions in check.

This same issue holds true for your pace during the first hour on the bike. Getting free of your foggy goggles and moving faster with each pedal stroke out of transition is exhilarating. But again, hold back slightly. It’s not a 40-kilometer time trial. It’s 112 miles of unknowns riddled with wind and scorching heat. Settle in, but keep to the heart rate or watts that will afford you the best day in the end. No one is suddenly able to race 15 beats higher or 25 watts harder just because it’s Kona.

Depending on the year, the first real challenge from the conditions can come around Waikoloa on the way out. In the classically tough years, headwinds will already have greeted you. Settle in and work with the wind. Fighting it is an energy-sucking nightmare. Also keep in mind that with strong winds your sweating will be less obvious and the time between aid stations can become much longer. An hourly hydration and refueling strategy works in the wind. An aid station-to-aid station strategy can leave you out of gas and dehydrated.

The final miles on the Queen K Highway on the way out are a set of small climbs that lead to the turn at Kawaihae. Here’s where the cycling greats usually start to up the ante. It’s a few hours into the race and everyone’s body is starting to get the first glimpses of the reality of what they have gotten into. Temperatures are almost always hot at this point of the bike. Too much company from fellow competitors begins to gnaw on your nerves. The field more often than not starts to get broken up here. Advantages can then grow over the next 20 miles on the gradual climb up to Hawi, with the last third almost guaranteed to be into the toughest winds of the day. The interesting thing about the final grind to the turnaround is that it should be a place where big gaps are made. But it’s usually the miles before the winds, and then the miles with the strongest tailwinds on the way back down from Hawi where things really get opened up.

The turn back onto the Queen K Highway after successfully negotiating Hawi’s out and back is really where Ironman Hawaii begins. Everything before that is just the warm-up—the appetizer. In terms of energy, it’s where your race nutrition can rear its ugly head if absorption is going to become a battle. It’s roughly 30 miles back to transition, and because of the psychology of how most people’s brains lay out the chunks of the race, you feel as if you’re just a little way from being done with the bike. But make no mistake: there’s a huge stretch of lava still left to cover. If you Google the distance, it’s about 45 minutes by car. And it’s never a tailwind the entire way, so don’t count on any extra help.

This is simply the first point in the race where reality slaps you in the face. Go too fast too early and you’ll start to pay the price here. The shelf life of pumped-up self-confidence wears off right about at this point in the race, and you are left having to find your place of inner quiet so that you don’t listen to the gradually increasing volume of negative self-talk.

Is there potential here? Absolutely! Take a breath in, slightly deeper and slightly slower than you have been. Breathe it out with force. Refocus. This is what you asked for—a day like no other. Now you’re really in it. Back to basics: pace, fuel, hydrate. Bite the course off in chunks small enough to get your mind around. The parts beyond that will be patiently waiting once you get there.

The next key point coming up is the climb off the flats just past Waikoloa. You won’t be in the mood for them after the long straight with all the hotels off to your right (with hundreds of tourists sitting under umbrellas by the pool because it’s too hot to be in the sun). It’s not steep enough to feel like it should be a climb, but it is, and the top of it leaves you with still enough miles that body management is paramount if you are going to dismount and still be able to run. Fifteen or twenty miles may not sound like much, but it’s more than enough time to make a critical mistake if you’re antsy about getting off your bike and find yourself in the mind-set that everything will be rosy and wonderful once you start the run. If you have paced yourself well, gaps between you and all the rest of your caliber will begin to grow. Even if they don’t, staying on hydration and fueling must happen now.

The pros can make huge gains on each other in this final stretch, but it rarely turns out well for those who move up. It simply becomes more and more difficult to get calories to the working muscle especially at blistering speeds. A well-trained machine can overcome this with efficiency only to a certain point. One thing is certain: the marathon is waiting, and you will soon know whether you fall in the “too fast and not enough fuel” category or the “perfectly paced and gassed up” group.

The first 10 miles of the run are supported by an international group of fans cheering everyone along. It’s nice. It’s motivating. It can distract you from racing smart. It’s an energy that runs out on the uphill march out of town. That’s it. You make the right turn off the Kuakini Hwy and start the climb up Palani Road near mile 10. That leads you to a left turn that takes you out into the unforgiving forge of truth called the Queen Kaahumanu Highway. On that solemn trudge up Palani Road you will know if this turning point is telling you thumbs up or if it’s blowing taps on a sad bugle. There’s no more free lunch. Those still racing will begin to elevate visibly. The survivors, the ones who have no hope of actually capitalizing on their hard-earned fitness, will take a big sip of truth serum before turning left and going back out onto the lava for the real meat of the marathon.

Not every weakness has been revealed though. If it had been, the winners would be crowned at the top of Palani Road. It’ll take some more time and some more miles before the race comes down to a few. Between the half marathon and the turn into the Energy Lab is the space where the elasticity reaches its limit and a whole host of those hoping for greatness will be given the sign that this is not going to be their year. Legs stiffen. Cramps can set in. Your fueling only allows a pace that is minutes slower per mile than you know you would be capable of on a better day.

But again, the race is still not over, and there will still be contenders working their time. The Energy Lab is still waiting. Out of just about anywhere on the course, this is perhaps the most critical point to make your statement. Leads have changed hands many years between the entry and exit out of this closed loop, which is off-limits to everyone except the racers, the media and aid station volunteers. The climb out is like the climb up Palani Road in that it’s an uphill with a tailwind that is always searing hot. Usually the air is moving just about the same speed as you, making you feel like a human radiator ready to blow.

Yet, there are the rare few who come out of the Lab in pretty good condition. It then comes down to the rolling march back to town to make a move. Most leads have been solidified in the three miles following a safe exit from the Energy Lab. But on occasion it still takes more time. In 1989 the classic battle between me and Dave Scott wasn’t finally decided until the last long uphill before dropping back down into Kona for the final close to the finish. It took over eight hours of racing head-to-head before the slightest of differences showed.

But like any race, until the finish line is crossed, nothing is written in stone. More dramatic meltdowns have occurred in the final mile of the run than anywhere else on the course. Think back to 1995 when Paula Newby-Fraser crumpled helplessly to the ground just steps from Ali’i Drive as Karen Smyers passed her to claim the crown. Think of Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham in 1997, when both covered the closing seconds of their race crawling side by side. That same year Chris Legh wavered and then collapsed over and over on Ali’i Drive, again within sight of the banner that says you have done it. And of course, the race that put the sport on the map in 1982, when Kathleen McCartney passed a crawling Julie Moss just feet from the finish tape.

Every turning point, every possibility for a failed attempt at a great dream, is also a potent chance to grasp a piece of yourself that never before surfaced that rings loud with the sound of personal excellence. Maybe patience was the card missing from your arsenal in the past. Find it out on the course and lightning will strike. It’s a new place of calm that blares the answer to an impossible situation—one that panic, or frustration or fear would have prevented you from hearing had you not had the courage to go beyond the ordinary at the many turning points that Ironman Hawaii offers.

Mark Allen is a six-time Hawaii Ironman champion. Find out more about his coaching at www.markallencoaching.com and www.art-of-competition.com.