This piece first appeared in LAVA Magazine, Issue 18, Dec. 2012/Jan. 2013

by Jordan Rapp

From rookie sensations like Luc van Lierde and Chrissie Wellington, who hit home runs their first years on the Big Island, to the long list of first-year DNFs that contains the names of future champions, the only thing that is certain about your first trip to the Ironman World Championship is that you are going learn a lot. As much as there is to learn about the race, it continues to evolve and confound rookie and veteran athletes alike, and to challenge competitors from the very front of the pack to the final finishers chasing the midnight cutoff.

There is an expression that I’m quite fond of: “It’s safe to make a mistake, but more to your credit if you make a diff erent one each time.” With the race fresh in my mind, I thought I’d take some time to evaluate the decisions I made for race day. Some of these were made on the day, during the race, but I made the vast majority before the race: what to wear (or not to wear), what to eat and drink, and more. I will avoid talking about the more subjective decisions like, “How am I going to pace the marathon?” or, “How am I going to prepare for the ocean swim?” (I could use some help, clearly, with that second one.) Most of my choices were virtually the same ones I’ve made for any of the other 10 Ironmans I had done. Some of those I’ll cover here, but others I’ll gloss over because I find them less interesting.

I see why it typically takes a while to master this race, if that’s even possible.

So with that disclaimer, I hope you all find some value in knowing what I plan to use again, and what deserves some reconsideration for next time. Some of these products are made by companies that I’m sponsored by. Many of them, however, are not. I haven’t made a distinction between the two because either way I use stuff because I believe it works.

I’ll start with nutrition because I think this has traditionally been a strong suit of mine in Ironman racing. The challenging part of nailing your nutrition for the Hawaii Ironman is twofold. The first reason for this, which isn’t necessarily relevant to everyone, is the added intensity of a championship race. The Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City had remarkably similar conditions to Kona, with even worse heat and humidity on the run. However, I found it a much more manageable race because the intensity was lower. At 16 miles into the run in New York, I had a 10 minute lead on the rest of the field. In Kona, at 16 miles into the run, I had 10 athletes still in front of me and was facing the prospect of being the first athlete to not be on the awards stage and to not collect a paycheck.

The hardest part of Kona is that it’s a course that punishes miscalculation. And when you’re trying to nail the perfect race, miscalculations happen very easily. I realize that for many athletes, Kona is simply a race they want to finish, so I won’t dwell too much on the topic of competition, but I will say I found the competition to be much more challenging than the course itself. That is not an invitation to Madam Pele to smack me in the face next year.

The second reason nutrition is a challenge is that in spite of the humidity, the wind on the bike course is incredibly dehydrating. Normally I get 800 calories on the bike ride in the form of gels, using First Endurance EFS Liquid Shot. But on race day, I felt that every time I was going to take in calories, I also needed to be taking in liquid. I peed once during the bike ride, but I had a sense that I was losing way more fluids than normal.

After 10 Ironmans, I think I’ve got a good idea of when calories will sit well and process and when they won’t, and I obeyed my own visceral sense of “I don’t want gel.” This makes me appreciate the benefit of training on the Big Island before race day. Did I take in too much liquid? Perhaps. That may have contributed to my two pit stops during the run, though I attribute that more to risk-taking early on the run, since my gut felt fine for the first 10 miles. Right now I’m considering skipping gels again next year. I think I’d avoid any of the more dense calories in favor of calories with a lower CHO:H2O ratio (more liquid per calorie). But right now, were I to not have the chance to go to Kona to train, I’d say that avoiding solid (or more dense) foods is a good thing when you are being dehydrated by the wind and also have more of your blood going to your skin for cooling (meaning less blood to assist in digestion). Dense calories just seem like a bad idea in a place like Kona.

The one area where I’m certain I made a bad decision is with regards to caffeine. Kona is one of the few places where they offer cola on the bike. In my case, where I use First Endurance PreRace (200 mg of caffeine per serving) before the race start, I think that Coke on the bike was a bad idea. I did have a 16-ounce can of Red Bull in my bike special needs bag, something that I did in my first five Ironman races. So I brought it back for Kona, but I think the mix of PreRace, Red Bull and coke put me over my caffeine threshold and may have played a role in my gastric distress later in the race. Given how much harder the race gets throughout the day, I think next time I’ll still have a Red Bull in my bike special needs, but I’ll only take half a serving of PreRace before the start, and I’ll avoid cola on the bike.

With electrolytes, I think I was in good shape in that I avoided major cramping, but I think that with all the fluids, I may have taken in too much in total—especially magnesium, where too much can lead to issues (it’s a smooth muscle relaxant; figure out for yourself what that means). I think I’ll use fewer SaltStick caps in the future since Ironman Perform already has a relatively high amount of electrolytes. Again, this is something where long training days on the Big Island would have an big payoff. Of all the issues I faced, this was probably the one I’m be least concerned with.

The takeaway for myself and for age-group athletes is that it’s much easier to get electrolyte consumption right when you drink less, because then you can just top up with electrolyte capsules if you need them. But when you drink more, you run the risk of going overboard. So, if you’re a salt-pillpopper like I tend to be, perhaps scale back in Kona because you’re likely drinking more; unless of course you drink water instead of sports drink.

I can easily see how the emotional power of the race and the island can push athletes over the redline, so it’s worth being aware of this danger beforehand.

With the nutrition part of the race covered, I’ll move on to the choices I made with regards to the swim, bike and run. The swim is about as simple as you can get, so I’ll cover the basics. First off, use a textile swimskin. I wrote in my previous article on how valuable they are, and even though I had a relatively poor swim, I was reminded how nice swim skins are for preserving body position and supporting the core. Even though I swam slowly, I felt like the swimskin offered great support for all the time I spent in the water.

I also used new goggles, the Nootca Eleven, which I raced with for the first time in Kona (though I swam both in the pool and in open water with them before race day). They offer excellent peripheral vision, which is nice for such a wide-open course like Kona with few landmarks for spotting. The Nootca 207 offer even better peripheral vision, and I might use those next year, because with the ocean’s swells, the orange buoys are all you have for sighting. While my swim didn’t put me at the front of the pack, I felt good about the equipment choices I made.

On the bike, I was also pleased with my gear choices. I used the ventless Specialized S-Works McLaren TT04 helmet, which was a non-issue. I bring this up because I think people are overly concerned with ventilation in helmets. You have a ton of airflow over your body. If you can get over the fact that an aero helmet feels hot, you’ll be much better off. I’ve never thought of helmet venting as being meaningful, and my experience in Kona pretty much confirmed it. I’ve always been a proponent of aero helmets, and now it’s my absolute belief you should wear the fastest helmet you can without concern for venting. I’d definitely use the same helmet again. One thing that I would avoid, though, is a helmet with a long tail. I found the short-tail helmet I used much nicer in the strong crosswinds than my normal long-tail helmet (which I must use at races requiring CPSC-certified helmets).

In a change from my typical setup, I ran a second bottle cage behind my saddle in Kona. Normally I have just one between my aerobars in the “torpedo” configuration. I’d absolutely recommend an extra cage in Kona because it’s really hot and because aid stations can get crowded. Everything else about my setup was pretty much the same as I use elsewhere, though the strong winds reminded me why it’s so important to train on your race wheels. I do 100 percent of my TT bike riding on Zipp 808s, and while I realize that may be more than some folks want to do (my replacement cost is lower than yours in the event of a run-in with a pothole), I do think that the more time you spend running your race wheels, the better. I never felt like the winds caught me off guard, and I think my experience handling deep wheels was a factor there.

I was also reminded how important good chamois cream can be. I like Brave Soldier Friction Zone for race day. It’s pretty greasy—maybe too greasy—but that means it survives the swim well. Make sure you have some wipes handy for after you grease up, because you don’t want this on your goggle lenses.

One thing I didn’t use on the bike was arm coolers. I tested them in training, but I was just happier and more comfortable without them. I use a moisture- wicking beanie under my helmet, but I don’t see the sense in adding coverage if you have good sunscreen. I use BullFrog on race day (but not in training because it’s got some pretty harsh chemicals in it) because it just works and lasts even with only one application. It’s great stuff when you need it. While arm sleeves can be great at preventing sunburn, if you have strong sunblock I don’t think they’re necessary. In Hawaii’s incredibly humid conditions, I just felt like arm coolers were uncomfortable.

On the run, I think clothing choice becomes a major factor. I was not unhappy with my black race suit. I used a thin material that breathes well, and I think that’s far more important than color choice. I had much more white in my suit than normal, but I don’t feel that played any meaningful role in my race, and I’d probably even consider doing my typical all-black kit (with a white back for the bike) in the future. Fabric trumps color. I would, however, probably try a two-piece kit, as it makes it easier to get ice down your shorts near your femoral artery, which helps a lot with cooling. I’ve always gone with a one-piece (I just like them better), but if ever there was a course for a two-piece, Kona is it.

For the first time this year (though not really something new in my career), I wore a visor, unlike at my previous 2012 races, but I don’t know if I’d do that again. I don’t think it matters much: hat, visor or nothing. I couldn’t find any good data on the effect of radiative energy from the sun on your skin (part of why people wear arm coolers), but I thought after trying both a hat and a visor that a visor was better than even my all-white hat. I think I might go sunglasses only (my favorite) in the future. Again, I think more time training in the specific conditions would be valuable, but for me, I don’t think headgear had a major impact.

One thing I didn’t use was a hydration belt and that’s because Kona has a plethora of well-run, well-stocked aid stations. I never found myself wishing for more aid than was available, and I can’t imagine anyone else wanting it either. But if hydration belts are your thing, then it can’t hurt. I think Ironman is the best-catered workout on the planet, and I don’t understand wanting to lug around extra weight for 26 miles.

One new item I used on the run that worked out well was Swiftwick’s Pulse socks. They are thin, don’t soak up any water and generally exceeded my expectations. Socks make a big difference in really humid races where you dump a lot of water on yourself and blisters become a major issue. I’m a bit of a sock geek—I have quite the collection. I’ve tried them all and these were the best I’ve used so far. Feet are never happy after an Ironman, but my feet were the best they’ve ever been after 140.6 miles.

The last thing I’ll mention for the run is the importance of a GPS watch. It’s quite easy to run too fast on Ali’i Drive. I know I did. Some of it was that I felt I had to in order to make the top 10, but a lot of it is simply the energy of the crowds, the less-exposed nature of the course there, and the fact that it comes first. I knew I was pushing the envelope on pace based on my Garmin 610, but I was rolling the dice. Next year, I’d be more conservative and rely more heavily on my GPS watch to keep my excitement in check. I think a lot of people make this mistake, and a GPS is great for providing instant feedback that you are being an idiot.

I had a few big takeaways from the race. The swim is absolutely critical. It’s a long, straight out-and-back, which is tough, and the swells and currents sneak up on you. Experience in the ocean is critical. If you are serious about doing well in Kona as a pro or as an age-group athlete, you have to spend time doing longer ocean swims. It’s a tough course, and if you aren’t a natural swimmer, you’ll be exposed. The rest of the course—the bike and run—felt manageable, although, yes, the Energy Lab is hot, hard and comes at a really bad point in the race.

Above all, I think it’s emotion that really does people in. Be smart about your pacing and nutrition and you can have a great race in Hawaii, but you absolutely must control your emotions. GPS on the run and a power meter on the bike can be huge assets. It’s very, very easy for athletes at all levels to get caught up in the energy of the race and of the island itself.

Make no mistake: this race is different than the rest. It’s something you can only experience when you are there as an athlete. I can easily see how the emotional power of the race and the island can push athletes over the redline, so it’s worth being aware of this danger beforehand. A figuratively cool head is worth a lot more than a literally cool head. Other than that, I see why it typically takes a while to master this race, if that’s even possible. The island weather is always changing. And the energy of the whole thing is a blessing and a curse. I certainly don’t think I have all the answers for next year, but I look forward to the opportunity to learn a bit more.