As IRONMAN says Anything is Possible!
On my birthday last year I woke up to an email that read “Aloha and Congratulations! You have received a rolldown slot”.
This came over two months after I finished eighth in my age group at IRONMAN Cairns. Knowing that I was exceptionally lucky and also feeling like a bit of fraud, I decided to get serious about my Kona preparation. I needed a coach, a bike and a support crew…
Immediately my mum, dad, sister and her husband in the U.K. said they would be there. I signed up with Racing Heart Coach, Bec Hoschke who did an incredible job of writing a weekly training plan that works around my shifts and that I was able to actually stick to. I put my trust in a stranger on Marketplace by sending them $3000 in return for a promise that she would post me her nearly new Liv Avow Advanced Pro 2. Two weeks later, while at work, I received a message to say the bike had been delivered and was outside my building. I begged my boss to let me leave early to go home and find my shiny new bike.
By the time the day came for a final pre-race meeting with Bec, I felt better prepared than I have ever done for any previous event. Aside from the many lonely hours of riding up and down West Head, I realised I had actually really enjoyed the training. We set some goals for the race: have fun and don’t end up in the medical tent!
I landed in Kona a week before my race and spent my first afternoon enjoying the air conditioning and company of other nervous athletes in the local bike shop waiting for our bikes to be repaired after some minor damage on the flight. The following morning I met up with fellow Racing Heart athletes Sally Poole and Carolyn Dews. We immediately hit it off and formed a little team getting up early to do some light training, followed by coffee, enormous cinnamon scrolls and then some rest in the afternoons. Initially, it felt a bit mad to be cycling and running up and down the highway in nearly 30 degree heat, but as more athletes arrived in Kona each day, it appeared to be a totally normal activity. The town was full of fit people wearing nothing but a little lycra and a heart rate monitor, all wanting to race the course. Meanwhile, my family commented several times that it was “too hot to run”, and enjoyed their time snorkelling and drinking cocktails.
Our athlete’s schedules were busy with various IRONMAN events and despite registering as British, I found myself on Team Australia. With a slight feeling of imposter syndrome, I duly joined the Aussies and an inflatable green and gold kangaroo as I took part in the Parade of Nations. The following morning was the ANZAC Breakfast where we had pep talks from a few pros. I took notes. Kiwi Rebecca Clarke advised finding some good feet on the swim. Aussie Kylie Simpson gave us a stern warning about not underestimating the heat and humidity, how we must keep cool and keep our heart rates down. The voice of IRONMAN Mike Reilly said “You will be an Ironman”.
There was also an invite to the Banquet of Champions, but I skipped this in favour of dad’s homemade curry and a family board games evening.
Finally it was Race Day. After a restless night worrying about whether I had all the gear in the right bags and if I’ll be blown off my bike into the lava fields, my 4 AM alarm sounded. The atmosphere walking into the Start Area was unlike anything I have experienced before. It was filled with volunteers clapping and cheering and I felt like I really was a World Champion Contender. The US national anthem was performed as I lined up on Kailua Kona Pier and then, with the boom of a real canon, the pro women set off. They were shortly followed by the Para athletes and then it was my turn. The swim course is a single 3.8km loop back to the pier. The water was as warm and clear as Manly’s ABC pool where I have spent so many hours over recent months. Although I had planned to start somewhere in the middle of the group, I somehow ended up starting at the back and spent the first kilometre or so fighting my way forwards until I found an great pair of feet to follow. From then on I just cruised round.
T1 proved more challenging than the swim. The changing tent was filled with volunteers to help us get ready faster. My helper was lovely but didn’t speed up the process of me getting some sun sleeves, socks, gloves and extra sunscreen on. My sister told me later that I dropped 40 places while in that tent, but judging by the bad sunburn on the small areas of my wrists that weren’t covered, this was time well spent.
Eventually I got out onto the bike course which involved a short spin around town with every triathlete’s favourite feature - a U turn. Next there was a brief climb up to the Queen K Highway and then the crowds disappeared and it was just one long road following the coast through the lava fields all the way to the turnaround at around kilometre 90 in Hawi. The most excitement I had during the ride was finding that I needed to empty my bladder twice. I was ridiculously pleased with myself for how well hydrated I was despite the heat. Kona’s famous crosswinds were definitely present, especially during the ten kilometre descent from Hawi. I clung to my bars and tried to remember what I’d been told about riding in the wind…something about having your weight over the front and leaning into the wind…?
As with every ride ever, I was delighted when I got off the bike in one piece at the end.
In T2 I grabbed an icy cold towel for my neck and changed into my Warringah singlet. I felt strong, hydrated and with plenty left in the tank as I headed out for my marathon. The course falls into four sections. The first is a crowd-lined strip along Ali’I drive followed by a short climb up to the highway. Here I enjoyed seeing my family and hearing some shouts of “Go Warringah”. I took it very easy on the climb up to the highway with Coach Bec and Pro Kylie’s warnings about heart rate and overheating at the forefront of my mind. After that came the Queen K Highway again. There were no supporters allowed up here but I was thrilled when our Lauren Parker flew past me in her wheelchair. Coming the other way and nearing the end of her race was our Laura Cameron making it look all too easy. Next up was the Energy Lab portion of the course, infamous for its extreme temperatures and strewn with athletes suffering as a result. Sticking with my plan, I hit every aid station. Putting ice in my cap and down my top kept me cool enough to maintain a steady pace and smile throughout. As I got back up on to the highway, the sun was beginning to set and with only 12km left of this 226.2km day I felt a little sad that it was coming to an end. 12 hours 34 minutes and 53 seconds after I started, I rounded the final corner on to the Finisher’s Chute to hear Mike Reilly say “Katharine Hopping of Australia, You Are An Ironman”.