by James Nellany (OW 2006) Wulfrunian 2016, page 36
“On 8th October 2016, I lined up at the start of the IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, alongside 2,300 of the best Pro and amateur long distance triathletes in the world. The slightly crazy sport of IRONMAN triathlon (which involves a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a full 26.2 mile marathon raced in that order without a break) first began in Hawaii in 1978 and since then has become a global phenomenon. Tens of thousands of athletes now compete each year in nearly 40 qualifying events globally in order to qualify for the original Hawaii IRONMAN, which is now the World Championship. I had qualified only 7 weeks previously (on the very last weekend of qualification) by placing 6th in my Age Group at IRONMAN Copenhagen, and so had experienced a whirlwind few weeks sorting out flights, accommodation, recovering, and preparing for the biggest race of my life. 5 years previously I had done my first triathlon, and finished last place in my Age Group, so for me personally it had been a long journey of hard work and improvement to fulfill the dream of racing at Kona.
I flew out to Hawaii about 8 days before the race, to help acclimatize, get over jet lag, and just enjoy the build up and circus that is Kona during IRONMAN Week. Thankfully I had 2 clubmates joining me; Haukur, who was competing at his third consecutive Kona, and Ian, who had qualified by an amazing piece of luck in Copenhagen despite finishing 233rd in his Age Group (you have to attend the “roll down” session in person to claim a qualifying slot; if the top athletes in each Age Group don’t accept their slot, it rolls to the next athlete. But after a certain point, people don’t bother coming to the session. Ian was there to support me and have a beer, and ended up on the plane to Hawaii!).
The week prior to the race went by really quickly, and before we knew it, it was race morning. I was probably as calm and relaxed as I have ever been prior to a race – just getting to Kona is a win, and I had absolutely no expectation (or even any idea) how I would do against this calibre of competition, and in the notoriously tough Kona conditions (which include ocean currents; searing heat/ humidity, and up to 50 mph winds). 15-25% of finishers each year end up in the medical tent, but I wasn’t too phased; the plan was to stay controlled and try to enjoy every minute!
The cannon fired for the Age Group Men start at 6.55am (the Pro athletes had started their race 30 minutes earlier). It was my first mass swim start (about 1,500 athletes starting together) so I was worried it would be very violent; however I seemed to find some good open water and managed to avoid too many punches. Swimming in the Pacific Ocean was just incredible, crystal blue waters, perfect temperatures, and lots of colourful fish. My swimming felt strong and before I knew it I was climbing out of the bay and back onto Kailua Pier. My swim time was 1 hour exactly (to the nearest second), a nice round number and at the upper end of my expectations.
In triathlon, the “transitions” between each sport are part of the race; and often the part that is easiest to improve on! This was definitely the case for me, as I spent nearly 5 minutes in the first transition from exiting the water to starting the bike. It was just so busy with other athletes (not usually a problem as I am normally towards the front), plus I struggled to locate which aisle I had racked my bike on. Even now I still feel like a rookie at times!
The 180km bike course consisted of a single out-and-back route through the lava fields, then a long climb to the turnaround point in the village of Hawi. The course is notorious for being really hot, windy and hilly, and it certainly lived up to that expectation! There were times when I could only cycle at 20km/h downhill due to the headwinds. A lot of the ride was about managing myself, i.e. taking on enough water, salt, carbs, and keeping cool by pouring water over myself. My right leg started cramping up at about 110km which made me think I was headed towards a very tough day. But I increased my salt intake which seemed to work. My bike split was 5 hours, 24 minutes and 23 seconds, and overall I was very happy to get off the bike!
My second transition turned out to be even worse than the first, as I spent over 6 minutes here. After handing my bike to a volunteer, we had to run around Kailua Pier to get our running gear. Immediately the arch of my right foot started hurting, so I hobbled around whilst being overtaken by many people. Running a marathon was about the last thing I felt like doing at that point!
However once out on the run, the pain in my foot quickly disappeared and I got into a good rhythm. Running is my strongest discipline, and for some reason I felt absolutely amazing the whole way round! It was just one of those days when everything seemed to come together and I felt incredible throughout, I could have kept running all day and my legs didn’t hurt anywhere near as much as they normally do in marathons. With 6km to go, I caught up with my clubmate Haukur who had been 15 minutes ahead of me at the end of the bike. We decided to run the last 6km together, nobody overtook us and we crossed the finish line together in an identical time – it was an incredible moment and amazing finish line photo!
I completed the marathon in 3 hours 15 minutes 24 seconds, hands down my best run performance ever, gaining 315 places since the end of the bike. My overall time was 9 hours, 50 minutes and 48 seconds; 45th of 109 in my Age Group and 349th overall. Despite having no expectations, I was really happy with the both the result and the performance – definitely my best ever.
After finishing and collecting our medals, we spent several hours in the finisher area sitting around, eating, rehydrating, talking with other finishers, and just enjoying the endorphin rush that you get on days like this. Then later in the evening we returned to the finish line to watch the final finishers aim to beat the 17 hour cutoff (at midnight). This is always the most magical part of IRONMAN, when you see the truly inspirational finishers, including 83 year old Hiromu Inada of Japan, double arm amputee Hector Picard, and the very final finisher, 55 year old Brit Jennifer Tait, who beat the cutoff by just 2 minutes.
The next day we packed our things up, enjoyed the Banquet of Champions and after parties (which the Pros got very much involved with!) and then the following day we flew to the island of Maui for a few days of well earned R&R before returning to the UK.
Overall it was an incredible experience that fully justified the time and money spent to get there. I always thought that once I had done Kona then I could move on from IRONMAN – but it’s only made me want to qualify even more so that I can do it all again!”