photo courtesy of seven8digital

Ed. Note—Bevan McKinnon of Fitter Coaching and Fitter Radio joined our content team back in September, and spent most of Kona week with us at the Wattie Ink. Safe House, running his hugely successful podcast from our back deck each day. He joins us today to take us through what happened at Kona this year, and what it means to both age groupers and professionals.

Another Kona is in the books, but was it the same or was it different from previous incarnations of the World Championships? As a coach to both professionals and age groupers at this year’s Kona it’s crucial to reflect upon how the race played out, as some things remained the same and some things evolved and changed. In the professional race we saw a changing of the guard in the women’s race and legendary status attained in the men’s. There was some synergy around how we arrived at both those results. We appear to be in a new era of pro racing where, if you’re really wanting to contend for the podium, the adage "you can’t win it in the swim but you can lose it" is now true.

In both the men’s and women’s races we had a number of extremely strong cyclists who—in previous years—having come out of the water behind the lead swimmers, have been able to bring the race back together on the Queen K. The pure runners have hitched a ride back to T2 in close enough proximity to take the win. This year however, the podium-contending athletes who made the front swim pack were also the best bikers and runners, leaving the rest to fight it out for the minor placings.

Sebastian Kienle’s case provides us the proof. Kienle produced an incredible effort to snatch 3rd but was a full ten minutes behind Jan Frodeno's sublime performance. Improving his already excellent bike and run times by that much time may be too big a goal, in which case his path to victory comes back to time lost in the swim. In short, the chances of rising to the top from the 2nd swim group is becoming less and less likely. The same can be said for the women’s race. The fear of Mirinda Carfrae’s run leg in previous years threatened podium placings late in the race but now Annie Haug is bringing that skillset to the front of the race early on by making the lead swim pack. This year and into the future the winners must also be swimmers.

Another quality is that the professional race has become more variable in terms of intensity over the years. This change favors a small number of athletes who can deal with a more stochastic event and fade less late into the race. Relying on this tactic, though, would be a mistake for many, as it relies upon others to melt down rather than controlling one's own destiny. The best race is still the well-paced race. If you race erratically, you can still land a result in the top ten but these athletes need to be exceptional runners, consistently producing a marathon in the 2:40 range (men) or high 2:50s/low 3:00s (women), which is never a given in the conditions at Kona.

For the age group athlete, it still remains that those who SLOW DOWN THE LEAST will have a higher chance of meeting their expectations.  If you get to Kona one day here are some observations and suggestions that might help.

Sensory Overload

Kona is Global Triathlon Central for seven days leading into the event. For new athletes it’s generally everything they had dreamed about and more. You want to soak everything up but the Catch-22 is that it’s really more "energy out" than "energy in." With the hype comes a nervous tension which increases each passing day, and drains athletes before they even reach the start line. Athletes want the full Kona experience, but managing the emotional and physical cost during race week is a challenge. A common refrain I heard Saturday evening was "I had nothing in the tank from the gun…"

Don't Drink the Water

Stay healthy. With the local pool closed more athletes were forced into every practice swim in the open water. If it rains during the week leading into Kona, Kailua Bay swallows a lot of run-off water. For some with sensitive stomachs this may have contributed to higher anecdotal cases of GI distress on race day.

Wave Swim Start = Easier to Ping the Drafters

The staggered swim start negatively affected the faster age group swimmers ended up behind slower waves in front, but the general consensus was less congestion on the bike. As drafting in Kona is a blight, any improvement here is solving a bigger problem than having to navigate slower swimmers.  It didn’t solve the drafting issue completely, but it did make it easier for marshals to get amongst the groups that formed and hand out more penalties. Athletes need to mentally prepare for a bit of frustration in the swim and may need to navigate through slower swimmers as a compromise for a fairer race on the lava fields.

Hit Squadder Bren Winbrock played it cool all cay, running 3:03

Your Ego Can't Beat the Heat

Understanding your own pacing and applying your ‘hot environment’ pacing strategy is still key. Find me the social media post from an age group athlete who nailed their pacing strategy and I’ll show you 50 who didn’t. Too many athletes don’t down-regulate their temperate climate numbers (from the start) to accommodate for a hot day. A friend of mine, Dan Plews (who broke the men’s age group Kona record in 2017) once said to me "The ability to appropriately pace an event comes down to one single factor, the athletes ego."

The Race Against Your Own Metabolism

Arriving with superior metabolic efficiency and having a fine-tuned fueling plan will furnish you with the energy to not slow down. Combine efficiency, a good fueling plan, and proper pacing, and you’ll have the best chance of success. Go outside your pacing plan or react to your competitors and you’ll be sharing commiserations with them whilst walking the Queen K! Be a world-class introvert on race day: eat, drink, and watch your numbers until you’ve crossed the finish line.

It's OK to Walk on the Run

Be cool, stay cool on the run. Athletes still seem to believe that walking is cheating or, in some way, a lesser achievement. In a hot race if an athlete can manage heat stress at each aid station from the beginning of the run by walking to consume more fluid effectively and briefly cooling their head and skin then they have a greater chance of maintaining pace deeper into the marathon. The perceived time loss is not as substantial as a catastrophic deceleration on the Queen K. You can still post a great marathon time if you run between every aid station and maximize hydration and cooling through the aid stations.

Most of these points are relevant to Ironman racing in general but are always magnified in Kona. I’ll be back coaching in Kona next year and it will teach me something new again. Mahalo for reading, and good luck in your preparation for 2020!