Image courtesy of Lift Creative Studios

Ed. Note—we're welcoming a new writer to the Wattie Ink. editorial squad this week in Brad Culp, longtime editor and writer at Triathlete Magazine, Lava Magazine, and many other media outlets. He's starting off with a bang, bringing us a race report from Wattie Ink. pro Josh Amberger, who led out of the swim at Kona this year and then spent a long portion of the day off the front. 

Josh Amberger is triathlon’s version of Ricky Bobby. He just wants to go fast.

Heading into his first race at the Ironman World Championship this October, Amberger had a very simple plan: push the pace of the swim harder than any athlete had in recent memory; get an early lead; and then hang on for dear life and hope for the best. The race hadn’t had a swimmer of Amberger’s caliber since Germany’s Jan Sibbersen dominated the swim in the early 2000s, and that made him a marked man before the cannon went off. 

“I heard Frodeno say before the race that he thought there’d be a new front group—a smaller front group—of swimmers,” Amberger says. “He didn’t speak to me before the race, but that was definitely my plan. I wanted to lead that smaller front group of guys who were determined to get away on the swim.”

As Amberger waded out into Kailua Bay to wait for the start, he drifted over to the right side of the pack—the side against the pier packed with spectators and media—and found himself floating next to Sebastian Kienle. The 2014 Kona champ remarked that Frodeno was clear on the other side of the group, and Amberger had a little laugh. “I just brushed it off and was like ‘it’s not my duty to go find him.’” 

The cannon blasted and Amberger unleashed 30 or 40 strokes at maximum effort, just like he does at the start of every race, and then he looked to his left and right to gauge his competition. He was shocked not to find anyone on either side of him. He put in a few more minutes at a furious stroke rate and then took a look behind him. Only three minutes into his Kona debut, he was all alone with perhaps the largest lead anyone had ever amassed so early in the race.

Image courtesy of Dylan Haskin

“I’m a front runner,” he says. “That’s the way I’ll always race. I like to take the risk and go for it and that’s what I did.”

After a 2.4-mile solo trip around the bay, Amberger climbed his way back onto the pier in a time of 47:09, making him the fifth-fastest swimmer in the history of the race. It was nearly a minute and a half later when the smaller front group that Frodeno had predicted made their way through T1. By that time, Amberger was flying around town on two wheels, enjoying the massive adrenaline rush that comes with leading triathlon’s Super Bowl.   

“It was pretty surreal for that loop around town and then up Palani,” he says. “I felt almost weightless and I was turning the pedals over so easy. Riding up Palani with spectators three and four deep on either side was amazing.”

Image courtesy of Lift Creative Studios

In a matter of seconds, Amberger went from riding through the frenzied crowds in town to the desolation of the Queen K Highway. It would be nearly an hour until he had any company, and that company came in the form of fellow rookie Braden Currie—the adventure racer-turned-triathlete who was the other big wild card catching plenty of buzz leading up to race day. Amberger happily let the Kiwi take over the lead and sat back to gauge how Currie was riding. Then his front-runner mentality kicked back in and he put in a little surge of power to drop Currie with ease.

“At that point I felt totally under control,” he says. “I kept asking the time keeper for the splits to Sebastian and Lionel and he said they were nowhere near me. I couldn’t believe it. I could see Frodo was sitting back in the distance and I felt so good as we started the climb up to Hawi.” 

Image courtesy of Korupt Vision

Things in Kona can change in an instant, and Amberger learned just that as he began the steady climb to the top of the course. One second he saw a hard-charging Lionel Sanders coming in the distance, and the next second the powerful Canadian made him feel as though he were standing still.

“He rode past me so fast. Within a minute I went from feeling great to absolute desperation to stay in contact with Lionel and the rest of the guys riding with him. It was a massive contrast of emotions within only a minute or so.”

The next few minutes are likely what cost Amberger a shot at a top-10 finish in his debut. He could’ve eased off the gas and let his body come around at its own pace, but that’s not his personality. He just wants to go fast, and he wasn’t about to watch the lead he had enjoyed all morning slip away without a fight. “I could’ve just kept doing my own race like I had for the first three hours of the race, but that’s not my kind of thing. I’m a racer. I don’t hold back at any point.”

Amberger burned a few too many matches trying to match the pace of Sanders and the rest of the lead group, and then missed his special needs bag after he made the turnaround at Hawi. That was it. He was fried. The return trip to Kailua-Kona would be 50 of the longest miles of Amberger’s life. He spent most of the next two hours riding alone, wondering how he would actually manage to make it to the finish.

Image courtesy of Korupt Vision

As he rode past the airport and was nearing the end of the bike, a group of three athletes caught him from behind. It was Frederik Van Lierde, Patrick Lange and David McNamee, and the presence of those three proved to be the boost he needed. He was still in the top 15 overall, and now he was surrounded by three of the sports biggest stars. Everything was going to be OK. He knew his run fitness was where it needed to be, and his goal of finishing in the top 10 was still within reach.

Amberger made it through T2 and onto the run in 14th position, and the pain that had stung his legs for the back half of the bike disappeared as he strode smoothly along Ali’i Drive and tried to claw his way back into the top 10. Things went even better than expected for the first half of the marathon, and even the steep climb up Palani Road felt surprisingly easy. Things were going just fine, and maybe—just maybe—this race wasn’t as hard as advertised. 

“A little after the halfway point, I went from feeling good to feeling miserable in a matter of seconds,” he says. “Then things got really bad coming out of the Energy Lab and I was walking. That was my second implosion of the day. At that point it was clear that my only goal was to get make it to the finish by putting one foot in front of the other.”

Image courtesy of Lift Creative Studios

As Amberger shuffled his way through the final 10K along the Queen K, Patrick Lange was already celebrating his first world title. There would be no celebration for Amberger when he finally made it back to Ali’i, but there would be relief, mixed in with a little disappointment about what could have been. Most importantly there would be vindication that he does indeed belong at the sport’s biggest event, and a certain satisfaction that he made his mark on his debut race. 

Amberger meandered down the finishing chute, taking a few moments to soak it all in. He finished in 29th place, 8 hours, 48 minutes and 13 seconds after he’d started with that burst of speed in Kailua Bay. A front-runner like Amberger will never be satisfied when 28 guys finish ahead of him, but the highs of the day more than made up for the lows. 

“At a race like Kona, the results don’t always tell the full story,” he says. “I learned a lot, and to be able to add something to the dynamic of the race gives me a lot of confidence for the future. I’m a do-or-die kind of athlete. I’ll either finish 30th or I’ll be on the podium. Based on this year, I know I can make it onto the podium eventually and I’m looking forward to pushing myself to that level.”