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We sat down with three of the sport’s brightest coaching minds—Dave Scott, Matt Dixon and Siri Lindley—to glean insiders’ insights into all things Kona, from training strategy and race tactics to podium prospects and potential alliances.
Coach to Rachel Joyce, Eneko Llanos, Craig Alexander and formerly Chrissie Wellington
Coach to Meredith Kessler and formerly Linsey Corbin
Coach to Mirinda Carfrae, Yvonne Van Vlerken, Mary Beth Ellis, Jodie Swallow and formerly Leanda Cave
On early-season iron-distance racing and coming to Kona fresh
Dave Scott: Historically, a lot of the men have difficulty racing close to Kona. Having a race later [in the] summer seems to present problems for some of the men. Maybe they need more recovery time due to more muscle mass, more muscle trauma, I don’t know—I don’t like to see a lot of the men racing within 13 weeks of Kona. But the women, on the other hand, are more resilient. Historically, the women who have raced before Kona—Lori Bowden and Heather Fuhr, looking back to the good old days, often they would double up and do Canada and then Kona and do quite well. I think Siri and I are both hoping that Roth isn’t going to put a damper on Mirinda [Carfrae] or Rachel [Joyce] and that they’re going to have their best races in Kona.
Matt Dixon: I agree with Dave. There’s no doubt that women are emotionally and physically more resilient and tend to recover better. I sometimes like women to race Ironman races relatively close to Kona. I didn’t have any of my contenders do Roth or Frankfurt, but I don’t look at Caroline Steffen or Rachel or Mirinda and think, ‘Well, they’ve raced in the summer so they’re not going to be contenders anymore.’ I think a lot of it is dependent on how the athletes and coaches prepare for the summer race and how much confidence they have to ensure they get the athlete recovered. If an athlete approaches a summer Ironman with the same race build and lens as they would a Kona race build, and they just duplicate it twice in a row, that’s where they get into problems.
Siri Lindley: I totally agree. Just to add one more component—I think if you’re preparing in the exact same way for Kona you’re going to be in trouble, but I think also about the mental preparation for me and with Mirinda and Yvonne [Van Vlerken]. As much as Roth is an amazing race and opportunity, when they wanted to do it, I wanted to make sure they weren’t going to expend the same kind of mental energy on getting prepared for it. Kona is such a huge event and special event, and there’s a lot of mental and emotional energy that goes into that preparation. I wanted to make sure their emotional investment in this race was not the same intensity. The physical preparation has to be different, but also just keeping it more of a low-key goal, rather than a main goal.
MD: I would just add to that it’s also important for the athlete to know himself, and for the athlete to know the coaches because there are some racers that are really emotional racers. That’s not a strength or a weakness—just that every time they race, they really get up for it.
On the value of experience on the Kona course
SL: I think experience can work both ways. The first year that Rinny did Kona we really went in not knowing much at all. We had just done the physical preparation and all that goes into that—the nutrition and hydration preparation—and we really didn’t know what to expect, and in a sense you go in feeling really excited and, ‘Hey, I don’t know what this is going to be like but I’m just going to do my best and see what happens.’ Some athletes have raced there before and each year they’re taking lessons they’ve learned and building upon that and planning their race knowing every small detail. Leanda Cave came in 13th, then she came in third, and then she won it. She’s someone who gains confidence through knowing the course. Rinny didn’t realize how much it was going to hurt, she didn’t realize how hard it was going to be running through the Energy Lab. She’d heard about it but never experienced it, and in a way that was really great for her. Yet on the same note, now that she does know the course we’re able to build upon our strategy on race day, and I think that’s really helpful too.
DS: It seems like women have been able to conquer the run better than the men in the past 15 years. I think a lot of the men who have done well in earlier season Ironmans are intimidated by the course. I feel like a lot of them don’t think they can win. I really feel like it’s a mindset going into it—the inability to really extract their greatest racing day on that particular course. There is just a handful of women who truly believe that they can win. And there’s a small number of men I feel the same way. People always ask me, rubbing the crystal ball, who’s going to win the race this year, and usually I’m pretty definitive and point blank: Maybe these three or four men and these three or four men, and they say, ‘How about so and so?’ and I just say, without naming names, ‘I don’t think they have the mental makeup to do it.’ Experience in some ways can be helpful. The men in particular go out extremely fast in the first 90K of the bike and it seems to come back and bite 95 percent of the athletes—they don’t have the ability to run well. Knowing that you’re either going to have to play the game or you’re going to have to be more conservative on the front end so you have the run, that often plays out to actually be in the mix. To say, ‘I’m going to let these guys go on the bike and come back and catch them at 20K on the run,’ that just takes confidence. So it’s a little bit of both.
MD: I think it also takes awareness. The women’s race has evolved a lot in the last three, four, five years. I think we can thank Chrissie [Wellington] for raising the bar, and the women’s race is becoming a little more like the men’s. In the men’s race you have to be used to that steady state on the bike, up through Hawi. If you stand at the side of the road in Kawaihai you see people pulling the plug emotionally because it’s just such a different experience for them. If you look at the actual course profile, there’s nothing revolutionary—it’s rollers on the bike ride and a forgiving climb and a descent that has some potential wind—but because of the dynamics I do think there’s value for athletes becoming familiar with the variable terrain. The men are generally pulled into the dynamics of the other racers, and the women are starting to get pulled into the dynamics of the other racers. Some of my athletes have gone out to that race and their whole focus has just been about metering effort and learning how to ride that course well, utilizing gears and understanding how to keep the wheels running through the rollers. … That experience is really valuable—learning how to ride in the wind because the dynamics can be variable. That race favors athletes who feel at home on the course.
SL: One more thing to add to Matt’s point is that people learn on race day just how critical their nutrition and their hydration is—doing that properly. If athletes have the opportunity to go do a four-week training camp over there, I think that would be incredible because you don’t want to see if your plan works on the big day—to have the opportunity to test it out there and practice your plan. You can do all the training and prepare yourself 1 million percent, being ready to swim, bike and run fantastically well, but if you don’t nail the fueling and hydration, that literally can destroy your whole day.
DS: I don’t have any of my athletes go out there in an early-season program and I actually discourage my athletes from going too early. But every athlete is different. It’s a difficult place to train, there’s not a lot of variety other than the course itself. I actually discouraged Craig Alexander and Chrissie from going over too early. Rachel and Eneko [Llanos] as well. I’ve found over time that it’s not necessary—at least for the athletes I work with.
On Kona strategy and weighing being reactive to race moves versus sticking to a plan
SL: My biggest thing is: You stick to your plan. I really don’t want them reacting. The way I want to prepare them is that if they put together their best swim, bike and run and race their race—and I know that that’s incredibly hard; there’s a pack out front and it’s very difficult to just focus on your plan—but the ultimate goal is to do that. Last year with Mirinda she was on her own basically the whole bike ride; in the end it worked to her advantage because she was able to stick to her plan.
DS: I think that’s the best notion. Everyone has a different battery, and if you’re always jumping on the bandwagon of someone who may accelerate on the bike and then you’re following suit and you’re doing this multiple times—looking at the talent of the athletes and capabilities of running a fast marathon we haven’t seen that. Everyone is extending themselves too much, too soon and I think it’s a reactive response on the bike. Your battery allows you to exceed race pace at X percent many, many times, but if you stay in that extended zone it’s going to hurt you on the run. I really feel that the men have compromised their capability. I was talking to Craig about an hour ago, and on paper he’s the king—he’s gone 8:03, he’s got the fastest time—we were at the gym together and I just said, ‘Your race wasn’t your best race, you didn’t run well at all.’ He looked at me and goes, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ He said he started cramping up at the end and started walking. I remember well, that’s why I said that. My comment was a constructive criticism—he’s gotta be smarter when he races so he can exploit his run talent at the end. As Siri mentioned, sticking to the game plan is really vital. The women are getting smarter—Mirinda had a great race plan with Siri, and Rachel going into the race has to adhere to the plan this year. For every athlete to really reach their potential, they’ve got to stick to their prescribed plan and let it play out with the competitors enhancing it.
MD: Especially in the guy’s race, it’s really hard to do that. … But I agree, you try to set out the individual plan and talk about a few scenarios but that’s in the spirit of trying to foster what I call the athletic IQ so you can prepare athletes for what might happen. Setting out a plan is dependent on the athlete, not on what other people are doing. That’s not just Kona—that should be every race, and you should be setting out a game plan that is contingent on you, not on others because if you’re reactive, you’re losing control.
On the probability of race alliances in Kona
SL: These athletes work so hard and put so much into being so well prepared for this race, and when it comes down to it, and maybe I’m wearing my rose-colored glasses, but they want on that day to know what they’re capable of doing on their own, executing their plan. If it does happen, I don’t think it’s a smart idea. I think you’re taking a chance putting your whole plan in the hands of someone else along with you.
MD: There’s always so much noise that accompanies the race, and the noise increases in intensity the closer you get to race day, and you have to help the athlete not get distracted by all the noise. I think that most of the stories you hear of alliances are either a distraction or mere noise or conjecture. … I might be naïve and this is happening in the men’s race, but I haven’t been privy to it to be honest.
DS: This whole sense of working or teaming up with someone else is a bunch of baloney to me. Stick with your plan. Go into it with confidence and know that you’re going to have a good race—you just don’t know how good it’s going to be.
On what it takes to finish on the Kona podium
SL: Leave no stone unturned, cover all your bases. Your preparation isn’t just about the swim, bike and run—it’s about coming in hungry and fired up to race, and not feeling emotionally or physically exhausted. Really taking care of your mind, body and spirit, and knowing the course, and being prepared with your nutritional and hydration plan, and being ready to not pay attention to the noise and distractions. … Taking confidence in having done everything you can to prepare the best you can and then following your plan and do your best.
MD: Prepare as well as you possibly can, ensuring you don’t show up overcooked or fatigued, keep it simple on race day, and embrace it and go and do your best. If you leave the door of opportunity open and you believe that you can do well, good things can happen.
DS: Drive the course to look at it and have a mental road map of the course, which will allow you to break up the course into pieces. It allows you to fight these little mini mountains throughout the day and it becomes pretty simplistic in breaking it down. … It’s really important to recognize that the world champions have always had issues in every race—there’s never a perfect race. We can do all the mental preparation that we need but I think you need to recognize that you’re going to have a bad patch—how do you deal with that bad patch? When you look at it short term and you’ve got a finite distance between segments, that allows you to really focus on yourself. You can do a mental and physical inventory and override it, just like you would in a training session or in another race. Once it’s passed, move on and don’t think about it. It allows Kona to be manageable.
On podium contenders not on our radar
DS: I have no crystal ball—it shattered, it’s a mess. I look historically at how well people have run. I think we are all enamored with how fast they can go on the bike and how many watts they’re pushing, and that’s a cool thing to look at, but most of the time, when we look at Kona, you better have a pretty darn good steady run to win this race. I like to look at the athletes who have not necessarily dominated the bike but can run consistently. I think Marino Vanhoenacker is a brilliant athlete and has had some incredible times in some of the European Ironman races. I’ve watched him race—he seems to push a massive gear and can really make that bike move, but I did see him at 21K at the run a few years ago and he was staggering sideways and eventually almost collapsed in my arms. He’s had difficulty in Kona. Look at Leanda, who finished in Kona in 13th, and eventually won—look at their run over the years. If they’re getting faster in the marathon, watch out for them.
SL: I agree, we’re seeing how important having that run is. Watching Sebastian Kienle in Frankfurt—I’ve never seen anyone ride a bike like that. I thought, ‘He’s destroyed himself on the bike and is probably going to fall apart on the run,’ and his run split was amazing. And it was a hot day. When you see performances like that, one part of you thinks, ‘This guy is going to be unbeatable, it was an unbelievable performance and he did it all on his own,’ and on the other hand you wonder, ‘Was that his big race and was it too close to Kona?’ There are people who are making statements out there. I tend to focus on the controllables, so I just focus on my athletes and preparing them the best I can so they can perform to their utmost potential on race day.
MD: I think to win the demands of Kona you ultimately have to be able to swim well, ride your bike well with very minimal cost and run very well off the bike. I think more on the women’s side there are some performances where you think, ‘I wonder how that person’s going to fare in Kona when they won an Ironman with a very, very good marathon on the back end but swam an hour,’ and you think, ‘Are they going to be coming out in 1:07 or 1:08?’ I think the women’s race has changed and there is too much of a penalty now.