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If you’ve qualified for the Hawaii Ironman, you’re likely pretty damn good at triathlon. The five following race tips can be the icing on a M-Dot shaped cake.
1. Be freakishly systematic and redundant in all your last-minute preparations.
About 10 years ago I was watching the pros set up their transition areas the morning of the Hawaii Ironman when a B-level elite, frantic, on the verge of tears, came scrambling up to me asking, “Have you seen my helmet?! I can’t find my helmet. What do I do?!”
With minutes to go before the cannon fired, there wasn’t much she could do—and as I recall an age-group triathlete who was spectating for the day lent her his. The moral of the story concerns the matter of paying attention to detail and acknowledging the fact that clear, calm thinking is nearly impossible the morning of such a highly charged race (pre-Ironman stress compounded by the skeleton-shaking thump created by the rotor blades of hovering helicopters).
Script out your morning routine on paper and proceed to carefully check off every box (wake-up call, shower, breakfast, race kit, equip prep, transit, bathroom breaks, the insanity of checking in and setting up, swim warm-up, etc). Like a good engineer, build in checkpoints and redundancies to make sure you’re nailing each and every step, regardless of the priority. Pretend like you’re a one-man Apollo space mission and the more you can make the entire pre-race routine a robotic experience the less likely you’ll be to screw up. And the less nervous energy you’ll burn worrying about all the details that haunt you as the sun begins to climb up from behind Mauna Loa.
2. Beware of the power of your sub-conscious mind and any potential lurking evil within it that tries to sabotage your race.
One of the greatest marathoners in the world in the 1950s was American Buddy Edelen, who at the peak of his career held the world record. Edelen was a middle-distance man in his college years but set his sights on the marathon when he moved to England to be train upwards of 120+ miles per week while he worked as a school teacher. Edelen’s marathon debut was disastrous, however. Despite pitch-perfect preparation, Edelen inexeplicably decided to wolf down a can of sardines the morning of the race—-an act that could only be described as a weird experiment, considering it was something he reportedly had never done before either training or a race. The result? Severe stomach problems forced him to DNF. Per a little post-implosion (and explosion) analysis of the mystery as to why Edelen ate the sardines was that some internal fear-based demon motivated the dietary selection of small, oily fish.
In the 1999 Hawaii Ironman, Canadian Peter Reid—the night before bike check-in, was staring at his rig in a state of near hypnosis and decided—another inexplicable decision—to change the position of his saddle. A minor tweak but one that proved an utter shock to his body during the 112-mile wind-blasted bike ride. Reid finished second and after the race talked curiously about what prompted him to make such a weird, rookie mistake—actually changing a deeply dialed in bike position for a reason he couldn’t fathom when he talked about the after-math of his power-zapped day on the Queen K.
The lesson: Stay tuned to any/all actions you make in the final hours before the race. Watch out for the demons that aren’t thrilled about you spending the better part of your day in extremes.
3. For optimal success, make a mental game of it.
Not only do you have to carefully manage your physical energy throughout race day, how you cultivate, save, manage and spend your mental energy is crucial to peak performance. Race nerves, for example, can help you boost performance several levels but overstimulation of race nerves can do the opposite. One of the problems of the Hawaii Ironman is stress incurred when thinking about how bloody overwhelming it all is. I mean, come on: a rollicking 2.4 mile ocean swim (with 1850 others, hence, the great “washing machine” image), a 112-mile bike ride through the trade winds of a volcanic island and a 26.2-mile run in the humidity of a sunny tropical island afternoon.
Let’s try not to think about this all at once. Rather, break the race up into a bunch of small pieces—the first five minutes of the swim (goal, to get some breathing room); the remaining first leg of the swim (goals: establish smooth breathing pattern, focus on technique, establish correct pace). Or during the bike (error-free transition, use first few miles to warm-up into rhythm, consume x ounces of fluid, eat x ounces of food; break the whole ride into segments, trying to stay in the goal pace for each segment, staying aero as much as possible).
The key here is to break the entire race into bite-sized segments and then to channel all of your concentration only into the segment, and the objectives of the segment, forgetting (as best you can) that there’s anything beyond the immediate task at hand. The purpose of this strategy is to prevent complete freak-outs (“What the hell have I got myself into?”) and to make sure you continue to check off those tiny little goals that, combined, build toward an optimal performance.
4. Act like a deep-space radar and note any and all messages from your body and respond accordingly.
If you’re a few hours into the Hawaii Ironman and for one reason or another you’re not in a relatively comfortable state, you need to figure out what you need to do to return to equilibrium. It may be a blister, or a sunburn, or a need of salt, or a chafing problem—if you’re receiving the mildest complaint of pain from your body, attend to ASAP. Sucking it up when you still have another five to 10 (or more) hours of racing usually means that what starts as an annoyance inflames into at worst a DNF and at best a few teeth-grinding hours of severe discomfort. The Ironman has plenty of time to dig her claws into the smallest gripe and make them the center of your universe.
Fortunately, the aid stations at the Ironman World Championship, thanks to the local volunteers, are the best in the world. They have everything you could possibly imagine to apply the first aid you’ll need to keep things as comfortable as possible for as long as possible.
5. After the race is over 1) fix yourself up and 2) start taking care of any loved ones you’ve drug with you to Kona.
Racing the Ironman is a long, tough, body-smoking day. Your stomach will be messed up, you may have a lot of trouble sleeping, and getting around can be a bit tricky with your freshly maxed out muscles in a state of complete breakdown.
Now is the time to suck if up if you have a spouse, a boyfriend or girlfriend, family and/or friends with you in tow on the Big Island. Watching the race is a tremendous experience, but more than likely they’ll be just as glad as you (if not more) that all the stress and craziness is over. Be sure to not just bore the hell out of them with tellings and re-tellings of “The Story.” Hopefully you’ve scheduled a few days of R and R for the Big Island or one of the other islands. It’s Hawaii! Forget about triathlon for a bit and take in this other-worldly jewel in the Pacific. Have fun, eat well and make sure everyone has a good time. They’ll be more apt to follow you back the next time you go to a big race.