PART BEAR. PART MAN. ALL AMERICAN
Location: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
The week and a half prior to the event went very smoothly. Amanda and I established a great routine of getting up early every day, going to bed early every night, and eating very well for each meal. I’d say the preparation was perfect.
Race morning was a continuation of a smooth and stress-free week. I got up very early, in fact, I managed to get going on my warm up run before 4:00AM. Back to the condo, I enjoyed a hefty breakfast and a delicious cup of coffee.
For the first time in recent memory (or maybe the first time ever!), I was walking out of transition (with the bike set, tires pumped and body marked) by 5:15AM. How was I this well prepared?! We had arranged with my Stephanie and Huggy Bear Hays to show up at their hotel room at the Kona Seaside at around six o’clock. As we were knocking on the door at 5:20, it seemed we were well ahead of schedule. They had graciously offered us to use their room as a “holding cell” prior to the race. It’s nice to have this place to settle down, to be a bit calm, and to apply all of the necessary race lubes… in private.
After donning the incredible blueseventy pointzero3 skinsuit (with long legs!), and applying ample amounts of Aquaphor, Vaseline, and Body Glide, I made my way down to the start. I think I was the third person in the water, as I always like to have as long a warm up as possible. It was 6:25 when I pushed off, and I immediately knew I was going to have a good swim.
Just prior to the start, I bumped into Cam Brown, who was one of the few folks I had deemed worthy of towing me through the swim. I cannot think of a recent race where he has not been in the front pack, so he seemed like a good choice. I lost his feet last year, so this time around, I made sure to stick close in the opening 500 meters.
The swim was incredibly comfortable for me, and I credit this to the hard swim build I did in the month of September. However, I must also attribute it to the fact that we had, once again, been dropped from the leaders. As I cruised along, content to be with Cam and other contenders, I once again lost contact with the front guys, who ultimately formed the main bike group. Next year I will have to swim more aggressively, as it’s absolutely key that I exit the water in close contact with these guys. Sorry, Cam, you are no longer my go-to swim guy!
Once through transition and out onto the bike course, I took notice of who was around me. The split to the leaders was just over a minute, and Normann, Sindballe, Vanhoenacker, and many more were nearby. Things looked very promising. I opted to really press that first five miles to see if I could bridge up to the leaders. Learning from last year’s mistakes, I notched back the efforts when I realized the gap was not closing. Rather than blow myself up early on, I settled into a nice rhythm with three or four riders.
For much of the first thirty miles, I followed a very conservative strategy. My new goal was to ride with Timo Bracht (last year’s number 11) and Cam Brown (last year’s number until we got to Hawi. At that point, I’d reassess, and begin to really race the bike. Somewhere around thirty miles into the ride, Torbjorn Sindballe and Marino Vanhoenacker gradually pulled away from our trio. Knowing that Sindballe would likely have the top bike split of the day, I chose to remain patient and to stay where I was.
Vanhoenacker’s strategy proved to be brilliant, as he allowed Torbjorn to drag him all the way up to the front group, at which point he joined them, as the strong Dane pulled away. Later on in the ride, Vanhoenacker made a break from the group to enter T2 in third.
As I approached Hawi, I watched as a trio of speedo-clad riders came by my fairly quickly. I did not recognize them, but figured I’d likely see them about forty miles down the road… as the pace looked pretty aggressive to me. Timo left me with that chase trio, and Cam Brown seemed to be dropping further and further back.
I went through the turnaround in Hawi solo, and prepared myself for my weakest section of the race. For some reason, I always struggle in this race from mile 65 to about 72. I have learned to anticipate the lull, so it does not come as a shock when it hits.
Regrouping in the section, I waited to see if any of the weaker swimmers would come through to give me a boost. It never ceases to amaze me how much easier it is (mentally and physically) to ride with one or more guys. To be solo on the lava fields can be punishing.
Just as I was expecting, I was overtaken by a strong athlete who had experienced a rough swim: Rutger Beke. He is a guy who, like me, has experience racing the bike solo, only to run his way up the ranks. Unlike me, he has managed some top-five finishes with that tactic, so I was very glad to have his company.
Passing through the town of Kawaihae–at mile 78 of the race–there is a nearly-two-mile-long climb back to the Queen K. It can be a tough section of the bike, but it’s a part I’ve always considered one of my best segments. I come alive at this point, and I know that the ensuing thirty+ miles are often my best.
I re-passed Rutger, and began my assault on the final thirty miles. On the really windy years, that final bit can really punish those who have gone out too hard. The headwinds can make you unsure as to whether you are going up or down a hill. It’s not uncommon to be out of the saddle and gearing down to descend!
We were faced with a moderate amount of wind on our return trip. Folks would be hurting, but there would be no major blow-ups.
Rutger and I exchanged the lead a handful of times, as he seemed to own me on the down hills, while I had a bit of an advantage on the climbs. We managed to keep a great tempo over the closing miles, and I felt great coming back to town.
As always, we picked up a few of the riders who were spit out the back of the main group, as well as two of the unknown speedo guys. Entering T2, I was anxious to start the marathon with one of the sport’s toughest runners: Beke.
Within the first mile, I was already losing ground. I took a slow transition, and lost two or three spots before the run began. My goal was to take the first ten miles very conservatively, as history has told me that Alii Drive can be stiflingly hot and humid. Many a runner has cooked himself early, only to find the tank empty out on the Queen K. I wanted to be ready to pick those guys up on the final eight miles of the run.
I think anyone who’s raced Kona more than once would agree that this year’s trip up and down Alii was uncharacteristically mild. We seemed to have strangely dry air (for Hawaii), and there was even a slight breeze. Although there was not a cloud in the sky, and it was plenty hot, the day was not serving up the brutal conditions it has in the past.
Once out on the Highway, I began to close in on the top ten. In 2003 I remember how much harder the fight was inside that top ten, and I tried to brace myself for those battles. As I approached twelfth place–Tom Evans–I got ready to have him match my move. As I went by, he seemed to let me go… then I heard his footsteps. He came right up on my shoulder, and I assumed he was preparing to run with me. At that point he said, “Lovato, my wife says it’s OK if you beat me because I’m still better looking.” Ha! I love it. Tom’s the type of guy who has no problem talking a little trash right in the midst of a race. You gotta love that.
Further down the road, I got word I was catching the tenth and ninth place guys. Knowing that the race would truly begin when I hit that eighteen mile mark, I was excited to already be in the money. I felt so relaxed and so controlled up to this point. I felt that the pace was very manageable, and with the exception of the climb up Pay and Save hill, I was running every mile between 6:15 and 6:30 pace. With ten miles to go, I was imagining myself reaching that top five before we got back to town.
Assessing the competition as they left the Energy Lab, I knew that McCormack and Alexander were out out reach. They looked very strong, and they looked to be racing one another solely, something that surely pushed them to the race best run splits. Next up was Torbjorn and Deboom. They had a comfortable margin on me, but they did not look to be untouchable. Following them were Lieto, Vanhoenacker and Eneko Llanos. These guys all looked well within my range, as did the former champ, Luc VanLierde. I made the turn, grabbed my special needs, and proceeded to turn up the pace.
After nearly eight hours of racing, I was finally allowing myself to let it all hang out. I had patiently waited to that point, the point at which I’d really go for it. I made my way out of the Energy Lab, and received a split that I had closed on VanLierde. I was really moving, and thoughts of a smokin final 10K were on my mind.
As I turned back onto the Highway, I really ramped it up. For about a mile I was still holding strong. With a 20-mile split of 2:09, I was still under 6:30 average. I figured I’d be finishing around 2:50-2:51, unless I ended up in a tight battle, at which point I thought I could squeeze out a bit more.
Somewhere around 21 miles, my pace faltered. I was experiencing some serious downward pressure, and the focus shifted from maintaining pace to squeezing cheeks. I’ll try to refrain from sharing the graphics and gore, but let’s just say I became completely satisfied to hold seven-minute pace over the closing five miles.
The battle I was looking to fight UP the road became a battle I was looking not to fight BEHIND me. There are always athletes waiting to pick up the pieces should you come undone, and I was determined to maintain my placing.
I did my best to keep the pace alive, but the distraction of the turtle’s head was too great. I settled in to enjoy my jaunt down Alii. My mom handed me an American flag, and I crossed the line all smiles.
I was ecstatic to be back in the top ten, and to have executed almost exactly as I had hoped to do; I was very pleased with my performance. As with every race, I’ll take home a few valuable lessons. I’m confident that I’ll be moving further up the podium next year.