Olaf finishes an amazing 8th Place in 40-44 AG. Here is how he got their.
1) The Road to Kona:
Only one year ago Kona was still an impossible dream. Ever since I started triathlon 4 years ago and started swimming and biking and training for my first Olympic Distance Race, I trained with lots of triathletes in Tokyo and Hong Kong that were way better than me and that never qualified or just barely did.
That started to change a little under one year ago. I had lost my job, immediately followed by a terrible half-Ironman 70.3 race in Taiwan where I ended up in hospital and disqualified. I then met Andrew Wright, my new coach, and within a few weeks had done a decent race at Ironman 70.3 in Phuket, finished in 4h37 and qualified for Las Vegas 70.3 World Championships. There were also a few slots for Kona in Phuket, but still, I was quite far away.
I nevertheless had some time on my hands now, my new company would take some time to create and I needed and wanted a goal and I wanted to know how good I could become.
In December after Christmas I started mission Melbourne to get the so sought after qualifying slot. Preparation went very well, I made huge progress in all 3 disciplines, only missed a single session in 3 months. The choice of the race was critical, I wanted a fast race with wetsuit, not too hot and with many slots and around March to June to allow sufficient preparation. Melbourne was end of March, Andrew was a bit scared that it would come too soon, only under 4 months training was a short time. It worked out perfectly though, which was far from obvious. The only Ironman I had done was Regensburg in 2010 in 10h13 and finished 51st in my age-group, no-where what was needed to qualify. In Melbourne I finished 8th in my age-group in 9h10m46secs with a great 3h08 marathon, as far as I know the fastest time ever at Ironman distance of a Hong Kong based athlete. I actually easily qualified. It was an incredible achievement in such a short time.
I had registered in Japan 70.3 and Switzerland in case as a backup, but I dropped those. I also registered in Frankfurt in July as there would be family and friends to support me and I wanted to share the Ironman experience with them.
The training for Frankfurt was not ideal. I made good progress in swimming and continued to become stronger on the bike, but I had issues with my calves and run training was light. We also tried to build up volume, but I broke down and had to cut several training sessions short. The race went really well considering, swim was an awesome 1h00m02 secs (wetsuit and in a lake), bike was tough, it rained and once I almost fell, but still managed just under 5h and the run, after a brave first 10 k in 41mins was respectable at 3h12m. The total time was 9h14 and the great thing about it was a podium finish third place in my age-group, awesome at the European Championship. I would have qualified easily here as well; cool, I am getting the hang of this.
But now what? After a few weeks easy and some awesome riding in the south of France, I started to need to spend more time on my new life coaching and executive coaching business. My wife was starting to get a bit frustrated as for her the job was done, I was supposed to qualify, that’s it. But I was feeling that I was still getting stronger an faster and I wanted to know how far I can go, how well I can do in Kona among the best athletes from all over the world?
The preparation went really well. I was able to reconcile work and training well and build the training up to 30 hours with intensity, which I had never been able to do so far. We did some awesome bike and run sessions, I never felt as strong. I had a few small pains: in my hip tendons on the right side, I fell with the bike inside my parking on a wet day 6 weeks before the race, not badly, but enough to have some pain at times in my left hip when running. Also I decided to switch shoes to Zoot shoes, which are a bit firmer than the Asics I mostly used before to become stronger, but a couple of weeks before Kona, my Achilles tendons started to hurt which was not ideal to run a marathon for sure. These things are to some extend unavoidable and just needed to be managed.
In any case it was a great preparation, no missed or cut short sessions, I felt confident and strong when heading out to Kona.
As usual I did a bit of homework. From all the qualifying races I had the 31st time only and there were obvious lots of tough races where the winners had slower times. To have a top 10 or even better a podium finish as my friend Hermann the German kept telling me, really seemed like a stretch to me.
I also had watched all the Kona NBC shows since 1991 and the race seemed a lot tougher than what I had done so far. The swim without wetsuit, the strong wind on the bike and worst of all, the heat on the run seemed hard to overcome. Especially the heat could be a very serious problem. On long runs my heart rate would creep up and once it was too high, you are done and walking…
I therefore thought that a target of around 20th was reasonable, I had made progress and felt strong, but so did probably everyone else!!
I had a last run session in Hong Kong on the Thursday, 9 days before the race, with a very emotional farewell from my great training partners Kate, Hermann and Iain as well as from coach Andrew.
I arrived in Kona 9 days before the race. This was to get acclimatized to the heat and the time difference. At 6 hours before Hong Kong (actually 18h after) I would have to get up at 10pm Hong Kong time on race-day, something not easy to adjust to.
It was also very weird to be somewhere so long before a race, you have sooo much time to think … usually you arrive a couple of days before a race, you have barely time to register, set-up, do a bit of training, build the bike and then off you go.
As you can imagine, there are also tons and tons of very fit and confident people all over the place. People give you advice all the time about everything, which is great if it’s your first time but also stressful as you need to process all that info and everyone is not telling you the same thing. In the end I decided to just set my own targets based on the training I had done in Kona in these 8 days. I had ridden the entire course, run most of it and swam most of it too, so I was starting to have some idea. Unfortunately the conditions were very favorable the entire week before the race, so nothing really prepared me for the toughness of the actual race.
The swim, despite feeling slow in training due to the waves and currents, was in crystal clear waters and I once saw 8 dolphins swimming right under me, magical.
A bit sad to say, but I did nothing in Hawaii except to get ready for the race. If I didn’t train or get to breakfast, I was in my studio apartment on the couch watching TV and resting. I did go to the expo though and was able to get some pictures in with Ironman legends Mark Allen, Chrissie Wellington and Craig Alexander, fantastic.
I was in Kona alone, kids had school and Maggy had already travelled so much this year, so decided in the end (with a bad conscience) not to come.
I was in good hands though with Ken Glah’s Endurance Sport Travel, which was great as I had some company, shuttles to swim, breakfast, dinner and parts of the course for training were organized daily.
I also met up with the few people I knew from Asia, Arnaud Selukov from Singapore, a serious competitor, Julie Shelley and also Anthony Fesche, both originally from Hong Kong.
The entire experience was quite intimidating though. No shame in saying that I was nervous and even a bit scared by what I was about to go through. It is not at all the same to do a 3.8 kms swim with or without a wetsuit, to ride 180kms in light or no wind vs when you almost get blown off the road and it definitely not the same to run a marathon in 25 vs 35 degrees or more !!
The day before the race I got a flat … better than during the race … but not reassuring either, I very rarely get flats.
I watched a few more Kona shows to get pumped, put my predictions on facebook, to be sure I have no place to hide, did another skype with Maggy and then went to bed at 8.30 and slept pretty quickly ! Had a nervous sleep, sweating a bit and waking up a few times, good to be able to drink and eat a bit, but slept well.
3) Race Day
4am wake-up, toilet, breakfast, quick skype again with Maggy and kids, getting ready, sunscreen, more eating and another toilet stop and off I was at 4.30. Then at 4.50am I was at transition. A quick look at the pros and they looked as stressed as me …
Got the bike ready, all the gels and bars on it, pumped the tires, gave the bags and then another restroom stop and an hour or so to wait. Male pros got off at 6.30, female pros at 6.35. I got in the water at 6.40am. Warmed up a bit, then the wait started, I was in 3rd line first but then it got more and more crowded. This won’t be fun … a bit more wait and then the start.
The swim was total chaos. The ocean turned white and there were people everywhere and in every direction. The first few minutes were actually not too bad, but then came the inevitable kick in the face, once by some feet and a couple of times an elbow. Once I had to readjust my goggles, but not too bad. What was not good was that my speedsuit slightly opened up and every time I looked up the zipper ground more and more in the skin of my neck, which in the salt water was not pleasant.
At the first boat, after just under half the course distance, I looked at my watch, not good, over 34 minutes … this would be a slow swim, but someone told me the return was faster and I decided to pick it up a bit. On the second boat, 100m farther, I actually hit something hard under the water with my shin … crap, more pain …
Other than that the return was pretty uneventful, ended up with a swim of over 1h08 minutes …
Then same as on TV J, I ran though the showers, got my bag, got my bike. The fun and chase was on … for a while.
From my first 2 races this year and from the advice everyone had given me, I decided to take it relatively easy the first hour of the race. The heart rate monitor was not working for the first 2 hours of the bike, so I went on feel.
The first hour after the initial small loop through Kona was awesome, back wind, over 40 km/h average, great scenery. I was still going easy, only a handful of people passed me and I passed at least 500 in the first part of the race, so felt like a great start. Only thing was that my helmet would not keep in place and blocked part of my vision, the kind of constant hand movement you’d prefer to avoid …
After this first pleasant hour, the fun was over. The last part before the turn to Hawi already had strong headwinds and then up to Hawi it felt like there was a storm. The bikes in front of me would all of a sudden jump to the side and you really had to hold on firmly to the handlebars. Worse part is that the wind would come in gusts … I read on the live blog after the race that it was maybe one of the strongest wind ever … well it was bad in any case. Here the race really started and I started to push much harder. The average speed obviously dropped quite dramatically until the turnaround in Hawi.
The famous white crests in the ocean that were no-where to be seen all week before the race were definitely there now!!
The awesome part here was that you could see the helicopter coming closer, meaning the pros were going to ride by. It was really great to see the pro race from within. We would cross each other a few more times.
A few idiots were passing and then slowing down just before me, making it risky to get a drafting penalty and the penalty tents were quite full, but I was careful and it worked well.
Then it was party time for a while as we were now heading down from Hawi with strong cross but back winds. I didn’t have enough gears(!!) to be able to push this part of the course, next time will need a larger front crank …
I rode with a few guys during this section. Just before turning back on the Queen-K to do the last 60 kms there is a nice climb. I lost my fellow riders there and then pushed on all the way back to town. That was 60kms of non-stop headwind, but I was feeling really good, no issues of feeling weak at the end of the bike like in Melbourne and Frankfurt. I passed several packs until the very end and transition.
I passed Warren Squires, who was in a cool SIR kit. When I fell 3 years ago during my first ride out in HK, I took Warren with me and he cracked his hip. I am happy to know that he is fully recovered., sorry again mate.
Nutrition went well, I drank 6.5 bottles of high-5 drink, 6 gels, 2 packs of chomps and only half a powerbar. Given the heat I had no appetite for solid food at all. I drank as much as I could in terms of water and even some coke in the last hour of the bike.
Heart rate was pretty high though when my monitor finally worked. On the climbs it quickly went up to 145 or so, higher than ever before in a race, probably due to the heat.
I was holding a speed of over 36 km/h which meant under 5h, with that wind, that will mean a good positioning. I found out after the race that I moved from 760th overall to 132nd and in my age-group from 114th to 13th !!
Then transition. You have to run around the transition area in bare feet and I have never felt as crap off the bike. Shoes and socks on and off on the run. I bought the socks at the expo and trained with them once. Against my better judgment I used these new socks during the race … there is a simple rune in triathlon and that is to NEVER change something last minute ... I wanted to buy new socks for a while, so I made this mistake …
After the first km, things felt ok. I was going relatively easy, around 13.5km/h as I was still scared to blow up, but my heart rate stayed around 145-150, so no problem. The road is not flat at all unfortunately; it always goes up and down. After 8 kms was the turnaround on Alii Drive. That meant that I could see Arnaud Selukov ahead of me. He was 6 minutes 40 seconds ahead of me at that time, that’s well over one kilometer … a lot. I knew I was a faster runner, but I had issues on my own. Let’s see where we are after 24kms in the energy lab and take it from there.
That was the right attitude as things were just getting harder and harder. The road was boiling hot and my feet too. After 12kms I could start to feel blisters under my feet, my right big toe filling up with blood and my tendons were painful too. No nice bouncy run and 30 more kms to go … every step pain. Not excruciating, so was able to go on running, but painful nevertheless.
I did get as many sponges on me, ice in my suit, water on me, water and coke in me as I possibly could. I only ate one gel though, much less than planned, but it seemed fine.
It was very weird as I passed only very very few people !! Unlike in all other races where I tend to run so much faster than everyone else and pass 100 people or more, here for 20kms I almost passed no-one…
I was dreaming of taking these bloody shoes off … but not yet. Close to 2 more hours …
After Alii Drive, up Palani, a sharp hill and then back on the Queen K highway and to the second and final turnaround point, the terrible Energy Lab … This is an 10kms stretch with no shade, little supporters and well over 35 degrees … I tried to push a bit harder, but it was really tough and not really happening. I passed a few people though, including Laurent Jalabert, that gave a small boost. Then finally after 24kms into the marathon it was down into the energy lab. I was really focused and therefore did not see Arnaud Selukov at all. He after the race told me that he thought it might be a tactic of me to ignore him, but no J. I would catch-up with him a few kilometers later.
Now came the hill out of the energy lab to get back to the highway. Here the wind blows from the back, so you don’t feel it all. All of the sudden it’s super hot and you are going uphill. It’s really critical to keep the heart rate under control here. Many pro athletes in past years blow up in this section of the race!! I was doing fine, except all the pain and the fact that I was going so slowly!! 12 kilometers to go, if I can run a slow 12.5 km/h I can make 9h30 … maybe … not much juice left unfortunately.
Then I passed Arnaud, said hi briefly and tried to pass to make it definitive. But shortly after with 9 kms to go I started to have small stomach cramps … relax, you absolutely cannot walk. A couple of kms later I got pins and needles in my forearms, what is going on?? Don’t crumble now, stay alert. Got some more sugar in me and pushed on. 5 kms from the start I tried to push a bit more. This section goes up before 2kms of downhill to the finish. I knew from Roth results that Arnaud could finish strongly … well I couldn’t accelerate, started to get cramps, so I just tried to relax and hope for the best. A lot of Ironman is just to accept the pain and push on. The 9h30 mark would not be broken. It was now all about not having to walk and keep my position and hopefully not to get caught by Arnaud.
Then it went back sharply down Palani, which is not pleasant at all when you are completely exhausted and in the last 1500m of an Ironman effort. Finally back on Alii Drive and the final meters. The moment that I dreamt about, the same stretch of road that all the champions have run before me!! Great crowd, finish and then … it’s over !!
3h19 and change for the marathon and 9h31 total, pretty much exactly as I estimated conservatively and expected to smash. It was the hardest race conditions in many years, times were 15-20 minutes slower than most years and the pros all had very slow times. It definitely will give me memories for a lifetime!!
When I called Maggy shortly after, I found out that I was 8th in my age-group, 8th in the world!! Having beaten so many strong guys that qualified all over the world put what felt like a slow effort into perspective. I gave all I had that was for sure and I can only feel blessed to have made it in the top 10!! The top 5 for the award ceremony will have to wait a bit J. I met Arnaud at the athlete recovery area and we started to exchange first impressions, it was great to have him here as it made the experience so much richer.
7) Post Race
It took some time to realize what I achieved. Being in Kona alone, it helped a lot to be able to share the entire experience over facebook and to get so much support, encouragement and praise. Friends and family all over the world stayed up all night to watch the race and follow my results, how great is that?
I can’t wait to be back to fully celebrate with all friends and family.
This has been an amazing journey and I feel truly blessed.