I have no idea where to start. How far back to I go? I guess I’ll go back before the start of Kona training, but keep it brief. The reason to do this is to try and give you the background info that will allow me to explain my state of mind as I went into race week. And I will finish with my post race thoughts, where I’m heading, and how finishing second at Hawaii has affected my outlook.
In winning Ironman Australia on 5 May I sustained a stress fracture in my second metatarsal. This meant zero exercise for 2 weeks and very little exercise for another 3. Swimming started in late May, cycling started mid June, and running began very tentatively in late June, after 7 weeks off!
My sole focus was Hawaii, and I was buoyed by my quick improvement in my swimming and cycling without serious run training happening. Swimming was at my equal best ever, and I was happy and motivated to be stronger than ever on the bike for Kona. Running wasn’t going so well though, and when I raced on August 14 at Ironman Philippines my run felt average, and the weeks were counting down to the big show. I had been doing the sessions but not feeling like the runner I was before the injury. Running wasn’t feeling natural and easy, possibly because of muscles that grew in from swimming and riding first, and that my foot and lower leg muscles were feeling tight and causing me to be cautious and concerned.
On August 18 I had my first run which felt natural. I knew I was cutting it fine to get in the quality miles before the race, but I felt I had just scraped in under the cut off point for my own peace of mind. From that point I was in lock down, and focused entirely on Hawaii. This meant very minimal social outings, and almost none during daylight when if I had spare time I was sleeping, training, massaging, or eating. I was doing roughly 5hrs more per week than the previous year (3 more on the bike and 2 more swimming). I knew I was getting in the best shape of my life as a triathlete. The three disciplines and my body were finding their own equilibrium as I got closer to the race – my swimming lost some speed, my running improved, and I was spending more time on the bike than I had consistently done before and feeling great for it. But I was still conscious and slightly worried of my foot’s phantom pains and muscle tightness right up to race week.
As I’ve written about before, I have a stomach parasite (blostocystis hominus) which so far I have been unsuccessful in killing despite some serious measures earlier this year. In the months before Hawaii this had flared up and was causing me some inconvenience. Sometimes it took 3 attempts before I could leave comfortably for my run, and then I still had to stop again during. I was thinking it would settle as it usually does, but as I entered race week and race day it hadn’t. I was apprehensive about my food each day, and what I might feel like race morning and while racing.
I had arrived in Kona on Friday September 30th, 9 days before the race. On Saturday I rode 3 hrs and had never felt stronger on the bike. I was able to push a high heart rate and power through the big undulations on the Queen K highway out to Kuwaihai and back. On Sunday I was a bit tired from the ride, and I swam 40mins pretty solid, before driving out near the energy lab and running 75mins, during which I had to have an emergency toilet stop. I didn’t feel great on that run but I was happy to get my last training run done and my foot survived. Just 40mins easy on Wednesday is the only other running I did race week.
I was a little worried about my taper, and my body/health as race day drew near. On Thursday I only rode, Friday complete rest, and all my race gear was ready earlier than any other year, mostly thanks to awesome support from my sponsors, especially all the work the Zipp and Sram guys did getting my bike ready.
I ate lightly the day before the race because of my concern about my guts, but I still had to go the bathroom 6 times before leaving home in the morning, and once again before the race. Despite this I was relaxed, and happy to be about to race Hawaii again. I had my amazing wife Jaimie there since Sunday, my awesome parents Jenny and Geoff since Wednesday, and 5 other very good friends there to hang with before the race. No doubt having such a close group there is very calming. Seeing them so excited about what I am about to do is very humbling, and it is a once in a lifetime moment. Nothing else comes close and it is a memorable moment of calm and clarity.
With 15minutes to go I head to the beach and stand there while I focus on the task ahead, do some warm up stretches, and pass the time with the other professionals. As the start drew near I swam out to no particular point along the deepwater start line – just wherever there was some space. I soon found myself feeling a little crowded. It’s likely a few people were looking out to start near me as they know I’m a strong swimmer and have possibly read/heard that Chris MacCormack had his best swim ever thanks to starting next to me last year. Some of the other pros were definitely looking for the drafting advantage at the swim start. With a minute before the start I quickly swam 20 meters to my left to where the line was more spread out and I had extra space. The cannon went and I sprinted almost as hard as I could, quickly separating myself from those next to me. After a few hundred meters I could see only one other swimmer a few meters to my left, I figured it was Andy Potts and I made my way onto his feet. For a minute the race was one connected group, until Andy and I opened a gap on everyone else. My race plan was to sit on his feet for the whole swim, but after seven hundred meters he was slipping away and I settled into my own pace very happy and relaxed to be on my own between the leader and the big group following. I swam easy, and the group caught me at 2.5km. I stayed at the front of the group, still swimming very easy, drafting off a swimmer next to me until the last 400m when I picked up the pace so I could be second out of the water and make transition a little easier for myself.
I hadn’t felt awesome in the swim, and didn’t feel awesome as I ran through transition and onto the bike, but I didn’t think about it too much, it’s a long day and there’s plenty of time to come good. I rode hard near the front of the pack for a while after hitting the Queen K highway, ready to be in an early break if it happened, still trusting my ability based on how I’d felt the previous Saturday and hoping I would start to warm into the ride. It became clear no breaks where going and slowly I slipped back to about 15th in a pack of about 25. I was easily staying with the pack, although gaps would open up as we crested hills and they powered down the other side, I seem to be more comfortable on the uphills and was closing the gaps easily. On one particular uphill at about 70km, I slowed down with the guys in front, not seeing a gap had opened up 3 people in front of me. By the time I saw the gap the group was powering down the other side. The other cyclists around me were all feeling tired and only 1 other guy went after the group just ahead of me. I powered solo trying to bridge back up. I rode well, and gained on them up towards Hawi, uphill, into a strong headwind, but it wasn’t enough. Once they turned ahead of me I had no chance to catch them on the downhill tailwind section of the course, that’s not my strength.
I started wavering then, admitting to myself I wasn’t feeling great today and it just isn’t my day. I would have liked to stop and make the mental and physical discomfort end. But I followed Rasmus Henning and Frederick Van Lierde as they came past me, and we swapped turns all the way back to T2. I felt like I must have lost 10minutes to everyone. I felt so slow. Into transition I went through the motions, but relatively quickly as I was happy to be finished the bike and that lifted me. As the volunteers put a cold wet towel on my head, one of them said “5 minutes to Craig Alexander”. Wow, only 5 minutes, that sounds good relative to how slow I thought I’d ridden. I sped out of transition and focused on setting a good pace.
I decided this year to run without a watch not be distracted by calculating how far to the guys at turn arounds, or how fast I was running. I just ran. The first 5km felt very hot, and the muscles tight, but after settling into a comfortable pace, and getting into a routine of ice, water, and sponges at the aid stations the heat became bearable and I started to enjoy the run as I loosened up. Before I’d got to the top of Palani rd and the Queen K highway (20km) I found myself in 4th, at 21km I couldn’t believe I was in 3rd. MacCormack and Nick Gates were out on bikes and yelling at me to win it. They said (as many others also had) I was running better than the guys in front and I could catch them. I didn’t really believe them but I kept running all the same.
As I reached the Energy Lab road I could see Andreas Raelert, I couldn’t believe it. I was going to get second! I passed him after the turn around at the bottom of the Energy Lab and just as I passed him he stepped into the portaloo. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was feeling a million dollars and the nearest competitor to me just stopped for the toilet! Too easy! Or so I thought.
I had some bad memories of running up the hill from the Energy Lab last year and how I’d had to walk the aid station at the top. In my training run a week earlier I’d also found the hill tough. And now, in second place, I went from feeling a million dollars, to feeling like 2 cents at the same place. As I crested onto the Queen K highway my quadracepts exploded and from every race I’ve ever had this happen there has been nothing but a continual deterioration of speed, and increase in pain. I was in trouble, and not about holding onto second place, but just to get to the finish. I went into immediate damage control. I tried to relax, run more on my toes so the calves took more impact than the quads, and I had to walk about 3 aid stations to give the body a moment to relax, cool it down with lots of water, ice, cold sponges, and mentally relax too. The mental strain of trying to keep running while in such pain and discomfort and holding a slither of technique is incredibly challenging and stressful elevates the heart rate beyond an efficient level.
Andreas Raelert caught me with about 5km to go. I was now thinking if I can just keep moving I can hold onto third. But as Andreas ran past me I knew I had to try to stay with him. I had to at least try. And this is where experience and confidence matters. I’ve been here before, I’ve been in agony when someone has run past me and I’ve tried to go with them and I know there is always something there to dig deep into, even if only for a minute, it all depends on confidence and controlling the body. So I stood tall, leant forward, worked my arms to pick up my stride rate and closed the 4 meter gap quickly. Then a funny thing happened, it was easier to go hard than it was to go slow, and I kept up that pace and went right past Andreas. It was like a sprint for the finish in slow motion with 5km to go. I never looked back until I got to the top of Palani Rd hill, because I knew the way my quads were that downhills were going to shatter them even more so than before, and running the last 1.5km were going to be very tough and almost impossible.
I think I let out a few smiles between the grimaces as I ran down that hill, as I knew I was getting close to the finish, and I was in 2nd place, no matter where third was, I was there, guaranteed a podium finish at the world champs. I looked behind me plenty of times in that last mile, and I was getting slower and more useless, but I was getting closer and with only a few hundred meters left to run I grabbed an Aussie flag as I knew I had 2nd place for sure. It was an incredible feeling, and never lasts long enough. Shortly after crossing the line, I was getting interviewed by Aussie legend Greg Welch and got told I had the fastest run split for the second year in a row. That was awesome news. This year I didn’t wear a watch. I didn’t want the distractions, or care how fast I was running. I just want to run.
I was obviously very happy to finish 2nd, there’s only one person on planet earth better than me at long distance triathlon in 2011. I saw Jaimie on the other side of the fence with my friends and family and as I hugged her I just couldn’t believe it. The pain was over, and it was worth it! It was worth it for me, and it was worth the sacrifices Jaimie has given for me and this race over the last few months. It is a strange ritual getting ready for this race, all the changes that take place, but for now that is all forgotten. I’ve taken the rest of the year as casual training and fitting in as much socialising as I can. Surfing, golf, dinners & drinks, ice creams, and everything else I give up for most of the year.
Thanks so much to Jaimie for being so supportive and caring, and my parents who also come to Kona every year, and my good friends that were there this year and believed me when I said it was worth the trip (a lot more have already booked for next year! Haha).
And this year was extra special because every single sponsor was new this year, and all came on board purely on their belief and confidence in my ability at Hawaii. To have their support emotionally and physically was a huge benefit this year, especially since I only approached and aligned with products I believed completely in. This made for the formula 1 team I have been waiting my career for, and it showed.
Huge thankyou’s to Boardman Bikes, Urban Hotels, F2P Sport, BPM, Rudy Project, ISM, TYR, Shotz, Lazer, Alaska Milk, Healthwise Active Travel, Gaerne, Computrainer, and X-LAB.
Stay tuned. Thanks for watching and especially those who cheered!
P.S. I’ll write part 2 soon with insights into the future and what getting 2nd place at Hawaii means and does for a 29 year old from Sydney with a goal of winning next year. Cheers.