The Big Island of Hawaii is triathlon’s Mecca, yet few triathletes get to experience the Ironman World Championship first-hand, and fewer still race it as a professional. So once the cannon fires, what’s it really like? What of the rough water swim? The rolling Queen K highway? The furnace of the natural energy lab? Or the finish chute on Ali’i Drive? To gain a first-hand perspective, 2017’s third-place finisher, Huub athlete David McNamee takes us inside his race…
Interview: Tim Heming
“There’s no place to hide. It starts when the flight lands and is completely different to any other event - a world championship for professionals and amateurs where everyone congregates in one small town on a remote island. There’s one road everybody runs and bikes on, and I see my competition every single day. I don’t think there’s any other sporting event where you experience the same build-up.
“On race day, I give myself an extra 10-minute buffer and feel the nervous excitement as I arrive at the pier. It’s pitch black but everyone’s milling around - some looking focused, others worried. I try to stick to my regular pre-race routine. Then the sun comes up, I see the beautiful ocean... and everyone in their best shape.
“It feels an eternity before the start. A lot of people look for the best swimmers to follow, but I just pick my spot and stay put. I don’t want to waste energy. In most Ironman races there’ll be half-a-dozen good swimmers, so there won’t be much contact. The cannon sounds in Kona and I’m back to my ITU days - 50 triathletes fighting for the water and a lot more congestion.
“It’s panic. Head down, I swim as hard as I can and when I do look up, I want to sight the stand-up paddler who is with the race leader. I want to be close. After 500m it settles down and the nervous excitement fades. I’m only thinking about conserving energy and making sure there are no splits in the swim pack.
“Then we reach the pier and it’s back to ITU days again - sprinting through transition. There’s probably a pack of 20 and there’s a big difference between being first or last with regards to how much effort I have to put in at the start of the bike.
“The first 10km of riding is full on. I’m striving to get towards the front and not let gaps open that someone overtaking can slot into. It’s not until we get on to the long open Queen K highway that we settle into a rhythm. I’ll assess the competition and realise: ‘Shit, I’ve still got a long way to go.’
“As the temperature rises and we start to climb to the turnaround at Havi where it’s windy, I start feeling it. After the descent, we hit the Queen K again and that’s when the heat and humidity really kick in. If I’ve overstepped my limits by this point, I’m buggered.
“When I’m tired and hit by a strong crosswind it gets more difficult, mentally as well as physically, but the last thing I want is a headwind. If I’m pushing big watts but not going very fast, it messes with my head.
“All I see on the Queen K is the dots of fellow competitors up the road and it can be soul destroying, Last year at this point, one motorbike came by and gave a look as if to say: ‘You’re in for a long day.’
“Back into town and I see humans again. At T2, I run to grab my bag and get to the change-tent. It’s only 100m but tells me a lot about what’s going to happen over the next 42km. Last year, about eight of us came into transition together, but Patrick Lange and I came out first. We were the ones ready to keep racing. Others sat down for those extra four or five seconds and mentally switched off.
“It’s game-on running along Ali’i Drive at the start of the marathon. It’s an out-and-back stretch and the moment I see what’s happened during the last stages of the bike. Last year I wasn’t that far behind and by 10km was up into fifth or sixth place.
“Then I hit Palani Road, the steepest part of the course. It’s probably only 250m and although you’d still feel it in any other race, it’s especially brutal here. It probably rivals the Energy Lab for the hottest point on the course and once I’ve crested it and I’m on to the Queen K, I need a couple of kilometres to recover. And I’ve still not covered half the run.
“The highway is all but deserted, which is part of the beauty of the race, but also part of the challenge. I keep my own rhythm, but if I’m having a bad day, it’s a very lonely place.
“I come off the Queen K at mile 16 and pass the sign that says Natural Energy Lab. It starts with a slight downhill and is about 800m of gradual uphill on the way out. It feels like a mountain as I’ve been racing for over seven hours at this point.
“Coming back into town, fellow triathletes start coming the other way and shouting encouragement. But the rolling hills can be deceptive, and I believe the last 10km of this race is probably one of the hardest things you can do in a sporting event. Everyone has emptied themselves.
“Descending Palani is a quad-killer, everything aches, but as I turn back to Ali’i Drive with 800m left, the adrenaline kicks in and carries me to the finish. I see spectators, the red carpet and it’s what I’ve dreamed about and focused on for so long.
“In Hawaii I dig deeper than ever before. It’s a beautiful backdrop, but it could be a parking lot, and I’d still have the same sense of achievement.”