We arrived in Kailua Kona just under 2 weeks before race day and I must say, I am very glad we did. I had heard a lot about the conditions in Kona, so being on the Island to acclimatise to the heat and humidity, as well as the time difference, was a must. The first week in Kona was very quiet. Not many athletes and no real signs that there was to be the biggest race in triathlon in just over a weeks time. We were staying in a condo around a 15-minute drive away from Dig Me Beach, where the Ironman World Championship Swim start would take place. The first couple of days on the Island were a matter of getting the body clock to adjust to the time difference and start to turn the legs over. A couple of easy sessions and a few days seemed to do the trick. I then went out for a 4-hour ride along the famous Queen Kaahumanu Highway. I was a bit nervous at first, as I had heard a few stories of athletes getting knocked off their bikes and obviously the 2 very serious crashes involving Tim Don and Matt Russell from 2017. Catrin and I agreed that she would drive to a location, roughly 45 miles away from where I started my ride, to give me fresh water bottles and nutrition. I can’t thank Catrin enough for everything she did for me in Kona. Following me around, ensuring I had everything I needed, planning when and where we were going to eat, what we were doing each day and getting all of my kit and nutrition ready. I basically just rolled out of bed and trained. Over the next few days, I did a few runs along Ali’i Drive and practice swims on the swim course. Catrin joined me on my swims and we were both lucky enough to see a pod of around 20-25 wild dolphins swimming underneath us, a sight I will never forget.
The second week was like a completely different place. The masses of athletes started arriving and all of the stalls started to go up. The vibe of the World Championships was truly taking off. One thing I was really looking forward to was meeting the Pro triathletes and the athletes that inspire me and give me the motivation to compete. Well, it didn’t take long until I was completely starstruck. We went out for a coffee after our morning swim and as we sat down at our table I noticed that Jan Frodeno was sitting at the table next to us. Jan Frodeno is my all time favourite triathlete and in my opinion the greatest triathlete ever. I couldn’t contain my excitement and I certainly wasn’t going to pass this opportunity for a photo. He must get asked hundreds of times a day for a photo, so to be so cool about it is something I admire. We had a quick chat and he wished me luck for Saturday and from that point on I couldn’t stop smiling.
We had a look around the expo tents and I could have spent thousands of dollars, seeing all the Kona Ironman merchandise and new gadgets coming out. I bought a couple of tops and training kit and Catrin got a new pair of Roka sunglasses. Spotting all the other Pro triathletes wondering around the stalls really hit home, that I was actually here competing against the best triathletes in the World.
The week leading into the race, Hugo’s on the rocks holds interviews with all of the top Male and Female Pro triathletes. This is hosted by Bob Babbitt. Bob has been inducted into the Ironman Hall of Fame and is an all-round Top guy. I managed to meet with the defending champion and now back to back Ironman World Champion Patrick Lange, as well as Branden Currie and Sebastian Kienle. Listening to these guys was really motivating and very interesting in their journey into triathlon.
I had been joking around on my social media that my ‘A’ race out in Kona was the underpants run. I entered Catrin and me into the race many months ago and all the proceeds go to charity. It is a 1.5 mile run out and back along Ali’i drive in your underpants. A bit of fun and all for a good cause. I saw Jesse Thomas at the start and I had another bit of a joke on social media with him, that I paced him around the underpants run. Now that my ‘A’ race was taken care of, I could relax over the next few days and prepare for the Race on Saturday.
As part of my preparation over the next few days, I had entered the Hoala Training Swim, on the Thursday. The Hoala swim is a chance for the age group athletes to race against the pros on the exact swim course. The water is crystal clear and the fish are beautiful, lovely for snorkelling but not really what I came here for. The water is very choppy and I knew that for me, it wouldn’t be a fast swim.
I lined up behind the orange buoy, but noticed a lot of swimmers around 30 metres or so in front of it. I decided to stay where I was, as I wanted an honest time for the swim. Josh Amberger and Lucy Charles were first out of the water (as expected) and I came in 23rd position, In a time of 50.48 After the swim, I managed to get a photo with Lionel Sanders, which was pretty cool. Overall I was satisfied with my swim and I’m glad I was able to swim the course with the other athletes to gauge a feel of what it would be like on race day.
The day before the race was the time where we were able to rack our bikes and hang our Bike and Run bags in the transition tents. As I arrived at the pier where our bikes were going to be racked, I was met by my own personal volunteer. The volunteer then escorted me to where my bike was to be placed and ran through everything I needed to know for race day. I couldn’t thank her enough. She went over everything and wouldn’t allow me to leave until I was 100% happy with what I needed to know. We were told to make sure everything we needed was in our bike and run bags, as we would not be allowed to access them on race morning. My bike was in transition, tyres deflated and I headed back to the condo for some rest.
My alarm was set for 3 am, as we had to drive around 15 minutes to the start, find a place to park and walk down to the transition area. When we got to the King Kamehameha Beach Hotel, I was shown where to go for body marking. Again my own personal volunteer applied my race number tattoos and then escorted me to where my bike was. We weren’t allowed to take our own pumps into transition, but they supplied more than enough to go around. There were loads of very helpful volunteers on the pier with torches and pumps to help you set up your bike. I pumped up my tyres, applied all my nutrition to my bike, along with my frozen water bottles and helmet and away I went to find Catrin, who had my tri suit and swim skin. I had given myself more than enough time to sort everything out, so I had around an hour and a half before I was due to start.
Before heading over to the entrance of the swim start, I gave Catrin a huge hug and kiss and she wished me all the luck in the world. ‘Race hard’ she said. As I was walking over to the swim start I heard the cannon go off for the Male Pro athletes to start. I could see the helicopter circling above the ocean and this is where the nerves started creeping in. Surprisingly until that point, I hadn’t been nervous at all. 5 minutes later the second cannon went off and that was the start of the Women Pro athletes. By this time I had made my way over the timing mat and waded my way into the water. I looked at my watch and it was 06.45 am. I swam out to the start line, which was about 100m from the shore and had to tread water for 15-20 minutes waiting for the canon to go off.
I wanted to start somewhere near the front so I had no choice but to join everyone entering the water for a 20 minute battle for the front row. I got there but it was a battle. The helicopters were circling and the wall around the pier was lined with spectators. The atmosphere was incredible, but I just wanted to start. The cannon fired and I was off. My plan was to get out quickly and stick with the front pack. As expected the first few hundred metes was fast. There were a lot of swimmers jostling for position, just like in any other race. Usually, I am able to get somewhere near the front and find some clear water, but this race was different. I was getting hit and kicked pretty much all the way out to the turn around point. The turn around point is around a large boat and then it is a straight line back into the finish. There were some extremely fast swimmers in the lead pack and I lost them fairly quickly. I was stuck in a close group of swimmers, which I couldn’t get away from. Coming into the finish, I knew I hadn’t put in a quick time. I exited the swim in 53.16 I ran through the showers and into changing tent. I quickly whipped off my swim skin, threw it into my transition bag and collected my bike.
I was expecting a fair few people to pass me in the first few miles on the bike because even with a 53 I was confident I would have come out before some decent cyclists, this is exactly what happened but I had to be disciplined at this point and stick my race plan.
The first 8 or 10 miles are around town and along the Kuakini highway, this section of the race was well supported, but there were a couple of dead turns and then it was out onto the Queen K for an out and back route to the turnaround point in Hawi. I started on my nutrition early and kept in my mind to keep hydrated and cool as it was going to be a very hot day. The course is rolling and is known for long roads and fierce crosswinds, but for some reason this year the wind was being kind to us. There were around 20 riders all in a line in front of me and all within the legal draft zone. I sat in this line for a good 20-25 miles and kept my plan in mind.
I have seen a number of images where drafting is clearly evident. 40-50 riders all riding in a large group, almost like a sportive, but I didn’t witness anything like this during my race. A large majority of people exit the swim between 60-80 minutes and for these, there is not much choice but to ride in a pack. That being said, I did see a few people who were taking the p*ss and could have raced a more honest race, that’s on them! Every race has some kind of drafting and people who want splits quicker than they are capable of. I did see a few people get a blue card for drafting, but there should have been more handed out and that’s only from what I saw. I was roughly 12-14 miles away from Hawi when I saw the lead car heading towards me. This was my first chance to see the Male Pros coming back in the opposite direction and I was excited to see who would be leading. Cameron Wurf and Andrew Starykowicz have had a bit of banter on social media leading into Kona, both of them aiming to break the bike course record, so I was expecting these 2 to be leading the race. Sure enough, it was Wurf. It gave me an extra boost seeing the pros riding back towards me and it was certainly a surreal moment.
I reached the turnaround point at Hawi and I felt really good. I stopped at the special needs station and collected my 3 bottles. Well, I collected 2 and dropped 1, which rolled out into the middle of the road. Luckily a volunteer ran out and picked it up for me. Once I got going again I was on my own. I could see a small group of riders in the distance, so my aim was to chase them down. I rode the next 20 miles or so completely on my own. I only passed 1 rider, who was a female pro. I eventually managed to catch the group of age groupers and go past them. My legs were feeling good and my power was slightly higher than expected. I had kept on top of my nutrition as planned and came into T2 feeling good. Bike split 4.44.56 and a Normalised Power of 262 Average Power 256
Into T2, a volunteer took my bike, I grabbed my run bag and I went straight to the changing tent. I sat down and put my socks and trainers on, while a volunteer placed an ice cold towel on my shoulders. Absolute legend. I wasted little time in the changing tent, put on my race number, sunglasses and hat and away I went.
The number of volunteers at this race is phenomenal and this allows every participant to be treated like a pro. I honestly can’t thank each of them enough.
Straight out of T2 and you’re faced with a short hill then there is a 3.5 mile out and back along Ali’i drive. As I was running along Ali’i drive, I made sure I was sticking to my target pace and ensured I took on ice and water at every feed station to try and keep the body temperature down. The temperature was around 30-31 degrees by this point and no shelter from the sun. I was feeling good and my legs were ticking over nicely, Coming back along Ali’i drive, there is a climb up Palani, which goes on for around 300 metres or so at a 6% gradient. A lot of athletes were walking this section, but I decided to keep running. I passed around 10 athletes running up this short section of road. I was then out onto the Queen K and the sun was blazing. I remember looking at the road surface ahead of me and seeing the heat rising off the tarmac. I reached into my race belt pouch to grab a salt tablet, only to find they had all dissolved. Oh shit. I tried to forget about this and take on enough fluid and nutrition to keep me hydrated.
Running along the Queen K is hard going because you can see for miles in front of you and the only thing you can see is the road, athletes and the heat rising off the floor. There are very few spectators on the highway, so support is non-existent. It’s a mental battle just as much as a physical battle, being out there. Running through the halfway point and still feeling pretty good and still on target for a decent run split. This is where I saw the lead motorbike coming towards me. I remember getting quite excited to find out who was leading the race. My initial thought was Patrick Lange or Sebastian Kienle. A blue tri suit approached and I knew it was Lange. He looked like he was out for an afternoon tempo session. He was moving so quickly and effortlessly. Next to come through was Bart Aernouts And then David McNamee. It was amazing seeing these athletes racing and just how quickly they were running. A few more pros went past, but no Kienle or Sanders. I thought I must have missed them, but later found out that Kienle had pulled out after 1 mile of the run and Sanders was just having a horrid time.
Passing mile 15 was a turning point in my race. I started to get cramp in my right quad and also for some reason in both of my forearms. The cramp in my quad got worse and it forced me to stop and stretch for a few minutes. I started running again, but the cramps were still there. I had to slow my pace down to try and deal with the cramping.
Turning off the Queen K and into the dreaded energy lab. I had done a couple of training sessions in the energy lab in the lead up to the race, to try and gauge some sort of feeling for it. A lot of people talk about the energy lab being the key point of the race because the conditions there are extreme. Running down the hill and into the energy lab, I could feel the breeze slowly disappear. By this point, the temperature had reached 35 degrees. Bloody hell it was hot. Thankfully there were 4 aid stations within 3 miles, so I grabbed water, coke, sponges, ice, anything I could get my hands on. I remember getting to the turn around point in the energy lab and just dunking my head in a bin of ice. I started running back and I could see 3 athletes laying flat out on their backs on the side of the road, with volunteers pouring water over them. At least I wasn’t in as much pain as these guys. As I exited the energy lab and back onto the Queen K, I thought to myself, right this is the last leg, just keep moving. I had about 8 miles left to go and any race plan or pacing was out the window. By this time I could not stomach any more nutrition, having only taken 2 gels anyway. I tried to take another gel, but I immediately threw it back up. This was the case for anything that went into my mouth. I would run a bit, be sick then run some more. I tried to drink coke, but that too would just come straight back up. I thought I’m going to have to run the rest of the race with just water. The cramps hadn’t got any easier either. It was turning into a survival battle and one I was not going to lose. I kept thinking of Catrin at the finish line and just seeing her. That’s all I wanted. A lot of athletes passed me over the next 4-5 miles and there was nothing I could do. I walked every feed station from 18 miles to the finish, grabbing anything I could get my hands on. One volunteer obviously could see I was in a lot of pain and he walked with me for a few metres and asked if I needed anything. ‘yeah, a lift’ I replied. He laughed and threw a bucket of ice over my head. Thanks mate. There is an incline at around mile 24 of the marathon and I had that in my sight. I knew that once I got over that incline, it was downhill into the finishing straight. I pushed myself up that section of road and reached the top of Palani. I knew I only had just over a mile to go, so gave it every last bit of energy to ensure I got there. Before the race, I agreed with Catrin that I would take the Welsh flag from her somewhere near the finishing line. Once I reached the finishing chute, I was looking for Cat, but couldn’t see her. I thought I must have missed her, but as I came around the corner, there she was waving the flag at me. I grabbed the flag from her and stumbled towards the line. I just about had enough energy left to hold the Welsh flag above my head for the photographer to take my finisher photo. Those famous words and the voice of Mike Riley “Nathan Ford you are an Ironman” I had done it, I had finished the Ironman World Championships.
I had no idea what my time was and at that moment in time, I didn’t even care. I almost collapsed but was caught by 2 volunteers. They both took me, one under each arm over to an area which looked like a war zone. There were bodies sprawled out all over the place. I had pins and needles all over my face and body and felt absolutely awful. I was given a couple of salted dough balls and after about 45 minutes, I started to feel a bit better. The volunteers wouldn’t leave me until they knew I was ok, which again I can’t thank them enough for. Once I started to come around, I got speaking to another athlete from Germany and he asked me how I did. ‘To be honest mate, I don’t know’ I had a quick look at my watch and saw 9.19.42 I wasn’t sure if that was accurate because I couldn’t remember stopping my watch. There was a tent where you could get your official time, so I stumbled over there and sure enough, it was 9.19.42 And a 3.36.09 run split. A 20 minute PB, so I was happy. The race didn’t go exactly to plan, but it never does in an Ironman. The village area where the athletes gathered at the finish was pretty cool, they had a flood of dominos pizza deliveries coming through every 30 minutes or so and loads of different foods and drinks to choose from. They also had massage tents, but I just wanted to go and find Catrin. We arranged to meet at the front of the King Kamehameha Beach Hotel, so I slowly made my way over there and saw her. Emotion got the better of me and I started welling up. I gave her a huge, sweaty hug and said the same thing I always say after an Ironman, ‘thank god that’s over’
Am I thrilled, that it’s over, yes! That I have a new PB, yes! With the time, yes! With the race, so so!
Having had the chance to look back and analyse the race, I feel I could have done a bit more. As they say hindsight is a wonderful thing. I am very proud of my performance, I felt I raced an honest race and gave it my absolute all. Obviously, there are times where you feel like quitting, but those are the times where you have to dig deep and think about why you are doing it. I have said it a number of times before, ‘Pops is my inspiration and one of the reasons I want to succeed. I know he’s not with us in person, but he was with me in Kona and there was no way I was giving up with him there watching me.