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My Experience at the Ironman World Championship

Posted: Dec 3, 2019

Paul has been a Member at the Toronto Athletic Club for over 15 years, and he decided to take up triathlon in 2011 – 8 years ago, at the age of 53 – without knowing how to swim. He worked hard in the pool with lessons and our triathlon group. He has participated in World Championships for Canada at Olympic distance and has 3 top 10 finishes in his age group at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.

He always said he would never do a full Ironman. Then, in the summer of 2018, he approached me asking what is involved in training for a full Ironman. We came up with a plan for him to qualify for Kona at Ironman Florida in the fall of 2018.

Paul is not only a great athlete who perseveres through every challenge and goal he sets for himself; he truly inspires others to do the same.

Below, you’ll read about his race experience at the Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii.

---

James Corcoran, Personal Trainer & Triathlon Coach, Toronto Athletic Club

jamesc@torontoathleticclub.com

 

Introduction

It had been an extreme effort just to keep running on the dark Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, as my brain kept telling me to walk. Then I saw the turn-off to Palani Drive ahead of me, which meant just over a mile to go. All of a sudden, I got a burst of energy and was able to pick up the pace, accelerating as I turned the corner and tore down Palani Hill, encouraged by the spectators, including my family, turning left at the “hot corner” and then two more rights to the finishing carpet on Ali’i drive. I raised my arms as I crossed the finish line, looking up to see my image on the large screen and hearing the Voice of Ironman, Mike Reilly, shout out “Paul Huyer, YOU ARE AN IRONMAN”.

My journey to Kona started last November, when I was able to win my Age Group at Ironman Florida to qualify for the World Championships. As required, I signed up on the spot and paid my US$975 fee. I’ve since given a lot of thought as to what motivated me to do my first full Ironman[1] and then follow that up with the Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii.

A possible answer may lie in the work of sociologists who study the world of ultra-endurance sports such as Ironman. One such sociologist has concluded that certain people do triathlon for the suffering involved. They feel a specific need to suffer in order to “feel special, distinct from, and above one’s neighbours in meaningful ways. Simply put, crossing the finish line feels good in large measure because it makes people feel good about themselves in comparison to others.” I hope this doesn’t describe me, but I leave it up to you to decide.

Certainly, a motivation for me is that I enjoy and embrace the challenge and the process involved in getting ready for the race. That includes setting an ambitious goal, developing a training plan, carrying out the training, and the detailed planning for the race. Also, I’m always looking for outlets for the energy that I have found that I have a high capacity for physical exertion. I’m an exercise junkie for sure.

I also like to think that my doing an Ironman might inspire others. I’m hoping that seeing a 61-year old like me completing in an Ironman will inspire others to take on a challenge themselves. It doesn’t have to be something athletic. It may just be something that makes you step out of your comfort zone and stretch yourself, where succeeding gives you a strong sense of accomplishment.

The Road to Kona

My triathlon specific training started shortly after I competed in the Boston marathon in April. In order to jumpstart my bike training, I talked my wife, Judy into a “vacation” on the island of Sardinia, Italy, known for its challenging and scenic cycling routes. This was very successful for me as I biked about 350 kms over 5 days on my own. It was a bit lonely for Judy though, as there was only so much for her to do on the island on her own. Training continued back in Toronto and then from our cottage in Muskoka. The first goal was to do well in the Muskoka Ironman 70.3 in early July, with two shorter tune-up races beforehand. Muskoka went really well for me - it was the fastest that I had ever done a half-ironman distance race. The races that I did afterwards: Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, and the Muskoka Rocks 10k run also went well. As a result, my coach James Corcoran and I settled on an aggressive six-week Ironman-specific training program, peaking at just under 24 weekly training hours with my longest swim being 4 kms, bike 185 kms, and run 35 kms. I made sure to practice my race hydration and nutrition plan during my long rides and runs. I also kept up my strength work, stretching, and yoga so that my body could handle all of the training volume. The goal of the program was to achieve a fitness level that would give me a chance at finishing in the top 5 in my age group in Kona. I followed the program to a “T”, my workouts went well, and I was confident in my fitness.

I knew that Kona presented its own unique challenges beyond fitness that I also needed to prepare for. I decided early on that I would arrive on the island three weeks before the race in order to acclimatize to the heat and do recognizance on the course. Judy agreed to come with me to provide support and company and to explore the island on her own. I sought advice from past competitors, including my friends Linnea, who had done the race nine times, and Larbi, who did it twice. Linnea provided very helpful advice on logistics for both leading up to and during the race. Larbi emphasized preparing for the heat and humidity. 

Training on the Big Island

Judy and I arrived in Kona on “The Big Island” of Hawaii the evening of September 22nd, three weeks less a day before the race, and made our way in a rental car from the airport to our VRBO condominium with my huge luggage bag and bike. We were staying just over 2 kms south of the race start in the Sea Village complex on Ali’i Drive. Judy was rightfully nervous about having to spend two weeks with me alone while I was in my pre-race mode, i.e. very focused on myself and my race preparation. The rest of our family was arriving in two weeks to take over support duties and rescue Judy, just as I would be getting more intense. In the meantime, Judy selflessly looked after the shopping, cooking, driving me to my training locations, and planning the odd trip to the beach or meal out.

My early workouts were a shock to me. The ocean swim was choppy and I had to deal with a current. I chose the Energy Lab to do one of my first run workouts, an open area on the course surrounded by lava rock. The sun exposure, humidity, and the black lava rock makes it feel like a furnace and sauna. I felt awful and had to slow down considerably from my planned pace in order to complete the workout. On my first long bike ride, I got three flat tires, a bad sunburn, and dehydration. I was drenched with sweat shortly into each workout. I worked through all of these situations with Judy’s support and we adjusted my plan for subsequent workouts accordingly. This included several visits to the bike store, buying a long-sleeve cooling jersey to train in, easing into my run workouts, and adding more ocean swims. Judy drove me to various parts of the bike course and then went on standby in case I got a flat that I couldn’t fix. She even accompanied me on one ride on her rental Vespa and also handed me water bottles during a long run.

As the two weeks progressed, I gained more confidence from my training. I started getting used to the heat and humidity; drank lots of fluids before, during, and after workouts; and became more comfortable in the ocean, even completing the full 2.4 mile swim course during a workout, and then again on the Sunday before the race in a timed training swim, organized by Ironman with 600 participants. I ended up riding the full bike course in segments during training with emphasize on the climb from Kawaihae to the turnaround in Hawi and subsequent descent where the strong crosswinds can be a factor. Based on this training, I set my targets for the bike course, swim, and marathon run. Each target was in line with my training plan, except for the swim which was slower to allow for the currents and waves. I also decided on my race hydration and nutrition plan. I ran this all by James over the phone and we made a few tweaks. I felt very prepared.

Much to the relief of Judy, our family started arriving a week before the race, starting with my brother, Dirk, nephew Locke, niece Larkin, and her boyfriend John, followed closely by my daughter Taryn. A few days later, Judy’s sister Donna arrived along with our niece Syd. Then came our other daughter Brynn and her boyfriend Dan. All in all, I had 10 of our family there to cheer me on and to provide support. My friends Kim Van Bruggen, who is the CEO of Triathlon Canada, and Scott Cooper were there on business and also would be on the course cheering for me. I felt loved and very fortunate for all the support, although I realized that the unique scenery, volcanoes, snorkeling, beaches, and cool restaurants and bars on The Big Island were definitely as much of an attraction as seeing me race (if not more). I also received an incredible outpouring of encouragement from friends and family through various electronic messages.

One message I received really touched me. It was from my sister-in-law Anna who had been to the race three times as a volunteer. She said, in part, “True personal success is not measured by podium placing but by answering two questions - did I do the work that I needed to be here and did I give it everything I had? If those answers are both yes, then what an incredible day you will have had.” Little did I know how significant these words would become to me late in the race.

Race Morning and The Swim

I woke up at 4:30am on race morning after a restless, but okay sleep. I had set my alarm for that time in order to give my stomach two hours to digest my 750 calorie breakfast as I had done on my long training days. Breakfast consisted of coffee, oatmeal, dates, bagel, peanut butter, and a banana. Judy, who barely slept at all (she was more nervous than I was), was up with me and ready to drive me close to the race start at 5:20am. Once Judy dropped me off, I headed over to transition to get my body marking (race number tattoo on my arms) and load up my bike with my liquid electrolyte and nutrition (chewable gels and a liquid calorie mix). I also dropped off a “special needs bag” containing two more frozen bottles of my electrolyte mix that I would pick up at the bike turnaround. I then made my way over to the swim start to watch the starts of the pro men and pro women races, before heading to my swim start corral.

This was the first year that a full wave start was instituted for Kona. Last year there were two age-group waves, one for the men and one for the women. That would have meant about 1,600 men starting at once. I can’t even imagine the chaos. This year my wave was men 50 years and older with about 350 competitors, starting at 7:10am, five minutes before the first women’s wave. We entered the water at the Kona pier and swam out about 100 meters to the start. Kona is a no-wetsuit swim so that puts me at a disadvantage as my legs sink in the water due to my runner’s body. Being a relatively slower swimmer, I placed myself towards the back of the wave and swam slowly to the start. I stopped swimming when everyone else did and started to get my watch ready. Then before I had a chance to set my watch, the horn went off and the race started. 

My strategy was to stay close to faster swimmers in order to catch their draft, while at the same time sighting to make sure I stayed on course. The water was a bit choppy, but I was used to this from my training swims. For the most part, I was successful in drafting until the women’s wave caught us slower swimmers and many women swam over me. Each time that happened I had to recover and then sprint to catch another swimmer’s draft. Eventually the swim spread out and I was able to stay on the feet of faster swimmers for most of the race after the turnaround. I exited the water and was pleased to see that my time was 1 hour and 28 minutes, 1 minute faster than my target. However, that did place me 55th out of the 69 men in my age group, so I had a lot of ground to make up.  

The Bike

After finishing the swim, I ran up a ramp, hosed the salt water off me, ran over to pick up my bike bag and headed into the tent to change into my long-sleeve, skin tight, white shirt. That took extra time, but we felt it was worth it as the shirt prevented sun burn and provided a cooling effect. I then ran to get my bike from the rack (it wasn’t hard to find, given my place in the swim) and headed out to the bike start. I mounted my bike with my shoes clipped in and put them on successfully while riding. My support group were all wearing silly “Go Paul” hats which I started to notice as I headed off on the bike - it made me smile. 

Based on my training rides, I had divided the 180 km bike course into five segments and set power targets for each. The first part of the bike course is challenging with several corners and two descent climbs. I made sure to not let my adrenaline, nor the enthusiastic cheering of my supporters, (including Locke, who positioned himself at the 8k mark) to cause me to push beyond my power targets. After 13 kms, we turned onto the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway for the next 52 kms, the second fastest segment of the course. After a send-off from Dirk, wearing his trademark flamingo hat, I settled into a good rhythm and monitored my power carefully. I sipped from the straw in my torpedo bottle regularly and took in my 100 calories of nutrition every 20 minutes. It was very hot (90oF) and humid, so I slowed at the aid stations to either fill my bottle with water or dump it over me.

The next segment was 31 kms mostly uphill from the Queen K turnoff to the turnaround in Hawi. This was the segment known for the winds that blow across the road, sometimes strong enough to blow your bike sideways, and then switch to a headwind at the “7 Miles to Hawi” sign. I noticed that the winds were there but not as strong as during my training rides. I continued to feel good on this stretch and stood up from my saddle on the steeper climbs to stretch out my legs. I continued to drink fluids regularly and refilled my bottle at aid stations. Just after the turnaround, I stopped to pick up my two bottles in my special needs bag and put them in my back double-bottle cage. My power reading was a bit higher than target, but not too bad.

The fastest, mostly downhill segment back to the Queen K was up next. I settled into my aerobars and cruised down the first hill, hitting speeds of 70 kph. I was prepared for the occasional crosswind gust, leaning against it and staying relaxed in my aerobars. Prior to the turn onto Queen K we descended into the small port town of Kawaihae, one of the hottest spots on the course and then had to grind up a climb to the Queen K. Given the heat and the climb, I made sure that I didn’t over-exert in this section. I had now completed 70% of the bike course and both my power and average speed were on target towards my goal time for the full ride of 5 hours and 24 minutes. I was pleased!

I made the turn onto the Queen K with 53 kms to go and expected to cruise down a hill. However, I was surprised to see that my speed was not increasing as much as it should and realized that we had a strong headwind. Okay, no problem, it’s going to affect everyone so I will just have to deal with it. The headwind continued and my speed slowed. I expected that, but what surprised me was that my power reading started dropping as well. It should have been around 210 watts and was first in the 190s and then in the 180s. I started to get passed by other cyclists, something that had only happened rarely prior to this point. I continued to sip my drink and take in my liquid carbohydrate mix, but noticed it was making me nauseous. I started getting stomach cramps and gas, something that very rarely happens to me on the bike either during training or racing. After about 40 kms or so, the headwind died down and my speed improved, but I still wasn’t feeling great. Seeing Locke and flamingo Dirk cheering at the Energy Lab picked up my spirits and I finished the bike strongly. My time for the bike was 5 hours and 37 minutes[2], 13 minutes slower than my target, losing all of that time in that last segment. I was concerned about my stomach and that I hadn’t peed at all since the start of the race - normally I would pee once or twice on a ride that long. Perhaps I didn’t drink enough or my nutrition wasn’t working or both?

The Run

As I rolled down the hill towards the bike dismount, I took my feet out of my shoes, hopped off my bike and handed it to a volunteer bike catcher. I then ran towards the changing tent and picked up my run bag, exchanging my helmet for my running hat and shoes. Before starting the run, I ducked into the port-a-potty and was able to pee a bit. I headed out on the run course and was enthusiastically cheered on by Kim and then Larkin and John a little way up the road. On the strength of their support, I ran my first two kms faster than I planned and had to make a deliberate effort to slow down. I made the turn onto Ali’i Drive feeling pretty good and saw Judy, Donna, Syd, and Taryn cheering like crazy for me at the Sea Village and then Brynn and Dan. I asked them to give me my position on the way back. When I saw them again, they told me that I was 24th in my age group, so I knew that I had my work cut out for me in order to reach my goal of top 5.  However, the marathon was my strength so I decided to stick to my pacing strategy and hope that I was able to pass a lot of the other older guys. After 30 minutes, I took my first gel as planned, washing it down with water at the aid station. My stomach complained a bit, but not too bad. Soon, I noticed my energy start to wane somewhat and I slowed my pace slightly. When I turned the corner onto Palani at about 10k, I was greeted by cheers from Larkin and John which gave me extra energy for the steep climb up to the Queen K. 

At the hour mark, I was a bit behind my target pace, but still running okay although my stomach started to bother me more. I took my next gel which really upset my stomach. I drank two cups of water at the next aid station and tried to carry on. However, I had to make a u-turn and head back to the port-a-potty that I just passed. After exiting the port-a-potty, I felt lightheaded and decided to walk for a bit. I was light-headed and in gastro-intestinal distress, so I knew it was going to take me a long time and a fair bit of suffering to complete the remaining 29 kms or so of the marathon. It would be much easier for me to drop out of the race and walk the short 2k down Palani to the finish line. I thought about my motive to inspire others and about all my supporters on the course, including Dirk and Locke waiting for me up the road at the Energy Lab, and decided I had to continue, no matter how long it took me.

I started to jog which took a lot of effort at first, even though my pace was about 6 minutes per km or a minute slower than my target. There were aid stations every mile and I walked through these drinking water and grabbing sponges and ice to cool myself down. I even tried some coke which gave me a bit of a pick up as I was coming up to the Energy Lab where I saw Dirk and Locke cheering for me. I told them it wasn’t my day, but that I was feeling a bit better and would continue. By that time, the sun was setting so it was cooling down nicely. Despite that, I still was not feeling well and had to make two more port-a-potty stops. I continued to drink coke at the aid stations which gave me a brief jolt of energy each time. I had to slow my pace to about 6:30 per km, including walk breaks. After exiting the Energy Lab and seeing Dirk and Locke once again, I knew that I had 11 kms to go and that I would finish. When I finally reached the home stretch down Palani, I was able to pick up the pace and finish strong[3] as I saw first Larkin and John, then Brynn and Dan, and finally, Judy, Taryn, Scott, Donna, and Syd all cheering for me.  I ran down the finishing carpet, high fiving spectators and saw Kim waving a Canadian flag and cheering wildly for me. I had completed the marathon in 4 hours and 14 minutes, 43 minutes over my target, but I was so happy and relieved to have finished. 

Post-Race

After crossing the finish line, I was met by a pair of volunteers who supported me by putting my arms on their shoulders. As they walked me toward the athlete recovery area, they asked how I was doing and seemed to be testing me by asking a few times where I was from. When I gave the same answer each time and was able to manage a wobbly walk without their support, they passed me off to two more volunteers who continue to escort me and ask the same question.  As I answered “Toronto, Canada”, each time, they eventually turned me loose and I headed over to the recovery area for something to drink and maybe eat. I drank as much as I could and then had an ice cream sandwich. I tried some of the other food, but my mouth was too dry. I decided that it would be a good time for a nap so I laid down flat on my back. I then realized I had upwards of 12 people waiting for me and probably worried about me, so I stood up and went to find a way out to meet them. That would have taken a while, but luckily Dirk saw me and shouted at me.

 

I exited and was soon surrounded by all ten of my family members as well as Scott and his friend Andrew. Their presence really picked up my spirits and I started joking with them as I sat down on the grass. Scott asked me how I was feeling and I said really thirsty and that I had a craving for a non-alcoholic beer. He then went off and soon returned with a selection of drinks including a regular beer, which I promptly opened and took a big swig. I was ready to party! Smartly, I also drank the San Pellegrino, root beer, and large bottle of Perrier that he brought me. Feeling better after all the fluids, I walked with Judy, Taryn, John, and Larkin to where Locke was waiting with the car. Judy was careful to make sure that I didn’t fall off any curbs along the way. We all met up at the Sea Village for a bit of a post-race party. Surprisingly, I felt pretty good, even though Judy said that I looked very thin and gaunt. After Taryn fed me half a watermelon, I felt even better as I restored the water levels in my body. Judy said she could see my internal water levels returning to normal before her eyes. We celebrated with a few beers before everyone decided to call it a night. It was a long day for everyone!

Final Thoughts

As my total time for the race of 11 hours and 30 minutes was almost an hour over my goal time, I was naturally disappointed. I ended up finishing 18th out of 69 starters in my Age Group, about 50 minutes behind the fifth-place finisher. In analyzing what happened, I realized that although my plan was to drink 7 or 8 bottles of fluid on the bike, I got so focused on my power stats and the wind that I lost track of how much I actually drank and didn’t execute my plan. I also had nutrition issues where eventually the carbohydrates I was taking in started to rapidly pass through my body. Both of these issues led to a significant drop in my energy levels, starting late on the bike and continuing during the run. Kona is a very difficult race with so many different facets to preparation and execution and even the best athletes can miss something and have a bad day. Lionel Sanders, a Canadian professional who has won many races and has finished second overall in Kona, and Alistair Brownlee, a two-time Olympic goal medalist, had similar issues to me during the marathon. It is hard to nail down your nutrition and hydration for any given day in Kona, and only through trial and error training and racing in hot, humid conditions can you perfect that. That’s not something that I’m prepared to do!

In the end, I went back to the two questions posed by Anna in her email and answered “YES” to both of them. So, I realized that it was an incredible experience shared with family and friends. Thanks to all of you for your supportive comments on email and social media both before and after the race. They meant a lot to me!


[1] An Ironman comprises a 2.4 mile (3.8km) swim, 112 mile (180km) bike and 26.2 mile (42.2km) run. 

[2] For the triathlon geeks reading this, my normalized power was 195 watts (vs 205 target) and speed was 32.1 kph (vs. 33.3 target)

[3] It’s interesting that it was my brain that forced me to slow down during the marathon. My heart rate was about 40 bpm less than what it is during a long training run and my legs were not that sore or tired after the race. Once my brain realized the finish was near, it let my legs go faster.

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