Beauty and the Beast

by Cherie Gruenfeld

I recently competed in the Honu 70.3 (Half Ironman) in Kona, Hawaii.

This is a unique race for several reasons:

  1. The bike is on the Ironman World Championship course. For many, this will be their only chance to battle the Kona winds and experience a little of what they see each year on tv.
  2. This event, like the Kona Ironman, can be likened to the Beauty and the Beast. It takes place in an area that can be aptly described as paradise, but you’re required to work like the devil to get to the finish line.
  3. The terrain is not the issue. The elements are. Big waves, shifting currents, strong crosswinds and off-the-charts heat and humidity are the order of the day.

Each year thousands make the trek to the Big Island to test themselves and see what they’re made of.

This year, the ocean was fairly gentle and the winds were calmer than usual. Experienced Kona racers can tell you that’s usually a set-up for a nasty run. And that’s exactly what we got.

The Run

On paper, this run looks fairly benign. Here’s the description from the Athlete Guide:

Beautiful doesn’t begin to describe the run course as it winds through the breathtaking resort grounds. This is the only opportunity you will probably ever have to run on the gorgeous fairways of a world class resort golf course without getting arrested!
From rolling hills of green grass, to feeling the ocean breeze along the stunning coastal bay, then heading all the way out to the petroglyph park, this run is truly a journey through paradise.

Sounds like a different place than we were running last weekend - for several reasons:
  • Expecting big winds on the bike and finding conditions to be favorable, many took advantage of a fast ride - overextending themselves and finding the fuel tanks a little low for the run.
  • Ocean breeze......not so much! The air on the run course was stiflingly still. This isn’t false advertising. Some years there is a nice breeze and sometimes the wind is blasting. That’s Kona!
  • The beauty of the green grass on the world class golf course is lost on the runners because the already-high humidity jumps higher (feels like it doubles). It’s crazy, but you almost find yourself craving the black pavement when you’re running on the grass.
  • In Hawaii there are beautiful trees and plenty of lush greenery. This run misses all that. The only shade in this 13.1 mile run is one golf cart tunnel about ten feet long. The sun is beating down  relentlessly. Where, oh where is that advertised ocean breeze?  Not to be found this year.

Approaching the Run

The first step in handling this race, which usually boils down to how you handle the run, is to go in understanding that it’s going to be plenty tough. Even if the day hands out mild conditions, it’s going to require every ounce of guts you have. On a day of really difficult conditions, you may feel you’ll need to go beyond what you think you’re capable of. This is not unlike any distance race. But facing rugged terrain or challenging, and sometimes dangerous, elements truly ups the ante.

Here are some thoughts on how you might approach a run in challenging heat:
  • Knowing that the run is going to make or break your race, prepare for it on the bike.  Let go of the feeling that you’re racing for a bike PR and embrace the strategy that you’re looking to set yourself up for a strong run with good nutrition and an appropriate pace during the bike leg.
  • Execute your pre-race plan. Eat and drink on schedule. If your strategy is to walk/run, start that plan at mile one and stick to it. Get into your rhythm and hold your goal pace. Monitor your plan throughout - it will keep you focused and moving forward.
  • Take full advantage of the aid stations. Use ice as your personal air conditioner: Put it under your hat, on your wrists, down your jog bra or down your shorts. I use a plastic baggie and refill it with two cups of ice at every aid station and put it down my bra. I can chew on the ice chips along the way and, as it melts, I press on the baggie and ice cold water comes out of the baggie and down my torso - very refreshing.
  • Keep moving. Sounds simple, but the urge to stop the pain by walking is a strong one. Once you take an unplanned break - stop running and start walking - it becomes so much easier to do it again and again and again. Except for very steep hills, most of us can run faster than we can walk. So each time you walk, you’re losing time.
  • Walking briskly through each aid station can be a very good strategy for some, but there are guidelines:
    • Start walking when you come to the first hand-off
    • Start running again when you come to the last hand-off
    • Make the walk purposeful - keep grabbing ice, water, electrolyte, sponges
    • Think of running just one mile - to the next aid station. Fill up and get prepared, mentally and physically, for the next mile.
  • Stay tough. No one ever said this was going to be easy. Everyone is hurting. You have to believe that you are physically able to keep moving. Regardless of how ugly you think your run looks or how slow you feel, keep moving forward.
  • Maintain good running form as much as possible. It’s difficult to do when you’re in the hurt locker and the finish line is still a ways off. You don’t have to have perfect form at this point for it to make a difference. Focusing on just a few key things will help:
    • Stand tall, head up, shoulders back
    • Keep a steady turnover
    • Make your arms work for you, swinging forward above your waist

  • Again, stay tough! This will all be over soon and you want to end it feeling like you gave it your very best effort. And when you see that finish line, let your smile reflect your pride in what you’ve just accomplished. You’ve earned that finisher’s medal!

Good luck - Cherie