Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Emily’s race of her life!

14 October 2023

As I sit twelve hours into a long flight home from Kona I find myself reflecting on the fact that this journey actually started all the way back in 2007 when Chris and I found ourselves on a mountain biking adventure in Nepal with a remarkable lady called Dot.

Dot was World Ironman Champion at the age of 75 and meeting her sixteen years ago planted a seed of an idea. Over the years that seed has become a very clear goal. On Saturday – thanks to my very supportive husband and kids – it became a dream fulfilled.

Saturday was the first ever all women’s race at Kona and so it seems fitting to mention the other key lady in this journey and that’s Allie. She has masterminded every step of training, qualification and preparation but more importantly has also been by my side throughout the journey from qualifying at Ironman UK in July to the more appealing proposition of Hawaii!

I qualified for Kona on 2nd July this year. On 6th July the kids broke up for summer holidays. The summer came and went with few hot days and left me in September with one month to prepare both mentally and physically for the race of my life.

My approach was two fold and all driven by Allie’s scientific research into heat acclimatisation. On the one hand I would take out a one month membership to Westminster Lodge. I would complete regular sessions on the watt bike or treadmill raising my core body temperature before a thirty minute session in the sauna. In the last week before flying out I was in the sauna most days.

This was complemented by specific heat training with Victoria at the University of Hertfordshire laboratory which could be set up to mimic conditions in Kona. In my final session I ran for 60mins on the treadmill at race pace in 32 degrees, 80% humidity. I wanted to experience the very worst and know that I could perform in it. It was about confidence to perform just as much as physical preparation.

Looking back now, September was pretty brutal but I enjoyed having such a clear goal and found it fascinating to see the results of tests at the beginning and end of each university session. By recording blood, temperature and weight we could see the impact of the heat on my body and importantly how it was adapting as the month wore on. I should also add at this point that racing the Vitruvian in the heat in early September was good preparation though sadly it left me with a stomach issue that lingered for two weeks and although didn’t stop me training it did leave me feeling pretty depleted at times.

Allie and I flew out to Kona on Monday 9 October, five days ahead of the race. Thankfully there was much to immerse ourselves in out there as it was the furthest and longest I’d ever been away from my family in 12 years. The preparation to stock the freezer and write endless briefing notes kept me distracted right up until boarding the plane.

Our week was spent doing bike, run and swim recces. Finding the toughest sections of the course or the hottest/windiest parts of the day to experience all that the island could throw at us. This was interspersed with the much more enjoyable swim out to the coffee boat, meeting pros at Breakfast with Bob, shopping in the Ironman expo (very good merch, Ruth) exploring the corals and fish in the harbour. The whole island lived and breathed the Ironman for the week. It was alive and so too was I, often at times of the night when I should have been sleeping.

I set up transition and racked late on Friday purposefully to avoid leaving the bike out in the heat of the day and risk tyres exploding. The many 1000s of Ironman volunteers meant everything was like clockwork. More importantly each and every one genuinely wanted to be there and their enthusiasm was infectious. They were on your side and this all added to such a positive vibe. I felt part of something big and at times this felt overwhelming, none more so than on race morning where both Allie and I were struggling to hold back the tears. More than once I found myself saying “right it’s time to do this now”.

Over the course of the week we had experienced all conditions but it was reassuring to see the ocean relatively calm on race morning. My age group was the very last to start – not what I’d have chosen – but it did give me the opportunity to spy LCB coming into T1 as I began my swim.

A long line of buoys marked the out and back swim course as far as the eye could see. Boats were moored at the turnaround point but these weren’t visible yet. The water temperature was 28 degrees so instead of a wetsuit I wore a swim skin. From the outset I remembered an anecdote from a friend warning ‘salt is a bitch’. She was right. The chaffing during the swim was on another level. Thankfully the clear blue waters, occasional shoals of fish and possibility of seeing dolphins/turtles were a good distraction. I swam strong and caught swimmers from earlier waves. I gave it my all which was the only aim that day.

After applying half a tub of Vaseline to the chaffing I was onto the bike. Saw Allie a few times as we did one local Kona lap before heading off along the famous Queen K Highway into the black barren lava fields before the climb up to the infamous halfway point at Hawi. I’d been warned that Hawi can be so windy you’re almost clinging onto the bike. I’d experienced winds in Lanzarote 70.3 in March and Ironman UK and actually on race day Hawaii was generally a whole lot calmer than Bolton had been. Drank about 6 bottles, ate food regularly throughout and felt like I was smashing the bike. Delighted with a time of just over 6hrs and many of these hours spent on the TT bars.

I was aware that a calmer swim and bike would probably equate to a hotter run. I was right but I drew confidence from the hideous conditions I’d trained in over the past month. The trick with the run – so I’d been told – was two cups of ice at every feed station. One went down the front of your top, one went down your back and apart from an annoying Father Christmas like jingle, everything was a whole lot more bearable. My ritual became ice in front and back, two cups of water and a cup of coke to drink and a handful of orange segments each feed station (which thankfully were very frequent). I didn’t walk a step so quite how I juggled five cups and oranges and got the right stuff in the right places I don’t know! As I headed out on my first lap I heard the announcement that LCB had won. I was delighted. She deserved that. I also saw Chelsea Sidaro run past as she headed for the finish line.

I can genuinely say I enjoyed the run. I’d set myself a sub 4hour target and it seemed achievable. There was little to break up the Queen K highway. Few milestones beyond feed stations, just runners as far as the eye could see. Next target was the infamous Natural Energy Lab supposedly the hottest part of the course. Allie and I had experienced it at 2pm one day and although very hot a pleasant sea breeze made for some relief. As I left the Energy Lab and headed back to the Queen K the sun was beginning to set. Each runner had been asked to take a torch but as my calculations had me back in the town at sunset I had left it in T2. I got away with this but I really felt for the runners still heading out in the pitch black along the Queen K Highway. These were the runners we would return to support over the finish line in Heroes Hour later.

Although dark, the atmosphere was pretty electric as I approached the finish. I kept a close eye on my watch determined to finish the marathon sub 4 hours (I did 3:55). As the finish line came in sight I went for it. I gave it whatever was left in the tank. I finished in an Ironman PB time of 11:35:01.

I crossed that finish line knowing I had given every bit of the course every ounce of what I had. I felt a huge sense of completeness. I’d achieved a new Ironman PB and raced the best race of my life.

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