How does one qualify for Kona? That’s the question that thousands of triathletes ask themselves and their coaches every year. It’s also a question that thousands of non-triathletes ask anyone who signs up for a triathlon: “Oh, will you do the one in Hawaii?” they ask blithely. That’s not their fault—it’s more of a testament to the power of Kona (and its attendant marketing campaign, which is not an insignificant campaign). How would they know how difficult it is?
And then there is the opposite effect—many experienced triathletes, understanding how difficult qualification has become, how thin the available slots are spread, simply tell themselves that Kona is an impossible goal. This is the camp in which my wife, VT, thought herself for years. An active, positive, committed athlete, she found herself on the receiving end of comments such as “Oh, you’re so fit, you’ll qualify no problem.” These remarks were understandably frustrating—there’s nothing so disheartening as well-meaning people making light of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And to VT, these impressions were unfounded. Her first Ironman, in 2006, clocked in at 13:48. Her half-iron times quickened between 2007 and 2010, to be sure, but still hung around the mid-to-high five hour mark. Kona probably did seem an unrealistic goal. And ever the well-adjusted athlete, she focused more on enjoying herself and improving her skills. She tried bike racing and didn’t really like it. She joined a masters swim group back in 2006 (where we met, happily) and has kept at it regularly for seven years. She picked up cyclocross and loved it. Along the way she has always run, finding the easy access of running (it’s always there on the sidewalk, waiting for you, like an eternal, friendly, inexhaustible dog) a haven in good times and bad.
About two summers ago, she went under five hours for the first time at a half-iron. She’d had a few near misses at the Ironman distance between 2009 and 2012 (one cancelled by work, the other by a scary case of hyperventilation), and knew she wanted to return to the distance soon—I’d dragged her along to enough of the events, and she missed the challenge and the community. After another strong showing at Lake Stevens in 2012, we signed her up for Ironman Cozumel for that fall.
Cozumel ended up in exultation and heartbreak all at the same time. Amy crushed her previous best en route to a 10:41, 3rd in the deep 35-39 age group, and 7th amateur overall. Fool that I was, I assumed she had gotten in to Kona, but the qualification system can be capricious, and only two slots were on offer that day. There is a long essay to be written about slot rolldown—the odd mixture of nerves and bravado make an unsettling cocktail—but it is the system we have, and it is a relatively fair one. Not long after Cozumel, Amy told me she wanted to try again, and pointed out that the inaugural Ironman Los Cabos was still open. A close friend of ours had already planned to make the trip, so we would have company at the very least. I tried to ascertain how excited she was about the opportunity—race gluttony is a real danger when you feel a huge goal is just one step away. Signing up for the race, too, would mean heavy training through the Northwest winter, on a short turnaround: Cabo would take place only seventeen weeks after Cozumel.
But two things make Amy a great endurance athlete, both of which are available to any athlete. Her commitment to endurance sports has resulted in an aerobic engine the size of a horse, and mentally she is one of the strongest athletes that I know. First, the aerobic engine. VT has competed in some kind of endurance sport for almost two decades. Sure, you can say that that’s unattainable, but it really isn’t. Yes, I’ll agree it’s unattainable right now (unless you can compress time into handful), but if you’re reading this blog you probably have some endurance history. Keep adding to your aerobic base year after year, and speed will continue to come, too. Even better if you mix up your sports and speeds. I see so many triathletes slogging away at one pace all year long, thinking that simply training at a low aerobic pace is the most sensible way to get quicker. Amy has run short races, long races, triathlons and cyclocross races, all requiring a mix of paces and efforts. She also enjoys running fast some days, and running long others. Masters exposed her to swimming at different speeds, and she learned—over time—to change gears on the bike. I’ve talked about mental skills before in this blog, and will again I’m sure, but I will briefly say that Amy is one tough nut on the race course. She has a put-my-head-down-and-grind-it-out approach that amazes me. I wish I had it, and I’m working towards it, but she’s got for sure. Despite difficulty, heat, and perceived disaster, she manages to keep competing at a high level.
As usual, my narration runs on ahead of me, and this is a story about qualifying for Kona. The first ingredient for Amy was time and consistency—building a solid base of two to three years of high volume training prepared her for the work that went into Ironman Cozumel (which was a qualification-worthy performance). Then rest (although not a lot of it!) as we decided to try again at Los Cabos only 17 weeks later. And then a targeted system of stress designed to make a quick race day not exactly easy, but certainly attainable. I’m indebted to the guys at Endurance Corner for the plan, and it’s the one I use for all my athletes that are ready to make a run at qualifying for Kona. I’ve tweaked it a little bit, but the basic tenet is the same: get in more than an Ironman’s volume over the course of 30 hours—basically a big training weekend. Most of the load is at race pace intensity. Please note that this is only possible if you have built a large base volume to support weekends such as this plan suggests. Jumping straight into three weekends like this (which is what the plan suggests) is only a recipe for injury.
- Day One (usually a Friday)
- 4000m swim broken into 4×400, 4×300, 4×200, 4×100, all with ten seconds rest (no more) and descending as you come down the ladder.
- Right into a 90 minute bike ride with the middle 60′ @ Ironman effort/watts.
- Right into a 30 minute steady run.
- Day Two
- 4500m swim as a short 300m warmup, then 8×400 descending 1-4 and 5-8. Odd 400s get ten seconds rest, even 400s get five seconds rest.
- 100 mile bike ride, beginning at 90-93% of Ironman effort, building to 100% of IM effort in the middle third, and finishing at 105-110%
- 10k run off the bike, running the first two miles @ the average heart rate from the bike effort. Progress effort slightly in remaining 4.2 miles.
- Day Three
- 20 mile run as 2 miles easy, then 3x(5 miles slightly above goal Ironman effort, 1 mile easy)
Day four, understandably, would be some kind of recovery effort.
Amy followed this plan, going through the big weekend three times before Cozumel (nine weeks out, six weeks out, and three weeks out) and then three more times before Los Cabos. In the first four weeks after Cozumel she did very little, trying to recover. We went to Colorado for Christmas vacation, she rode her ‘cross bike a ton. Then, in January, we settled down to business. The result? After a good strong and bike (although very difficult—Los Cabos was hot, windy, and hilly), Amy came off the bike in fifth or six in her age group, and then steadily ran through the field, catching everyone but the eventual amateur champion. She finished about 10:55 in second place, taking control of her Kona destiny instead of relying upon a roll-down slot. She went through some very rough patches on the run and contemplated stepping off the course, which is a natural thing—during a strong Ironman, everyone will consider quitting; it’s part of what you signed up for, finding your weak points and pushing past them.