Brandon's Quest for Kona

My Quest for Kona 2006
Plan B - Buffalo Springs Ironman 70.3 – June 25th, 2006
Brandon Whitby

For those of you who may not have heard, my first race of the year was Ironman Brazil. Fiona and I had made a concerted effort at the beginning of the year that we wanted to qualify for Ironman Hawaii for this October. Brazil was where we were going to get our spots. Being a numbers sort of guy, I had done all the homework and analysis to determine what I was going to have to do to accomplish a Kona qualifying race. Some might say that I even did too much homework and worried about the “times” and “splits” necessary to qualify.

In summary, Ironman Brazil went well but not perfect. It was a personal best but ultimately left me one spot short and one minute off the coveted last available Kona slot. The past few years the times that it took to get a spot in Brazil were around 10 hours, 15 minutes. I went 9:52 and still missed it. These races are continuing to get more and more competitive with people willing to travel the globe to find the gateway to Kona.

Part of the reason we chose to race Brazil again was that it was an early attempt and that there would be time to implement plan “B” if needed. Well Fiona’s plan “A” worked out as she had a fabulous performance and won her division handily. I wanted to have the opportunity to challenge another attempt because there are so many people that want to make it to Hawaii this year. My plan “B” was always to do Ironman Canada which would allow enough time to recover and rebuild towards an even better race.

Wanting to keep the odds on my side, I started searching around to find another qualifying race. The only one that was halfway reasonable was Buffalo Springs Lake Half Ironman. It is in Texas, only a half, and exactly four weeks after Brazil. I figured that I should give it a try as I really didn’t have anything to loose. After talking with Nigel, Fiona, Rob, Gord, and Nicole (she has local knowledge as she is moving there this fall), I decided that Plan “B” should be this Half Ironman and that IMC would be relegated to plan “C”.

From the homework that I had done on this race, its course, the likely conditions, I figured that I would have a chance at getting one of the three spots offered for my age group. I knew that I would have to have a good day and that I would need a bit of luck on my side but I really wanted to give myself another opportunity to race in Kona.

I left early on Friday morning for my flight to Dallas. It was a bit weird having to pack and travel to this race alone as everyone I knew was already in Lake Placid for the NRG training camp. Even though I tried, I could not convince those not going to Lake Placid that they should come down to Texas and do a Half Ironman for fun. Once in Dallas, I had another short flight to Lubbock. Once my bike finally showed up, I headed off to my hotel. The weather was great. Calm winds, blue sky and about 98 degrees.

I found the city to be very easy to get around as there are plenty of roads and what seemed to be very few cars. The race course was about a 15 minute drive from the hotel so I thought I would get myself out there to try out a new Nineteen wetsuit. Although the lake is spring fed and was always cool, I did not find it to be at all. I had heard that the lake temperature was around 77 degrees. The suit felt good for the 20 minutes that I swam. There were plenty of people hanging around getting a feel for the race to come.

On Saturday, I found the only Starbucks outside of the airport before I headed off to the lake again. It was another beautiful hot day with the temps in the high 90’s. I did my workouts as planned and met a few more athletes who all seemed very nice. The water was still very warm in my Nineteen suit, my Cervelo P3C was riding smooth and shifting well, and I had decided which Adidas shoes I would be racing in.

The race start on Sunday was early. The pros went off at 6:30 and I was in the 4th wave at 6:45. I left the hotel at 4:30 to make sure that I was able to get a decent parking spot and hopefully a good spot in transition. As it turned out, the locations of the bikes were marked by our race numbers but I was pleased with my spot. I had a bit too much time and started thinking that I could have stayed in bed longer.

It was actually cool race morning as I sat waiting for the start. At around 5:30 a storm rolled over the lake with lightning but no rain. The wind came up so much that a bike rack had blown over. I began thinking that it was going to be a tough day. As quick as the wind had come in, it calmed down about 10 min before the start which was also about the time that the sun came up.

The race started on time. After the pros left, I had 15 minutes before my start and that is when I did my warm up. I find swimming to be a good opportunity to organize my thoughts and go over my (Nigel’s) race plan in my head. The plan was to have a steady swim, not go too hard and make sure I found someone’s feet to draft from. Great, now all I have to do is execute it.

From the gun, I had to start off fairly quick as there was a right turn about 100 meters off the beach. As soon as I made the turn, I started looking for the buoys and tried to make sure that I did not swim any further than I needed to. I knew that I was at the front of my wave as there was only clear water ahead. Then I remembered………get into a draft. I found a guy that was swimming beside me so I dropped in behind him and although I could not see his feet through the murky water, I could feel the wake behind him and just tried to stay there. This only lasted for a couple hundred meters because we caught the swimmers from the preceding waves. From this point on, it was a bit like ‘Frogger’ trying to get through people but still stay on a good line. I tried to stay comfortable and just get myself out in a reasonable position. My age group (35-39) was the largest of the race with just over 200 athletes. When I came out of the water and up the ramp, I saw Shannon who I had met on Friday at the lake. She quickly hollered to me that I was 5th in my age group to exit the swim. It was great to have that information.

The ride started with a 9% climb right at the exit of the transition. I knew that this was going to be a challenge for me because my heart rate spikes as I exit the water and remains high until I get it under control by starting my ride easy. Well any 9% climb is not easy but I tried not to push and to get up as efficiently as possible. The bike course has a reputation of being very difficult. Rob seemed to continue to remind me of the difficulty of the course from the people that he had spoken to. I tried not to let it get to me because the course profile showed that there was only 420 meters of climbing and I did not feel as though it would be that challenging. What makes the course hard are the temperatures, winds and road surface. There are eight hills and what is interesting about them is that they are all the same height. I learned that the locals refer to them as “Texas Dips”. Other then these dips, the area is quite flat. You can see for miles up the road until the road disappears. It will dip into a valley and then you will have to climb out of it. So, all the hills are the same height, the only differences are the percentage grade.

My ride started off well. Within the first 10 miles, I had caught three guys in my age group. From the info that Shannon had given me, I figured I was now 2nd and feeling good. My ride strategy was to stay within myself and to produce about 20-25 more watts than my ride in Brazil. As it turned out, my legs were not completely pleased with what I was asking of them. I ended up at 15 watts more but my concern was that it felt a bit harder then it should have. During the second half of the ride I had a number of guys pass me. I tried to stay positive and tell myself that if I have a good run, I will see them again. I finished the ride in 7th or 8th; with a time 2 hours 33 minutes which I thought was about 5 minutes slower than I had hoped.

The run started off with a relatively flat section around the lake of about 3 miles. I was told to make sure that I did not start off too fast. I had a goal of around 90 minutes for the run. I knew that it would not be easy but I thought I had the fitness for it. Around the 2 mile mark, a few fleet footed runners past me with authority. I knew that I would not be able to run with them so I had no choice but to let them go. My only hope was to get myself to the finish as quick as possible and maybe catch someone on my way. At the 3 mile point the road headed up and about halfway up the hill I saw the first runner on his way back to the finish. It was Luke Bell who managed to win over Simon Lessing. One of the few athletic similarities that I do have with Luke is that he also raced Ironman Brazil. So on I go continuing my jaunt towards the turnaround. After the first hill, the run left the park and headed through another Texas Dip. As I exited up the far side, Natasha Badmann came running towards me. She was smiling so much that I assumed that she was really happy to see me. She continued to run past but I allowed myself to believe my initial thought. After the run turnaround I did not get passed by anyone but did manage to catch one guy in my age group that I did recognize because he was vain enough to have his name on his ass. I ran into the finish after trying to run well for the last flat 3 miles and ended up with a 1:37 half marathon.

My finishing time was 4:38. I went there thinking that if I could pull off a race of about 4:30 then I would have a good chance. I ended up 10th. It was not good enough to get a Kona spot but it was good enough to get called up on stage for an award. Good thing I passed that vain dude at 8 miles. The first two guys in the age group had their slots for Kona which gave the opportunity for 3rd, 4th, and 5th to get there tickets to the big show. The time of the last qualifying slot, 4:31. Oh well, on to plan “C”.

In summary this is a really good race. It is well run by some great people and I would recommend it to anyone who may be interested in qualifying in the future. They also offered plenty of slots for the new 70.3 World Championship race in November. It is a challenging course but not ridiculous. The hot temperatures and good chance for strong winds is what makes it a potentially tough day. The flat sections of the ride are very exposed and I think I was lucky because the winds on the bike were not as high as when I was in transition prior to the start. The race is getting more competitive as any of the qualifiers are. Last year my time would have placed me 3rd and there were only 125 in my age group as opposed to 200 this year.

It was a great experience to again race with some of the best athletes vying for Hawaii. Maybe if I ever do this race again, those people who call themselves my friends won’t make me go alone. I did make a new friend though. At the end of the race as I was leaving with my bike, Natasha came up to me and asked me if she could get a picture with me. Of course I obliged only because she is the current World Champion and since we were posing, I had her friend use my camera to take the picture.

For those who are seeking a spot for Kona, stay focused, be confident and listen to your Coach. Good Luck to all.