“Everyone take a deep breath and relax, just let your arms and legs go limp. You’ve a got a few minutes before the cannon. You’re gonna get through this. You’re gonna get through the 2.4 mile swim, you’re gonna get through that 112 mile bike and you’re gonna run that marathon. You’re not gonna be alone because our 5000 volunteers are gonna help you get there. You’ve trained hard and you can do this” These were, more or less, the words of Mike Reilly, the Voice of Ironman, as we tread in wonderfully buoyant, warm, clear waters off Digme Beach for our deepwater start in the 2008 Ironman Hawaii Championships. Somehow, Mike had a way of actually convincing me to calm down, and making me think that this was gonna be a piece of cake. That’s how good he is. I was treading off to the lef t and a little bit back, I had enough room to move, and I waited calmly. With one minute to go, my foot cramped. Typical. Boom goes the cannon and we were off. I shook out the cramp, and the battle wasn’t too bad for the first 800 meters, as we all kept our space. Then the foot slapping, punching, dunking, and kicking started.

Pre-Race in Kona

But, backing up to the week before, I will tell you a few things about Kona that you need to know, if you’ve never been. I arrived on Sunday, October 5 six days prior to Saturday’s race of Saturday, October 11. My intent when I scheduled my flight on that date, back in July, was to acclimate to the hot, humid weather of the Big Island. And when I deplaned I thought, and actually said to a competitor, “How are we gonna race in this?” But, by the time I arrived at my Hotel the weather had cooled considerably and next week was very mild. There was haze hanging over the Kona coast the entire week (some called it “vog”—volcano fumes mixed with moisture), keeping temperatures in the 80’s, but generally cooler than the previous months in Los Angeles, which had been very hot, in the 90’s and 100’s , and with some humidity as well. The week I left it was ridiculously hot in L.A. and, frankly, I would have been better off heat acclimating at home. But I understand that is almost never the case. The weather is so unpredictable that it can change, literally, in under an hour without warning.

The crowd in Kona was formidable. This is a race for superhumans. As you know, all but about two hundred of them have placed very high in or won their age group at a major Ironman event.. They look the part. Fifty and sixty year olds with six-pack abs and popping veins. Intense expressions on their faces. Runners up and down Ali’i drive all week long (six minute miles, no joke); cyclists on the Queen K, all week long (all aero helmets). My training plan had a month long taper culminating in short workouts on Monday and Wednesday, with a short bike, run and swim on Friday. I cut out a few of these just to get away from the crowds. Especially at the swim site. I took punches during practice swims. Somebody was slapping my feet as I swam out to the .6 mile marker on a Monday practice swim. I popped up and said “what’s up”. She looked embarrassed and swam on. I know that Brett Sutton tells his athletes (yes, I know that they’re pro and I’m not, but that doesn’t matter) to stop all workouts ten days before the event. They don’t seem to do too badly. And I sure saw a lot of people hammering out in the wind near Hawi as late as THURSDAY! Now, that I just don’t get. But, like I say, it’s a formidable crowd and who am I to tell them what to do? But I did talk directly with two experienced athletes, one Mark Allen and one Chris Legh. Their advice? Stay away from the buzz of downtown Kailua, it’s just too energy draining and it’s a psych-out. Get in for a swim early in the week. Register. Get out and hole up at your condo or hotel. A beer at night ain’t gonna hurt you and may help you. And, whatever you do, don’t go out and buy a brand new skin suit for the swim or Gladiator Helmet (EVERYONE’s wearing them) for the bike. Stick with what you got. It worked for Chrissie Wellington (did anyone else notice that she beat her competition without the aero helmet?).

Bring your documents with you to registration. I don’t just mean your drivers’ license. You need your hotel or condo name, address and phone number or they won’t let you register. You’ll have to walk back, then drive, then walk again, then wait in line again. They almost sent me back until I remembered the name of the hotel my family was staying at on race night (purpose is for emergency family contact). Getting back in to registration when I was halfway out the door was a feat of diplomacy. That was Tuesday. For the rest of the week I stayed away from that place except for one more swim of about 1500 meters and the Carboload dinner.

Jimmy Riccicelo deserves the hall of fame because he does a great job of going over the rules, that we all should know. I loved how the pre-race meeting went, with an emphasis on drafting. That is until my brother in law asked me, after the event, “Mark, I was out there all day and saw everyone, big groups of riders ‘wind-sucking’, why didn’t you do that—you could have gone a lot faster?” He was at mile 30.

Race Morning.

I was strangely calm. I walked in with my daughter Valerie and wife Celeste and am so used to this routine from other IM events, that it felt routine, even though I hadn’t done Kona. Heard Liz Kollar’s voice behind me “Is that Mark Lytle?” and felt at home again. We introduced our families and her dad was helping out as a race medic. When I started doing the self-doubting during tire pumping, Liz was setting up a few bikes down the row from me. I was worried about this whole “sun coming up on the pier and popping tires” legend. Liz looked at me, could see my anxiety, told me I was fine at 120 psi . The tires that pop are the tubulars pumped up to 190. Again, do what you’re used to doing. Get clincher tires good to 160, pump em to 120-125 and go.

I took in my pre-race nutrition and liquids and, stupidly, drank from one of those tabled bottles near the swim entrance to swallow some saltstick pills. I can’t ever remember to keep a little water with me. Listening to and side-glancing at the Polynesian drum show, I waded in past the (for now) seemingly timid masses, and took a few strokes out to the start line, and swimming always centers and calms me.

Back to that Swim.

Here’s the thing. You can either get mad at your competitors or just realize that it’s a contact sport and go with it.. I’m almost to “going with it” in triathlon but not quite.

We followed a buoy line at our right, so the mass moved from left to right. At 800 meters, suddenly a female swimmer (orange cap) moved in and elbowed me on the left side, dislodging my left goggle, which filled with water. That is the first time that has ever happened to me in a triathlon. I dumped out the water, but it kept filling. Then people came repeatedly at me from my left, pushing, kicking, slapping. I tried to stay focused and think “zen” but it was honestly hard to enjoy this. A swimmer hung on my feet, repeatedly hitting my soles, then just pushed down on my legs. Near the turn-around a swimmer crossed in front of me and kicked hard into my right goggle. That’s the eye in which I wear my one contact lense. It hurt (it’s Ironman), but it held. Some open space appeared on the return, but sighting was tough. We rode the current back that we had fought going out. Every time I tried to bridge to a new group of swimmers, someone would come in from my left. Then, someone swimming clearly a yard away to my right stuck out his foot and kicked me in the side. Huh? Just ignore it. Doesn’t even hurt. Look, I met a guy in his sixties who has done this race year after year. He said Kona 2008 was the most aggressive swim he had ever seen in any triathlon, ever, and he swam 60 minutes.

I do think it’s interesting that Rikako Takei, in her report, did not experience any contact by swimming the right side, along the buoy line. I had my slowest swim ever, at 1:16. My six prior IM swims all were between 65 and 71 minutes. I was just glad it was over.


Through transition and out on the bike in under four minutes, not bad since they make you run around the pier so that everyone runs the same transition. People were hammering in town, as I knew they would be. Town was hot, too. But, out on the Queen K, it cooled and we got a nice tailwind out to Hapuna beach. Then it got hot. I watched my HR monitor, keeping it parked under 146. Then the cross winds started. Really heavy. Some protection at the left turn to Hawi, then heavy, heavy shifting crosswinds all the way out and back. I passed a group of people who passed me leaving town. Special foods ( it’s not called Special Needs anymore) at Hawi, downed two packages of those little packaged peanut butter/cheese crackers, some water and I was good to go. At the right turn back onto Queen K, there is a small climb. I was feeling it there. It was hot. At the top, alone, there was my wife, daughter Valerie, son Evan, Mom and Dad, who all came out to watch. That gave me a big boost but I soon fought a fierce headwind all the way back. I just knew that if I didn’t push too hard, the run would not be a disaster. Kept it at 146. I felt good until about the Four Seasons Hotel, mile 80 or so. I chewed on some salt (It works better than swallowing it), felt immediate response and made it in. No cramping on the bike but but “hotfoot” and had to squirt water on my feet for relief. 6:48 split.

What happened? I was projecting 6:00 I think the winds pushed me back about 45-50 minutes off what I had trained to do. Reports were that Kona ‘08 had the worst winds since ‘04. The lesson: Practice riding in very windy conditions for this race. Yes, the bike was very, very difficult. Nutrition: only Saltstick, powergels, a few powerbars, Gatorade and packaged cheese and peanut butter junk food snack crackers on the bike. Don’t worry Organic Heads, it’s only one day. No issues.


Bike hand-off into T2. Nice. Here’s my marathon from my vantage point (after I ran around the pier and into the change tent, that is). Socks. Shoes, a quick pee and I run out in four minutes feeling good. Here is where I test my training. When will I feel it? Well, I feel a little tired, but lets see. Good. Some water, saltstick, gel, goes down easy. I can run.. I’m running. Not walking. A little heat, humidity and rain, but it feels good. Those aid stations are going by, and I’m not feeling the need to walk. Careful. Dial it back. But I’m doing 9 minute miles and feeling good. It worked—the training worked. The five mile turnaround, where’s that little church? Ten miles! I’m feeling a lot stronger now! I’M running up Palani Drive and everyone's walking and I get a few cheers at the top for it. Fit, fit looking people are walking. Let’s just see if I can keep it up. I’m running, running, running. Mile 17 and I’m running. Special Foods. I walk and my hips hurt.a little. Eat the Pringles and Mountain Dew (thanks, again, Konrad), a walk a few yards and find that, yes, I can run up and out of the Energy Lab. Oh, cramping now on the inner thighs, Walk it, run it…..Gone! Ran it back, it’s getting dark. Can’t fix that damn glow light thing, how do you do that? Walk a few steps on that Macca/Stadler battle hill before the Palani right turn, down, then the left, right, and the right on Ali’I and run it in the whole way for a marathon PR of 4:20.

I’d never gone under 5:02 in an IM run split. Something worked. I think it was a simple but consistent training plan of long, very slow distance and very low heart rate. Program of Mark Allen based on Phil Maffetone and coached by Luis Vargas. I did do a small amount of interval/repeats in September, mostly at races. Note to Matt Fitzgerald: this works.

I consumed only Gatorade, Powergels and Coke on the run, plus Pringles and Mountain dew at Special foods. I’ve used these before and they work for me so I train with them.

Celeste slapped my hand just before the finish, and the family all met me back behind the tents for recovery and photos. This was really fun for me since I usually travel to Ironman events alone. A half hour, soda, pizza (this really is good food), and I’m ready to go. No IV necessary.