Stephane’s First Ironman Kona – Race Report

My first Ironman Kona did not disappoint. You cannot grasp what the fuss is all about until you arrive. You pretty much get dumped in an Ironman themed seaside village with people looking so fit that you feel like skipping your next three breakfasts. I thought I would share my first experience:

For me, my first Kona was all about finishing & enjoying the experience. Not a big performance goal but more a lifetime goal only as I only prepped for Kona for three weeks as my real goals were ITU Worlds on the Gold Coast & XTERRA Worlds.

Swim Leg

I loved every minute of the race but the swim start. You had to swim 150m to get to the start line. Kayaks were stopping you from going out to much. Swim start was intense and people were climbing on top of each other for a full ten minutes while sculling & waiting for the gun to go. I physically had to push people back with my legs not to get pushed under. I guess 2000 people lined up on a 150m wide start will do that!

I looked on my left & here is Olivier Cardoen from Belgium. I exchange a few words in Dutch with him. I have not seen him for 20 years & we first raced as junior together was in 1993. The gun goes, I was scared to get smashed so I did a ITU start & sprinted to the front. After 100m, I looked up & I was second overall. Yes I started to fast & the rest of the swim was a slow death of dozens of people passing me on the 3.8kms swim. I was trying to jump on people’s hips but kept getting dropped so decided to go at my own pace & enjoy the swim and look for turtles & dolphins. I got out in 55:30 which I was happy with, alongside team mate Ben O’Neill, Levi Hauwert, Bruno Clerbout (winner M40-44) & Campbell Hanson. In hindsight, I did not swim enough in training before the race to sustain a good pace & you need at least two sessions of 3.5kms swims per week to swim well at that distance.

Bike Leg

The bike was fun and beautiful. People started hard & fast from the start, like criterium racing, it was mad! Never experienced anything like this at an Ironman event. The four people I got out the water with quickly disappeared & I decided to swallow my ego & stick to my 280 watt target right from the start. My obsessions for the day were:

  1. Not to go over 280 watts apart from hills
  2. Stick to my nutrition plan whatever happens
  3. Cooling down at each aid station & not miss one

I had to pinch myself a few times riding through the lava fields. The wind was light by Kona terms, and while sticking to my plan I got passed by heaps of people on the bike. I rode with Campbell Hanson, an honest athlete who paces very well. We focused on keeping our distance and let three large peloton style packs pass us. I was grabbing two icy cold water bottles at each aid station to cool my body temperature right down & it felt amazing on the Verge arm coolers. This meant I was often loosing time at aid stations but I did not care much.

I stayed with Campbell until 25kms to go where I had a bad patch. My watts dropped to 250 so I decided to ride my own pace, relaxed & drink and eat more. As per Tim Stewart’s advice, it was my first Ironman without solid nutrition. I had gummies but they are more like a hard gel. Tim got me on three drink bottles of sport drink solution & 3 packs of gummies then only water as extra. I stuck to that plan but had an extra packet of gummies in the bad patch I had 25kms to go. For first timers at Kona/Ironman, bad patches are 100% normal. Best is not to panic or get negative about it. Just breathe, relax, eat & hydrate.

Run Leg

My legs were ok getting off the bike. Feet were burning but that is pretty normal when the tarmac is hot. I started easy & I thought I was running well at 4:45min/pace but people passed me like I was standing still. Like the bike, I had a plan:

  1. Do not go under 4:45 pace
  2. Stick to under 145bpm heart rate
  3. Stick to nutrition plan made of a Pro4mance gel each 10kms
  4. Water, Coke, ice & sponge at each aid stations
  5. Cooling down as an obsession

I felt good the first 10kms & ran 48min. By 21kms, it was all going great still & ran 1h43min. My focus was on relaxing my body & breathing and hitting each step with a good propulsion forward.

The “Energy Lab” was no issue & I enjoyed the ice cold towel so much that I grabbed 5 in one go. At km 25 I asked myself “what is the big deal with energy lab? Not any harder than the rest!” By km 27, up the hill to get out of the energy lab, I wanted to walk I was in so much pain. I felt dizzy, hot & numb & I was running 7:30min pace. I knew I would have a bad patch at some point & here it was. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I decided to relax, breathe, not to panic, stay positive & I had an extra gel. I did not wanna walk so kept the shuffling going. I looked up the road & I was nearly at the top of hill. I remember Mark Allen say to use the energy of energy lab so I closed my eyes for 10sec, sucked the energy in & recharged the batteries. I felt positive again & I decided I would not run the last 12kms over 5min km pace. The goal was set, now execute it.

And it paid off in the last 12kms, I picked up heaps of dying guys just by trying to stick to just under 5min/pace. I passed people I look up to like Luke Whitmore, Jake Riley, Caleb Noble & Levi Hauwert. I ran 3h31 & was only 1min from my goal time. I nearly caught Vinokourov & Olivier Cardoen.

The run was hard, windy and hot. The race was amazingly run and the aid stations were a saviour. I ran well but in insight, 3 weeks of long runs was not enough.


People were so lovely and welcoming that it made our experience even more special. Having GPC squad there with me was the best experience to share and I am now glad I waited a few years so that I could go as a group.

I had the best race I could have done & I am really happy with it.

In the future, I will go back there to do the best I can do with a proper 12 weeks prep & arriving earlier than 3 days before the race. Would I do 3,2 or 1 week in advance? I agree with Tim O’Donnell, Kona is energy zapping & it is too much of just triathlon. I think Lionel Sanders cooked himself staying there for 4 weeks before the race. You get intimidated by other athletes, by their social media & you want to try what they’re doing or train with them which is a dangerous game. I would go one week in advance.

Now prep for Maui XTERRA World Champs.

Check out Stephane’s other race reports:

Stephane’s Ironman Western Australia Race Report

Diary of a World Championship Triathlete