Congratulations to this year’s Ironman World Champions, Sebastian Kienle and Mirinda Carfrae! They had near-perfect races under conditions that were significantly far from ideal. By the way, Sebastian and Mirinda were my picks to win, and maybe if I had announced my picks before the race, some of you would be treating me to some frosty adult beverages. But, I didn’t announce my picks beforehand, so I was no closer than most of you who found your pre-race favorites far off the podium.
It was just as challenging a day in Kona for most age group athletes, almost all of whom had qualified in highly-competitive circumstances with well-executed performances. Coach Mace is one example of an athlete (this was his first Kona race) who had unfulfilled expectations. Yet, I observed numerous fellow competitors, including phenomenal athletes that I have known for years, a few current and former pro triathletes, numerous past sub-10-hour performers…and almost all of them (specifically, all but one) had a cascade of misfortunes and miscalculations that led to difficult races and inflated race times. Many of you picked Timothy O’Donnell as a men’s favorite, and with good reason. He finished in 5th place the previous year, is extremely intelligent, not the type to succumb to pressure or commit errors, went to the Big Island early to prepare, and was being coached by six-time champion Mark Allen. Was it horrible misfortune, or horrible execution, that led Timothy to walk at times towards the finish line over an hour behind our expectations?
The takeaway from Kona this year, and even most years when the conditions are more benign, is that it is nearly impossible to have a “perfect” race in Kona. Kona is just too long, too windy, too hot, too wavy, too muggy, too crowded, and too competitive for anyone to have their race go perfectly for them. Something bad always happens in Kona and, often times for most of the athletes, the ones who make it to the finish line the fastest are the ones who succeed at “Damage Control”. Damage Control is the skill of alleviating a problem before it cascades into a bigger problem or multiple problems, that ultimately jeopardize a swift finish or just finishing.
One athlete I encountered at the top of Palani Road (11 miles into the run course) was U.S. Navy officer Cam Loos. Cam came into Kona with a leg injury, and had to manage that through 125 miles of headwinds, ocean swells and heat just to get to the base of Palani Hill. He told me atop Palani that he hadn’t “Given up the ship” yet, an apt reference to the battle cry of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. Aboard Navy ships, Damage Control drills are a frequent, everyday occurrence at sea. Fire and flooding are the two greatest emergencies aboard ship, and the Navy practices all the time how to contain fires before they engulf critical parts of the ship (such as the engine room or the electrical system), how to plug holes in the hull before they grow larger and flood multiple compartments, and how to contain a litany of subsidiary problems (such as toxic fumes, fuel spills, navigation system failures) from sinking the ship altogether.
Likewise, it might be time for us triathletes to consider doing some Damage Control training of our own. Most of the training that we do is focused on getting us physically fit enough to race the distance, and acclimatizing to the conditions that we expect to race under. But what happens when we get a flat tire, or get a penalty, or have the batteries of our power meter (or electronic shifters) die? Do you really have a plan if the winds are stronger than you expected, or if you can’t push the wattage or heart rate that you trained to hold? How do you deal with a damaged bicycle if it gets involved in a crash? While many focus on the though that Jan Frodeno should have (or could have) finished in 2nd place rather than 3rd if he didn’t get a flat tire and a penalty. what about the thought that Jan limited the damage that could have cascaded from those incidents, and finished 3rd when he could have finished 33rd?
Granted, our training time is limited and one can’t practice overcoming every potential malady. It’s often hard enough just to be able to come into your season-ending “A” race injury-free and in peak fitness and freshness. But consider taking some time before your next race to prepare for and practice the inevitable “Plan B”.
Congratulations to everyone who recently completed their race seasons, and especially to those who "Didn’t Give Up The Ship" in Kona. You are inspirational and your hard work should be rewarded.