Elaine Garvican Race Report: Ironman World Championship 2017

The 2017 Ironman World Championships was my 3rd experience of racing on the Big Island. I qualified at Ironman Weymouth in September 2016, which gave Philip and I a little over a year to prepare. Thirteen months to dream, to plan and to train for just over 10 hours of swimming, biking and running. I went to Kona aiming at the age group podium and in the end, I fell slightly short. When I started to think about this race report, I was reminded of one a good friend of mine once wrote about a race at which he qualified for Kona whilst also not quite hitting several other goals. He entitled it “A Rather Glorious Failure” and in many ways this is how I feel about my 2017 World Champs race. 

Acclimatising to the heat and humidity of Hawai’i from a cold and drizzly Yorkshire is a bit of a challenge, so my husband and I flew out 2 weeks before the race and I did the last of my long sessions (plus a decent number of shorter, sharper ones) on the hot, windy stretches of the Queen K, up and down the increasingly populated Ali’i Drive and oftentimes with a famous lane-mate in the Kona Aquatic Centre in the days leading up to race week. 

The weather this year was strange – it certainly didn’t feel as hot as the inferno of 2015, but some days were insanely humid, we had a two day wind advisory with 60mph gusts, it rained a lot and the final days of race week were deceptively cool, lulling everyone into a false sense of security. The heavy downpour the night before the race was not a good omen, and sure enough the morning was cloudless and still – great for the bike but promising the run would be hot, hot, hot.

The Swim: “Make Every Stroke Count”

In previous years, I’ve dutifully obeyed the swim marshal’s instructions and entered the water early, but the time spent treading water is energy better spent elsewhere. Not being a lead pack swimmer, there’s also no need for me to stake a claim to a spot on the front row. As in previous years, I turned around and looked back at the sea wall, packed 8 or 9 deep with supporters, the sun spilling over the volcano behind them and the hum of anticipation and excitement; it’s an image I think of with a lot of pride and satisfaction and which I feel privileged to have now witnessed 3 times.

Then the cannon fired and I put my head down and swam hard for several minutes. There’s no point in sighting in the first few hundred meters, because all you’d see ahead is a jumbled mass of arms, heads and saltwater spray, so it’s just a case of holding your position, looking after yourself and trying not to accidentally beat anyone else up. I gradually moved right, until I was on the buoy line, and from there I concentrated on Philip’s advice to “

make every stroke count

”. I often get bored when I’m swimming in open water, and with only 2 turns, the Kona swim course doesn’t provide very much in the way of distraction, but time seemed to pass nice and quick and before long I was at the Body Glove boat. The way back was a bit more crowded as we caught the back of the age group men but I picked some nice feet to follow and navigated the extra traffic well.

Swimming is not my strength and I will never exit the water with an advantage, but I have worked hard and consistently at it and seen some significant gains in the pool since working with Philip. I’ve come out of the swim with less of a deficit to the same girls this year compared to 2016, but there always seemed to be something preventing what I felt was a performance reflective of my fitness. Frequently this is the cold – I am uncomfortable in cold water and my hands often claw, which hampers a good catch, but I would sometimes make poor decisions about equipment or who to draft, or simply deal badly with an accidental smack in the face. It’s frustrating to know you have both the speed and the endurance and yet not see this reflected in race times, so as I came up the ramp into transition and saw the clock at 1:06 I was over the moon. Not only is this an enormous Kona swim PB, it’s also a PB for any Ironman swim race, so to have managed this in a non-wetsuit swim exceeded my best case scenario and I was quickly out of transition wearing a massive grin.

The Bike: “Follow The Plan”

My cycling has gone really well this year. I love my bike, I’m comfortable on it, and we’ve made some excellent power gains this year, so as boring as it sounds, all I had to do was follow the plan; hit my power targets, take in my nutrition and essentially the wind would dictate exactly how long it took to ride to Hawi and back. I’d done quite a lot of biking on and around the Queen K in the previous weeks including in some insane crosswinds, so I was pretty used to the heat, the wind, the undulations, the climb, the fluid requirements and the eternal purgatory of a featureless road stretching across black lava fields. In the early stages of the bike we had a tail wind, which later became a headwind for the climb to Hawi and the last section of the Queen K, but for me never became soul-crushing. I had the 180km broken down into sections, which stopped it feeling too daunting and it’s fun to see the pros coming back the other way and try to work out what’s happening at the front of the race. I saw a few largeish packs of fast AG men coming down from Hawi, but in general, since the introduction of separate male and female age group starts it’s a lot less congested and I was able to hold consistent watts. Off the bike and into T2 and I had the strange experience of an empty tent and 5 volunteers all to myself. Until that point, I hadn’t really thought about where I was in the overall race, but it slowly dawned on me that there were a lot more girls behind me than there were ahead.

The Run: “Hot, hot, hot”

Getting off the bike in Kona, you always feel hot. The sudden loss of breeze, compounded by the sheltered nature of the first mile and the sometimes frantic nature of transition can cause your temperature to rocket. With this in mind, I was extremely disciplined for the first mile, making sure I didn’t go out too fast and hitting up the first aid station for ice, cold sponges and fluid to cool down. I then settled down into my speed and power target ranges and tried to stay patient as I ran out and back on Ali’i Drive. Things went pretty much to plan until about halfway through the marathon at which point the temperature balance tipped in favour of the increasingly oppressive heat. It’s always hot in Kona and comparisons regarding which year is the hottest (or windiest, or in any other way toughest) are relatively pointless, but it was hot, still and unlike most afternoons, there was no cloud cover. I held pace fairly well, but I was completely unable to respond when faster runners came by and unlike in previous Ironman marathons, I wasn’t able to lift the pace in the final 10km. I squeezed every ounce of energy out of myself that I could, I went as deep as I was able and I ran as fast as my body could in those conditions. As late as the top of Palani, I was still trying to make up places, but it felt a bit like having a limiter on my engine and maximum effort produced nothing greater in terms of speed. I saw my family and got a high-5 from my 3 year old niece and in the final hundred meters or so, soaked up the crowds, the cheering and the atmosphere of a finish line unequaled in the world of triathlon. I then crossed the line and immediately felt wobbly. The catchers took me to the medical tent, where my temperature was recorded at a rather toasty 101°F but after a bit of a lie down, some well-placed ice packs and a cup of chicken soup, I was good to go again.


Swim: 1:06:46

T1: 2:41

Bike: 5:22:47

T2: 2:55

Run: 3:38:50

Total: 10:13:57

Age group placing: 8/82

Amateur female placing: 20/602

Overall placing (all pros and amateurs): 513/2,232

Kona 2017 was my focus for nearly 2 years. A lot of 2016 involved dismantling my technique and fitness in order to rebuild from the foundations up, with the aim of that year being to qualify for the 2017 World Championships. That achieved, the singular goal became Kona and I was ruthless with many other aspects of my life in order to prioritize that race. In almost every other year for the past 10 years, my overall placing of 20th amateur female would have seen me make the podium in my age group; this year, the quality of 35-39 year old women was such that I finished 8th, approximately 5 mins shy of the podium. So, by some measures, we failed. We aimed high and I rose to that level of competition by executing perhaps my best ever race to date, with the result still several placings short. But if this is failure, then I do consider it a glorious one; I raced right up there with the best age groupers in the world with a performance I am extremely proud of.

Many other people expended their time, energy and support in the build up to this race and I hope that they are also proud of what we achieved throughout the season, and in Hawai’i. A truly heartfelt mahalo is due to:

Brett and Emma at Skechers Performance, not only for providing me with the most comfortable trainers I have ever run in, but for your encouragement and interest in me throughout the year;

Sharon Simpson and Gordon Bosworth at The Bosworth Clinic, for so patiently remodeling this old chassis and unlocking the potential in my running;

Helen Money for evidenced-based guidance on nutrition and the life-enriching introduction of Powerballs;

Everyone at Tri Training Harder, for camaraderie, support and long rides to Foia;

My family, for flying half way round the world to watch me race;

Philip, for your seemingly unending patience, your faith in and dedication to our goal, and for shaping me into a stronger, faster, smarter, better-rounded athlete;

And as ever, my husband James without whom none of it would be worthwhile.