So you want to qualify for Kona? Consider these 5 key principles

Bee riding a bike
Image from http://therapyworksltd.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/bee-bicycling-72dpi.jpg.

For many triathletes, the Ironman World Championship race in Kailua-Kona represents the crown jewel, the mecca, the peak, the main event, the…–oh let’s face it, it’s perceived as the ultimate set of bee’s knees for long course triathletes.

While not everyone wants to race there, most long-course athletes will speak wistfully of what it would be like (or what it was like) to race

K. O. N. A.

Four years ago, I announced on this blog that I wanted to qualify for Kona. At that time, I had a very vague (and quite naive) idea of what it would take to find myself on the big island.

What I learned was more than I could have even imagined–and some things I didn’t want to imagine.

Given my route from the back/middle of the pack to the slot, I receive emails from athletes, who find themselves in a context similar to mine, with the explicit or implicit question:

What does it take to qualify for Kona?

For example, one email I received a few weeks ago began:

I wanted to ask you about the journey from BOP to Kona – what advice you’d give as someone who did it. I figured you’d be the one person who wouldn’t laugh me out of the room for even having these delusions.”

Nope. No, I won’t laugh at anyone who sets big dreams.

This emailer also suggested that they might be “bothering” me, but that’s not the case at all. I don’t mind offering my advice – even though as you read this post, you may not like some of it. As my father used to say, “Don’t ask a question you don’t want the answer to.”

The journey to qualify requires a considerable re-organization of your life, a single-minded focus to decision-making, and a willingness to sacrifice the short term in favor of the long term goals. At least that’s how it worked for someone like me – who wasn’t exactly Kona material when she first started.

While it’s hard for me to speak to a specific person’s individual chances of nabbing a Kona slot, in this post I lay out 5 basic principles that guided my life (and continue to do so) during the years it took me to get to the big island. Your chances may be better than mine, and in those cases, the journey will be different.

However, whether you are a “natural” or not, it’s important to note that the competition seems to be getting tighter, and the speeds at the pointy ends of the age groups continue to get faster. I don’t say this to discourage your dream. I say this so that a recognition of the challenges becomes a part of the dream–and makes the dream worth having.

IMG_3749
Matchy-matchy bracelets for John and I at the Ironman World Championship in 2014. The couple that races together…

If the qualification were an easy grab, it wouldn’t be quite as special, would it?

I offer 5 key principles to contextualize and organize your journey to achieve big dreams on the big island. They are:

  • Commitment
  • Consistency
  • Planning
  • Discipline & Sacrifice
  • Belief

Commitment

The quest starts with your commitment to the goal. I don’t just mean saying, “Gee, I would love to do Kona someday.” That’s not commitment; that’s a wish list.

Commitment sounds something like this: “I’m willing to do what it takes to qualify for Kona within X years.” (The X depends a bit on your specific situation–but I think it works best to keep it near-term, measurable and accountable, otherwise you are dealing with wishes not concrete goals.) In my case, I decided in 2012 (really the end of 2011) that I was going to do what I needed to do to qualify for Kona within 2 years. I narrowly missed the 2-year target, but I got it on the third year.

This particular situation demonstrates another aspect of commitment: you don’t give up if you don’t succeed right away. Stay committed. Don’t stop believing.

(For tips to stick with your commitment, consider this post on time management.)

Consistency

This principle connects to your training. I think one of the more challenging aspects of training for many age-groupers is consistency. Because triathlon isn’t our sole priority, it has to compete with other important priorities like making sure our families remember who we are, and showing up at work so we can pay for our race fees.

Even so, if you’ve committed to the goal, you must find a way to make training a priority. If you can’t make the time to train, then you need to put the goal on the shelf until you can. I’m sorry to be so direct here – but it’s the truth.

You have to put the time in if you want to get the results out.

Consistency is about the day-in, day-out commitment to the training. As such, the long workouts are not the only ones that matter. So, if you are skipping mid-week workouts, but getting your long workouts in, don’t delude yourself that this is enough. It’s not. It all matters when you are going after the big hairy audacious goal.

SIUBC. This is a primary training motto for me. Get the work done. No excuses.
SIUBC. This is a primary training motto for me.

The specific details of your training for Kona will be dependent on:

1) Your available time

2) Your strengths and limiters

3) Your history in the sport (triathlon – as well as the individual sports that comprise triathlon)

Despite the specifics of your situation, there are some general parameters to consider.

  • Get a coach. Having third-person, objective party who can help you see the big picture is a key part of your success. While you may be able to put the physical training together on your own, having that objective perspective is invaluable – especially when the volume peaks and you become a tired, fatigued emotional heap of a person. Get a coach who knows what they are doing, and who you connect with. This person will not only help you physically, they will become your therapist – so you really need to like them and they need to like you. I couldn’t imagine my KQ journey with Vince @ Junk Miles. He remains my mentor and my very good friend. (And we just started a podcast together–> @YankingChains)
  • You should be swimming a minimum of three times week. But, if you can’t swim at least 1:00-1:10 for the 2.4 miles, you need to add a fourth day of swimming to that schedule. You should spend a portion of your off-season focused on a swim block. You don’t win the race in the swim, but you can certainly lose it there. Minutes (and seconds) matter when you are going for the KQ.
  • You should be biking 3-5 times per week, and work to hit 200-300 miles as a weekly peak. Bike durability is key – whether cycling is your strength or your weakness. No one can run to their potential with a lack of bike durability.
  • You need to run 4-5 times per week, with at least two of those runs done as transition runs. Personally, I like to run off the bike EVERY time I bike. Your weekly run volume depends partly on where you are as a runner. But, generally speaking you could be looking at 40-50 mile run weeks as a peak.
  • You need to have efficient form across all three sports. Work on your technique during off-season and early base – no matter how good you think you are. Efficiency = free speed.

Important: You don’t just throw volume or intensity at your training in a willy nilly mix and hope it all works out.

The level and pacing of volume and intensity depends on where you are in the sport. If you have a big base and a long history of endurance sport, you can afford to drop some of the base volume in favor of more targeted training.

For example, in my run up to IMLP in 2013 and IMCdA in 2014, I trained an average of 13 hours a week, with a peak week of 17 hours. My first year of training for IM was closer to an average of 15 hours per week, with a peak week of 21 hours. But, the difference in this training was that I was working on building base endurance that first year, and in 2014, I was working on muscular endurance – so the focus was much more about quality of sessions, than quantity of hours.

Despite the lower training duration, my training stress was actually higher going into IMLP and IMCdA because of the intensity.

Pain Cave. Where the magic happens - day in and day out.
Pain Cave. Where the magic happens – day in and day out.

Planning

Planning comes in a variety of levels: 1) Multi-year, 2) season, 3) training cycles, 4) weekly schedule. This planning process is where the value of a coach can be seen most obviously. As you plan, you need to brutally honest about:

  • Your strengths
  • Your limiters
  • Race courses that suit you – and race courses that don’t
  • Previous racing successes and failures

I don’t have hard numbers here, but for most people, qualifying for Kona doesn’t happen on their first race or first year of IM racing. So, you need to have a long range-plan to cover how you will go from where are you are now to where you want to be by your goal qualifying race. Your multi-year plan doesn’t need to be set in stone, but it should serve as a map for your journey.

In my case, I knew that Ironman Mont Tremblant in 2012 would be a building year, and that Ironman Lake Placid in 2013 would be my first “real” attempt to qualify. I also realized that if IMLP didn’t happen, that IMCdA would be the next choice for qualifying in 2014. That served as my general guideline when I set my goals at the beginning of 2012.

Season planning involves identifying the training phases, prep races, and other things you need to do within a single season to prepare for that year’s goals – whether they are building goals or qualifying goals. You need to carefully select the races that you’ll do, considering courses that work to your strengths OR that will help you improve upon your limiters. For example, Vince and I determined that a hillier course worked to my strengths. So, we mostly only considered hilly courses in my prep and goals.

Additionally, you need to RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO RACE ALL OF THE TIME.

Yes, I had to put that in all caps. If you are racing all of the time you are doing two things: Racing and recovering. The thing you are NOT doing that you NEED to be doing is training. Organize your season around a key A race. Then select 1-2 prep races to work into that. (Post-A race, you can schedule additional races for fun, for working limiters, etc.)

Now, those of you that have been following my story might be objecting at this point: “But you did two qualifying attempts in a season two years in a row!”

Yes, that’s true. But, in both 2013 and 2014 that second qualifying attempt was NOT part of the plan. In both cases, that second race was a Hail Mary Pass. One that missed the end zone, and another one that just narrowly made it through the goal posts. (Note: I’ll be writing a post on the advantages/disadvantages of a dual big-race season – coming soon!)

If I were to go for another Kona slot again (which isn’t happening in case you were curious), I would set up my season with a single qualifying attempt with 2 half-iron distance races as prep. If my goal were to qualify for Kona, I would NOT do two 140.6 races to get there. I would plan on my second race being Kona :). And, I would try to select a race that gave me more than 8 weeks of prep time to go into Kona. I wouldn’t want to show up at that island like the wet dishrag I was the last time. So, I’d prefer an earlier season race, rather than a later one.

(Side note: while I am nowhere near the level of fitness and ability as the professional triathletes, I can understand the enormous toll it takes upon the body when you have to race 2, 3 and even 4 IM-distance events–plus some 70.3 races–to find your way into the world championships. This is exactly what is happening to the female professional triathletes because of the inequity in slot distribution. No wonder some of them show up to the big game with little spunk – they’ve had to race way too much.) 

Discipline & Sacrifice

Whether you’ve got natural athletic ability or not, you need to wrap your head around the level of discipline and subsequent sacrifice that will come with a journey to a Kona qualifying race.

Simply put: you have to put the work in if you want to get results out. That takes discipline – especially when your quest goes on for 3 years. Certainly, I had moments when I felt like blowing off training, when I wanted to eat brownies, when I wished I could have a “normal” weekend that didn’t include 6-8 hours of training per day followed by massive eating and then sleeping.

So, yes, this means you will sacrifice quite a bit. Yes, this journey can put a strain on your relationships – even when your family is completely supportive of your goal. Yes, you will have to give up ice cream. Body composition matters.

Both John and I have taken this journey to Kona, as well as other big goals, and in all of those cases one thing remains: there is no single magic bullet to the end goal. It’s all of the little things that you do (and don’t do) day after day after day that add up to a magical experience.

When I came home from Ironman Louisville in 2014, my friends and family decorated the house. Prominently featured is my credo: Don't Stop Believing.
When I came home from Ironman Louisville in 2014, my friends and family decorated the house. Prominently featured is my credo: Don’t Stop Believing.

Belief

I end this post with what is probably the most important ingredient in your success: Belief. You have to believe that it is possible to qualify for Kona. If you don’t believe, then you won’t qualify no matter how strong your physical game is. It’s that simple.

If you do believe – and truly believe in your heart and mind – that you can qualify, then you will act in ways that support that belief. If you have the mind of a champion, you will train like a champion. If you train like a champion, you will race like a champion. If you race like a champion, you will one day become one.

Belief precedes action. So, get your mental game as strong as – or even stronger than – your physical game. Without it, the KQ slot will elude you.

I am grateful for the journey I took to the big island. The experience was empowering and well worth everything I had to do to make it happen. The lessons I’ve learned have suited me well in all of the adventures I’ve had since.

If you are going after the KQ, embrace the journey–resist the temptation to focus only on the endpoint. It’s all of the little moments that make this accomplishment so worthwhile. Be grateful for all of the experiences – good and bad – and know that you are pursuing something that isn’t just about the race itself – it’s about the extraordinariness of the human body and spirit, it’s about finding out just how amazing you are.

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