The Ironman World Championship is known for heat and wind and suffering. Held on the same Big Island of Hawaii, is the Lavaman Triathlon, known for fun and a great post-race party. Having experienced my share of suffering on the Big Island, fun and partying sounded absolutely great. And it was. Here’s my recap of the Lavaman Olympic Distance Triathlon, held on Sunday, March 30 2014.
LOGISTICS: The setting is Waikoloa, a resort area with numerous hotels, condos, shops and restaurants, so accommodations are pretty easy to figure out. Waikoloa is about 20 miles from the Kona airport. I used Tri Bike Transport (TBT) to get my bike from a bike shop in Honolulu to the race site. While I like to use TBT, I won’t use it again for this particular race. I was without my bike for over a week and it wasn’t convenient enough to justify paying more than twice as much as other options. Typically, TBT is set up very near the transition area. In this case, it was about a mile away, which is a hassle especially after a race. I wished I could have just rolled my bike to my hotel room which was much closer. Next time I’ll pack my bike or use Aloha Air Cargo.
VENUE AND EVENT MANAGEMENT: The venue is absolutely beautiful: Lava, ocean, lagoons, palm trees, flowers, sandy beach and sky. T1 and T2 are at the same location and well organized. Parking is available. You can see that some event equipment is what is used at Ironman races, including bike racks where you put your rear wheel into a wooden slot marked with your number. Packet pick-up was smooth, the Expo had a number of interesting vendors and Lavaman gear, the race briefing was to the point, and body marking could be taken care of the day before the race. (I wondered how the hotels felt about that.) This was the very first time I had raced Lavaman, but I felt comfortable and confident thanks to the race organizers and the abundance and helpfulness of the volunteer crew. There were approximately 1,000 individuals and 75 teams that raced this year.
Note that this event attracts a large number of Team in Training athletes and I was thrilled to learn that over the years, participating athletes have raised over $21 million dollars to support the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society through their participation at Lavaman. Many of these athletes were first-time triathletes and I congratulate them on tackling a rather tough race their first time out.
THE SWIM: The race is held in beautiful Anaeho’omalu Bay, thankfully nick-named “A Bay”. Water temperature was in the mid-70’s and race management announced that the event would be wetsuit legal several days before the race. While I could quibble with their call (it didn’t seem cold enough on race morning), it was nice that they called it early and allowed people to plan. I decided to wear my sleeveless wetsuit (a friend called before I left home to tell me it would be legal) and I noted quite a few people, but not a majority, made a similar decision. The start was broken into waves, and my wave started 30 minutes after the first wave of pro/elite athletes and relay teams. I am used to Ironman starts, so I would have preferred to get going sooner, but I appreciated that this is a first-time triathlon for many people, so this was much more newbie-friendly.
I seeded myself in the top third of my wave, on the outside of the corral which was in the water, about waist deep. Going out, yellow triangle buoys are on your left, you turn left around two big, round orange buoys and then come back with orange triangle buoys also on your left. If you breath to the right like I do, this isn’t perfect, but I managed to stay pretty much on course. The conditions were perfect and the water was clear. Sighting was easy on this particular day, but I recommend using polarized goggles since we finished swimming towards a low-in-the-sky sun. Swim until you can’t swim any longer and you’ll be on sand. Then a longish uphill run to transition and you’re into T1. There were supposedly showers (I don’t remember them), but I did make good use of two plastic swimming pools at the entrance to transition that you could walk through to get the sand off of your feet. Nice!!
THE BIKE: A very straightforward 25 mile out and back on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, famous for the Ironman World Championship. On this day, there was a slight tailwind out and a slight headwind coming back. The smooth and clean shoulders are easy to ride and there is no steep climbing, so I stayed aero most of the time. Starting in a later wave, being a slower swimmer and a faster cyclist, I passed hundreds of people on the bike leg. It was a bit challenging at times as some folks didn’t quite get the idea of staying to the right. At the turnaround, there is a sharpish downhill and some speed bumps. This is the only no-passing zone on the course. Here you’ll also find the lone aid station. I would suggest carrying enough water so you can stay well clear of this station as it was a bit congested. Be in your small front gear, power up and out of the turnaround and get aero for the ride back. Traffic is stopped so you can turn left into the Waikoloa resort area. A couple of speed bumps and a turn left and you’re at T2.
THE RUN: I have raced the Hawaii 70.3 Ironman eight times and I thought that course was crazy. The Lavaman course is even crazier, but at least only 6.2 miles. You start by running on and through lava for about a hundred yards. Then you’re on paved roads, going by hotels and condos with a couple of gradual hills, and doglegs into resort communities for about 4.5 miles. Aid stations are every mile, and they have water, ice, a sports drink and some gels. I took ice and water at a couple of stations–it was a really hot day and I was out there late morning. Then, you enter the Hilton Waikoloa Village resort and run on paths right by people lounging at the pool and enjoying the entertainment you’re providing. It’s a nice break from the road and while this part of the course is a little up and down and this way and that, it doesn’t quite set you up for the King’s Path.
When I saw the arrow pointing down from the nice hotel path on to a foot-wide ledge next to the beach on a steep hill with brush on one side and ocean on the other, I asked the volunteer if this was a joke. He asked if I needed a hand and then I felt like a weenie. Never being a trail runner, this 400 yard section sucked my time as I daintily found my way over the big and small rocks and loose dirt. I stepped aside at least twice to let people pass in front of me. Once off of this section, it was onto coral and a winding path through scrub trees. And once that was over, it was a run through sand, with great crowd support along the way, to the finish.
THE PARTY: Kona Brewing Company provides unlimited “liquid aloha” to race finishers and at the after-race party. Great burgers, chili, salads, giant cookies and more are all especially yummy after the race. Many athletes and supporters stick around to enjoy the beachside setting to share their stories.
MY RACE: I trained right through this race since my A race, Ironman Brazil, falls just eight weeks afterwards. So I was thrilled to find out that I had finished first in my age group with a total time of 2:52:16. My time for the 1500 meter swim was 33:58, bike was 1:15:35 and run was 57:19. I was especially happy with my swim time as I’ve typically been close to the last one in my age group out of the water–this time, I was fifth. I have been working really hard on my swimming and it was nice to see this reflected in the results. I also worked hard on keeping my cadence up on the bike leg and I think this helped me avoid the leg cramping that has dogged me in most races.
In sum, maybe not the best “very first triathlon”. Your first one should give you lots of confidence and the longer swim and “interesting” run may not do that. So, maybe pick a sprint triathlon and then do this one next. Or, share the race with friends on a relay team like my husband, Rick did. But definitely, put Lavaman on your race list for a well-run, challenging and very fun experience.
Many thanks to Rick Keene and Brooke Guth for the photos used here. And congratulations to everyone who shared the race with me this year!