The endurance race that can make or break you

Laura Siddall competes in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii this weekend, a gruelling mix of long-distance swimming, cycling and running. Here the professional triathlete cuts through the hype to set the scene for an iconic event that demans respect

On Saturday, I will be lining up with the best long-distance triathletes in the world at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. It is considered the Olympics for endurance distance triathletes. That is, those of us who are mad enough to race for more than nine or ten hours (up to seventeen for amateurs and age-groupers), and includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride (180km) and a 26-mile, marathon-length, run at the end.

With the endurance side of triathlon not being in the Olympics, Kona is considered to be the pinnacle for our sport. Unlike the Olympics, though, athletes get the chance to compete at this event, providing they qualify, every year, every October.

As professionals, we have to collect points by racing over the year to gain qualification. The top fifty men qualify and the top thirty-five women. For age-groupers, qualification is in a single race: if you finish at the top or near the top of your age group, you have the chance to land a spot for the event.

It’s the Ironman World Championships. There is a lot of hype and noise that goes on leading into the event, the energy and atmosphere gets frenzied. Many amateur athletes dream of making it to Kona, it’s a calling, a driver in their lives. For some an obsession. Even for many pros, it’s seen as the be-all and end-all, their whole year is focused on this one day. It’s funny that for such an iconic event, there are many more stunning and better courses around the world. Kona is hardly spectacular or spectator-friendly with most of the ride and run being on a highway. However, sponsors put pressure on professionals to qualify and turn up, and amateurs are enticed by the pull it has. Ironman has done a great job to create this appeal; after all it’s got the World Championship tag. It certainly creates a hype.

Kona makes people. It can change your life. Britain’s Chrissie Wellington won on debut in 2007 as pretty much an unknown athlete. She went on to win three more times, in 2008, 2009, and 2011. It changed her life and it changed the sport. Over those next five years, with those four Ironman World titles, alongside 13 undefeated iron distance races, she took the sport to a new level. It gave her the platform to use sport to make change, to inspire and to continue doing so once she retired from racing.

But Kona also breaks people. The very best athletes in the world crumble. Athletes go for the win, the title, and perhaps take risks that in any other race they wouldn’t. It’s the conditions that make this race so hard to crack. The Hawaiian winds whip up during the day but change direction over the course. Then add in the intense heat and humidity. You need to give this race respect. You need to respect Madame Pele (the goddess of fire, lightning, wind, volcanoes and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands). So do your time on the island and you’ll leave with good memories.

Hello, I’m Laura, and I’m a professional triathlete. I’m going to take you with me to Hawaii (in theory at least), and hopefully provide some insights into the lead-up to the race, the race itself and the aftermath.

To give you some personal detail: I’m British but live globally, chasing summer between the Southern Hemisphere and the Northern Hemisphere as I train and race. I started the sport late in life, at the age of 29, and as a complete beginner on a hybrid mountain bike and with my trainers for bike shoes. Four years later, after winning four World Championship titles as an amateur (over the sprint distance, twice over the Olympic distance and the 70.3, or half-ironman distance, I turned professional. It took a leap of faith to resign from the corporate world and that security. While it’s not exactly a lucrative sport, and I’d be lucky to earn in three years the salary I had in my previous job, I have no regrets and I’m truly grateful for the opportunity I have to lead this life.

Do I get nervous before races? Yes, but that’s a good thing. Adrenalin is positive if used constructively to channel your focus and energy. These are the World Championships. But cut through the hype and chatter and, ultimately, it’s just another race. It’s just another day. I stand on the start-line and try to swim, bike and run to the very best of my ability. In the end it is a process to execute and focus on. I shall be trying to maintain an internal focus, concentrating on my race and what I can do in the moment. Of course, I’ll be aware of my competitors, and my plans have to be flexible to make decisions as race dynamics play out. (“Is this good for me or bad for me?” is often a question I use.) Generally, though, it’s me, in my bubble, and what I can do with what my body gives me on the day.

Do I sleep the night before the race? Not really. With an early wake-up call (often at 3am), you need to be going to sleep at 7pm, which I find hard to do. I try to get as much rest as I can in the weeks and days leading into the race. On race eve, I find I’m awake every hour or so, and almost clock-watching waiting for my alarm, paranoid about sleeping through. You have to keep calm. There’s nothing you can do about waking up during the night, just try to relax, take deep breaths and hopefully fall back asleep for another few hours before the alarm sounds.

Do I want to win? Of course! It’s an incredible feeling and such a buzz to run down the finish chute and raise the tape. To win the World Championships would be an incredible feeling. However, there are plenty of women on the start-line who all want to win, and are capable of it. Again, it’s about the process. Yes, results are important, but only if they are part of the process. I will go into the race with no expectations. But no expectations doesn’t mean low expectations. It just means I have nothing to lose and will embrace the opportunity.

Kona will be my sixth full iron-distance race in twelve months. Most athletes will aim for two or maybe three in that period. I’ve had a great year, though, with some good results and nothing I would have changed. I believe and trust, with the guidance and support from my coach Matt Dixon and Paul Buick, that we have prepped, recovered and tweaked to be primed and fit, fresh and ready to go come race day.

It will be my first time racing Kona. I’ve been the past few years to watch and support friends and team-mates, but this time it’s my turn to race. It’s my turn to show up and put into practice the work I do day-in day-out. It’s my turn to soak it all up and embrace the opportunity and experience. It’s my turn to pay my respects to Madame Pele and the iron distance course, but also to remember it’s just another swim-bike-run. However, it is the World Championships, and I will be making sure the moment doesn’t pass me by.

Am I hyped? Hell yeah!


Laura Siddall. Laura’s latest articles.

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