Loneliness of the long-distance triathlete

The alarm goes off at 3.30am. It’s still dark. I get up and go for a short five-to-ten-minute run to wake up the system. Then it’s back, shower, dress, breakfast, head to the start. Walking silently through town in the early hours of the morning, you join your fellow athletes. It’s almost like the march of the zombies. Spectators are already lining the break wall by the swim start, keen to mark their viewing spot.


Kona, The Ironman World Championships, are the pinnacle of the sport for the endurance triathlete. What started thirty-nine years ago as a debate about whether swimmers, cyclists or runners were the fittest, has now become one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world. It consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

The 2017 Ironman World Championships, held last weekend, was won for the third year in a row by Switzerland’s Daniella Ryf, who is setting the standard in women’s endurance racing. However, while Ryf won by nine minutes, for 60 per cent of the race, it was led by a Brit, Lucy Charles. Lucy, is just 24 years of age, and it was her professional debut at Kona, having raced there as an amateur and won her age group in 2015. Lucy emerged from the water with a time that would have put her in the mix in the men’s race! She continued to ride in the lead, and it was only towards the end of the cycling section that Ryf caught her. Lucy ran a marathon personal-best to hold on to second place. It was a fabulous performance by one so young in a sport where years of experience and training count. She has the potential to be a champion in the coming years.

I mentioned in my first article that I would be treating Kona like just another race. I have a wry smile as I think of that now. The fact is, it’s not just another race. It’s the World Championship, and while the process is the same in terms of swim, bike and run as fast as you can, no other race has the circus and hype that this race does. The energy levels leading up to it reach a level of intensity which matches the hot and humid climate of Hawaii. It’s frenzied.

I finished in 15th. Fifteenth in the world doesn’t sound too bad, does it? However, as athletes we have high standards and expectations of ourselves, and it certainly wasn’t the result or performance I wanted.

The race site greets you with blazing lights and atmospheric music playing over the speakers. Not that you need any help to get the adrenalin juices flowing, your stomach’s already doing back-flips! The volunteers welcome you, ushering you through the pre-race processes before releasing you to go and set up your bike.

This preparatory stage is a mix of excitement and nerves. Tyres are being pumped, nutrition and fluids stored on the bike, equipment checked. The media are already there focusing on the big names. There’s a small hum of talk between athletes, with some friendly good luck hugs and smiles. Some athletes stay in their own little world, perhaps with headphones on. Others seem more relaxed or cope with their nerves by happily chatting away.

The swim start beckons at Dig Me Beach. There are spectators as far as the eye can see. The sun is just breaking over the hills behind town. It’s a magical time, an opportunity to take a deep breath. Exhale. And smile. A calming few moments before the chaos begins.

Then you’re treading water waiting for the race to start. Athletes eye each other up, and try to line up in the best place. A few last-minute jostles for position, but then the paddle boarders, marking the start-line sit up, turn their boards, opening up the path forward like gates. It’s a queue. The cannon is about to fire. BOOOOOOM! And we’re off.

The first part of the race feels like a sprint. Everyone sets off with the aim and focus of making that front swim pack and latching on to the faster swimmers in the hope of being pulled around the 2.4-mile circuit.

Just under an hour later you return to solid ground. It feels though like the day is just beginning, with the 180-kilometre bike ride ahead (not to mention the run). The course loops around town and then out on the infamous Queen K highway, culminating with the climb to the turnaround at Hawi. The highway is baked in the Hawaiian heat, and is open to trade winds that funnel down from the volcanoes, causing havoc for us cyclists. It’s not unusual to find yourself with a head wind on the way out, only to turn at Hawi and have the winds turn as well, so there’s a head wind on the way back, too. It grinds you down. It’s mentally as well as physically tough. At times you don’t feel like you’re making any progress at all. It can feel pretty lonely out there, even more so if things aren’t going your way.

Do we talk to our fellow competitors during all those hours we’re out there? While you are competing against each other, there is a camaraderie as well. I think you all appreciate how tough it is. Often there are words of encouragement as you pass, or are passed by, the other women. As an example, towards halfway point, I caught up to another Brit, Rachel Joyce. Rachel is one of Britain’s most consistently successful athletes in Kona, having finished second, third and second in 2013, 2014 and 2015 before taking 2016 off to have a baby. To be back competing in the World Champs, with Archie just a year old, is incredibly impressive. There were words of encouragement between us as we realise we could work off each other on the way back to transition.

Once you’ve returned, you’ve now just the simple task of running a marathon. It starts with a five-mile out-and-back section along Ali’i Drive, in the hot and stagnant heat, before heading up on to the Queen K again and running out to the Energy Lab. The section along Ali’I Drive is lined with supporters and there’s a buzz in the air. Then you hit the Queen K and the spectators dissipate, leaving you on your own. It’s just a long, lonely, almost desolate highway, the temperature rising, the heat bouncing off the asphalt.

After the descent into the Energy Lab, and the turnaround, it’s just 12 kilometres to go. That’s still far enough. The highway stretches away in front of you. The road is more populated now, as the age-group athletes are on the go. They are heading out to the Energy Lab, while you’re on your way back to town. If they weren’t already, your quads are burning now with every pounding step on the road. Every slight rise in the road feels so much steeper … but gradually the spectators start to appear and more and more people are at the side of the road. You can hear the sound of the finish-line, drawing you closer. Finally, after the final rise, you can turn right and hit the downhill of Palani. It’s just over one kilometre to go.

The thoughts you had an hour or so ago about whether you were going to make it, are now replaced with the belief that you will reach the finish-line. You are welcomed home like a champion, regardless of your finishing place. The cheers and claps carry you over the final few hundred metres. You are sucked into the red-carpet finish, pulled towards the arch. You’ve done it. You made it. You finished the Ironman World Championship!

The real heroes in the race are the age-groupers, though. The ones that are out there for 15, 16 and 17 hours in the baking heat, then the final few hours in the pitch black. The ones who balance training with families, with corporate work and commitments outside the sport. The ones for whom this sport is a hobby and not their job. They battle away for hour after hour to get the honour and chance to reach the finish and to be called across the line … YOU ARE AN IRONMAN.

Everyone has a story. A battle they have overcome. Their reasons to race. There are tears of joy. Tears of sadness. There are sprint finishes with a sudden adrenalin rush and a leap at the line. There are shuffles. There are staggers and bodies bent over with cramps and stiffness. Sunburnt, sweat-drenched, salt-crusted, fatigued bodies. But the biggest thing are the smiles. The smile at their own achievement and accomplishment. The hugs and high-fives. They are the iron men and women of the sport. They are the inspiration. They are the legends and the champions.


Laura Siddall. Laura’s latest articles.

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One thought on “Loneliness of the long-distance triathlete

  • 21st October 2017 at 10:51 am

    Great insight to the discipline and so well written. Thanks!


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