Friday, April 8, 2011

Riding the Queen K

Few times in life an athlete has the opportunity to compete in or train on the most famous venue their sport has to offer. Baseball had the old Yankee Stadium, Basketball Madison Square Garden, Tennis has Wimbledon, runners have Boston and triathletes have Kona. The Queen K represents the storied history of triathlon, it represents countless hours of sacrifice for those who have qualified. One stretch of highway signifies the thousands of stories that Iron distance races capture from Rudy Garcia to Dave Scott to dozens of others whose stories that only family and friends know. Yes, it was only a training ride, but the fact that I was incredibly lucky to train on such hollowed grounds was not lost on me.

I was in Kona for my girlfriend's first triathlon. Nemo crushed the race and did outstandingly well. Her main goal was to not crash on the bike; with the help of Bike Works in Kona I was able to rig together a make shift water bottle holder for her stem. Nemo still isn't comfortable reaching down while riding so not having to move her hands too much gave her a ton more confidence on the bike. With how hot it is out in Kona water was key. Without going into too much further detail she had a fantastic first race that surely won't be her last.

We arrived to Kona on Thursday night and I picked up my bike Friday. Giddy like a school-girl I walked into Bike Works to pick up my Cervelo S1 that I had rented for the weekend. I'm in the market for a new road bike and the Cervelo R3 is high on my list; so testing out an S1 on the road would give me a good idea of fit and feel.

Saturday I woke early, donned the Spandex and was ready to ride. On tap for the day was 65 miles of the 112 mile Ironman Course leaving from Waikoloa and heading north to Hawi for an out and back. The first 5 miles or so were spent adjusting the saddle height and forward position once I felt kind of dialed in it was time to just flat out ride.

My first impression of the Queen K is that it is a deceptively hard ride. There aren't any steep climbs, the roads are really smooth and one would be hard pressed to find a technical turn. What makes this course brutally difficult is the wind, heat and lack of change in landscape. Riding through the lava fields is like riding on the moon, the landscape is like nothing I have ever seen and the wind blows through it without challenge. In the distance you can see Maui, but the vision looks like a mirage, its simply a beautiful backdrop that never seems to get bigger or smaller.

Once through the town of Kawaihae the ride became brutally difficult. I was greeted by a wall of wind that had me struggling to keep a pace above 15 mph. Determined to make it to the turn around point I pushed on. About 5 miles from the town of Hawi I was greeted by a friendly face tearing down the other side of the Queen K. Matt, the husband of a TNT teammate of Nemo was doing the same ride as me. He thankfully added 5 miles to his ride and rode into Hawi with me - I was struggling at that point.

At the turn-around I grabbed a coffee, an apple banana, a smoothie and some extra water before hoping back on for the rest of the ride. On the 30ish miles out to Hawi both Matt and I had a spartan 2 water bottles, 10 miles into the return trip we had gone through that amount of water! Once the wind was at our backs the pavement heated up. I could barely get in enough water to keep my focus and to stay hydrated. In total I went through 8 water bottles on the return 30 miles - 4 times the amount of water I needed on the way out; weather makes this course difficult, and weather is something a rider has no control over.

On the way back I did my fastest mile ever - 1:22, on a flat or slightly downhill portion of the course with the wind at my back. The way out took me 2+ hours, the way back took me less than an hour and 1/2. The Queen K let me realize how truly special those pro-triathletes are. The Queen K is not friendly, the course is unpredictable and demands you be prepared for the toughest obstacles a rider can face; heat and wind. After 60 miles I have a whole new respect for those who have qualified for and competed at Kona.

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