‘A fantastic experience’

Ryan Hepworth at Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii
Ryan Hepworth at Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii

RYAN Hepworth is an RNLI lifeguard working in Bridlington who travelled to Hawaii to compete in the Ironman Triathlon World Championships earlier this month. He qualified by finishing third in the British championships in Bolton in the summer. In Hawaii, he finished 487th overall, and 13th in the 18-24 age group. This is his account of his experience.

AS anyone who has done an Ironman before will probably understand, after all the hard work and dedication it takes in the months leading up to the event, when I had finished Ironman UK in 2010 all I wanted to do was throw my bike in the garage and not even mention the word ‘Ironman’ ever again.

“This year was no different, however after a couple of weeks’ rest I had to turn my attention to the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii that I was lucky to qualify for.

“I was desperate to give a good performance, so when planning my training in the weeks leading up to the event the first person I turned to for advice was Adam Hardy at www.Sports-Lab.co.uk. I began to follow a detailed personalised training plan to improve my cycling, and felt instant improvements.

“As well as fitness, another key consideration for the event was the climate, I knew I could do the distance in a respectable time, the new challenge would be the heat.

“With temperatures stable at 30-40 degrees year round and humidity around 70% it was clearly going to be a hot day, a world apart from my previous experience in triathlons in sunny Yorkshire!

“After getting chatting to teammate James Bray at the club triathlon, who is currently studying towards his PhD at the University of Hull, I was fortunate enough to be allowed to use the state of the art environment chamber at the university in the weeks leading up to be event.

“The chamber is capable of creating almost any climate, ranging from sub-zero temperatures, up to 50 degrees with varying levels of humidity.

“The sessions started at 28 degrees and 50% humidity, and quickly rose to 38 degrees and 60% humidity. Having this time to acclimatise to the heat was crucial.

“After two weeks it was shown that at the same heat, humidity and power output as my first session, my average heart rate was around 30 bpm lower, and both core and skin temperature were also lower.

“The sessions also gave an insight into my sweat rate in such conditions, which was consistently around 2.5 litres per hour.

“I learnt the importance of hydration the hard way, when I arrived at one session slightly dehydrated. My core body temperature quickly shot up to over 39 degrees, the early stages of hyperthermia, and I had to bring the resistance and heat down for safety reasons.

“In a matter of minutes it felt like someone had doubled the resistance on the bike, and I struggled to even turn the pedals. Lesson learnt – hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

“Although having more information about how my body copes in the heat should have given me confidence, knowing I would sweat 2.5 litres every hour, and the fact I would be battling dehydration pretty much as soon as I exited the swim possibly made me even more nervous.

I still had a week out in Hawaii before the race, and used this time to do some gentle training, further acclimatise and get to know the course.

“Running down the Queen K highway surrounded by guys who look twice as fit as me and as though they live and train in sun all year round ensured the usual pre-race doubts and nerves.

“I made time to drive and study key parts of the bike course, I was as prepared as I ever would be.

“The swim was a mass start, 1,900 athletes fighting for position. I had only done four triathlons prior to Kona, however three of these had been open water swims so I was used to this.

“However instead of the strong and weak swimmers spreading out as is usually the case, everyone seemed to be a good swimmer and the group stayed largely together.

“The whole 2.4 miles was a brawl. With the current and waves in the sea, as well as not using a wetsuit, I was anticipating my swim time to be a little slower than Bolton, so was happy to emerge in one piece with 1:02.

My plan for the race was to swim conservatively, attack the bike and have confidence in my run. If nothing else I thought a quicker bike split would give me a buffer for a slow marathon, which in the conditions I thought was very likely.

“I got through the first transition as quickly as possible and out on to the bike course. After a short 10 mile circuit around Kona, the bike course is an out and back ride up the coast to Hawi and back.

“The first quarter of the route passes through the infamous Lava Fields, which at this stage in the day was still relatively cool, and with a slight tailwind this section passed quickly.

“The second quarter is possibly the toughest. The road becomes more exposed to the harsh Hawaiian winds, which was a head wind at this point and also includes the only notable climb of the course.

“Although there is no huge gradient, it is a steady climb for around 10 miles. I had heard the winds described in this way before the race, and there is no better way to describe it, other than to imagine someone is holding a hair dryer in your face.

“Along with looking down to see speeds as slow as 8mph at times on relative flat sections, the thought of a tailwind and the prospect of spectators instead of the deserted Queen K highway in the town of Hawi meant the turn around could not come soon enough.

“The winds are notoriously unpredictable in Hawaii, and race day was no different. On the descent back down from Hawi the wind seemed to have changed and was now gusting from the side, meaning what should have been a very fast descent became a case of hanging on just trying to keep the bike on the road.

“By this time of day the heat had also increased. Aid stations were around every seven miles, and I made sure when approaching each one I had finished a full bottle of water, meaning I was drinking around two litres per hour.

“One full bottle then went on my bike, and a second bottle was poured all over my head and long sleeved white top to cool me down. This plan seemed to be working well.

“I was beginning to turn my attention to the run, as with about 20 miles to go I was feeling good. That is, until the course comes back through the lava fields.

“Looking around either side of the road all you can see is black lava. No trees, no crowds, nothing. At this point it was around midday, with the sun beating down and soaking into the black rock and tarmac on the road, there is literally heat coming from every direction.

“I was struggling, and beginning to think I had pushed too hard early on on the bike and would have nothing left for the run.

“I could see my average speed dropping almost every minute, and in the end was just relieved to arrive back in Kona with a split of 5:12.

Transition times were generally slower due to the huge transition area, however coming out with a time of around 6.19, I felt confident.

“In Bolton I ran a 3:11 marathon, so I thought all I had to do was run a sub 3:30 marathon for a sub 10-hour finish. Simple as that I thought.

The run course first takes you five miles along Alii Drive and back. Although this is close to the sea front, there seems to be no air whatsoever.

“In contrast to the bike leg, I would have done anything for a bit more wind. Running with cold sponges and ice stuffed down my top, I made it back to Kona running just over 8 minute miles.

“I was feeling comfortable and trying not to let excitement get the better of me, on what was going to be a long day. I was on track, so far so good.

“The course then goes away from the town and the crowds, and climbs the energy-sapping gradient back up the lonely Queen K highway and descends into the bowl that is the Energy Lab.

“In an area filled with fields’ solar panels, the heat seems to pool in the Energy Lab and the winds completely disappear.

“Breathing such hot air when you are out of breath is a very strange feeling. I remember my mood changing, which is never a good sign in an ironman, and thinking ‘this place is even heating me up from the inside out’.

“My speed dropped and at times I struggled to keep running. Everybody had told me not to push the pace on the marathon until after the Energy Lab at around mile 20, and now I know why.

“The five or six miles approaching and leaving the Energy Lab are, in a word, brutal. Seeing other athletes pushing the pace and running strong at this point was a very humbling experience.

“I suddenly felt very new to the world of triathlon and realised I still have a lot to learn.

“With every step at this point it was looking more and more unlikely I was going to do a sub 10-hour Ironman.

“This thought hadn’t even crossed my mind until the start of the race, so I wasn’t too disappointed. I managed to pick up the pace for the last few miles finishing the marathon in 3:39, slowing slightly to enjoy the finish line.

“The finishing stretch of any Ironman puts a spring in your step, but the last mile down Alii Drive, with messages from family written in chalk all down the road, and crowds lining the street from a mile out, was out of this world.

“Every expense, be it money, time or effort spent to get to this point was instantly all worth it. It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

My time overall was 10:03:49, strangely just 10 seconds slower than my qualifying time in Bolton.

“On a different day maybe I could have gone faster, but 13th in the world in my 18-24 age group, and top 500 overall, I was more than happy with the result.

“The whole race week was a fantastic experience, and one I will remember forever.

“I said in the weeks prior to the event that after all the time and money it cost, I would race in order to guarantee a finish and that any half decent result would be a bonus.

“I told myself a finish time of over 12 hours would be disappointing, but a finish none the less which is never to be sniffed at in an Ironman.

“11-12 hours would have been a good result, and anything sub-11 would be fantastic. With time to reflect, although I feel I will forever be disappointed with myself that I couldn’t hold it together on the run, I knew at the finish line I gave it everything, and it was the best I could do on that day.

“The help and support from both family and friends leading up to and during the race was fantastic.

“As I’m writing this I’m sitting by the pool, looking out to sea with a drink in my hand. There are definitely worse places in the world to do a triathlon.”