Tri Coach Tuesday: Guide to Kona

D3 Coach Simon Butterworth will be racing in the Ironman World Championships in Kona Hawaii for his 13th, YES THIRTEEN, times!  He has seen a number of race conditions to give him a solid perspective about how best to prepare for everything and anything.  His experience is your new-found knowledge as his strategies have helped him earn the Kona podium.  It took you a lot of sweat and commitment to qualify for this race, so read on for the best information and advice you need to toe the line on race day.


This Guide is broken into four sections:

  • Pre-travel preparation
  • Preparation when you get to Kona
  • Race week
  • The Ironman World Championship race itself


Pre-Travel Preparation – Before you get to Kona


Race Report – Visualize what you expect

Writing a detailed race report before the race is the best way to visualize the event and plan for trouble, which will happen at some point.  You should be working on this, hopefully with a coach, weeks before the event.



There is plenty of good advice out there, but the best is from your coach.  Follow her/his advice.  When you get to Kona, don’t be tempted to do more than planned because you will want to recon the entire course.  Use your car unless you get there early and have plenty of time on your hands.


When to get there

I have found that the ideal time to arrive is 10-14 days before the race (that was only possible after I retired).  If it is less, the heat acclimatization advice provided below is very important.


Gear Prep

Simple advice, don’t wait to the last minute.  Get new tires and don’t put them on the wheels until 3 days before the race.  The more tread on the tire, the less small cuts in the tire, the less chance of a flat.  A well-used tire could well ruin months, even years of training and an expense that makes the cost of new tires chump change.  Make sure everything else is in top condition before you fly.

We are fortunate at D3 to have a deep pool of coaching resources, and that includes D3 Coach Julie Dunkle.  She will be competing in the Ironman World Championships this fall for her 6th time and suggests that you should be cautious of how deep your race wheels are.  The crosswinds on the Queen K and out to Havi can be relentless and I have seen riders blow across the road.  If you are a strong and capable rider with lots of experience you can roll an 808/404 combination, but if you are unsure I would suggest 404/404.  Note: there are no discs allowed in Kona.


Heat Acclimatization

Essential to do if you are: coming from a cool or lower humidity climate (or several weeks of cool weather),  are not getting there until race week, or have never raced in Kona conditions.  If you can get to Kona a week or more ahead of time, I would still recommend simulating the heat somehow so that when you do get there you will not go into a panic about the conditions.  Run coach Bobby McGee has a simple way to prepare for heat.  He suggests, for two weeks before your departure plan your bikes and run so that you can layer up for the last 30 minutes of every workout.  Doing more when active is not productive as it is too stressful.  There are also some interesting ideas out on the internet with the use of a Sauna, but be careful with these if you are not a regular sauna user.  Again, you don’t want to overstress yourself when you are tapering.


Just because you have got used to the feeling of the heat and humidity it does not mean you can bike and run as fast as you could in cooler temps.  You just don’t lose as much speed.  Run pace could still be 20-30 sec. slower per mile, you need to get your mental head around this fact.  Here is a calculator to determine how much time to allow for the heat.


Fears – Thinking Positive

I am not going to get into the mental game in this article but will say this is a critical piece if you are going to race to your potential.  You should have been working on this for weeks or months before the race.

D3 athletes utilize the talent of mental skills coach Will Murray for such training.  And for this particular event, Will shares that as you are out and about in Kona and during your practice swims you will see a lot of superior athletes, fit and ripped, tearing around on the bike and strutting around town.  It might be easy to start comparing yourself and trying to keep up.  But race day is all that counts.  Stick to your own workout schedule.  Remind yourself of your own race plan.  See these folks as colleagues and fellow travelers, and avoid trying to be like them in the days before the race.

Also, it’s easy to get caught up in all the buzz and pageantry.  The morning swims, the coffee barge, the Underpants Run, the 5k running race, the day-before 400m swim race all the seminars and other extracurricular events.  Remember why you are there.  While it’s fun to take in all the zaniness, you still need to focus on your own race, stay off your feet as much as you can and not get too wound up the Kona-ness of it all.



If you have not swum in salt water you are in for a treat.  If you have survived a rough lake swim you are in for a treat.  Only once have I seen rough water in Kona and in reality it was not rough, just a constant up down on rollers.  Sighting under these conditions is challenging, so work on this if you have not done so already. Another positive is that there are a lot of good swimmers in Kona, they don’t tend to swim off in the wrong direction, so follow the leaders until you spot the many buoys.



This is the big challenge in Kona.  Not only can it be very windy it is also a hilly bike course.  The good news is that the wind tends to stop you thinking about the hills until you go slowly down one.

The bike is all about pacing.  Be realistic with your planning.  You should know what your power and/or HR should be for the duration you are expecting.  There is also nothing wrong with perceived exertion.  Note the word duration.  If you determine that your duration is going to be longer than your prior IM by any significant amount, because of the conditions,  your power output goals should go down some.  Fueling and Hydration should be adjusted for an anticipated longer event as well.  If you get this right, no need to worry, the inverse is trouble.



What happens here depends on what you have done for the past 114.4 miles.  If you did overdo it, don’t panic.  In my first go in Kona, I almost collapsed when I stepped off my bike and the first 4-5 miles were hell.  But Kona does magic things to the mind and the last thing you want is to not finish the race.  So don’t give up and the great thing is all the encouragement along the first part of the run.

If all went reasonably well and you get your running legs before leaving town stick to your plan, enjoy the feeling of knowing you are on your way to the finish.


Preparation When You Get To Kona


Bike Course Recon

How much of this you can do depends obviously on when you get to Kona.  Here are my thoughts in order of importance:

The windy bit, Waikoloa.  Drive out to Waikoloa around 9 am to get in a ride in during the time you should be out there on race day (which is usually the windiest time of the day).  Unfortunately, it is not always windy out there so you will need to ask about the conditions.  I have been there for two weeks with what would be great race conditions only to have to famous winds come back 1-2 days before the race (you don’t want to go out there that close to the race).

When you are out there be sure to ride through some of the cuts through the big mounds of Lava.  If it is blowing hard going through these the first time is scary.  You may be leaning into the crosswind the suddenly there is no wind.  In the middle, it can get totally confused with the wind buffeting you around.  Then as you exit, you get the full force of the wind again.

A ride thru Kona.  It is important to get an idea of the climbs you will experience over the first 5 miles.  Don’t hammer them, ride as if you are doing the race.  Get comfortable with the speed and don’t try to go faster on race day.

Climb to Hawi.  A great time to do this if you get there early enough is the weekend before.  A great starting point is to drive to the end of the Queen K. Spencer State Park.  Ride the rollers along the coast a bit below your IM pace, then when the road moves away from the immediate coast and you start a steady climb, push the pace a bit above your IM pace goal.  As the road starts to climb it also starts to turn east and with it, the winds usually get stronger until you are not going anywhere fast.  Winds can also be very gusty along this road.  A warning and good news.  The shoulder is narrow and it is scary with traffic.  Race day there is none, be careful.

Come back to Spencer down the long hill not working hard and pick it up a bit again along the rollers.  Coming back down the hill with the wind at your back is very fast.  As the road curves south it will get gusty, sometimes very gusty.  You should stay in your aerobars, as it makes you lower and reduces the effect of the gusts.  Look at the grass ahead of you to anticipate the gusts or sudden lulls.  Don’t ride beside any friends on the shoulder.

Hill Repeats.  If you get to Kona soon enough there is a great place to do hill repeats 6+ miles south on Alii Drive.  You will find what I am talking about around that distance.  Also of note is the Pit.  At mile 5.5 you go up a short hill on Alii and the road turns right.  On the next longer descent there is a road going off to the right, the Pit.  It was part of the original run course.  Picture yourself running up that hill a little over a mile after getting off the bike.  That was a tough course.


Run Course Recon 

I don’t believe there is any benefit to running out of town on the Queen K.  At most go out to the Harbor and head back.  I would get used to the small rollers on the Queen K and the climb up and down Palani.  Don’t run in the middle of the day unless you are expecting a swim and bike to rival the Pros.  I run mostly in the morning and do one or two short runs mid to late afternoon when I expect to be running in the race.  It is worth a drive down the Energy Lab road to get a look at it.  It is not a big hill until you are climbing it more than halfway through the run.

There is an interesting example of the structure of the island just past the turn at the bottom of the hill and before you get to a building with toilets. Park just before you get to the toilets and walk straight across the beach and onto the lava.  You will see a small inlet in the rocks.  If it is low tide the water will feel cool and you may smell sulfur.  Water is coming down from the top of Mauna Loa through the lava tubes.


Heat Adjustment

There is not much you can do once you get to Kona other than being out in it.  Don’t use AC in your hotel/condo except perhaps to cool off the bedroom so you sleep well.  Same in the car except in the hottest part of the day.



Don’t try anything new!  Stay well hydrated, you will notice you sweat a lot.  Drink some but not exclusively sports drinks each day.  Tap water is good in Kona.  There is a Costco in Kona, find it, it is the best place for gas and most food supplies.  Food is expensive on the Island.


Bike Support

Bike Works Kona is your best bet for quality bike service and the all-important supply of CO2 cartridges as you are not supposed to take them on your flight.


To read the rest of Coach Simon’s Kona Guide, please visit

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