Two Canadians return to the world Ironman championship seeking to crack Kona’s code.
The Hawaiian birthplace of Ironman racing — a 3.86-kilometre ocean swim followed by an 180K bike ride and a 42K marathon — continues to be the Super Bowl of the sport almost 40 years after the first race in 1978.
Victoria’s Brent McMahon and Lionel Sanders of Harrow, Ont., will compete in the world championship a third straight year Saturday.
The Canadians own half a dozen Ironman victories between them. They’ve also raced under the exalted eight-hour barrier during their careers.
Each man hopes his race plan is the right one to finally conquer the variable heat and fickle crosswinds of Kona.
“You have to figure out how you work in that race,” McMahon said. “Once you do, it’s much easier to repeat.”
He points to defending champion Jan Frodeno of Germany, who finished third in 2014 and won the next two world titles, as an example of a triathlete who solved the physical and mental puzzle that is Kona.
McMahon won Ironman Lake Placid in July and set a new course record of eight hours 14 minutes four seconds.
Sanders claimed the ITU world long-distance title in August in a race shorter than an Ironman — a 3k swim, 120k bike and 30k run.
The world championship prize purse is US$650,000 split between the top 10 finishers in the men’s and women’s races. No Canadian women are entered in the pro field Saturday.
The last Canadian man and woman to world Ironman championships were Peter Reid and Lori Bowden in 2003.
After finishing ninth in 2015, McMahon ranked third in the world heading to Kona in 2016.
He took a five-minute penalty for drafting on the bike and, while attempting to run his way back into the lead group, his stomach rebelled and he lost minutes and energy vomiting at the side of the road.
“Things turned pear-shaped real quick there,” the 37-year-old recalled.
“The last two years I’ve had what it takes to be on the podium and I just haven’t been able to express my run on that course. I’ve just got to get this marathon out of my legs.”
Sanders finished a respectable 14th in his Kona debut in 2015, but he was hampered by a weak swim a year later.
Sanders and McMahon met up on the marathon run and commiserated with each other en route to finishing 29th and 30th respectively in 2016.
Sanders wasn’t going to race Kona this year unless he made significant gains in his swimming.
When he came out of the water with 2016 world silver medallist Sebastian Kienle of Germany at a half Ironman race in June, the world championship was back on Sander’s radar.
“This is the first year where I’ve even remotely got a sense of how to work in good quality swims into the massive amount of fatigue you will amass from all the bike and the run training,” the 29-year-old said.
“Some people never figure it out and these guys obviously have figured it out and that’s why they’ve done well in Kona.”
Sanders says he doubled his kilometres in the pool in the five weeks leading up to Kona this year.
“For me to contend for the overall title, it’s really going to boil down to me keeping my electrolytes and my hydration status in check,” he said. “If I can do that, I can compete for the overall title.”
Nailing the nutritional demands of the world championship is the key McMahon says he’s been missing in Hawaii.
The race requires different food and drink at different times and the ability to recognize when.
“It’s hot, but it changes at times to hot and humid to dry and windy,” McMahon explained. “The last two years we’ve definitely figured out the nutrition I need for Kona.
“It’s not about how fit I’ve been going in. It’s about how I get my fitness out onto the course.”
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version incorrectly had Frodeno finishing thid in 2015 instead of 2014.