Kona: Luke McKenzie’s thoughts post Ironman World Championship

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images for Ironman

Aussie Luke has been to Kona, the IRONMAN World Championships, a mind boggling 11 times now. He’s braved the race named ‘the hardest sporting event in the world’ more times than many athletes have even run a marathon and never fails to impress. Luke is always a fierce contender, and 2016 was no exception; he took the lead in major parts of the bike race – at one point leading by 30 seconds. Entering the transition to the run in a tie for first place, Luke was most definitely a podium contender. So what happened between the start of the marathon and his finish in 35th place?

Luke ’s impressive bike race at Kona

“I was right where I wanted to be, going into the run,” says Luke, “Well, I wanted to be a few minutes ahead but my attack at 130km didn’t stick, and Sebastian reeled me back in by 150km.” The athlete is remembering the end of the bike leg at Kona, which saw him lead for major sections. His break-away from Sebastian Kienle was impressive to watch, and even though Kienle chased him by the end of the bike, Luke was well in the running for the podium along with seven others.

Excruciating pain threatens a DNF

After an impressive start in the swim and bike, kitted out in his bright orange suit and matching helmet, everyone was keen to see McKenzie maintain his lead in the run. And, although he stuck to his position of sixth or seventh for a considerable chunk, excruciating pain soon set in.

“I was struggling from about 5km onwards,” he ads. “I’ve been having lots of problems with my hips and back this year and I was already running in a lot of pain.” With hip and lumbar spine tightness tearing at his joints, Luke hit the steep Palani road at about 15km when “the tightness became unbearable running up the steep hill.” Remarkably though, he continued.

“All I wanted to do was walk, but when you’re running in the top 10 at Kona, everyone is screaming and encouraging you,” he explains. And so he battled on. The hill climb was gruelling, but the steep decline was even worse. “Running down the hill onto the Queen K was even harder, and that was the first time I walked and stopped briefly to stretch out,” he says. “I went from 8th, to 12th or 13th in what seemed like a blink of an eye.”

Luke started jogging again though and soon encountered the decision every athlete battling with pain faces during a race. “I started to feel conflicted between trying to push through the pain and calling it a day,” Luke continues. “The only thing that kept me moving forward at 16-18km was refusing to record another DNF for the second year in a row.”

So Luke changed his plan of attack and pushed through the pain, both the physical and mental agony of losing his spot in the lead pack. “It hurts a lot at the time, mentally going from having a great race to a disappointing race, and things started to go through my head like ‘this is the last time I’m going to do this.’”

A legend inspires to battle to the end

As he approached the Gatorade Energy Lab Aid Station, Peter Reid was volunteering. “Seeing Peter and having him encourage me to get to the line was exactly what I needed with 12km to go,” Luke recalls. “It still felt like an eternity at that point but I didn’t walk much after that and shuffled onward.” Despite ‘shuffling’ through the marathon as Luke says, he still finished in 35th place; not the result he was after but still an incredible feat in a super strong field while struggling with acute pain.

Luke is confident he approached Kona in the best way possible; “the way I race is all or nothing, and you’re always treading the fine line of success or failure, but I wouldn’t change my approach because I’d rather put myself in a position to win.”

Was nutrition management to blame?

After working with Gatorade Endurance throughout 2016, Luke had perfected his nutrition, and in contrast to popular belief, as we now know, it wasn’t poor nutrition planning that saw him lose his lead. “My nutrition couldn’t have been better, and it showed by finishing the bike leg strong and in the lead. A positive part of the day was that all my hard work with Gatorade Endurance this year was successful.”

Luke ’s top tip for Kona

Kona is known for its gruelling hills, burning heat and difficult marathon course, and Luke has one tip after racing the course 11 times: “My tip would be that to finish no matter what will always trump the feeling of giving up when it gets tough,” he says. “Especially at Kona.” 2016 is proof Luke takes his own advice.

“I said to a lot of people during the marathon [that] this was my last Kona. That’s a heat of the moment comment. I do believe I will be back but I only want to return if my body and mind are willing.”

Relaxing on the beach after the race with wife Beth Gerdes and baby Wynne, Luke’s focus shifts to next year. “I need to show up with my body in the best shape in 2017 and that process begins now,” he says.

We bet we’ll see Luke stronger than ever in 2017 and on the start line at Kona next year. Do you think he’ll be back at Hawaii next year?

Shawn Smith

Shawn is a cyclist and tech geek at heart with a passion for new shiny things and a huge appetite for triathlon. He spends most of his time between managing two of Australia's best triathletes and a traditional corporate life. Unconventional, very blunt and straight to the point, he's continually searching for getting beyond the superficial and exploring what lies at the heart.