Professional vs. Age Group: Ian Mikelson’s Professional Kona Debut

By Jaclyn A.
October 19, 2011 on 6:00 am | In Athlete Profile, Sponsorship | 2 Comments

By Ian Mikelson

I raced the Ironman World Championships for the first time in 2009 as an amateur athlete, finishing in 9:09, which was good enough for 3rd in my age group, and 8th overall amateur. I turned pro the following season.

With the new points system in place for the 2011 event, I certainly didn’t “plan” on qualifying, nor did I approach the season intent on doing so. Despite a season of performances that left me less than satisfied, I managed to squeak into the top 50 in the rankings and received an invite to the party this year.

With my move up from the age group ranks to the pro ranks, came a change in the race dynamic. Everyone is faster, and I knew where everyone was. It was less of a race against myself and the clock and more a race against my competitors. Even as a new pro, I had to change my strategy and try to respond to the race.

I had learned a great deal since I began racing pro, but coming back to the big island, and racing Kona as a pro, was a much different experience than as an age grouper. I had some preconceived notions about what the race and the experience as a whole would be, some proved to be close to the truth, others WAY off.

As the 47th “ranked” professional, and by no means a “big name” in the lineup, I came into this race thinking I would feel very little pressure. I was wrong. The energy of Kona during race week is electric, and powerful. It is hard not to get caught up in all that goes on and nearly impossible not to feel some pressure from the pulse of the town. Thursday afternoon I began to realize that notwithstanding my stature amongst the professionals, I was indeed feeling the pressure. Pressure however, is not necessarily a bad thing. It all depends how you handle it. I made a conscious effort to turn the pressure into excitement. To simply let myself be excited to race, not be fearful of what could happen, but simply take the day as it came, race hard, and see where the chips fell.

My thought was that the swim, with only 80 some-odd athletes would be a much more “friendly” event than when I started with 1,800 athletes two years prior. I was again mistaken. I lined up a little left of the middle and for the first 100-150m enjoyed a rather mellow start. I remember thinking how much nicer it was. Then we merged with the bigger group from the right and I was again enlightened. My goal was to make the first chase group and I was in that group, but never before had I been so far into a swim, and found myself still battling for position, absorbing kicks and all sorts of contact. It remained this way all the way out to the turn, where I lost the group in the surge before the buoy. Here too was found yet another morsel of education, even the smallest of gaps in this race, will open and expand in a heartbeat. I needed to stay close and concentrate all the time, or I would be dropped. I failed to do so, and met that fate. While I was glad that the mayhem had died down, I was not happy knowing I had lost that group and any hope of riding with them.

People lay it on the line in this race more than any other. I have heard some people make the observation that many of the professionals are “soft” because they fade back or drop out. This opinion is foolhardy and ignorant at best. As the saying goes, “walk a mile in their shoes…” I will not go so far as to say I have even walked a mile in the shoes of my competitors who gutted it out on the bike, pushing the envelope to a torrid pace, risking it all, only to get off the bike facing down a brutally hot marathon. I rode the vast majority of the bike leg alone. I am not sure if I could have hung on with the leading group even if I had made the swim, but I know the effort was HIGH, and many took big risks in holding that pace. I saw the carnage. I am certain that anyone saying a guy like Marino Vanhoenacker is “soft” because he DNF’d has never pushed themselves to anywhere near the level of suffering he was willing to put himself into that day. Therein lies the greatest difference between racing professional vs. age group.

While the time gaps may not seem all that significant to the observer, the level to which even the most talented of athletes must push themselves in order to finish near the top of the professional ranks is remarkable. Evidence is found in my TriSports.com teammate Leanda Cave. Undoubtedly one of the top performing female triathletes in the world, Leanda has had an amazing couple years and finally reached the podium at Kona this year. She pushed herself to great depths to do so, in her own words, putting herself in the “hurt locker.” She paid the price for it as well, to the tune of four hours in the medical tent and an additional four hours in the Kona emergency room. A price she would be willing to pay time and again to finish so high. I would dare to say there is not a professional in history that has finished on the podium in this race who has not been ready and willing to pay that same price, to risk it all on these hallowed grounds to reach to pinnacle of our sport.

I learned a great deal on Saturday. The most important lesson being that it takes much more than simply great talent and dedication in training in order to perform well at this race. It also demands that you have the courage to go “all in” and hope you come out the other side. Many of the top men and women did so on Saturday. Some found great reward, some met much more sour fates. All of them should be applauded for their willingness to do so.

*One thing Ian didn’t mention here is how he did. Despite being ranked #47 in the field, Ian finished 24th amongst the professionals and put together a solid race in all three disciplines. He proved to himself and his competitors that he can race with the “big names” in the lava fields. Don’t be surprised if you see his name climb in the rankings over the next couple of years. To read more about Ian’s race check out his blog. Congratulations Ian, we are very proud of you!

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