The Josh Amberger Report: Ironman Vitoria & Bound For Kona
Josh Amberger is one of the fastest rising stars in professional triathlon. The Australian has won some of the biggest races in the world, including Ironman 70.3 Switzerland and the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship, and he has been first out of the water at the two previous Kona World Championships. For 2019, his sights are set on a top finish at Kona, and his path to the big island of Hawaii recently took him through Ironman Vitoria.
THE WARM UP
It’s been a funny season thus far. A good season, yet not a perfect one. Two podiums in competitive 70.3 races, two short course podiums. No wins yet, though the opportunity for those remains. I had planned for more races, but all those plans were beset by little interruptions. I had more of those challenges leading into Ironman Vitoria, as well. Aside from a race win, one goal that had been left unsatisfied was a Kona qualification. My first attempt fell just short in April’s Ironman South Africa. I was seventh, and the first athlete to finish to miss out on a Kona spot. Don’t try and understand that, it’s not worth your time. The new system is a little funny, though strictly requires performance. I didn’t meet my expectations for performance in South Africa, so I was okay to miss out. Thus, a new plan had to be made.
Upon re-evaluating the season, I entered Ironman Vitoria. A mythic event with a stunning venue, this was the 13th edition of the race, though the first under the Ironman brand. I knew it was going to be an fantastic day of triathlon, and it was a priority not just to compete here for the win and get the Kona spot, but to also have one of those indelible long distance triathlon adventures we all crave. I finished second, but I got the Kona spot, and I had an amazing experience doing so with the most amazing crowd support you could possibly imagine.
In the two months leading to the race, there were two extended periods where I was unable to run, dealing with sudden onset niggles that made my attempt at the race look doubtful. The first one was a bike crash at home in Australia that interrupted other race plans. I had to withdraw from two events, Chattanooga 70.3 and LA Triathlon. It was a blow, but I was soon back running and resumed volume training for Vitoria. I still managed to race twice (Escape From Alcatraz and Ironman Coeur d’Alene 70.3) leading into Vitoria, but I took on another niggle in between these events. Again, I had overwhelming doubt that a race in Vitoria was looking like it wouldn’t materialize. I had some really weird problems with the meniscus in my left knee, leading to pain in tibial tuberosity area. Somehow I was able to get through the race in Coeur d’Alene without injuring it further, and the path was then "kind of" cleared for a rapid two-week prep into Vitoria. I had caught a break.
Because the period into Vitoria was race heavy and with interruptions, I basically trained at full volume up to a few days before the event, and dropped down as if I was training through a short course event. This presented a challenging lack freshness on race day, but has also given me an advantage for recovery. I’ve pulled up the best I ever have from a full distance race with no soreness. Just that sudden tiredness that hits you at any moment during the day, followed up with blissful naps. With championship season not too far away, I hope to get back into full training pretty soon. All the experiences of the last few years—injuries, failures, victories, tapers, non-tapers—are adding up for me and giving me a growing sense of athletic understanding that I’ve most often lacked at a younger age. Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of endurance sport, because it’s so imperfect. There are a thousand different ways to get ready for races. But as long as you have a way of reading performances based on your preparation, you can bank the experiences as they happen, move forward and learn from them.
This was the first Ironman event that I’ve ever done that was a non-championship event. South Africa, Frankfurt, Cairns, Kona… they are all the biggest-paying races that draw the best fields. I had an opportunity in Vitoria to race a smaller field. Established names on the start list that actually showed up were few in number, with Eneko Llanos and Antony Costes being the only guys that I knew. The problem with racing in Europe is that there could be a whole bunch of up-and-comers or late bloomers that you’d never heard of before that could come out and whack it. So I wanted to still treat the race as if it was one of the more competitive races. To get the Kona spot, I’d have to win, or finish second to Eneko Llanos, who had already qualified by winning Ironman Arizona in 2019.
One lap, fresh water, L-shape, 21-degree Celsius [70-degree Fahrenheit] water temp, and wetsuit-legal. I attacked the swim as normal: hard from the gun to limit any traffic directly behind me. I had a really good feeling in the swim and was able to hold a consistently high stroke rate over the whole course. As we got out into the deeper water though, we had to navigate a persistent chop coming from the side. The interesting part was that, as we turned the first buoy, we then swam with the tailwind, which was actually a very noticeable and awesome feeling. It felt super fast for that stretch, and then slowed again as we took another left and tackled the cross wind again, and then into the head wind. I’d never felt this wind element in open water swimming before as strong as it was in this race. It was kind of cool and kept me engaged mentally the whole way as the conditions were always changing. It’s sometimes easy to switch off while swimming because there is so little going on. You can’t see anything, you can’t hear anything. It makes perfect sense that I’d sometimes get distracted. But nevertheless, I could see at the turns that I had a little bit of time on my sleeve, but even after a great exit time in 46:41, I only had 75 seconds up my sleeve. The three guys behind me would continue to make the race hard the whole way.
I’d never really bothered to work this out, but my total swim time equated to a 1:14-per-100m average. This was on the money for my prep sessions. I did 20x200’s long course the week before the race coming in mostly on 2:27-2:30 average, at no more than IM race effort. That’s valuable and interesting information. Swimming is so variable though. I’ve had almost two minutes advantage in Kona swimming no harder than here, but Vitoria is a vastly less competitive race, and I only have 75 seconds. It was a good reminder that so much varies from race to race, and you should never try too hard to understand certain outcomes or you’ll only just send yourself crazy.
I’ll break this up into 60km segments, because that’s kind of how things happened. The first 60km was spent at the front of the race, very slowly relinquishing the advantage I gained out of the swim. The bike course was 2.5 laps. In a multi-lap course, the first lap is always awesome because the road is clear. There’s no overtaking first or second lap amateurs, and you can just really put the head down and find your rhythm without any interruption. I’d trained extensively on these roads in ’13, ’15, ’17 and ’18, and was having a blast taking them on under race conditions. It’s mostly perfect asphalt the whole way, rolling hills and crosswind for the most part. There were two out-and-back sections at approximately 45km and 55km, where I could gauge that my lead was coming down. My ambition was never to come off the bike with a solo lead, so I was okay to see the time come down. It was still three guys in the pack: Eneko, Costes, and another athlete I couldn’t identify. Costes would have been riding hard to chase me down, as we were taking each other on for the Kona spot. Eneko surely would have used this information to his advantage to let Costes do a bulk of the work.
On to the 60km. When the pass came at 65km, I was happy with how I was feeling, and decided to let the chasers take control of the race. Turns out the third athlete was Peru Alfaro, who I hadn’t heard of before the race. I was sitting fourth wheel, and I could see moments where he had some weakness holding the pace in the pack. Not wanting to risk him joining us for much longer, I let him lose the 12m gap, let it blow out to 100m, and then surge around him. Costes saw this gap extend behind him and attacked at that moment to try and lose both of us. I had to burn a pretty big match to ride around Peru, and ride down the gap back to Eneko and Costes, but I succeeded in dispatching Peru. Peru came almost within one minute of me by the end of the run, so this was a good move, but something he’ll probably learn from in the future, as well. I had a pretty good feeling for the rest of this segment, but I was happy to sit in and let Costes stay in control of the ride.
As for the third 60km, both Costes and Eneko by this point were starting to get frustrated by my lack of participation at the front of the race. This was very much international, because we weren’t really fending of any attacks from the rear, and I’ve more or less moved on from pointless time at the front of the race to the detriment of my run (until maybe I get too excited in Kona again). But around 120km, I started to fatigue quite a bit, and it became necessary to plant myself at the rear. Both men were clearly on fine bike form, and for me it just became about getting to the run.
During my last Ironman in South Africa, I got off the bike totally rooted, but felt fantastic once I put my running shoes on. I felt so good I went out at like 2:30 marathon pace, and burned myself pretty soon thereafter. Part of the magic of triathlon is the fact that it’s so unpredictable. I felt better getting off the bike in Vitoria, but was useless once I hit the run. I was expecting to feel much better than I did hitting the run, because I feel like I’m in good run shape, but I was just really blunt. I could still start the run at a modest 2:48 pace, but was forced to watch as Eneko took the race straight up the road, and I didn’t see him again until the finish line.
Performance aside, the run course in Vitoria was like nothing I’d ever done before. From a crowd participation standpoint, there’s probably no other race like it. On a four-lap course, there were spectators lining the course most of the way. It was so loud I reckon I had a headache because of it most of the way. It was absolutely crazy, but obviously in a very motivating way. You never felt alone. To be honest, I would have preferred to have done the run with ear plugs! The other point of note about the run is the technicality of it. On each lap, we had to negotiate 36 corners and seven U-turns. Times that by 4 laps, and this becomes one massively tough, rhythm-breaking marathon. It was hard to gauge expected run times because of how different the course was. I almost went crazy before the race trying to go over and remember every detail of the course, but it ended up being so much fun and really the most amazing experience. We were either running through old-world alleyways, wide, tree-lined footpaths, shady parks, and cobbled streets for the whole marathon. Epic stuff.
Back to the race. With Eneko down the road, Costes was my immediate challenge. He went out at a firm pace, one I couldn’t see him holding for very long. After 5km, we were side by side and I made the pass pretty easily. Once dispatched, he was nowhere to be seen from that point, it was like he just gave up in the moment. A shame for him, but a nice little luxury for me. My focus was still on producing my best possible marathon split on the day as I didn’t know what was coming up from behind. While I didn’t have much turn of pace, my legs weren’t suffering either, and I could really just move along without much strain. The biggest worry was that women’s leader (and good friend of mine) Heather Jackson entered her first lap as I was starting my second, and we ran together for the next 2 hours. It was quite something, really. I was looking at my watch the whole time thinking damn, she’s going to run a low-2:50s marathon, and it really kept me honest to try and stick with her. She was blowing through the aid stations (which were a little too short and few in number), and I would jog or walk to fully refuel. It would take some effort to run her back down, and then she’d get away from me again. A few times I surged up to her to give her the advice to consider slowing down, but she was on a mission! I take my hat off to her because it sure was ambitious.
On the last lap, I started to fade pretty quickly. I had a few little glimpses of third-placed Peru Alfaro at a couple points in the marathon. I think he was 6-7 minutes behind and I was looking pretty safe. But as I started to unravel on the last lap, the gap became dangerous. I found a bit of a second wind, and was confident I’d hold him off, but with the gap coming down to just over one minute before the end, it was a close finish. Peru ended up with the day’s second-fastest run at 2:47, which is simply phenomenal on a course of that layout. Home advantage for the Spanish guys, for sure. Eneko won with a 2:46 marathon and in my opinion, a flawless race. At 42 years old, it seems like he’s only getting better and is well and truly back from a few years in the wilderness.
With a second place finish and a roll down for the Kona spot, my job was done. It wasn’t a stunning performance, but all that was necessary. An 8:06 race time on a hard course is still a noteworthy day, and it was also a race experience to remember. Hopefully the peak for the 2019 season is still ahead of me!