Guest Article: Tony Bagnall previews Ironman World Champs in Kona

Kona Bike Longshot 2016

Thank you to journalist and triathlete Tony Bagnall for sending in the following piece profiling some of the Irish triathletes that have qualified for the Ironman World Championships in Kona. 

South Armagh men on Hawaiian quest

On Saturday three men from south Armagh and one from Newry will mix with over 2000 of the top endurance triathletes on the planet to take on the famed Hawaiian Ironman.

On Kailua Pier in the town of Kailua-Kona this quartet will participate in the World Ironman Championships, a mystical, magical race that first began 40 years ago. It will be one of the best days of their lives – or possibly one of the worst.

Most people conjure up images of Hawaii as bronze-skinned maidens in grass skirts swaying beside waving palm trees, echoing steel guitars, or Elvis Presley singing ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love.’

But for the three south Armagh men, Owen Martin, Patrick Muckian and Adrian Garvey, plus Newry’s Oliver Harkin, that won’t be the case. Their focus will be of participating in the greatest triathlon race in the world, one that entails swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and then running a 26.2-mile marathon, all in a tropical climate. And throughout a long, long day, they will likely face rough seas, gusting winds that can reach up to 60 miles per hour, energy-sapping hills and searing heat that can peak at 90 degrees, with humidity that may climb as high as 95 per cent.

On Saturday morning this intrepid foursome will plunge into the churning surf at Dig Me Beach to be thrown around like socks in a washing machine. They will be battered, plummeted and climbed over as they endeavour to stake a watery claim. Yet these four are there by choice. They know they are privileged to be representing Ireland and they will know they have prepared as well as its humanly possible for this brutal challenge.


Owen Martin knows all about Kona. About it’s tradition. About its notoriety. He has been there for the past seven years, the most Kona-experienced Irishman of all time. He can picture vividly what lies ahead. He knows the suffering the island can inflict on his body and the pressures building up inside his head to quit when each turn of the pedals, when each step in the melting heat on the lava-strewn Queen Ka’ahumanu highway is pure agony. When his body is screaming at him to stop. He knows all this. But he also knows the suffering will have been worthwhile when he strides triumphantly towards the finish line in Ali’i Drive to the frenzied cheers of thousands of spectators. And when he hears the voice of Mike Reilly booming out: Owen Martin, you are an IRONMAAAAAN, he knows all his pain and agony will disappear in the blink of an eye.”

Patrick, Adrian and Oliver will earlier have been welcomed to the Big Island of Hawaii with the word ‘Aloha,’ meaning love, affection, peace and mercy.

But the threesome haven’t yet experienced the conflicting emotions of Kona, though each has completed Ironman races in other parts of the world.

The Northern Ireland trio will blaze the same trails as long-standing Hawaiian immortals such as Dave ‘The Man’ Scott and Mark ‘The Grip’ Allen. Their Iron War in Kona in 1989 is rightly acclaimed as being the greatest triathlon race of all time.

But these three brave men will stage their own Iron War on the famed Queen K. So on Saturday Patrick, Adrian and Oliver, with pulse rates rocketing to the sky as the clock ticks down towards that 7.05am start time when the canon booms, will face for the first time the fierce challenges only Kona can inflict. They will say Aloha to Madame Pele, the mythical Goddess of Fire.

Owen Martin Kona Bike

Before triathlon coach Owen Martin departed with Ashling, his wife and number one supporter, to the biggest single-day challenge on the planet, he was looking lean and gaunt, a legacy of his extra tough training regime over the past nine months. When Owen was asked how he would perform in Kona as he attempts, for the eighth time, to grab a podium spot, the Silverbridge man answered confidently: “There no reason why I won’t do well. Training has gone better than expected and I’m in really good shape. I’m just trying to keep a positive mindset. Although the conditions (in Kona) are always difficult and adapting to them is what’s important.”

When asked what time he was aiming for, Owen replied: “It’s impossible to shoot for a time in Kona. Last year we had very good swim conditions and we were four or five minutes quicker. But it’s position I’m going for, not a time.

“Adrian, Patrick and Oliver have the great advantage of having no pressure on them. They just have to go and enjoy the race. They don’t have to do anything spectacular. They just have to swim the swim, enjoy the bike and run the run. The spectators over there are fantastic. I really enjoyed my first couple of years in Kona when I was just hoping to finish the race. I had no pressure. I didn’t care if I did it in nine hours or 11 hours. It didn’t matter a damn.

Owen concluded: “I swim around the one-hour mark and the vast majority of my age group rivals also swim around that time. At most other Ironman races I would pull away at the start but I don’t pull clear in Kona because everybody swims at exactly same pace. So I spend most of my time fighting and not swimming.”

IM Kona 2017 Group Pic2

First time for Adrian

Meanwhile 48-year-old Forkhill man Adrian Garvey, joint owner (with brother Damian) of Synge & Byrne, O’Brien Sandwich Bars, and more recently Larkin’s Bar in Forkhill, is looking forward to his duel with the heat and powerful winds of the Big Island.

The former Carnbane League footballer said: “I’m excited. I’m looking forward to it like a kid in a sweet shop. Five minutes later I’m nervous. Another five minutes on and I can’t actually believe it’s happening. And then someone tells me I have work to do so I forget about it.”

When asked about his sporting background, Adrian answered: “Myself and my brother Damian were born in south Africa but we left when I was 10 or 11, so south Armagh is pretty much in our bones.

It is four years since I did my first race (The Crooked Lake). Since then I have done three Ironman races – Majorca (2014: 12 hours exactly), Arizona (2016, where I did 10 hours ten minutes) and this year Santa Rosa in ten hours nine minutes.

When asked would he go under 10 hours in Kona he jested: “Sub 10 hours? No I’ll be looking to finish before dark.”

“Everything in Kona is at a lower heart-rate, lower pace and lower power to cope with the heat and the hills, particularly on the bike. The plan on the run is to keep it steady and on the last eight miles try to push it, that is if there’s anything left. And if there’s nothing there, I’ll just try and enjoy the atmosphere.”

“Someone said to me Hawaii will be a victory lap, enjoyment of the hard training over the last few years. It will be the same for Patrick and Oliver. I’m looking forward to seeing all the pros, the helicopters and TV crews. It will be like being in a movie. Even talking about it is spine-chilling. To be there is something else,” concluded Adrian.


Two Silverbridge men qualify for Kona

The third man in the south Armagh trilogy is Patrick Muckian and like Owen Martin is from the Silverbridge. That in itself is an astonishing fact; two people from a tiny village earning the right to compete in Kona.

40-year-old Patrick qualified in Langkawi, Malaysia last December with the super time of 9.56.15. Patrick, a draughtsman in his family business, grabbed a stunning 32nd overall in a field of almost 1000 athletes. It was his sixth Ironman event with his best ever time being 9.54, clocking that in Barcelona.

On his qualifying event Patrick said: “The condition in Langkawi were warm, in fact pretty similar to Kona, heatwise. Though there wasn’t much wind that day and I hear Kona is very windy.”

Patrick will have plenty of support on the Big Island. His wife Fiona, his two children Shea (11) and Paudie (5) are also going, as is his brother Brian along with his wife and two children.

“Although I don’t have an overall time in my head, I think I can get under 11 hours. I’m going for the experience and to enjoy it. I worked hard last year to get there. I obviously want to do well but I also want to enjoy the racing and soak up the atmosphere. When I qualified last year it hadn’t sunk in. I was very excited then and of course I’m excited now,” concluded Patrick.

Kona Energy Lab

Oliver Harkin speaking from Kona

THE last of the local quartet is Newry Triathlon Club member Oliver Harkin, originally from Donegal, who recorded 10.02.42 in Wales last year to qualify. Though it wasn’t his fastest time. That came in October 2015 at Ironman Barcelona where he posted up a speedy 9.29.48.

And through the wonders of technology he sent this piece from a boiling hot Hawaii. Oliver said: “The Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii is the holy grail for many triathletes but when I first started back in 2002 it was a million miles away. “Triathlon Coaching is now my full time profession and I love helping others achieve their triathlon goals and helping them on their triathlon journey.”

“I did my first Ironman in Mallorca in September 2014 and on my fifth Ironman in Wales, two years later, I qualified for Kona by finishing second in my age group. This was a total shock and surprise to me; I couldn’t believe it. I had 13 months to prepare for Kona and you think you have plenty of time but in a blink of an eye there’s less than a week to the race start.”

Oliver Harkin Tri an Mhi run

“I’ve trained and raced in hot countries before, such as Lanzarote, Mallorca and Ironman France in 2016 where it was 35C on the run. But the humidity over here (in Kona) is something I’ve never experienced before. Even a wee gentle jog has you streaming in sweat. Managing the hydration and electrolyte levels will be a key consideration in this race. Hawaii is also famous for its severe winds too and I’ve been out a few times on the famous Queen K highway. It’s tough going with the wind battering you and the heat baking you.”

“The swim is non-wetsuit with a mass start for the age groupers who set off a short time after the professional athletes. The swim is in crystal clear waters and is akin to swimming in an aquarium with colorful fish. No turtles or dolphins spotted yet but apparently they’re about.”

“I’d like to thank all my family and friends and especially my wife Roisin and four children (Eoghan, Aobh, Conall and Dara) for their support and encouragement. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to bring them back the pet turtle they asked for!” said Oliver.

Oliver Harkin Tri an Mhi run

Anyway good luck to all four and may Madame Pele be with you … and remember the Ironman motto ‘Anything is Possible.’