Fuelbelt triathlete Josh Amberger entered 2017 as one of the most dominant athletes on the Ironman 70.3 circuit. Over the past four years, the Brisbane, Australia native stacked up eight wins and more than a dozen podium finishes at that distance. This year, the 27-year-old ventured into new territory, moving up to the full Ironman distance.
After placing 18th in his debut (Ironman South Africa), Josh strung together a slew of five podium finishes and wins, including claiming the title at Ironman Cairns, the Asia-Pacific Championship. Fueled by his success, he toed the line at the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona with ambitious goals -- a box he ticked by leading the best Ironman triathletes out of the water by over a minute.
But with extreme heat, humidity, wind, and the best competition in the world all primed to perform at their peak, Kona presents a unique challenge that pushes even the best to the brink. After continuing to lead the race until almost the halfway mark on the bike, Josh got passed by the train of cyclists in pursuit, at which point things turned south. Despite a few critical technical mistakes, Josh persevered to finish 29th in the world. He recently reflected with us on the highs and lows of his gutsy race, and what he learned to even better equip him to tackle this beast next year.
FuelBelt: What were your goals going into Kona?
Josh: As a rookie, my goal was less about placing and more about having a 'rounded' race performance. Meaning, performing consistently and to my potential in all three disciplines. If I raced like this, the result would follow. As such, I blew up on both the bike and run, so therefore didn't meet my main goal, but still ticked the box for an ambitious attempt at an Ironman World Championships.
How did you prepare specifically for this race?
It's a world championship, so you want to prepare for it at if it's the only race in the year that matters. That means total commitment to day to day training and recovery.
What was the best part?
It was amazing to lead the race for so long, from the first stroke of the swim until half way up the climb up the Hawi [the turn around mark]. This was a scenario that I considered likely, but never truly believed I would find myself all alone on the Queen K until well after Kawaihae, I felt like I had everything under control, and was smiling ear to ear. Little did I know of the race that was unfolding behind me, with an armada of the best cyclists in the world lining up the athletes ahead one by one, and asserting dominance on the road. Everything was amazing until the pass by Lionel Sanders!
The worst, hardest, or most unexpected part?
To continue the narrative, the worst or hardest part was the pass by Lionel Sanders half way up to Hawi. I was riding exceptionally well, but the boys that passed me looked fresh -- like they had just entered the race at that point, not three hours ago. I was caught in a heavy cross wind section, which meant I had to work just as hard as the others when filtering into the pack. Sanders was throwing down at the front, and I had to burn half my matches just to keep pace. I wasn't ready for this mentally, and it just really rattled me, going from leading the race to struggling just to ride in the pack. This is the point when everything went south for me, and the rest of the race was a real struggle to regain energy and composure.
What was your mentality during the race?
Sure, I was a beginner in Kona, but I was a confident beginner. I thought I could really make an impact on the race by raising the stakes on the swim and the first segments on the bike, fragmenting the front group on the bike and making the slower swimmers chase harder. It's hard to say what impact I had after the fact, as I was too fast for company on the swim, and thus didn't string the athletes out like I had intended, but my mentality was to really take the race to everyone and change the dynamic.
What was your strategy to did you deal with the heat?
I deal with the heat by training in it all year round. My training environment in Australia has similar conditions with heat and humidity, and I spent the European and U.S. summer this year in Spain and in Bend, Oregon, both with harsh summer heat. You can only makes games with yourself on race day to talk yourself out of the discomfort you’re feeling; the best preparation is done in the months beforehand with your hot training bases.
What was your hydration and nutrition strategy? Did you execute it?
I didn't really execute my nutrition well at all. First, I missed the special needs station in Hawi. My bag just wasn't there. As a result, I missed the crucial electrolytes I had planned on. Not having trained or raced with Gatorade [the fluid option provided by the race] ever, I struggled to adapt to it in the absence of my own bottles. I had to stop a lot on the run to wee, so I think I was overhydrated from missing the electrolytes. I also chose not to use the special needs stations on the run as I didn't think I would need it, but in hindsight, it would have been a good backup after missing the bottle in Hawi. So really, nutrition is really something I have to nail next year for a better race.
What is your primary piece of advice for someone new to Kona next year?
Don't expect too much. There's so much to master in this race; it's rarely done on the first go. I think a lot of people will say this, and after my first year, I'm an adherent. I don't want to give excuses for my performance, but there just really is a dynamic present in Kona that's hard to prepare for, or find in other races. The experience for Kona comes in Kona, year after year.
How do you recover from an effort like this? (Both mentally and physically)
Mentally, I can recover quickly, knowing that there is so much that I need to do differently for next time, and so much to improve upon. So knowing that it can only really get better from here helps me be really positive for the process next year. Physically, 10 days on I'm already feeling like I've rebounded somewhat. The waves of fatigue come and go, but this will subside in the next week or so. Part of the advantage of being in peak shape for a race is that you recover quicker on the other side.
Will you be back next year?
Of course I'll be back! I can see that performing at this race is going to become my MO for the next decade.