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Ironman Kona: The stories behind some of the world’s top triathletes

tim odonnell

The Ironman World Championship is this weekend, kicking off on the morning of Saturday, October 14. In advance, we are taking you behind the scenes to show how SaltStick will help the athletes battle the heat and humidity of the Big Island.

The race:

Each year in October, the world’s best long-distance triathletes compete for the title of World Champion on the Big Island in Hawaii. Covering an Ironman-distance course (2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles biking, 26.2 miles running), the athletes fight against high temperatures, humidity, gusts of wind, salty water and hills as they race each other to the finish line.

Since 1978, the world championship event has been the gold standard for long-distance endurance sport. This year, more than 2,000 athletes will embark on a 140.6-mile journey, with much of the triathlon community watching online or through social media.

The challenge:

Kona is unique in part due to the weather. In addition to the tropical climate, there is little shade to shield athletes from the sun, and high humidity hampers the body’s cooling processes.

As we wrote about in our blog post “It’s Hot: Humid vs. Dry Heat,” humid heat has a different effect on the body than dry heat. Dry air is readily available to “accept” water, which means sweat will evaporate quickly and an athlete’s body can cool itself relatively effectively.

Conversely, humidity makes the air feel significantly hotter. When the air is nearly saturated with moisture, sweat does not evaporate as quickly, meaning high humidity levels hinder the body’s ability to cool off. This effect is part of what makes Ironman Kona so notorious: On the Big Island 86℉/30℃ can feel like 100℉/37.5℃ with 80% humidity levels.

As a result of a hampered cooling process, the body compensates by releasing higher amounts of sweat than it would in a dry environment. Because sweat rates will be near or at an athlete’s maximum capacity, competitors will need to take steps to mitigate dehydration on Saturday. Additionally, they will have to manage electrolyte intake: A shortage of any key electrolytes will affect athletic performance through a range a subtle to serious side effects, including hyponatremia.

The athletes:

While many athletes will be using SaltStick this weekend to help replace electrolytes, we’d like to highlight three professionals: Tim O’Donnell, Alicia Kaye, and Marko Albert:

Timothy O’Donnell:

A swimmer since age 5, Timothy has long been involved in endurance sports. In high school, he was captain of the varsity swim team at Wyoming Seminary Prep (SEM) in Kingston, Pennsylvania, where he set multiple school records and earned repeated district championships and all-state honors. After high school, Timothy swam on the varsity team of the U.S. Naval Academy. Two years later, he jumped into triathlon, leading the U.S. Naval Academy Men’s Team to win two U.S. National Triathlon Championship titles.

After an assignment to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Timothy competed at some of the highest levels of triathlon until 2009, when he transitioned from the Navy to focus exclusively on the sport. Since then, he has been a full-time professional triathlete, earning one of the most well-rounded list of achievements in professional triathlon, including more than 50 professional podium finishes, 3rd-place finish at the Ironman World Championship in 2015, and a spot as the top American male Ironman Kona finisher in both 2013 (5th) and in 2015.

This year, Timothy is racing as a new dad. Married to three-time Ironman World Champion Mirinda Carfrae, Timothy welcomed his daughter Isabelle in August. Learn more about Timothy here.

  • Using SaltStick since: 2011
  • Fun Fact: Timothy is the longest-running SaltStick supported athlete at Kona this year

Alicia Kaye:

Alicia began participating in triathlon at age 11 in her home country of Canada, achieving rapid success and becoming a professional triathlete at only age 14 and winning the Canadian Junior National Championships in 2001. During her teenage years, she balanced triathlon with school, eventually earning her undergraduate degree in Sports Psychology. After college, she married her now-husband and fellow triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker and began competing for the United States.

In 2011, Alicia shifted from ITU-style racing to Olympic distance non-drafting races. Here she found great success, placing second in the Lifetime Series twice and winning the series twice, as well as winning the Toyota Triple Crown in 2013. In 2015, Alicia made another shift to 70.3 races, building her endurance to eventually focus on Ironman. This year is her second time competing in the Ironman World Championships.

Learn more about Alicia here.

  • Using SaltStick since: 2016
  • Fun Fact: Alicia is from the same home country as our CEO, Jonathan Toker (Canada)
marko albert triathlete
Marko Albert sits with his SaltStick Caps in preparation for Ironman Kona.

Marko Albert:

With a 15-time Estonian cross-country ski champion as a father, Marko Albert comes from an athletically-gifted family. Marko found his start in endurance sports as a high school swimmer, favoring the “hard stuff” such as the 200 butterfly or 400 IM. Before leaving high school, his swim coach suggested he try triathlon, which he took on after his first year as a university freshman.

Marko progressed upwards in triathlon, eventually competing for his home country of Estonia in both the 2004 Athens Olympics and 2008 Beijing Olympics. After, he shifted his focus to longer-distance triathlon, earning his first Ironman title at Ironman New Zealand in 2014. His Ironman PR is 8:08:18 (currently a record in Estonia), and he has also podiumed in Ironman Austria and second time at Ironman New Zealand.

Marko is a father of two and a coach who helps people qualify for the Ironman World Championships. Learn more about Marko here.

  • Using SaltStick since: 2012
  • Fun Fact: Marko sells SaltStick in his home country of Estonia

SaltStick as the solution:

During the course of exercise, the body relies on calories, water and electrolytes to manage a variety of physiological processes. An athlete must ensure he or she is replacing each of the above items; otherwise performance will suffer. As mentioned above, Kona is infamous for its high heat and humidity, and athletes will be using SaltStick to battle dehydration and performance declines resulting from low electrolyte levels.

Sweat typically has about 1,000 mg sodium/liter, but a typical sports drink has only 440 mg sodium/liter. This means that during a race, if an athlete ingests nothing but sports drinks (or worse, water), he or she will become hyponatremic at some point. Many sports drinks also do not address any form of supplementation of other key electrolytes, potentially causing yet further cramping and muscle issues.

SaltStick Caps have been formulated to provide an athlete’s body with a balanced electrolyte content in the suggested serving of 1 capsule per 30-60 minutes. Two SaltStick Caps in an hour equate to 430 mg sodium, 126 mg potassium, 22 mg magnesium, and 44 mg calcium per hour: The ideal ratio to keep athletes moving this weekend at the Ironman World Championships.

“Long course triathlon is giant puzzle, to get your race right you need all the pieces in place,” Timothy O’Donnell says. “Keeping your electrolyte levels balanced is a critical piece of the puzzle and I rely on SaltStick to keep my body in balance as I strive to solve the puzzle and win races!”

This year, we’re at the Ironman World Championships. Follow the action by heading to Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.