The 2019 Kona experience of Josh Amberger

Aussie Josh Amberger crushed the swim in Kona but his race day did not unfold as he would have liked. But his Kona race report was superb and I had a chat with him before his trip to Noosa.

Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Josh.

Josh Amberger: Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.

ST: How was the trip home from Kona?

Josh: Uneventful. Always a nice thing when travel is involved. It’s much easier to get to Australia from Kona than, say, Europe. We’re not too far away. I’ve had big waves of fatigue each day that seem to be hanging around though.

ST: Your Kona race report (posted at bottom) was the most entertaining writing I saw about the event. But while most folks likely got a kick out of it, I would think that you would have preferred to write one with a different storyline and ending.

Josh: For sure, how good would it be to write a race report from the position of Frodeno, TO or Sebbie. It’s not like I train as hard as I do, only to piss and shit myself when I’m off the back of the race. But then again, if you happen to have a perfect race, how is it possible to make fun of yourself? I think generally people can relate more to the failures of Ironman racing than the successes. Maybe those who are successful are too serious anyway.

ST: Going into the race how did you feel?

Josh: 5 weeks before Kona I was in Nice, having just got my ass kicked at the 70.3 World Champs - which gave progeny to another self-deprecating race report. I flew home from Europe to Australia utterly shelled of confidence. Once home though, the weeks of hard training gave way to heightened fitness and the confidence that normally comes with that. I boarded the flight to Kona one week before the race having ticked off a great block, nailing some really good sessions. Generally, I felt confident that I could have a top 10 finish.

ST: In terms of preparations, what did you do and were there changes from the previous year?

Josh: Not really. I did all my final preparations at home in Australia before flying to the Big Island 8 days out. The sessions and loading differ slightly, but no major departures were made in the critical period leading into the race. I would say probably the only real change was that I raced 70.3 Worlds prior to Kona, an event I hadn’t started since 2016. The previous two years I had consciously avoided racing 70.3 Worlds before Kona.

ST: Do you think that 70.3 Worlds start made a difference in the equation?

Josh: I think it did, because it ultimately limited my preparation for Kona. I didn’t qualify for Kona until mid-July, so for over half of the season I assumed that I wasn’t going to be racing Kona this year. I’m not obsessed about this race like others seem to be, so I gave myself one shot to qualify for Kona at Ironman Vitoria-Gasteiz. If I missed it, I was not going to go around to the last races chasing the spot. I prepared for Nice, and only really turned my attention to Kona after that. So in terms of getting ready for Kona, I had quite a poor plan mapped out. It serves me right, really, but it also has something to say for the new qualification process, which I don’t like at all. I never had an issue with points. I raced consistently well and always knew where I stood. Now it’s like you have to keep rolling the dice, and it’s not really good for planning or performance.

ST: The field was stacked and fireworks were expected early on. How did you think the race would develop?

Josh: It is pretty clear these days that the swim leader is going to exit in 47 minutes. That’s likely to be me, but I would happily sit in the wake of someone who thinks they could do it quicker. The swim conditions were actually quite difficult this year, and it’s easy to say post-race, but I reckon we were on low-46 course-record pace. I can say this with confidence because we swam low 46 the week before in the Hoala swim, and it’s an easy and accurate comparison. I think across the board though, everyone is swimming quicker. It’s more about how quick people want to swim, and what level of risk they want to take by swimming quicker. Guys like Frodeno and TO took the risk, whereas in the past they had likely avoided it. Obviously superb athletes in their own right, but swimming quickly with me allowed them to seal the deal in a dominating way. Guys like Patrick Lange, Braden Currie and Daniel Bakkegard took the risk and I think it stung them up for the bike. I think I even ultimately paid the price for swimming too quick. We don’t really need to talk about how the rest of the race, developed because no one was good enough to catch Jan and TO out of the water.

ST: As you walked down to the swim start on race morning and noticed the water conditions, what went through your head?

Josh: To be honest, I didn’t even notice or think to pay attention to the conditions until we were out there in the race. I was one of the first who jumped in the water, and I got all excited when I swam directly over a sleeping turtle. It was a pretty special moment and I kind of gave nothing else much thought after that apart from my starting position and how that marketing picture of the turtle under the racers that year wasn’t actually a hoax. I was just pumped to get underway, but I definitely realized that the conditions were different than normal when I couldn’t see any of the sighting buoys. In the Hoala swim, you could see all dozen or so of them lined in a row out to the turn, but on race day you could hardly see one.

ST: Did the swim go as you had imagined?

Josh: Not really. I think it was 8 other athletes with me out of the water. I’ve never had this company over an IM distance, particularly when I swam as hard as I did. I think it demonstrates pretty well that in this record breaking age, athletes are looking to set up their races earlier rather than playing the pack game.

ST: When you smelled the bacon, did you consider stopping briefly to grab some?

Josh: It would have been nice to start the day with a hearty breakfast, rather than a force feed of eggs on toast at 4am!

ST: No, I meant in your race report you talked about smelling bacon towards the end of the swim.

Josh: I understood the first time. Let’s be serious now Herbert, they were not giving up any of their bacon. [Laughs.]

ST: Were you hoping someone else would pull during the swim?

Josh: That would always be the hope. Like I said earlier, I’d welcome someone else to take a crack at the front. Brownlee was probably the only hope, but having raced him for over 10 years now, I can’t think if he’s ever led a swim out in a major race. I wasn’t holding my breath that someone would try and swim past me to share the load.

ST: Talk about the bike and what kind of watts you were pushing.

Josh: To be honest, I haven’t looked at my file. I haven’t really been in the mood. At the moment post-Kona, it’s a period where I can enjoy not worrying about performance. I’ll worry about that later. But as it happened, three quarters of the ride was great, and then I suffered a lot in the last quarter. I’m possibly the lightest guy on the course - along with maybe Tim Reed. So my numbers never sound impressive. But I think it was around the 270w mark, which is roughly 4.2 w/kg. After getting dropped from the Frodeno group going up towards Hawi, I rode by myself for roughly an hour before getting caught by the Wurf group. I lasted in that group about 15 minutes before my power fell completely flat and I my race was more or less over. I would only go backwards from that point going past Scenic Point.

ST: You ended up with a 4:27:16 bike split - about 10 minutes slower than that front group. How good did you feel about the upcoming run?

Josh: How good did I feel about the run? Let’s not try and put words in my mouth! I didn’t feel good about it, but I was still positive. That last 40km back to T2 is always so grueling, especially when you’re by yourself pedaling squares knowing you’re losing a ton of time. When I got off the bike, I felt solid and was running well. But I’d probably already burned through too much fuel and that good feeling didn’t last much longer than 10 miles.

ST: At what point did your race plan change?

Josh: I wouldn’t say my race plan ever changed, but more the race objectives. By 10 miles I was out of contention for the top 15, and I was totally destroyed. I started getting stomach cramps and slowed dramatically to a point where it was obvious I could now only think about finishing the race, not trying to get myself back in. It’s a pretty standard Kona story really. Hero to zero out on the Queen K.

ST: When you saw others drop out, was there a point when you also considered that?

Josh: I actually had the opposite reaction. In the energy lab, I really had nothing left. I couldn’t get fuel in, I felt delirious and sick. I groveled back up the hill towards the Queen K, and it was literally this point that I was thinking about calling in the SAG. I approached the last aid station at the top of the hill, and found Patrik Nilsson, who started helping me with ice and water. I was kind of shocked to see him, and instantly I knew his race had also ended. I tried to recruit him to run with me for the last hour back to the line, but he was adamant his day was done and he was waiting for a ride. I couldn’t accept that he had pulled out, and tried to keep willing him on. At this moment, I knew it really wasn’t that much to ask to keep moving forward until the finish line, and actually more convenient than pulling out.

ST: When you crossed the finish what went through your head?

Josh: It was simply a thought of trying not to get in the way of Annie Haug and all the photographers for her big moment. She literally crossed about 20-30 seconds after me to win the women’s race. I’d already had a lot of time to process my disappointment and make peace with how my race unfolded, so apart from that, it was a pretty numb experience really.

ST: Could you hear the announcers yell her name or did you feel the buzz of the motos and the helicopter?

Josh: I heard her name for the whole last mile, coming down Palani. I literally found another gear that I was unwilling to find earlier.

ST: There was quite a variety of pronunciations of your last name during the coverage. What is the actual proper way?

Josh: You tell me Herbert, you’re the real German in the room! As an Australian, my name has been anglicized. I was raised having it pronounced ‘am-ber-ja.’ It’s funny because everyone always asks now, and I feel like they try so hard with it that they actually trip themselves up.

ST: Do Aussies also call a hamburger “ham-ber-ja”? I would surely say Am-berger, but I guess it only matters how you prefer it.

Josh: Good point, no they don’t. I will make sure to get to the bottom of this, and have everyone in Australia pronouncing hamburger the correct way!

ST: So what is next?

Josh: Sunday week we’re off to the Noosa Tri. Ash, my partner, is taking a crack at her 7th title, which will equal Craig Walton’s record in the race if she’s successful. I’ll have another roll of the dice as well. It’s a standard distance race, but I get really pumped up for it each year despite my chances of getting back on the podium becoming increasingly slim. It’s one of the best weekends of triathlon on the calendar though, and always a fun time. I’ll head off to China the following week for Xiamen 70.3, which will probably be my last race of the season.

ST: And when will you start appearing in comedy clubs?

Josh: I’m not that funny at all. The only gig that’s come my way post race report is a Slowtwitch interview. So it’s probably time to refocus on getting faster and not funnier. While I’m here, I should go visit the forum for the latest info on tires, have someone rate my fit, and get an up to the minute report on what Lionel is up to.

Images 1 and 4 © Eric Wynn /
Images 2, 3 and 6 © Korupt Vision
Image 5 © Ingo Kutsche

The Josh Amberger Instagram Kona race report:

Swim. Good start but bunched up behind. I speculate who’s there; probably not Wurf. Going as planned. Stroke stroke stroke breathe. Rough calculations pin 900x more repetition. 900 forms of distraction required. Finally, Body Glove boat. Can smell bacon cook up. Firm distraction found. Kona pier arrives. No attempted manoeuvres made for lead out glory, no one gets hurt. Win/win.
1st onto bike. Jig around town done, onto QK. I tongue my moustache. Frodo requests assistance. Lol cancel that boy. Clavel takes lead. Clavel supertucks. Clavel supertuck pedals. Clavel superwhatthefuck. You’re going to die mate. Lead group thinning. Kawaihae, Kawaibye. Up to Hawi we go. Off the back of the group. Pace hotter than Bob Babbitt’s chair during a 6 hour breakfast sit at Huggo’s. Ali flats. Unexpected company. Ali passes with somicboom effect. Ali gone. Never liked his company anyway, toodleloo. Catch a fast fading Clavel. Finally someone with more inflated confidence than me. Wurf pain train catching. Pain train becomes slain train. Spat out. I tongue my moustache, overhang definitely on the move. Christ Ironman is long. Run. Off to a good start, still some life left. On 2:50 pace. Palani minces legs to salami. Pace slowing on QK. Stomach in knots. Need to crap. To stop? Yeah, keep it clean. Last time was nasty. Almost lost race belt down dark well of pestilence & malodor. Breaking 3 becomes breaking 2+2=4. Any longer & they will be bringing me glowsticks. Contemplate SAG home. Guts in severe pain. Evaluated chances of finishing equal to Patrick Lange. Spotted a sedentary Patrik Nilsson. Invitation to run declined on account of withdrawal. Disgusted, a pledge to finish was made. Post-after party is where real suffering begins. This is nothing. Self-talk positivity reverberates with generic American accent ‘YOU GOT THIS!’ Sticky hot asphalt making funny noises on my shoes. I’m sure that’s where I pissed myself on the way out. Finish line here. Get shoed away before Haug crosses, a single shred of dignity remaining. Could be worse. Last time I finished with shit in my suit. This I’m time finishing as just a metaphorical shit. Mahalo.