Leanda Cave: Hawaiian Ironman presents ultimate challenge

Leanda Cave
Leanda Cave, riding through the lava fields in Hawaii, was the European Under-23 triathlon champion in 2001

For most people, Hawaii conjures images of palm trees and sunshine - but not for Leanda Cave.

For Cave and everyone else competing in the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona on 8 October, Hawaii will mean blistering heat, barren fields of black lava and desiccating crosswinds.

There's also the small matter of swimming (2.4 miles), cycling (112 miles) and running (26.2 miles) a total of 140.6 miles. Most people will need a holiday after just reading about it.

But Leanda Cave is not like most people.

More than 14 years after claiming a triathlon silver medal for Wales at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, Cave is preparing to put herself through the one of the toughest challenges facing endurance athletes.

And the 38-year-old, who won the event in 2012, has no problem explaining why.

"It's the glory of winning," she said.

Listen again: Leanda Cave on BBC Radio Wales

"There's nothing like it and I've experienced it - I guess it's almost like a drug, it's an addiction, you want it, you crave it.

"When you're on the start line you're all going for the same thing, to win a race and it's only one person who can win the race and it's nice to be in the mix and give it a shot."

Something to prove

Cave has won world titles at Olympic distance, long distance, half-Ironman and Ironman triathlons.

Yet the feeling that she still has something to prove after crashing out of last year's race is part of the incentive for Cave as she goes into the last stages of a month-long preparation in Hawaii.

Leanda Cave
Leanda Cave was 24 when she won a Commonwealth Games silver medal in 2002

"It's funny because I ask myself this same question why I come back every year - and here I am doing it again," Cave explained.

"Last year I crashed my bike and I thought that would be the end of me.

"It took a huge emotional toll but then I guess it's that fighting spirit that you want to get to the finishing line and you want to succeed and you don't want things to stop you.

"So after I got over the emotional stress of crashing last year I felt like I couldn't not come back.

"I have to get to the finish line and sure it's a year later but it's me wanting to redeem myself for some misfortune in the past."

The toughest of the tough

In a sport of extremes, the race in Hawaii takes even Ironman triathlon to the limit of physical endurance and mental stress.

In addition to the heat - which can top 90 degrees Fahrenheit - and the distance, there is the wind.

Leanda Cave recovers after a race
Racing in triathlons can leave even the fittest athletes, like Cave, exhausted at the finish

It's a blast so notorious it has a name - "Ho'omumuku". It's a physical force competitors have to battle during the cycle phase in particular, and a dehydrating factor for athletes whose metabolisms are operating at the limits of capability.

Cave has won races in Arizona and Florida in a career that has taken her around the world but has the utmost respect for the harsh challenge Hawaii presents for athletes.

"I always get out here about the month before the race," she said.

"It's definitely some of the toughest conditions I've experienced in this sport.

What is triathlon?
SwimCycleRun
Olympic1.5km40km10km
Itu long3km80km20km
Half Ironman1.9km90km21.09km
Ironman3.8km180km42.196km

"It's hot and very windy and the terrain is black. It's volcanic and it's just very tough and I like to make sure I'm ready for it not in the physical sense but in the mental sense.

"This is my 10th year here in Kona and I have had success here in the past.

"But I've also failed miserably many times and it's just good to come back and feel confident that I know the course and I know the weather and nothing comes as a surprise on race day.

"I suppose the unique thing about Hawaii is because it's such a tough race it's sometimes not so much the fittest person on the day who wins.

"It's having everything go right for the one particular athlete on the day - on days when all your cards are right, you get dealt the good hand and somehow magic happens.

Leanda Cave
Black asphalt and black lava face the cyclists during the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii

"I feel really good. But this year has not gone as well - I haven't had a very solid season and I wouldn't say that's lack of results or performances, it's just I haven't raced a lot and I've normally raced 10 times a year before I get to Kona. And this year I've dialled it back a bit because I've had several other commitments on the table.

"But in saying that it's given me a little bit longer to prepare for this event.

"I'm feeling pretty good but this race I feel at times it's still a bit of a mystery.

"I'm nervous and I think that's a good thing to come here and not expect to do well, I've got to race smart and put in the best performance I can do."