Desirable difficulty: A bumpy road to kona.
“I play with that idea in a number of contexts and cases when having dyslexia is a desirable difficulty — that is to say, where you end up being better off than you were before. The answer is, there is a small number of cases where it is plainly the case, at least according to those who have dyslexia and who achieved enormous success — particularly entrepreneurs. That’s the group that is most interesting here: We see so many entrepreneurs who have dyslexia. When you talk to them, they will tell you that they succeeded not in spite of their disability, but because of it. For them, they view their disability as desirable, ultimately. That’s interesting. That suggests that the distribution of responses to an obstacle are profoundly bimodal. We pretend they are not. Similarly, I look at this weird association between very successful people and having lost a parent in childhood.” -Malcom Gladwell David & Goliath
As I look at it now, 2016 will most likely go down as one of, if not the, most eventful and bittersweet years of my life. As someone who has never been much of a writer or even a person that journaled much; I find it odd that at this point in my life I’ve begun to find reward in the therapeutic nature of capturing my experiences over the last 2 or 3 years.
I started this entry as a continuation of last years entry, “Ups Downs and Life Lessons on the Road to Kona.” I chose the title “desirable difficulty” as a nod to Malcom Gladwell’s most recent book “David & Goliath.” The central idea that Gladwell presents is that hardships/disadvantages can actually turn out to be advantages leading to massive success, even spurring people to surpass others who didn’t suffer from the same hardships/disadvantages. Futhermore, advantages may actually be disadvantages. For example, a person who doesn’t have to work as hard (due to privilege) never develops the work ethic required for massive success. For Cara and I this especially rang true. Neither of us came from advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds and often times found that we had to work harder than anyone else just to achieve similar levels of athletic or academic success as our “more gifted” counterparts. Growing up I/we would use that perceived disadvantage as motivation to work harder. Now I find that Cara and I use those little trials and tribulations as Merritt badges that we work through. A hellacious bit of weather during a workout becomes a “kona workout;” an obstacle at work becomes a growth opportunity etc.
I can’t say that I didn’t expect this year to be tumultuous. After having finally accomplished a long-time goal of qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Cara, my coach, and business consultants all advised that I take some significant time off. Admittedly, the toll of the last 3–4 years of aggressive personal and professional goals, coupled with family challenges had wore me down near the point of total burnout. So Cara and I decided to take a rather extended offseason and spend the time with family; namely my mother and grandmother who were both struggling with terminal illness.
Over the winter we took every chance we could to visit with grandma, the highlight of which was an early thanksgiving which resulted in hilarity at my grandma Joy’s assisted living center. In her excitement to show off her grandson and his new wife grandma forgot her oxygen and began to tell stories that blurred her joy of the SciFi channel and her discontent for big government. During this time we also had moved my mom in with us in Portland as her struggle with metastatic breast cancer was beginning to take its toll. Knowing how short things could be we tried to maximize every second, celebrating every holiday (and seemingly every meal) at the house as well as taking one last trip to Mexico, which was one of mom’s favorite places on earth.
As our offseason began to wind down and my waistline continued to expand, I decided it was time to get back in the saddle. Three months without structure was hard. If I don’t have something to look forward to or work towards I tend to revert. I seemingly lack an idle. I’m binary like Elliot from Mr Robot without all of the cool hacker skills. While this has been advantageous for my professional career and ironman habit, it can also have significant consequences. Namely, if I’m not working towards something my diet goes to crap, and I make up for all of the wine and IPA I missed out on during the season. As is typical with this type of consumption, weight gain quickly follows. The spiral continues until I or someone close to me tells me to snap out of it. I know moderation is better and would be healthier. It is a goal, but I’m not there yet. Fortunately, I have Cara and an awesome network of friends and family that love, support, and put up with me. As I snapped out of it and began to focus on the year ahead I drafted an email to my coach outlining my goals for the season:
1. Win my age group at PAC Crest
2. Top 10 at Vineman Full
3. Top half of my Age Group at Kona
Little did I know that my world was about to be turned upside down. 6 hours after sending that email while wrapping things up at the office in Boise, I received a call from Cara telling me that “mom was gone.” At first I was furious “where did she go!?!?” thinking that she had drove off again to sneak a cigarette. Then it hit me. She had passed away in her sleep that night. I wasn’t there, and now she was gone. I wasn’t able to say goodbye. To make matters worse, grandma had passed away not even 10 days earlier. As strong as I thought I was, or as I may represent myself to be, this was too much. Losing two important and impactful women in my life in such a short span threw everything off. The grieving period was perhaps one of the darkest I’ve experienced. Days were filled with an odd mix of remorse, guilt, regret, and relief. Fortunately I had Cara. She had lost her mother not even two years prior and was an absolute rock through it all. Looking back now I can see how dark this period truly was. Losing a parent is never easy. Losing one to a terrible disease like cancer might be worse. Emotionally volatile, I reacted in ways I’m not proud of and lashed out at people only trying to help. So if you’re reading this please accept this as an apology. Admittedly I can be a bit of an asshole. During this time the outpouring of support and love was truly humbling. If I didn’t say it then I’ll say it now: Thank you.
While we worked through mom’s stuff we also finished the sale of the Boise house, moved into the Boise condo, and worked on business integration. We sporadically got in some workouts as we got ready to take our belated honeymoon. True to our values we elected a two week trip to follow the Giro de Italia which entailed 500 miles of cycling with about 75k feet of climbing. On one of our rides leading up to the trip I noticed Cara was uncharacteristically lagging behind on one of our regular climbs. It was also getting harder to find food that agreed with her stomach. . . true to form, we found out we were pregnant just before leaving for Italy.
Italy was amazing. After Riding in Europe for two weeks it’s no wonder they regularly produce elite cyclists.You can’t ride a mile without finding a climb with “fall off your bike” gradients that seemingly never end. Fortunately they were as beautiful as they were challenging and we loved every minute. Cara once again had me in awe with her ability to handle anything. She road the entire camp other than one technical decent and dropped a lot of strong cyclists in the process. I couldn’t believe it. Also impressive was all of the base miles Baby Samples already had in the tank!
Upon returning to the real world we began to refocus on the season’s goals:
1. Have fun and execute well
2. Win PAC Crest 70.3 and Olympic
3. Top 10 at Vineman Full
4. Top 50% at kona
Going into PAC Crest was interesting. I was feeling strong on the bike due to the Italy trip and my run felt pretty strong (getting all my base miles in on the trails while 20lbs heavier had its positives). I hadn’t been getting in the pool more than once a week in the month leading up to the race. So I crammed like a college student before an exam swimming 6 out of 7 days leading up to the race.
The abbreviated version was a surprisingly solid swim that gave me a 4 minute PR at elevation. I rode well only having to back off my target watts slightly due to the elevation while climbing over Mt. Bachelor. I pulled into T2 with my only focus on executing a strong run. The course can be punchy sitting at 4,500 feet of elevation; pacing would be key. As I exited transition I recall noticing there weren’t a lot of bikes and Cara said “you’re in 8th and there’s a big group of guys 2 mins in front of you!” My plan for the run was to break it into 4 descending 5k races. The first 5k would be 7 min miles. The second 5k at 6:45, third at 6:30, and the 4th at 6 min pace. As I settled into the run I felt solid but did notice my heart rate was a tad high and my breathing was a bit labored but I was holding pace making progress. I couldn’t see anyone on the course as everyone was pretty spread out due to staggered starts and electing not to start with the “elites.” Because finding someone to catch wasn’t really an option I had to give myself mental cues and break the course up into little wins. My mantra was simple “don’t give in. DONT EFFING GIVE IN!” Not subtle, not a nice catch phrase, however it was effective for me. I used it as a reminder of everything Cara and I had been through in the last 6 months to a year. There were so many times that we could have just allowed a little bit of negativity to settle in, or given a little bit less at work, or taken the easy way out of a workout. Instead we built each other up to find the positive in the adversity.
I made progress and nipped a couple guys who had single digits on their calves around mile 9–10 and thought “well I’m into the elites” at the time not noticing the sponsorship tats and jerseys. As I got to the final mile the normal doubts and self talk about settling crept in as the heat and elevation began to take their toll. “You’re for sure top 10 you can let up” “this isn’t your A race” etc. I responded with a lot of cuss words and “6 mins of hell, you can do anything for 6 mins!” As I finished I knew I had left it all out there and began immediately reconsidering racing the Olympic the next day. As it turned out I took 6th overall missing the money by 1 spot due to a little known pro who was coming off an Ironman Australia win, Tim Reid (Tim ended up winning the Ironman 70.3 World Championships a few months later out-sprinting Sebastian Kienle at the finish). Couple that with my first ever 70.3 Age Group win and I was pretty stoked.
My goal going into this was to execute a race on dead legs to simulate the last 20 miles of the ride and 10k of the run. I didn’t know what to expect here in terms of my potential performance or placing due to my legs being shot from racing the day prior. I had a lot of fear of embarrassment going in as I thought I’d be way too fatigued to compete.
As I stiffly walked into the water I reminded myself “effort and execution are all that matter.” “Just focus on what you are trying to get out of this.” The swim was hard, it was hard to hold form and when I got out of the water seeing 29 mins I thought “whoa this is going to be a long day.” I got on the bike and felt completely flat. My goal was to hold 295 watts, or 4/5 junction, but sustaining 250 watts was all I could muster. It was frustrating as that was my average wattage for the half ironman the day before and I was just coming out of a terrible swim. What the HELL!?!? I just had to keep reminding myself “effort and execution are all that matter” “just focus on what you’re trying to get out of this race.” Mentally it didn’t hurt that I was passing a ton of people on the course due to being in one of the last start waves. When I got to the run Cara said “its hard to tell but I think you’re in 6th,” asked me how I felt as she ran with me for a bit and said “see you in 40 mins, I love very much.” That’s Cara, she always knows exactly what to say to get me over the hump; whether it’s an Ironman or at the office. She helps me reframe to get more out of myself. Now the race was just a simple 10k. I ran well and felt strong until mile 4ish, but was still able to hammer home. Somehow I managed to win my AG again and took 4th overall. As I talked with the winners it turned out that the swim course didn’t get adjusted (shortened) from the prior day. So I had actually PR’d my swim, not swam an all time worst. Moral of the story is that you never know what is happening up the road and the only thing you can control is your attitude and effort.
VINEMAN: next up was Vineman 140.6. In the weeks leading up to the race things continued to get more hectic personally and professionally as Cara’s pregnancy began moving into the “honeymoon phase” and we entered negotiations on the purchase of another practice that would add to our presence in Portland while increasing the scale of our business by over 30%. Needless to say we were becoming stretched a bit thin and because this Ironman thing isn’t funding my kid’s education, training was the natural sacrifice.
Goals: Going into the race I had decided to take a reasonable approach to things. I was still very concerned about my swimming fitness; butI felt strong running and cycling so I thought I would be OK. My goals for the race were:
1. Race well relative to my fitness
2. Finish in under 10 hours
3. Manage the heat. Not let the heat manage me.
4. Finish in the top 10
5. Maintain an “attitude of gratitude”
SWIM: I positioned near the front of the 1:00 hour to 1:10 group to ensure I wasn’t crawling over people as I’ve done in past races. I figured I could at least hold a strong pace until the turn around at which point the race would be spread out enough that I wouldn’t have to worry about getting overtaken. The swim in the Russian River is pretty awesome. It is so shallow that you can literally stand up at any point in time, and in parts have to actually run. It is up river 1.2 miles and then back down. Surprisingly, I felt pretty strong and maintained form and pace the entire time up until the last 800m at which point I just kept telling myself to “stay focused” “stay engaged” “focus on a complete stroke.” That last part is critical as it is easy to give in to the fatigue and lose focus. Losing focus in the last half mile can easily cost minutes. When I got out I could hear Cara screaming and looked down at my watch to see 1:01:30….. A 61 MINUTE SWIM!?!? I was shocked and excited. In the race photos I look like a cat that ate the canary. Shocked, surprised, and happy!
BIKE: I have to say that I love this bike course. It is beautiful. Perhaps more importantly, it combines my two favorite things: wine and exercise. The course is also fair, offering constant rolling hills, punchy stuff, and open windy sections. Pacing was critical as avoiding spikes in wattage would pay dividends as the hammer heads inevitably blew themselves up.
As always, the first 30–40 miles were a pissing match as large groups of type A alpha males continuously sized each other up chasing an imaginary KOM at the top of every kicker. The routine would be as follows:
Me: maintain steady watts on the flats and rollers passing most people fairly easily.
Alpha Male with “AWA” (all world athlete) calf tattoo: catch my draft stand up and mash past me on the hill.
Me: smile knowingly and shake my head as I’d eventually repass on the descent or flat.
This eventually broke up and the field got sparse pretty quick. My relaxed attitude paid dividends as I rode pretty much alone for most of the second lap; which allowed me to settle in and enjoy the day. I got off the bike at 5:02ish in the top 7 feeling refreshed and ready to run.
RUN: my run fitness going into the race was solid. I felt strong and ready to run somewhere in the 3:20–3:30 range. Knowing this, getting off the bike in 6th or 7th meant I was in podium contention. How cool would it be to let a Kona slot roll to someone!?!?!? Well as my wife often reminds me, “sometimes you win and sometimes you learn.” The Vineman run would become a learning experience in 2 ways: 1) what not to do with your nutrition and 2) how to dig deep and adjust your goals appropriately in the face of adversity. As I began running a reasonable pace I consciously told myself to hold off. This is going to be hot and exposed. So I elected to hold 7:45 pace to 8:00 pace which felt reasonable until my first dose of nutrition. Maybe it was my second, but it doesn’t matter. Drinking it was an immediate stab to the stomach. Worse yet, I felt the need to use the facilities after trusting typical gas for something it was not…. and yes, I was a mile from a porta pot… horrifying I know. As bad as that is imagine being the aid station volunteer that saw me run up! I spent the next 10–15 mins cleaning myself and trying to get myself right. By the same I saw Cara at the start of lap 3 I was busted. Every bone in my body was ready to quit. I had rationalized with myself that I had nothing to prove and I was toast.
But then Cara knew exactly how to breath life into me. She said “you’re in 5th, 4th place is right there (pointing to him) and 1st place is walking. If you run eights you’ll catch him by mile 23!” I immediately turned to Cara teary-eyed and said “I can’t effing run eights!” And she simply replied “well if you want it you have to try!” That was exactly what I needed. I gutted out the next 9 miles with energy and renewed sense of determination which allowed me to negative split the last third of the run. I ended up 7th overall, which in a hyper competitive race I’ll take (especially with 15 minutes spent in the porta-pot), and it was right in alignment with my pre-season goals. P.S. Don’t use Mio vitamin to flavor your hydration unless you’re wearing diapers on race day.
Pre Race: We elected to get to Kona a week before the race to acclimate as much as possible. In the lead up to the race I had really dialed in my run fitness, getting three 20 mile runs in as well as nailing my speed work. I maintained what is now becoming a fairly strong bike while neglecting my swim due to time and travel constraints. As my coach and I completed final prep workouts I remember turning to him after my last interval saying “I’m ready.” For the first time in a long time I felt oddly confident and relaxed. As the week progressed I recall telling Erin and Sarah “I don’t know if I have ever been stronger.” My goals started shifting from finishing in the top half of the field and soaking up the day to finishing in the top 50 in my AG and possibly under 10 hours. Hope in one hand…
Leading up to the race I received an email from NBC asking if I would be available for an interview and potentially be one of their featured athletes. I was quite humbled as this whole goal started on a couch with mom and I watching an NBC Ironman special truly in awe. To come full circle was incredibly special. Oh, and getting my makeup done was a treat.
I couldn’t wait for this day to come and I was awake before the alarm could ring. I had breakfast and we got down to the pier so I could get settled. Going through body marking I completely forgot that NBC would be following as the bright lights shined in my face and woke me up as my number was tattooed on. It turns out one of the guys I was waiting in line with was featured in 2006 and gave me some parting advice. I quickly moved into transition, made sure my bike was ok, got lubed up, and was ready to go. The electricity of transition was palpable. Seeing the sunrise from the pier on race morning is something that still gives me chills. As I dropped off my bag I ran into Dave (my coach), gave him a big bear hug, and thanked him for helping me get here. Then I headed down to the swim.
Swim: Knowing that the course is typically slow and many of my friends have swam their personal worst here, I figured I’d be somewhere around 1:08 to 1:10.
I slowly got in the water, taking the time to look around and absorb everything happening around me. It was hard not to get overwhelmed as I couldn’t help but think of how proud mom would be to see this.
I seeded myself far to the left and about 5 rows deep to avoid as much of the washing machine as possible. I went through my pre race mantra:
“attitude of gratitude”
and finally: “burst her buttons.”
The starting cannon fired. Let the games begin! The washing machine was instant and unrelenting. This was the most contentious swim I had ever been in. At no point did I have free water so I just focused on staying within myself “sight every eight and hold your form no matter what.” I stayed right in the middle of the pack and was somewhat shocked that I was hanging in. As I got to the turn around I stayed wide of the chaos and as I looked at my watch was surprised to see I was way ahead of schedule. Coming back I stayed wide focusing not so much on the buoy line but on the cell tower over transition. This allowed me to have some free space which caused me to drift off a bit and stare at the coral and wildlife multiple times, having to remind myself to focus. This lasted until the last 400 meters which again turned into chaos and I was completely surrounded by swimmers furiously fighting for position and a strong finish. “Stay patient. Hold your form no matter what.” As I exited the water I saw 1:04 and change. Wow!
I deliberately took my time in transition. No need to hurry. Take it all in.
BIKE: As I got onto the bike I felt like I was in the Olympics. Surrounded on all sides by screaming fans I couldn’t hide the huge grin on my face. Climbing up hot corner I could hear Cara and my family screaming. NBC had tagged me with a GPS device so they could follow me on race day and people back home could track my progress real time. The first couple of miles through town are packed I just kept telling myself “stay humble, stay patient” to avoid overspending energy as I knew I would need all of it.
Once you make your way out onto the Queen K reality starts to set in. I remember thinking “damn it’s already freaking hot” and “is that seriously a headwind already?” And I was only 15 mins into the bike. I continued to make good progress through the field and was feeling exceptionally strong nailing my wattage goal perfectly at 220. I noticed my heart rate was still elevated an hour into the bike, hovering in the 150s, so I decided to back off dramatically until it got under control (down to 180 watts). As my heart rate began to fall I remember thinking “good job Justin. That was a good choice. That will set you up well later.”
Just as I finished patting myself on the back: BOOM — my front tire exploded on the decent to Waikaloa. “STAY HUMBLE” Somehow I kept from crashing and pulled over to the side of the road. Fortunately neutral support was there before I could even get my wheel off. Five minutes later I was off. I decided to let some air out of my back tire just in case it was the heat that caused my front to go.
Getting back on the bike I noticed that one of the brackets on my front hydration was broken. This caused my aero bottle to hang crooked on the front of my bike as it was only supported by one of the two brackets. “Let’s hope this holds for the rest of the race.”
As I got back into a rhythm on the bike I elected to hold a slightly higher wattage for the next interval to make up some time (230 vs 220) that’s when I saw Dave and told him about my tire blowing up. Sounded like he had a solid swim as well. Making my way up to Hawi I was feeling pretty strong and sincerely shocked at the rate I was passing the field. That is when I heard another explosion (my rear tire this time).
Thankfully I had packed two tubes to avoid any possible mechanical DNF. No nuetral support this time so I made very sure I was careful with the tube. Then I realized my stem extender wasn’t fitting into the tube!!!! I was scrambling trying to get it on and couldn’t. To make matters worse, as I was fumbling with my tire I missed the pro’s bombing by on their way back from Hawi!
“Ok calm down. What’s the work around for this extender?” So I bit the one on the flat and unscrewed it with my teeth -I can hear grandad in my head- “your teeth are not a tool.” The problem was the core came out with the valve extender! EFF. Fortunately I realized the support had put one on the front when they swapped that tire out. I ever so gently took that one off and used it for the rear. I held my breath as I inflated the tire praying not to get a pinch as I had no other supplies left. Fortunately it worked and 15–20 mins later I was back to work!
I started to go through a bit of a dark spot having lost 20 mins on the side of the road with 2 flats in the first 45 miles, but I just kept reminding myself “attitude of gratitude” “you’re in freaking Kona competing in a lifelong dream. How awesome is this?”
On the climb up to Hawi the NBC crew pulled up to see how things were going. Getting rock star status is a great way to pull you out of a lull and the one benefit of spending 20 mins on the side of the road is that you’re blasting by everyone that passed you. So at least I might look fast on TV.
On the climb to Hawi there was a strong head/cross wind that made life difficult. I still felt strong coming into special needs but was definitely ready for a cold drink. I have to say it is an insanely hairy decent as the trade winds push you across the entire road. Coming to the bottom of the decent from Hawi the final bracket failed and my aero bottle, where I store my water, broke off and fell to the ground. So now I was heading back out onto the hottest section of the Queen K into a stiff headwind with no water. SHIT!!!!!!!!! Fortunately there are aid stations every 10 miles so I only had to go 20–30 minutes without water.
At every aid station I had to resort to the chugging method for water intake (thank god for college) and then tried to pinch a bottle between my arms. The bright side is that this awkward position forced me to stay aero basically the whole way home as sitting up caused me to drop the bottle (see pic above). The downside is that 20–30 mins without water put me in a big deficit and would likely cost me down the line.
On the way home I was working my way through a ton of people that had burned too many matches earlier in the day. The winds had picked up substantially and were now bearing down making everyone pay the price. I caught up to Dave again and let him know what had happened, and rode the rest of the way to T2. In the last 5 miles my adductors began to seize up as the lack of hydration and stress associated with stabilizing oneself in the unrelenting wind finally caught up with me.
Coming into town I could hear the crowds booming and feel the energy in the air. Dismounting into T2 that energy got the best of me and I forgot the NBC GPS device on my bike. In transition I again took my time and reminded myself “stay patient, stay humble”
RUN: My goal going in was a 3:30 or better as I had better run fitness coming into this than I did for IMAZ last year where I ran a 3:17. Knowing I was already behind on water I was going to have to adjust expectations and decided it would be best to be super cautious with pacing and focused on keeping my heart rate at 145 or lower. This caused me to drop my goal of 7:35 pace to 8:00 pace. In the type of heat and humidity you see in Kona, slowing is a requirement. A refusal to back off by a minute to 30 seconds per mile early will inevitably lead to walking later — a lesson I learned in Texas a year earlier.
Coming down Ali’i I got a chance to see Cara and the rest of the family/crew. There are times that seeing your people is the most gratifying thing in the world. This was one of those times. I told cara about the GPS device and she reminded me to be really careful early. After passing Cara I backed off another 30 seconds or more, almost to a shuffle, telling myself that “I can reward myself by running 7s the last 4 miles home.”
About 4–5 miles into the run reality starts to set in. Either your legs still have that magical pop, or you feel the fatigue associated with overbiking start to settle in. I felt neither as I began to cramp in my calves similar to what I experience at the end of an Ironman where any misstep feels like it will lead to full spasm. I hadn’t peed all day and knew I was in a deep hole. I focused on trying to catch up on hydration drinking 2–3 cups of water per aid station while walking through them; settling into the reality of the war that this marathon would be. Your mind does a weird thing in an Ironman. It will either be your best friend or your worst enemy. Fighting a constant dialogue telling you to walk, telling you to bag it, telling you it’s ok to give in. You can feed that negativity and develop excuses or you can find reasons to continue where others find excuses.
“Attitude of gratitude”
“be thankful for the ability to suffer”
My routine became shuffle at 8:00–8:30 pace, fight like hell not to walk until the next aid station, drink 2–3 cups of water, grab copious amounts of ice to shove down the front and back, fight off stomach cramps associated with nutrition, shuffle to the next aid station, and repeat.
I saw Cara again around mile 10 coming back on Ali’i and she had the GPS device. I think she could see I was in a battle. She asked about my stomach and I told her it was up and down. She reminded me to keep fighting and to enjoy it and even said I looked strong. Even when she lies she knows how to get my mind right :-)
After climbing Palani I took the left out on the Queen K and as I looked up I saw Daniela Ryf ready to take the right turn down the steep hill I had just ascended on her way to victory. Shortly thereafter I saw Rinny just passed Heather Jackson and couldn’t help but think of how amazing this sport is. It’s basically a combination of climbing Mount Everest while having court side tickets to game 7 of the NBA Finals. Here you are pushing yourself past anything you ever thought physically possible and there’s the Michael Jordan of your sport coming right at you!
After that bright spot reality started to settle in again as saw the 12 mile marker and realized I wasn’t even half way… “just get to mile 18" I kept telling myself. Just get to 18… Looking back on it I realize now the degree to which your brain malfunctions in a hot humid race like this. Going out on the Queen K, every row of trees on the horizon became the Energy Lab (the run turnaround) even though I knew very well it wasn’t for another couple of miles. As the negativity started to settle in I reminded myself “attitude of gratitude” “stay patient”
Once I got to the energy lab around mile 18 I told myself to pick it up and hold 7:45 to 8s until mile 22 and then 7s the rest of the way home. The NBC Crew followed me for a bit and I said hi to my future son “Hi Jackson!” Coming out of the energy lab and onto the Queen K at about mile 20 I hit a wall like I’ve never hit before. Every bone in my body screamed STOP! Not slow down, not “walk please,” it said STOP! I could see the aid station perhaps 100 yards away and my body just didn’t care. I kept telling myself “get to that aid station and you can take a gel.” “You can walk the whole aid station. Just get there” I’m not sure if I’ve ever fought harder for a 10 minute mile…
Once the caffeine from the gel kicked in I felt like I could run again. “Ok 4 miles left all out” “burst her buttons!” “Don’t give in. DONT GIVE IN!” As I settled into my pace I heard the NBC guy beside me say “wow I have him at 7 pace.” What a surreal experience; running all out on the Queen K with a TV crew following you chatting you up. Coming down Palani and onto Ali’i towards the finish the raw emotion started to set in. Nine years of hard work and sacrifice packed into this one moment. All I could think of was how proud mom would have been and that I needed to soak in every second. Seeing Cara on my way to the finish put me over the edge and as I approached the finish line I couldn’t hold back the emotion any longer. I took the time to walk the last 10 feet or so taking every chance to squeeze the most out of every moment, pointed up to mom and grandma letting them know this one was for them and then I heard Mike Riley say those magical words “Justin Samples. YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!”
I finished with a 3:51 run and overall finish of 10:32. Obviously short of my goal of sub 10 but I was actually incredibly happy with the race as I was able to execute well in the face of adversity. Knowing that I could easily knock of 20–25 minutes without mechanical issues certainly didn’t hurt :-)
Lessons: This nine year journey has taught me so much that transcends the sport itself. Too many lessons to list but all follow the same themes:
Mindset is everything: Just as in life; Ironman throws a lot at you. It can give you some of the highest highs and sometimes it gives you the lowest lows. I firmly believe that people who make progress are the people that handle adversity the best. When the stakes are high and things are difficult you can choose to feed the negativity and give in, or you can choose to reshape your mindset; find reasons where others find excuses. The best method that I have found is to “stay humble” and “practice an attitude of gratitude.” Wherever we are in life, the practice of gratitude is critical — no matter if things are good or bad. Whether we just got a promotion or lost a loved one, it’s absolutely critical to find the pieces we can be grateful for. The truth is, things can always be better and we could dwell on that negativity. Or, we can choose to accept things for what they are, and focus instead on the things we are grateful for in that moment. When mom passed it would have been easy to feed on the negativity “why wasn’t she healthier?” “Our kids won’t have a grandmother.” Instead we focused on the positive, the lessons learned, and were grateful the pain was now behind her. It was hard not to feed the negativity at times this year; but finding the things to be grateful for no matter how bad things got was crucial.
Set appropriate goals: This could possibly fit above along the lines of “stay humble,” however I think it’s worthy of its own section because it can feed a positive mindset or it can tear it down. It’s vital to set a series of realistic goals along with the actions you’re going to take to get there. It’s a delicate balance between thinking big and being realistic. But it’s important to differentiate between a dream and a goal. A dream being something that would be nice to have. A goal being something that is written down with a systematic plan of action to accomplish it. When I got serious about trying to qualify for Kona about 3 years ago my first goal was to break 10 hours. I had no clue where that would place me; I just knew I needed to break 10 hours. To do so I knew I needed to run 3:30. That allowed me to approach the race biking to set up the run (which is the opposite of how most people actually race). Once I knew I could consistently run 3:30 or less, I set goals to podium at WTC races. Then finally it became a focus on execution and effort, putting it all together. Setting realistic goals with my coach that built upon each other allowed me little wins along the way, and prevented me from getting caught in the trap of “racing workouts” which can lead to burn out and eventual injury. Thus, I’ve been relatively injury free the last 3 years, allowing my workouts and fitness to compound and progress.
Cause and Effect: I know it sounds boring, but consistent execution is critical. Endurance sports, like everything in life reward consistency and effort over a long period of time. In simple terms everything counts, everything matters. The analogy I like to use is one I gave an employee several years ago who was trying to lose weight: little decisions add up to huge impacts over time. Just choosing not to have a cookie with lunch or as a snack in the afternoon adds up to a giant can of bacon grease over the course of a year. That simple action led to 15lbs of weight loss over the course of a year. That small win lead to bigger weight loss goals and she has now lost over 100lbs. The same goes for almost everything in life, be it saving for retirement or training for an Ironman. In training sometimes the key is to just get the work in, the consistent execution adds up and builds upon itself — everything counts. This is why avoiding injury is so critical, because you’re not just losing the 2–4 weeks of training, you’re losing the compound effect of those miles down the road. You stack up a couple of down periods a year and it adds up quick. That is one of the reasons I’m so cautious during bike and run workouts; because an overbike on Saturday can easily lead to a calf strain on Sunday. I spent 4 years battling IT band injuies and calf strains and completely stalled as an athlete. Today a lot of my workouts are boring, and generally I get smoked in training, but I’ve been able to stay healthy and I have something left on race day when I need it most. Everything counts, everything matters.
Patience: Preparing for an IRONMAN is not for those seeking instant gratification. Just getting to the start line healthy and strong requires that all the building blocks along the way were set in place properly and in the correct order. I’ve always compared it to solving a Rubik’s cube: just when you think you have it solved you turn the cube and realize you were way off. It is a process that can take years (in my case 9), not months or weeks. And that is just to get to the start line. Then on race day, once the canon fires, the day unfolds steadily minute by minute, hour by hour.
Read any book on Prefontaine or Michael Jordan and you will find that they don’t get ahead of where they are in the game or race. They focus their mental energy on getting the most out of their body in that moment. If the swim is tough, they are thinking about perfect technique for every stroke. On the bike, if a competitor is pulling away, they focus on “their watts” and “their plan” pushing with a power they can maintain. It is mission critical to stay in the moment. As my coach has often said to me, you don’t “race” until mile 18 of the marathon.
A is A: To quote Ayn Rand “Accept reality for what it is, not what you wish it were.” Or, as my armed services friends like to say, “embrace the suck.” This again could fit under mindset, but I think it’s important to understand that everything that is of worth in life is incredibly hard to achieve. Whether it’s building a business, losing weight, or doing an IRONMAN; it is hard, and it will require more sacrifice than most are willing to go through. That’s a good thing! I often tell people on my team to be thankful when it’s tough because if it were easy, everyone would do it and we wouldn’t get paid for it. Kona was the hardest race I’ve ever done. Period. At the same time it was AWESOME! One of the primary reasons it was so incredible was because it was so damn hard to get there — realistically having been in striking distance 5 times and once finishing within 90 seconds of qualifying.
I used to believe that to qualify for Kona I’d have to have this dream race where everything came together. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Yes, things have to fall into place. But you also have to be willing and able to experience a level of pain and discomfort that is beyond anything I thought possible; and just when you are about to give in at that decisive moment you have to push a little harder, flirting with a complete blowup and disaster. That to me was the breakthrough; just knowing that at some point it’s going to really suck. I had to embrace the reality of that fact. Be grateful for the ability to suffer, and then push just a little bit more.
Thank you for everyone that was a part of this. Thank you to friends and family that have been there through the thick and the thin and supportive during some really difficult times this year. Thank you to my coach David Ciaverella who gave me a road map to achieve a big goal, held me accountable, and believed in me even when I lost belief in myself. Thank you to my mom. She demonstrated so many things to me over the course of her life; hard work raising two children as a single mother, determination fighting cancer 3 times, and the definition of unconditional love while raising one stubborn ginger. Most importantly, thank you to my beautiful baby mama, Cara. She’s been a partner and teammate in everything I do, whether it’s training, work, or play, she’s honestly my better half and seemingly knows how to get the best out of me no matter the situation. I love you Cara.
Now we get to take some time off as we await the arrival of our son. After that, who knows. I have a feeling it involves me wearing a baby bjorn playing king Sherpa as Cara plots her comeback. I’m just glad I’m not a female in the 35–39 age group.
To be continued….