Ups, Downs, and Life Lessons on the way to Kona
As I lay in bed awake and unable to move due to pain and severe cramps associated with completing my 11th Ironman I wanted to take the opportunity to download my thoughts after one of the greatest individual athletic accomplishments of my life to this point.
This is long. You’ve been warned….
This whole ironman thing started on a couch believe it or not. I was watching the NBC Ironman world championship coverage while overeating during Christmas break in 2006 and found myself moved by the pure tenacity of these people from all walks of life and thought to myself “I want to see if I can do that.” Honestly I’ve always had a fascination and or curiosity about the limits of my body and mind; so what better way to go about testing it than covering 140.6 miles under 17 hours? So for my 24th birthday I bought myself a bike and registered for two triathlons later that year (one Olympic distance one half ironman). After completing the prior I was absolutely hooked. I saw gains rather rapidly and qualified for the 70.3 world championships in my second season “this isn’t so hard” I remember thinking to myself. After qualifying at the half distance I decided I would “step up” to the Ironman distance (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run) the following season. This was mainly after a lot of prodding by a good friend and colleague in the office who would not let me off the hook. 12 months later I completed my first Ironman in 2010 at IM Canada in Penticton. In short I fell in love with the distance. I fell in love because Ironman is a great analogy for the way I try to approach life. Your performance is truly the sum of your work (barring something catastrophic). There are no short cuts, no politics, no negotiations, no place to hide. You either did the work or you didn’t and the course will be the judge.
After Canada I decided I wanted to set a ridiculous goal of qualifying for the Ironman world championships in Kona. To qualify you need to place high in your age group( typically top 2 to top 5) depending the depth of the field. Given age groups can have anywhere from 200–400 competitors depending upon the event we’re essentially talking about the top 1% of competitors. To say this was a challenging endeavor to embark on is a bit of an understatement. I graduated college at about 210lbs, 8% body fat and a love for bodybuilding. The men I would be hoping to beat are typically 150–160lbs soaking wet. Top age groupers are often college athletes with backgrounds in swimming or running.
My background as a wrestler and middling, undersized, college football player wasn’t exactly conducive to the sport. Oh and I like to eat, A LOT. Needless to say I was going to have to transform my body and it was going to be an uphill battle.
Over this period of time I learned the difference between a dream and a goal. A dream is something that would be “nice to have.” You may even be taking some sort of action towards the dream, but there is no comprehensive plan, no deliberate purposeful action. After several near misses I started to realize what it would take to earn a spot. I was going to have to approach this the same way that I have approached my career.
I learned through a combination of personal shortcomings as well as watching my girlfriend, fiancee, and now wife fearlessly taking her slot to Kona multiple times. I learned that just as in life; nothing is given. If you want it you have to take it. In Ironman you’re likely going to have to take it from somebody that also wants it, perhaps even as much as you do. So most likely it will not just come down to wanting it more on race day but proving you want it more with your actions and behaviors in the 365 plus days leading up to the event. Simply put you are the sum of your training, your choices, and your sacrifices. And sadly depending on the day even that may not be enough as my 2014 and 2015 seasons had showed.
My 2014 season was bitter sweet. I managed to podium at 3 WTC events culminating in a PR of 9:34 at IM Chattanooga which was good enough for 5th place. Sadly that turned out to be 90 seconds short of a KQ. I say bittersweet because I was pleased with my effort, execution, and overall result; but it was still not good enough. Everything had gone so well “how could I possibly replicate that success?” Could I possibly summit that mountain again?
The undeniable bright spot that day was watching my future wife have the race of her life setting the female AG record on her way to not only winning her age group but winning the entire female race! Due to her hard work and effort she had yet again realized her goal of Kona and it was so awesome to see her fearless example of dedication and competitive drive.
This brings me to the ever so maddening 2015 season. I went into the season with an explicit goal of qualifying for Kona at IMTX. It was important to me for multiple reasons but perhaps the most important was to qualify in front of my mom who would be watching for the first time while fighting terminal breast cancer. Leading up to the race my coach and I laid out what we thought was a solid game plan with a 7 day biking camp in the Canary Islands followed a month later by the annual Summit Performance 10 day triathlon camp. 400 miles of cycling, 60 miles of running, 23k of swimming, and a couple trips up Mt. Lemon to the cookie shack left me feeling fit and stronger than I had ever felt before.
We started the season with a prep race in New Orleans where I was able to PR with a 4:14 which was good enough for 4th place; my highest placing in an Ironman 70.3 or Ironman event. What was especially positive was the incredibly competitive field. Out of the top 5 M30–34 I was the only who hadn’t won an Ironman. The one thing that was concerning to me was the way I felt at the end of the run. The heat and humidity literally melted me and it was everything I could do to fight my way into the finish.
Next up was IMTX. I came into this event in the best shape of my life. My weight was under control (down to 178lbs), my last couple training rides leading up to the event were very strong, my long runs were averaging 7:20 pace, and I felt great in the pool. Physically I was race ready. Mentally I felt ready outside of the normal doubts, pre-race jitters, and self-doubt. My mom was there for the first time so I was excited for her get to be there for it all. Cara was on “Sherpa” duty and took care of everything putting me in the best possible position for success. I was set.
As Cara has often told me “sometimes you win and sometimes you learn.” Ironman Texas for me proved to be a very humbling experience. The long and short of it is that I had a number of technical issues on the bike (see self-inflicted wounds) however still managed to get off the bike in 4th place. As I started the run I could feel the excitement and emotion wash over me. I even remember a group of guys high 5ing me about a half mile into the run screaming “YA YOU”RE GOING TO KONA!” That excitement ultimately got the best of me as I went out of the gates way too hot and promptly blew up. I was able get my legs back at by about mile 6 and was still in 4th place until mile 8 when I strained my calf on one of the sharp hills on the course.
I knew immediately the race was toast. I was dying in the heat/humidity feeling like a frog in boiling water and wanted to quit more than anything but decided to walk it in due to my mom being there to watch. I learned a lot in that race but the greatest lesson was yet again humility. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever been through athletically; literally watching my dream slip right through my hands minute by minute, mile by excruciating mile.
After sulking in self-pity for about a week (Cara would probably tell you it was much MUCH longer) my coach, Cara, and I decided to drop into Ironman CDA for a shot at redemption. I thought it would be a great race given the typical temperatures and my relative fitness at that point in the season.
The race turned out to be an oven at 107 degrees and a KQ was not in the cards; but my plan for a finish line proposal to Cara was.
Overall it was pretty awesome to have my family there to see everything and on top of that Cara managed to podium! Her performance was pure guts as we dropped into this race “just for fun” with almost no specific training in the month leading up to the race. It was truly inspiring.
One of the things that really hit home for me at IMCDA was Andy Potts’ victory speech. In the speech he talked about self-doubt that creeps in and the fact that he just focused on execution and kept fighting in the face of hellacious conditions. To hear an elite athlete who had just crushed the field admit self-doubt struck a chord with me. The biggest thing that scared me about TX and CDA was that I mentally beat myself. I quit. Yes I may have finished both races but I had given up on myself and that scared me. It shook me at a level that bothered me deeply. This was the first time in either my personal or professional life that I had given up on myself. I had “lost the faith” and was concerned that it could or would spread into other areas in my life.
Over the course of the summer we focused on other things. We went hiking, fly fishing, wedding crashing, and spent a lot of time with mom. We recharged the batteries and focused on what is most important in life.
Eventually we got back on the horse and started training to get Cara ready for Kona to the extent that we could but our personal and professional lives were standing directly in opposition to our would be triathlon lifestyles. During this period of time we were finalizing the acquisition of another business, moving my mom to PDX, and oh getting married!
In Kona, Cara was yet again an inspiration. On minimal training and in hellacious conditions Cara gutted out a race that I still struggle to comprehend. A third of the way into the bike Cara started to suffer symptoms of hyponytremia going into an early bonk and ended up in the E.R. AFTER finishing. Seeing her toughness and “attitude of gratitude” that day was equal parts convicting and moving. Convicting in that I’m the one preaching mindset and the importance of overcoming adversity and here I was still holding a pity party about Texas 5 months later. I needed to snap out of it.
At Kona I decided to change my focus for IMAZ. I was no longer going to let my happiness be determined based upon the outcome. Instead I would focus on what I could control which would be primarily 2 things 1) execute to the best of my ability and 2) give nothing but my very best effort regardless of time or position. I knew it might not be enough but I also knew that if I just focused on what I could control I would be content no matter the outcome.
Race week was a comedy of errors starting with a slashed tire on a training ride with Steve Kern, Brett, and Dave at the furthest point from home. Then after almost getting home on a gel pack my rear bottle cage system broke off. Fortunately Steve stayed behind and we laughed the whole way into town joking about being “disaster proofed” heading into the race (side note: even though he said that he was very insistent on doing the brick by himself for some reason).
Then it turned out the tires I use were sold out all over town and Cara literally had to buy a pair off of a floor model. My right shoulder was a mess due to some last minute swim volume that I was sneaking in like a student cramming for a test. DJ did a good job of loosening me up with a Thai massage and we joked about his ability to massage me into consecutive PR’s so the fact he was in town was a good sign. With a different mindset this would have been insanely stressful but our approach to this race was different and somehow calming in a way. I was finally just excited to have some fun and see how things would come together. I wasn’t looking at splits or anticipating times, I was just focused on being in the moment and enjoying the fact that we were fortunate enough to be where we were with the friends that we were with.
Dropped off the bike fully tuned up, tires pumped and ready to go (I didn’t want to fiddle with anything race morning).
Then it was off to copious amount of white rice and orange peel chicken at our pre-race tradition of P.F. Changs. We had a great dinner with DJ, Steve and Laura as well as a couple new friends. Then it was back to the room to watch my Ducks take down Stanford, drink a super recovery shake, and hit the sack by 9pm.
Race morning was great. Cara grabbed some Starbucks while I got ready. We ate some oatmeal and yogurt and meandered our way to transition. After a final walk through Cara gave me a final pep talk reminding me that I am capable of more than I know and that it was finally time for me to realize it. I gave Cara a kiss and headed off to get warmed up.
My mantra this race was very simple. Be patient, don’t hurry. Focus on what you can control; effort and execution. Let the chips fall where they may.
SWIM: The swim start at IMAZ is a self-seeded rolling TT start. Generally I prefer these starts as they seem safer and reduce the need for a wrestling match for the first half of the swim. I lined up at the front of the 1:00–1:10 group and jumped in. The swim was pretty uneventful aside from the first 400 yards or so where people had obviously over assessed their abilities as several were breast stroking within 100 yards. Overall I paced pretty evenly, sighted OK and finished strong with a 1:03 which is right about where I thought I’d be.
T1: In T1 I followed my mantra to a T. I was deliberate with a light jog through transition and very focused on ensuring that I forgot nothing. Despite the fact that I didn’t frenetically hurry though transition I still got out in a respectable time of 4 mins.
BIKE: The bike is a 3 loop out and back that can be pretty windy along the long false flat out on the B-Line highway. My bike plan was pretty simple. Hold 220–225 for the first 2 laps and 235 for the last lap. As I started the bike I felt good and strong and settled into a rhythm pretty quickly. I came up on fellow Summit teammate and uber swimmer Steve Kern at about mile 10 and jokingly asked him why we weren’t good enough friends for nicknames yet. Then I came up on another friend from triathlon camp Seb. He had passed me in T1 and I knew he was gunning for a Kona slot. He eventually re-passed me and commented on how controlled I looked and that he could learn from me (all I could think was I have a long way to go!). We yo yo’d a bit and then I passed him for good shortly after the turn around on the first loop. At this point I started to cramp a bit and made a conscious decision to force the water. drinking every 5 mins versus my usual 10 which lead to me peeing 4–5 times on the bike but who’s counting?
The second lap was uneventful aside for starting to lap quite a few people. I wasn’t seeing anybody in my age group so I knew I was at the pointy end of the field. I elected to stay very conservative with my pacing targeting the lower end of my watts at 223 to be sure that I would have enough to gap people on the 3rd lap and have plenty left for a strong run which is what knew would ultimately determine the race.
On the final lap due to the setup of the course I decided that instead of trying to target 235 for the last hour I would hold 235 on the false flat going out. I decided this would be the most advantageous place to try to put time into the field because on the way coming back into town it was very hard to hold 220 without spinning 100 cadence due to the slight decent and sections of tailwind. This proved to be key as I gapped the group (see drafters) of age groupers that were 2 mins down on me in town at the start of the 3rd loop.
Now at the final turn around that gap was over 5 minutes. Heading back into town I did have one minor glitch as I had miscalculated my finishing time and had tossed a bottle of nutrition that I thought I wouldn’t need. I only ended up one dose short so I just grabbed a gel at about mile 105. Other than a math error I felt like I had executed fairly well averaging a conservative 223 watts with a NP of 228 which was good enough for a 4:55.
T2: was just like T1. Deliberate and speedy with a 1:30 or so.
RUN: This is what I had set the whole day up for and ultimately how I would judge myself when everything was said and done. My mantra again was to “stay patient don’t hurry. Focus on what you can control which is your effort and execution.” Except now I was adding a bit to the end “nothing matters until mile 18 of the run and once you get to mile 20 reward yourself by tearing your legs off until the finish line.” About half a mile into the run I saw Cara and DJ’s smiling faces and they let me know I was in 6th off the bike and “I was right where I wanted to be.” For the first couple of miles I was deliberately slowing myself doing my best to control my breathing and my heart rate “in through the nose out through the mouth” “stay patient” “stay patient” I felt great and even though I plan was 7:45’s it felt impossible to slow down past 7:35’s. I continued at this pace and settled in. Coming back into town Cara let me know that I was now in 5th but I was but with a big group that was all within a minute of each other “Be patient. Stay calm.” At about mile 6–7 the 2 M30–34’s that were on my heels came up on me and made their move “too soon jackass.” I said to myself. As tempting as it was to jump on their heels I reminded myself “nothing matters until mile 18.” So I continued to settle in and control my breathing and heart rate to about 129–134.
At mile 9 is the “big hill.” it’s nothing too big but it is fairly long and gradual and if you try to hold your pace you’re going to hurt yourself. I eased myself up the hill I saw the first guy that passed me walking at the top and looking over his shoulder “running scared” I thought and then I saw the second working a bit too hard and knew that I would reel them both back in soon enough. Coming back into town for the second loop I passed both of them as they began to visibly struggle. When I saw Cara she told me “I was in 5th and 4th was 8 seconds up and that I may have already passed him” when she asked me how I was feeling I said “I feel awesome” in an almost surprised expression, I’m not sure she could believe it either.
After the short out and back at mile 14 Cara let me know I had moved into 4th; 5th, 6th and 7th were within a minute and that 3rd place was about 6:30 up the road.
Something about the way she said 3rd place was up the road made me feel that if I was going to have a shot at Kona I needed to catch him. So I slightly increased my pace to 7:30ish. This is when I started running with a Scottish M35 named Craig and we decided to run each other in and push each other. At Mile 18 Cara told me I dropped all the guys behind me and that 3rd was now 5 mins up the road. I turned to Craig and said “8 miles! We can do anything for 8 miles! Let’s go!” And we pushed it to mile 20 at the bottom of “the big hill.” At this point I somehow knew I HAD to get 3rd. I turned to Craig and said “we’ve got this! 6 miles pure guts! Leave no doubt!” and I went. I chewed up the hill and as I was coming down the other side I saw Cara waiting for me she said “3rd place is 3 minutes up. He’s slowing. Go get him!” At this point I did everything I could to keep charging ahead, but even the slightest misstep was causing either calf to seize up. I knew that if I went too hard I’d likely seize up but if I didn’t go hard enough I wouldn’t catch him. At the next aid station I grabbed some coke and I decided to take the chance. “This is why you stayed patient. So you could do this. Now go!”
After coming down the bridge I made the final left turn with about a mile left and DJ “screamed you’re 90 seconds down you can catch him!” and then DJ took off sprinting ahead of me to what I assumed was to watch me finish. I must admit when he told me 90 seconds doubt started to creep in “4th is good enough, you can be proud of that, you’ll probably get a slot with 4th.” That is when I reminded myself that the placing and the time didn’t matter. My effort and execution are all that matter. I bit my lip hard and went. I refused to even look at my watch. I just kept saying “6 minutes of hell you can do this it will be worth it!”
That is when I saw DJ again and he yelled “you’re down 20 seconds! GO!GO!GO!” and then I saw him. He didn’t look weak (though he was half my size) but I thought “ok, you have some room now reel him in.” As I came up on him I felt like he was certainly going to respond and I needed to be ready to out-sprint him at the finish if need be. Knowing this I eased off and started running on his heels for a bit just to collect myself.
Then with about 600 meters to go I made my move and made it decisively. If he was going to respond I wanted him to know it was going to hurt like hell to run with me even for a second. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him look at my calf to see my age and I knew he was spent. From there I dug just a little bit deeper and pushed through to about a 6 minute pace swinging my arms violently up the last slight incline before turning left into the finishers chute,
Coming into the finisher shoot I glanced over my should and saw that he was nowhere in sight and knew right then I had done it. I HAD FINALLY RUN DOWN MY DREAM! Coming to the line I could hear Cara screaming “you did it! you did it!” and I started to completely lose it as I crossed the finish line. 8 years of swimming, biking, and running. 8 years of saying no to this and no to that. 8 years of coming up short time and time again. 8 years of getting closer yet seemingly further away. The moment had come and I had finally been able to grab it! I ended up with a 3:17 run split averaging 7:10 pace over the last 8 miles! This gave me a 9:22 overall which was also a PR.
It is said that Ironman is an individual sport but this was truly a team effort. First and foremost I want to thank my soulmate, and teammate Cara. Without Cara I truly believe I never would have done this. She has been there every step of the way, Helping me make difficult choices but more importantly helping me enjoy the journey. She led from the front. Showing me the courage and determination it takes to accomplish something like this. She also has demonstrated a level of patience with me that I don’t deserve. During these ups and downs she has been there to see me at my worst as well as my most stupid and selfish. She has never stopped loving me and has never been afraid to let me know when I’ve gone too far. Ever since we met life has just made sense. Together we are truly “Team America” (inside joke)! I love you!
My good friend and coach David Ciaverella. He gave me the playbook and the mental cues to respond to the adversity that naturally comes over the course of 140.6 miles. He continuously reinforced the mindset of an elite athlete. He too led front showing me how to gut out races in the worst conditions in both Texas as well as CDA. More importantly he continued to believe in me when I had lost that belief in myself. Countless times in Kona he would say something to the effect of “when you get your slot at Arizona” even while I was mentally laying out a plan to have a shot next year. It was in no small part that belief that helped me refocus my efforts over the last 8 weeks. Thank you!
Thanks to my Summit teammates. For the first time I found a group of people that were health obsessed, neurotic, driven, personally accountable, great parents, great friends, and managed to have a good time in the process :-) I finally feel normal (somewhat). I count you all as friends and feel truly blessed to have each of you in my life.
Thanks to my friends and family. Thank you for being a great support system on this quest (even with the occasional sideways glance as I chugged water before dinner so I wouldn’t over eat). The love, patience, and understanding you all have shown over the years is one of the best parts of my life. I love you all.
Lastly I’ll end this with a quote that I saw recently that sums this whole thing up.
“The athlete becomes great not when they break a world record and win a medal. That’s when the world recognizes them, but in reality the event is just evidence of their greatness. The athlete achieved greatness months, perhaps years earlier, when they decided to run the extra mile, swim the extra lap, or perform just one more jump… Results are not the attainment of greatness, but simply the confirmation of it. You become great long before the results show it. It happens in an instant, the moment you choose to do the things you need to do to be great”
Don’t be afraid to chase your dreams! No plan B!