Sunday, November 9, 2014

Kona Project Update: Final Edition - "The Journey"

The road less traveled: this picture of the Queen K is symbolic
of my journey to the 2014 Ironman World Championships.

It's been four weeks since Kona.  I've settled into a much less rigorous exercise routine.  I am spending most of my time tending to and enjoying family and work responsibilities.  Laura and the boys and I had a fantastic Halloween.  Lucas dressed up as Ironman but made sure to tell me, "not Ironman like you dad, like the one that flies."  How funny is that!  Matty dressed as Elmo and was as cute as could be.

Halloween party at school.

My dad, Uncle Rob, Father-in-Law, Bob, and I went to the Duke vs Pitt football game last week here in Pittsburgh.  It was the first time since 1976 that Duke played at Pitt.  Duke won a very exciting game in double overtime 51-48.  I spoke briefly with former teammate and now Offensive Coordinator for the Blue Devils, Scottie Montgomery and Head Trainer, Hap Zarzour.   Laura and the boys and I also had a fantastic lunch with former teammate and former Pittsburgh Steeler, Chris Combs and his wife, Angela, and daughter, Betty Ann, the day after the game.  It was great to reconnect with old friends.  I continue to be a proud member of the Duke Football Family.

My dad on the left and my Uncle Rob on the right.

Bob, Ben, and Bob no matter how you want to look at it.

Amid the doings of day-to-day life, I have patiently reflected on my "Kona Project."  The past twelve months were an incredible experience that I'm confident will be memorable for the rest of my life.  As I turn 36 years-old tomorrow, I'm already gaining perspective on the experience and understanding the valuable lessons learned.

The Goal

The spoken goal was, "to qualify for Kona."  But, the goal was actually much larger than that.  I was choosing to enter the unknown.  No, this isn't Star Trek.  I wasn't young Captain Kirk commanding the crew of the Enterprise through deep space.  But, personally, I was embarking on a journey that I knew would test me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually like never before.  I wanted to leave my comfort zone, break through my perceived limits, and try to achieve something "great."  Each of us has greatness inside.  I wanted to tap into mine.

From the beginning, the goal of qualifying for Kona was . . . lofty.  Before this summer, I had only completed two full-distance triathlons (2.4 mi swim, 112 mi bike, 26.2 mi run).  My performances were solid, but definitely not Kona quality.  On top of that, I was only giving myself two chances to qualify.  The first was Eagleman 70.3 in early June, which Coach Chad and I knew was a long-shot due to my slow swim times.  The second was Ironman Louisville at the end of the summer.  Realistically, all my eggs were in that basket.

There were so many unknowns.  I had never worked with a coach before.  I had never put in the immense and intense training that would be required.  I had never produced performances close to a top ten finish in my age group in an Ironman or Ironman 70.3 race.  If Vegas put odds out, they would not have been in my favor.  But, I was ok with that.  I was alright with the possibility of failing.  In fact, that's what made the goal so appealing.  It wasn't easy.  It was a long shot.  I was trying to achieve something that many triathletes spend years trying to accomplish.  Furthermore, the pursuit would be grueling.  My dad said to me at one point, "Why do you want to do the Hawaii Ironman?  It's one of the most grueling physical endeavors on the planet."  I responded, "That's exactly why I want to do it."  And so it began...

The Journey

In early October of 2013, I texted Chad Holderbaum, "I want to go to Kona."  We talked a few days later about the prospect of him coaching me.  It quickly became clear that his knowledge and guidance would help me tremendously.  On October 14, 2013 I completed my first Coach Chad workout.  Sitting here thirteen months later having qualified for Kona with a 4th place finish in my age group and a PR of 9:35:43 at Ironman Louisville and earning the title of Kona Finisher with a time of 10:02:08, it is clear to me that I would not have been able to accomplish that without Coach Chad.

Every workout over the past twelve months I did with Coach Chad.  Not literally of course, but, I knew Coach Chad was on the other end of every workout checking my performance.  And, because of who he is as a person and what he's accomplished as a triathlete, I was always trying to impress and make him proud.

In the beginning, Coach Chad took the time to learn how my body absorbed and responded to the initial training load.  He managed me through a strained hamstring, a strained calf, some pretty severe back pain, and a possible case of pneumonia.  Furthermore, he understood and was considerate to my responsibilities as a teacher, husband, and father because he knows firsthand how difficult it is to squeeze something out of every minute of every day as he juggles his own responsibilities with work, family, coaching, and training.  So, all that being said, I want to extend a huge Thank You to Coach Chad.  His knowledge, guidance, support, and motivation made the journey and the achievement possible.

Each of the 362 days that made up the journey to Kona had meaning and purpose.  Whether it was swimming, biking, running, resting, or racing, the goal of qualifying for Kona gave me direction.  Over the past month since Kona, I've missed that.  While its been nice to relax and step away from the training, there's been an emotional letdown without that goal to work towards.  Of course, I'm fortunate to have a full life with a family and career so there are plenty of other goals.  I absolutely want to be the best husband, father, and teacher I can be, but since I'll be working towards achieving those goals over and over again for most of the rest of my life, I see them as much as responsibilities as goals.  Kona, on the other hand, had a definitive beginning and end, and with it came a well defined purpose.

My journey not only provided purpose and direction, it also offered ample time for thought and reflection.  The 4-6 hour training rides and 2-3 hour training runs offered plenty of time for deep thought and reflection.  There have been so many occasions where I have come up with an idea while training.  It may have been a teaching or coaching strategy to use with a particular student or athlete.  Sometimes I thought about politics or religion or some of the deeper unanswered questions of life.  Other times, I replayed conversations in my head and thought of insightful, clever, or even funny things I should have said.  Often times though, I found myself reflecting on my own place in the world.  Who am I?  Who do I want to be?  What is the best way to be that person?  And, Who are the people I'm thankful for?  I hope this isn't too deep for you. :)

It's amazing how a 6 hour training ride or a 10 hour race can be condensed in your mind to feel like just a couple of hours.  The depth of thought to which you can escape is fascinating!  Sure, a lot of the time I'm focused on pacing, mileage, wattage, or nutrition, but when you're running in the dark at 4:30 in the morning or riding your bike alone in rural Pennsylvania, the opportunities for entertainment are scarce.  I welcomed and cherished that time as a chance to "center down" and reflect.  I even had several experiences in the middle of workouts or races where I was moved to tears by the thoughts of special people or experiences in my life.  Most noticeably, after crossing the finish line at Ironman Louisville.  Knowing that I had produced my best performance and qualified for Kona, the thoughts of gratitude towards everyone throughout my life including family, friends, teachers, and coaches that had helped me get to that point brought me to uncontrollable tears.  Another moment and the most recent was on Ali'i Drive about 5 or 6 miles into the marathon.  The thoughts of my Grandma who had passed away recently had my eyes filled with tears behind my sunglasses.  It wasn't her death that made me cry.  It was her life.  She was a strong woman.  She was a traditional house-wife until 1968 when her husband passed away.  She continued to raise her six children alone.  She worked at Tomanetti's Pizza Shop in Oakmont to provide for her family as best she could.  It was always a treat to go there and see Gram in her red Tomanetti's Pizza shirt.  My Grandma taught me strength, work ethic, and love.  She taught me to finish the milk in my cereal bowl.  I remember eating cereal for breakfast at her house one time when the grandkids had a sleep over.  She didn't let any of us get up from the table until the cereal and milk was gone.  The meaning of that moment will stick with me for the rest of my life.  Don't be wasteful.  Don't take things for granted.  Appreciate what you have.  Finally, I have to mention her Thanksgiving stuffing.  I have the recipe and have made it many times.  I dedicated my effort at Kona to my Grandma and was so proud to visit her with my family when we returned home.

My first visit after Kona.

This is the unspoken part of my journey to Kona.  Most conversations with people don't get much past the 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile ride, and the 26.2 mile run.  I understand that.  I still remember when those numbers blew my mind.  But, for me, the journey to Kona was so much more than swimming, biking, and running.

I crossed the finish line.  My arms outstretched above my head.  Spectators cheering along Ali'i Drive while friends and family watched online back at home.  I did it!  I finished the Ironman World Championships!  I conquered Kona on a day the water was rough, the wind was strong, and the sun was hot!

There is no doubt, the journey to Kona was difficult.  There were times I considered throwing in the towel, but I was fortunate to have the will, the resources, and the support to endure those difficult moments.  Looking back, my journey was truly awesome!  I was challenged physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  The journey forced me out of my comfort zone, tore down my perceived limits and allowed me to experience greatness in some eyes.

He asked me in the car, "Dad, why did you win this medal for me?"
That's when I knew it was all worth it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Kona Race Report: Part 2 "Race Day"

The World Championships branded the sidewalks of Kona.

I don't know why I even set my alarm for race morning.  It was set to go off at 3:45, but I found sleeping after 1:30 to be difficult.  I had that nervous energy you get when you've prepared so much for something, and its almost time to put all that work on display.  I was so excited to experience everything I had read and heard about Kona!

After the body marking and weigh-in, I made my way to transition.  There were TV cameras, volunteers, and athletes all over the place.  Even at 4:45 in the morning, the buzz of race morning was in full swing.  I entered transition and started walking passed the sectioned off area for the pro triathletes.  Of course, all the big names were there preparing their bikes and gear just like the rest of us.  I spotted Beth Shutt, my good friend and mentor, who is now a pro.  I yelled, "let's go Beth."  Her attention turned away from her bike, and she came over and gave me a hug.  We wished each other good luck and parted ways to finish our preparations.  This was a brief but special moment.  Beth introduced me to triathlon six years ago.  I used to ask her all the awkward questions about the sport.  Things like, "what do you do when you have to go to the bathroom on the bike or the run and there's no port-a-john around?"  Over the years, I went from getting dropped by Beth on training rides to becoming one of the strongest cyclists in the field.  Beth has seen me grow from a first-timer to an Ironman at Kona.  It was fitting for us to be competing on the same day at the World Championships.

Transition on race morning.

Go Beth!

Everything was set in transition.  I had over an hour until the race start.  I met up with Laura, and we met up with Matt, Jason, and the crew on Ali'i Drive.  The streets were quickly filling with spectators as they were positioning themselves to see the swim start.  Spectators climbed onto the walls of Kailua Bay and lined Ali'i Drive.  The coffee shops, restaurants, and even the bars were open for business and filling fast.  Shortly after 6 am, the National Anthem was sung, two sky-divers parachuted into Kailua Bay, and two helicopters with big cameras on the front were circling overhead.  It was AWESOME!

What a morning!

The best view of the race was from above.

They lined the bay.

My number one fan.

From left: Laura, Kristen, and my Laura

The boys are ready to race.

The Swim

The pro men went off.  Next, the pro women began their day.  Finally, it was our turn to enter the water.  It took about 10 minutes to get all the age-group men into the water (about 1500 of us).  Finally, after a Hawaiian blessing from the announcer, the canon blasted and the race was underway.  I eased my way into the swim trying to keep a steady, strong, but comfortable pace.  I was being much more conservative than usual.  Being that this was my first ocean swim, I didn't want to put myself into a bad spot.  Looking back at it now, I was probably a little too conservative, but that's ok.  As the swim continued, I could feel my body rise and fall with each swell of the Pacific.  The taste of salt-water would become the worst part of the swim.  With each unexpected sip along with the occasional gulp of salt-water, my mouth and throat became more and more dry.  It was terrible.  I would much rather drink the "dirty" Allegheny River water any day.  By the time I hit the turn around buoy, I felt like I had been in the water for a long time.  But, I stayed calm and kept swimming.  For the entire 2.4 mile swim, I was bumping bodies with other competitors.  In fact, I got kicked in the face shortly after the turn around buoy.  The bumping usually only happens in the first several hundred yards of a race, but, I guess swimming with 2000 other competitors at the World Championships is a little different.  It didn't bother me though.  After an hour and twenty minutes of swimming I climbed the stairs out of Kailua Bay excited to have completed the swim that I've see on TV so many times.  There were hanging hoses as you entered transition for athletes to rinse their bodies.  I, like many others, took a swig of that fresh water to try and get rid of the salty taste in my mouth.  Then, I headed to my bike.

1 down, 2 to go!

Yes, some of the ladies caught up with me in the water.

The Bike

I quickly made my way through transition and headed out on the bike.  I caught a glimpse of Laura as I rode up the small hill out of transition before turning right onto Kuakini Highway for the quick out and back loop through Kona.  This first loop was crowded as cyclists maneuvered in both directions at speeds exceeding 20 mph.  A mistake by one cyclist could have caused a dangerous pile-up.  I was fast, but safe and quickly found myself climbing Palani hill and out onto the Queen K Highway.

Headed out of transition making a quick chinstrap adjustment.

Caught a glimpse of Laura with this quick head turn.
Flying down Kuakini Hwy

Climbing Palani hill.

The first 30 miles of the bike were fast!  I found myself riding amongst many riders.  I was passing a lot of riders, but there was no doubt the level of cyclist was much higher.  A group of 5 or 6 of us seemed to be trading places back and forth for the first twenty miles, until finally, I pulled away.  At mile 30, I looked at my watch and thought to myself, "I am going to crush this bike course if there isn't any wind."  I couldn't believe how easy the first 30 miles were.  Then, it was like somebody switched on a fan.  A big, huge fan.  A headwind hit us that almost stopped us in our tracks.  It felt like you were riding up a hill even though it was a perfectly flat road at times.  I kept thinking about that Mark Allen (6 time Ironman Champion) quote that goes something like.  "A tailwind is always welcome.  A headwind can be endured.  But, crosswinds are treacherous."  I stayed tucked low in the aero position to stay out of the wind as much as possible and tried to keep a consistently strong cadence without trying to muscle through the wind exerting unnecessary energy.

From time-to-time, I made sure to take notice of the spectacular views along the Queen K.  There was very little in terms of people or houses or resorts.  However, the views of the lava fields and the Pacific ocean were beautiful.  I continued to battle headwinds and crosswinds often, staying as low as possible during a headwind and leaning right or left into the crosswinds.  I could see other cyclists doing the same.  The profiles of cyclists ahead of me were no longer perpendicular to the ground, but rather slanted into the wind.

As I climbed the final hill before the turnaround at Hawi, the winds were treacherous.  But what was a headwind became a tailwind minutes later.  This was when I realized how dangerous things had gotten.  Of course you want to go fast, but riding down a hill with a tailwind is scary.  My thoughts were, "it's better to be safe at this point then to be fast."  Although, you couldn't help but be fast.  There were several instances where I gripped the wide handlebars instead of staying in aero to ensure I had as much control of my bike as possible.  I had to pick my moments to pass competitors carefully because I didn't want to crash.

Stretching the legs a little.

Riding strong.

As I passed a road sign that said, "Kona 30," I realized I was on pace to break 5 hours on the bike despite the treacherous winds.  Of course, I wanted to do this.  I decided to make it somewhat of a 30 mile time trial.  The field of cyclists had thinned somewhat, and I used each small group of cyclists ahead of me as motivation.  I wanted to catch every group I could.  As I passed Waikoloa about 20 miles from Kona, I hit a flat stretch of road with a nice tailwind.  I was flying!!!  There were spectators at this point because there was a nearby resort.  As I passed them I must have been going over 40 mph.  I pounded my pedals effortlessly and took full advantage of every second of that tailwind.  I stood up out of the aero position on every little hill and was completely focused on breaking the 5 hour mark.

A focused effort up a small hill.
Passing another competitor.

As I turned off the Queen K Hwy and down Palani hill, I knew I was close.  I cruised into transition and dismounted my bike with a final bike time of 4:59:48.  Just made it!  I moved up 89 places in my age group alone from 180th to 91st.  Not bad for a first timer on the Queen K. :)

The Run

Somewhat surprisingly to me, I felt good leaving T2 as I headed out onto Ali'i Drive for the 10 mile out and back.  The streets were filled with spectators cheering us on, and the local landscaping provided some coverage from what was still a stinging sun.  I was being very aware of my pace; trying to stay around 7:40/mi even though I was feeling so good.  After hitting the turnaround down the street from St. Peter's by the Sea, my thoughts turned to my late grandmother.  She passed just a couple days before I left for Kona, and I had dedicated my effort at the World Championships to her.  As I was running along Ali'i Drive, my eyes filled with tears for a moment.  Her memory filled my body with a strength I didn't expect to have at this point in the race.  I felt as though I had skipped the swim and the bike.

St. Peter's By The Sea Catholic Church

As I finished the first 10 miles along Ali'i Drive, I passed Laura.  It was great to see her!  Shortly after, I made the turn once again up Palani hill to head out onto the Queen K.  I allowed myself to take Palani very slowly and even walked through the aid station on the hill to ensure I took in some good nutrition.  I knew I was headed out to the famous Energy Lab and the suffering would take place.

Headed out on Ali'i Dr.

Coming back on Ali'i Dr.

The stretch from Palani to the Energy Lab was just over a 7 mile stretch.  As I hit the Queen K, I was feeling strong, but by mile 16 I started to struggle mentally.  At one point, I said out loud, "this road is one constant incline."  Shortly after turning down Natural Energy Rd, I saw Beth headed back the other way.  I was still feeling pretty good, but after hitting the turnaround and climbing the small hill back to the Queen K about mile 19, I was really starting to hurt.  I managed a couple more solid miles around 8:00/mi and even 7:45/mi as I was running with other competitors on pace to break 10 hrs overall.  But, by mile 22 I was tired.  I was physically and mentally tired.  I thought back to Ironman Louisville just 6 weeks earlier, where I needed to dig as deep as possible to earn my qualifying slot for Kona.  But on this day in the "Super Bowl of Triathlon," that motivation didn't exist.  I wasn't racing to qualify, and my thoughts were, "I can put my head down and hurt myself to break 10 hrs, or I can ease up a little, look around, and enjoy the last 4 miles of racing at the Ironman World Championships."  I chose to enjoy those final miles.  I thanked some of the volunteers at the aid stations as they handed me water, sports drink, and even chicken broth.  Yes, chicken broth.  After eating energy gels all day, that chicken broth tasted so good.

I exited the Queen K, turned down Palani, then, made a left on Kuakini Hwy.  A half-mile later, I turned onto Ali'i Dr. as I entered the finishing chute.  I had seen so many athletes on TV run down this chute.  From Ironman World Champions like Craig Alexander to the most inspirational age-groupers like Dick Hoyt pushing his son Rick in a specially made wheelchair.  Now, it was my turn.  My stride quickened.  I passed Laura and thought about all the training hours she endured for me.  I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was coming, and I approached the finish line.

I wish I could say I had some unique finish.  Some people dance.  Some people jump.  Some people click their heels.  But, truthfully, that just wouldn't have been my style.  I strode right through that finish line with arms in the air for a brief moment and a quick double fist pump to put a small exclamation point on a yearlong mission completed.  I finished the marathon with a time of 3:34:23.  Just four seconds slower than I ran at Louisville six weeks earlier.  Overall, I missed the 10 hour mark by 2 minutes and 8 seconds.  But, you know what, it just means I have something to shoot for if I ever go back. :)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Kona Race Report: Part 1 - "The Anticipation"


After qualifying at Ironman Louisville back in August, I began preparing for Kona immediately.  Although the preparation was filled with excitement, the excitement was a small part of the emotional roller-coaster leading up to Kona.  First, the stress of booking lodging and flights after qualifying at the final race of the season (IM Louisville), which meant availability was low and cost was high.  Next, the stress of preparing lesson plans for a substitute teacher for three different classes for an entire week.  Then, the stress of leaving our boys, Lucas and Matthew, to go halfway around the world.  And, finally, the sadness of the death of my Grandma just a few days before we left.  Oh, and I put in a solid 4-week training block before tapering to stay physically ready.  Well, all of this caught-up with me, and just a few days before we were to leave, I cracked.  I was emotionally spent, and considered not going.  However, with tremendous support from my entire family, friends, and co-workers, Laura and I left our house at 5:30 in the morning on Wednesday, October 8th feeling positive and excited about our trip to the Ironman World Championships!

The flowered M-dot in the lobby of the King Kamehameha host hotel.

We arrived in Kona Wednesday afternoon as our plane pulled right up to the outdoor airport just like parking your car in your driveway.  It was so very different than the hustle and bustle of the Pittsburgh International Airport.  We retrieved our luggage, which included my 64 pound bike case.  We picked-up our rental minivan, which I think every other triathlete rented as it seemed to be the only car on the roads that week.  And, we made the 14 mile drive down the coast along the Queen K highway to our hotel passing through downtown Kona on our way.

First view of the Big Island from our plane.

Thanks for the ride US Airways.

Where's the tram to baggage claim?

Hotel lobby

View from the lobby

Ready for a dip!  The slide in the background was so much fun!

The better view from the pool.
Thursday, I took care of some business with a 45 minute bike ride and a 2000 yard swim at the Kona Aquatic Center.  I just so happened to swim in the lane next to 2012 Female Ironman World Champion Leanda Cave.  Needless to say, she was a little faster than I was. :)  

Quick stop for a scenic view.

Who is that guy?

Thursday evening we met up with fellow racers and Pittsburghers, Matt and Kristen Mauclair and Jason Jacobs and his fiancĂ© Laura, for the Ironman Welcome Dinner.  While the food preparation was less than ok, the festivities included Hawaiian entertainment and lots of talk about the budding tradition of Ironman and the accomplishment of being at the World Championships.

Enjoying the Welcome Dinner.

Hawaiian Entertainment.

From left: Me, Matt, & Jason.
Friday morning I awoke early to get to the bay for a swim.  I needed to experience the water before race morning.  It was like swimming in an aquarium.  I could see the bottom of the ocean for as far as I swam out that morning (20-40 ft deep).  I had heard stories of people swimming with dolphins.  I didn't see any, but saw a lot of other fish minding their own business on the sea floor.  It was really cool!  Later that afternoon after some final equipment preparations and some relaxing at the pool, Laura and I went down to transition for the bike and gear check-in.  That is where I got my first glimpse of Craig Alexander, 3-time Ironman World Champion.  As he walked out of transition, there was a lot of mumbling amongst the crowd probably saying the same thing I was, "there's Craig Alexander."  This was even cooler than swimming with the fishes. :)

Morning swim with some other athletes.

Bike and Gear Check-in.

Friday evening we enjoyed a very relaxing dinner with Matt, Kristen, Jason, Laura and Jason's family at the house they rented.  It was great to spend the evening with friends relaxing to take your mind off the race.  Then it was back to the hotel for an early bedtime.  Tomorrow was the Ironman World Championships!