Friday, September 12, 2014

Kona Project Update: "Racing Under a Ballou Sky"

Ballou Skies Tri Team in 2012

I've played sports competitively my entire life and have been fortunate to have done it at some pretty high levels.  Triathlon tests my mind, spirit, and body more than any other sport I've done.  If you've ever experienced a triathlon as a competitor, you know what I'm talking about.  If you've ever experienced a triathlon as a spectator, especially an Ironman, you have seen the triathletes that embody the belief, "anything is possible."  It can be very inspiring!

Midnight finish at Ironman Lake Placid

For me, triathlon has always been more than training and racing, and after 3 years on the Ballou Skies triathlon team, I am still excited about being a part of their mission.  Ballou Skies is a nonprofit that raises awareness and funds for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) research.  DMD is a degenerative muscle disorder that affects all muscles in the body, including the heart.  This debilitating disease affects young boys and leaves them confined to a mechanical wheelchair with a life expectancy in the early 20's. 

Ryan Ballou is a fellow Pittsburgher and has lived his life with DMD.  He was diagnosed at age 5, but at the age of 27 has reached "Rock Star" status because of his independence, courage, and leadership.  Years ago, Ryan's father, Ty Ballou, started Ballou Skies and partnered with the heart clinic at Ohio State University.  Together, Ryan, Ty, and the team of doctors at the Ohio State clinic have made tremendous, almost miraculous, strides towards a treatment for DMD.  To view the amazing progress and great passion for finding a cure, go to and view the short 8 minute youtube video.  It is very inspiring!

From Left: Dr. Jill Rafael-Fortney, Ty Ballou,
Ryan Ballou (seated), Dr. Subha Raman, me, and Luke (age 1)

As a member of the Ballou Skies Team and a Kona qualifier, I am starting a campaign to encourage donations to Ballou Skies and the work being done at the Ohio State clinic.  You may choose to make a flat donation at prior to my race in Kona, or you may choose to donate a specific dollar amount for each person I finish ahead of on October 11th.  There will be about 2000 competitors, and I hope to have a good race breaking the 10 hour mark, but understand the unique challenges the Big Island presents making this a formidable goal.  I will wear my Ballou Skies uniform with great pride knowing my efforts are helping boys with DMD.

If you find it possible to make a donation at, please put "Go Ben!" as a message to the seller when you finalize your donation.  I've made my own $10 donation to kick-off the campaign.

Until there's a cure...Ballou Skies!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Kona Project Update: "Do Your Best"

It was another early autumn Sunday morning.  My dad woke me to go for a bike ride.  My teacher, Mrs. Dolan (6th grade), had asked me a couple days earlier about the bike rides I went on that summer with my dad.  I don't know how she knew about them, but she seemed impressed that a 12 year old would do such a thing.  I just thought it was fun!

I don't remember exactly where we rode on this particular Sunday.  It may have been down Allegheny River Boulevard, through the Strip District, and into the city.  Or, maybe we rode out to Hampton High School, where my dad was Principal.  Or, maybe up to Tarentum, through New Kensington, and back to Oakmont via Coxcomb Hill.  It didn't much matter to me.  We'd hop on our Schwinn 12 speeds and spend the morning out on the road.  I just hoped we'd stop at the Oakmont Bakery for a donut and chocolate milk!  I still love plain cake donuts to this day. :)

As many of our rides did, we finished with a climb up California Avenue to our house.  At the top, where the hill was steepest, my dad was encouraging me saying, "GO FOR THE GOLD!"  There was no pressure, he just wanted me to do my best.  Reaching the top was always a good feeling!

Our old Schwinn's.  They're actually hanging in the garage, but
I flipped the pic so you could imagine how fast we were on them.

My mom used to make me and my sisters sit at the dining room table until our homework was perfect.  Not just complete, but also correct.  She would correct our math problems and make us redo the ones that were incorrect.  I remember doing a book report on "A Wrinkle In Time" in gradeschool.  I had a lot of trouble understanding the book so my mom read it in one evening so we could discuss it together, and I could write my report for the next day.  She wanted me to do my best.

Last fall, when I invested in the goal of qualifying for Kona, I knew on the day I qualified, I would need a performance significantly better than ever before.  Prior to Louisville, I had competed in two full-distance triathlons.  My first was the Full-Rev at Cedar Point in 2012, where I finished in 9:52:30.  Then, last year my first Ironman, at Lake Placid, where I finished in 10:36:32.  Respectable finishes for sure, but nothing that would get me to Kona. 

Going into Louisville, I believed that if I could swim 1:10:00, which I did at Lake Placid (1:09:40); bike around 5 hrs, which I did at Cedar Point (4:55:32); and run a 3:30:00 marathon, which I had never done in a triathlon (3:39:27 at Cedar Pt and 3:58:16 at LP), I could qualify for Kona.  Add those up and include 5 minutes for transitions, I'm at 9 hrs and 40 min.  Considering 4th and 5th places were slower than 9:55:00 in 2013 at Louisville, I thought a performance close to this would get me to Kona.

Two questions remained.  Did I have the courage to physically push myself to produce my best performance?  And, would my best performance be good enough?  When I woke-up on race day, more than anything, I wanted to do my best. I had put so much time and effort into achieving this goal, and I had so many people make sacrifices for me, most especially, Laura.  I owed them my best effort.  If my best performance wasn't good enough for a Kona slot, I would still be satisfied.

When I jumped in the Ohio River that morning, I overcame my fears and focused on getting the most out of each stroke.  I wanted to do my best.  When I hit mile 80 riding through the Kentucky horse country, I knew "going for it" on the bike was a risk.  I wanted to do my best.  When I turned the corner in downtown Louisville to see the finish line, only to know I had a second lap of 13.1 miles in the marathon, I kept a strong stride.  I wanted to do my best.  When I started walking through the aid stations because my legs hurt so bad, I found the will to run again.  I wanted to do my best.  When I ran the final 2 miles of the marathon as fast as the first 2 miles, I didn't know in what place I was.  I just wanted to do my best.  Finally, when I crossed the finish line, the tears filled my eyes.  I knew I had done my best. 

And you know what...I'm going to do my best in Kona too!!!

There were four Kona slots in my age group at Louisville.  I finished 4th with a time of 9:35:43 to earn my Kona slot.  Each of the top four finishers in my age group, including myself, took our Kona slot.  I unknowingly held off the 5th place finisher by just less than 3 minutes and beat my own estimated finish time, which would not have been good enough.  When the race got hard, I simply wanted to do my best.  And you know what, it paid off!!!

4th Place!

Accepting my slot to Kona!

So many people throughout my life have motivated and encouraged me to do my best.  My parents instilled that attitude in me at a young age.  Coaches and teachers at every level nurtured that attitude.  Friends and teammates shared that attitude.  Family supported that attitude.  I have so many people that are constant motivation for me on training days as well as race day.  It's almost like an army is cheering me on when I'm racing.  Thank you to everyone that has helped me achieve this goal!!!

I cannot end my post without singling out my wife, Laura.  She has been extremely supportive over the last year, and has sacrificed daily for my goal.  We live a busy life, as a lot of people do, but fitting in two workouts a day on top of everything else makes things that much more challenging.  I hope a trip to Hawaii is a small payback. Thank you and I love you!

Finally, a message to my boys, Lucas and Matthew (and any possible future sons or daughters).  DO YOUR BEST!  I love you!

Luke sees me coming.
He's cheering me on!
Daddy finished!  Matty doesn't care much.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Ironam Louisville Race Report

I went into Ironman Louisville feeling very confident.  I had put in the training and felt well prepared.  I owe much of this to Coach Chad and his training plan.  Since last October, we've been working for this race.

The variety of emotions I had leading up to the race were quite interesting.  Two weeks prior to the race, I was extremely confident.  I seriously thought I "had it in the bag."  Barring any unforeseen incident like a flat tire or a bike crash, I felt like the race was a mere formality (an Ironman just a formality, ha!).  Then came race week and my emotions changed.  As the reality of racing 140.6 miles drew near, self-doubt and anxiety crept into my mind.  How would the swim go?  Is my bike in good condition?  Will I bonk on the run?  All of these questions ran through my mind continuously.  Then came the weather report that temperatures would be in the 90's with a heat index possibly over 100 degrees.  I had been doing some heat acclimation like riding my bike on the trainer with a long sleeve jersey and no fan, but seriously, a Pittsburgher cannot prepare for temperatures that hot.  Furthermore, consider the fact that the two weeks prior to the race were in the 70's here in Pittsburgh.  Despite the self-doubt, I stayed focused.  Coach Chad and others gave me good advice about nutrition, pacing, and mindset.

My parents and I arrived in Louisville on Friday before the race.  We checked into the hotel and the race.  Then, scoped out downtown Louisville.  With our hotel in a perfect location, it was easy to walk everywhere.

Downtown Louisville
Steam Boat on the Mighty Ohio
Louisville puts pictures of famous natives on their buildings.

Saturday morning, I participated in the practice swim.  The swim took place in the Ohio River.  I tried to take comfort knowing the Ohio originates in Pittsburgh.  I thought of it as common waters.  However, the Ohio River in Louisville is about 10 times as wide as the Ohio River in Pittsburgh.  It was pretty intimidating.  My assignment for Saturday included a 15 minute swim.  I entered the water right at 8 am when the practice swim began.  There were a lot of other racers taking advantage of this opportunity as well.  We entered the water at what would be the swim finish on race day, and we swam up stream before turning around and coming back downstream.  Well, I settled into the water at a nice easy pace while imagining race morning's emotions.  After 10-12 minutes I assessed my progress.  "You have got to be kidding me."  Swimming up stream was turning out to be quite the task.  Not wanting to strain myself trying to conquer the practice swim, I humbly turned around.  I put my head in the water and after about 10 strokes, found myself back where I started.  A huge sigh of relief!!!  The current was crazy fast going downstream.  I spoke to another swimmer in the water. We were both very relieved that most of the swim on race day would be going downstream.  Furthermore, the first part of the swim that goes upstream would have us shielded somewhat from the current by an island in the Ohio River.  All this made me feel confident about being able to post a solid swim time.  I finished my Saturday preparations with a 30 minute bike ride on the first 10 miles of the bike course and a short 10 minute run from our hotel down to the finish line and back.  I felt good and was ready for tomorrow's challenge.

The Good Old P3!
Dad and me at the practice swim
Loosen the legs on the bike

I arrived at transition about 4:30 am, double-checked my equipment and headed over to the swim start where we had an hour-and-a-half wait.  Louisville is a time trial start where swimmers enter the water one at a time jumping off a boat dock.  In order to get a good place in line with 2300 other competitors, you need to get in line early.  Luckily, fellow Pittsburgh Tri Club member and first time Ironman competitor, Nicole Stockey, allowed me to jump in line with her because when I arrived the line already seemed so long.

Swim Start
My Uncle Mark ready with his camera
National Anthem
The Swim
After relaxing and getting to know a few other competitors from across the country and Toronto, it was 7:00 am and time to race.  I got to sport my white "All World Athlete" swim cap, which was a cool little confidence builder.  Most other competitors had the routine green caps.  After the singing of the National Anthem and the playing of "My Old Kentucky Home," it was my turn to take the plunge.  I was able to get comfortable within a minute of entering the water and felt like I had a good strong stroke going.  Since we were swimming between the island and the boat docks, there wasn't a lot of water for the competitors to spread out.  Numerous times my stroke was interrupted by bumping into other swimmers.  I kept thinking about the line from "Days of the Thunder," "Rubbing is racing."  So true!

In we go!
As I cleared the island and worked my way upstream to the turnaround, I knew I was swimming against a strong current.  I focused on staying strong and really pushing the water at the end of my stroke.  I reached the turnaround and headed downstream.  The water was more rough, but I also knew the current was helping all of us.  Each time I passed a buoy, I couldn't believe how fast I was going.  It was like passing a road sign in your car on the highway!  What a great feeling!  I exited the water with a final swim time of 1:05:35 (overall rank of 496 out of over 2300).  My fastest swim split ever!  I knew the current had helped, but I was still pleased because in the back of my mind I was okay with 1:10:00.  So I felt like I banked a couple minutes for later if needed.

Out I come!
The Bike
Having a solid swim under my belt, I mounted my Cervelo P3 and went to work.  Coach Chad had given me a target wattage range of 240-260.  I tried to settle into a comfortable rhythm with that range as the goal.  The first 10.5 miles of the bike ride were along River Road.  A scenic flat road with the banks of the mighty Ohio close by.  I started passing competitors immediately one after the other.  My legs felt great and the skies were overcast keeping the morning cooler than anticipated.  At mile 11, the bike course climbed a significant hill that would lead us to a day of rolling hills through Kentucky horse country.  This type of course suits my strengths as a cyclist and that confidence showed.  I was exceeding my power numbers after 40 miles with a normalized power in the 280's.  I cautioned myself out loud at times to stay in the moment, keep riding strong, but stay relaxed and keeping taking in the nutrition.  It will be needed later.

In hot pursuit
By mile 50, I had worked my way to the front of the race and was riding by myself a lot.  For the next 20 miles, as I finished the first of two loops, I began to struggle mentally with staying comfortable and riding alone.  However, two competitors came from behind me on the bike and gave me some company until we reunited with the mass of age-groupers starting their first loop as we started our second.  This was a mental boost.  To again be riding amongst so many people and passing them one after the other was a confidence builder.

Let's get 'er done.
At mile 80, I knew I was having a good day.  I felt strong, and I knew there was about 10-15 miles until the descent back to River Road and T2.  However, the clouds were gone and the day was quickly getting hot.  At this point, I made up my mind to go ahead and make this a special bike split.  I didn't want to break 5 hours by going 4:55.  I wanted to go 4:45.  I decided I was going to go for this in the most efficient manner possible, but nonetheless go for it!  I rode strong and attacked the descent back to River Road.  I was now passing a few professional female athletes so I again knew I was at the front of the race.  Once I hit River Road, I didn't let up.  I focused on being consistent and taking in a lot of nutrition because it was really starting to heat up.  As I pulled into T2, I saw Matty Mo (Mauclair), an accomplished triathlete and Kona qualifier.  I knew he would be proud of my effort on the bike, and his encouragement gave me a mental boost.  My final bike split of 4:48:06 was good enough for the second fastest amateur bike split and moved me up from 496th place to 20th overall (including the pros).

The Run
I grabbed my gear bag and entered the changing tent.  There was no doubt I was fatigued and even a little lightheaded.  One volunteer yelled encouragement to me as I entered the tent.  I remember him saying, "you're right in the mix."  A few other volunteers helped gather my stuff, rub suntan lotion on my neck, and dump two cups of water on my back.  Thank you!!!  Then, I gave myself about 5-10 extra seconds.  Actually, it may have been like 2 or 3, but it felt like forever.  During those few seconds, I allowed myself to quickly appreciate my effort to this point, calm my mind, and refocus on the challenge of running the marathon.  I thanked the volunteers and was gone!

"I'll run the first mile and assess my condition."  This was my thinking.  Ease into this.  Coach Chad had advised me to start out conservatively.  The first mile felt good.  I saw my Uncle Mark taking pictures and shouting encouragements.  I saw my mom a few moments later, and then finally my dad. Their strategy to spread out was very helpful to me.  They also informed me that I was in third place. Whew!!!  Now run the marathon.

I began ticking off the miles.  One...Two...Three...  I was taking my gels every three miles and getting gulps of Powerbar Perform at the aid stations.  I was dumping two or three cups of water on me through each aid station to keep my engine as cool as possible.  As Coach Chad put it, if that overheats the only way to cool it down is to stop.  The run was hard from the get go.  At about mile 5 or 6, I saw the pro men working their way back in the final miles of their first loop.  They looked terrible!  This gave me confidence and also told me that others would be struggling today as well.  I figured that if someone flew by me on the run so be it.  They have something I don't.  But, if it came down to being smart, consistent, and guts, I could endure.

I continued ticking off the miles.  Nine...Ten...Eleven...  As I came around the corner to finish mile thirteen, I saw the finish line.  But of course, I had to do that all over again on this two loop run course.  There was a small bit of comfort in the thought that I was half done, but it paled in comparison to the reality that there were 13 more miles to go and it was HOT!  I found out after the race that the temperature reached the low 90's and the heat index was as high as 104.

I kept ticking off the miles.  Fourteen...Fifteen...Sixteen...  By mile 18 I was walking through each aid station to get as much drink and food down as possible.  My legs were screaming in pain, but they managed to start-up again each time.  At this point, I was running with so many people.  Most were on their first lap, but this made it impossible to know what place I was in.  Did someone pass me.  Did I pass someone.  I had only my self-determination to get me to the finish line as quickly as possible.

I kept ticking off the miles.  Nineteen...Twenty...Twenty-one...  At mile 24 I knew I had enough to finish with a consistent two miles.  I didn't stop at the final aid station, and as I came around the city corner and saw the finishing chute, I was so happy.  I entered the finishing chute and the fans cheered loudly.  I gave a few spectators some "high-fives" and proudly raised my hands as I crossed the finish line with a marathon time of 3:34:19.

Proud and Humble
The announcer said my name and, "a time of 9 hrs 35 min and change."  I couldn't believe it!!!  I did it!!! A volunteer took my arm and put it around him to help me.  I bent over.  My legs were shaking in pain.  He asked if I was ok.  I said, "yes, I just need a minute."  The tears filled my eyes.  The emotion of a year of hard work and countless people encouraging and supporting me came out.  When I finally made it to the end of the finishing chute, my Uncle Mark greeted me with tears in his eyes and a big hug.  Awesome!!!  My time was good enough for 20th place overall, and 4th in my age group.  There was only one question remaining.  Was it good enough for a slot to Kona?

It was 9:35:42, or something.