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.