I’m six feet tall. I weigh 160 pounds. My feet are size nine and a half. I’m a sample size by Nike standards, which by all measures and dimensions means that I am as average as you can get. Yet I had a dream to do something that probably no one would label ordinary. I wanted to win the Hawaii Ironman. But you don’t just go out and win it. That title requires an evolutionary development of all that you are on every level of who you are. Some, like Chrissie Wellington, go through that building up of personal experience and power in ways that are not exactly standard. She came in and pulled on the crown her first time at bat. I didn’t. It was years of training and a complete change of lifestyle that eventually lead to six victories in six straight starts in Kona. Here’s a chronology of lessons learned from each of my races on the Big Island that turned a “sample sizeâ€ into an Ironman world champion.
This was a breakout year for the sport and became my initiation into the unpredictability of racing in Kona. Dave Scott and I had a few hours of private time together at the front of the race on the bike. He had one victory. I had never completed the course. I tried to strike up a conversation with him shortly after the tailwinds subsided on the way back from Hawi, but he was not really that talkative. He just clicked his bike into a big gear and took off. I tried to follow suit, but that simple gear change became my first dramatic Ironman breakdown—not physically or mentally, but mechanically. The tiny tab that holds the rear derailleur cable in place snapped off and my chain slammed into the largest gear on my bike. Race done, just 65 miles into the bike course. DNF. Welcome to Kona.
Notes to self:
- Don’t try to talk to Dave, or anyone else for that matter, during the race. They don’t care what I have to say and why waste the energy?
- Check all equipment a thousand times before race day. If something can go wrong, it will.
I finished third in ’83, with a somewhat conservative race effort. I just wanted to get the DNF off my back from the previous year and cross the line. So with that experience, in 1984 I felt I was ready to go big. I had beaten everyone in the race at some point in other triathlons that season, and I felt fairly invincible.
Coming off the bike I had a commanding 12-minute lead. Dave was trailing. The crowd was cheering. I was flying high and my run had proven my most reliable leg of the race throughout that season. So with such an incredible time cushion, I was waving like the new champ as I made my way through the first 10 kilometers of the race through the town of Kailua-Kona.
At the bottom of Palani Road, before heading out of town, I still thought I had it in the bag. At the top of that same hill only a few minutes later, the steep pitch and the heat of having a tailwind left me weak-legged and once again certain that I would not be the champion. I held tough as long as I could, but walking became my best effort and Dave notched another victory, passing me without mercy.
Notes to self:
1. Being in the lead does not make you the champion. You have to cross the finish line before everyone else—be patient.
2. Anything can happen in an Ironman.
Most pros skipped 1985 as a statement to the organizers that we wanted to be able to earn some prize money. A year later, after the weakest field since the race had started to gain momentum, the first-ever prize purse was announced. It still didn’t match tennis or golf, but at least it was something. We were all back. I had focused on Ironman Nice (France) that year, which was two weeks before Hawaii. Most others made Hawaii their goal. I ended up entering just a few days before the race, and with fatigue still in my legs from my victory in Nice, I ended up in second place behind Dave Scott. Now there was only one spot left!
This year my only goal was Kona. In the race my mantra would be to have more patience. Getting a lead and trying to hold on didn’t work in 1984. Dave Scott and I groveled around in close proximity to each other for the majority of the race, neither of us able to take a commanding lead. But by the halfway point of the marathon, we broke away from the rest of the field, and shortly after that I made a break from Dave. Enough for patience. With 10 miles to go I had amassed a five-minute gap over the best guy in the world at the Ironman distance. That seemed like enough, but it wasn’t. With eight miles to go in the marathon I went from running to jogging to walking. He won again and I was still winless after five tries.
Note to self: Lessons from 1984 still not learned. I still need to be more patient and gain the confidence to hang close and then pull away late. Worst of all, I was still celebrating before the finish and then walking late in the marathon.
Dave Scott pulled out two days before the race with an ankle injury. I looked at the roster. I had beaten everyone remaining. All I had to do was put together a halfway decent race and I was going to win. Scott was handing me a victory on a platter.
After a fantastic swim, the bike started off normal enough, but then I punctured just outside of town. “Stay calm, it’s early in the race,â€ I thought. “Just change the tire and deal with the day as it unfolds.â€ I took off my wheel. My tubular felt like it was soldered on rather than glued. I couldn’t break the bead of the glue and get the damn thing off. Frustration took over and my mind came apart at the seams. What seemed like an eternity later I managed to peel the thing off and put the spare on. “OK, pull it together,â€ I thought. “Ironman is a very long day—anything can happen.â€
I made the Hawi turn and was slowly closing in bit by bit. Then I got a second flat, and I only had one spare. After another seemingly endless delay, a support van came with a wheel. But mentally my race was already done. I did go on to finish, in fifth, farther out of the lead than any of my other Ironman finishes.
Notes to self:
- You have to check all your equipment beforehand. I had glued the tire on months before and had forgotten to leave a small part of the rim glue-free to be able to break the bead.
- Same as before: anything can happen in an Ironman. I never thought I would get two flats, but it can happen. Two spares from now on.
- I will never win if I don’t do some serious self-examination and make some significant changes to my preparation. Zero victories in six starts was not a good endorsement for my current strategy.