I was back on a roll. I’d won the last four IRONMAN World Championships, each against a different challenger. I had a lot of momentum carrying me. The other athletes only expected me to race well in Kona, which freed me up to be the spoiler in a lot of other places. I won the Zofingen Duathlon in the spring, the Nice International Triathlon in early summer and was planning for Kona in the fall.
But momentum was masking the price I was paying to be at that level and I wouldn’t realize it until the demands at the Ironman exposed it. This would be my fourth consecutive time racing in Kona as the reigning champion, which meant I was trying to win five consecutive IRONMAN World Championships titles. No one had done that, not even Dave Scott who was once again sidelined from starting because of injuries. I was thirty-five years old, which meant if I could win I would tie the 1979 Ironman winner Tom Warren as the oldest champion of the race. That was also an incentive! Outlast the age barrier.
Outracing age was not so easy, though. It became painfully obvious that even with huge volumes of swimming, cycling and running I was no longer able to hit the same markers in training I had in earlier years. I also knew what was missing. It was strength work. The problem was I had a complete lack of knowledge about what to do! I tried going to the local Gold’s Gym near my house in Cardiff, CA a few times. I’d stand at the door, look at the hulks throwing massive plates around, look at their bodies (gigantic and bulging), look at mine (skinny with nothing bulging) and slink back out embarrassed to even go inside.
Fortunately I was introduced to a great woman named Diane Buchta who was an encyclopedia of strength training. She led me through an entire season of strength work. My body responded. My race results were amazing. But what didn’t show was what that strength work was masking.
I was getting tired. The previous four years, not to mention the six before that, were taking a toll. The fatigue wasn’t critical yet and it was subtle, but it was there. I just passed the fatigue off as coming from all the training I was doing. I was no stranger to getting tired from working out. That was the idea! Train hard, get tired, recover, and then repeat.
But the strength work masked the fatigue because I was actually getting better. I was stronger than I’d ever been in my career. Hills were a piece of cake. I felt bullet proof running. I was faster than ever in all three sports. Think of it this way. If I gained 10% from the strength, but lost 5% from the underlying fatigue I’d still be 5% better. I didn’t see it coming, but it was festering under the surface.
October was my month. It was my New Year’s Eve. Of course, the celebration, or if necessary the recalibration, wouldn’t start until after both feet crossed the Ironman finish line. I’ll admit I was pretty excited for the race. It felt like coming home when I arrived in Hawaii. I relished the depth of what it would take to have a great day rather than being intimidated by it like in my early years racing there. I knew there was so much I’d have to wait until race day to figure out and I was excited to have that chance.
Saturday morning, October 30th, was the same as it had been the past four years. I got up, choked down a meal replacement drink and a slice of toast with butter and salt. I loaded my stuff into the car and was driven to the start. I didn’t like to talk. “Yes” or “No” was a big answer to a question that morning. For my close friends, driving me from the condo to the start was the most tense six-miles of their year. For me it was my final chance to find peace and calm.
Speaking took me into a distinct part of my brain. It was not the same part I’d need for a great athletic performance. The two were completely separate. If I spoke it turned on logic and analyzing and thinking. Thinking takes time and energy. My top athletic performances came from the part of my brain that went beyond time and linear thinking, that let my body take over and run free of having to think in order to move. It was the part that was expansive and could take in and process the world infinitely faster than the part that needed words to explain it. It was the part of my brain that didn’t understand logic or even care about it. “Impossible” can’t be figured out. “Impossible” situations became “Possible” when my thinking got out of the way.
I needed that place. Speaking cut me off from it. I didn’t even like to talk about the race beforehand.
I’d heard a lot of the other guys talking strategy in the days leading up to it. I could no more plan how I was going to beat my competition than I could plan the speed of the winds out at Hawi. I knew I’d just have to get out there and figure it out.
I went to the transition area and did all my final equipment checks. Eventually I made my way to the pier where I’d jump in the ocean to warm up before the start. I was living in two wildly different states. One was feeling pretty unnerved by what the day could bring. Would I have a good race? Would I be able to handle the pain? Would I have the strength to match everyone else’s pace? Would I fall apart?
But the other state was feeling completely calm. The calm came the moment I jumped in the water. The Pacific Ocean in Kailua Bay is clear and warm and inviting. It rocked me back and forth with its surges. The sun had finally risen above the volcano and signaled it was a new day with new possibility. I never spent those final moments looking to the right at the pier and the crowd. I faced the left to see the Island from the water. It was amazing. Then Kaboom! The day was off.
My swim placed me in the thick of it. My bike ended up the fastest of any ride I’d have in Kona at 4:29:00. There were Europeans everywhere! Jürgen Zach, Wolfgang Dittrich, Pauli Kiuru. They were part of a new generation of triathletes who were weaned on Ironman after it had become a true race. Just surviving was not in their minds. It was race or explode. They didn’t occupy anything close to a middle ground.
I exited the run in perfect position with only a few athletes ahead of me. But my legs were heavy. I never felt great coming out of transition onto the run, but this was a new level of feeling bad. I felt like I’d been dropped into someone’s body that weighed about twice what I did and had no conditioning whatsoever. I’d never felt this way heading out onto the marathon. My energy levels were good. I was hydrated. I just couldn’t run well. I’d felt like this way late in the marathon just before I had to walk but never at the start of the run. I was trying to go but nothing below the waist was responding. The line of communication was down and I was on reserve battery. I was struggling.
Pauli Kiuru from Finland seemed to have adopted my better set of legs and ran away from the field. He gained over seven-minutes on me fairly quickly. I needed to get my legs working but it wasn’t happening. I was just trying to cover the basics: eat and drink, eat and drink.
Ironman has a mystery all its own. I’d seen how I could go from feeling like a champion to not knowing if I could even finish in a matter of minutes. It happened in 1984 and 1987, both times taking a devastating toll on my body. I’d see the opposite as well. In 1989 I was literally steps away from giving up when the most unlikely inspiration from the vision of a Huichol Indian shaman changed my race and my life forever and brought me back into the hunt with Dave Scott.
Through the town of Kona no amazing inspiration happened. I still felt like I was an out- of-shape heavyweight. I wasn’t walking but I wasn’t running either. I was plodding. My mind was dull. I hadn’t given up, but I still didn’t have any idea what to do to get myself out of that situation.
I plodded up Palani Road hill. I turned left out onto the Queen K Hwy. The atmosphere went from huge cheering crowds to only one aid station every mile and nothing in between. It was quiet. It was still intense, but quiet. The peace out there revived me. I could feel my mind clear like a fog lifting. My legs felt normal. They could move. I was running for the first time after an hour of slogging through the miles.
The gap between Pauli and me stopped growing, then started to come back in my favor. Six-miles later I entered the Energy Lab. Kiuru still had an insurmountable lead. But time in the Energy Lab is off the grid. Anything can happen in there, and because of the press restrictions, very few will ever see what actually takes place in there.
This had become my absolutely favorite part of the course since it was put into the marathon in 1990. It was “Quiet” times ten! The rest of the run on the Queen K Hwy is indeed calmer than in town, but there are still people who make their way out there. There’s still traffic, athletes running their marathon, those finishing their bike, cars going out to the hotels and those coming back into the airport. None of that goes down into the Energy Lab. It’s the ultimate place to feel peace and to be quiet. It’s where the non-speaking part of my brain could fire at top volume and get my body to move effortlessly.
A lot of people dreaded the Energy Lab for the exact reasons I loved it. They feared the long stretch from the bottom of it to the turn around. Mentally it’s tough because you can see the turnaround almost from the moment you get on that long stretch that parallels the ocean. It looks close but takes forever to get there. For me that just meant more time in this wonderfully quiet haven. I loved it.
The run back out of the Lab is also extreme. It’s almost a mile uphill with a tailwind moving at about the same speed that you run. Your core temperature spikes. That scared a lot of the runners. It was intense. But intense just presented an equally great opportunity to make a move on everyone else. My mantra was face it, accept it and run fast anyway. I knew huge chunks of time could be made on the my competitors. I loved it. I raced to own the impossible stretches by embracing them rather than fearing them. It was empowering. It made the day worthwhile.
I knew the intensity of the Lab wouldn’t last forever. I went in and stepped on the accelerator. I needed to catch Pauli. He reached the far reaches of the Lab over three-minutes ahead of me. That gap evaporated quickly. I caught him before he made the exit. I pulled up next to him and touched him on his back. It was my way of acknowledging how incredible his race had been and how much I respected him.
That was a huge mistake! I thought I was going to pass him and pull away. That simple momentary touch gave him a huge surge of strength and he stuck with me! He was energized. Pauli ran next to me for what felt like an eternity. It was probably less than a quarter mile but it felt like forever. Note to myself: acknowledge the greatness of others once the race is over!
I eventually did pull away and exited the Energy Lab in the lead. During the closing ten kilometers I was once again on my own at the front of the Ironman, the greatest race in our sport. I cherished those miles and soaked them in. I knew there was absolutely no guarantee I would ever be in that position again and wanted to remember the feeling. It was immense, humbling. I felt honored and grateful to be in it. I crossed the finish line with my fastest Ironman finish ever at 8:07:45. I broke the Ironman World Championship course record for my third time. I went under 8:10 for the third time as well. In the twenty-three years since then there have only been three champions to win with a sub 8:10 in Kona (Luc Van Lierde 1996, Craig Alexander 2011 and Jan Frodeno 2016). To this day there is no logical explanation of what brought my legs back. Chemistry says I was depleted of critical minerals like magnesium and sodium necessary for peak performance and those could never be replenished enough in the race to explain my surge. They get depleted over time when you get tired and need rest to regenerate. That depletion had been masked and I didn’t know it before the race.
But Ironman is not a chemistry equation. Ironman asked me to go beyond the numbers and give an effort that defied logic. “Impossible” did become “Possible”. My legs came back once I was out in the peace of the lava. Yes, it was intense and stark but still peaceful. Ultimately it was the quiet of the Energy Lab that allowed the peak performance part of my brain to work at its utmost. It switched on and sent me a feeling as I entered the Energy Lab that was something like “It’s Time!” I’ve taken almost 2,500 words to share that feeling with you. I hope you enjoyed it!