Goal: To qualify for Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii

Adventure Status: Complete

Read the Blog: Ironman World Championships Quest


“You must learn from your past mistakes, but not lean on your past successes.” Denis Waitley

Greg’s 2006 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii

I learned a valuable lesson at the Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii last week. That bit of wisdom is best summed up by a quote from Thomas Carlyle: “A man without a goal is like a ship without a rudder.”

Aside from simply finishing the race, I didn’t really have a goal. As I’ve said before, the challenge for the past 4 years has been to make it to Kona – to finish in the top 5 (in my division) at any Ironman qualifying race in North America. After 7 Ironman races in 4 years, I had finally achieved that goal, and finished 4th at Ironman Arizona in April this year with a time of 10 hours, 15 minutes. I was ecstatic – I had finally done it. I figured it out. I had qualified to compete head to head with the best athletes in the world at the Infamous Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii. Participating in the historic, exalted event in Hawaii was to be my reward.

At the practice swim 2 days prior to Ironman. The waves were HUGE!

But as Ralph Waldo Emerson said “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” My reward was received way back in April when I succeeded in accomplishing my goal – the race in Hawaii itself was no reward. It was just a really long, brutally hot and painful 12 hour slug through 140.6 miles of desolate lava fields.

Why? Because I had no goal in Hawaii aside from simply finishing. And from the moment the cannon went off to signal the swim start at 7:00 am on Saturday morning in Kailua-Kona Bay, all I could think about was the finish line. That’s no way to do an Ironman.

Dr. Richter of Johns Hopkins Medical School carried out an experiment that attempted to measure the motivational effect of having a goal. The experiments involved placing rats into cylinders of water that were thirty inches deep by eight inches wide. After a short time, half of the rats were momentarily rescued by being lifted out of the cylinder for a few seconds, then put right back into the water. The other half were not. The group that was given hope swam for more than three days. The other rats drowned almost immediately.

The rats that knew there was a chance of being rescued again had a goal – to stay alive until the next rescue. The other group had no goal, so they just gave up. I think that’s kind of what happened to me in Kona on Saturday – I didn’t really have a goal, so I sort of just checked out. That’s a very painful way to race an Ironman. It makes for one VERY long, VERY difficult day!

The waves outside our hotel room were splashing up on decks two stories high

I learned about the necessity of a worthy goal. We are motivated by challenges that are only slightly out of reach. Winning Ironman Hawaii wasn’t even in the realm of possible outcomes, and placing somewhere in the middle of the pack was the best I could hope for. After all, I was racing with the best Ironman triathletes in the world. I figured that just making it to the finish line would provide me with enough incentive to enjoy the epic event, but evidently, I need more than that.

The swim start at Kona Pier

Here is how my day went:

I woke up at 4:30 am on Saturday morning which wasn’t a problem at all because Hawaii is 4 hours ahead of my mountain standard time zone here in Calgary. 4:30 am Hawaii time is 8:30 am for my internal clock. We were staying at the Sheriton Hotel which was about a 15 minute drive to Kona, so Helen drove me down to the Kailua-Kona Pier and dropped me off. I got my race number stamped onto my arms by some friendly volunteers and proceeded to the bike racks to pump up my tires. One of the big differences between Ironman in Hawaii and any other Ironman that I have done in North America is the number of volunteers. A regular Ironman race is extremely well organized with hundreds of volunteers available everywhere you turn – really, I must hand it to Ironman corporations Graham Frasier who truly produces a world class event. Ironman in Kona takes that to an even higher level. Long lines of yellow tee-shirted volunteers waiting for their chance to guide you through the transition area, help you find stuff, answer questions, etc, etc. Basically, it all makes you feel RFS (real f*ing special).

Shortly before the swim start

Having lived 45 of my 45 years north of 50 degrees latitude, I found it very strange to be walking around outside at five o’clock in the morning wearing nothing more than my tri shorts. 80 degrees is pretty comfortable. On the mainland, 5:00 am Ironman mornings are ccccccold!!! I spent the hour or so hanging out in the swim transition area chatting it up with as many others as I could find. It really helps with the pre-race nerves to strike up a conversation and make a new friend. One of those friends was Steve from Ontario who did the race last year and was a sub-average swimmer like me. He told me to stay with him and he would show me where to start and not get all tangled up with a hundred other swimmers trying to swim over and under you.

The swim start

The swim was a definite source of stress for me. I’m not the greatest swimmer and I have always really relied on some buoyancy aid from a wet suit or pull buoy in training or racing. Wetsuits are not allowed in Hawaii, so I basically had to re-learn how to swim without any buoyancy aids. I wasn’t sure how it would feel to have to swim the full 3.8 km in the ocean without the buoyancy of a wet suit – plus having to deal with the horrific pummeling typically enjoyed at an Ironman swim start.

Greg exiting the swim

Another issue was the much larger than normal surf since the earth quake which rocked Kona the week prior to Ironman. Out hotel room at the Sheriton looks out over the Pacific and the waves were crashing onto the rocks so hard they were splashing up onto hotel room balconies 2 stories higher! The hotel restaurant even had to close off a part of their deck due to dangerous surf conditions. I wasn’t too sure how or if that was going to effect my swim. In a practice swim at the Kona Peir two days before Ironman, the waves breaking just to the left of the swim area were well over 15 feet high. I had no problems with the practice swim though – big swells, and some breakers on entry and exit, but I found that I could swim absolutely comfortably in it all. Thankfully, I had no issues at all with the rough conditions.

On the bike

Luckily, the ocean conditions at 7:00 am on Ironman morning in the Kailua-Kona Bay were very calm. I followed Steve out into the water when the announcer told everyone to get in. The swim start is a deep water start which means you have to swim out to the end of the pier where the start line is, and tread water until the start cannon blows. We stood back on the beach for as long as we could before officials made us swim off to the start. Steve and I swam out to the far left side near the breaking waves and the start cannon blew just as we were nearing the start line, so that worked out well.

The swim goes into my books as one of the best Ironman swims ever. Not as far as my overall times goes, but as as to how comfortable and enjoyable it was. I don’t think I ever even touched another swimmer the entire race. In fact, soon after the start, I worked my way all the way to the right hand buoys and swam a pretty tight loop without any interference.

About 15 minutes into my swim I started to learn my second lesson of the day:

Lesson 2: HUMILITY

The understatement of the year to to say that it is humbling when a guy with one leg passes you on the swim. And then you are passed by someone tethered to a guide and you realize it’s the blind girl. Yep – I was passed by a blind girl AND a one-legged guy in the first 15 minutes of the swim. I rock.

When I reached the turn-around point – a sail boat that was 1.2 miles out into the bay, I took a quick glimpse of the time and discovered that it had taken me 40 minutes. 1:20 is about what I was expecting, so I was happy. However, there was a pretty strong current on the return leg and I ended up finishing the swim in a 1:33!! That’s VERY, very slow.

Coming out of the bike transition area

After a slow four and a half minute transition, I eagerly headed out on the bike course. My goal on the bike was to average 220 watts on the SRM meter and hopefully finish with a overall average of 195 to 200 watts. My 198 watt bike ride at Ironman Arizona got me 2nd place on the bike in just over 5 hours. I figured that the same power average on the windy and somewhat hilly Kona course should get me around 5:15 or so.


I rolled over the bike finish tape at a disappointing 5:36. To be positive about this, I would have to summarize the bike leg as pretty darn brutal. At first, maintaining my 220 watts wasn’t difficult, but after only 30 minutes I started having some problems. First, I was hiccuping uncontrollably and enjoying projectile vomiting about every 15 minutes or so. I threw up about 4 times in total on the bike, and I don’t really have any idea as to the cause. Perhaps i swallowed too much salt water during the swim. No sure, but I couldn’t keep down my Hammer Gel, so I started to drink the course coke and Gatorade at the half way point. My first half average watts was a decent 214, but slowed to an average of only 183 watts for the second half. I was pleasantly surprised to finish with an overall average of 198.8 watts which is a personal best for me, but really disappointed that it translated to a relatively slow average speed of only 20 mph. It wasn’t typically windy, although we did have a bit of a headwind for the route back from Hawi. I think the rolling hills probably sucked out more speed than I originally thought. Another reason could be the amount of time during my return leg that I spent out of aero position. Since the climbs in Kona aren’t super steep, I had planned on spending 99% of the time in aero position – just like other flat courses I’ve done. But i found near the end that I just was getting too fatigued to handle it, so I got up onto the hoods way more often than I planned on. I am sure this slowed me down.

The second half of the bike leg felt way too long. I thought it would never end. It was hot, I was sweating like crazy, I couldn’t hold down any nutrition and I didn’t have any energy. Just nothing at all – totally drained. This is when i realized that my goal of just finishing the race wasn’t enough motivation to keep pushing the pace. I gave in to the urge to sit up and ease off the power at every opportunity.

The heat, humidity and my sore ankle was slowing me

As I headed back out of the transition area on the run, I was thrilled to see Helen, Cody and Krista as well as my sister Theresa, Pat and their two kids Nicky and Andy. They were all wearing their Critical Power tee-shirts to support me. That was the highlight of my day.

The run was long. long, long, long – very long. Endless. I had been concerned about my ability to run at all – in fact it had been almost 3 weeks since I had run at all! I had developed this pain in my left ankle that I was afraid was a stress fracture so I had stopped all running until Ironman in the hope that I would heel in time for the big race. After 4 precautionary Advil before the start of the run, my ankle didn’t bother me at all. A bit of limping and pain to begin with, but that went away after an hour and didn’t return.

The HumblingOfGreg.com continued. In the first 15 minutes of the run I was passed by a 60 year old man. Our ages are inked on the back of our calves so you can see who you are passing, and who is passing you. In my case, it was a bunch of 50 year old women, and this 60 year old man. I just thought – wow. I am really honored to be competing with the best athletes in the world! This is really humbling. Then a 67 year old guy passed me. I rock.

It got dark later and under the new moon on the isolated and desolate queen K highway, it got very lonely. Every square mile of my body was telling me to stop and walk, but I wouldn’t give in. Not because I wanted to finish with the best time I could, but because I wanted to end the misery as quickly as possible. I knew from experience that a 15 hour day feels twice as long as a 12 hour day, and I wanted to get to that finish line as fast as possible. In my mind, I kept searching for reasons to keep on – reasons to run faster, reasons to not stop, or reasons to not walk. I decided I needed to focus on something immediate that I was looking forward to. All I could think of was sushi and my bed. Not sushi in my bed. So that’s what got me through the run – the thought of my comfy bed and all the sushi I could eat. Sushi is salty and by now I was probably becoming a bit sodium deficient. When you get that way, your body craves salty foods.

Greg crossing the finish line

After a very slow, lackluster 4 hour, 45 minute marathon, I finally made it to the finish line shoot. Music blasting, people shouting and clapping and the announcer calling out my name, I flung across the finish line and almost fainted into the arms of my catcher. I was done and I was trashed. My finish time was 12 hours, 4 minutes which places me 125th out of 167 in my 45 to 49 year old age group. That really does kind of suck – bottom 25%, but oh well. I really was honored to be competing with the best in the world. Looking at the final results, this really puts the caliber of competitors I was against into perspective:

  • six 60-64 year old guys beat me
  • one 65 year old guy and one 66 year old guy beat me
  • eighteen women my age finished before I did
  • seven 50-54 year old women beat me
  • four athletes competing in the handicapped division beat me

Cody, Krista, Greg and Helen at the finish line

To summarize, the Hawaii Ironman for me, was “world-class tough”. First there was the oppressive heat and humidity – it just sucks the life right out of you. All you want to do is sit in a lawn chair and drink Mai Tais. Second, I had just gotten over TWO colds in the previous month and my training took a huge hit. I was not going into this race with the kind of training volume typical of previous races. Third, I hadn’t run for almost 3 weeks prior to Hawaii due to my ankle injury. That’s not the best way to go into an A priority race. And finally, I didn’t really have a lofty goal for the day aside from just finishing, so I didn’t really go into the race with the appropriate mental arsenal required to motivate me to achieve my best.

I have always said that one of the biggest reasons I BLOG is to have some structured way to plan my life. My BLOGS are detailed transcripts of what actually happened. It is an INVALUABLE TOOL to be able to look back and learn from previous mistakes or to build on previous successes. Our memories are short and unreliable. The human brain has a tendency to build up our successes and minimize our failures. You learn more from your mistakes than your successes, so recording everything that happened – the good, the bad and the downright embarrassing is an ESSENTIAL part of any successful plan.

Now I need to consider what I learned from this experience, and sort out some goals for future Ironman endeavors. My next goal for an Ironman qualifying race is to win my age group. In Arizona, I finished at 10:15, 4th in my age group and was only a couple of seconds behind the third place finisher. My friend Myles Gaulin from Calgary finished in second place with a sub 10 hour time of around 9:52. The winner of IM AZ 06 was just in front of Myles. That means that I need to shave about 25 minutes off my time and that’s not going to be easy.

Pat and Greg enjoy sushi after the race (I was craving sushi!)

First of all, I need to start working on my swimming. My 1:14 swim time at IM AZ was 84th out of 205 in my division which is only slightly better than average at top 40%. Most of the top guys in my division are swimming close to an hour. If I can make some serious improvements in my swimming, I could potentially shave up to 10 minutes off my total time.

Second, I know I can put in a faster marathon. My run time at AZ was 3:50 which was 7 out of 205 in my division. That’s pretty good, but I know I can do better than that. I spent the first hour of the marathon limping on a sore foot from my bike shoes. If it wasn’t for that, I really think I could have done at least 3:40 – that’s another 10 minutes off my time.

And, if I qualify for Hawaii again, then my goal will be to finish above the half-way point in my division. That’s somewhere around 11 hours which I should be able to do. If I work on my swimming over the winter, perhaps I could get it down to a more reasonable 1:15 for Hawaii, a slightly better bike at 5:30 and an average 4 hour marathon would put me at 10:45 or so.


Your freshly humbled and re-goalified Greg.