The rich history of the Ironman World Championship is steeped in heroes, legends, and lore. In this episode, the podcast team is joined by TriDot coach and nine-time IMWC finisher Kurt Madden as he discusses the history of the World Championship event. Kurt shares stories of racing in the early days on Oahu and some of his top-ten finishes at Kona. Gain an insider perspective into the Iron War rivalry between Dave Scott and Mark Allen and some of the most memorable finishes from the legendary men and women in the sport.
TriDot Podcast .055:
The Heroes, Legends, and Lore of Kona
Intro: This is the TriDot podcast. TriDot uses your training data and genetic profile, combined with predictive analytics and artificial intelligence to optimize your training, giving you better results in less time with fewer injuries. Our podcast is here to educate, inspire, and entertain. We’ll talk all things triathlon with expert coaches and special guests. Join the conversation and let’s improve together.
Andrew: October is here. Fall is in the air, and Kona season is upon us. Listen, friends, I know. I know Kona has been rescheduled this year and, actually, at the time this podcast releases, the world championships should have just happened. Yeah, it’s a bummer that it couldn’t go forward here in 2020. Even without a fresh Kona race date to watch and talk about, there are plenty of amazing Kona story lines for us to enjoy hearing about. I think that can even somewhat maybe fill the void in our triathlete souls that is missing the race this particular year. So today we have a special guest joining us for a TriDot podcast - Kona edition that we are calling the Legends of Kona. We’ll be taking a look back at the dynasties, rivalries, and champions that have made Kona the legendary race that we come back to watch year after year. Leading us in this look back is a legend of Kona himself: Kurt Madden. Kurt is a pioneer of the sport and a nine time Kona finisher. He has three top-ten finishes at the Ironman World Championships. He is a three-time ranked age group all-world athlete. As if 140.6 miles isn’t quite enough, he is also a two-time Ultraman World Championship, and in 2019 was inducted into the Ultraman World Championships Hall of Fame. Kurt is an Ironman certified, USAT certified, and TriDot Coach based in San Diego, California. Kurt, thanks for coming on the TriDot podcast and taking some time to talk about Kona.
Kurt: Andrew, thank you for this opportunity. I’m looking forward to telling a few stories.
Andrew: Also joining us today is Coach John Mayfield. John is a USAT Level 2 and Ironman U certified coach who leads TriDot’s athlete services, ambassador, and coaching programs. He has coached hundreds of athletes ranging from first-timers to Kona qualifiers, and professional triathletes. John has been using TriDot since 2010 and coaching with TriDot since 2012. What’s up, John?
John: I have a great saying: “It’s a privilege to count your heroes among your friends.” I will absolutely say that Kurt is both a hero and a friend, so it’s always great to spend some time with Kurt.
Andrew: I am Andrew the average triathlete, voice of the people, and captain of the middle of the pack. As always we’ll roll through our warm-up question, settle in for our Legends of Kona main set conversation, and then wind things down with our cool-down. Lots of good stuff. Let’s get to it!
Warm up theme: Time to warm up! Let’s get moving.
Andrew: Every good race offers some sort of finish line and participant swag. A staple of race-day swag is the official race t-shirt. Some are given at the finish line to commemorate your conquering of the course. Some are given at packet pick-up. And some are for sale at the pre-race expo. It doesn’t take very long for athletes to rack up a solid collection of race t-shirts. Kurt, John, as much as the two of you have raced, I know you both could fill a closet with race day t-shirts. So from all the race shirts you have, received, or purchased over the years, which one is your go-to all-time favorite? Kurt, first time on the podcast, let’s start with you on this one.
Kurt: Boy, Andrew, that’s a very tough question to answer. I think you must actually be in my closet right now as I’m in my office and my fitness studio and I walk across here. Through the years I’ve had a chance to really...I think each t-shirt has a memory. There’s always a story behind the t-shirt. Many times my wife shares with me that, “I wonder how much that t-shirt is actually worth. The amount of time, the energy, the resources you spent.” I think in the world of Ironman that when you actually get a t-shirt you definitely have to complete the race. That’s the carrot that’s always out there. As I’ve reflected on the t-shirts I’ve had through the years, it’s a tough question, but I think if I have to pinpoint it I’d have to go back to the t-shirt we received after the 1980 Ironman that was held on the island of Oahu. Back then it was called the Nautilus Triathlon. It was a navy blue shirt kind of like the way it is right now with the Ironman World Championship. It had the Nautilus symbol. That was a piece of training and exercise equipment that was very popular back in the day. That was the organization that sponsored the Ironman. It simply had a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 marathon. I remember getting that back in the day that there were only 99 t-shirts that were given out in the entire world.
Andrew: Oh, wow.
Kurt: You couldn’t buy it online. You couldn’t go down to your local store and pick it up. But wearing that t-shirt with pride knowing that it was very, very unique. I think I probably wore that t-shirt for a good 5 or 6 years, especially when I was a graduate teaching assistant at San Diego State. I don’t know...it just gave me a certain distinction. At the same time, low and behold, as my kids grew up that t-shirt was found and my older son wore it until it was almost threads. Then my younger son wore it until there was just nothing left. That’s something I will always, always cherish.
John: I was thinking all athletes agree that actually belongs in the Smithsonian. I guess it belongs to the ages now, huh?
Andrew: I’ll go ahead and say mine because mine is...kind of like you said, Kurt, every t-shirt has a story. I haven’t done my first Ironman yet. I’m still working toward that. So I have the local tri down the road race t-shirts and a couple half Ironman t-shirts. But my favorite shirt is the t-shirt I bought from Ironman Village at my first 70.3. It was 70.3 New Zealand. For me it was my first time experiencing Ironman Village, experiencing that level of a race course, and the distance, and just the event. We’re at Ironman Village and my wife, while I was on the race course, she knew that I had been looking in the tent at the...that was the first year they put out the shirts that had all the participants’ names on the back. So when I was on the course she went and picked up that shirt for me. It’s a nice shade of blue. It’s got all the participants’ names on the back. Now they do that at all the races, which is such a cool token to customize that shirt for that year. It’s got the Kellogg cereal sponsor and their little logo is on the top and it says Ironman New Zealand 70.3. I don’t know...that shirt is comfy. It’s cozy. It fits me perfectly. And it’s a great memoir of my first event of that magnitude. I’ve gotten several since then. That’s always the one that as I’m throwing on a race day t-shirt to go somewhere, that’s the first one I grab every single time. John, how about you? Which one is it for you?
John: Mine is a little different story. Mine’s not that sentimental or great story like y’all’s. Mine is from the 2011 Ironman Texas 70.3, which is my home race. That race is on Galveston Island, which is about 30 miles from my house. I think it was maybe the next year I was back at the race. I found it on the clearance rack, so I think I paid like 12 dollars for this shirt. One of the reasons I liked it...in fact, I wore it two or three days ago, and I’ve had it since 2012. It doesn’t necessarily look like your typical triathlete shirt. It’s actually just kind of a beach scene with a lifeguard stand and it says Galveston, Texas. There’s a little Ironman logo on it. It’s one of those covert things.
Andrew: You’d have to know that logo to know it’s your race day shirt.
John: I could wear it in public and people would think I just went to Galveston, but the triathletes out there, they’ll know. So it’s just a good shirt. I love a good deal. It was like 12 bucks and I’ve been wearing it for all these years.
Andrew: Guys, we’re going to throw this question out to our athletes on social media. I know you guys have some shirts. Honestly, I want to see pictures on this one, John. We’re going to throw out on Facebook and Instagram in the @IAmTriDot Facebook group and @TriDotTriathlonTraining on Instagram. We’re going to put out a race day t-shirt picture post. I kind of want some pictures from you guys. What is that shot of you in that race day shirt that you’re the most proud of? The one that you go to the front of your closet to grab and wear it out and around town? We’re going to throw this out to you guys and let’s move into the main set.
Main set theme: On to the main set. Going in 3…2…1…
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Andrew: The first time I watched the live coverage of the Ironman World Championships in Kona I was transfixed all day long as I watched Lucy Charles-Barklay outswim the world. Daniela Ryf dominate the field. And Patrick Lange run down a gimpy Lionel Sanders to make the winning pass with less than 5 kilometers to go. Kona is the most talked about race on the triathlon calendar each and every year. It produces new story lines and new legends with each iteration of the race. Today we’re going to revisit some of the most notable Kona stories from the pro field with a man who has been there time and time again. Kurt, let me start with this: do you ever get tired of talking about Kona?
Kurt: I would have to say I truly do not. I think because as that topic comes up about triathlons and then they start talking about Ironman races. Everyone wants to know about Kona. There’s a certain mystique. What’s behind the curtain at Kona? I think it’s so invaluable to weigh in on this particular race. I’ve often told people when you do a full Ironman, whether it’s an Ironman in Texas or Santa Rosa or New Zealand, wherever else it might be. There truly is a distinction or something special and surreal about Kona.
John: I can say that people never get tired of hearing Kurt talk about Kona. I’ve been in some of these storytelling sessions as I like to say. It equates to little kids listening to Santa Claus read them a book. These triathletes are enraptured with whatever Kurt is saying. Hanging on every word. So noone tells a Kona story like Kurt Madden.
Andrew: I’ll take this opportunity to plug this, John, on our YouTube channel right now (TriDot Triathlon Training on YouTube) Elizabeth and I sat down about a year ago with Kurt. We called it the Kona experience. That was when I met Kurt over the phone. He was so gracious to take the time to walk us through what it’s like to be on course and describe the energy lab and describe the winds coming off the coast as you’re going up and down to Hawi. Kurt’s description really puts you there mentally. I would encourage folks to go catch Kurt walking you through what the course is like. We’ve got footage of the Kona course to go along with it. Especially in this year when we’re not able to watch the broadcast and the race isn’t happening. Take a chance to get your Kona fix by hearing Kurt Madden talk about it. Kurt, when we take a look back, your very first crack at the Ironman World Championships you placed 7th overall back when the race was held on Oahu. Then once the race moved to the Big Island you placed 6th and 10th in different years in Kona. Tell us about your personal experience racing the Ironman World Championships and what did those fantastic top 10 finishes mean to you?
Kurt: That was a...each race was a little bit different. I’ll spend a couple minutes on each of the races. The first one in 1980 that we were on the island of Oahu and try to create some context for people. You have to imagine that there was no internet. It was really just kind of word of mouth. I was very fortunate that the person that won the year before, Tom Warren, living in San Diego approached me. I came home and had just been married and shared it with my wife and she said, “Let’s go ahead and go for it.” The entry fee was a total of 20 dollars. I sent in my entry fee. All I did for a year was I would swim and I would bike and I would run. It was just volume, volume, volume, volume. The very first bike I purchased was a Windsor. I think it must have weighed at least 40 pounds. I didn’t use cycling shoes. I used some Nike Waffle Trainers. If you go back in the history of Nike that’s what they had. I’ll never forget that when I got over to Oahu I went in a bike shop to make sure everything was legit. The guy said, “I could make you a lot faster on the bike.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “If you put these toe clips on, you’re going to bike so much better.” I said, “I’m in, bro. Go ahead. Go ahead and do that. That would be great.” Here we have a pre-race meeting the day before. We had ABC’s Wide World of Sports. We had Diana Nyad. We had Jim Lampley there. That was Dave’s first race. We had 99 people. The one challenge was it was going to be at Waikiki. Back in the day we were kind of hardcore. No matter what we would just plow through conditions, but they made the right call even on that memorable day because in Waikiki a big storm had come through and the swells were 20 feet. I said, “You know, we’re going to probably lose everyone here just in the swim.” They moved it over to Ala Moana Harbor, which they set up two lane lines. So it’s 1,000 yards times 4, kind of the honor system. My strategy was pretty straight forward. I was very strong in the water as a former lifeguard, high school swimmer. I would just go off the front, hang on on the bike, and guy never knew about the marathon. I swam really well. I came out 6th. I got on the bike. I think I was on mile 40. There was a gentleman back in the day named John Howard. John was a former pro cyclist. John must have went by me at about 50 miles an hour. If you go back and look at the splits, the split that he did on that day on a very antiquated bike--112 miles with traffic--I think his split was 4:16.
Andrew: Wow. Oh my gosh.
Kurt: Yeah. It’s incredible.
Andrew: I’m looking at a 6:16 for mine.
Kurt: Ha, yeah. Just finishing the bike it was a leap frog that you had your own crew that would follow you. I know it was at mile 110, just around the airport. I was approaching Aloha Tower and I got a flat. I was in traffic and my support crew wasn’t with me and I didn’t have a spare. So I literally rode with a flat the last 2 miles to get to the Aloha Tower when they handed me a 6x8 piece of paper and said, “Follow this map and that’s the way the marathon is going to go.” In Honolulu they had one way streets. I was literally trying to hold the map in my hand and check the street signs. I got lost 2 or 3 times. I approached a local who was inhaling some special Hawaiian herbs. He said, “Bro, you go that way.” I continued to run and caught up with my crew a little later on. I just kept moving up and moving up. Little did I realize at mile 18 I saw Tom Warren. I thought, “Oh my goodness. I’m going to have to pass the person that brought me into the mix, but it’s battle now. We’ll make up later, Tom.” I was just over the moon to come down Capilano Park finishing 7th overall. It was a life-changing endeavor. If I look at getting married, watching my two sons being born, and that right there just changed my life. It’s like wow. You would’ve thought it was like Woodstock and it would never happen again. Little did I realize that here I am back in 1982. Now it’s on the Big Island. The race had grown to a thousand people. It was still a California-type. I’ll never forget...great swim. I held back a little bit on the bike. I came off the bike 20th and continued to move up. A friend of mine who I had trained with extensively said, “That’s not fair. You can’t pass me!” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I was running 90 miles a week!” I said, “Well, I was only running 60, but I think we’ll talk after the race. I’ve gotta go now!” Crossing that finish line is like wow. Sixth in the world. That was beyond my wildest dreams. Then to go to 1983 to come back and finish in the top ten. I think it was about respect, about camaraderie, and those visuals I saw in those races to this day, they’re still in my head. I can still see Dave Scott running down to the finish at say mile 21 or 22, just looking fearless, looking awesome. Those are awesome memories.
John: So, Kurt, as you think back to those years when you were in the mix as a top-ranked pro...all those years where you placed top 10 at the Big Island and Oahu, you were mixing up with the best Ironman athletes in the world...what memories do you have of those guys from that generation that you first raced against?
Kurt: Looking back on that it was a time that I truly cherished. We were young, we were wild, we were free. Living in San Diego you can sense that that was the epicenter where the triathlon started. Dave Scott was kind of in his own world up in Davis, California. But anytime you wanted to have a good time, get super-super tired, not know what was going to happen next, and really be humbled--go for a bike ride with Scott Tenley. Join in with Mark Allen. Get together with the Terminator Molina and those guys will crush you. But in a similar way, if you could just hang with them, it was just an incredible experience. I remember I went on one bike ride with Mark Allen. We went about 60 miles and finished. He said, “So what do you think?” I said, “Mark, what do I think? I think you’re going to do fine at Kona.” I’ll never forget that night I came home and my wife was like, “I can’t sleep with you.” I said, “What do you mean you can’t sleep with me?” She said, “There is so much heat coming off your legs right now, I cannot stay in this bed.” I’m like oh my gosh. I really pushed myself hard. I think they were good guys. They were always...it was about respect. It was about pushing the bar. It was about elevating your game. It was about being fearless that I know those guys so intimately. They were fearless in their own way. Fast forward to our athletes today. It was a great time. The one thing I do want to mention, too, was in the early eighties, what was so different--and maybe it’s hard to get your head around it right now--but when there’s no money involved it’s a little bit different vibe as compared to when money came into the sport and really changed things. It was more of a dog-eat-dog versus let’s just hammer it out for 8 or 9 or 10 hours and then we’ll go out and have a drink or beer and eat some tacos after the race. It was different. To this day, in fact, in February we had a 40 year anniversary of the class of 1980 that did this race. Tenley was there and Dave Scott. He chimed in via Zoom. Chuck Newman and John Howard. It was...just the camaraderie and respect was something special. There was no ego. It was like, “Man, we did this thing together.” It was really, really cool.
John: I think it’s cool to hear that the camaraderie was there from day one.
Andrew: And it’s still there!
John: It’s why we’re still around. Even thinking about to...we’re on the opposite end of the spectrum here. We’re working with TriDot. We’re working with advanced software and analytics and big data and all these things. You guys were out there...there was nothing much to look back on. There was cycling and running. There was nothing like this. There was no script to follow. It makes sense that we’re going to be racing for 8, 10, 12 hours so let’s just go do as many miles as we can in a day. Really you guys were laying the foundation for what we do today and creating those training processes. Really there was probably a lot more error than trial involved. We appreciate all the work that went into it. Just to go and be able to produce those results...we have the benefit now of all these years of experience and all these years of learning and research and now even lab testing and data analysis. Whereas you guys were just out there winging it.
Kurt: John, let me chime in on that. You brought up some really good points. I think it’s important with the now generation--meaning the people that are really racing now. We do depend on TriDot and analytics and technology and power meters and all those things. But when you really go back to the fundamental, purist nature of the sport or look at it in its purest form, I think when you can use your RPE (Rate of Perceived Effort). And the second thing, too, is your racing instincts, and being intuitive. I think we can never forget about that. We’ve all faced situations, me included, that I’ve been dialed in and for some reason my power meter is off or my heart rate meter is off. Or my coach is yelling at me to pick it up and I’m looking at him like, “Hey, John, I’m already in a zone 5, John, I don’t think I can go much harder.” “Kurt, you got to pick it up a bit more.” “Okay, coach, I’ll give it the best I can.” That was neat. It was very simple back then. Even the fueling process. I’ll never forget in 1982 on Kona, believe it or not, as I weighed in what my rocket fuel was going to be or what was my super starch going to be. Just to put it out there. I pre-mixed 2 bananas and 1 bottle of something called ERG and that was the electrolyte replacement with glucose. That’s literally what I had in 2 different bottles for the entire 112 miles on the bike with a little bit of water at the aid stations. I can’t remember what they had at the aid stations in the early eighties. I think there was water and ice and that was maybe about it. We’ve come so, so far.
John: Kurt, I think there’s perhaps an urban legend of McDonald’s being one of the aid stations. Is there any validity to that? That athletes were stopping in at McDonald’s out there to get some water and hydration?
Kurt: I’m not sure…
Andrew: Fueled by french fries.
Kurt: On the Queen K highway, John, I’m still looking. I haven’t found the McDonald’s out there, but I know that back in 1980 on Oahu I know it was pretty loose then. There was no time limit. You can imagine no time limit on an Ironman. There was one gentleman that actually stopped in at a Denny’s at about 2 o’clock in the morning. He started at 7 a.m. He stopped in and had a couple cups of coffee and some pancakes and finished at 7 a.m.
Andrew: That’s my kind of Ironman right there. Absolutely. French fries...it’s just carbs and salt, right? You can rock with that. So, Kurt, any book, article, podcast conversation about the legends of Kona has to mention Dave Scott, Mark Allen, and the Iron War of 1989. You brought up your relationship and friendship with those guys already. Tell us a little bit more about the Dave and Mark rivalry and what you remember from the World Championships of 1989.
Kurt: I’m going to give our listeners a little bit of context. I wasn’t as involved in the sport in 1989 when this race took place. I had a pretty good foundation that I’ll give you the lead up to that. I needed to literally step away to be a better dad, a better husband, and be a better educator. But I think what I can capture for our listeners is you’ve got to look at two different phenomenal people. Genetically, both Dave and Mark, it’s evident they have super genetics. At the same time, there was always this rivalry. I know back in 1982 as I tried to prep Mark for the race, I knew Mark would swim with Dave. I was very confident Mark could ride with Dave. The run was still a question mark. You have to keep in mind that Dave had a little bit more experience. Dave, as we know, he’s fearless. A story that some people might not realize, but I remember it vividly. Dave was the master at psyching people out. He was the person who could always play those mind games with people without doing too much talking smack. I’ll never forget we had the carbo loading party in 1982. It was down at the Kona Surf, which is the opposite end of the pier. It’s about 5 or 6 miles down the road. You’ve got a single line of cars driving to the Kona Surf. It starts at 6 p.m. Dave being very very ___, as he always is. He started out on Ali’i Drive with some super small shorts, those huge bulging quads, that big chest. He starts doing fartlek workouts right on Ali’i Drive. I can tell you the conversation at dinner was, “Did you see Dave Scott? He is ripped. He’s ready to go. He’s going to shred Mark Allen. He’s going to do this and he’s going to do that.” He would play that game. At the same time, Mark was the zen master. Mark is the guy behind the scenes building his inner confidence, not putting himself out there. That internal drive between both of them to try to be better than each other on any particular day was just incredible. I know in 1982 it was very unfortunate that Mark, as I was racing, I wanted to see them running together in the marathon. Unfortunately during the bike I’m looking around. Where was Mark? His deraiilleur broke out at Hawi. He got a ride all the way back. I think when you look at the Iron War that did take place and you’ve read the book or listened to the podcast of it or the Audible version it’s incredible of how they played these mind games and what led up to this race. I think at the end of the day we know that the mental aspect really contributes to separating a winner and someone that might be second. Not to say the person in second is a loser, but it’s a mental game. I think it’s so nice as I’ve watched times go on that they’ve come back together in such a way that they’re working with Ironman. They’re at events. There’s some really great camaraderie. I think it was really more of a collaborative type competition, especially as we’re older we can look back and say, “Yeah, it was getting intense.” I know Dave personally. Dave puts a lot of pressure on himself to perform at the highest level. Mark is in that zen like state to always try to bring out the best in his game.
John: Kurt, they were both six-time world champions. As you mentioned initially, Dave Scott was the one who was the heir apparent. He was winning every year. It was up to Mark to beat him and he tried forever. We had this crossover point that is known as the Iron War where Mark had won six, and then after Iron War--spoiler alert: Mark won--then Mark went on to win six times after that.
Andrew: I have read that book, Kurt. I was riveted. I went through that one really fast. The author did such a good job of profiling them and getting you, the reader, into their psyche and their mentality and showing how they were different personalities and different approaches to the sport, but were both top shelf champions in their own right. On race day, I think what really mesmerized people and why that one is considered the Iron War over their other races together is the fact that they were shoulder to shoulder the entire course. Mark stayed right on Dave’s feet throughout the entire swim. They came out on the bikes and Mark stayed out of the draft zone, but right behind Dave the entire bike course. Then when they got to the run--the book really captures it well--they had the account from fellow racers saying, “ We saw them coming the other direction at the turnaround and they were shoulder to shoulder the entire run course.” Up until the final up and down hill and then the descent down to the finish line is when Mark was finally able to break Dave and pull away. Their proximity to each other in that particular race...we haven’t seen anything like it since. Right, Kurt?
Kurt: No, we really haven’t. We might not ever see that again. I think it’s great for people to be thoughtful in reading that and understanding what it’s like just to finish the Ironman. That’s the ultimate goal for everyone. It’s not whether you’re on the podium or win your age group or whatever the case might be. It’s about finishing and trying to get your head around what it would be like. That creates a lot of pressure. Some people get mad if someone is drafting off them for 10 or 15 seconds. They get their undergarments all worked up. Versus if you go side by side with someone like Dave knowing that any second anything can...You have to remember that each of them have a couple surprises in their goody bag that they’re going to pull out. Dave was always good at doing that. “When do I make my move? When do I pull the trigger?” Knowing that there’s no looking back.” Mark was the last guy you’d want to run away from. Same with Dave. He’ll leave it on the line. So, yeah, I think it’s very riveting to look back at the history. I’m hoping in the future we’ll have a similar race, but you just never know.
Andrew: So when we talk about the legends of Kona, it does go a little bit deeper than Mark, Dave, and the founding champions, so to speak. We have at this point over 40 years of history and stories of champions. John, Kurt, for both of you...John, I know you’re a little bit more well-versed in the history of Kona than I am. You’ve been around the sport a little bit longer. So, for both of you, can you walk me and our listeners through the years and the field and tell us about some of the more notable champions from Kona lore? Let’s do this: let’s start on the women’s side. We camped out on Mark and Dave for a bit there. Let’s start on the women’s side. Kurt, who are some of the professional women that belong in the conversation as we talk about the legends of Kona?
Kurt: When I’m reflecting, I look back on the woman’s side, I’ve got so much respect for our women competitors. I think triathlon is a sport that should be open to anyone and especially the females. Everyone I think about through the years that they were gutsy. They were gritty. They were tenacious. They put it on the line. They really inspired other females to say, “You know what? You can do this.” Maybe not doing it at the level that some of these pros did, but really inspire them to say it’s about the journey, the preparation. Going to any Ironman and finishing is life changing. A couple of people I’ll touch on--Julie Moss. I’ve known Julie since 1982. We’ve done a lot together. We were both sponsored by Nike. We were able to travel the world as pros. We’re still friends today. She was at the big 40th reunion earlier this year. Julie was someone that was really at the right place at the right time. When you look at what she did, she was literally underprepared. She was over her head. That dramatic finish at the same time...I think Triathlete had an article about this recently. I weighed in behind the scenes. They were going to pull any television life cast--not live, but production--of Kona until literally the very end when Julie really had some major issues coming down Ali’i drive. I think that dramatic moment was a turning point for our sport. It really put the world on fire. Wow, how incredible is this young little gal from California able to finish crawling on her hands and knees. Kathleen McCartney that I know personally...her going by and that energy and that empathy that people had. “You got this, Julie. You cannot quit. Just crawl!” It was life changing. I know that Julie will take that to her grave, what she did. I raced with Julie a couple of years ago at Oceanside 70.3. She was really getting ready for Texas. I was like, “Wow!” Julie was in her fifties and she was fearless at Oceanside. That’s not an easy course. I think her run split that day for a 13.1 or half marathon...I think she ran around 1:45 or 1:50, somewhere around there. Just impressed. Julie and I go way back so, again, there’s that respect. Next person: Paula Newby-Fraser. Very similar to a female version of Dave Scott or Mark Allen. Very soft spoken. Very quiet. But on race day, no doubt she could compete with the best of the best. I know Paula and I see her at races all the time now. Really soft spoken. Again, best friend is Paul Huddle who works for Ironman. Paula really set the bar, set the tone. I think the other person I would talk about would be Daniela Ryf. I think the thing that you want to remember about these females...one thing I look at when I look at the very top echelon--you’ve got to look in their eyes on race day. When you see that winner, that fiery instinct coming out and radiating, there is no doubt. I’ve seen Daniela at her best. I’ve seen her possibly at her worst. Same thing with Rinny. I think a few years ago she ran the fastest split on Kona that day. I think she had the 5th fastest time amongst men and women. We know now that as you look at video tapes and we’re trying to improve our athlete’s running form and efficiency, Rinny is your go-to. Job well done for all of them. They all raised the bar.
John: I think especially with Paula Newby-Fraser being the queen of Kona. We always pay homage to Mark and Dave, the six time world champions, but she won 8 times. That’s taking what they did and, “Hang on fellas. Y’all got 6 and I got 8.” She’s running out of fingers to put those rings on. So a fantastic job there. For me, another one that was a tremendous amount of respect for was Chrissie Wellington, who came out of seemingly nowhere. She didn’t really have the sport, athletic background. Kind of had this--what we might refer to--as a short career, but she went undefeated. I believe it was 13 for 13 and never lost an Ironman race, including several times at the Ironman World Championship. She pulled a Seinfeld and went out on top and never lost a race. Any Ironman she entered, she won it. I think that’s an incredible feat.
Andrew: On the men’s side, Kurt, you already mentioned some of the guys you raced personally. We talked about Mark and Dave. Who are some of the other legends from the pro men’s field?
Kurt: I’ll touch on a few. I think I need to really go back and talk a little bit about Scott Tinley, or we call him S.T. Scott was your typical California lifeguard. Nice and tan. Blonde hair. Big mustache. Scott wasn’t the greatest swimmer. However, when Scott was on a bike and on the run he would just hunt you down like a dog. I think Scott was a person that was always a maverick. I’ve got a great deal of respect for S.T. He really raised the bar. He thought outside the box. He had several wins throughout the world in his career. I think if we look at the big four that S.T. was definitely a person that should get a lot of respect. The one thing about S.T. is he was your practical joker. He was the guy that I can remember...I think it was in ‘82. I was just about ready. I was walking down the steps in Kona and he said, “Hey, Kurt, got a sec?” I said, “S.T., what’s up, man?” He said, “Here’s the deal. You feeling pretty good?” I said, “Yeah, I’m doing well. How about you?.” He said, “Yeah, I’m fine. I didn’t want to tell you this, but I probably should. I just went by your bike and you’ve got a flat tire.” I said, “Okay, Scott, you rascal, you.” So guess what I thought about all during the swim? Not my swim! He could throw you off very quickly.
Andrew: Was he joking or was he not joking?
Kurt: He was the guy on a baseball or football team that would keep everybody loose. He had your back. Knowing S.T. he was always going to be there for you. Great guy. Ambassador to the sport. So I wanted to touch on him. I think if I fast forward up to now, Jan Frodeno. What can we say about Jan? I’ve got so much respect for him. I’ve seen him at his worst and, again, I’ve seen him at his best. I’ll never forget a few years ago when he had an injury. He was walking down Ali’i Drive. I said that can’t be Jan Frodeno. Conversely, last year, he was killing it. He had the perfect race. I know the work he does behind the scenes. He’s very soft spoken, but on game day he is a tiger. You don’t want to mess with him. I think he’s caused the Germans to raise the bar. I could talk all day, but I’ll leave it at that.
Andrew: I follow Jan on social media. He’s a really good Instagram follow. I’m always so jealous of his training pictures. He’s got his bike on the trainer out on his back patio. He’s got a nice little lap lane in his backyard. It’s a beautiful view of wherever it is that he lives. He has such a great set up. John, for you, who are some of the men that have really captivated your attention over the years?
John: I think a lot of it is...this is probably true for a lot of folks. They are racing their first Ironman. You pay special attention and perhaps watch the coverage over and over. It’s our best opportunity to relive and see what the Ironman race is like. For me, I came up in an Australian phase where primarily it was Craig Alexander and Chris McCormick. Those guys are fantastic athletes. I think Kurt would probably agree--they’re very reminiscent of Mark and Dave of maybe a decade prior. Those guys are always together. They were countrymen. They were always trying to outdo one another. One of my favorite races was the 2009 World Championship. A guy I knew and admired, Chris Lieto, was doing what he does. He was a phenomenal cyclist. He would always ride away and his strategy was to hold on for as long as possible on the run. Craig would go on to win, but Chris led that race through...gosh, I don’t know if it was mile 24, mile 25, I believe. They were shoulder to shoulder later than Mark and Dave in the Iron War. They didn’t do the whole race together, but Lieto held that first position for so long. It wasn’t until...Even now, if I ever rewatch that race I feel like I hope that something is going to change. I will Lieto to keep going, but inevitably…
Andrew: Maybe this year he’ll get it!
John: Every time Alexander passes him. But that was a great era of racing with some great guys.
Andrew: I’ve heard it said that folks rarely come out of nowhere to win the Ironman World Championships. Typically the athletes that win on the Big Island have either podiumed or come really close to it in years prior, but not every athlete that podiums in Kona goes on to eventually win the race. Kurt, when we talk about these legends of our sport and we talk about the folks that have won in Hawaii--and there’s a ton we didn’t even mention that were able to get a World Championship or two on their resume--what is it that sets these legends and these champions apart from the peers of their era that maybe came close to a win, but maybe never quite made that final step?
Kurt: This is a really pertinent question here. You’ve got to think of Kona as your Everest. That you’re going to get into that “Death Zone.” You can describe it to people. You can watch videos. You can read books. But I can tell you honestly you’ve got to pay your dues. You’ve got to go out there. You’ve got to experience Pele. You’ve got to experience the wind, the humidity, the heat, the conditions. Really get to know that entire swim course from start to finish repeatedly. Not once or twice. But you’ve got to really know every little detail of that swim. You’ve got to know that first transition very well. All the chaos and everything. You’ve got to know the bike inside and out. Every mile knowing the conditions are never the same. It literally changes by the hour with no heads up. You’ve got to know what it’s like to get up to Hawi. You’ve got to understand that turnaround. You’ve got to know what it’s like to come back and go by Waikoloa knowing that you’re jumping into that furnace that typically lasts 30 miles as a headwind. You’re exhausted. You’re looking at your power. You’re just getting grinded into the lava and to get off that bike at 1 o’clock in the afternoon going, “Oh my goodness. I’ve got a full marathon to go.” I think the people that separate, meaning the people that finish at the very top as compared to other people...there’s a couple of factors. I think they go in with a real open mindset. They have a lot of inner confidence. They’ve got grit. They follow their race plan. They follow their nutrition. They can adapt and pivot on the fly. They’ve got good instincts you have to develop in Kona. I think you don’t get that experience until you race Kona. It’s incredible through the years, I’ve heard so many people say, “I’m going to go to Kona and I’m going to do x, y, and z.” I ask the question very nicely, “How many times have you done Kona?” “This is my first time.” “Okay, well let’s set the bar a little bit low. Maybe just finish it. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Gain that experience.” I think the people that have done well there, the people we have talked about today...if you really grill down and talk about those common denominators, those are things I’ve just shared. It’s incredible that Kona will humble any person at all. I don’t care if they’re a pro or age grouper, you name it. It will. I’ve seen it time and time again, even myself. I’ve hit some real dark spots along the way. I think it’s also that it keeps you so humble that you want to go back and do it a little bit better the next time. I think if we look at the max VO2 with our top ten people, men and female, they’re going to be close. What separates it: grit, tenacity, mental toughness, following their race plan, and their nutrition.
Andrew: So the athletes that become legends in Kona could not have done so without the amount of festivities and the massive production, hype train side of Kona race week. As a media guy, it’s really cool to see how the story tellers of Kona have become just as much a part of the Kona lore as the athletes whose stories they’re telling. Perhaps one of the most well-known Kona story tellers and personalities is a good friend of yours, Kurt--Bob Babbitt. Tell us about Bob’s role in the Kona festivities and how it’s evolved over time and what makes him a legend of Kona.
Kurt: I met Bob in 1980. I met him actually a day or two before the Ironman in 1980. We were on a bus ride together. They rented a bus and they took us around the entire island of Oahu to check out the course. We were sitting there next to each other and we hit it off. He lives in San Diego. We’ve been friends ever since. I think in the very beginning, Bob did not create the story line of where he was going to be today. I think it evolved over time. Bob is a person that is very unselfish. Bob gives and gives and gives and gives. He loves the sport. It’s probably the best example of Challenged Athletes, with doing interviews. Bob is a guy who can somehow find a way to get to a race and another race and another race. He’s easy to talk to. He’s very skilled at what he does. He engages you to really drill down to find out a little behind the scenes of what’s happened. I think Bob has developed that reputation. He was never on that podium at Kona, but you know what? We don’t need everyone to be on the podium. We need people that can really connect the dots. I think Bob is so well-respected. I feel real good about Bob because he’s just flat-out a good guy. I remember last year at the Ultraman World Championship, just after day one. It was day two and we were at the volcano at about 5,000 feet in elevation. I had a jacket on and gloves. He looked at me and said, “Kurt, you’re shivering.” I said, “Yeah, I’ll be okay once I start.” He took the jacket right off his back and gave it to me. He said, “You know what, bro. You’re going to wear this. We’ll connect later on.” That’s class. That’s a guy that takes the jacket off his back. It’s not about Bob. It’s about really promoting the sport. About inspiring you. About working with people that really have encountered some great difficulties. Bob is a kick. If you’re with Bob, you’re always going to have a good time.
John: He’s done such amazing work with his foundation through Challenged Athletes Foundation. Equipping folks to be able to participate, not only in triathlon, but basically every sport that’s out there and done a tremendous amount of good for so many people. Definitely a huge asset and contributor to the sport. Kurt, “You are an Ironman” finish line call from the one and only Mike Reilly has become synonymous with the event, the brand, and, really, our sport. It clearly sets Mike in his rightful place as a Kona legend. Tell us, Kurt, having your friend Mike call you across that finish line time and time again, what does that mean for you?
Kurt: Yeah, it’s...sometimes we tend to forget about certain people. Mike’s not the athlete out there doing the training and the preparation. But Mike is very cerebral. Mike knows his part. He knows his part in the production. Mike studies and studies and studies and studies. He makes sure that on race day he’s on his game. I cannot even imagine doing his job. To speak and stay engaged and take very few breaks for 17-18 hours…
Andrew: I would lose my voice so fast.
Kurt: When I’m done with my race I like to either get warm or get together with a few friends and unwind. I’ve seen Mike do that. It’s incredible the reputation that Mike has developed through the years. There’s something about every race I’ve been at. Mike--every race he’s at--he, somehow...unless he’s taking a break or something...but I can remember his voice vividly. He’s able to hit the real quick talking points about each athlete--boom, boom, boom. He would say it for me each time I come in. He never misses me. When people ask what my favorite part of Ironman is, I say it’s the last 20 yards because I know Mike is going to be there. I know that recently a close friend of mine in San Diego that had done an Ironman, his name is Jeff Liscomb. He had a chronic, longterm, terminal illness. It was really incredible. You can imagine someone is literally dying in their own home. Babbitt works behind the scenes to get Reilly to go over there. This guy is literally on his death bed. Mike Reilly comes up and says, “You are an Ironman.” I mean, it doesn’t get any better than that.
Andrew: Yeah. Kurt, I read Mike’s book that he put out, The Voice of Ironman. His memoir of sorts of him recounting over the years. What struck me from that book is he’s telling really good stories. He’s telling other people’s stories about their own Ironman day and what their background was and why their finish was a momentous finish to Mike. Basically the whole book is Mike saying over the years of my making finish line calls, here are some of the athletes who stood out to me. You really see his heart that every athlete matters to Mike Reilly. Everybody’s story matters to Mike Reilly. He really sees himself as taking...his name takes a backseat in that moment. He wants to exalt the name of the athlete crossing the finish line. The way he will visit hospital rooms, like you said. He’ll call up athletes whose finish line he might have missed or whose race maybe he wasn’t at. He’ll so selflessly do everything he can to exalt the name of another athlete and their story. It’s incredible to me to see that from him.
John: I’ll say the greatest place on earth is the Ironman finish line. Specifically, perhaps that last hour. Especially back in the day when it was the 7 o’clock mass start so you knew that every athlete had to cross the finish line by straight up midnight. The energy Mike had in those last 20 minutes was crazy. He was on the beach at 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning to start the race. He had been out there throughout the day. He’s been out there as long as the longest athlete.
Andrew: And he’s been talking all day long.
John: All day long. But that doesn’t slow him down. He’s out there dancing in the finish chute. He’s got his towel. He’s keeping that crowd so engaged. I can only imagine the energy that those athletes get and the will to finish. He’s calling them in. You can hear the voice for...it’s gotta be a half mile away. The energy he creates from everyone that’s there. There’s nothing like the finish line of an Ironman in those last couple minutes. He’s counting it down. Goosebumps just even thinking about it. I’ve been on the end of some of those things that he’s gone above and beyond to deliver those special messages. I’ve handed him my phone before and he’s declared them an Ironman over the phone. The same kind of thing, if he wasn’t at a race or he was on a break or something. We had a lady that was wanting to finish an Ironman before her father passed away. Unfortunately, we missed by like a week. Mike did that same thing and recorded a message for her when she crossed the finish line. She was able to hear Mike Reilly declare her an Ironman even though she was just in her own neighborhood.
Andrew: He’s a legend, John. He’s a legend.
John: Well deserved.
Andrew: Whether it’s fair to the athletes or not, there’s this desire within sports fans and sports media to compare the legends of old with the champions of the now. Who is greater between...Who is the GOAT between Lebron James and Michael Jordan? How many yards would Dan Marino or Steve Young pass for in today’s NFL? Could the Mia Hamm USA Women’s National Soccer Team beat the Alex Morgan’s USA Women’s National Soccer Team? Kurt, when you look at the Kona legends of old--many of whom we’ve talked about today--and the champions of today...you’ve mentioned Jan Frodeno, you’ve mentioned Daniela Ryf, there’s Patrick Lange, Sebastian Kienle, Lucy Charles...What similarities and differences do you see between these two eras? Is it even possible to try to compare these two different generations in our sport?
Kurt: As I look at this question, I think the best visual for people that have been to Kona on race week is it’s really how they stage everything in production. It’s like the World Series. What they do on the wall right there on the beach by the pier is they have every single champion from 1978 all the way up through now. I think as you walk down that walkway of legends and you look at every single thing, what I would say is that as we compare the past to the present, the common things that I see as a person that has been in the sport for many years and is still a student at heart. I’m learning all the time. First of all, they’re really good people. I will say that humbly. It’s not just about them. It’s about them racing against the course. That’s the beauty of what we do. It’s just really trying to complete the course. I think the other thing is they’ve got grit, they’ve got tenacity, they’ve got character. They want to give back. They want to help other people and inspire other people. Each one has their own story. I think the difference of today like John touched on earlier, is we’ve got so much technology. I know me as an athlete and a coach with TriDot for about 4 years now, my world has changed. The training back in the day in the 1980s, I would just tell people this is what you have to do: swim, bike, and rain. Just do that every day and take recovery whenever you can. I think it’s really changed. Again, I would call it more of a continuum. There are a lot of similarities, but at the end of the day, I think people always do the best they can with what they’re given on that particular day in our sport. If you think about it over the past 40 or so years, we really know a lot more today and I think our job is to share this information to make sure we’re preparing people for a lifelong dream to be an Ironman, but it’s lifetime fitness. I think that’s the beauty of what we do.
John: Along that same line, Kurt, we’ve talked about from the very beginning of the Ironman World Champion where you were there very early on. You’re still competing as an athlete in the Ironman World Championships every year. So perhaps you…
Andrew: You’re still ranked number one in your age group at the all-world athlete rankings each year. We have to say that, John.
John: So I think perhaps you have a unique perspective. Based on all of this, where do you see things going in the front? Something that I see, there’s always a torch being passed. There’s that one person who comes up and they seem to temporarily possess that torch and then they hand it off--willingly or unwillingly. Or maybe it’s more that someone comes and takes that torch. Where do you see the Ironman World Championships going? What do you see from this next generation?
Kurt: This year with COVID-19 it’s really been a very humbling experience. I think in our wildest dreams, we would never have thought this would happen. We’ve had to pivot and adapt and delay that gratification in races and have Mike Reilly say you’re an Ironman. I think as I look at the crystal ball or my tea leaves or tarot cards or whatever you want to call it, I think it’s going to be a generation of continuous improvement. I think the things we’re going to see is many more athletes of all parts of the world getting in to the mix. I think that our training is going to be refined, especially with a program like TriDot. I give a shoutout because there’s no doubt in my mind that I was fortunate last year as a TriDot coach is to have three of my people get qualified for Kona. Each one ended on the podium.
Andrew: Wow! That’s awesome.
John: That’s amazing.
Kurt: As a coach, I was so...goosebumps, John, to use your term. Being able to race and I saw all three of them out on the course. I was like, “Guys, you’ve got this. Stay with the plan and we’ll do it together!” I think because we have a plethora of information. It’s more scientific now, whereas before it was a guessing game. I think we’re going to have more people. We’ll have fewer injuries. Our nutrition is going to improve. I think the pacing is going to improve. I think the mental game is something that is still a little bit untapped. We spend so much time on the physiology. I know if I can get into an athlete’s head and get into their hearts just like John has done for me as my coach, it’s really going to up my game. I think that’s an untapped part of what we do moving forward. There’s no secret. Look at the evolution of sport and the common characteristics of sport in the 90s up to now. We’re going to see people running better off the bike. We say we bike for show, we run for dough. I think if people want to enjoy this sport and finish strong then you’ve got to continue working on your running. I look at the training I use and the training for my athletes. It’s really designed that way. It’s really about getting into something that you thought you could never do. It’s about telling your story and know how it will transform your life. I think every person that’s ever done an Ironman anywhere, if you ask them the question, “How has this changed your life?” There’s no doubt they’re going to say, “I’ve got more self-confidence. I don’t give up. I’m tenacious. I’m forgiving. I can adapt. I can pivot.” At the end of the day, especially this year, that’s exactly what we want.
Cool down theme: Great set everyone! Let’s cool down.
Andrew: Many athletes have the Kona Ironman as the race at the tip top of their bucket list. Kurt, for those that do want to race Kona...maybe they’ve already qualified or they’re waiting for next year to try to qualify or they’re training hard to get fast enough to qualify or maybe they’re just dreaming and tossing their name in the lottery each year...regardless of how they get there, what are your couple quick top tips for someone who’s looking to train to take on the Kona course?
Kurt: I think there’s a couple things that you want to keep in mind. I think the main thing is you definitely want to go slow. You don’t want to contact somebody and say, “I want to go to Kona in 6 or 8 weeks or this season.” It might take 2 or 3 or 4 years. The other thing, too, is it’s going to delay that gratification. Be patient. It’s definitely a lifestyle. The second thing you’ll want to think about is if it’s at all possible, once we get out of COVID...If it’s at all possible, even as a family vacation, go to Kona yourself. Get familiar with the swim. Get familiar with the bike. Get familiar with the run. I always tell people even if you don’t qualify for Kona, you can still do Kona. If you can get over there safely you can do the swim, you can do the bike, and you can do the marathon. The other variable that I think is so, so essential, and we preach and teach this all the time, is don’t get caught up into the hoopla. So many people their heads are spinning and they’re taking their minds way away from what they can do. I think that’s important. The other variable is heat training. There is no second guessing that you’ve got to be able to adapt to heat. If you’re not a good person that really can handle heat, Kona might not be your race. Again, I have seen everything that you could possibly imagine with heat and heat stroke and heat exhaustion. I think that’s key. The other thing is if you’re not a good open water swimmer, I will honestly tell you that Kona is a very challenging swim course because of the ocean. I’ve done the course many times in training. I’ve done it racing. In the UltraMan we swim 6.2 miles from point to point. So I know it very, very well.
Andrew: Good. Lord.
Kurt: Yeah. You have to also stay with your strength training. I think open water swimming, especially in Kona, the first thing you’re going to experience is a lot of tension on your deltoids or your shoulders. So don’t underestimate the swimming. If you need someone to work on your stroke mechanics, that’s key. I think on the bike what you want to remember is biking 112 miles on that course is very similar to biking about 150 miles on any other course because of the wind and the heat and the humidity and things like that. Then in the marathon, the most important thing in Kona is literally just keep running. You’ve got to stay in the game no matter what. You’ve got to fall back on your training. You’ve got to listen to yourself. Leverage those aid stations and things like that. I think if I had to do that...those tips, hopefully those are helpful. Kona is a very, very special place. We talk about Pele. We talk about being humbled. Just remember to always have a lot of respect for that course. Anything can and will happen. The most important thing to remember is if you can master Kona with proficiency, in my mind, you’re on the podium in my book. I talk to so many people after the race and the first thing they say is, “I bombed.” “Tell me more, why?” “I don’t know. I lost it mentally or I didn’t follow my pacing or my nutrition was off or I had a nagging injury or something like that.” Anyway, play the long game.
Andrew: That’s it for today, folks. I want to thank the legendary Kurt Madden for reflecting on the legends of Kona with John and myself today. Shoutout to Garmin for partnering with us on today’s episode. Head to Garmin.com to see what Garmin tri tech should be your next upgrade. Enjoying the podcast? Have any questions or topics you want to hear us talk about? Head to tridot.com/podcast and click on “Submit Feedback” to let us know what you’re thinking. We’ll have a new show coming your way soon. Until then, happy training.
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