It is hard to believe that in a week I’ll be in Hawaii, and that I am less than two weeks away from the start of the Ironman World Championships. My wife Molly and I watched most of America’s Got Talent this year (the first season of this show we watched), and the judges often asked the contestants what their act meant to them. The answers were generally some cheesy plea to get the judges to accept them to the next level. I started thinking though, “what does Kona mean to me?”

Most people don’t realize that I was swimmer initially. Not that great of a swimmer, but I swam year round from age 7 until age 12. My first award wasn’t until I was 11 years old, a 6th place ribbon for 100 yard breast stroke. I actually bawled when I got that ribbon. I don’t think my coach, Dennis Good, realized that I had never won anything. Breast stroke became my favorite event, although I still rarely won anything. My sister and I became burned out from five years of year round meets and practices, so we were relieved when our parents asked us if we felt like leaving the swim team. A couple years later when I started high school I joined the high school swim team and appreciated the feeling of getting into shape and actually started enjoying swimming again.

At the end of my freshman year we moved from California to Saratoga Springs, New York. Since I wasn’t swimming I decided to start running to hold onto some of my fitness. I ran one mile a day. After a few weeks I was chasing down a slow old guy during the last half of my mile run. I realized later that he had slowed so we could run together. I told him how we had just moved out from California, and I was shocked to find out that he worked with my dad and had just moved out from California for the same job. Gary Ballard quickly adopted me as his running protégé. He told me I could run a 10K, which I never imagined doing, and I quickly fell in love with running. He also told me about triathlons, knowing that I was a swimmer. The idea sounded fascinating! My sophomore year in high school I ran on the cross country and track teams, and swam with the YMCA team where I still preferred breast stroke. I hadn’t really thought anymore about triathlons, but was swimming and running regularly. Again, I wasn’t really that good at either sport, but enjoyed them both a lot. My performances were good for smaller meets, but as soon as I raced in invitationals or even regional championships, I wouldn’t come close to placing.

Another year later I moved back to California, and saw a triathlon magazine in Waldenbooks. I remembered Gary telling me about triathlons, and the cover was intoxicating with a cyclist that looked more like an astronaut with the aero helmet and aero bars. I read every single word in that magazine, and I mean every single word. I studied the magazine information, advertiser’s small print, classifieds, etc. I was extremely motivated to do a triathlon. I was running cross country in the fall, and joined the city’s masters team. My masters coach, Dean Drury, was surprised that I was swimming two-a-days from the start, especially since I had run for cross country practice between the two swims. I didn’t care about breast stroke anymore. I just wanted to do distance freestyle, because I knew I wanted to compete in triathlons. I finally got a bike for Christmas, and it wasn’t really what I wanted, but realized I couldn’t do a triathlon without a bike. It was a 40+ pound ten speed from Sears, and I started riding with a couple friends, namely Eric Dickerson, who also rode 40+ pound bikes. We would ride up to Lake Berryessa with 2 liter bottles of Coke strapped to our bikes. I had no knowledge or experience on a bike, and started reading Sally Edwards’s book on triathlon training.

My first triathlon was the Icebreaker triathlon, a part of the Redwood Coast Triathlon Series. I believe it was in March of 1986. It was a sprint triathlon: ½ miles swim, 3 mile run, 15 mile bike. My parents and sister were there for that race, and so was my old swim coach Dennis Good. He had become an Ironman triathlete, and was competing. I remember a lot of the excitement leading up to that race. This race was my first step in approaching my dream of competing in the Ironman that I had since read a lot about. In my race packet there was a picture of the swim at Kona, and we were laughing about how crazy that looked. Well, I was soon about to experience a smaller version of how crazy that was. The race had about 300 people in it with no wave starts, and no wetsuits. We stood in the freezing water, and when the gun went off I had my worse swimming experience ever! Of course I was clueless, and was packed in the middle, and absolutely didn’t expect to have people swimming on top of me, punching and kicking me. I panicked and fought as hard as I could to get out of there. I probably never swam so hard, but managed to be one of the first swimmers out of the water. My hands were shaking from over exerting myself and I fumbled putting on socks, running shorts, a tee-shirt, and tying my shoes and was in 12th place when I left T-1. The run out of transition was a 10% grade boat ramp. My arms were so engorged with blood that they felt like pure lead, and that there was no blood left for my legs that were screaming as I tried to run. My lungs were on fire and I was shocked at how horrendous I felt. I finished the run in 50th place. I was sooo glad to be on the bike, but I was soooo slow. It took me 1 hour to complete the fairly flat 15 mile course, and 100 people passed me, for a 150th place finish. It was spectacular, and I was hooked. I was now a triathlete, and I knew what I needed to work on.

I love the excitement I see in new triathletes, or even in seasoned triathletes that act as if triathlon is THE ONLY sport. I have a lot of other interests now, but for a long time I felt the same way. I really wanted to do Ironman, the king of all triathlons. I didn’t know many triathletes. I swam with swimmers, ran with runners, and biked…well, not with cyclists. Cyclists were too exclusive, and I couldn’t figure them out. My friend Eric and I rode our bikes more and more, and harder and harder. We would find out about time trials in Davis or Fairfield, and showed up to them to kick almost everyone’s ass there on our crappy bikes. The bike shop owners and other cyclists that bragged about “hammering”, who we beat, would say “wow…you guys should really get better bikes.” We had no money, or jobs, and certainly no sponsorship or mentorship from these guys. This is one reason I am absolutely enamored by what I see Jim Vance doing with his young athletes. I look at that and think “wow, if only I had someone teaching me how to run or bike at that age….”

After that first race I started running 3 miles to swim practice, swim for an hour, then run 3 miles back home, prior to going to school to get used to transitions. I would then swim with my swim team in the afternoon. I was going to bed early and getting up very early, and I was only in 11th grade. The few times I told teachers or friends what I did in the morning, they refused to believe me. I worked in a few 15 mile runs, and then did the Davis marathon, just a couple months after my first triathlon. I ran 7 minute pace for the first 20, and then bonked. There were no gels back then, and I didn’t eat the entire marathon. I finished with a time of 3:30. I really wanted to run the marathon in pursuit of my Ironman dream, but gained some fear when I struggled for over an hour to run the last 6 miles.

It didn’t take long for me to start doing well in triathlons. I had never done well in any sport before, but I was just good enough in all three legs of the triathlon that I was doing awesome. I taught myself to bike as hard as I ran, and routinely had a 40K split of 1 hour if the course wasn’t too hilly. I had two bike accidents during my first year of triathlon that were both major setbacks, but I didn’t lose focus of my goals. My first year in college I improved my swimming to a 500 yard time of 5:05 and 1000 yard time of 10:14. Still not good enough for large meets, but since not too many people wanted to swim those distances I helped the team out a lot. I usually placed second on the swim during triathlons. I had bad eyesight, so I couldn’t see the buoys and had to follow the lead swimmer out of the water. There used to not be timing chips, and transition splits weren’t determined, so although I usually had a very fast transition I would let the first swimmer out of T-1 right ahead of me instead of stealing the fastest swim time.

In 1988 my goal was to qualify for the Bud Light US Triathlon Series National Championships in Hilton Head, SC. I ended up qualifying at three different events. I almost didn’t go because I had no money to get there, and subsequently felt criticized by some of the people that really encouraged me in my goal to qualify. My youth pastor announced “he never wanted to go, he just wanted to qualify”. That was not the case. I was just too young and stupid to think about how I would actually get there if I qualified. I was just focusing on qualifying. Well, I decided that I should go, so I ended up working 40-60 hours a week (I figured out ways to work overtime), at McDonald’s of all places. My training sucked. My school work sucked. But I went. I had a pathetic performance, but it was still an incredible experience going there.

It wasn’t much longer that I realized nothing was really going well in my life. I had moved out on my own, living with criminals (putting it nicely), working full time at night as a line cook at a truck stop, failing in college, and getting fat and out of shape. I still saw myself as a triathlete, and knew that I wanted to go to Kona. When I enlisted in the Navy it was important for me to get my bike out to Orlando, where I was stationed for a year while in Nuclear Power Training. I hardly rode it, and didn’t do a triathlon for several years. I was on submarines when I started racing intermittently. Even though I never had a good training program, I always seemed to do pretty well in the races. I held onto my dream of doing Kona, but never seemed to get into enough shape that I even pursued getting in. In 1994 I did a lot of races as I was getting in shape for Navy Dive School. My fitness was great, helping me rank first in my dive school class, and I had some good races. While in dive school at Pearl Harbor, I went and did the Waikiki Rough Water Swim, one of the events that inspired the Ironman. Then I went about 7 years without much racing, except the inaugural Rock n Roll Marathon in 1998. I had lost the dream, and recall having dinner with a friend (around 1997) and telling him how at one time my dream was to go to Kona, but that I really had no desire to do that anymore. Those words coming out of my mouth almost shocked me. How could I have given up on something that I was so determined and passionate about?

In 2001 I started racing triathlons again, and was loving it, until I had another bike accident in 2002. I was in great shape but my recovery took me a lot longer than I had expected. I lifted a lot of weights, and did a lot of running in 2004 and 2005. I started getting interested in events other than triathlon. I was in medical school at the time, and some classmates were getting interested in doing their first triathlon. I remember telling my friend, John Laird, that triathlons weren’t that big of a deal. I had lost that spark somehow. I did a couple triathlons mainly because my friends were doing them, and of course I beat them all. Not only that, but some of them that did a ¼ iron distance race, my time for the ½ iron distance race was less than double their time. I started to get the triathlon bug again, and really wanted to get a spot for Kona. I was also getting a little tired of meeting Ironman athletes that were either much slower than me, or the Ironman was their first or second triathlon ever. I was in great shape in June 2006 and tried to qualify for Kona at the Eagleman triathlon. I fell apart on the run (biked too hard, plus my seat post came loose and dropped all the way down). I stayed around for the roll down and picked up a spot for Ironman Florida in November. I decided I just needed to tackle that beast. Unfortunately I had surgery and ob/gyn rotations starting, and in four months before the Ironman gained 20 pounds, swam zero times, biked zero times, and ran a total of 100 miles (<5 miles most weeks), longest run 10 miles. That’s not completely true, because I had also signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon, so 6 days prior to IMFL went and ran a marathon on no training. I finished IMFL in 13:52, in the cold dark night. It was the most amazing experience and I was wearing my medal to bed for about a week.

Since then I’ve tried qualifying at Eagleman 2007, Oceanside 2008, 2009, IMAZ 2008, and finally did so at IMAZ 2009. IMAZ 2008 I finished in 10:31, and 2009 in 9:33. It was projected before the race that there would be 8 of the 72 qualifying spots going to my division (M40-44). I predicted that a race time of 9:45 should be good enough to qualify, but with 9:33 I was in 9th place. I had to sweat it out all night, excited about my race and finish, but sick to my stomach that I once again missed qualifying. The actual allocations are calculated based on people that start the race, so when I showed up the next morning I couldn’t believe it when I saw there were 9 spots for my division, and the cutoff line was drawn under my name. It was unreal. Molly and I were both so excited. She’d been through this triathlon journey with me, and knew all the ups and downs way too well. There were 456 starters in my age group, out of 2516 total starters, so although we got 12.5% of the qualifying spots, we had 18.1% of the competitors. The roll down ended up going to 12th place, but it was so awesome to show up and not have to sweat the roll down. I was talking to Kevin Koresky right after registering for Kona, and he said “was there ever a doubt?” I couldn’t believe it. Sure, I understood it was a compliment, but “was there ever a doubt”?! I approach people all the time when I see them wearing Ironman World Championship clothing, and a couple months prior to IMAZ approached a woman at the YMCA. She went on about how she’s done Kona many times, and that 2009 was the first year she hadn’t qualified. She never had a doubt, and was surprised when she didn’t qualify. I later met a triathlete in Irvine on the coffee crew ride ranting about how he couldn’t believe he didn’t qualify. He was in my division at IMAZ, and he never had a doubt, and still managed to tell me how his bike split was better than mine.

My first triathlon was 24.5 years ago, and I’ve been in the Navy for over 21 years now. When I joined the Navy, I wanted to get a college education. It was tough convincing the Navy to send me to school because I had transcripts with Ds and Fs, but had ranked at the top of my classes in the Nuclear Power Training pipeline. I dealt with 6 years of rejections, but then ended up with three associate degrees from San Diego Mesa College, a BSN from Point Loma Nazarene University, an MD from Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, and now am about to get an MS from UC Irvine, all sponsored by the Navy. This year I am achieving some very big goals: racing at Kona for the first time, and graduating from residency. People are used to me racing in a Navy uniform. That is not because the Navy is supporting my triathlon activities (although I was able to race at the Armed Forces Championships in 2009 and 2010 which is an incredible experience, and funded by Navy Sports). I’ve never had a sponsor, and have decided that since the Navy has been such a big part of my life, I should wear something that says Navy on it instead of anything else.

I already have big goals for next year, namely Paris-Brest-Paris, a 1200K randonneuring event that only happens every four years. But what does Kona mean to me? It is like going to the moon…something I’ve dreamed about for so long I’m afraid I might wake up before the landing.