Road to Kona, Part One

Mina Pizzini – Qualified at IM Arizona 2016

I don’t consider myself a triathlete. I’m really a cyclist that swims and runs. Running was my first foray into endurance sports, but after an overuse running injury pushed me to the bike in the late 1990s, I found out that I was a way better cyclist than runner.

I raced bikes competitively for a number of years before “retiring” to triathlon in 2004 and qualifying for Kona with a 70.3 (Eagleman). I took a break from long course and returned to Kona in 2007 to take second in the 40-45 AG. Then I went back to racing my bike and doing mostly short-course triathlons when I wasn’t injured. In 2009 I won Olympic Distance Nationals for the 40-45 AG.

A nagging case of hamstring tendinopathy took me back to cycling for a few years. In fact, I never thought I’d compete in triathlon or running races again until I discovered Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy and Stem Cell injections. Without these treatments, I wouldn’t be running at all.

IM Arizona Race Report

It had been nine years since my last Ironman (Kona, October 2007). I always knew I wanted to do one more Kona, but life (job changes, moves, divorce) and a lingering case of hamstring tendinopathy had kept me completely out of triathlon for several years. During that time, things had changed a bit. Most notably, you can no longer qualify for Kona at a half-Ironman (70.3), meaning I’d have to go the full distance within 12 months of October 2017. That is how I found my way to Tempe in November for IMAZ 2016.

The day dawned overcast and cool (60’s). Fortunately, the Ironman organizers have moved away from mass water starts to time-trial starts, similar to that used in many marathons. Gone are the days of treading water for 10 – 20 minutes pre-start and swimming through a whirlpool of bodies. Competitors self-seed and enter the water in a continuous stream. People must have been relatively honest in seeding because I didn’t need to swim over/around many people and wasn’t getting swam over myself. I swam close to the buoys while staying in the draft of other swimmers as much as possible. I had to sight more than I would like due to the cold, murky water. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face in that water! I tried to swim steady and stay relaxed, which paid off. Much to my surprise, I later learned that I had won the “ROKA first out of the water” award (a swim cap) for my age group.

The slim lead I earned on the swim quickly turned into a deficit with the help of my sluggish transition. In my defense, there is a lot of stuff to do to transition: get out of your wetsuit; put on your cycling kit, heart rate monitor, and shoes; stuff your pockets with food and salt.

Finally I made it my trusty steed, Q. As usual with these big races, Q had to spend the night camping in transition with a bunch of strange bikes. He had a Big Gulp strapped between his aero bars and a bento box tied to his stem, both of which he finds immensely embarrassing. Q was, however, quite happy to be sporting a Zipp 808 front wheel and a disc in the rear. He was ready to go FAST!

Unfortunately, I was not ready to go fast. I was struggling to hold my target wattage on even the first lap and my heart rate was strangely high. I could tell within the first 20 miles it was going to be a long day. I knew I had to slow to below my wattage target to prevent a total meltdown. I ended up riding at an average wattage that was 25W below that of my recent training rides . . . frustrating. Q was frustrated too, or maybe just pissed (literally), because I kept peeing on him rather than stopping.

Despite my poor bike, I was 15 minutes up on my closest competition by the end of the bike. I knew I wasn’t on my game and scaled back my goals for the run. I allowed myself to walk the water stops, but kept running in between. It was a two loop out-and-back course, which gave me lots of opportunities to see my supporters. They ran to various spots along the course to give me updates.

Second place, Peggy Yetman, passed me about 10 miles in. She went on to win after running a 3:15 marathon! At the end of the first loop, I still had six minutes on third place, but I was losing ground. I knew I couldn’t slow down no matter how crappy I felt. With about eight miles to go, I was told I was up by five minutes. I was hurting, but pretty sure I could hold on as long as I didn’t start walking. Just as the sun was starting to set, I reached the finishing chute. There was no saluting or celebrating on my part. I was tunnel-visioned on just getting across the line. 10 hours and 35 minutes. Not what I had hoped, but by holding on to second, I secured the last Kona spot in my age group by only a few minutes. Mission accomplished!

Mike Minardi – Qualified at IM Los Cabos 2016

It was actually in Kona in 2006 that I became interested in triathlon. I was on a sabbatical with my family and, as one does on sabbaticals, thinking about making some changes in my life, namely finding a way to get re-interested in my physical fitness. From my teens through my thirties I worked out religiously: lifting weights and running. By 40, I was bored with my routine and loathed the gym. I found myself in a shop in Kona that had Ironman World Championship posters on the walls and a stack of Competitor magazines with Desiree Ficker on the cover and sample training routines from Mark Allen inside and it clicked. That night I did an eight mile run and some three months later I was 20-something pounds lighter and toeing the line at a local sprint.

Over the next two years I made my way from sprints to Olympic distance races to 70.3, qualifying for the 2009 70.3 World Championship in Clearwater, FL, thanks to a roll-down slot at the 2008 Austin 70.3. The following spring I raced the Champions Tri at Lake Travis, which had a pro field and where I met Brandon Marsh. He nabbed second behind a young phenom named Andrew Yoder. I placed second in my age group and I was a bit awestruck during a friendly chat with him as people milled around afterward. A good friend and fellow athlete was being coached by Brandon. She put in a good word for me and soon after I was on Brandon’s roster. My race at 70.3 World Championships was a massive improvement in performance for me and Brandon has been my coach since.

The natural progression for many is to race a full Ironman. In 2010 I raced Ironman Florida. The goal was to finish, of course, but as I came across the finish line at 9:47 my friends at the finish line yelled “you’re going to Kona!!” Very sweet of them, but that got me like 22nd place (Florida is a very fast race). However, it was a success and one of the high points of my life and, of course, I immediately planned my next Ironman and in the back of my mind, I felt like I, maybe, was capable of someday qualifying for Kona. Injuries would delay the quest but this is how it panned out:

2012 Ironman Cozumel: impact with another rider on the bike course destroyed my front wheel. DNF.

2013 Ironman Texas: 8th place. Missed by two slots.

2014 Ironman Los Cabos: 6th place. Missed by one slot (30 seconds!!).

2014 Ironman Wisconsin: From 140th in the swim to 14th on the bike to 4th place at the finish. QUALIFIED!!

2015 Ironman Texas: 6th place. QUALIFIED (already had a slot)

The Ironman World Championships in 2015 was an unforgettable experience. The atmosphere, the energy, the excitement, the support of the athletes is beyond what I had imagined. It was, also, the hardest race I have ever done. I don’t think there’s really any way to know how to prepare for this race other than racing it. The experience of coming down Ali’i Drive to the finish is hard to describe.

After my 2015 season I was pretty confident in my abilities (cocky?) and figured I’d race Ironman Texas in 2016 and qualify, getting my Kona qualification in the bag and then planning the rest of my season. Anyone who races Ironman knows the unpredictability of race outcomes and the foolishness of disrespecting the awesome difficulty of Ironman. 2016 was a beat-down: a lesson in suffering, humility, and perseverance.

2016 Ironman Texas: Typical crap swim. Hit a traffic cone and crashed hard on the bike. Cramped on the run and got caught in the thunderstorm delay. Finished. No slot.

2016 Ironman Coeur D’Alene: Decent swim. First off the bike. Cramped hard on the run. Finished. No Slot. I did this race with my friend, ultra endurance athlete and nutrition expert Meredith Terranova. She helped me with my nutrition, cramping, and hurt ego and suggested I give it another shot.

2016 Ironman Los Cabos: Gorgeous scenery. Brutally hot. Decent swim. Great bike and likely way out in front of my age group, but then took a wrong turn. I burned about 20 minutes extra on the bike. The temperature on the marathon was about 100 degrees and, expecting that I had blown the race with my stupidity on the bike course, I told Cheryl (my wife) I was going to quit. I didn’t give a shit anymore. She said that was fine, but that I was in fourth place at the time, so I begrudgingly suffered it out. Third place!! My first podium! I am going back to KONA!!!!

Amy Chow – Qualified at IM Chattanooga 2016

I did my first triathlon in college when I was on campus for a summer semester and some of my friends and I had all recently gotten into road cycling. I almost didn’t think I was going to survive the race (Lake Michigan was a balmy 68 degrees and I didn’t have a wetsuit) but made it through. The next year I landed in Austin for a spring semester co-op at a local tech company, found out that Austin had a huge triathlon scene, and was hooked (I also got a wetsuit at ATC which helped immensely).

The next two years I built my way up to Olympic distance and then half distance, and then in the summer of 2008 I flew to Lake Placid to volunteer in order to get myself a slot for the following year (this was back in the days when Ironman races filled up almost immediately on the Internet and the best way to guarantee yourself a slot was to show up in person and volunteer). I am from Upstate NY originally, so thought doing an Ironman that I was relatively local to would be fun (and logistically easy for my family). Despite the cold, pouring rain that befell the race in 2008, I was not deterred and signed up for 2009!

Over the next year, I graduated college, moved to California, found a coach, and trained. And trained some more. I managed to run myself a new marathon PR and into second place in my age group at IMLP 2009. There was only one slot in my age group (F18-24) but I happened to be volunteering the next day at the Kona slot allocation to hand out travel information to all the qualifiers, so while sitting there all morning eventually I realized that first place had not claimed her slot. My entire goal going into the race was to just finish and not only did I finish, I was going to Kona!

After having a mediocre race at Kona in 2009, I was hungry for more and as it would be my last year in the age group. I decided to give myself a couple options, so first up was Buffalo Springs Lake 70.3 in 2010, back when they had Kona slots. It came down to a sprint finish but I was first in my age group and was going back to Kona again!

After 2010 I was burnt out from Ironmans so started Crossfit which later turned into Atomic Athlete, moved back to Austin, and also tried to navigate my career path. I continued doing some halfs and then as I was planning to ride across the country in 2012, signed up for IM Louisville to put my fitness to use. 2014 I did IMTX based on mostly Atomic training, and then 2015 I almost did nothing except wonder if it was time to hang up for the triathlon hat.

I decided to give it one more go in 2016 and see what kind of progress I could make by signing up for two Ironmans. I knew I would like to get back to Kona, but wasn’t sure how realistic it would be in my 30s and early 40s. I also wanted to see if I could sustainably train for Ironmans and fit training around life and work instead of fit life around training like I had done when I was younger. As I had trained with Brandon Marsh back in 2012 and he seemed to work well around the typical Corporate America cube dweller constraints, I went back to him for what could be my last foray into long-course.

IMTX 2016 was not great (worst GI issues of any Ironman and crazy thunderstorms on the run) and I had just started a new job which had me traveling globally. But, consistency is key and that’s what Brandon is exceptional at. Race week came and so did the heat. Going into Chattanooga I was scared I was going to frozen out, but that was definitely not the case! The city recorded a record high 97 degrees on race day, but I ran myself into first place in my age group, fifth female overall. It was my most solid race to date, and unbelievably, I was going back to Kona!