This blog started as a quick reflection on my race at Ironman Florida. I had intended on writing a brief social media post on my gratitude for experiencing the race. However, it turned out that I actually had a lot to say about it…
Ironman Florida 2022
My Ironman Florida race ended somewhere around 4:45pm on Saturday November 5th. A little less than ten hours after it began.
But this story began a long time ago… I have memories of being in high school, maybe even middle school, and watching the Ironman World Championships on TV, and reading or hearing stories about this incredible competition in Hawaii. Looking back it’s like I placed a bookmark on this thing, or circled it in a magazine - saving it for later. I didn’t know if I would ever compete in it, or if I ever would even want to compete in it, but it was certainly really cool, and something that I would revisit.
Two years ago when I got into triathlon, I don’t remember thinking, “well now it’s time to dust off that Kona wish.” But my wheels definitely started turning, and after finishing Ironman Florida last year, I became fixated on qualifying for Kona.
Let me be very clear, I wanted to qualify for Kona.
It is a very scary and vulnerable feeling to want something badly, and even more so to admit it to people. Add in fifteen hour training weeks, a hefty financial commitment, and the physical pain of the training, this became a weight that I sometimes struggled to maintain. Typically I just needed to remind myself that this is all a hobby and should be fun, but on occasion the self-imposed pressure was a bit much. Especially considering qualifying is almost completely out of my control…
Qualifying for Kona is based on your place in your age group. If you win your age group, you’re guaranteed a spot. Outside of that, the slots are allocated based on race registrants. The more people in your age group, the more slots. The male 35-39 age group typically has more slots than most, and one can expect anywhere between 3-4 slots per Ironman for this age group. Now here is how it is out of my control - I cannot do anything about who decides to come to the Ironman I choose to do. The three best guys in the world could show up at Ironman Florida and if I finished fourth and there were only three slots, I’d be sitting at home.
The only thing I can control about qualifying is how I show up on race day, and how well I perform (mentally and physically) during the race - more on this later.
Coming into the race I was very fit.
My good friend Tony White has been coaching me (and Andrea) and he had me in phenomenal shape. It’s amazing what the body can do and this lead up had me amazed. Our bodies are capable of much more than I ever thought - our ability to move over long distances is very impressive. We are truly creatures of endurance.
I had consistently trained 12-15 hours a week for the better part of 4-5 months. It is like having a part time job; swimming, biking, and running hours every day. Early mornings, cold, hot, and windy workouts, hours alone, grinding on the bike trainer or staring at the black line in the bottom of the pool- always picturing myself crossing the finish line at Ironman Florida as a Kona qualifier. Just the thought of getting that qualifying spot made my heart race every time and helped me push a little harder, swim a little faster, and keep going a little longer.
The build up to the race had been going extremely well until I rolled my ankle after a race in Ponte Vedra Beach in the beginning of October.This hurt my achilles and hindered the last few weeks of training but other than that I could not have asked for a better build up.
Mentally I was on top of it as well. When I competed in track I had big goals. And I thought I was dedicated. As a high school and college student I didn’t have the mindset and awareness to understand true dedication. As a grown adult, with a family and a livelihood, the level of sacrifice is significantly more. I truly wanted this. I was focused. I was ready.
Panama City Beach
Traveling for triathlons has become a fun family event for us. We returned to the same condo we stayed at last year and our routine was much the same. We went to race registration, we went to Dave and Busters, we ate donuts, we played in the pool - all of the fun things. I wasn’t exactly calm, but I wouldn't say I was nervous. I was just ready. I wanted the day to come.
Sleeping the night before a big race has always been the same - I typically fall asleep quickly and wake up having dreamed I did the race, only to realize the race hasn’t happened yet. After this dream I usually go in and out of light sleep. All in all this night-before-the-race-sleep was pretty solid.
I woke up to my alarm around 4:30am. Just over two hours before the race started. I woke up excited and feeling energized. Our condo was only about ¼ mile from transition and race start. I ate some breakfast and then walked to transition to get my bike ready.
The bike is my biggest fear. I am afraid of crashing. I am afraid I am not “good enough.” I am afraid of a mechanical issue and my ineptitude to fix it. There are just a lot of unknowns on the bike. However I have a great bike, great equipment, and I have trained myself to be a solid biker. Much of my fear is not based on fact, but honestly, most fear in general is not fact based. I managed my emotions and turned doubt into confidence for this bike ride.
After getting the bike prepped I walked back to the condo and got ready for the swim. At this point the girls were awake and we had a few minutes of fun before I headed out. Andrea got all of us temporary tattoos with my personal motto on them: “With God, always forward.” It was such a sweet gesture and a fun thing to do that morning.
After getting “inked” up and putting on my kit and wet suit, I walked to the start. Game time.
Walking to the start area was exciting. There was 2,000 athletes all in one small area. All nervous. All with their own story to get to the line. No one willy-nilly signs up to do an Ironman. Every competitor has their own training stories, their own motivators, and their own demons. Even though the nervousness of the group is palpable there is more excitement than dread, and for the most part everyone is very nice and everyone wants all of the competitors to do well.
The first discipline in a triathlon is the swim. In an Ironman you get to swim 2.4 miles.
At Ironman Florida you swim in the Gulf of Mexico, around a fishing pier for two 1.2 mile loops. I only breathe out of my right side so having the pier helps me - I have to sight forward a little less. My game plan going in was to “find some fast feet” or swim directly behind a fast swimmer and hopefully come out near the lead pack. In swimming you are allowed to draft - and you can save energy if you tuck in behind someone. If you don’t mind having your hands get kicked and eating some bubbles, this is a good strategy. Timewise I was hoping for less than an hour.
The first lap was great and I was able to find someone to swim with. He swam a decent course and I made great time. It is a two loop swim and as we entered the second loop I was in the top pack, right where I wanted to be. However the second loop was different. By this time almost all of the competitors were in the water.. Sighting became very difficult as the big waves and hands flying made seeing the buoys almost impossible. Instead of having a straight line to the next buoy I was swimming around slower athletes, sometimes right on top of them. It’s a bit chaotic having 2,000 swimmers in the water at the same time. I was able to swim about the same pace and exited the water in a great position. My swim time was 57 minutes and change - right on.
Transition 1 is where you go from swimming to biking. You move (running some and walking some of the way) from the swim location to your bike and then to the bike mount line. Most people come out of the water the happiest they will be in the entire race. Open water swimming is scary - there are legitimate safety concerns, not to mention the inability for many people to practice outside of a pool. If you want to see happy people check out Ironman athletes moving to transition 1. Ironman races, depending on the venue, tend to have longer transitions as the logistics of 2,000+ bicycles is tricky.
My transitions in Florida were slow. Not on purpose. I don’t actually even remember them being slow. But when you compare times - they were. I think I subconsciously feel like transitions are time outs. But the clock keeps going and transitions can make or break your race. I will plan to work on faster transitions for future races. Like all things this will happen through practice.
In an Ironman you get to bike 112 miles. The bike has been my triathlon nemesis. But I am getting better and my goal at Ironman Florida was to finish in five hours. I figured this would keep me in a competitive position but not wear out my legs too badly. A good measure of effort on the bike is watts. Most triathletes have a power meter on their bike that tells you your power output - in watts. My goal was to keep a steady output of 200-210 watts. Headwinds and hills make your watts higher and downhills and tailwinds will decrease your watts. On average I was right at 200 and just a few minutes over 5 hours. I had no mechanical issues and was able to keep on top of my nutrition.
I’ve heard the bike portion described as an “eating contest.” It’s impossible to eat while swimming, and very difficult while running. So therefore the bike portion does become an eating contest of sorts. I carried around four gels, two sport waffles, and a cliff bar with me at the start. I also had a bag of Sour Patch Kids that I was really excited about. Sadly, somewhere the SPKs fell out of pocket. I’m not quite over it, but it gets easier everyday.
Five hours on a bike is kind of like taking a road trip. Sometimes the minutes go by insanely quickly. However, at other points time seems to stand still. I can’t remember much or really anything notable about scenery or things that I saw, however I have memories of just being uncomfortable and bored. It’s exactly what you might expect five hours on a bicycle to be like.
I entered transition #2 exactly where I wanted to be. I remember saying out loud on the bike at mile 110, “Everything is happening exactly as it should be John.”
Transition 2 was uneventful and felt encouraged heading out to the run course.
In an Ironman you get to run 26.2 miles. My whole life, I have identified as a runner. It was time to go to work. The first few miles were fast, but something was off. My whole right side felt on the verge of a cramp - it was like a spasm or shockwave almost every step. It was my back at first, then my glute, then hamstring. Not full-on cramps but something was happening.
I was able to keep it together for the first five miles but then I felt like the whole thing was imploding. All of the preparation. All of the planning. All of all of it! Blowing up, right now, and there was nothing I could do about it. I wanted to run but my body didn’t feel like my body. I wanted to quit racing and just walk the next twenty miles.
I saw Andrea, the girls, and my friend Jonathan at mile 7 or 8 and they gave me the best worst news ever… I was in fourth place in my age group.
Quitting when you’ve already lost is easy. Quitting when you’re in contention - that’s not going to happen. So on I went…
Mile 8 to 14 was pretty brutal. I wanted to stop. I walked some. I ran some. I came to terms that I wasn’t going to Kona. I had mentally quit but was committed to at least finishing.
At mile 14 I saw the girls and immediately got emotional. I cramped badly and could barely walk. The thought of 12 more miles was debilitating. Andrea told me Rory said she didn’t care if I ran slow but that she didn’t want me to quit. I told Rory I wasn’t going to quit. So on I went…
Miles 14 to 20 were a blur. Even though my Kona dreams were over I still wanted to finish. So I ran some and walked some. Trying my best to find good in the situation. I reminded myself of something I often tell other people, “You can’t always control the outcome, but you can always control the output. And you can always control your effort and your attitude.” So on I went…
At mile 20 I saw Jonathan again and he had some more worst-best-news. I was in 6th place and the people in front of me weren’t gaining any ground. Somehow it wasn’t over yet. If I didn’t have that update from Jonathan I would not have qualified for Kona. I would have finished around 6th place, and been super sore, tired, and defeated. With that news, on I went…
The last 10K I prayed. Non-stop for 45 minutes. Sometimes in my head and sometimes out loud. I prayed for my cramps to go away. I prayed for strength. I prayed for courage. Over and over I prayed. I gave complete control of the outcome over to God and trusted Him.
I had already given up. I was not going to be able to finish without help.
The cramps didn’t go away, but I was able to run. And my walk breaks decreased. I was gaining on the guys in front of me.
Anyone watching the Ironman tracker would have had a better indicator of where I was in the race in relation to the other guys in my age group. Out on the course I just knew that no one was passing me and I was passing a lot of people. But I had no way of knowing if the people were on the first loop of the run course or even in my age group.
As the remaining miles decreased I felt confident things were unfolding well… I started to feel stronger and seemed to be making ground on most people in the race.
Mile by mile, and step by step, something good was happening…
As I approached the last mile, what I was seeing was not new to me. I had envisioned this on almost every training run I had done. Last mile of the marathon. Kona slot on the line. How bad do you want it?
The finish at Ironman Florida has athletes make a sharp right hand turn before finishing. It’s something I distinctly remember from last year and have been visualizing ever since. That turn signifies the race is almost over - at least the competitive part of it. After 9+ hours you can relax and enjoy the finish.
Well not the way this one was going…
I made the turn and quickly saw Andrea and the girls. I was delighted to see them and hopeful she would give me an encouraging word.
Without smiling, she said, “Sprint! Go! Run as fast as you can!”
Oh gosh. This isn’t what I wanted. Or at least that was my initial thought. But really, this is exactly what I wanted. This is exactly what I have been visualizing.
A quarter mile to go, completely exhausted, a Kona slot on the line… How bad do you want it?
I wanted this thing badly. I dug in and sprinted to the line. I dug in and pushed it all the way across the finish. I think I even leaned at the line, as if the race may come down to hundredths of seconds.
I was spent. Completely drained. Exhausted. And extremely proud of myself. Somehow I rallied from what I thought was certain failure to a strong finish and possibly a dream come true. At this point there was no question in my mind - regardless of the outcome I did everything I could.
Above all else I was extremely grateful for my Savior and the strength He gave me on the course. I only finished strongly because of Him.
I was laying on the ground just over the finish line completely oblivious to the other finishers running around me. Did I do it? That was all I had and after that marathon, I was going to be proud of whatever the outcome.
The race staff got me off the ground and into a wheelchair and I looked around for Andrea. She knew what I wanted to know and with tears in her eyes, quickly yelled “second”. I cried. Second in my age group was pretty much a guaranteed Kona spot. I laughed. I was so happy.
The next 30 minutes immediately after the race I was so emotional and so exhausted. A state of delirium and euphoria. Post race happiness mixed with extreme levels of cramping and fatigue. But overall contentment.
I spent some time in the medical tent, just gathering myself and making sure nothing was seriously wrong. I was cramping badly but there wasn’t too much serious concern.
We took some family photos and met with Jonathan and his family. Jonathan’s wife Shannon raced extremely well and also qualified for Kona! It was a time to celebrate.
I hobbled back to the condo and called my parents. I read nice text messages. I was just really, really happy. That evening I ate Five Guys and laid in bed - cramped, tired, and totally fulfilled.
The next day was awards and slot allocation. I knew I was going to Kona, but the thrill of being asked over the loudspeaker, “John Richardson, do you want to go to Kona?” was amazing. I screamed “YES” and the girls ran up to the podium with me to accept my invitation. I signed the paperwork and we spent the day in PCB hanging as a family. We drove back that evening and the weekend concluded at home, together in Nocatee.
It couldn’t have ended in a better way.
Post post race.
I’ve had a few days to think about this race. To think about the preparation. To think about why a hobby became something I wanted so badly.
Qualifying for Kona has changed nothing about me. But the process did. I learned a lot about myself. About human motivation. About quitting. About keeping the faith. About goals.
I learned that when you think you’re done and you have no more to give, you’re really only just getting started. I ran 20 miles on empty - or at least the thought I was.
I learned that sharing something you're passionate about achieving with other people makes you vulnerable. But it also opens so many channels of support. Many people believed in me - oftentimes more than I believed in myself. The messages of encouragement stayed with me. Had I kept this crazy goal to myself it would have made failing much easier and achieving much harder. If you have a crazy goal, tell someone.
What I gained during this journey is a trip to Hawaii to do what I love with the people I love. But way more than that, I grew - I’ll be a better husband, father, friend, Realtor, coach, leader, etc. I will be better at everything because of the journey of Ironman Florida. I learned self-awareness, humility, grit, and controlling your emotions to make the best of the most seemingly disastrous situations.
Nothing is easy about completing an Ironman. Nothing is easy about training for an Ironman. For many people the thought of swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles is completely unrealistic, unhealthy, and insane. For me, it is an opportunity to do something I love, with 2,000 other people who enjoy the challenge of the event and camaraderie of like minded people. It is an honor to have this life, one that only exists because of God, and I plan on continuing to use it in all of the best ways.
My friend Will is a professional triathlete who is battling cancer right now. He messaged me a few days before the race and said, “Enjoy every second. It is a gift.” And that is the most important takeaway for me - to enjoy the process.
This story ended with a Kona Qualifier and my goals being achieved. It was a happy ending. But the reality is, I was two minutes away from this story ending completely differently. However the lessons that would have been learned would be the exact same:
Life is a series of processes. We can’t always control the outcome, but we certainly can control our output, and our effort and attitude.
The Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii will be held October 12 and 14, 2023.