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How I Qualified for Kona: Like Father, Like Son

For the Cymanskis, Kona 2019 is a family affair.

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Some of Matt Cymanski’s earliest memories are of riding his bike alongside his dad, John, as he did his long training runs for marathons and triathlons. When Matt was in high school, they began riding together at their local group ride in their hometown of Hiram, Ohio. Soon, Matt was joining his father at local triathlons:

“We would even put on our own races with our friends, swimming in the pond in our yard and riding and running around the back roads around the house,” recalls Matt.

John was the first to step up to the full Iron distance in 2013, racing Ironman Lake Placid with his wife, Barb. Matt followed in 2016, racing Ironman Chattanooga and qualifying for Kona on his first try. But by that time, Matt was grown and living almost 700 miles away in Des Moines, Iowa – though they were both participating in the same sport, they rarely got to enjoy it together. When they did get together for sporting adventures, like a rim-to-rim run of the Grand Canyon, they’d talk about how cool it’d be to do an Ironman together someday – maybe even Kona. But the idea was fleeting and not taken all that seriously – at first. Still, the seed was planted, and it was growing.

“I began to think about what it would take for me to qualify,” said John. “I knew I would need to improve in a lot of different areas: my swimming, my overall training plan, and race strategy. Matt getting to Kona was much more certain than it would be for me to qualify, but I wanted to try.”

Matt was on board with the idea, and began coaching his dad in the fall of 2017. Their plan: John would attempt a Kona qualifying race at Ironman Chattanooga in 2018. If he got in, Matt would race Ironman Arizona two months later to try to bag his spot. In order for this plan to work, everything would need to go perfectly: John, at age 52, would need to improve enough to move from finishing in the upper half of his division to taking a podium spot. Matt would then need to qualify at Arizona only a few weeks after making a cross-country move to Virginia. It was a big risk, but the two went all-in on training, exchanging near-daily e-mails, phone calls, and text messages to compare training and infuse each other with motivation. Whenever they could, the Cymanskis would schedule training weekends.

“We live a few states apart now, so we don’t often get to train together. But when we are in the same place, we will usually run and bike together as much as possible,” says Matt. Adds John: “We were able to do a long ride along Skyline Drive in the summer. Matt did all the pulling, and I just hung on as long as I could.”

Their work paid off: At Ironman Chattanooga 2018, John finished in 9:05:43 to take second place in his age group and secure his spot at the Ironman World Championships. “Matt was not able to be at the race, but he was tracking it and was on the phone with my wife coaching me on the run based on texts from Matt – ‘You are right where you need to be, stick to your nutrition plan, keep running.’” A few weeks later, spurred by the inspiration of his dad’s performance, Matt locked in his Kona spot by winning his age group at Ironman Arizona.

The Ironman World Championship is always a special event for the athletes racing it, but for the Cymanskis, it’s even more so. This family affair is the result of a true team effort between John and Matt – each are quick to say they wouldn’t have made it to Kona without the support of the other, and both agree they wouldn’t want to share the day with anyone else.

“As competitors, we will get to give each other a hug at the start and finish,” says John. “I will be looking forward to getting updates along the course on how is race is going, but probably the best thing will be seeing Matt at the finish and having the ability to share that experience.”