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Long Course For Life: Finding Longevity In Ironman Racing

Ken Glah, former pro turned age grouper, shares his secrets to racing 29 consecutive Ironman World Championships (and counting).

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Ken Glah, former pro turned age grouper, shares his secrets to racing 28 consecutive Ironman World Championships (and counting).

*Editor’s note: This feature was written before the 2012 Ironman World Championship. Glah completed the race in 10:12:27, bringing his consecutive Kona streak to 29.

This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

We all know local runners who return to the same marathon year after year, racking up an impressive string of consecutive finishes over one or two decades. Triathlon is also full of guys who brave the elements, injuries and the wrath of their spouses by showing up without fail to the same sprint, Olympic-distance or Ironman every year. But none of their feats is as impressive—or likely ever to be matched—as the Ironman streak of former pro-turned-age-grouper Ken Glah. This October, the West Chester, Pa., resident will be going for his 29th consecutive finish at the Big Kahuna of long-course triathlons: the Ironman World Championship.

Now in his final year competing in the 45–49 age group, Glah will in all likelihood extend his incredible string of consecutive Kona finishes to 30 when he turns 50 next year. And since it should be easier for him to qualify each year for Hawaii as he enters the upper age divisions, 40 consecutive Kona finishes when he’s 60, or even 50 consecutive Ironman Hawaii finishes by age 70, are all in the realm of possibility.

So how does he do it? How does this master of consistency, who racked up 10 top-10 Ironman World Championship finishes in the 1980s and 1990s—finishing third in 1988 and fourth during the famous 1989 Iron War duel between Mark Allen and Dave Scott—keep himself motivated to train and compete as an age grouper while watching his performances decline year after year? How has he kept healthy and injury-free despite doing two or more Ironman races every year for more than three decades? And what lessons from his years of experience as an athlete and coach does he have for those of us who simply want to stay in the game as we get older as well as balance work and family with the occasional Ironman?

Those were some of the questions I posed to Glah after he qualified for this year’s Kona by coming in fifth in his age group at Ironman New Zealand. That’s right—fifth. The man once known as the “Beast from the East” during his pro career after six Ironman wins—three straight at Ironman Brazil from 1998 to 2000, two at Ironman New Zealand in 1992 and 1993 and the 1993 Ironman Canada—is now like the rest of us, squeezing in whatever workouts he can fit in between work and family, even waiting around for the Kona roll-down slots at the end of the awards ceremony.

At this year’s Ironman New Zealand, which was shortened to a 70.3 due to bad weather, “I actually got the very last slot,” Glah says with a chuckle. “A guy who’s 79 who’s done a bunch of trips with us didn’t take his slot and when they redid the math, my age group got one more slot, which is how I got in.”

Glah’s main focus these days is Endurance Sports Travel, a travel agency for triathletes he started 10 years ago to make it easier for people to book trips to Ironman Brazil. As it has grown and expanded, his training and Ironman times have suffered. He now spends more than 200 days a year on the road booking trips and shuttling people around to more than a dozen races—mostly Ironmans and 70.3 races—in Australia, Canada, China, Europe, South America and the United States.

“I set my goals to fit my training, and my training now is next to nothing,” admits Glah. “There’s only so much I can do. And the reason I’m able to qualify for Hawaii—and it’s getting harder and harder as I get further and further away from my base—is that I’m living off that base. The consistent training ended maybe in 2003 and 2004 as I added more and more events to my travel company.”

Although his pro career was cut short, his transition to age grouper wasn’t difficult, he says, because he quickly learned to dial back his expectations. “If I have a good day,” he says before each Ironman, “this is what I’ll do. If I have a really good day, this is what I’ll do. And if all of a sudden I go 20 minutes faster than what I thought I’d do on a really good day, well, for me to get that kind of result out of my body, even if it was a 10-hour Ironman, I’m really happy with [that] because it’s way beyond what I expected. You have to set your goals based on what your training is, not what you did 10 years ago. And I think the higher you were at some point in your life, the harder it is to be more realistic with those goals.”

He says he believes the reason there aren’t more former pros still racing is that competitive athletes in general have trouble accepting the fact that they get slower with age. “People are so time- and place-obsessed,” he says, adding that even many top age groupers drop the sport because they think, “‘If I can’t go as fast as what I did last year or the year before, then I don’t want to do it.’”

Glah still strives to train consistently within the time limits imposed by his professional and personal life.   He’s found that even short workouts can make a big difference. “Once you’ve been doing this for a while, if you can go out and train for one or one and a half hours a day, even if you’re busy with work and family, that should allow you to retain the fitness for an Ironman,” he says. “If you have a huge base of years and years in this sport, you can get away with an hour or two hours a day. If you put in four hours on Saturday and five or six hours on Sunday, and an hour to an hour and a half every day during the rest of the week, you’re up to 15 hours. That’s not too bad, especially if you already have years of base. That’s going to get you through fine.”

Rise to the Top

Tall, lean and freckled from years of training under the sun, Glah looks much younger than his age, a result, no doubt, of his consistent training. He still keeps his shoulder-length hair tied back into his signature red ponytail, which once matched his fiery drive to win major races as a teenager in the early 1980s. Dean Harper, a former pro who now works as an attorney in Walnut Creek, Calif., recalls the time he met Glah at the 1983 Oxford Triathlon in Maryland, which that year was triathlon’s Long Course National Championship and later evolved into Ironman 70.3 Eagleman.

“I won the race that year and met a lot of the East Coast triathletes,” says Harper. “But I will never forget meeting Ken Glah for the first time. At the awards ceremony, he came up to me and introduced himself. He was all of 19 years old. He said he had placed fourth or fifth, I don’t remember for sure. But then he said, ‘And I am going to beat you next year.’ I just thought that was a pretty bold thing for him to say at the time. Funny thing is, he did beat me the next year.”

The following year, Glah proved he was a top contender at long-distance triathlons, finishing fourth at the Nice Triathlon, which at the time was billed the world championship for long-course racing. “So I was psyched to do well in Hawaii,” he says. But his first experience on the Big Island in 1984 turned out to be a disaster. He had a solid swim, was seventh at one point on the bike, then dropped to ninth at mile 12 on the run and ended up finishing 275th in 12:09, with a 5:49 run split after becoming extremely dehydrated and sunburned. “It was a tough day, but I got through it,” he says. That experience didn’t deter him from trying again the next year. He dropped out of Penn State to become a full-time pro and improved rapidly. In his second Ironman Hawaii, he finished 17th in 9:57; in 1986, he was sixth in 9:09; in 1987, he came in fifth in 9:05; and by 1988 he was third in 8:38. During the famed 1989 Iron War duel between Mark Allen and Dave Scott, Glah went out with abandon on the bike, leading the two on the descent from Hawi, and eventually finishing in fourth in 8:32 after Greg Welch passed him less than a mile from the finish.

Unlike many of the top triathletes in the 1980s, such as Scott Molina and Welch, Glah never migrated to triathlon’s mecca in San Diego but remained in his home town of West Chester and trained with other local pros such as Brooks Clark, Jan Wanklyn (whom he married in 1989), Steve Fitch, Jeff Devlin and Joy Hansen.

“Other than a cold winter, the area around West Chester is a great place to train,” Glah says. “I like the change of seasons, the rides and runs around here. And the winter was a good way to give me a good break, which helped extend my career as a pro and has helped keep me interested in continuing with the sport. The tough conditions in the late winter and early spring made me tough mentally, and the 95- to 100-degree days, with 90 percent humidity in the summer, were great for preparing for hot, humid races like Hawaii.”

Glah says what keeps him coming back year after year to Kona isn’t to continue his streak of Ironman Hawaii finishes. Because athletes like Lyn Brooks and Scott Tinley had a head start in accumulating so many consecutive Kona finishes before him, he says that had never really been his goal. “I do it because I love the race,” he says. “I am not able to race it the way I would like at the moment because of other things, but I do hope to be back training and racing it hard one day.”

RELATED – The Waiting Game: When To Take On Ironman

For the Love of Training

One of Glah’s closest friends, Brooks Clark, a former pro who’s trained with him since the 1980s, says he thinks Glah’s ability to stay in the Ironman game for so long comes from the simple fact that he loves to train, be outdoors and interact with people. “Triathlon is a natural extension of that love,” he says. “Ken strives to be fit and fast and to win, but if he is in less than great shape, he has no problem participating and simply finishing.” He’s also consistently fit. “He has been in good or great shape 12 months of the year for his entire life,” says Clark.

Glah advises other Ironman athletes to stay engaged by finding ways to enjoy training. He says he’s always puzzled by people who tell him they love racing but hate training. “I have no idea why they’re in the sport. Even if you were to race 10 or 15 times a year, you’re spending 95 percent of your time training. If you don’t enjoy the training, why would you do something you don’t enjoy 95 percent of the time, just to enjoy it 5 percent of the time?”

Glah admits he’s a bit of an addict when it comes to exercise and his love of long training days. “I’d rather be out training eight hours a day,” he says, “but it’s just not what my life is now, and I respect that. I can go out and do a 10-hour Ironman instead of an eight-and-a-half-hour Ironman and be really happy with it because I know how little training I did.”

Physical maintenance is another key. Glah advises people to take care of injuries when they happen and to get regular body work to prevent injuries.   “I used to get a lot of bodywork. It was really important when I was making a living at the sport, but even now it’s equally important when I’m 20 or 30 years older,” he says. “You’ve got to spend a little money to make a little money when you’re a pro. But even when you’re an age-group athlete, you’ve got to spend a little money to continue doing it for the rest of your life.” Glah recommends self-massage, regular use of a foam roller and, if you can afford it, getting a deep-tissue massage weekly. “It’s worth it. People will go out and drop 10 or 12 grand on a bicycle and then they’ll say, ‘I’m not going to pay $70 for a massage.’ That to me just doesn’t make sense.  When you’re younger your body can compensate for some of those imbalances, but when you’re older, especially if you’re not training as consistently, the last thing you want are muscle imbalances that will accentuate the possibility of getting injured.”

Because most of us tend to pack on the pounds as we age and trim our training to fit our family and work responsibilities, Glah recommends religiously monitoring your weight and eating a healthy diet. “I don’t eat as much junk calories as I used to simply because I don’t need them,” he says. “Back in the day when I was doing a 10- or 11-hour training day, I’d have to eat 4 or 5 hours straight or I’d wake up the next morning so light I couldn’t train. Now I have to be careful about what I eat. As you get older you don’t need as many calories, so you need to focus on getting better calories. Rarely do I drink calories anymore, whereas before I used to do that a lot because it was a simple way of getting calories in. Now I drink a lot of water and, unfortunately, some diet soda, but I don’t drink a whole lot of juice or sodas with sugar anymore.”

Glah says it’s also important for athletes to take a break each year for four to six weeks to recharge mentally and physically, and  to find ways to include their families in their passion by doing some of their training with them or basing races around places family members want to visit.

As a full-time pro racing from April to November, Glah would typically take Decembers off with the exception of two or three weight training sessions a week. Then he’d add short runs and indoor trainer sessions in January. By early February, he’d be back to regular training. “By then, I was mentally going crazy from lack of training, so I was hungry to get back into things,” he says. “When I started racing Ironman New Zealand in March each year, I would usually stop training and racing soon after Kona so my big break was from mid- to late October until early to mid-December.”

Soon after his daughter, Reanin, was born, he and his wife Jan did training runs together using a baby jogger. When his daughter was older, “I would base a lot of my swim, run and strength training around taking Reanin to gymnastics and volleyball practice at different YMCAs,” Glah says. He also made efforts to make traveling to races a family affair, bringing along not only his family but also his parents to two or three races a year.

Glah also thinks it’s important for athletes, particularly those training for their first Ironman, to do sprint- and Olympic-distance races. He says he’s not a big fan of people who do the Ironman as a one-time thing.  “This is a great sport and I’d rather see people do this as a lifestyle—not something to walk into the office and brag, ‘Yeah, I did an Ironman,’ and never participate in another triathlon again.  The people who embrace the sport really stay in for the long haul. If that means never doing an Ironman because it doesn’t fit in with your schedule, that’s great—do sprints- and Olympic-distance races and occasionally a half-Ironman. That’s wonderful.”

His response provides me the opening to finally ask: How many Ironmans does he ultimately plan to do in Kona? And is he looking forward to completing 30 straight at 50 years of age next October? “I still have to finish this year to get to 29,” Glah replies with a laugh. “I never count them until I do them.”

I try another approach and ask how much longer he thinks he can race Ironman Hawaii. “I hope that I am motivated and physically able to keep training and racing for years to come,” he says, much too diplomatically. “If for some reason I miss a year, I don’t think that means I would just walk away and not race Kona. As I said, I love training and racing.”

So I turn to the triathlete who knows him best, his close friend Brooks Clark, who gives a simple yet brilliant answer to my question of how long Ken Glah can continue to race Ironman Hawaii. “That question,” says Clark bluntly, “is the same as ‘How long will he live?’”

Ken Glah’s 10 Tips for Ironman Longevity
1. Change your expectations to fit your training.
2. Be consistent in your training.
3. Make the training fun and enjoy it.
4. Get bodywork to prevent injuries.
5. Take care of injuries when they happen.
6. Watch your diet and maintain a healthy weight.
7. Take a break each year for 4 to 6 weeks to recharge mentally and physically.
8. Find ways to include family by doing some training with them or basing races around places they would like to visit.
9. Be a triathlete for life, not a one-time “bucket list” Ironman.
10. Mix it up with sprints and Olympic-distance races.

Winds of Change

How the Kona pro field has changed—and stayed the same—since the ’80s

Returning to Kona year after year for nearly three decades has given Glah a unique perspective of the race and the changes that have occurred. “When I look at the pros now, what I see, despite all the advances in nutrition and equipment, is that the front end of the field is not going any faster from what people were doing 20 years ago,” he says. To him, this demonstrates the quality of the training and racing that he and others were doing back in the 1980s and 1990s. “But the difference is the depth of the field in Hawaii. Twenty years ago, if you were in fifth place in the run at 20 miles and the bottom fell out, and you really struggled the last 5 or 6 miles, you might get passed by three or four people. Now, if all of a sudden you slowed down a minute or a minute and a half per mile from what you were doing, you’re going to lose two or three places a mile—so you’re going to end up losing 15 places.”

Notable Ironman Hawaii Finishers
Ken Glah – 28 consecutive
Missy LeStrange – 24
Fernanda Keller – 23 consecutive
Lyn Brooks – 20 consecutive
Scott Tinley – 20 consecutive
Cherie Gruenfeld – 17
Tom Warren – 17