Seven Inspiring Kona Age Groupers

Seven age-group athletes racing the Ford Ironman World Championship on Saturday share their stories and goals.

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Seven age-group athletes racing the Ford Ironman World Championship on Saturday share their stories and goals.

Compiled by Aaron Hersh

Racing for his uncle
Athlete: John Fell
Age group: M30-34
Bib number: 1604

Like most people, I saw the race on NBC and was immediately [drawn to] the classic human struggle. That show, coupled with the huge influence of my great uncle Bob (who introduced me to endurance sports at birth), spurred me along to give triathlon a go. After barely winning a bet with my dad that I could complete a “tri-atha-lon,” I wondered if I could finish one of those “full triathlons.”

I signed up immediately for Ironman Florida ready to make my run at the Ironman distance and collect my spot in the coveted Hawaii race. My mindset was, “If I put in the work, I am going to get that spot.” Ironman Florida 2004 came and went, and I got my first taste of disappointment. On one hand, I finished my first Ironman. I mean, coming down that finishing chute after the enormity of the day and the training and the journey of getting to that moment can only be described as overwhelming. But I left Panama City Beach feeling almost cheated. I was 10 minutes away from that spot, so close that I could feel it on my fingertips. I thought that certainly I would qualify at my next Ironman.

So again and again, year after year, it was like Groundhog Day: Train really hard, race, barely miss a spot to Hawaii. Repeat. That siren song of Ironman Hawaii lured me back repeatedly.

Fast forward to 2011. I finally got my golden ticket to Ironman Hawaii at Ironman Texas. I have partnered with two charities as an ambassador to spread the word of their good deeds. The first is a local charity, Rocketkidz Foundation, which gets children, regardless of their family’s financial status, involved with endurance sports.

The second charity is Back on my Feet, which is a national organization that helps homeless people get back on their feet through structured running programs. Regardless of where we all come from, everyone gets the same self-confidence, good feelings, motivation and discipline from running.

Lastly, I’ll be racing for my Uncle Bob. Shortly after I qualified for Hawaii, Uncle Bob had a heart attack and lost some 70 percent of his heart function. He is currently on a waiting list for a heart transplant, but his rare blood type is making the search a little more difficult. He has been super involved in my life and is over the moon that I’m going to Hawaii. All he wants to do is chat about the race, and how cool it is. So mostly on Oct. 8, my heart will be filled with thoughts of him, how grateful I am for having such a great endurance sports mentor, and hoping that I can execute a brilliant race and make his day a little brighter during this difficult time.

Bouncing back from a bike crash
Athlete: Travis Earley
Age group: M25-29
Bib number: 1763

I raced Ironman Lake Placid in 2009. It was my fourth Ironman. I was not a newbie, but I DNF’ed the race after crashing on a descent and flipping over the handlebars.  I woke up in the ambulance and, after arguing with the medics about how they needed to let me out because I had to run a marathon, I realized that I wasn’t going to continue so I sat back and let them do their job. I ended up with a broken clavicle, road rash, stitches above my eye and various bruises. My bike top tube was cracked in half and my aero helmet saved my life

I came back to Ironman Lake Placid in 2011 and, on that same course, forced myself to race and ride down the hill where I crashed. I ended up placing fourth in the M25-29 age group and qualifying for Kona for the first time. The race was a heck of a way to return to Ironman racing, and it was evident that a little bit of luck can drastically change the outcome of a race.

I feel awfully lucky and blessed to be able to compete this year and just thankful that I’m still alive after the ordeal two years ago. It’s a dream come true to race on the Big Island. I’ve been fantasizing about racing here for the last seven years, and I want to just soak up everything about it.

The plant-fueled nutritionist
Athlete: Marni Sumbal
Age group: F25-29
Bib number: 1846

I qualified for Kona after winning my age group in my first Ironman (Ironman Florida in 2006). I injured myself about a month before Kona in 2007 and decided to race injured. It was the most painful day of my life but I was determined (and stubborn) to finish. I have dealt with ongoing hip and back muscular issues since that day. I have been determined to get myself back into great shape all while keeping myself healthy with good food.

Over the past three years, I have balanced my time as a student and competed in two Ironmans (Louisville and Wisconsin) while in school. I started a 10-month dietetic internship around four weeks prior to Ironman Wisconsin last year and received a roll-down slot by finishing fourth in my age group (10:57). It has been a year since I qualified and I have not done a triathlon since then. I have dedicated my entire year to school and recently passed the Registered Dietitian exam. I have been working as a clinical dietitian as well as a coach/nutrition writer/speaker and feel I am in the best shape of my life. I feel it is a blessing to be back in Kona for my fifth Ironman (and second Ironman World Championship), and I am excited to race healthy this time! In February, I hurt my hips again and I was determined to get myself into great shape after I finished my internship in May 2011. After 14 weeks of no running, I started running again around late May. My husband is my coach, and he gave me a 14-week Ironman training plan that focuses on quality training and not volume. I only did one ride over 100 miles and all my runs were off the bike, with the longest being 16 miles. Throughout this entire Ironman journey, I try to inspire others to develop a healthy relationship with food and as a vegetarian (lacto-ovo) I am passionate about fueling my body with plants.

As a vegetarian, protein is key in my diet but I focus on quality protein. I always focus on the timing of my nutrition so that I am properly fueling and recovering from workouts. I believe that I have made the most improvements this year by increasing the amount of wholesome food in my diet. I believe in having a lot of color, focusing on plant-based meals. It isn’t what a person can’t but rather what we can eat. Therefore, I aim to have around three servings of whole grains a day. I start my day with a filling breakfast, I always have protein with my meals, I eat every few hours (protein/fat plus carb) and I eat a lot of veggies. As far as my protein, my staples are eggs, milk, whey protein, beans and tofu and occasionally “veggie” meats. I also believe in having good fat in the diet (along with protein) so that I am feeling satisfied with my meals and preventing cravings/overeating, especially when my training increases. [BM1] As an endurance athlete and coach, I have really worked on developing a healthy relationship with food as well as respecting my body.

I am honored and blessed to have a body that allows me to race for 140.6 miles. I am putting everything out there in this race, and it is a dream of mine to PR and be on the podium in Kona.

Lottery winner
Athlete: Randy Spencer
Age group: M40-44
Bib number: 1051

I started the year off entering two lotteries, first for Escape from Alcatraz and second for Kona. By my luck, I got into both. I went down to San Francisco, and on race morning a car pulled out [in front of me]. I swirved to miss it and crashed over my bike [while] doing about 20 mph. It wiped out my front wheel—lucky the host bike shop lent me one. I didn’t call the police or get checked out because I wanted to race. It was a spendy trip and nothing was going to stop me. Well I finished the race, came back to Idaho and went and saw a doctor. They took X-rays, CT scans and told me I chipped my skull at the base and chipped my wrist. They told me I could do nothing for six weeks. I couldn’t accept that because Ironman CDA was less than three weeks out—it was home turf and I knew the course. So I didn’t tell the doctor I was doing it, because my only other option was Lake Stevens, and that was pretty close to the cutoff. So I raced it just to finish, to punch my ticket to Kona. My training was very minimal during that time and now I’m still healing from that crash in June. But, hey, bring on Kona!!

Kona veteran
Athlete: Chad Holderbaum
Age group: M30-34
Bib number: 1607

This will be Chad’s third Kona in five years, so we asked him his advice for handling the week leading up to the race.

The secret to staying low-key is simple. Remember what you came here for, which is to race. It can be very easy to get caught up in all of the Ironman pre-race festivities happening during the week. Also, many athletes for one reason or another want to prove themselves before the race. It’s amazing how many people you’ll see running down Ali’i Drive clipping off sub-6-minute miles. Save it for race day!

Also, on that same note, if you want to visit the expo, that’s fine, but get in and get out. You need to be resting your legs, and you need to keep them loose and relaxed. Your pre-race workouts should be the first thing you schedule for the day. I tend to like to do my training at the same time as I’ll be out on the course. So do your morning swims early at 7 a.m., your bikes early to mid-morning and the runs in the afternoon so you can get used to the heat and humidity and experience similar race conditions as you will out on the course. Also, I highly recommend heading out onto the Queen K out past the airport for some of your bike rides to get a taste of the Kona winds before race day. This will help you prepare mentally for the challenge that lies ahead as those winds are truly humbling.

How I handle hydration is simple. Never go anywhere in Kona without a water bottle in hand and eat often. I’ll also add in some electrolyte tablets race week and begin to salt my meals a little heavier than normal. During the week I try to eat foods that I ate when at home during training. So make sure to hit up Costco or Target so you aren’t always dining out or eating too many processed foods. My biggest caloric intake will be the day before the race.

Blazeman warrior
Athlete: Jerry Palmer
Age group: M40-44
Bib number: 864

Jerry is raising money for the Blazeman Foundation for ALS. This is an update he sent to his fundraising contributors last week. Go to to support the foundation.

Well, as predicted, the summer flew by and the race is in two weeks and I am super excited. As I’ve done previously, I’d like to bring everyone up to speed on the Blazeman Foundation and my final physical and mental preparations for race day.

Blazeman Foundation: I would love to report at this stage that I have exceeded my fundraising goals, but at the moment I cannot. Fortunately for me I have the support of the Blaises who are quite adept at social media, so we all continue to pound the cyber streets of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Our fundraising effort was picked up as a story by the World Triathlon Corporation, the organization that owns Ironman, so we were invited to participate in some pre-race and race-day fundraising that will be promoted by Ironman and the Ironman Foundation. Ironman will also match dollar for dollar and funds raised through this mechanism so we really have the opportunity to hit a home run.

On a related [note] I wanted to let everyone know that Adam Webber will be wearing #179 on race day. Adam is a superstar age-group triathlete who is a former professional and recently won the prestigious Hy-Vee Triathlon in Iowa. Adam has also been inspired by Jon Blais’ story and went as far as to name his first son “Blaze” after Jon. That’s dedication. My official number will be #864 but I’m sure I’ll find a spot for an extra #179. Adam and I have also exchanged notes and are going to connect in Kona so it’s really been a win all around.

Final Preparations: I’ve diligently logged all of the miles [of] swimming, biking and running that are required to be physically ready to complete this race. My girlfriend, friends and family can surely attest to this. Although race day is an individual effort it really is a team effort to get to the starting line of one of these races. In addition to you all and those I’ve already mentioned there are triathlon coaches, physical therapists, nutritionists, swim coaches, training partners, bike mechanics who have had a hand in the experience and are vital to a successful race-day experience. I have been truly blessed with a great support crew. So, with the physical preparation out of the way, the mental preparation really starts. I go through an inventory in my mind of what success looks like on race day; I also go through dozens of “what if” scenarios to try to prepare for just about everything from jellyfish stings to flat tires or broken cables. Finally, I think about some inspiring quotes—these tend to be particularly helpful at about mile 18 of the run when your body is begging you to stop moving. Some of my favorites (from triathletes) are the following:

“You can quit and they won’t care, but you will always know.” – John Collins, one of the original inventors of the Ironman

“To some extent, we are all labeled by what we’re able to achieve. But more importantly, we are defined by what we attempt.” – Scott Tinley, two-time Ironman World Champion

“A dream is a goal with a plan” – Chris McCormack, two-time Ironman World Champion and author of I’m Here to Win

“Live more than your neighbors. Unleash yourself upon the world and go places. Go now, giggle, know, laugh, and bark at the moon like the wild dog you are. Understand that this is not a dress rehearsal, this is it, your life. Face your fears and live your dreams. Take it all in. Yes every chance you get, come close. And by all means, whatever you do, get it on film!” – Jon Blais, The Blazeman

Thanks again for everything. You can follow #864 at beginning at 7 a.m. Hawaii time on Oct. 8. It’s time to get this done.

Your friend,

Jerry Palmer

70.3 Qualifier and fundraiser
Athlete: Kate Bruck
Age group: F35-39
Bib number: 1473

I have been racing Ironman since 2007, but I have been dreaming of doing Kona ever since I watched it on TV when I was in the fourth grade. I quit my full-time job to become a personal trainer so I could have a part time flexible schedule to make room for more training time. I hired a coach and got serious with my training with the hope of qualifying last year. Four weeks before Ironman Lake Placid, I sliced my foot open during the swim exit of a tri. After months of extensive medical care to try to reduce the size of the painful plantar fibroma I had developed as a result of the accident, I started running again last December, although I was almost certain I was done with triathlon. I had already signed up for Rev3 Costa Rica so that was my first tri after being inactive since July. Training was going well, the fibroma had been reduced from the size of a large gumball to the size of a cherry pit and the pain had also reduced. Although there will always been some lingering discomfort from the lump on my plantar fascia, it is nothing like it was. I came in second in my age group at Eagleman 70.3 and after waiting around for two hours, I found out that I had earned one of the two roll-down slots to Kona! I hadn’t expected it at all. It was such an incredible moment, one I will never forget. I then continued training and competed in Ironman Lake Placid and placed second in my age group and ninth overall! It was so amazing to stand up on that podium and reflect on how everything had turned for the better!

After I had qualified at Eagleman, I felt so blessed to have been given the opportunity that I wanted to do something to give back. It was that following Monday that I found out my friend Megan was fighting aggressive liver cancer and with overwhelming expenses drowning her and her husband, I started a website with a fund attached for friends to donate. I have raised about $1,000 and am hoping that I can generate at least another $1,000 by race day.

I have been working with Coach Cliff Scherb ( for my coaching—he focuses on quality, not quantity, so I usually peak at about 25 training hours before the biggest races. Training has gone really, really well and both he and I are pretty excited for me to race Kona

See you in Kona!

Aaron Hersh is the senior tech editor for Triathlete magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @TriathleteTech.

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