The Move That Almost Cost Me Victory: IRONMAN 1993
This was a defining moment in my career. It was an instant in time that in retrospect was as significant as any in my career.
This would become a split second in Ironman history that only Pauli Kiuru, the photographer who shot it or me would ever know about. It almost cost me my fifth Hawaiian IRONMAN World Championship, but the lesson learned was absolutely critical in having a key element in my knowledge base that allowed me to win my sixth!
The year was 1993. I was trying to win my fifth IRONMAN World Championship in five starts. The string started, as you likely know, in 1989 defeating Dave Scott in an epic battle. It continued with wins in 1990 against Scott Tinley by the largest margin of any win I had there. Then it went to 1991 when I battled eventual Ironman Champ Greg Welch. We ran side by side off the bike, but I was able to pull away before exiting town and going onto the Queen K Hwy. 1992 saw an even tougher challenger in Cristian Bustos of Chile. We ran virtually neck and neck through the half marathon point. Fortunately that was where I was able to make a move that stuck.
It was the first time that I was going to have to close a significant gap on the eventual second place finisher.
1993 was not like any of these previous years. Four titles had come with head-to-head battles or races where I was unchallenged in the lead. This year Pauli Kiuru of Finland put a gap on me early in the marathon that grew to over seven-minutes. It was the first time that I was going to have to close a significant gap on the eventual second place finisher. It was a dynamic that I had no template to follow that would tell me I was on track to fulfill my dream.
My legs were not cooperating early in the marathon. They felt heavy, like two bloated logs. The signs when analyzed later told that I was at critically low levels of magnesium. Without enough magnesium in my body, every effort would feel labored. And unlike sodium that can be remedied on the spot, magnesium is a mineral essential for peak athletic performance that can only be replaced over painfully long periods of time. Race day is not a long period of time if measured by the scale of magnesium!
The first 10k through town on the marathon was like that dream where you want to be going fast but it’s like you are running through thick syrup. But this was no dream. It was the reality of how I felt. Kiuru came off the bike just ahead of me, but he was out of sight and pulling away in no time. 7:30 measured the gap at the largest between us. He was tough. The Fins have a word “Sisu” that cannot be translated directly into English. But a loose interpretation of it means that when you embody it, you are willing to go to death to fulfill your mission. Pauli was on that kind of mission!
The Energy Lab was my home, my solace, my opportunity.
I had reigned in about three-minutes of his massive lead by the time I entered the Energy Lab with about ten-miles to go in the marathon. This was my chance! The Energy Lab was my home, my solace, my opportunity. The first part of it is a long downhill into a direct headwind. That is nice in the heat of Kona! But it is not reality. The remaining part to the farthest point of the Energy Lab had a side wind that had a slight head component to it, which again cools things beyond the reality of what you would face at the turn around.
I knew this was the time. For me those four miles would be their own race rather than only four miles in the scope of a marathon. I had to come out of the Lab in the lead if I was to win. That was a tall order. There were still over four-minutes separating Pauli and me. But again, this was my territory!
…the guts of my strategy would happen in the next two miles.
I went for it. The downhill would gain me no time, but I knew that. The flat to the turnaround would give me back a bit. But the guts of my strategy would happen in the next two miles. Once you make the turn and have to retrace your steps out of the Energy Lab the wind is now more at your back than in your face. Body temps rise dramatically. Heart rates sore. If you go by the numbers, you have to slow down.
But I was like the Kalahari tribesman on the hunt. Body temp was secondary to the goal, the kill, the pass in the race. I could feel my core temperature rise, but it was not yet critical. I was closing on Pauli. He was following his heart rate. The numbers were not looking good in his mind! He slowed. He was thinking insurance for the final 10k once he exited the Lab. I knew the race had to be won in there, immediately!
I was trying to win an Ironman World Championship. That quest does not care about your core temperature.
The gap closed at astronomically impossible speeds. We both knew there was the very long, lonely uphill to navigate to get out of the Energy Lab. That is an uphill with a straight tailwind. That is the most brutal segment of the Ironman marathon. There is no way no matter how slow you run to keep your core temperature from skyrocketing. Even if you walked you would be questioning what you were doing in there!
I was trying to win an Ironman World Championship. That quest does not care about your core temperature. I knew that if things went well I could go at full force out of the Lab before my core thermometer hit the switch point between heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Does that sound insane? Of course if you are sitting in your chair. But out on the Ironman race course the goal outweighs sanity!
I was able to close the gap on Pauli just before we made the left turn to head up that treacherous race-defining hill that exits the Energy Lab and drops you back out on the Queen K Hwy where the winds will shift just enough to the side to bring your body temperature back down to a survivable level. And that was where this photo was taken.
Why was it so critical? Why did it almost cost me the race? Here is the reason. I had been in Pauli’s situation many times in my early years racing the Ironman in Hawaii. I knew it well. You are leading the race. You are pulling away from everyone including the favorite. But then things switch. Suddenly you are not in command. Someone is turning the tables on you and your lead is eroding. Then there is a moment when you realize there is nothing you can do. You are helpless. All the training for years that got you that lead is not what will get you to the top of the podium on that one iconic day in Kona.
You will be passed. It’s just a matter of time, and when it happens you will have to come up with a reason to keep giving everything you have even after your biggest dream as a triathlete gets ripped out of your hands. It’s a moment that is the depth of depths. Pauli’s position was one I’d been in six times before I was able to be the one who was victorious. He would be searching for the reason to continue will all his force the moment I started to pull away and relinquished his finish to second place at best.
I touched his back to acknowledge that I knew what he would now have to deal with as I passed him.
I respected Pauli as an athlete and as a person. When I caught him, I touched his back as an acknowledgement of the great race he was having. I touched his back to acknowledge how immense it was for me to close the gap he had opened. I touched his back to acknowledge that I knew what he would now have to deal with as I passed him. But in that moment of compassion that touch gave Pauli an energy that he was missing!
He gained energy from that touch. He sped up. I thought to myself that it was the stupidest thing I had ever done as a competitor! Pauli stuck with me for what seemed like an eternity. I have no idea what the real world of time was that we ran side by side. But it was more than I had ever anticipated. I made a vow in those eternal moments that in the future, should I make a pass on a fellow competitor, regardless of how great a friend they were or how much I respected their accomplishments as an athlete, that competition was just that: do everything you can to bring out the best in your own race.
I was indeed eventually able to pull away from Pauli just before we made the left turn to head up the most demanding chunk of the Ironman course. I crested the hill and turned right onto the Queen K Hwy in the lead. My core temperature was well beyond what anyone would have said was safe or sustainable or within the realm of what anyone could have and still be running at world-record speeds.
I set a course record on that day, my third in five starts. I won my fifth Ironman World Championship with a come-from-behind victory. The lesson learned about that one-second touch of acknowledgement would be something that I would need two years later when I ran past more than one athlete who I felt great camaraderie with but who I also wanted to beat on my way to a sixth title in Hawaii!