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Things You Might Not Know: The Day I Almost Quit IRONMAN

Many of you know of the epic 1989 IRONMAN where Dave Scott and I battled side by side for over 8-hours. You may be aware of some of my other victories.

Likely less of you know I had to pick up the pieces without a victory in the first six IRONMAN World Championships I ran. And I am sure none of you know that in 1988 I quit just steps away from my hotel on the marathon. Well, it was the day I almost quit!

To understand this race, I have to take you back in time one year. At the IRONMAN World Championship in 1987 I was charging. Dave Scott and I had been within sight of each other all day. Once we made our way out onto the Queen K Hwy on the run I decided to test him. I dropped my pace down to close to a 6-minute mile. He didn’t respond. I began to pull away and amassed a gap that seemed insurmountable. With 10-miles to go in the marathon, Dave Scott was 5-minutes behind me and losing time.

Running is great. Walking can be painful.

I thought victory was mine.

This was my fifth matchup with Dave Scott in Kona. He had five IRONMAN World Championship trophies on his mantle. I had zero even though I’d been in the mix every year. Unfortunately, two miles later I was once again walking on the marathon. I was suffering from internal bleeding. I made it to the finish. Dave Scott won. I was rushed to the hospital.

The experience was devastating. I thought I had done everything perfectly in training and in my race pacing. But it didn’t work. It took months to pick up the pieces and relaunch going into 1988. I hadn’t learned the secret formula of how to win in Kona. I only knew how to put races together that fell apart. Hope was the only thing I brought back into the race in 1988. Nothing changed in my training. And as you know, if the same stuff didn’t work in the past, why would it magically work this year?

Two days before the race I was given the greatest boost to my strategy of hope that I could have ever received. Dave Scott announced that he was pulling out of the race with an injury. I looked at the roster of athletes still in the race. I’d beaten all of them in the past. I knew this was my year!

Hope is not an antidote for IRONMAN reality.

Frustration. I cannot get my tire off the rim to change the flat! It look an eternity to finally break the seal on the tubular and get back into the race.

Just a few miles out onto the Queen K Hwy on the bike I got a flat. This was the first flat I’d ever gotten on the Island. Not even one in training! I tried to stay calm. Unfortunately, the glue I’d used to secure my tubular tire onto the rim was like cement. I was practically ripping the skin off my fingers trying to break the seal and get the flat tire off. Eventually I got it to succumb. I’d lost time but it was early on the bike. Just stay calm! I didn’t want this to be the day I quit!

I slowly regained position in the race. By Hawi I was in contact with most of the main competitors. I tried moving up. But just as we got back onto the Queen K Hwy for that long stretch back to Kona, disaster struck again.

My rear tire was losing air and my rim was bouncing on the ground.

I had no more spares. It took almost 10-minutes for the race support vehicle to find me and give me another wheel. I put it on and headed back onto the course. Unfortunately the gears on the wheel they gave me didn’t mesh with my shifting. I only had about half the gears working.

IRONMAN is a long day. I almost quit with that second flat. But I stuck with it.

My heart wasn’t into it though. No matter how hard I went I was too far off the front to even be close to contending for the win. And this was supposed to be so easy without Dave Scott in the race!

I made it to the transition. The marathon was looming. I’d pushed so much harder than was ideal on the bike just to try to get back into some kind of position to contend for something. I was fatigued. Physically I was exhausted. Mentally I was spent. Two flats and no hope of achieving the big dream.

Two miles into the run I saw my dad cheering alongside the road on Ali’i Drive. He was standing just outside the entrance to the hotel where I was staying. I saw him. I saw the hotel. The decision was made.

I was going to quit.

I told him I was done. We started walking the short distance to the entrance to the hotel. There was nothing to be said. This was not my day…once again. But in the few minutes we walked in silence I could feel something shift deep inside of me. It was the part that just holds on and wants to keep going no matter what. Maybe it was the energy of hope.

Hope isn’t always about achieving your biggest dreams. Sometimes it’s about overcoming falling into the darkest place you could imagine. For me that indeed would have been to just quit. I wasn’t injured or hurt or in any kind of state that could place me once again in the hospital.

I knew what I needed to do. Start running again and finish the race!

Yes, this was the day I almost quit IRONMAN. The television cameras didn’t capture that silent eternity of me and my dad walking back to the hotel. The cameras didn’t show me tipping the scales and starting to run again. I was off the radar of public viewing waging a personal battle that is similar to what everyone has experienced at some point in some arena in their life. Do I just quit even though my dream is completely out of reach? Or do I continue no matter how unsightly as a way to honor the fact that I am still capable of at least doing that?

I finished the IRONMAN World Championship race in 1988. It was my sixth time in Hawaii. I was still at zero victories. But on a day where I almost quit the IRONMAN, I salvaged my self dignity and honored the race the best I could. I finish.

It was a brutally difficult year on the marathon. There was only one male professional who broke 3-hours. That person was me. I ran a 2:57:38. That included my walking time with my dad. The next fastest marathon split was 3:02:26 posted by Scott Tinley.

Yes, this is the day I almost quit IRONMAN. But in the end it taught me something that helps me to this day. And that simple lesson is that it’s important to never just quit. Even if the end result is far below what we know we could do on another day, there will always be something of priceless value that says, yes, it was so worth taking that next step anyway!

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