On this edition of The Kona Edge go from the emergency room to racing in the Ironman World Championships in Kona. Coming from a pressurised work environment and a life of parties, something had to give. This is Doug Guthrie’s incredible story.
BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge and we head to Florida in the United States and it’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the podcast Doug Guthrie. Doug, welcome, thanks for joining us today.
DOUG GUTHRIE: Thank you very much for having me.
BRAD BROWN: It’s an absolute pleasure! Doug, I love your story, I think it gives lots of people hope. You don’t come from an out and out, you’ve always been this magnificent athlete. You’ve made a couple of life choices along the way that almost put you where you are today, that you’ve decided to take on triathlon and take it on seriously. You weren’t always the fittest and healthiest of guys around?
DOUG GUTHRIE: No, I wasn’t, I played sports in high school, but then when I went to college, I went to the party life and really continued that into my late 30’s and then had to make a crucial life choice when I was sent to the ER with heart palpitations.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about you led the party lifestyle, I think we’ve all had those times where we hang out on the dark side, probably some more than others and for longer than others, but it was lifestyle choices, at the end of the day, and I think a lot of people do let things slide when they leave college, but for you, it’s a gradual slide and I think for most people it is, you get busy with work and life gets in the way and before you know it, like you say, you’re in the emergency room. Tell us about how that happened, what led you to that ER?
Lifestyle choices that send you to the Emergency Room
DOUG GUTHRIE: Well, I had my own business and I was working 80/90 hours a week, I was a subcontractor, and it was a deal where you wake up at 5:00 in the morning and you’re on your way to the office, you’re drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes and getting the work crews out. You’re on the phone with building contractors and it’s just very high stress. You skip lunch, get home late, eat a not-healthy dinner, have a few cocktails, you go to bed, you start over and do it again the next day and 10 years of that, without any type of vacation and you put yourself in a bad situation.
I ended up in the ER with heart palpitations and after meeting with the cardiologist, told me I was going to have to be on heart medication for the rest of my life and at 36 years old, that really wasn’t a good proposition for me.
I asked the doctor, how do I change this and I had to make a 180 degree lifestyle choice. No more drinking, smoking had to go and I had to start exercising, so I got into the pool.
BRAD BROWN: I love that and as they say, the rest is history. When did the transition into triathlon take place?
DOUG GUTHRIE: I swam for about a year and I started, I worked with a guy who is a very close friend of mine, he coaches the kids in the summer for their swim team and he got me into the pool and I started swimming a lap at a time and built up to a mile and about a year later I was at the YMCA and was invited by a guy to participate in a sprint triathlon as the swim leg of a relay and so I signed up and I was able to swim that quarter mile in just a little over 15 minutes and for me, if I could have gotten to the gal on the kayak before the first buoy, that would have ended my triathlon career. It was not a good day, but came back again in a month and did another one and we did much better,
I did much better and then the next year went off on my own and I started doing Olympics and the second year I signed up for an Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about that decision to make the jump from a sprint to an Olympic and then eventually the Ironman, it’s a big jump and I think for a lot of people that’s what psyches them out, the jump in distance and the amount of time you’re going to be out there. Can you remember what went through your mind, trying to convince yourself to make that decision?
Going from treading water into the commitment of Ironman
DOUG GUTHRIE: Absolutely, in 2004 we had a phenomena here in Florida where we had three hurricanes zip through in about a 90 day period. So, we had no power, this was either hurricane two or hurricane three, we had no power and I had nothing to do but sit on my spin bike, so I sat on my spin bike for about six hours and I thought, well, if I can sit on a spin bike for six hours, I can do an Ironman.
I had signed up for a half Ironman in September of that year, this was maybe August and so when we got power restored, I called the race directors staff and asked if I could up from a half to an Ironman and she said: send me some money and I did and I did the Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. We’ll chat about that race as well, but like a lot of people, first time Ironman, you decided you wanted to get an M-DOT and you’ve got a very cool story about your M-DOT tattoo, tell us a little bit about that.
DOUG GUTHRIE: Well, I finished the race and it was probably like most everyone else’s, there’s ups and downs and I remember the third lap of the run, the guy said: How many laps do you have and I said: This is it and he said: You have six miles and you will be an Ironman and finishing that race was great and it wasn’t a WTC race, it was the Great Floridian here in Orlando, but I thought, I need to get the tattoo to symbolize a couple of things.
Be extravagant in selecting your Ironman tattoo
Number one, the life transformation, but number two, the commitment to maintain this lifestyle. I didn’t want to be a 50 year old guy on the beach who was back in poor condition and he proceeded to give me a little bit on the size of the tattoo I had and then I happened to mention to him that, you know, eventually, even though I’d just finished my first Ironman and I had zero chance of ever qualifying for Hawaii, I would like to qualify for the Ironman World Championships some day and if so, I would like to get a lei put around the neck of the dot.
Well, at that point in time he decided that he was going to give me a lecture on goal setting and asked me if I’d ever set a goal that I’d never achieved and just the whole thing. The kind of thing you would expect from a salesman, if you were in a sales organization.
He sent me off and told me to come back in about an hour and he would have that tattoo redesigned. Well, he took the small tattoo that I had and he blew it up, put the lei around it and I knew at that point in time I was really sticking my neck out and I’d always been taught to write your goals, well, mine is permanent!
BRAD BROWN: I love that story and if it’s okay with you Doug, I’m going to nick a photo of that tattoo and put it in the show notes of this episode as well and then there’s a pretty cool article where you can read up the whole thing, I’ll pop that link in there too, but it’s absolutely fantastic and I always joke, I say to people, if you want to get an M-DOT, go and do it before you do the race because you know you’re not going to stuff it up if you’ve got the tattoo before you even start!
DOUG GUTHRIE: That’s absolutely true. So, I had to endure 9 years of people asking me, wow, that’s a really unique tattoo, how many times have you been to Hawaii and I would say: Not yet, but working on it!
BRAD BROWN: That’s cool, talk about speaking things into existence, because it is. This sport is a lot about belief. If it was a logical thing, no one would do one because it is just too far to even comprehend.
DOUG GUTHRIE: It is. I remember watching it as a younger person, back in the 80’s when it first was on the wide world of sports and thinking, man, I can’t even comprehend running 26.2 miles, much less the other stuff in front of that and then it’s just, one of my favourite books is by Henry David Thoreau and he says that ‘extravagance is judged by the size of your own backyard’ and if your biggest bit of exercise is getting off the couch and walking to the mailbox, then an Ironman is a little bit far to reach. But if you just keep working at it a little bit at a time, then it becomes a very doable thing.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Doug, talk to me about your first experience of an Ironman distance race, the Great Floridian, was it as hard as you thought it was going to be? Tell me about your race, did it go according to plan or was it way out there?
DOUG GUTHRIE: No, I think I trained with training peaks, which is great for first timers. I was probably training 14-15 hours a week and I was pretty diligent about it, when it comes to training I’ve always been, and continue to be sort of a machine, if it comes up on the plan, it gets done, it doesn’t matter what. So, I was able to get through, most of it without any issues. You have the same things that everybody else has, like you can’t believe how much it hurts at times, how much can I endure, but the main thing is the mental piece and you just focus on the present and where you’re at, not what happened before or what’s up ahead, especially. Just focus on where you are, one step after the other, one leg rotation after the other and eventually it gets done.
BRAD BROWN: Doug, one thing I love about your story, and I chat to some incredible athletes on The Kona Edge, one thing I take away from yours is that it’s been a process. It didn’t happen overnight and I chat to a lot of athletes where their first attempt at an Ironman, they end up qualifying for Kona and they go, but for you , that wasn’t the case. Like you say, you walked around with that tattoo for many years before you actually qualified. Do you think you valued it more because it’s taken a lot longer?
Focus on where you are with your Ironman training
DOUG GUTHRIE: When you invest nine years of your life into it, yeah, I’d say, yeah. From where I started, my wife would kid me that I had skinny legs like my fathers, so I had a lot of muscle development and that takes time. There’s so much to learn about the process of training, balance is one of the biggest keys of the whole process. I would come back from training sessions and I would be out on the bike in Florida, in August for 4-5 hours and then a run after and then I’d sit down and I’d be, man, I’m so tired, I can’t get up and you know, being kind of crabby, as you would expect and very early on in the process she would come in and say: You signed up for this, we didn’t, so if you want us to support you, you’ve got to keep balance and that was huge to me.
It kept the sport where it needed to be, which is not the number one priority and I think where people fall into a trap is where they make it their be all and end all and everything else revolves around it. When I started to put it in the proper perspective is when I was able to really take a big step from being maybe top 10% age grouper to top 1-2%.
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting you say that because that is, I think, one of the things that triathletes, and particularly Kona hopefuls battle with, is getting that balance right. They almost feel that they need to be this one-eyed, just totally focused on that and I see it often and I’m sure you do too, relationships falling apart around that sort of thing and it’s difficult.
Someone sitting listening to this thing now, they want to qualify for Kona, their entire being is invested in this thing, what advice would you give them? Is it a case of, you know what, sometimes you need to stop overthinking this thing and take a step back and do what you need to do and when you’re training, that’s where you’re focusing on, but you need to switch off sometimes?
DOUG GUTHRIE: That is for sure and so what I would tell somebody is, number one, you need to get support and you need to get 100% buy in from your board of directors. Your family, whoever that is. You need to make sure it works out financially with your job because it doesn’t do you any good to qualify for Hawaii if you can’t pay to get there! So, those two things are important, but then I feel it’s incredibly important to segment your life at that point in time. You have work time and you have training time and you have family or personal time and when you’re training, that’s all you’re worried about, that becomes your job for that segment of time that you’re training.
When you’re not training, you’re doing something else and that training, you need to step away from that because if you don’t step away from that, then that starts to trickle into other parts of your life and that’s where the things become out of balance and I think you increase the opportunity for burnout.
BRAD BROWN: Doug, what’s the biggest lesson triathlon and Ironman in particular has taught you?
The greatest lesson learned from Ironman training
DOUG GUTHRIE: I’d say the biggest lesson that Ironman has taught me is that we are 10 x stronger and tougher than we think we are.
BRAD BROWN: I could not agree more!
DOUG GUTHRIE: I had a friend just text me yesterday and he said, about pacing, and I said, pacing? It’s all out, you go all out, I don’t pace myself in an Ironman, I go 100% and it’s riding that fine line between cracking and how long can my mind allow me to hold on and that’s how you go fast.
BRAD BROWN: That scares me Doug!
DOUG GUTHRIE: In the end it’s fun, cause as soon as you cross the finish line, all the pain goes away, until the next day.
BRAD BROWN: The two days after, the DOMS strike. I find that fascinating because for me, that is what it boils down to and if you think about racing that way when you’re doing an Ironman, it’s pretty tough, but the first time you race a sprint like that it’s pretty tough too and you finally learn to adapt and then the first time you race an Olympic it’s like that as well and that’s why we do the hard yards in training.
DOUG GUTHRIE: That’s true, you just have to trust your training and go with what happens on race day and maintain calm composure and just stick with your plan.
BRAD BROWN: Doug, let’s talk about your process and plan to qualify first time round and what it took to get your ticket to Kona?
DOUG GUTHRIE: Okay, I signed up, I think my first qualifying attempt was in Wisconsin in 2008 and I was top three or four in 70.3 races, so I thought I had a good shot, but when I came to the Ironman stage, I had done three or four at that point in time. When I got to Wisconsin, I think I finished 10th or 11th and I was maybe 20-30 minutes from a spot and I thought I was really close but in reality I was miles away.
I went back the next year and I did the same thing, got a little bit closer, got within about 15 minutes of that slot, but still that 15 minutes was so far away from where I was and I really needed to go back to the drawing board and change everything I had done to get me from just run of the mill age grouper to top ten in an Ironman, to be able to make that jump to the podium.
The third time I attempted was in Louisville and this was 2011 and I had actually met a professional by the name of Nina Kraft and we started training together before that race. She wasn’t signed up for it, but I convinced her to do the race and she actually won that year and we became friends and have been very good friends from then on and then at that point in time I was, being able to train with her, she taught me a lot. She taught me what a professional approach is to training and when I mentioned earlier about the job piece, this is where I was really able to see that when we were training, this was it and work and everything else, that can be later, but right now, this is what we have to do and then when you’re done you’re done and then you can focus on those things.
Being able to compartmentalize that training and really focus to get the maximum benefit from it, helped me take that next step.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, training like that, but where did you make the biggest strides, in which discipline would you say is where you made the biggest strides that year to qualify?
Dealing with setbacks in your Kona dream
DOUG GUTHRIE: Well, after that year I broke my leg in 2012 and I was out for the year. In fact I was on crutches for six months and I had to learn to walk again and I didn’t know if I was ever going to get to Hawaii at that point in time. The funny thing, as I look back, that was God’s way of telling me, I needed to take a break and when I did, had to start from ground zero. I hadn’t done anything for six months, I had to learn to walk, I was on crutches and I got back to the gym and I started doing leg work and I really started focusing on the bike.
I’d always been a decent runner, but I would get out of the water maybe 10th or 15th in my age group and then I would get off the bike at 60th in the age group and then I would hustle and finish 10th. I was giving away all those spots on the bike piece and it was one of those things where I didn’t really love the bike. But to become really good, I had to embrace that and so doing things like long rides against the wind, hills and things like that, that I used to really not like so much, I had to learn to love them. And now they’re my favourite things to do.
BRAD BROWN: Awesome, you mentioned Nina, funnily enough, she’s also an Ironman South Africa winner back in the early 2000’s. I think it’s Jim Rowan who coined the phrase ‘You become like the five people you hang out with’, is that pretty important surrounding yourself with good athletes and good people to get better?
DOUG GUTHRIE: Absolutely. One of my closest training partners is a Cat 1 and Cat 2 cyclist and we go out on Saturday and Sunday for long steady rides where he just goes down on his drops and puts his head down and hammers and I sit off his wheel, 30-40 yards and basically motor paces me, top athletes, top runners who push you and you need to be pushed at those times to be able to dig deep. Especially on days when you don’t feel like you have it, they do and you either hang on or get dropped and so that helps. When you have enough of those days in training, then race day seems easy.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about that race where you qualified, after nine years, you’ve been working hard and putting in a lot of time and effort and it eventually happens, tell me what that feels like.
DOUG GUTHRIE: The funny story, the Saturday before Ironman Louisville in 2013, we had a young puppy and he was in the kitchen snapping food off the stove and so I jumped off the couch and went to grab him and I had a shoulder injury from my party/softball days back in my 20’s and so when I went to grab the dog, my shoulder went out of the socket. I was laying on the floor, dislocated shoulder, my wife was standing over the top of me, giving me the riot act about what have you just done to yourself, we’ve been through this thing the last 5-6 years, you’re going to qualify next weekend, but how are you going to do it with this shoulder. She actually went to YouTube and watched a YouTube video on how to put a dislocated shoulder back in place and after a couple of shots, she put my shoulder back in. I didn’t swim. Nina was also doing the race.
I didn’t tell her what had happened until the Thursday before the race, we got into the pool and she asked what was wrong and I told her. The first time I had swam since I’d dislocated the shoulder, so my plan was, just get through the swim without getting hurt and then get on the bike and what I learnt in that race is that you can. I went so deep on the bike, it’s a fairly hilly course, I went so deep that at some time I thought gosh, I’m not even going to be able to run when I get off this bike. My legs are just shot.
Then to be able to get off the bike, I think I ran a 3:20, something like that, to be able to get my slot and then I finished. I was one off of the number of slots and so I had to wait until the next day for the roll down. They made you wait until about 11:00 and I was patiently waiting, but kind of anxious. And then at like ten minutes to I said: What the heck, if somebody has not signed up for their spot, then they’re not going to get it.
I went up and I said: Could you tell me and she looked in the 45-49 age group and she said: Are you Doug and I said: Yes. She said: This guy here, his name is Ken Welsh and we’ve become Facebook friends since, he is not going to Hawaii and I’m like, so you mean I get to go and she said yeah.
The elation of knowing you get to go to Kona
It was pretty emotional, I went and grabbed my wife at the table, the banquet table and brought her up and it was a team victory because without her and without my family, there’s no way I could have ever gotten there.
BRAD BROWN: It must have been pretty special arriving in Hawaii, obviously a lot of work gets done up until race day, but knowing what you had gone through to get there and get that qualification spot, arriving on the Big Island must have been pretty special.
DOUG GUTHRIE: It was amazing, it was absolutely amazing. The coolest thing about it was the flight from Los Angeles to Kona, everybody on the plane was either, they were either in support of people on the island already, there were probably four or five athletes on the plane, but the plane was just electric.
The energy was incredible, I fell in love with the island, right when I stepped on it, it’s the first time I’d ever been there and it’s amazing.
BRAD BROWN: Doug, if I say the word ‘Kona’, what do you think?
DOUG GUTHRIE: The most amazing place on earth!
BRAD BROWN: Simple as that.
DOUG GUTHRIE: Simple as that.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about racing in Kona, for you, who races in Florida, conditions, I don’t want to say they’re similar, but Florida can get pretty hot, it’s pretty humid. I know a lot of the Europeans struggle with acclimatizing to the heat and humidity in Hawaii, for you, was that an issue or did you find it like racing at home?
DOUG GUTHRIE: I found it like racing at home. The only difference is that the heat in Hawaii, because of the lava fields, kind of radiate around you from all sides. As far as the temperature and the humidity level, it’s the same, but you don’t get scorched as much by the sun in Florida as you do in Hawaii. In fact last year, in 2015 I got burnt horribly because of the conditions. You really have to pay attention to your sunscreen.
BRAD BROWN: It is important. Tell me about your first racing experience in Kona and what it was like pitting yourself against the best triathletes in the world, on the same course, on the same day?
DOUG GUTHRIE: That was a little bit overwhelming, to begin with, because the island is big, but Kona itself is so small and everybody there, it’s a freak show. Everybody is so fit and to be around them, the first time it was like, gosh, do I really belong here and Nina told me to go the first time and just experience it, have fun, soak it up and then the next time, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to qualify, then you race.
So I did. I took that advice to heart and then she told me I wasn’t going to break 11 hours because I’d just done Louisville five weeks before, so I set that as a personal goal and I went out and the swim piece I learnt that everybody swims fast in Hawaii! You’re not going to be swimming around anybody, so I just, after fighting and fighting and fighting, I thought, you know what, I’m just going to swim in the middle of this pack, it’s like a pack of fish and then the bike course was, you know, I’d ridden part of it, the few days before, but the bike course is tough and there’s no steep hills, but the hills and the combination of the wind, is relentless and the points on the way back in to Kona, when the wind is 10-20 miles an hour and you’re going uphill, I just had to laugh because you can’t get mad at it. There’s nothing you can do.
Once I got on the run, I should have read the manual because I just assumed that since it was a closed course out and back that the special needs would be at mile 13 and not mile 17 or 18 and so I kind of ran low on fuel. I didn’t realize how far the Energy Lab was, but I got through that.
The run part is not an easy run and to look at the times, the pros run, on that course, is incredible. It’s a hilly run and that first run by the grocery store up Pualani is the real deal! That is a nasty hill, but once you get back, through the Energy Lab, which is, I had no idea of like 5 miles from the time you got in to the time you got out and the pavement is really rough and that makes it difficult for that piece. But then you finally do get your special needs bag and then from that point on, I think for me, you’re able to just like, this is almost done, we only have 6-7 miles to finish and you can handle this.
The investment of commitment finally pays off
Then the closer you get to the finish line, the more exciting it gets and then when you make the left, after you go down the hill on Pualani and you start seeing the crowd, it’s just, the emotion is really indescribable.
BRAD BROWN: Doug, whoever has done an Ironman will always remember the first one they’ve done and that feeling of finishing your first Ironman distance race, and once you’ve done a few, I don’t want to say it loses its appeal, but you kind of forget how special it actually is, but going and racing in a race like Kona, it almost all comes flooding back.
DOUG GUTHRIE: It does because for me, having invested nine years, day in, day out, training to get to that level, I think, I never forget where I started and hopefully I’ll be able to keep that with me as I continue on with my career.
BRAD BROWN: I mentioned that I chat to a lot of athletes who qualify at first attempt and their second or third Ironman race is Kona, are you grateful that you had to work as hard as you have to get to race on the Big Island?
DOUG GUTHRIE: Definitely, it just makes the story better, everybody who gets to Hawaii has a story and one is no better than the next and mine is personal to my journey, through unhealthy living and poor lifestyle and bad health and now hopefully I can use it as a benchmark for my kids and my family that if you don’t like the way your life is going, you have the ability to change it, all you have to do is do that.
BRAD BROWN: I grew up in a household, my dad ran ultra marathons when we were kids and I’m seeing it with my kids now, with me doing these sorts of things, doing Ironman and ultra marathons, my kids are starting to show signs that maybe one day they’d like to do it, you know you’re condemning your kids to doing crazy races like Ironman Doug?
DOUG GUTHRIE: I think I am, my son got his first real road bike for his birthday in March, they’re both on swim team and they both do cross country and I’m not going to push them to do it. If they want to do it, I’d be glad to help them out to do it because it is such a, the people that are involved in the sport are so positive and they’re so great to be around, at all levels, so encouraging, that if you’re going to surround yourself with a peer group, I don’t think there’s any better peer group than ultra athletes, whether it be runners or triathletes or whatever the case.
BRAD BROWN: I joke like that, there are worse things your kids can do, wanting to grow up, so I’m with you, I’d love them to do it, it’s positive influences, I guess that’s what it’s all about.
DOUG GUTHRIE: Right.
BRAD BROWN: Doug, let’s talk about what’s still left to achieve for you in the sport of triathlon. Ironman particularly, like a sprint distance race, you can have everything fall into place and you can have the perfect race, same thing with an Olympic, but an Ironman, because it’s such a long event and time-wise and distance-wise, there’s often things that you can change and do better and there’s always, even if you have a good race, there’s always a feeling of unfinished business.
What’s still unfinished for you? What do you still want to achieve in Ironman, on the Big Island, what’s the goals?
DOUG GUTHRIE: I qualified again and went last year and then, a funny thing that my wife pointed out, I did it in Texas and Texas is an awesome race because it’s just like Florida, hot, nasty, humid, so it was the perfect race for me and went out and I had the worst swim of my life. I think I was at 1:14 or 1:15 out of the swim, but never panicked, got on the bike and I knew it was hammer time and then my wife is always there to greet me when I come into T2 and told me that if we wanted to go to Hawaii, I needed to get my butt moving!
So, it was a three lap run course and then she caught me at the beginning of that and told me I needed to make up about 30 minutes and never a problem. She caught me at the beginning of the third lap and said I needed to catch six more guys and that I wasn’t running fast enough, I was starting to slack. I was looking at my Garmin and I thought, well all my mile splits are about the same, within five or ten seconds, so she’s crazy, but let’s get going. I was fortunate enough to be able to get my slot, even after that rotten swim, I placed third.
My goal was, all right, I can now compete with the very best in my age group on a world level, but the problem there is when I finished Texas in training for Hawaii, I kind of lost my balance a little bit and I over-trained and I injured myself and I went to Hawaii with hopes of being able to get podium or top ten and really had a bad day.
That’s another reason this year I decided not to go to Texas, to go do something in the Fall, to be able to focus on getting healthy again and really improving my bike, taking my bike to the next level and improving my swim because these guys and gals that are finishing on podium or top ten in Hawaii, they don’t have any flaws in their game and so I needed to spend another 9-10 months trying to work on those flaws because when I go back to Hawaii, Lord willing, I want that podium.
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure you do. Doug, as far as Texas, as we’re recording this, it happened this past weekend, aren’t you glad you made that decision not to go back to Texas, with the weather conditions they had this year?
DOUG GUTHRIE: Part of me says yes and part of me says, well, you know, that would have been kind of fun, just to do well in that race and say hey, it doesn’t matter.
BRAD BROWN: It makes for good stories doesn’t it?
DOUG GUTHRIE: It does, I saw some video at the finish line and it was crazy. I don’t know how anybody was able to race well there, congrats to them.
BRAD BROWN: Even if you didn’t race well, even if you just finished that thing, that’s huge respect.
Doug, it’s been amazing catching up. I can’t wait to do it again where we chat the shorter ones about the disciplines and what you’ve done to improve. But we’ll save that for another time, thanks for your time on The Kona Edge today. I loved sharing your story and I’m sure a lot of people are going to get a lot out of it.
DOUG GUTHRIE: Thank you very much, have a great day.