We catch up with Ben Hammer on this edition of The Kona Edge to share his journey to the Ironman World Championships. Ben tells us about his inspiration to complete an Ironman and what it takes to balance family life and the sport of competitive triathlon.
BRAD BROWN: We head to Grand Rapids in Michigan in the United States now and we touch base with Ben Hammer. Ben welcome onto The Kona Edge, thanks for joining us.
BEN HAMMER: Thanks a lot for having me, a pleasure to be with you.
BRAD BROWN: Ben, we were just talking before we started recording, you were telling me, we’re recording on a Saturday and it’s a pretty early morning Saturday for you, middle of the day, I’ve just got back from a long ride, you didn’t ride today and you were saying it’s your first Saturday off training-wise in a long, long time.
BEN HAMMER: Yeah, I think it might be about 10 months, so it’s kind of a strange thing and I’m grateful for the break.
BRAD BROWN: What do normal people do on a Saturday morning?
BEN HAMMER: Well me, I woke up to talk to you!
BRAD BROWN: Thank you, much appreciated, I got you out of bed early! Ben, let’s touch on you and your journey into triathlon, you grew up and you were a pretty decent runner, when did the seed of triathlon get planted in you?
The idea of Kona a frightening thought?
BEN HAMMER: That’s a great question. I tried to think back on exactly when it happened and I couldn’t really pinpoint it. I know growing up I saw the coverage of the triathlon in Kona, obviously and I remember seeing it and just actually being kind of frightened by it. It seemed to me like the most extreme athletic undertaking that somebody could attempt and somehow over the years that morphed into a Bucket List item of doing an Ironman and I actually had a pretty serious injury that I had in college and I think that cemented the dream of one day being able to be healthy and to come back and do an Ironman after I was finished with my running in college.
BRAD BROWN: Were you always an active kid, were you always running around the neighborhood, being busy and sporty, has it always been part of your life?
BEN HAMMER: Yes, very much so. I have one older brother and two younger sisters and we were obsessed with sports growing up. I’ve played just about everything and just really enjoyed being active. Eventually I had to pick, my parents wouldn’t let me continue to do multiple sports at one time and I gravitated pretty well to the running, so I did cross country and track in high school, but I grew up playing baseball, hockey and just all kinds of different things, especially with my brother.
BRAD BROWN: One of four kids, I’m guessing that’s where the competitive gene was born?
BEN HAMMER: Very much so. I am a very competitive person and so are my siblings and as the younger of the two boys in the family, I spent a lot of time losing to my brother growing up and I think that’s where I developed a lot of the competitive drive.
BRAD BROWN: Ben I love it and I’m pretty much the same although I’m the youngest in the family, I got an older brother and sister and I feel exactly the same way about my brother. Growing up I lost everything and I’m pleased to say the last Ironman we did together, I caught him with about 8 miles left in the run and I was thinking: What do I do, do I slap him on the back and say ‘Best of lucky buddy’ or do I stay with him and I ended up staying with him and beat him on virtually that my name starts with a B, his starts with a D, our finish time was exactly the same, but because of the alphabet I did beat him in an Ironman, which is fantastic!
BEN HAMMER: Congratulations. My brother was the first to do an Ironman, that was part of I guess my Ironman story as well and after he did his, for my first one, he helped coach me and he’s been pretty monumental in my Ironman story.
BRAD BROWN: That’s brilliant, how did he go, are you better than him?
BEN HAMMER: I am, yes!
BRAD BROWN: You beat him yay!! I love it! Ben, let’s talk about work/life balance and we’ll dig a bit more into the triathlon side of things at the moment, but you’ve got a family, you’ve got a couple of kids yourself, you come from a math teaching background and funnily enough, I’ve spoken to a number of math teachers who have qualified for the Big Island and I’m starting to think that is a pre-requisite, if you want to be good in triathlon you have to be a math teacher. You’ve left that career now, you’re doing something slightly different, tell us about your work/life balance and how you juggle that in the sport?
A good support system will unite Ironman families
BEN HAMMER: I wish I had something wise to say here because then I would take my own advice. That continues to be probably the most challenging aspect of triathlon for me and I know it is for a lot of people. it takes a lot of discipline and it takes a lot of sacrifice and that’s the only way around it, I think. And unfortunately a lot of those sacrifices have to be made, not only by me, but they also have to be made by my family and I have a tremendously supportive wife, I have two young kids, a two year old and a four year old and then I’ve got a little boy who is coming in November, so yes, the work life/family life balance continues to be something I figure out all the time, but it involves a lot of doing workouts when you wouldn’t necessarily want to do them, but that’s the way you can get it done. The other piece too is learning to be more and more efficient with your workouts and I’m sure that’s a segment we’ll touch on later as well, but that’s obviously something that’s really important for me, I have to be tremendously efficient with my time and getting as much into a workout space as I possibly can.
BRAD BROWN: That’s not just working out too, it’s the time you spend with your wife and your kids, it’s a case of making that count when you are there and are present.
BEN HAMMER: Absolutely. One thing that’s been tremendously helpful for me is I take one day every week, for me it’s a Sunday and Sunday is always a day off from working out and it’s a family day and that’s just been a great thing for our family. It’s been a really helpful thing, yes for my physical health, but ultimately for my mental health and for our family life.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to say for your sanity too. Sometimes we tend to get so deep into this thing that it almost overtakes every aspect of our life and sometimes it’s good to be able to switch off like that.
BEN HAMMER: Absolutely. I would say that having two young kids is a great thing from a sanity perspective and as funny as that may sound, because you can’t live in triathlon world when you have two young kids because their presence demands that you be present when you’re with them. It doesn’t matter if you are distracted or have a workout that you’re thinking about or trying to prepare for, they have their needs and you’ve got to meet them and that’s what snaps you back to reality on a daily basis.
BRAD BROWN: Ben, I’m amazed, you’re talking about a two year old and a four year old now and it was a year ago pretty much the time that we’re recording this, that you were on the Big Island and getting ready to race in Kona. It must be tough, I know what it’s like training for an Ironman with small kids, but those are particularly little and like you say, they demand a lot of your time, but chances are they’re probably not sleeping through the night either, so there’s that to deal with. Has that been a big challenge in your preparation, particularly when you’re wanting to race to the best of your ability?
BEN HAMMER: Yes, tremendously difficult. I don’t think I’ve gotten a lot of good nights of sleep in the last couple of years and my down time looks a lot different than a lot of my competitors down time and it’s just something you have to learn to balance. Thankfully in Kona last year my brother and his wife took our two little ones and they have three little ones of their own, so they had five kids under the age of five for the week that we were in Kona. They were the real heroes of that race because they allowed my wife and I to be there kid-free, so that was really nice.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to say, I wonder what’s tougher…. Looking after five kids or racing in the Ironman World Championships.
BEN HAMMER: Absolutely watching five kids!
BRAD BROWN: I love that! Ben, let’s go back to your first Ironman and you said you remember seeing Kona on TV and thinking maybe, can you remember the decision to actually do your first one and the thinking and mind games that went into that?
BEN HAMMER: Absolutely. My wife and I, we had sort of been toying with the idea and part of that story, like I said, is I had to have a pretty serious surgery due to a blocked artery in my leg, due to a birth defect, the artery was routed wrong, so I had spent a week in the hospital in Chicago having it fixed. They took two feet of vein from one side of my leg and put it in the other and so when I got healthy from that, at the time my wife and I didn’t have any children and we were on a drive and I said: I feel like this is maybe the best time of our lives for me to do this and get it out of my system and she’s always been very supportive and she’s a great athlete herself and so she understood the drive or the need and she agreed. She said she’d be happy to come alongside me and have me do it. We signed up for the race and then a couple of months later she got pregnant and we had a little one coming, I think maybe two weeks after the race that we signed up for, which was Ironman Louisville.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible. I love the fact you say ‘we’ because it is a team effort. As much as Ironman is an individual sport, you have to have buy-in from everyone involved.
Striving for a common goal in your Ironman lifestyle
BEN HAMMER: Absolutely, that’s the most important thing that I’ve learnt in this process is you can’t do it yourself, it’s not something you do yourself, it’s something you do as a family and if you don’t have 100% buy-in, the only thing it’s going to do is tear you apart rather than be something that unites your family and is a common goal that you all work towards. I’ve seen it happen both ways for people and it’s just a lot of fun when it is a common goal for people. It’s a beautiful thing to watch I think.
BRAD BROWN: I could not agree more. Ben, tell me about that first experience in Louisville, was it harder than you thought it was, did it go exactly according to your plan? Tell me a little bit about your experience.
BEN HAMMER: It’s important to realize, the thing I didn’t say is when I signed up for that triathlon, which was Ironman Louisville, I had never done a triathlon before, of any distance! I didn’t really know what I was doing. In my training leading up to that race, that summer I did a sprint triathlon, I did an Olympic and then the third tri that I did was Louisville. I was pretty ignorant, I guess I would say, of what to expect and I was very green at just about every aspect of triathlon, but I kind of went in knowing that I just needed to get out of the water with as little damage as possible and I knew I could bike decently well. I’d done a fair bit of riding that summer and made a lot of progress on the bike but my mantra going in was, I just need to get to the run, just get me to the run and I’ll be okay. Going through the race I remember thinking, especially on the bike, trying to monitor my energy output and thinking how am I feeling, am I doing okay. I didn’t have any sort of Power meter or heart rate monitor, anything like that, I just went on feel and I thought: Am I feeling okay? Can I run? Then I would think, can I run a marathon and that was sort of a daunting thing to constantly ask yourself, can I run a marathon. I laugh looking back on that now, at how little data I had while I was racing. I got to the run and it was really hot, but as soon as I started running I got a mile in and I remember seeing my family and giving them a thumbs up because it was like, all right, this feels familiar, I’ve done this lots before and I know I’m going to be okay.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think going into your first one like that, it’s almost a bit of a blessing in disguise that you don’t have any, as you say, any data to go by that it’s almost ignorance is bliss and we’ll see what happens. Sometimes if you do know what you’re in for, that might psyche you out and you don’t end up following through!
BEN HAMMER: Absolutely. Information is good but sometimes we put too much into it because a lot of times people have a race plan and then something happens on that day and they aren’t able to adapt that race plan based on the variables that have changed and they end up putting themselves in a really bad position. It’s really important that you are able to adapt your race plan based on what the weather is or what’s changing in the race around you because I’ve never done a race where something wasn’t different than I expected and so being able to monitor how you’re doing in the moment and adapt accordingly is just a really valuable skill for triathlon.
BRAD BROWN: Knowing what you know now, would you do anything or have done anything different, would you have changed that process so your first one or would you have pretty much done it much the same?
Research beforehand could avoid awkward moments
BEN HAMMER: I was pretty pleased overall I think with what I did for that race. I probably could have biked a little more aggressively than I did but overall it was fine. When I went to Louisville to sign up, actually it was the day that I dropped my bike off, the battery on my bike computer died and I vividly remember going to the expo to buy another battery for my bike computer and I mentioned to the check-out person who was helping me, I said: I’m really glad that you guys have these batteries cause I didn’t know they had everything under the sun at the expo. I’m really glad you have these batteries because my bike computer just died and the woman kind of looked at me and she said: You’re riding with a heart rate monitor tomorrow right? I said: No, I don’t have one and she said: Do you have a Power meter and I said: No. She said: Are you just using your speed as your guide on the ride and I said: Yeah. She kind of looked at me, she smiled really condescendingly and she said: This is your first one isn’t it? I remember being kind of insulted and that actually ended up being big motivation for me when I was out on the course cause I really, in my head I really wanted to prove her wrong, that this was my first one and I was going to mess up. It turned out okay.
BRAD BROWN: What a cool story. Ben, looking at making the decision to chase a Kona slot, that’s also a pretty big decision, it’s a huge commitment to do your first Ironman, but tell me about what goes into that process.
BEN HAMMER: That’s a lot more of a gut-wrenching thing than I had anticipated. Going into my first one, we had obviously done all the training and for me, I was teaching at the time, so I’d picked an Ironman that was just a week into the start of school, I kind of just had to survive that heavy training through the first week of school and then the plan was to do the race and then be able to come back and my wife was going to have a baby in two weeks. Then all of a sudden I qualified and you’ve basically just done one of the most painful things of your life and you feel absolutely horrible and you think, I don’t ever want to do that again and you have to face the decision of not only for me, do I want to do that again, but do I want to do that again in seven weeks because Louisville at the time was seven weeks away from Kona and I went to bed that night thinking, no, I don’t think I’m going to take my spot. I want to be able to be present and kind of focused on this baby we have coming and I’m ready to be done training for a little while. I actually went to bed that night not planning on taking my spot and then my wife and I had spent some time praying about it and that was sort of my decision that evening and then I woke up in the morning and my mind had completely changed. I looked at my wife and I said: I think I need to, if I don’t I’m really going to regret it. She looked at me and said: Yeah, I think the same thing. I went down to the lobby of the hotel and told my family my decision and they said: We’re so glad because we thought you were making a horrible mistake. Then I went to the roll down and accepted the slot and I’m really glad I did.
BRAD BROWN: Wow, that must have been an incredible seven weeks between those two races.
BEN HAMMER: Not ones I would ever care to re-experience. They were horribly stressful. The other thing I haven’t mentioned, at the time I was the head cross country coach at my school, I was coaching 35 boys on our cross country team, so not only was I then trying to teach and coach, but then I also had to continue fitting in my workouts in that time. Then my wife had the baby after two weeks, so for about 4-5 weeks I had to teach, coach, train and be a first time father. It was pretty stressful.
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure. Ben, Kona is a special place, for you, in your mind, what makes it so special?
BEN HAMMER: That’s a great question. I think what really was impressed on me when I was there for the first time was that you have this picture in your mind of Hawaii being the most beautiful place on earth and it is very beautiful, but the course itself is probably one of the least beautiful or probably one of the worst courses of any of the Ironman’s. I just remember realizing that it very much felt like when you get to Hawaii, nobody is impressed or nobody cares about the distances of the Ironman anymore. They don’t care about the fact that you can swim 2.4 miles or that you can bike 112 or you can run 26.2, none of that matters, it’s not impressive because everybody there has done it many times. It’s all about basically taking those distances and putting them on the most challenging course that you possibly can and seeing if you can survive. for me, I think that was kind of startling, when you’re actually on the bike course and especially on the run course and you realize how bland and just mentally challenging the surroundings are. I know that sounds strange, again, you think Hawaii, it’s got to be really beautiful, it’s not. Biking through lava fields for 100 miles is not beautiful. Running along the side of a highway for 18 miles is not beautiful.
BRAD BROWN: Exactly, especially when it’s hot and the wind is blowing. What surprised you most about Kona and the race itself?
BEN HAMMER: I think me, probably some of what I just said, but then also, just the winds and the year I did it first in 2012, just feeling the strength of the wind was definitely a surprise to me and the fact that they’re not consistent makes handling the bike very challenging and just outright dangerous at times. I remember during the race, I remember seeing the mileage marker signs, which are quite hefty, I remember seeing them blown over and being a little startled at how I was going to stay up on my bike. Just experiencing, everybody talks about the strength of the wind, but when you actually feel it for yourself, it’s a little bit overwhelming.
BRAD BROWN: Ben, how do you approach that first one? Do you go in there just to soak it up and experience Kona and racing on the Big Island or do you go there with ambitions, going, I want to see how good I am, how did you approach it?
BEN HAMMER: That’s a good question, I don’t think there’s any one right answer to that. I think it totally depends on the person. For me, I didn’t want to go into the race of a mindset, I’m just here to have fun, I think you can soak things up, but I still wanted to try and get the most out of myself. I still wanted to get on the starting line and do the best that I could because ultimately I think that makes the day that much more meaningful. I don’t think you have to have one without the other, but yes, I think it’s important to remind yourself when things do get hard, to be able to look around and just appreciate that you’re there and you get to experience and it just kind of naturally happens. There’s lot of fun, small things that take place throughout the day that you kind of get to pinch yourself and remind yourself that you’re at the World Championships. Right before the race starts, when the helicopter flies overhead, that doesn’t happen at any of the other races. Or when you’re swimming, I remember seeing a dark object in the water and being a little freaked out and then I looked down and I realized it was a scuba diver who was filming underneath us in the water and so there are lots of those kind of little things that happen throughout the day that are fun things that you can experience and appreciate later on.
BRAD BROWN: 2015 you had a fantastic race, you podiumed in your age group, have you got unfinished business on that island or are you pretty satisfied with what you’ve done and if you get to go back, you go back, but are you pretty happy with the performances you’ve put in in Kona?
Nutrition and other issues leaving you feeling flat?
BEN HAMMER: Yeah, I was very happy, I think the answer to that is always to be happy, but not content. I felt like I had a good day, especially for the day that we had last year in Kona. It was extremely hot but I have some things that I would like to do. I would like to run a little bit faster there than I have and I also had a wheel issue in Kona, I had basically a flat tyre before the race and so I did that whole ride with just a partially filled tyre on my bike. I’m looking to go back there and be faster than I was before and so yeah, I still have some goals of some improvements I’d like to make.
BRAD BROWN: What are you struggling with and working on right now?
BEN HAMMER: Boy, that would definitely be the nutrition piece during the race, especially for varying temperatures. I feel like sometimes I have a really good nutrition plan going in and then sometimes the temperature is maybe a little bit more extreme than what you would expect and it kind of throws what you had hoped to be able to digest or take in, it can throw that off a little bit. I’m still working on dialing in the nutrition on race day. I’ve got it to work out really well for me in my training, but sometimes on race day it seems like my stomach is a little bit more finicky than in some of my training sessions.
BRAD BROWN: Ben, what’s the one piece of gear that’s just changed everything that you do and revolutionized, if I want to use that word, your triathlon career?
BEN HAMMER: Without a doubt it would be Power meter on the bike. That’s the one thing that if you took it away from me, I would have a very hard time going back. Everything else I could do without.
BRAD BROWN: Who fires you up, who really inspires you?
BEN HAMMER: That’s a great question. A lot of people really inspire me. I loved getting to train this year, during the Olympics and getting to watch all the high profile athletes, people like Michael Phelps who have been doing amazing things in their sport for a really long time, to other people who maybe you haven’t heard of until the Olympics and I thought that Chelimo’s performance in the 5 000m was really cool in the Olympics for the US. I’m a big fan of Nick Willis, I loved his performance in the 1 500m, so I just have a lot of those Olympic athletes who I like watching and rooting for.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. As far as long term goals, what do you still want to achieve in the sport?
BEN HAMMER: That’s a great question, one that I ask myself a lot, especially as my family continues to grow. I want to continue to get better, to continue to improve, I think that’s always the goal that everybody can have, is to continue to try to get the most out of themselves and that’s kind of what I’m shooting for too. I feel like every day I still am able to make gains, certainly in my swimming because I’m a very new swimmer and I’m still making gains on the bike and I’m still, with a running background, I’m trying to hold onto that as much as I can every day as well. That’s kind of the fun part about triathlon is because you have these three different disciplines to work on, you feel like you can always keep improving in each one and then certainly in the synthesis of all three, so continuing to improve running when off the bike. I feel like I still have a lot of gains to make in those areas and the drops in time don’t come as easily as they used to, but they still are coming and that’s what I continue to do. I do really have a goal, I’ve never broken 9 hours in an Ironman before and I would love to do that. That’s kind of a side goal as well.
BRAD BROWN: What’s the biggest life lesson that Ironman and triathlon has taught you?
BEN HAMMER: That’s a great question, just picking the biggest is a tough one. I think the value of communicating with your spouse and having shared goals together is really probably one of the most important things that it’s taught me, that you when you’re married, you’re not an island and you have a responsibility as a team to help each other out and it’s my job to make sure, even when I’m really tired from a long day or a long workout, it’s my job to still be a good husband and a good father, even if I don’t feel up to it or I feel like going and collapsing on the couch because I’m part of that team.
BRAD BROWN: Awesome. Ben, finally, what’s been your biggest triathlon disappointment and what have you learnt from that?
BEN HAMMER: That’s an easy one to answer for me. I did Louisville and then I did Kona and then I did Wisconsin and then I did Kona again and then this past year the plan was to do, I was doing Ironman Texas in May and then the plan was to do Kona again a week from now and I trained really hard, actually had been working with a coach, David Tilbury-Davis and he’s been monumental in my training and improvement and I was just really in a great spot. I was probably happier with where I was at in my training than at any other point, even going into Kona last year and I went out this May and I came out of the water faster than I ever had and I was biking faster than I had ever biked and I got sick at about 60 miles into the bike course. My stomach just got really upset, I’m not exactly sure why and I threw up many times on the bike and I was able to finish the bike off, but when I started the run, I was just completely bankrupt of all water and calories and I ended up pulling out of the race at the halfway point of the run. I just remember being crushed, feeling like my training and my fitness had not been able to come through in my performance and that was really disappointing. I knew the sacrifices that had taken place over the past six months and how had I’d worked and it was really a bummer to see them not pay off basically.
BRAD BROWN: Ben, it’s been awesome chatting, I’ve loved sharing your story and look forward to delving into the individual disciplines next time out, but we’ll save that for then. Much appreciated, thank you for your time and we look forward to catching up again soon here on The Kona Edge.
BEN HAMMER: Thanks a lot for having me.
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