From motocross to triathlons – The Brice Williams Ironman Kona Story

 

Today on The Kona Edge we head to Utah in the United States to talk to Brice Williams about how he got into doing Ironmans and what his experiences on the Big Island were like.

(Read the transcription of our chat here)

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Podcast Transcription:

 

BRAD BROWN:  Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge, my name is Brad Brown and it’s a great pleasure to welcome you onto the podcast today and we get to share another fantastic story as we head to Utah in the United States to catch up with Brice Williams. Brice, welcome onto the podcast, thanks for joining me today.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Thanks for having me Brad, it’s good to be here.

BRAD BROWN:  Brice, I’m excited for this conversation because last week I got to share the story of a young Swede by the name of Rasmus Svenningsson and Rasmus won his age group in Kona last year. He is a fifth year med student, so you know what it’s like racing Ironman as a med student. You’re no longer a med student, that was a while ago, but you’re an ophthalmologist by profession, it’s turning into a bit of a medical week here on The Kona Edge this week.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  That’s great.

BRAD BROWN:  Brice, tell me a little bit about your background. I know you mentioned in the email that you sent me that you came from a motorsport background, you used to ride motorcycles and had a nasty accident and decided maybe it’s time to sell the bike. Tell me a bit about that part of your journey?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Sure, yeah, I grew up racing dirt bikes, my dad was into them quite a bit, so he got me in at a fairly early age and that was always a fun part of life to take the dirt bikes out. I grew up in a rural farming community, so we could ride all over the place. Through the years I took little breaks from riding dirt bikes and I got hurt a number of times. I’ve torn both ACLs and torn other ligaments and broken bones and things like that and that’s kind of par for the course for motocross.

It’s not a question of will you get hurt as much as when you get hurt and how bad. By the time I was in medical school, I was pushing probably 27-28 years old, I had kind of a nasty crash and it put me in a sling for a while and I was in the middle of medical school and I had a daughter that was maybe nine months old and my wife. At that point, with all the responsibilities that I had, I said let’s hang this up before I really get hurt. I sold the dirt bike and that was a sad day but it was a necessary thing.

BRAD BROWN:  Isn’t it amazing how when you have kids, how you start questioning life decisions you made that were quite normal in your early 20s and then you go, hang on a sec, maybe this isn’t so wise.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  That’s right; it changes your perspective for sure.

BRAD BROWN:  Brice, before we get into the triathlon side of things, riding dirt bikes, people think it’s a motorcycle, you’re sitting down, it’s pretty easy but that sport is hectically physical. You’ve got to have some level of fitness to be fairly good at riding dirt bikes and motocross?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Yeah, absolutely, it’s one of the most physically demanding sports there is. The guys that are professionals at it are very fit and as a weekend warrior motocrosser, I suffered more on the weekends than I’d like to because I didn’t really know, or had time to train during the week. We’d go and ride dirt bikes on Saturday and then Sunday I’d always be sore and Monday usually.

BRAD BROWN:  Your bicycle handling skills must be off the charts?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Yes and no, having a motor as a backup for when you get in trouble is a different animal than if you’re out there on a mountain bike and you have to produce some pedal power! I’ve had to relearn some skills and it has gotten me in trouble a little bit because I think I’m really good at downhill mountain biking and then I start to get out of control and the bike handles differently when it only wears 20 pounds versus a 150 pound motocross bike.

 

BRAD BROWN:  Talk to me about the transition from motocross into triathlon, how did that happen?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  My wife grew up doing some triathlons with her father and I’ve always had a little bit of a need for a competitive outlet. When I sold the dirt bike I kind of tooled around a little bit, I went back to swimming just a little bit because I swam in high school and in college. Then my wife, when we moved back to Utah, she and her dad were going to do a triathlon together. I said, “Maybe I’ll do that, I know how to swim and I can suffer through the rest of it.” Borrowed a bike and did my first triathlon and after that I was hooked.

BRAD BROWN:  I was going to say, was it love at first sight, but it sounds like it was.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I really enjoyed it. It fit perfectly for what I needed to have as far as competitive outlet and I tend to be more of an introvert, so I derive a lot of pleasure from just training by myself.

BRAD BROWN:  That I think, particularly when it comes to the Ironman distance is probably a massive advantage from the mental perspective, being comfortable with spending time with yourself.

 

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Yeah, for sure. The training can sometimes turn people off to that longer distance race, but for me, I enjoy the long rides, the long training rides, it doesn’t bug me to be in my little room for five or six hours just pulling away.

BRAD BROWN:  That first triathlon, what distance was it, was it a sprint, an Olympic?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  It was a sprint, yeah.

BRAD BROWN:  Why the step up to the long stuff? Like you say, you don’t mind it, but what’s the real attraction?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  I think I’m more competitive at the longer distance. I never had the leg speed to pull off a 15 or 16 minute 5km, but I have the mental grit to grind out a marathon at slower paces, just suffer through it. I’m a little more competitive at the longer distance.

BRAD BROWN:  Where do you think that mental grit has come from Brice?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  You know, a little bit, as a kid, I learned to take care of myself a little bit. My parents divorced when I was young and I went and lived with my dad and he was a pilot, in sixth grade there were days where I wouldn’t have any parental oversight and I had to. There’s a little bit of growing up at an early age, learning to just make things do, make do with what you can and not worry too much about how life throws things as you.

BRAD BROWN:  Where do you think your competitive spirit comes from?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Probably the motocross and my dad’s very competitive as well and he kind of taught me some of that stuff. It’s just part of growing up I believe, motocross.

BRAD BROWN:  Do you think those two characteristics are key if you want to be good at Ironman, triathlon and particularly qualifying and racing on the Big Island?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  I do believe the mental toughness needs to be there. As far as a competitive spirit, I don’t know that you have to necessarily feel like you have to beat other people. However, the competitiveness with yourself, I believe is crucial and a key component. Being able to push yourself to the next level because you know in the past you’ve achieved that sort of a level and you want to continue to progress. I don’t get a lot out of saying I want to go out and beat this guy or that guy, but I do want to go out and perform better than I have in the past. It’s more of a competition with myself.

BRAD BROWN:  Do you tend to run those cycles season by season or how do you structure that within your training and your racing?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  How do I structure the competitive cycles?

BRAD BROWN:  Within yourself, trying to be better than you were last time out?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  It’s usually by build. My last Ironman build was for Kona and so this current build is for Texas and I can kind of look back on training peaks and say I was at this stage last time, at this week and am I at the same stage or maybe a little bit ahead and that’s how I can compare to my previous training.

BRAD BROWN:  When did Ironman first come onto your radar after that first sprint? Was it a logical progression up the distances or was it a, that was cool; I want to go do Ironman?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  It was more of a logical progression. I did have a little bit of a coach, he wasn’t really hands-on, he had done a lot of Ironman’s and he kind of guided me through the process. He’s like, you want to start with low distance stuff and get your body used to the demands of Ironman training and having a swim background, I really needed to go a little bit slower perhaps than others because I hadn’t developed the resilience to the run durability that’s required for Ironman, so I went slow.

BRAD BROWN:  Correct me if I’m wrong as well, but your swimming background was a lot more of the shorter, faster stuff, it wasn’t the longer stuff, so it’s easy, probably then when you started one of your strengths, you’d go, I’m going to smash this thing but then you’ve still got another 180km and a 42km run to take care of.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  That’s right, yeah and swimming is a little bit of a different animal than the other sports in that even though I was a sprinter, I trained in the era when we would routinely do 10,000 yards a day. Even though my race was a 50 or 100 yard race, boy, our coaches just had us out there in the pool forever. I had a lot of aerobic capacity and some background with longer distance in the pool, but I didn’t have any biking or running background.

BRAD BROWN:  Tell me about that first Ironman experience.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  The deal was that I couldn’t race an Ironman until I’d finished my residency, so my medical training. That finished in July, the first week of July and I raced Vineman like the last week of July! I had been itching for it, but I held off until I was done with residency. Back then it was not an Ironman branded race, it was just a local fun race. Signed up for that one and I remember being super scared of the marathon and thinking there’s no way I can run 26 miles.

The old Vineman was not an easy course. It was very hilly and even the run, there was a fair amount of elevation change. It was a lot like Kona actually, without the humidity. The swim went fine and then the bike was fine and I had that coach that kind of helped me through that. I got through most of the run and about mile, like 20 or so I’m like wow, I can actually still run this. It shocked me and I ended up going like 10 hours and 40 minutes or something, but I felt pretty good afterwards. I knew I probably could have gone harder, gone faster but at that point I was like okay, this is a fun thing. It didn’t destroy me and I was hooked on doing more at that point.

BRAD BROWN:  Isn’t it amazing, at times in that run you probably said to yourself, I think we all have, I’m never going to do this again, this is horrible, I never want to do it again and shortly after you cross that finish line you’re plotting your next assault to see how you can go faster.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  That’s true, that’s true! I compare it to pregnancy and giving birth. Women, bless their hearts, I don’t know how they get through this, but you go through nine months or pregnancy and it totally sucks and then you go through this birthing process and that totally sucks but then within four five months after they’re like, you know, I think I can do that again. Somehow the brain is demented that way.

BRAD BROWN:  I think our memories as human beings, there’s definitely some issues there. There’s a sport scientist based here in South Africa, I think a lot of people may know the name, Professor Tim Noakes who is based here in Cape Town, and he wrote about an ultra marathon here in South Africa called the Comrades Marathon, it’s an iconic ultra marathon and it’s brutal. The hills are crazy and he says in one of his books, he says that if people remembered pain, you would only ever run Comrades once. I think it’s the same for an Ironman, if you remembered the horrible bits, I don’t think we’d go back for more than one.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Probably true.

BRAD BROWN:  Talk to me about when you realised, you know what, I’m pretty good at this thing and I could possibly go and race on the Big Island?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Well, that came, that was probably my second Ironman race, that was Maryland and what I had done is, I hired a coach, Doug MacLean with QT2 Systems and I hired them because I agreed with their approach of heart rate training and the more aerobic based type demand. I hired Doug and he walked me through Maryland and I really didn’t think I had any chance at Kona. I just wanted to go a little faster than I had before but then when I finished the race, I think I took fifth place at that race, I went like 9:27 and I still didn’t qualify for Kona because they only give out two or three slots at that race.

When I finished that race that’s when I realized, okay, I’m in the conversation, I missed it, but not by much. I started to get some running injuries at that point so I had to back off. I got a little plantar fasciitis and ran through it and I didn’t really understand that this running injury issue that I was going to be facing for the rest of my Ironman training stuff. That was the race that said okay; maybe you have a shot at this.

BRAD BROWN:  Tell me about the attraction to Kona. When you speak to any age group and you mention the word ‘Kona,’ it conjures up a whole bunch of emotions, for you, if I say ‘Kona,’ what does it make you think of and why are you so attracted to that place?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  It’s changed over time. In the beginning it was more, I want to be able to go and say that I earned it on my own and just go and enjoy it. Just when I say, did you reach the big dance, yeah, I did that and that was the goal. Then now that I’ve gone, I’ve raced twice, I’ve qualified three or four times and I placed, last year and it’s become more of a, the race that brings all the competition and it challenges yourself to the limit because of the, not only the depth of the field but the conditions of the race. The qualifying races are fun and they’re great, but Kona is really where the test happens for me. Now it’s more of a, I want to get there so I can show myself what I can do.

BRAD BROWN:  I find it interesting that you’ve raced twice but you qualified more than that, you’ve turned down slots, which I find interesting. I know people who would absolutely die to go to Kona and they struggle to qualify. You’ve had the opportunity and you’ve turned it down, for whatever reasons, and I’m guessing it could be various things. You’ve got a family, a fulltime job, so there’s time commitments and that sort of thing, tell me the thought process behind turning down a slot on the Big Island?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  The times that I’ve turned it down, I’ve had to decide that I was going to do that before the race. In the heat of the moment you’re probably going to take it, but you’re exactly right, it was for family commitments, it was for other things that were happening around the same time of the race that I knew that if I had taken the slot, because of my personality, I would probably sacrifice the wrong thing in order to race better. Before the race even happened I said to myself, if I do qualify I’m going to turn the slot down because my family is more important to me and my other responsibilities that I need to take care of first. There’s always going to be another Kona, hopefully. I mean you can never really assume that. You can be injured or life can change where you don’t have that chance again and you have to be okay with that possibility before the race.

BRAD BROWN:  That’s interesting, it would be a totally different story if it was your first time to qualify that you went, you know what, I’m not going to take it because you aren’t guaranteed, you don’t know if tomorrow is going to be there or not, but I love the face that it’s a calculated decision and it’s before the race and it’s what is best for you and your family, long-term. I’m asking this question because you are probably one of the people that I speak to that is in this, that you’ve got a very high, I don’t want to say power job, but you have to be there. It’s not like you can delegate your position to anybody else, you’ve got a family, it takes a lot of training to qualify for Kona and be competitive on the Big Island and when you’re in a big build to Kona, something has got to give. You’ve got to make sacrifices and it might be work, it might be family, but if you want to be competitive, it can’t be your training. There’s got to be some balance at some stage. How do you get that juggle right?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  That’s been a process. In the beginning it was imbalanced towards triathlon and over the years I think my wife and I have been able to come up with a nice balanced approach. Here’s the other problem, it takes years to develop the resilience and the body that can train and race an Ironman at a competitive level. There has to be some upfront imbalance, I think, before you can back off a little bit on the training hours and still be competitive. If you’re going to take a long term 5 or 10 year approach, you may have to sit down with your family in the beginning and say there’s going to be two or three years where I am going to dedicate more time than I will have to in the future in order to be at that competitive level.

Then as you develop as an athlete, you can decrease the total volume, increase your intensity, still be competitive and also your body develops the ability to absorb the training at a faster rate, so you don’t need to put it as many weeks before the race and you increase your stress bucket, if you will, so that you’re not just such a zombie walking around those last two months before the race. You can actually interact with your kids and play with them and still train at that high level.

BRAD BROWN:  You forgot to say, walking around like a zombie looking for food, because that’s what it’s like those two weeks.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  That’s right.

BRAD BROWN:  Brice, I’m fascinated by that and I agree with you, I think that is partly one of the reasons why we see so many athletes burst onto the scene. They’re competitive and then you never see them again. They’re there for a reason or two and then they’re gone and they’ve burnt themselves out. I’m not saying one approach is better than the other but if you’re going to be around the sport for a long time, I think the approach you take is probably the approach that you should be taking.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Yeah, it’s worked well for our family and each time I build for an Ironman it’s better than the previous one on my family and on me and I look forward to it getting even better and better. There’s that upfront kind of cost and you have to be patient with yourself and you develop as an athlete.

BRAD BROWN:  What are you most proud of in your triathlon journey?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Well, that’s a good question. I would probably say last year’s Kona. I was shocked that I took fifth place in the age group. In fact, I didn’t think I had a chance at that and I had booked tickets to go to Maui Sunday morning and after the race I called the airlines and tried to switch it, but it was a ridiculous amount of money. I didn’t even make it to the award ceremony. I was out in the left field thinking that I could even podium at Kona, so that was probably, kind of the pinnacle. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again. I mean you never know right? I was able to train without injury and there were a couple of other guys in my age group that didn’t have injuries that took them out of the race and so that’s what I think allowed me to step in a little.

BRAD BROWN:  Let me ask you this question and I think it follows on quite nicely from there, how much of your success in the sport of triathlon do you put down to pure genetics, hard work and a bit of luck?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  At my level I think hard work is number one. Genetics would be number two but at a professional level that’s probably, those might be 50/50. For a normal mortal like myself and the rest of us age groupers, I think hard work is going to play a huge role and smart work in addition to hard work. Yeah, obviously there’s some genetic abilities there and not everybody is genetically able to be at that competitive level. Then luck plays a role in your race outcome, for sure.

I don’t think it plays much of a role in your training, at all really, but in the race outcome, that’s why you can’t hinge your feeling of success, your definition of success on race outcomes. You have to be able to be okay with controlling the controllable but if you get a flat tire, which is what happened to me my first year at Kona, I got two flat tires, but because my definition of success was not, where am I going to place in the age group, I enjoyed the race the whole time and actually did okay and I was super happy with the outcome of the race because my definition of success is not based on uncontrollable variables.

BRAD BROWN:  If you do what you can do and it’s good enough to get you a podium, then so be it, if not, you still achieved what you set out to achieve.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Yeah, absolutely, and that’s what gives you longevity in the sport.

BRAD BROWN:  How long do you think you’ll still be around doing it? Are you going to be one of those guys in your 80s?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  You never know! For the time being, it’s my passion and I really enjoy it and I think we’ve achieved a balance that works for my family at this point but in the future, as my kids get a little older, they may be a little more demanding as far as time goes and I may have to step away from the long distance. I think I could still do half distance races on much less training, but for now it’s my passion.

BRAD BROWN:  What do you think the biggest is facing the sport right now? I mean it’s in a massive growth spurt, but what do you think is something that could scupper that growth and everyone’s love for the sport?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  That’s a good question. I think it will continue to grow and get more popular. I would say the challenge would be to cater to the masses and be able to encourage participation on all levels, regardless of your athletic background and your interests. Here in Utah we have a lot of mountain biking, we do have an Xterra race, but gravel events, I think are going to become more popular. I think the triathlon needs to absorb some of those other interests, to pick up additional people that may otherwise be, shied away from the sport.

The swimming seems to be a big barrier for people and I don’t know how to bridge that but for a lot of people the swim is what scares them from participating.

BRAD BROWN:  You make a very interesting point there too Brice, with that swim, that Ironman as a business obviously have to cater for the weakest swimmer because if they get it wrong people die and you can’t have that in an event. One of the big criticisms is the loss of the rolling start. Kona you have that mass start which is special but I remember my first couple of Ironman’s were mass starts and I was an okay swimmer and it didn’t bug me too much, but I knew it petrified the living daylights out of some people. I feel that races lose something on those rolling starts. There’s something about standing on that line with 1,500 other people, singing the national anthem or listening to someone else’s national anthem and the gun goes and everyone runs to the water. I think that’s missing from the sport but like you say, the swim is the barrier, how do you get that balance right?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I think some races do the rolling start to cater to those folks that are really nervous about the swim and then other races keep them as a mass start and keep Kona as a mass start forever, that will never change. That’s a tough balance and then you also run into logistical challenges. Take Texas for example, it’s not an organized, it is a rolling start, but it’s not an organized rolling start where you’re really spreading people out, like St George have your starting age group every five or 10 minutes and that really spreads people out. In Texas, unfortunately, because you kind of throw everybody into the water in a period of two or three minutes, the bike becomes a logistical nightmare to police drafting. That might be a race where it would make more sense to do a rolling age group start where you’re putting everybody, you’re really spreading them out over a period of an hour, that makes the bike a lot more easy to police and referee. I agree with you, it’s a tough call.

BRAD BROWN:  I wouldn’t want to be the one making those calls, that’s for sure. You mentioned drafting and I think that’s one of the big challenges and Texas, every single year, the photos show up on social media and everyone has their 2c worth to say, but another thing that seems to becoming more prevalent is doping in age grouping, how big a problem do you think that is?

BRICE WILLIAMS:  That’s a good question. I’m kind of an optimist and I hope it’s not as prevalent as some people feel it is. I’ve talked to some professionals, triathletes and they feel like it’s just, everybody is doing it in both the professional and the age groups. I honestly have no clue how prevalent it is and that’s a difficult thing to police as well. It looks like they’re trying to make inroads a little bit on more frequent testing. I would be all for paying a little extra on my entry fee to make it mandatory for anybody that qualifies for Kona and anybody that’s on the podium at Ironman to be tested at the time of the race and if they go to Kona, then everybody has to be tested at some point, randomly outside of competition. That might be an extra 20 bucks for everybody’s entry fee to pay for that, but I would be all for that. I think there’s a petition going around that people are signing to try and get that into policy. I think if we tested more frequently people would not do it.

BRAD BROWN:  It’s an interesting one, I don’t know the answer to that question either, but again, I don’t get why age groupers would dope. It’s not like they’re setting themselves up financially and it’s all about, you know what, I’ve finished on a podium or I won a race. At the end of the day in my opinion there’s so much more to life than nailing your colors to that mast and that’s where you sit.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  Yeah, I agree. I really don’t think it’s as prevalent as some people think. I’m sure there’s some guys out there that are doing it but good for them, I guess. If they feel like that’s okay and that gets them a little bit better, I’m a little skeptic about how much it really helps an age grouper. The professionals, the difference between first place and 30th place is minutes. That’s where doping is really going to make a difference for that level, but for an age grouper, the difference between me going to Kona and not going to Kona, in some races can be 20-30 minutes, which I don’t know if doping is really going to increase someone that is at my level, we’re not pushing the absolute envelope. I don’t know, it would be an interesting experiment.

BRAD BROWN:  I think that’s human nature, wherever there’s some sort of competition, people are trying to cut corners, I guess that’s just the way it is. Brice, it’s been great catching up, I look forward to talking about your individual disciplines, but we’ll save that for another time, thanks for your time on The Kona Edge today.

BRICE WILLIAMS:  My pleasure.

 

About Us

Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).

Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.

He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.

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