Damien Coad lives and trains in Cairns, Australia and on this podcast he reveals how a very cool volunteering experience inspired him to Ironman action. This is his story.
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DAMIEN COAD: Thanks for having me Brad.
BRAD BROWN: Damien, your entry into the sport is an interesting one because you live in Cairns. I don’t know if that’s a blessing in disguise or not, because you’re literally on the doorstep of an Ironman race.
Living on the doorstep of an Ironman race
DAMIEN COAD: Yes. That’s true. I’m very lucky to live up here in Cairns and the place itself with the beautiful scenery and the people up here. Of course, the Ironman event being up here, I’m really blessed to have that right in our back yard. So, loving it.
BRAD BROWN: That was essentially your first introduction to Ironman. Having it on your doorstep, you volunteered before you started racing yourself. Tell us about your first Ironman experience.
DAMIEN COAD: That was an opportunity that arose through my boss who approached me, he knew I loved watching Ironman. I loved running and I loved trail running. He had an opportunity to volunteer himself and he asked if I wanted to. We had a good gig as the cyclists who ride with the lead Ironman and half Ironman men and women, and I was lucky enough to be the rider for the lead 70.3 athlete back in 2013. It was Sam Warriner as she came off the bike out of transition onto the run. It was quite an inspirational experience to ride next to her or behind her. Sometimes in front of her, and seeing what she was able to do given that she had just had a baby, 6-months earlier in the year.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible. Was it on that bike ride you decided you want to do this?
Volunteering inspires your competitive nature
DAMIEN COAD: Definitely. I think back then the race was designed so that you ran from out of town, and you ran into town before doing a loop for the full Ironman. For the half, you just ran into town. Cycling in front of Sam coming into the lined streets full of locals and family of all the contestants cheering. I think I may have gotten carried away thinking they were cheering me on. I don’t know if I rode ahead of her a bit too far but there was that urge to go faster even though I was just a volunteer. But I could tell you that as soon as I finished I gave her a hug, and promised myself that I would be there as an athlete the following year.
BRAD BROWN: And that’s the way it played out. That’s an incredible experience that I don’t think too many people get to experience. A lot of Ironman athletes are exposed to the sport as a volunteer. It might be working at an aid station or in the changing tent, or whatever it is. But being on that bicycle up front, I get goosebumps just thinking about it. It must be pretty cool.
Volunteering builds great respect for Ironman
DAMIEN COAD: Yes. If I think of my first experience of Ironman I would still equate it as good as actually finishing an Ironman myself. I was totally taken aback by the atmosphere and the amount of anticipation and cheering that every athlete got. Not just the professionals, not just the leaders, but every single athlete that participated. It’s a great atmosphere and environment.
BRAD BROWN: I want to urge people if you’ve never volunteered at an Ironman, maybe you got an entry and you can’t train for a race for whatever reason. Just go and offer your services. I was lucky enough a couple of years ago to be the race announcer alongside Paul Kaye at Ironman South Africa, and it was the most incredible experience. I loved it but I loved racing more because I loved that feeling. Being on that red carpet for 8 or 9 hours just welcoming everybody home and experiencing their finish with them. I get exactly what you’re saying. It does equate to you feeling it and having that high.
That’s why I have so much respect for guys like Paul Kaye and Mike Riley who have to lift themselves week in and week out to do that. It’s such an emotional drain and you’re on such a high then when you finish it, to come down is ridiculous. It’s like you’re finishing a race which is something special. But let’s take a step back and talk about your sporting pedigree, so to speak. Were you active and sporty growing up?
Going from team sports to individual sport
DAMIEN COAD: Yes, Brad, I did love my sport. I played a lot of different sports, I was a swimmer from a young age and swam competitively from when I was 10 or 11, at state level. Then my parents moved to the country and unfortunately I had been invited to go to the Institute of Sport in Canberra, but my parents wanted me to go with them to the country.
I stopped swimming and that opened up AFL Football, Basketball, Tennis, all these other individual and team sports which I have loved. I made a lot of good friends and I still love those sports. I don’t get to play them these days just from an injury aspect. But footy, basketball, tennis, any sport I could play that was around at the time I took up.
I was addicted to anything whether it was a ball sport or something that required endurance. I ran every day just because it was an instinctive thing for me to do whether I was training for a game coming up, or whether I was out of season, I always had the need to go running.
Nurturing your competitive streak
BRAD BROWN: As far as the other sports, you mentioned that you were a competitive swimmer, but were you any good at the others? As far as being good you obviously were competitive as well, that goes without saying. In order to be top in any sport you have to have that competitive streak.
DAMIEN COAD: You’re right. I think the underlying characteristic is that competitive streak I’ve always had in me. So, I played in a few premierships for football in under 16’s and under 18’s, and a few premierships for basketball and A-grade in tennis. I love ball sports and I really enjoy the team aspect, but I think what got me through all of them was my competitive nature and my determination.
That transferred into me always being quick and I ran non-stop no matter whether it was basketball or football. Or on the court with tennis. I think it was certainly my endurance with stamina and mixed with the competitive streak, that allowed me to celebrate a few wins with my mates.
You control the outcome of your race day
BRAD BROWN: Coming from a bit of a team sport background too where you have played those, is that one thing you miss about triathlon? Because it is very individual. Although you can be part of a club and have people around you, but on race day itself it’s about you and what you can do.
DAMIEN COAD: Yes, that’s true. On the day itself it’s entirely up to you. Everything is within your control and that’s what I like about this sport, is that you have control over everything you can do. Obviously, there are things you have no control over whether it be unexpected mechanical breakdowns or weather. But at the end of the day you can control a lot of it.
I really do enjoy competing out there on my own for long periods of time, and I enjoy training on my own. But having said that, I’ve got great friends I’ve met through the sport. My partner, I met her primarily through the sport and I think the sports given me that, more than anything else.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about meeting your partner through the sport. At least your partner then knew what she was getting into. I think a lot of people come to the sport and they’re already in an established relationship, and all of a sudden they get sucked into this cult and their life changes. As far as getting that balance right, talk to me about work and family life and how you juggle everything you do. What do you do for a living Damien?
Convert your free time into Ironman goals
DAMIEN COAD: I work for a large diving operation up here in Cairns. Pro Dive Cairns and I’ve been with them since 2011. I’ve worked as an instructor, a skipper, the HR manager and during most of my Ironman competitions, as marine operations manager. Being responsible for making sure the boats were maintained and we had refits and refurbishments on the vessels. We have 3 liveaboard boats that take people out to the great barrier reef.
So, in balancing that work, I had a work phone with me 24/7 so I could get calls any time of the day or night. It was always tricky trying to work out my training schedule. But since the end of last year, beginning of this year, I’ve taken a step back from managing, to working in the Pro Dive chain retail store. Now I have fixed hours that are predictable. I finish my day and can forget about any potential problems with work. I can schedule my training a lot better, get more sleep, a lot less stress. The balance is there for me to now move forward and try to convert that into some more performances.
BRAD BROWN: That’s the key, isn’t it? You mentioned balance, and I think that’s one thing age groupers who are trying to get better and qualify for the world champs, that’s something they really struggle with.
Finding a balance between work and life demands
DAMIEN COAD: In complete admiration for those top age groupers,or any age group, that have a family to take care of as well as juggling their work demands. I’m in complete awe of them for just finishing an Ironman. Let alone those that are competing at a top level. So, my hats are always off to them. A huge amount of respect goes there.
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting you talk about the change in work situation. Not that you can control your work environment, but I think a lot of employers today are a lot more open to allowing people to work remotely. As long as the work still gets done. You can then schedule training around that, and the time you would maybe spend commuting, you can then spend training. Even if you do it a day or two a week. It’s always worthwhile sitting down and looking how you can try to simplify your life, essentially. Especially when it comes to work.
When you want it badly enough
DAMIEN COAD: I was extremely lucky, my immediate boss at Pro Dive Cairns is an ex-Ironman competitor. He’s incredibly sympathetic and understanding of what my training demands were outside of work. He did give me a great deal of freedom and I think that really made a big difference to helping me being able to compete well. So, a lot of gratitude there.
Ultimately you just have to decide how committed you want to be. What you really want and how bad you want it, and then make the changes to get that balance. Like you said, sit down and work out what you need to do.
BRAD BROWN: The truth of the matter is you can’t do everything. So, certain things do need to be sacrificed. It might mean drinks down at the pub with your mates twice a week, that might be it. And if you’re willing to give that up, it’s cool.
The sweet taste of your first Ironman experience
Damien, let’s talk about racing and your first Ironman experience. Your first one is something you don’t ever forget. Tell me a little bit about your first one.
DAMIEN COAD: It was at Ironman Cairns 2014. It’s a bit of a blur apart from the finishing chute, but I loved it. It rained, it was windy, the swim went on forever and ever. Nutrition wise, I think I had 2 or 3 long toilet stops. But the local support as I mentioned before when I was a volunteer. As a local competitor now, just made everything worth it. By the end of it I felt like a whole new world had opened up for me and it was going to be the start of another big adventure in my life. It was awesome.
BRAD BROWN: How did you go in that first one from a time perspective?
DAMIEN COAD: Not too bad. I think I did bang on 10-hours and I had absolutely no idea what time to expect. There was really no plan apart from the advice I was getting from others and what I knew I had in myself. So, I was stoked to finish and I thought if I could just get rid of those toilet stops, then maybe I could get somewhere with this sport as far as an age grouper goes.
Don’t let conditions hamper your Ironman time
BRAD BROWN: I’m having a quiet chuckle to myself. Because I can hear the eyeballs rolling through the podcast of somebody listening to this and going, he had 3 long toilet stops and he finished bang on 10-hours. I get lots of emails Damien, of guys and girls who are chasing the Kona dream, but their first one maybe wasn’t close to 10-hours. Maybe it was 13 or 14-hours. But I’ve also heard lots of stories of people who finished in those sort of times and went on to qualify. Just because you didn’t go 10-hours in your first one, doesn’t mean you can’t get to the Big Island.
DAMIEN COAD: That’s true. There’s so many variables. Believe me, apart from those toilet stops, I didn’t have anything else left in me so there was nothing left to give. Maybe they helped me to go faster in other parts of the race because I was actually having a rest during those stops.
But yes, it’s true. Times mean nothing really. Conditions, who turns up on the day, What happens to all those other individuals. You’ve just got to give it your best shot and ignore the conditions. At New Zealand Ironman recently, and you are probably aware of conditions on the day. I just had to turn my watch off and worry more about pacing and handling the conditions than any sort of times. There’s a big range in the times between races and even the same race on different years.
BRAD BROWN: No. doubt. And that first one, what is the biggest lesson you learnt out of that first one?
Believe you can do it and you will
DAMIEN COAD: The biggest lesson, that’s a good question. The biggest lesson I learnt was that I could do it. I think that’s the first lesson. I went into it to see what would happen, so the lesson taught there wasn’t a negative lesson. It was a positive lesson, it was telling me you’re good to go for next year.
And I guess the second lesson was just to be more careful about what I eat before the race and during the race.
BRAD BROWN: When was the seed for Kona planted in you Damien?
Keep watering that Kona seed and watch it blossom
DAMIEN COAD: The second time I raced Cairns and I remember running with someone in my age group. About halfway through the run, he told me that I was 6th and he was 7th. I just remember punching the air thinking yes, I’ve made the top 10. This is good for me. Let’s just finish it now and I am absolutely stoked. So, I finished it and someone called me and said I’d come third.
There was no intention of making Kona until perhaps the following year. But it came incidentally just because I was focused on what I was doing and it happened a bit sooner than I expected. But after that, certainly once you’ve done one Kona, the seed’s well and truly blossoming and there’s no stopping the watering of that seed ever since.
BRAD BROWN: Ironmans in general are special. Your first one you mentioned, and I think anyone who’s listening to this, probably feels the same. Once you’ve done it, that first one never goes away. But your first Kona is special as well. Tell me a little bit about that first experience on the Big Island.
Make the Big Island your own experience
DAMIEN COAD: You hear so much about it and people who haven’t been there talk about it. Or people that have been once, twice, 10 or 15 times, that you hear more from about it. You’ve really just got to make it your own experience and take each day as it comes.
There had been absolutely no expectation as I’m sure a lot of first timers there, they just want to enjoy the experience. I remember the year 2015 and getting onto the run and thinking at the start of the run, it was a very hot year. A person just thought that was the standard weather pattern for race day, weather-wise for Kona. And I remember starting the run thinking, this is ridiculous.
I live in Cairns, a humid climate. I’ve trained in heat before but this is the next level and I remember thinking just make it to the aid station. So, I ran all the aid stations but each time I was literally just running for the next one and I just could not believe how hot it was.
Living and training in humid conditions can’t always prepare you
Anyway, I finished and I was so delighted to hear someone say that it was one of the hottest humidity days in Kona for several years. I was just thinking that was a stock standard day and thinking this was unbelievable. I was quite happy to be told that it was a hot day but I was happy to finish and it was an unforgettable experience.
BRAD BROWN: What makes that race special? There’s something about it, it’s mystical. You scare me, if someone who lives and trains in Cairns says Kona is hot, I think everyone else is probably quivering in their boots. But what makes Kona so special?
The beautiful but deadly heaven and hell of Kona
DAMIEN COAD: It’s a combination of the terrain. It’s heaven and hell. It’s beautiful but it’s deadly. And something that is difficult to get your mind around. You hear a lot of professionals and top age groupers talk about not trying to compete against the island. When it’s your day and you have done everything you had to, you will have a good race. I used to think that was all philosophical talk and people making it sound bigger than what it was. But having done it a couple of times now, heading there again this year, nothing could be truer.
Really, it is a mystical, magical place. The other thing was the people that live there and get behind the race. Not just the people that live there, but the volunteers that come over from mainland America and other countries. It’s an event. For me, it’s like going to an Olympics and watching a world run event. It’s just incredible.
Tough competition and tough minds in age groupers
BRAD BROWN: You’re in one of the most competitive age groups as well. That makes for some interesting racing as well on the Big Island. I say one of the most competitive, all the age groups on the island are competitive. But the ones between 40 and 50 are generally pretty fast. Your thoughts on those two age groups?
DAMIEN COAD: When I started in the 40-44 age group, I went up last year to the next age group 45-49, and I thought things should potentially get a bit easier. But those buggers are even more competitive and just as determined. There’s a lot that take it very seriously and you have to go about things in a professional manner in order to be competitive.
It’s tough out there. There’s some good athletes in that age group and being an endurance sport there’s some tough minds that you’re battling. Normally that used to be a strength of mine, that my mind could battle younger competitors but the guys in my age group are on an equal footing and their minds are just as tough. So, you’ve just got to do the work. It’s quite scary sometimes to see how good some of them are.
Chasing the perfect race at Kona
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Have you got unfinished business in Kona? What’s the ultimate goal? Have you had the perfect race there? Is it still out there, is that what you’re chasing?
DAMIEN COAD: Yes. It’s funny, the perfect race….
BRAD BROWN: Is there such a thing?
DAMIEN COAD: Definitely Brad. Last year I was certainly happy with my time, I was happy with my pace. I was hoping to maybe get into the top 20. But, got into the top 10 and finished 9th, which I am very happy with.
The strategy in your race plan
But being competitive we always like to look back and analyse the race. There’s certainly places for someone like myself, where there’s always room to improve. I might be old but I’m still relatively new to the sport so I’m still getting my head around it.
The bike is a big aspect of mine that I’ve been working on to try and develop strength just to shave off a few minutes. Obviously, the swim. I think I can be smarter and build my endurance strength on the swim. I’ve always been a fast, short leg swimmer. It’s just the longer distance for the swim. That’s certainly another aspect that I’ve worked on.
The whole time just maintaining that finishing leg with the run. Maybe working on shaving a couple of minutes there as well. I’ve always finished Kona the last few kilometers running very strong. My race planning could be strategized a bit better. Not that I think I’ve done anything wrong so far, but you’re always learning.
Working to get your disciplines equal
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. And as far as the things you’re working on right now, you mentioned your bike, if you look at your splits. Your run time is right up there. If you look at the top 10 in your age group, I think there are only 2 guys quicker than you in that top 10 on the run.
But your bike, I don’t want to say it’s letting you down, but that is the discipline that is a lot slower than the others. Is that where you spend most of your time and focus?
DAMIEN COAD: Yes. That’s true, Brad. I think this year, since Hawaii last year, I have really been focusing on putting in more quality hours and mileage on the bike, tweaking
Learn new things about yourself in an Ironman
With running, I know what pain is in a run. I’m just still learning how to ride. Learning what is a manageable threshold for me on the bike. It’s a huge learning area for me so I think I certainly ride better whilst maintaining the run. Just learning more about myself. And that’s of course, what you love about the sport. You’re learning about yourself all the time in a race. Yes, for sure, the bike is a focus.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned as well getting older. Not that you’re old by any stretch of the imagination, you’re still in your 40’s. But what are some of the struggles that come with that? Obviously, as you get older things tend to start slowing down. What are some of the struggles there for you?
DAMIEN COAD: I’ve certainly been fortunate as far as injuries go. I wouldn’t say I’ve had any major injuries that have disrupted any preparations. But I think you’ve got to be lucky not to have any niggles and things that can develop into injuries. I’m very fortunate, my partner is a physio as well and I can discuss things with her.
Stability training can improve your recovery
After Cairns, my first Ironman race, I was very aware of how I pulled up. I started an intense stability muscle building exercise for stability for a few months. Before I even started running or riding again. My recoveries and stretching, rolling, massage. There’s probably just as much, if not more of that going on, than any time on the road or treadmills or trails or in the pool.
BRAD BROWN: What is there still left to achieve? What are you chasing?
Know your Ironman performance limitations
DAMIEN COAD: I can’t say the perfect race because I think that can psychologically send people to their grave prematurely, trying to get the perfect race. I think nothing is ever going to go completely perfectly.
The mind’s a greedy thing. Sometimes in a race, if you feel good, it’s hard not to want to push it that extra 1 or 2 percent. If I can stick to my limitations in my plan and things like that, if I can make the top 5 in Hawaii then I think I’d be more than satisfied Brad.
BRAD BROWN: That sounds brilliant. Damien, thank you for your time and sharing your journey into the sport with us. I look forward to getting you on to talk a little bit about the individual disciplines and some of the things you’re working on and what you’ve learnt. We’ll save that for another day though. Thanks for your time.
DAMIEN COAD: Thanks Brad, cheers.
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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