On this edition of The Kona Edge we meet Subramani Venkatesh who originally began running to lose weight. We follow his story of how he became involved with triathlon and put his mind to training. Investing in a coach soon gave him the courage to recognise his talents and improve in his swim with two daily sessions. He shares his pride and disappointments with us as well as the reason he is determined to return to The Big Island.
BRAD BROWN: I am super excited to welcome our next guest onto the podcast and another first on The Kona Edge today and we head to Massachusetts in the United States and we are joined by Subramani Venkatesh. Subramani, welcome, thanks for joining us today.
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Thank you very much Brad, glad I could make it for this.
BRAD BROWN: Su, I say Massachusetts, that’s where home is for you right now, but you’re originally from India. You’ve been living in the US for almost a decade now, you consider obviously US home, but India is still a big part of where you’re from and where you grew up and it’s a big part of your life still?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Yes, because I spent two-thirds of my life in India, so I mean I still have some Indian blood going on, I cannot completely say I’m a US yet and I still have Indian citizenship, I belong to both US and India right now.
BRAD BROWN: Su, correct me if I’m wrong, but Ironman is not the biggest of sport in India. I think it plays a very small role compared to sports like cricket and field hockey, where did your interest in triathlon come from?
When friends are a strong influence this happens
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Okay, when I first moved to the States I was still pursuing only endurance sports like running. My triathlon influence came through friends that I was working out, doing cycling when I was not able to run because of a few injuries and issues, so I met a few cycling friends locally in Massachusetts four years ago and they sort of brought up this idea of hey, you look so thin, you’ve been running, you look like a triathlete, why don’t you give it a shot. All right, after one year of giving a thought on that, I managed to put in effort to learn the swim and there you go, all the triathlon career started from then.
BRAD BROWN: It’s incredible. When you chat to your family and friends you grew up with back home in India and you tell them what you’re doing, what do they say?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: They didn’t know anything about my starting career in triathlon up until two years ago when I first made my debut Ironman under 10 hours I would say, not debut Ironman, my first sub 10 hour Ironman. That’s when people all started thinking, this guy has some potential, so let’s publish him all over Facebook, that’s how people get to know me more.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s take a step back to growing up in Bangalore and your life as a kid. Were you always active as a youngster?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: I was very active I would say. I spent a lot of time outdoors playing all the time, either soccer or cricket, it’s not very formal. Like a soccer field go and play with all your gear, it’s just a typical, like very informal clothing, barefoot soccer, barefoot cricket. That’s how I grew up, but I was active throughout my life.
BRAD BROWN: Were you pretty competitive as a kid, did you hate losing?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: I cannot say I was pretty competitive when I was a kid but I would say yes, mostly when I want to do something I always try to do my best.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about very informal, obviously lifestyle is totally different to the lifestyle you have now. Looking back to the way you grew up in Bangalore, that’s one of the big differences. You talk about formal sport and yes, there is formal sport in India, but there’s a massive difference between the two countries, there’s obviously a lot of poverty in India and life is very different now isn’t it?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: It’s very different. I would say it’s like my life changed after I moved to the US. I was one of those kids who grew up in under middle class, not middle class. I would say slightly above poverty line where I could manage to survive eating two meals a day very easily, that kind of life I led. So yes, it’s a big change for me moving to the US, very comfortable life. I could afford to spend on the gears that I want to more easily than compared to India, yes.
BRAD BROWN: Su, I also read something that you had put on quite a bit of weight, one of the reasons you got involved in running and more cycling was to lose a little bit of weight. Tell me a bit about that.
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Yeah, see, I was such an active person while I was a kid, I paid a lot of attention in Bachelor’s degree for education, I just wanted to graduate and get a job and I focused so much on that I totally forgot about my active lifestyle, playing soccer or cricket outside and I did not know that was playing such a big impact in gaining weight. I thought gaining weight in India was such a healthy aspect, but that was not true because when I was commuting to the office which was taking all the time, public transport, I did not find that comfortable carrying the extra weight on me.
I came to the conclusion that I would like to lose some weight and see how that impacts my real life and I did not know anything except running. I started running and doing moderate diet and I also cut out a lot of junk food that I used to eat. Within three months I saw big results of losing, going from 80kg to 75kg and I saw a true impact, a good impact on me overall. In terms of my mindset and the way that I was feeling that impressed me to go and pursue more and keep my running active all the time. It played a big role in my losing weight and keep me active while running.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, you obviously mentioned the cycling, but the swimming was a big challenge to you, when you took it up. I also read something that you were swimming twice a day, you had really studied it hard and you knew you had to put in the hard work and you were swimming twice a day until you became proficient?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: I wouldn’t say proficient because that’s the last term I would use right now because I’m still learning in this sport. The swim is something very technical but I made a significant improvement in the last four years. One of the things that took me so long to start triathlon was when I first started, when I wanted to do a triathlon was 2009, but then I couldn’t really pursue triathlon because swimming was holding me back and I thought water is such a tough thing. I cannot learn the sport, it’s really technical, I can sin. All those scary things were going on in my mind and it finally took me a couple of years to decide, 2011 when I decided to start swimming and I took a swim coach and I started triathlon training then.
BRAD BROWN: Can you remember your first triathlon race you did?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Yes, it was 2012, July, I think it was the 13th, a sprint triathlon where I swam like 700m in 40 minutes, I think, that was my first triathlon in 2012.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible, you’re giving the rest of us hope, do you know that? You talk about that first one and how far you’ve come, it’s incredible.
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Yes, it is challenging to start, but I see that anybody can do the sport very easily. It’s a matter of mind of matter.
Deciding hard work is what you want
BRAD BROWN: The time you put in on the swim, you said you went and found a swim coach. I read you were swimming twice a day, that was obviously a decision and it speaks a lot to your work ethic, that you had made the decision, you were going to do this and that just means you have to do the work.
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: You definitely have to do the work. The biggest part and I also think that is my positive characteristic. I’m very stubborn, when I want to learn something new, I put my whole mind and I also want to, I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, I want to learn it quickly. That was my mindset back then, that’s the reason I was spending so much time in the pool, like morning and evening.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. The step up from a sprint triathlon to an Ironman distance triathlon is huge and it freaks a lot of people out, they think there’s no ways, especially after that first one, it’s scary. That first swim you do where you get kicked and punched and if you after that think gee, I’ve got to go and do what if I’m doing an Ironman. Can you remember when you made the decision to do your first Ironman and the thought process that went into that?
No time to over-analyse – just do it
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: The decision I made for my first Ironman, I feels like it just happened yesterday. It’s the same time frame like now, in November and December, when I made the decision in 2012 to do an Ironman, it’s in the same time.
How it began was, this November season we have something called indoor cycling classes in Newberry Port, which is near to my home here and I was attending a class on Saturday and after the classes we all get together and sit in a coffee shop and talk to each other and how the triathlon was going on and stuff like that and a friend of mine sitting next to me talks about his Ironman career and all of a sudden he says: Hey Subu, I have a slot for you for Ironman for 2013, I can definitely get you a slot, do you want to do it? I came home, was thinking so long and all of a sudden this guy booked a slot for me, without giving me any pre-notice and I said: Oh-oh, there is no way I can get out of this. All right, I gave my word, now I’ve got to do it, that’s how my first Ironman began. I had not made up my mind until end of November 2012.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think it’s sometimes best to just do that, that you almost go into it blind where you don’t really, you don’t want to over-think it because sometimes you get that paralysis by analysis if you think about it too hard, you just want to commit and then do the work?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: You may do it, sometimes it’s wise, sometimes it’s not wise. I would definitely encourage any youngsters that’s first coming into triathlon to give a shot for a short distance, figure it out, various time and understand what’s your potential. Definitely the first attempt of Ironman you can give a shot and see if you’re really qualified to do it. I’m not saying qualify or it’s something that’s really interesting for you and you can spend a lot of time training, you can give a shot. After your first Ironman, then you can make a decision whether you want to fit into that short distance guy or a long distance guy and then pursue a life to continue long distance, that’s what I would say.
BRAD BROWN: I’m taking it in your experience you figured out that you like the long stuff?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: I am a long endurance guy, I would say I can handle long distance much better than the short distance. Maybe I did not spend much time training for short distance but even then, I would say I can manage to some extent the pacing very well for long distance rather than short distance.
BRAD BROWN: Subu, when did you realise you were actually pretty good at this? How long into your career, was it that first Ironman that you did, when you thought, you know what, I’m actually good at this and I’m going to invest more time and try and get faster. When did you realise you had some talent?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: I did not see that I’m good because if I would have said I’m good, I would have stopped a long time back, I wouldn’t have pursued learning. I pursued in such a way that I want to do much better because I thought that I did not do good, so that’s how I ended up doing the next Ironman and I felt like, oh, I felt like I could do much better after doing more training. My first Ironman ended up being self-coaching, the next few Ironman’s were with a coach. I found my potential was really great, I can do much better with coaching, so that’s how I kept getting better and better and I felt like I can do much better and I was getting more and more into it.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about that first Ironman and particularly the process during the race and how hard it is, was it harder than you thought it was going to be? Was it easier than you thought it was going to be? Describe to me the feeling of finishing your first Ironman.
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: The first Ironman I would always say it’s very special for me, it is where things all changed in my life. I would say I certainly knew that I could finish the race, I don’t know why I had that confidence, maybe it’s over-confidence, I would say, but I see that endurance sports I can definitely finish. But I certainly found it very hard because I did not know how to pace on the bike and there were other times when my mind was drifting. I was not paying attention to my nutrition, so I literally bonked in the race. I also say I bonked in the race because a couple of things went wrong.
I did not learn the course very well, in my second loop of the bike I didn’t know where to stop to get the special needs for nutrition. So I ended up missing taking my special needs where I had two bottles of my special nutrition, so I couldn’t take it. By the time I hit 90 miles I was completely out of nutrition and I was drinking on course food. Back then I did not know all the nutritional concepts. Those drinks were too sugary and my body did not absorb them and after 90 miles I totally bonked. It was a real struggle and I finished the bike, I sat in the transition, T2 and I took a nap! It took almost 10 minutes for me to get over that bonking and then I paced myself for the run, a little bit slower than I generally would train with.
That was a big learning curve in my career of Ironman and since then I don’t forget my special needs, even if it’s a 30 second stop to pick up my nutrition, I don’t mind. I stop and pick up my special needs and I go. It was a great experience for me and a lot of learning came into the picture and I also said, yes, definitely if I get coached by somebody, I can do much better, I felt like that.
BRAD BROWN: Describe the feeling of going down that finish and crossing the finish line on your first one?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Back then, Lake Placid race was really special and famous to everyone in the North East of America and it’s been special for me even today because I qualified there for Kona. Coming into that [inaudible 0.18.57] the people are so crowded, the energy is so high, I can still think about it, crossing that finish line in the daylight, people were all shouting your number and name. Some people who knew you, it was incredible, I was so happy that I was crossing that finish line, I was really happy.
BRAD BROWN: Subu, you’ve obviously improved a lot since that first one, can you remember what your finishing time was on that first one?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: I remember every Ironman I’ve finished til now. My first Ironman was 10:58.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible, to go under 11 in your first is fantastic, you’ve obviously gone a lot faster since then, but you obviously have the ability. How soon after that first one did you think: I want to do that again?
The Kona dream inspired training
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: It did not take very long. I came back home, within a week I signed up for Mont Tremblant. I would say 2-3 weeks after that was Mont Tremblant which was second time being held in that place. Not that long ago, after I finished Lake Placid I ended up signing the Mont Tremblant race. It took me only a week to decide.
BRAD BROWN: When did Kona first pop up on your radar where you thought maybe I should try and see if I can qualify for that thing?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Yeah, Kona was in my mind the day that I finished Ironman Lake Placid. I mean to say that was a race that I’d watched on TV which inspired me to go chase Ironman race, I admit that. I saw that on the TV, I saw these people, not only physical challenged people finishing it, there were some people, like senior citizen people crossing those finishing lines and beating their chests, inspired me, like saying if these people can do it, I definitely can do it and then I put my mind to it, I wanted to do Kona and definitely that was there from the day when I started Ironman training.
BRAD BROWN: Subu, what’s the thing you’re most proud of when it comes to your triathlon career right now?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: I’m most proud about being the first Indian who was born in India, brought up and coming to the States, training hard, going into Kona as the first Indian, that makes me feel really proud about triathlon for me.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, I know a guy and I’m going to call him out here cause I’m going to put some pressure on him, he’s a guy that I know from South Africa, he’s from Angola, a guy by the name of Miguel and he spends a lot of time in Angola, but racing in Europe as well and he’s working so hard to try and become the first Angolan to quality and race on the Big Island and it’ll happen, but obviously it takes a lot of work and dedication. If you could go back and tell Subu who is starting out in Ironman career, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself, what would you do differently, what would you spend more time working on?
Consider triathlon as one sport
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: I would tell whoever trains in the triathlon and wants to go to Kona, if you are a triathlete, don’t see each discipline as different, see everything as one. Triathlon is a race of three disciplines but if you want to go to Kona, you should be good in all three. Think that you are spending time equally, reasonably, in all three and make sure that everything, when you do a swim, think like you’re a swimmer. When you’re a cyclist, think like a cyclist, when you’re running, think like a marathon runner, but when you put it together, think of it as one sport and make sure you focus very well in everything you do, that’s what I would say.
BRAD BROWN: Out of the three disciplines, which is your strongest?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: My strongest is, I would say equally bike and run, they’re both the same for me, bike and run, the swim is the weakest part.
BRAD BROWN: As a triathlete, that’s a nice problem to have, having an equal run and bike isn’t it?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Yes, it is, I feel lucky to have an equal balance between the two, but having said that, I still train a lot on the cycling. My run training is really low, but intensity-wise it’s high. That’s the one thing that made a big difference last year in the running for triathlon for me.
BRAD BROWN: Subu, as far as work goes, I know you work a full day, what do you do for a living and how do you juggle the demands of training for three sports essentially and working fulltime?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Definitely it’s a challenge for me, balancing work and home and at the same time triathlon training. I work from home and that gives me a big advantage at times, saving my time in commute and spending my time on training a little, that’s an added advantage for me. Having said that, I still go early, finish off my training and that also helps me out to focus on my work and get off work early in the evening, like 5:00 or 5:30 and start my training again. Sometimes I take a lunch break and sacrifice my lunch time, a long lunch, instead I go for a run or a short spin if that’s what’s allocated in my training, but mostly my afternoon I go for a run and then come back and eat my lunch, 10 minutes for me, that’s it.
BRAD BROWN: Subu, I’m going to ask you a question here because this is something I struggle with. I work from home, but I often find myself, you talk about shutting up and going out and training at let’s say 5:30, I find it really difficult to stop working when I need to stop working, is that something you struggle with? If I’m working, before I know it it’s 7:00pm or 8:00pm and I’m still in front of my computer. It’s not ideal, but the discipline to be able to switch off and go: That’s my work day done; I’m going to go and train. How do you balance that?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Sometimes when I have a call with a team or my manager or any colleagues or friends it’s difficult to shut off. For the most part my calls won’t be happening after 5:00, so it’s easy to shut off. However, having said that, I come back and work after 8:00, after my supper, that kind of balances out for me, to do extra work if I can’t work after 5:00, so definitely it’s at 8:00 or 8:30 that I start until bedtime at 10:00.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me about your experience on the Big Island in 2016, obviously first visit this year, was it harder than you thought it was going to be, was it exactly what you thought it was going to be, how did things pan out on the day for you?
Kona, it’s a hard race
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Brad, to be honest with you, when I landed on the Big Island my first thing was to enjoy the race as much as possible, being the first timer, I wanted to learn about the course and I wanted to see what it can offer me in terms of swim, bike or run and basically I took it like a learning curve this time, understanding the nature of the course. People talk about wind, heat and waves in the water, all those things they talk about, so when I landed on the Big Island the first thing was, I calmed my mind, but there was some pressure for me being the first Indian to be doing this race, I wanted to finish successfully and strong in this race, that was all that was going on in my mind, for the most part. Being on the island was also a great thing for me. I saw these people training every day, in the morning, I took their energy as like oh, I’m going to compete with these best people, I felt really proud to be there. I enjoyed every bit of it and also the island is kind of a vacation place, it helped me to relax more also at the same time.
BRAD BROWN: And as far as the race itself, is it as hard as people say it is?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: It is harder than any race I did, definitely. Having said that, because they put all the experienced people, put on your mind so much that the race is going to be hard and you definitely expect it to be hard, so you’ve already prepared your mind that it’s going to be hard. There was no point in worrying so much for me. There were some technical issues that happened in the race that took away my fun, I would say, but definitely it is a harder race than anything I’d done because I don’t do good in the wind, that’s my problem.
As soon as I hit 28 miles on the bike, the wind started picking up and I couldn’t really deal with the wind, climbing up Hawi, it was a tough race, all the way on Hawi, I couldn’t wait to return back, thinking that the wind will settle down and I’d have a tail wind, that’s what I thought, but it was a hard race. While coming back from Hawi, my [inaudible 0.30.44] was not shifting at all because my battery died and I was coming in the chain ring totally easy, lost my time while coming back. It was so hard that I was drinking so much water and totally forgot about how I’m taking my nutrition.
By the time I came back into transition, I felt like I’d lost significant time on my bike because of small chain ring and spinning high cadence, my heart rate was a little bit higher which tired my heart and my run impacted a little bit in the first few miles where I always do sub 7 mile run, but ended up doing like 7:15 or 7:30 pace. It was kind of tough and the toughest part of the Kona was Queen K, it was so hard and I cannot believe that heat coming out from the black rocks and the pavement. At the same time the rolling hills did not do any better in that place. I was sweating too much, at the same time I was also feeling very hot. Overall I slowed on my pace and I just wanted to finish. I calmed myself and I just took it as a learning experience and I wanted to go back, that’s what I said.
BRAD BROWN: I asked you about your first one, how long after that race did you decide you wanted to do that again, how long after finishing Kona did you decide you wanted to go back and race again?
Committing to your next Kona on the finish line
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: The very next moment, like I crossed the finish line and said I want to come back and at least do better than what I did. I want to redeem where I did things wrong.
BRAD BROWN: Looking back at your triathlon career as it stands right now, there’s still lots to go, you’re still young, what’s been your biggest disappointment and what have you learnt from it?
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: The biggest disappointment is the Kona thing, the bike, being so focused in recovery and totally forgetting about charging my battery, that’s where I made the biggest mistake in the triathlon and the other biggest thing was I said, the first Ironman I did not do very good in nutrition, that was my learning curve, so those were the two things, the biggest learning that I did in my career.
BRAD BROWN: Subu, I’m going to chat to you about the various disciplines, the swim, the bike and the run as well dig more into your nutrition, but we’ll save that for next time out. Thanks for your time today on The Kona Edge, much appreciated.
SUBRAMANI VENKATESH: Thank you Brad, nice talking to you, it was a pleasure I was able to talk to you about all this, it’s great.
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