Triathlon saved my life – The Bob McRae Ironman Kona Story
Today on The Kona Edge we catch up with Bob McRae who shares an incredibly inspiring Ironman story with us.
Being ready to race Ironman, Bob shares the challenges of his debilitating disease with us.
Swim faster without spending more time in the water
Discover the 4 most common swim killers and how to fix them so that you can shave minutes off your swim time.
BRAD BROWN: We head to Denver in Colorado right now and it’s a great pleasure to welcome onto The Kona Edge, Bob Mc Rae. Bob welcome onto the podcast. Thanks for joining us.
BOB MCRAE: Thanks for having me Brad.
BRAD BROWN: Bob over the last few weeks we’ve had a few people from Colorado here on the podcast and there’s a thriving triathlon community in that neck of the woods. It’s a great place to live and train.
BOB MCRAE: Yes I’ve enjoyed it. We moved here about 5 years ago and I appreciate being able to just run out my front door and run on the open space trails. It’s great.
BRAD BROWN: And for you, you’re not originally from there so you really appreciate it. I think guys and girls who grew up and live in areas like that really take it for granted. But you know what it’s like not having that luxury.
BOB MCRAE: Yes, we moved out here about 5 years ago from California. Obviously the weather is different there so we’re blessed in that respect. But it’s been nice to be able to just leave the door and go out training without having to ride for an hour to get out on some open roads for example.
BRAD BROWN: Yes absolutely. As far as your foray into triathlon, where did it all start for you?
Hooked into triathlon in the first attempt
BOB MCRAE: Well actually my wife came home one evening and said one of her co-workers wanted to do triathlon and this is the time when I was doing a little bit of mild running, and I said okay it sounds good.
So we signed up and that was the Pacific Road Olympic distance and it was about 6 months away; neither one of us were triathletes by any means. We actually weren’t even swimmers at that point.
That’s when I really started training and preparing for swimming which was an eye opener of course, so that’s where it started, the 2004 timeframe.
BRAD BROWN: So it’s been a while. You’ve been around the sport for a while now. Were you hooked after that first one or did you need some more convincing?
It’s all about having fun
BOB MCRAE: Oh no, it was a blast. I was hooked. In fact I signed up for a race just about a month later right after that. Hadn’t really considered doing anything after but I was so excited about how it went and how much fun it was, I had to do it again.
That was towards the end of the season so I had to wait another 3 or 4 months before getting started again, except it was more like 5 or 6 into the next season.
BRAD BROWN: What was it that made that experience so enjoyable for you Bob?
BOB MCRAE: I think it was the same for a lot of folk. That great deal of uncertainty and anxiety. Huge amount of preparation for something that occurs in a relatively short period of time.
The performance was good but it just all came together nicely and I was reasonably competitive, I don’t mean like quoting a marathon like that but certainly better than I had expected. It was just nice to be able to accomplish something after preparing for it for so long. Something so different.
Do something different
BRAD BROWN: From a sporting background, you mentioned before you signed up for that first one, you had done a bit of running. Have you always been active? Growing up were you an active kid?
BOB MCRAE: I was active at getting in trouble. No. Early in my grade school I had some talent in running and oddly enough relatively shorter distances. But as I got into high school I got distracted with other things. I wasn’t active at all, it wasn’t until actually I got out of college but there’s the navy in between.
I was probably in my late 20’s before I actually started to get into any sport and even then I thought 40 miles a week running was extreme. And I ran my first marathon, I was going to run with my brother-in-law and his goal was a 4 hour marathon. So I ended up doing that with him and I was probably around 30 years old or so. At that time I was about 180 pounds which for a 6ft 1 guy is not that heavy but for me that’s pretty heavy.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me about the trouble. Was it good trouble or bad trouble?
BOB MCRAE: I don’t think I want to talk about it too much but it was bad trouble. I was a trouble kid. I’m surprised I’m still here.
Improving performance at longer distances
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about taking triathlon seriously. That first one you do the training, you take up swimming, when did you decide you know what, I’m actually pretty good at this thing. I want to give it a good go.
BOB MCRAE: I think it was probably the next year, or maybe the year after, when I did my first half and I realised as the lengths got longer, I got more competitive. And I could see that in my training as well and it was just a lot of fun.
So I kept lengthening the distances and I think it was the third year, I did an Ironman. I look back at that and how naive I was at the time. I come from very modest genes.
Both my parents were sedentary and between my sister and my parents, they’re not athletic by any means. They try to be active but when I came out it was coming from, probably the middle pack capability. My first Ironman I had the lofty goal of going sub-10 and I actually got very close, I was 10:07.
Continued commitment reaps teh rewards
I think those first 3 years or so was just really focusing on the training and putting in a lot of time and having a very good first Ironman. I was hooked from the first one but it just kept getting more and more intense and my commitment continued to grow.
BRAD BROWN: Your build up into that first one, regarding a lot of the athletes that I chat to here on The Kona Edge, is a pretty good progression. A lot of triathletes sort of get into the sport and within their first season they’re doing their first Ironman. Do you think it was a wise decision to build up over those 3 years and have that base to launch off of so to speak?
BOB MCRAE: Oh for sure. I look at this as a lifelong lifestyle and to jump in and go to an Ironman right away, in some respects makes it a little bit easier but it’s a lot of stress on the body, a lot of uncertainty. If it’s sort of a one and done thing I think it’s probably fine.
One and done or a lifestyle commitment?
But if it’s going to be something you’re going to do for a while, then I think you’ve got to take it easy and build into it. And I think that that’s probably what explains some of my recent, I call it success, in the sport is that I built that base and worked on it for a long time to get away with a lot less these days.
BRAD BROWN: Yes and it’s interesting because one of the things that pops up time and time again is the consistency. And consistency over time more than anything and by the sounds of it you are the poster boy for that story.
BOB MCRAE: Well, to some degree. When we talk about the health as being probably one of the most important things and you know, I’ve actually struggled with health over the last 5 years and without health it’s hard to be consistent.
Constant effort and desire to improve
With health, it’s easy and as long as you’re committed. I try to do what I can each day, every day and some days it’s enough, it’s good. And some days it’s a struggle to just get through an easy 2 mile run. But just I think a constant effort and desire to improve is really most critical.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talks about those health issues of late. I say of late, you mention the last few years. What have been some of your big health challenges that you have to overcome and are still overcoming?
BOB MCRAE: It’s been a long history actually. It was right after my daughter was born in 2010 so it actually goes back 7 years ago. In a 3 month period, I got myself from completely de-trained to Ironman level, prepping for half Ironman, the beginning part of that next season.
Consistent training when disease strikes
I think my first race was Wildflower in 2011 and I could tell just the day before that something was really off. My allergies were really bad, I couldn’t sleep. I got onto the bike and it was the first race I’d ever been in where I didn’t want to race. I just wanted to hop off the bike and be done with it that day. But I struggled through and it was probably one of my worst performances.
From that very specific day I started to experience more and more symptoms. I’ve got asthma so my asthma was really bad, my allergies were really bad, I had this skin disorder, almost like a rash. Had achy joints and all kind of stuff and I started checking it out after it didn’t go away after several weeks.
My primary care physician actually brought up the concept of it being Lyme disease and I had no idea what Lyme disease was. So I heard him and went on and it ended up being another 5 or 6 or 7 physicians of different specialties. It took me probably a year and a half to finally get to a real Lyme doctor and I was actually diagnosed with Lyme disease.
Ready to race Ironman to being disabled
I’m not sure how much you want to get into the background of what that is and what that entails but it’s a pretty serious deal. It got me to the point where I was a Kona qualifier prior to that, to me having difficulty playing with my daughter in the playground. It just totally disabled me.
BRAD BROWN: That’s crazy. For some folks that don’t know, tell us a bit more about Lyme disease. What is it and go into some of the daily battles that you’ve had with it.
Tick bite passes disease onto humans
BOB MCRAE: It’s a disease that’s typically passed on from, I think the only documented cases are from tick bites. But only about a third of the people who get this tick bite even know that they have it. I don’t remember ever actually getting a tick bite, but these ticks carry this disease and they pass it on humans. It causes a host of issues.
Basically any sort of weakness that you had going into it is totally exploited. In my case allergies, asthma, stomach issues. I probably had all kinds of parasites at the time which I can talk about in recent history as well. You think about it as a parasite in your gut and you would think that you would just have gut issues, but as I’ve learned recently it can affect everything. Brain fog, depression, joint issues, fatigue, you name it.
I’m dealing with one right now unfortunately that my max heart rate is probably down by 20 beats per minute which means basically all my paces are off and my training sucks. That’s a big part of what people with Lyme disease have to deal with.
Medical fraternity doesn’t recognise the disease
Not to mention the fact that most medical specialties don’t even recognise the fact that it exists or they don’t treat it as a legitimate disease and therefore a lot of people go untreated for a long time and have lasting effects. Many people in fact have neurological impacts. Problems seeing very well, problems thinking very well, it’s pretty scary.
BRAD BROWN: It does sound like it. As far as prognosis goes Bob, you talk about the struggles at the moment, is it something you can keep under control or does it keep popping up and manifesting itself in different areas?
BOB MCRAE: You know I’d like to say that you can get completely cured, but I’m not entirely sure. I think that it depends on when you got it and how bad it was and how good the treatment was.
Lifestyle change can help you recover from disease
I think in my case after getting diagnosed properly and getting some pretty significant medication, I think I spent about 6 months on antibiotics, I was able to eradicate the majority of the disease and regain my life. Which was right around the time we moved out here to Colorado.
But I do believe that probably set off some problems I’ve been dealing with over the last 5 years. Including the fact that I probably destroyed my entire gut flora and as a result just having a weakened overall immune system. So in some respects it’s been dealt with and can be dealt with, but I think that even in my case it wasn’t fully dealt with because I didn’t rebuild that gut flora very well.
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting because you talk of an immune system that’s taken a beating. When you’re training for an Ironman and training hard, your body does take a beating and to throw this on top of it.
Tell me about from a training perspective, how have you managed to bounce back from this? What are some of the things you’ve done? Is it a case of just taking it day by day and if it means you might never race an Ironman hard again so be it. But you almost need to start from scratch. How have you approached it?
Do what you can each day, every day
BOB MCRAE: Well like I said earlier, I do what I can each day, every day. Some days that’s not a lot. I remember when I was affected I was trying to figure out what to do. Some medical professionals would say that exercise is good; some would say it’s not good.
While I needed it to help keep me sane and feel like I was normal again. In a lot of ways I say that triathlon or Ironman had saved my life because if I hadn’t had that prior experience, I wouldn’t have had the drive to come back. Basically, I remember there was a month period where I was on the run every day and all I can do right now is run 2 miles. So that’s what I did. And I was slow and it was hard but I did it.
I think that’s the same for anybody. Anything that they’re dealing with if they just focus on doing what you can each day and training to improve over time. That was the key. Finally your body will only let you do so much. We all probably want to do a lot more but the key I think is just listening to your body and being smart about how much to push and when to push and when to relax and just go with the flow.
Being smart and listening to your body
BRAD BROWN: In this whole journey is there anything that you would have changed or done differently to speed up your recovery so to speak?
BOB MCRAE: Well it’s hard to say that because I feel like I’ve learnt a good amount but I didn’t know any better at the time. But it would have been great if I could have found a Lyme doctor sooner so that I didn’t actually spend 18 months trying to figure out what the heck was going wrong with me. I would have spent the time recovering more quickly.
Right after that, after all the antibiotics, I spent a lot of time working on improving my immune system and my gut. Firstly my gut.
BRAD BROWN: Bob, as far as your triathlon career over the years that you’ve been involved in the sport, what are you most proud of?
Getting back to Kona after debilitating disease
BOB MCRAE: I think it’s probably getting up to my bike with Lyme disease. A lot of people I think wouldn’t have been able to come back. They wouldn’t have continued to try and be demoralised day after day. But persevering and keeping at it.
As I started getting better and we moved here I think it was 2012/2013 timeframe, I had my first Ironman back and I basically had a great race up until mile 9 of the run. Which is very early in the run but it showed me I could do it again.
I don’t know at what specific point or what specific thing but just the overall coming back for me was the most important. Getting back to Kona in 2014 was probably the most important thing. Overall it’s been like 1 event.
BRAD BROWN: Coming through this and battling this, has it changed your perspective on life in general?
Appreciate your full mobility
BOB MCRAE: Yes I think so. It’s given me a much greater appreciation for what I’m able to do. Just being able to walk, to run, to ride, and try to swim. Just to be active and to be able to actually have full mobility. The freedom to be able to do that I’ve come to really appreciate it.
BRAD BROWN: How mentally tough has this challenge made you?
Be the best you can be today
BOB MCRAE: It’s hard to say. It’s about being demoralised, it’s doing that to myself of course because I’m comparing what I’m doing today or now, to my best or to yesterday which is irrelevant.
I think it’s just been a matter of learning to persevere and to give credit to battling to get back to where you want to be. You want to be better than you were yesterday. Or to be the best you can be today. Which is probably the ultimate way to look at it.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Bob looking at Kona and qualifying for Kona, I get asked this question quite often. I have of late been asking the age groupers that I chat to, what’s the secret in your mind, to qualifying to race on the Big Island?
Wanting Kona badly
BOB MCRAE: I think there are 2 things. Number 1, you’ve got to want it fanatically and I think that’s probably the easiest thing for a lot of folks. And number 2, is to be patient. It’s time in sport. It’s something that unless you’re really extraordinarily capable, it’s something that should plan on taking 5 years. And if it comes in 1 year or 3 years that’s great, but it will take time.
BRAD BROWN: What does wanting it fanatically mean to Bob Mc Rae? Tell me about how badly you wanted it.
BOB MCRAE: It’s basically where I’m at today. My season’s been derailed unfortunately but this has been the season that was going to be my best ever. I’ve been going for some lofty goals this year. Greater than even last year and I’ve been told by at least 1 trusted person that I should probably throw in the towel, at least for now. And take a step back and do something different.
The drive that won’t let you give up
Work on my bucket list and taking it to heart, and it was probably 3 weeks ago that this person told it to me and I’m really struggling to train right now unfortunately. keep thinking about it but when I think about my bucket list it comes back to being great in sport right now. Western States or Olympic 100 or something, it just kind of defeats the purpose of what this person was suggesting.
I keep coming back to “I can still turn this around and if it’s not now it will be later”. It’s almost instinctual. It’s a drive that just won’t let me give up.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to ask if you’ve considered throwing in the towel and I’m sure there have been times where it’s really tough and you go “you know what, I’m done”. But what is it about sport and triathlon that makes you want to be better?
As much as racing on the Big Island is cool and you get to race against the best in the world, at the end of the day each of us, we’re essentially just racing ourselves. What do you think that is about? Is it hot-wired in all of us or is that a special gift that some of us have and others don’t?
Achieve something incredible
BOB MCRAE: I think it’s more the latter. Some people are Type A’s and some are not and I think that the people that are driven to this sport. Especially the top end of the age group ranks and obviously the pro’s, they have to be the best that they can be. For those people I think it’s hot-wired. It’s the frontier. For me, it’s the only chance I have and it’s just a way to achieve something incredible.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the balance and keeping family life and work and training and everything going, what is your secret to keeping the balance right? You’re not training for an Olympic distance triathlon when you’re racing on the Big Island, there’s a lot that goes into it and at some stage something’s got to give. How do you get that balance right?
BOB MCRAE: Well I think that for me adding triathlon to my life was actually a great balance because otherwise I would have spent all my time working. I do have a young family and I would probably end up spending more time with them if I wasn’t doing this.
When illness forces you to keep training sessions short
I think these days the trick or the secret, probably for most part,is a few things. 1 periodicity and 2 the base that I established over the years, years ago. So as we talked about earlier, easing into the sport, increasing the distance over a period of years, establishing really good aerobic base which will stay with you for a very long time.
And then these days the periodicity for the most part I keep my training relatively short and not doing an extraordinary amount of training. Certainly not like consistent 20 hour weeks or more. I’d say my last season was probably my best season in my career and I probably spent 12 hours a week training, on average.
As I got closer to Boulder and Kona I probably got that up to be maybe, I don’t even know if I got to 20 in any given week. It was maybe like an 8 week period for Boulder where it probably got closer to 20. But for most part, most of the year was closer to 12. Short part sessions consistently. A lot of doubles, sometimes triples and I think that was probably the key.
BRAD BROWN: Still left to achieve in the sport, looking ahead, what do you still want to achieve in the sport of triathlon and Ironman, Bob?
The dream of a sub-9 Kona
BOB MCRAE: Sub-9.
BRAD BROWN: Simple as that?
BOB MCRAE: That’s right. Sub-9 Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: Why would that be important to you?
BOB MCRAE: Because it seems infallible, difficult, and impossible. At least I would have considered it a few years ago but I believe I can do it and if I can turn things around I can do it this October.
BRAD BROWN: If you could go back and chat to yourself ahead of that first Olympic distance triathlon, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself?
BOB MCRAE: If I had to tell myself during that first triathlon?
BRAD BROWN: Yes.
BOB MCRAE: Have fun. That’s probably it.
BRAD BROWN: You laugh about it but that is so important. We get into the sport for various reasons. Whether it’s to stay healthy or we’re competitive. So often you see it and you can hear them speaking and they almost hate what they’re doing. Having fun is a pre-req. It should go without saying but so many triathletes aren’t having fun.
The importance of having fun in your triathlon training
BOB MCRAE: I know. The drive and I think volume is a big part of that. Probably the biggest part of it and I can’t even tell you how many rides I’ve got out of. Runs, I’d just started out and it was the last thing I wanted to. When I ended it was the last thing I wanted to do.
But these days if I feel like that I’ll just turn around and go home. I know that it’s favoured me because I can come back and get far more quality out of it the next time when I am ready.
BRAD BROWN: And that should apply to anyone. Not necessarily in your case with Lyme disease and that sort of thing. Anyone should be thinking that way.
BOB MCRAE: Yes. It’s got to flow naturally and if it’s not fun, I can remember saying this; if you go out for a run and you don’t feel better by the time you get back then you did it wrong.
BRAD BROWN: I could not agree more. Bob I think that’s a great place to leave it. I look forward to chatting about your swim, your bike, your run and particularly around your nutrition because I think that’s an important part in what you’re doing at the moment but we’ll save that for another time. Thanks for your time here on The Kona Edge.
BOB MCRAE: Okay thank you.
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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