On this edition of The Kona Edge we meet up with age grouper Barry Lewis who shares his journey a a runner through to racing at the Ironman World Championships in Kona. Barry also reveals what it takes to qualify for and race in Kona at the age of 50 years old.
BRAD BROWN: We head to Philadelphia now on The Kona Edge and it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome our next guest onto the show Barry Lewis. Barry welcome, thanks for joining us today.
BARRY LEWIS: Thank you so much for the honor of being with you.
BRAD BROWN: Barry it’s great to have you on. We were chatting before we started recording. It’s an absolutely gorgeous summers day in Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa and you’re sitting in the big freezing Philly. It’s two total opposite extremes, isn’t it?
BARRY LEWIS: I think we’re expected to get to about 10º with the wind chill, 10º Fahrenheit today and probably lower tonight although I have to say that it’s pretty warm compared to the center of the country right now so we’ve been really lucky here in dodging some major bullets from the arctic blast so far but it’s coming, it’s that time of year. We expect it.
BRAD BROWN: Thank goodness for central heating is all you can say I’m sure.
BARRY LEWIS: Yes.
BRAD BROWN: Talking of the cold Barry, you come from a pretty interesting background. You’re not originally from the states. You’re originally from Canada and you were telling me that you ended up in Philly by running an ultra-marathon in Russia I believe.
Racing across Siberia then settling in Philadelphia
BARRY LEWIS: Yes, kind of a convoluted pathway certainly. I grew up in Vancouver, British Columbia, beautiful part of the country. You know fairly mild, west coast weather, loved trail running and what not and I heard about this crazy race across Siberia that was to take place in the summer of 89 and North Korea was the destination from Lake Baikal. It turned out that it didn’t quite work out that way but at any rate along the way I met some fellas from Philadelphia that were involved in the video production business. I was a freelance writer and photographer at the time and dealt that little bit into video with some community cable stations at home and we had mutual interests and I came here to explore some opportunities and somehow managed to never leave.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Got married and that’s home now but obviously like you say you come from an ultra-running background. As a child growing up were you fairly active, were you sporty? I’m guessing coming from Canada you must have played a bit of hockey.
BARRY LEWIS: I did play some hockey you know. Mostly soccer, footy I guess, as some folks would know it, but mostly soccer. I play Lacrosse and ice-hockey and I played rugby and all those sorts of things that we did and just as I got older, sort of through into college years I found that just the practices for rugby or Lacrosse or whatever weren’t enough. I did a lot more running in between to stay fit. I was always in a running position being the smaller guy as wing or outside center or something along those lines so I just ran a lot and just found I loved it. I loved running in the woods and playing in the woods and running to me was just kind of play.
BRAD BROWN: There’s one about running and there’s another thing about running long. When did you realize you love running long?
BARRY LEWIS: Gosh you know, one of my rugby team mates actually, in about 1981, convinced me to do a marathon with him. He had said we’d train through the fall and winter and do a marathon in the spring and after about 2 months of training we found a marathon in November instead of May which was our target. I said you know I don’t know if I can do all this hammering on the road for so long, let’s just go run the race in November instead. So, we did race in Seattle and it actually went quite well and it was sort of one of those, gee you know, this actually isn’t so bad. The race part of it was more fun than the training at that point, but then I started really getting into trail running that winter. After doing a few marathons I found you know I liked being in the woods rather than pounding the roads and ultra-marathons were not a lot going on. Pretty few and far between at the time but I kind of stumbled upon a few here and there and learned about your famous one, Comrades, way back then and thought boy, that’s something good to think about that would be pretty exciting. I just found that the idea of being out in the woods all day was pretty compelling and it really was fun for me and I really enjoyed it and was able to keep going at that.
BRAD BROWN: Were you pretty good from the start? Have you got better with time or did you have some sort of ability to start with?
Enjoy your time out training
BARRY LEWIS: You know it’s interesting. I kind of go back to the days around then, I was doing a lot of winter hiking with my brother and stuff and he was, you know he actually did Ironman Canada way back in the early few years of Ironman Canada when that came along. I would go hiking with him in the winter for training. He would train with a backpack on and all this sort of stuff, but he would just go and go and go. His destination was always somewhere, a summit or something like that and I became more about the process of sort of stopping to see the view or just thinking about what was around the next corner or whatever, and I found that I enjoyed the time spent rather than the destination so much. And so that just became something that interested me and I think it started me on this journey to sort of think about what was around the next corner. And what you could do mentally if you just sort of didn’t have that end destination in mind but sort of said you know I’ll go over the top and around the corner and around the other side and see what might be there.
I wouldn’t say it was necessarily something that came easily but that I was always interested and open to the experience and exploring. And I learned pretty quickly I guess after doing the marathon and feeling like okay, you know the first marathon you do you think I couldn’t run another step if my life depended on it. But then suddenly you hear about a 50k and you think gosh, it’s not 5 miles, no way, no possible way. But then you just extend that barrier out a little bit and that becomes your destination and you realize you can do it. And then it’s 50 miles and then it’s 100k and then it’s 100 miles and of course along the way you have to learn about what works for you training wise. How injury prone you may or may not be. Nutritionally and hydrationally, what’s going to work for you and you go through all those learning pains and back in the early 90’s I guess, the early 80’s when I was doing that, there wasn’t nearly the sophistication and knowledge about all this stuff that there is today. So it was kind of trial and error for a lot of us that were doing those things back then and the others came along.
But I liked the being out there but I also found that I liked competing. I liked the competition. It wasn’t necessarily about the result but it was about being in a venue that allowed you to compete, always brought your bar up a little higher and sort of forced you to explore a little more deeply what you were capable of and as European people in competition talk about you know when you’re in a great deep field you’re always having to bring your best and you always do your best, I’ve learned. So, it’s fun exploring that and that became really, really neat to me was just being able to both be out there and do the experience part of it but also dig deep and see what you’re capable of.
BRAD BROWN: Barry and I think, I’m not sure if it’s the same in the States but it’s definitely not that way here when it comes to ultra-marathon running. There’s no major competition within the age groups in ultra-marathoning here but in triathlon, and it’s like this wherever you go, but there’s massive competition within the age groups. Was that the attraction that one of the things that go you into triathlon was the being able to compete with guys on the same level as you from age perspective to see how good you were compared to them.
Getting into Ironman after an injury
BARRY LEWIS: Actually, no. It wasn’t quite so defined as that. My brother as I mentioned earlier did Ironman Canada and to me that was really just beyond comprehension. My head would explode if I tried to wrap it around actually doing an Ironman. There was just no possible way but then as I got into, sort of I did a couple of early short long-distance triathlons in those days and it was fun, but it was something that was hard to do. I was travelling a lot at different jobs and I just found I always came back to running. It was just always something that I could do very simply wherever I was. When I came back to it I really enjoyed it.
It was a great way to explore if I was travelling, so as I got into ultras then I kind of found this notion of you know what, you can go beyond what you might have thought possible so fast forward 20 years of running ultras, I’d done a lot of races all over and probably, how I got into tri’s as a mature athlete was a result of having a bit of a knee injury. I did this multi-day stage race in the Himalayas and twisted my knee actually the second to last day and I got through the race and finished fine but then after travelling for a week or so afterwards I found that my knee just locked up. I had a real IT Band issue and just needed some time off running. So, jumped in the pool and I heard then by that time XTerra off-road triathlons were coming along and off course your pioneer in the sport over there, Conrad Stoltz, was the pinnacle of the sport and that really interested me. And thinking about you know geez, I’m getting back into swimming, ha triathlon, that would be fun but I’m so in love with the trails, maybe these off-road tri’s would be a fun thing to do. So, I just decided you know what, let me just set a goal instead of doing some off-road tri’s. So, it was really nothing so concrete as to I need to compete, I need to feel that again. It was just I’d done ultras for 20 years, and look I was getting older and gosh, it’s kind of fun.
Give yourself a birthday gift
Then this thing got into my head after doing tris for a couple of years I was fortunate enough to go to Maui for the XTerra Worlds. I was about to turn 50 and thought geez, that Ironman Kona would be a pretty amazing thing to do. By then I’d done road tri’s and was doing relatively well and you know new guys who are kind of Kona folk and it just kind of appealed to me. So, I said gee I’m going to set that as a goal. I want to get to Kona and why not do it when I turn 50. And amazingly I managed to meet that goal on my first attempt to actually qualify at a 70.3 which a few years ago, there were a handful of 70.3’s that were Kona qualifiers and my first Ironman actually was in Kona.
BRAD BROWN: Wow that’s phenomenal Barry, but I find it interesting and I know this is something you’re fascinated with is the mental side of things and just from a triathlon perspective, you said that you thought about Ironman especially in the early days and thought gee that’s crazy. That’s just way further than I ever want to go and it’s the same thing with ultra marathons and you mentioned Comrades and the same thing happens here. People run a 5k and they think ah, I could never run a 10k. they then run a 10 and think ah, I could never run a half marathon but they can do a half marathon.
It’s the same thing with triathlon where your first sprint you’re absolutely broken and you think there’s no way I could do a standard or an Olympic distance but you get there and then you keep pushing beyond. Then you do a half Ironman, then go the full Ironman and then you can be totally crazy and go even beyond that. It is a, I don’t want to say a decision, but your mind has to go there before your body can. Tell me a little bit about your thinking and the strength that you’ve gained from ultra marathon running and how that’s helped your triathlon career.
BARRY LEWIS: Well you know that always been, you’re right, it’s always been fascinating to me and again I’ve had really good fortune to have raced for a lot of years, stayed relatively healthy in the process and met a lot of incredible people that have been able to do that and sustain these efforts for these long distances.
Quite some time ago, before I got into tri’s actually, when I was doing ultra’s and I was doing some freelance writing for some magazines around and had the opportunity to do a few articles with triathletes. So, I interviewed the likes of Paula Newby-Fraser and Erin Baker and Dave Scott and I’ll never forget this, gosh, I can’t even remember how long this was now, but interviewing Dave Scott, he was right in the pinnacle there and we just started talking before doing the formal interview as you and I were, and we were comparing background and I said oh you know triathlon it just blows my mind. My brother did Ironman Canada a couple of times in the early days and you know then he moved onto other things and I just can’t wrap my head around it.
At any rate, he somehow asked what I was up to. I said well you know I’ve done a few marathons and a couple of ultra’s and he said what sort of ultra’s, I said a couple of 100-milers and he was the other way. He said I can’t even conceive of doing a 100-miler that just to me is mind-blowing. So, you know it kind of becomes about where you are and that individual experience and realizing from other people that everybody is at a bit of a different place, but you can see what other people are able to do and you kind of learn to manage the things. As we always say in the ultra world, it’s never always going to keep getting worse, so you find if you allow yourself to conceive of going past that boundary, the marathon distance, which is kind of that place that everybody says I couldn’t imagine going one more step. But you say going 50k isn’t that much farther let’s just try and get there.
Go beyond your limit
Then you experience that one day and you say well why does that have to be the limit. Why can’t I go beyond? And even on the way to that 50k point you’ll probably be in a hole at some stage where you’re hurting and thinking that exact thought that you know I can’t go another step. But then you remember that when you hit the wall in your first marathon at 20 miles or in your first long training run it might have been at 13 miles and you got through it, you pushed a little farther the next time and you gradually progressed.
So, it becomes these experiences that kind of pile upon each other that you can always go back to and remember when that first time you ran that you thought gosh, getting around the block was a big accomplishment and then as you say it’s a mile, then it’s a 5k, and so the limitations really truly are perceptions in so many ways. In the endurance sports world, you see them all the time and we’re seeing these barriers broken down every year in many, many ways. Whether it’s people of a certain age doing incredible things. Times in marathons. Completing Ironman. Completing Western States or Comrades. Running the Appalachian Trail across America in these unbelievable times through conditions that you can’t even conceive of being out for a few hours let alone for 42/46/48 days non-stop. It’s unbelievable and all of those are examples of what the mind’s able to overcome.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, I think the body gives up way before the mind does and it’s one of those things that I’ve learnt and I’m sure you can attest to this Barry. If you run a marathon or a 50k or further, you’re going to hurt, there’s no two ways about it. Your body takes a pounding and it hurts. It doesn’t hurt more the longer you go, you just hurt for longer. I think that is one of the biggest mindset shifts that I’ve had to make that yes, at mile 10 in an Ironman you’re tired and you’re sore. It’s not going to get better, but it’s not going to get much worse. You’ve just got to keep going and you’ve just got to pushing.
It doesn’t hurt more – it just hurts for longer
BARRY LEWIS: Yes, yes absolutely. You know it’s funny in the ultra-world of racing I would think I would finish a 50k or a 50-miler and you know you’re always hurting at the end. I would think gosh, I’m glad to be done. I only hurt for 6 hours. For those people that are out there that are suffering for 9 hours or 10 hours or 12 hours. And the person who finished it an hour before me is saying the same thing, so you know it’s all a relative condition. But yes, you can really decide how you’re going to view it. It’s all about perception and attitude.
Are you going to say geez, this hurts I can’t do it or are you going to say yes, it hurts? As one of the famous quotes of our friend, Chris McCormack, embrace this sock, and numerous versions of that kind of thinking are part of the game. You’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It is part of this stuff and that’s something that I just think it’s fascinating to explore what of that we can handle. Where our benchmark is, where our level of ability is and that’s something again that I think, we just don’t know, we don’t know, people are breaking new boundaries all the time.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely, and you talk about embracing the sock and being in those dark places and knowing, and again I think it’s something that ultra’s have taught me and it’s definitely helped in my Ironman career and I’m not saying that everyone who wants to do well in Ironman should go and run an ultra but it’s definitely going to teach you some lessons about digging deep and really hanging tough when you don’t want to be out there and you want to give up. What are some of the things or some of the strategies or tactics that you’ve taken out of things you’ve learnt out of ultra running, that you have employed in your triathlon career?
BARRY LEWIS: I think it’s about, at different points there are different things that you can come back to as your touch-strong whether you like to disassociate at different periods of time or you just let your mind sort of drift. Or whether there are times when you get so that that discomfort is so intense and so severe that you can’t get away from it. You’ve got to sort of look at it and say ok, what is it about this situation that I can control? What can I do to divert my mind a little bit? Let me think about you know, am I hydrated, what do I want at that next aid station, how’s my pedal-stroke, is my running form good, am I too tired in my shoulders or my arms? Am I clenching my fists or my teeth, am I relaxed and fluid? You can bring all of these kind of thoughts to the forefront and just push the discomfort to the background for a little while and you think about running to the next aid station.
Getting through the next little bits
Where in ultra’s sometimes you’re out there and you think about running to the next totem pole or over to the next telephone pole or over the next rise or, just get around the corner. So, it’s kind of that idea of how do you eat an elephant right? One bite at a time. You can’t conceive of the whole thing. I’m not abdicating eating elephants, I’m a vegetarian, but the idea being that, don’t take in this whole overwhelming picture at once. Just try and get through the next step, the next moment, the next few little bits. As you say it’s not always going to keep getting worse. Amazingly you know these deep holes you can come out of them and you can be floating on clouds.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, absolutely and I learnt early on, it was my Dad who said it to me. He said when you’re running an ultra or if you’re really in the hurt box in an Ironman, the good news is that patch is not going to, if you’re feeling bad, it’s not going to last forever. When you’re feeling good the bad news is that’s not going to last forever either. So, you’ve really just got to embrace the moment. Live in the now and really just suck it up and just keep on going. Barry what are you most proud of? If you look at your athletic career up to date what have you done that you’re most proud of?
Kona is the gravy on top
BARRY LEWIS: I would have to say I’m just most proud of being in the game still and enjoying it and having longevity in the sport so both in ultra’s and in triathlon. I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve done relatively well, sure, but I just love the process, I love the experience, I love the communities. And probably most proud of, because of that and because I’ve been able to perform that I’ve inspired other folks so you know I get a real charge out of somebody saying geez, you’re 57 and still out there doing it and doing it at a level that I can’t even conceive of it half your age but I’m going to keep working and you’ll keep me in the game because I know that I can still do it when I’m your age.
Those sorts of things really, I think I’m most proud of. The rest of it frankly, I’m honored and it’s a privilege to get to Kona, no question about it. But that’s the gravy, do you know what I mean. That experience, there’s nothing like it and I wish everybody could experience it. But it’s something that you have to work for and I’m fortunate enough to have been able to get there. At the end of the day I think it’s just about being true to the sport and being clean, being honest, being open, being just a part of the community. It’s really a privilege.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about being 57 and racing the times that you are. I mean Kona 2016 at 57, you finished third in your age group, 10:17:47 I think overall time with a 1:07 swim, 5:26 bike and a 3:35 run. Like you say at 57 that’s nothing to scoff at. That’s very, very decent.
BARRY LEWIS: Well thanks, you know there’s always room for improvement and it’s fun too. It’s awesomely fun frankly to have younger guys that on local races or whatever races that you can be competing against and just they’re comparing themselves to you and they might be blown away, but I always feel like you want to do what you can do. What I think is so fun about triathlon is because of the 3 disciplines and because of all the variables. People used to talk about a marathon, there’s never a certain outcome in a marathon cause there’s so many variables. Well that’s the one last part of an Ironman. If you think about how many variables do you face in a total race and how many little management decisions do you have to make in that process.
I don’t know if there’s ever a perfect race where everything is just seamless and you could say you know what I could never have improved upon that. My swim was perfect, I didn’t get whacked in the face, I didn’t go off course, I swam so straight, I came out of transition like I was flying. You know all of the little things that happen throughout the race so you kind of look back and say geez you know, I could have got some time there and if this hadn’t happened or if I hadn’t been this stupid and done that, that’s fun, I mean that’s really fun. It’s exciting and makes you want to get out there again.
BRAD BROWN: I’m going to say is that the reason you keep going back is cause there’s always unfinished business. Doesn’t matter how fast you go or how good it’s been there’s always that one thing that you could have done better?
Is there a perfect race for you?
BARRY LEWIS: Sure that’s certainly possible. You know there’s always tweaking. We always want to be the best we can be. You know it’s funny, I go back to ultra-marathoning and in my early days I was kind of chief for a couple of days and then you feel like you’re competitive and you win a couple of races and you’re racing and racing and you’re digging deep and you’re never not hurting at the end of a race. I remember a couple of years of that and thinking geez you know there are these people out there that are older and they’re just kind of cruising and they’re having a good old time and the aid stations a travelling buffet. I can’t wait until I get to that point where I feel I don’t have to be competitive and I can just go and just be there. But you know what Brad, for me that point ain’t going to come. I’m going to be there and whatever level I’m going to be at I want to and obviously, I’ve learned that’s something that fuels me and it fires me and I always want to just see what I can get out of myself. So, that to me is really a thrill. Competing is fun.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned you’ve been lucky enough to go to Kona a few times. You’ve experienced it, you mentioned some of the ultra marathons you’ve been privileged to run and some that are still on your list like Comrades as an example. What do you still want to achieve on the Big Island? I mean are you going to keep going back as long as you can or is it a case of you’re chasing something and then you’ll look for the next challenge?
Making podium is the thrill of a lifetime
BARRY LEWIS: Um, gosh, well you know look I’d be disingenuous if I say I wouldn’t love to stand on that top rung of that podium in Kona. Absolutely that would be a thrill of a lifetime, but frankly being at the starting line every year that I’ve been there has been more exciting than the last. So, you know things a little more, you’re involved in the scene, just the energy, the pros and the people you get to know. The experience is just, as they say, it’s really, really something special. It just doesn’t exist anywhere else. So just being a part of that is incredible.
I certainly, when I started I had that one-time goal of I’d love to go to Hawaii and race Kona it would be an unbelievable experience. Then you know you kind of get the bug and you think oh geez, I learned something here and this Ironman thing is pretty fun and pretty cool and pretty amazing community and I never intended to go back and back and back but it’s just sort of happened. This time around, in preparation, I said you know this might be my last time for a while. It’s getting more expensive. There are issues coming along with numbers of people.
You’ve probably heard some of the controversy around drafting and what not that was really apparent this year more than in the past. I think in a lot of ways. So, it’s not that it’s lost its lustre appeal for me but certainly I have other things that I’d like to do. I’m feeling the pull of the trails more and more. There are more amazing ultra marathon experiences out there than there ever were when I was really in the thick of it, back in the day. So, there’s some pretty compelling races that I’d love to do out there.
I’d love to get back to Kona certainly. Maybe one age up next or the time after that. I’d give it a shot and see what I can do. I’m not saying there’s, you know, yea definitely I’d like to be back there and I’d like to be on that top step of the podium in my age group, that would be pretty fun. I’m pretty proud of what I’ve been able to do there but always felt like I haven’t quite had the perfect race there. Look I must be honest, it’s an incredibly challenging place to be. Those conditions are unlike anything and everything just has to be perfect for you to be that top guy on the day. It would be pretty neat to be there.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned the drafting issue at Kona 2016. You also mentioned you’re pretty proud of racing clean and sort of being honest. Those are two sort of big issues that are facing the sport at the moment. And I say two issues, essentially going to one is cheating and that is something we’re all battling with. What’s your take on the dopers and the drafters?
Is cheating really worth it?
BARRY LEWIS: You know, I mean dopers I think, seriously, is it that important that you have to cheat and in that way? Look, drafting sometimes, you’re in a big line and you do your darnest to get away from it and you kind of have to treat Kona sometimes out on the Queen K as a series of intervals because you’ve got to get around people and you’ve got to back off when you’re running out of juice. Really, it’s a very different race than it might be if it was not so congested at times.
So, I really try to be cognizant of that. Sometimes you get stuck and you can’t avoid but be in a line otherwise you’re doing nothing but going backwards. I think it’s important that you attempt to, and you see a lot of obvious stuff. I remember a couple times in races where big groups have gone by or someone just had to, even not that many people, a couple or 3 and they obviously just doing a pace line kind of thing and you go by them and say something and they’ll curse you out. I just think that’s not right but that’s the way some people are in life.
But doping there’s no room, and I think it’s an absolute travesty that people are doping. And you know you do hear about it more and more in the amateur ranks and as you move up in age you know. People, there’s all this floaty stuff going around and oh you know my doctor, because of all the other implications of testosterone levels and again, I just think it’s sad that people want it that badly and they’re willing to do that.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Barry, the physical toll of doing an Ironman, on your body, particularly as you get older, is pretty big. How many of these things do you think you’ve got in you, physically?
BARRY LEWIS: Oh gosh, you know I think just in terms of training and training volume and listening to your body, I think that’s something that I’m fortunate in through my ultra experiences and then in my triathlon career I’ve been truly good at being in tune and when something’s going a little awry I’ll deal with it pretty quickly and so I haven’t been sidelined for any length of time. I’ve had a couple bone breaks from a crash or something like that. Other than that, I’ve been pretty fortunate, touch wood, but I think increasingly that being in tune with yourself and what’s feasible and recovery process and good nutrition, enough sleep, not over-training, doing the right kind of work at the right time. All those things are incredibly important. I’ve never thought about having a limited career because of any reason other than maybe someday I wouldn’t want to do it. I’ve never felt like oh, I’m going to be physically incapable. I just don’t, I think as long as I want to do it I’ll be doing it and I’ll be able to.
BRAD BROWN: What are you struggling with right now? What is it that you’re working on, what are you grappling with?
BARRY LEWIS: Nothing right now. I’m just kind of enjoying the off season. I love trail running here in the winter. I’m just saying that for people to feel like oh I can only do this for x number of years or what not. I’ve been fortunate again, look knees go or hips go or your bone on bone, there’s only so much you can do about things like that but that’s kind of the nature of physical deterioration but an absence of those kind of issues I think you can train smart and recover right and have a long career.
BRAD BROWN: Yes absolutely I could not agree more. Well Barry it’s been great catching up. I look forward to chatting about the individual disciplines next time out but we’ll save that for next time. Thanks for your time today on The Kona Edge.
BARRY LEWIS: Awesome. Thank you so much for having me and best of the holiday season to everybody.
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