On this episode of The Kona Edge, we head out to Panama City in Central America and meet with Pedro Cordovez. Pedro is an absolute machine and has qualified for Kona seven times. His journey has been an incredible one. Going up in age groups he now finds his training has slowed over time. He’s training less, having to recover more but still qualifies for the big dance. This is his story.
BRAD BROWN: We head to Panama for the first time here on The Kona Edge and it’s a great pleasure to welcome Pedro Cordovez onto the podcast. Pedro welcome onto The Kona Edge and first of all, did I pronounce your surname correctly?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yes, perfect, Pedro, thank you very much, thanks for having me, I’m pretty glad to share my thoughts.
BRAD BROWN: I can’t wait to share your story because it is incredible, but before we get into that, triathlon in Panama, for those who don’t know, how big is the sport in Panama?
Ironman Age groupers very competitive in Panama
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: We usually get around 200 people per event, age groupers and it’s just one open category, there’s no pro field, it’s just one big age group field and it’s pretty competitive amongst the age group and we have very good triathlons, we have a triathlon that’s been going on for 20 years, been created by John Collins, the creator of Ironman, he lives down here. It’s a pretty good atmosphere, pretty good organization by the National Federation.
BRAD BROWN: Brilliant. Pedro, you’ve been around the sport for a long time, you’ve qualified for Kona numerous times and raced on the Big Island numerous times, where did the sport of triathlon and the love of triathlon start for you?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: I actually started around 2002, around 14 years ago, but I did mountain biking since I was a kid. It started with cycling races and then one thing led to another and we had this big event in Panama where Jimmy Riccitello came down here and Paula Newby Fraser came down here and that was back in 2002 and they did this big event, this mountain biking triathlon event and I said, I want to do that, I want to do that next year and everything and I haven’t stopped and I’ve won it a couple of times, so I’m pretty happy about that.
BRAD BROWN: When you talk about racing mountain bikes as a kid, were you pretty decent on a bicycle, were you pretty good?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: No, not really, sort of middle of the pack, a couple of third places in there, but nothing really competitive, I’m talking about when I was 10/11, so after that it was just regular sports, baseball, football, soccer, it’s not until I was like 20 that I started looking for the bike again to get in shape.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned the other sports, baseball is really big in Panama, football and soccer, as you say is also a very big sport, I’m very interested to hear that triathlon is a pretty big sport there too, which is awesome news. We all love it and it’s good to see it growing globally.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yes, definitely. We have a couple of advantages here. I train basically, I ride my bike out the door of my house, whenever I want to train, I run out of the door of my house, so that makes time management a lot better, so I don’t have to drive somewhere to take my bike and then ride, it makes it easier than for some people in big cities.
BRAD BROWN: From a climate perspective and a weather perspective, what’s it like there throughout the year? Is it pretty conducive to training right around the year?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yes, it usually rains 8 months a year, but right now, because of the El Nino effect, we’ve had 8 months with very little rain, so it’s been great for training, at least for biking, but really hot. We’ve been training in maybe 34/36 degrees at 10am, around 90% humidity, that’s basically year round.
BRAD BROWN: Good preparation for Kona.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yes, as long as it’s not cold, I’m fine with it!
Your Ironman training may be perfect but you will always remember that first experience…
BRAD BROWN: Pedro, as far as your first triathlon, do you remember that first experience where you raced in your first triathlon?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yes, definitely, my first triathlon was a sprint triathlon and we did that in the pool, it was like 80 people, we did that in an Olympic sized pool and I was hooked. I think I was third in my age group, I think ran the 5km in like 24 something and that was enough to get me third. That was great, I was really happy about that, ever since that, I’ve been hooked. I’m always planning my next race.
BRAD BROWN: That’s awesome. As far as making the step up from a sprint to an Ironman distance, that’s a huge jump for a lot of people, just mentally, to wrap your head around moving from those distances, can you remember the thought process of making that decision?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yeah, actually yes. It’s definitely something that I think that has to be taken seriously, training for an Ironman in my experience takes at least a year and I did it. My first Ironman, I did in 2007 and I did it with a lot less than a year’s training. I finished, I cried the whole marathon, I finished in like 10:48, I was maybe like 32/33 years old and it really hurt. I told my coach after that, I said listen, I’m not doing another Ironman until I’ve trained for this because I’m not used to racing like this. I want to be able to enjoy it and I didn’t. I took a year off, a year and a half off of Ironman, I did a couple of halves, steadily trained and then in 2009 I did another Ironman and that was the first time I qualified to Kona, I think I did 9:30-something.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned that first one that you cried the whole marathon. I take it, it wasn’t out of joy that you were going to become an Ironman, you hated it that much?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: I just couldn’t wait for it to be over, the first time. I wasn’t prepared mentally, I wasn’t prepared physically, I had raced, done maybe three or four halves and maybe four or five Olympics, so I had an idea of how racing felt, or how I’d like to feel racing and the effort I wanted to put into the race and it just didn’t work out for me. I wasn’t prepared and after that, in order to enjoy the race, I think you have to be seriously prepared. It’s a race, maybe just to finish, I don’t know, you can walk for 15 miles, but I didn’t want to do that.
BRAD BROWN: Pedro, if it makes you feel any better, I’ve just come off Ironman South Africa where I literally walked the entire marathon, I did not run one step!
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Oh my God, that must have hurt.
BRAD BROWN: It sounds fun, it’s not! Let me tell you, I would not recommend that to anyone. I was coming off an injury, I’d entered, I thought, let me go do it, how hard can it be to walk a marathon. You know you’re out there a long time when your run split is slower than your bike split.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yeah.
BRAD BROWN: Pedro, as far as your first finish, as much as you weren’t prepared for the race, did you feel it was a huge achievement? Tell me about the feeling of running down that finish chute to finish your first Ironman?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: You know what, that feeling is indescribable. I told my family, achieving goals is sometimes, in life, it’s not a clear sporting goal, like I want to do an Ironman, it’s all depending on you to finish, so you know, those sort of achievements, I really appreciate because nobody else can do them for you and they’re under your control, for the most part. In a perfect world they’re under your control, so I was very happy and I had this fortunate feeling that I would be able to do that and thankfulness to my family, my wife, my kids, religiously also, it gives some sort of meaning, I’m very happy. I try to think about that feeling whenever I’m starting an Ironman and not making it, about whether it’s 4:52 bike or 5:00 bike or I was 10th or 1st or 8th, tried to enjoy being able to step up to the race and doing my best.
BRAD BROWN: It’s such an important point you make there, as athletes and Ironman athletes and some of us are better than others, but we’re in a very fortunate place that physically we’re in a position that we can do something like this. Ironman, it’s not easy, if it were easy, everyone would do it, but we’re truly lucky and truly blessed that we are in a position to do these races.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: That’s right, that’s exactly my feeling.
BRAD BROWN: Pedro, going to 2009, into that second Ironman where you had prepared and taken some time off, what did you do differently in the buildup to that second one that you didn’t do in the first one?
Sufficient recovery time is vital to your Kona performance
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: I think that my body was able to recover better from, for example, I remember in my first Ironman, I did a 150km Saturday ride and then I did, it was 150km and 5km run off the bike and then Sunday was like a 130km bike and I couldn’t do it. I finished, I was sick, I had to take a week off, it was horrible. My body wasn’t prepared for that. Then a year and a half later I was able to do those trainings and be able to swim on the Monday, so basically just keep at it, keep putting miles in, keep putting miles in helped me to basically have a better engine or more, we call it fun though, like depth in my training.
BRAD BROWN: That one where you came back and qualified in 2009, was it a very different race and a different experience? You talk about wanting the other one to finish, did you almost not want the second one to finish because you were enjoying it so much?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: You know, I wanted it to finish, but that 2009 Ironman, I had made, in 2008 I had actually made, I went to Clearwater when the 70.3 Championship was in the US and I made a decision, I talked to my family, I said, you know what, I want to try to go to Kona and I’m going to make it a real goal of mine to go to Kona and try to qualify. That goal, I went to a nutritionist, I changed my eating habits, I started swimming 20km a week cause I was a really bad swimmer, instead of swimming 6km a week, I went up to 20km. I changed a lot of things, I really put in the time for over a year to actually get that and in Brazil, first of all, I had done that race before, so I decided to go to the same race I had done before, so I knew the course, which I think, for me, it’s very important to have a good race, to know where you’re going. I decided to go to the same place and I knew I had it by the mile 20, I was already in 5th place, I was like, you know what, I have a shot, I just need to keep it together. I was so happy, that was really a point where I thought I had made it as a triathlete.
That magnetic pull to get to Kona
BRAD BROWN: You’ve been back many times, we’ll touch on that in a moment as well. Kona is a very special place, for you, what is the draw to the Big Island, what pulls you in?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: I think that for me, the ocean swim is, being in the ocean, being on the island, taking a week off a year, just to do something I really enjoy, usually my family comes, I love it. I love the atmosphere, I love being around people that love the sport as much as I do and I wish sometimes I could just go there to train because the race is such a big part of the vacation that sometimes it’s a little stressful. I enjoy it, I enjoy meeting people from all over the world that we get to see once a year. Certainly the competition is awesome, you get to stand there with the best in your field and then last year I had the lucky shot, I guess a couple of people had flats and stuff and I was 4th and I felt I’d done the same race there that I’ve done for the past 5 years, it’s just this time I was 4th, so that was pretty good too.
BRAD BROWN: It must be amazing to get onto that podium in Kona. You mention your family Pedro, you also work, I believe you’re a lawyer by profession, how do you as an age grouper get that balance right to obviously train enough that you can compete on a global stage, but also to keep things in check at home and with regards to work?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: You know, it’s like a never-ending quest for balance. I definitely wouldn’t say that I have it figured out because it’s a constant struggle, but I sort of got into a rhythm where my family knows what I do Monday. I get up at 4:30 in the morning, I basically don’t see my kids in the morning, every day, they go to school and I’m out training and I see them at night, maybe around 7:00 or 8:00, 8:30, I see them for a while and then on weekends we’re together, it’s tough. Everybody has to understand, my wife is very supportive, to a point, she tries to be and I try to make it count. If I’m going to go train, I try to make it count. If I’m going to be with them, I try to make it count and sometimes, of course, you feel you have this conscience, my conscience is like, your kids, or whatever, but also I try to, right now I’m in a break, I did Ironman Texas a couple of weeks ago, I’m 20 weeks out from Kona, I’m definitely not racing anything between Texas and Kona, so my obsession with Kona is going to start in a couple of weeks, so I’m trying to spend a lot of time with my kids and my family now, but it’s tough, it’s tough.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about that Ironman Texas, I was tracking it online and watching what was happening. It turned out to be quite an incredible day.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yes, first of all, they changed the swim, they changed the swim from like a point to point swim to a regular one loop rectangle, which is, in my sense as a potential race director, that is by far the best and easiest way to do a race course. That really, I think that helped out the whole race, it was a much easier swim, less contact, so I think I did like a 59 something on the swim, which was a personal best for me and I was pretty happy about that.
Then the bike course was, they cut it short, I’m sure everybody saw, they cut it short, it was 92 miles, so 150km, they cut it short 30km and it was like 80 turns on the 150km, so it was technical, there was traffic, but all in all it was very safe for the most part. I did have to go off course for like 600m when a car turned right and I had to either turn right or hit the car, I think I was like 2nd or 3rd, so I had to go in a wrong street and do a U-turn to get back on course to avoid the car, but I felt that besides that, which might have been, we were the first people behind the pros, so besides that, it was pretty good.
The running section is always a fun run because you run by, you do three loops of like a waterway and there’s a lot of people and people in Texas are crazy and everything is bigger in Texas and they make a lot of noise and there’s a lot of crowd support, it’s pretty cool.
BRAD BROWN: You got in before the massive storm hit. I’ve seen photos of race day and it got quite crazy out there.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: I got in, I changed and I started hearing the thunder and seeing the lightening and I took refuge in a restaurant and it started really, I mean the thunder was crazy, I spoke to a friend and I was saying, if I was the race director, I’d call this right now, this is not safe. There’s 4 000 volunteers out there, I would have called it. I think they did an awesome job of actually trying to figure out, of getting people safe and having people cross the finish line, but it was the worst weather I’ve ever seen on a race day. I’ve never seen anything like it.
BRAD BROWN: I’ve seen some finisher photos that looked absolutely incredible, but it’s those sort of races that make for the best stories and I think people will be talking about Ironman Texas 2016 for years and years to come, of that I’ve no doubt.
What sort of Ironman athlete are you?
Pedro, for you, as far as courses go, what sort of athlete are you? Do you like the fast, flat ones or are you into a bit of climbing and a bit of work? What sort of stuff do you look out for, from a course perspective?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yeah, you know, for me, I tend to shy away from flat fast courses, that’s not what I like. I like more technical, descent and mountains and hot and the run off, I love runs that have some sort of climbing or downhill, that’s what I like. For me, I’ve always wanted to do Frankfurt, but that would be a race where it wouldn’t suit me as an athlete, but someday I’ll do it.
BRAD BROWN: As far as preparing for Kona, in itself, a lot of people listen to this, dreaming of going to Kona, do you do anything different in the buildup to Kona that you would for another race, ie, Ironman Texas or perhaps Brazil, is the preparation the same for a race like Kona?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: I prepare a little bit different, for the swim, I’d say it’s a little bit different because it’s non-wetsuit. I do maybe a lot more kick in my practice and maybe a lot less swimming with paddles. Maybe change it a little bit, but regarding the bike and the run, I’m basically a heart rate addict, I race, train, run by heart rate and I think especially in Kona which can be really windy and really hot, really windy on the bike and really hot on the run, if you let yourself get out of that zone, for me, the years that I’ve actually tried to run down somebody or tried to do a race that’s not in my heart rate zone, I’ve exploded, I’ve ended up walking and throwing up and things that I see every year with people in Kona.
BRAD BROWN: As far as your performances on the Big Island, you’ve been lucky to go back numerous times, an Ironman is a difficult race because of the duration and the length of it, it’s often very difficult to have the perfect race where everything goes according to plan. Do you feel the same way with Kona, that there’s always something that you can maybe get better at year after year and that’s what keeps you going back?
The inspiration and motivation of my Ironman training
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yes, definitely, definitely! Kona, if I were to say a couple of things about Kona, first of all, the swim. That swim is tough. That’s a tough swim! There’s a lot of people. There’s waves. The water is moving a lot, there’s current, getting in and going to swim in Kona, it’s always been daunting for me. The day that I finish under the hour with all the swimming that I’ve done, I’d love to do that and every year I’m like okay, this year I’m going to do it, so that’s a big objective. Then on the bike, I’d say that coming back from Hawi is, you turn around Hawi and you have a 20-25km downhill with the wind in your back or on the side. You can coast and then somebody is going to open a 8 minute gap on you if you coast or you actually have to find a way of getting comfortable on the bike, with a side or cross wind and go full force downhill. For me it’s getting my heart rate up to 145 on a downhill and trying to go as fast as I can for 25 minutes, that’s something I’ve had to practice cause I couldn’t do it.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the motivation to keep getting up every morning at the time that you do and going back year after year to Kona, what keeps you motivated? How do you keep that mojo Pedro?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: I think a lot of it has to do with my training partners. I train with a team here in Panama, we’re like 5 or 6 friends that train together under a coach. Everybody has different races and everybody gets up on Tuesdays to ride and that’s enough motivation for me. I love it, for me, you know, people ask me when am I going to stop going to Kona, when I don’t qualify, when I can’t. It’s not up to me, I think. If I can race, if I can go out and swim, bike and run, I enjoy it. The day I see it as work, I’m not going to do it anymore and that’s part of the reason why, for example, as an amateur, I’ve been in this sport for I think 14 years and along those 14 years, people have offered me sponsorships and one time I took a sponsor and I had the worst race I’ve ever had. After that I said, you know what, I can’t be responsible for, I can’t commit on my hobby. This is my hobby and I’ll do it if I enjoy it and if I have the means to do it. If I don’t, then it can be a job, I have a job already where I have expectations of my job and I have to do all this metrics to keep my job and I don’t want to do that for triathlon, for something that’s a hobby. As long as I enjoy training, I’m going to keep on doing it.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely, that’s incredible. How many Ironman’s do you typically do in a year, that you can comfortably do, that your body, it leaves you enough time to recover and you’re still racing to the level that you want to be racing at?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: I’d say, I’d love to only do one a year. I used to go to St Crux to try and qualify there, when the 70.3 had Kona slots, but it doesn’t anymore. Now, there’s no option, if you want to go to Kona, you have to do at least one. I usually plan on doing one and Kona and then if I don’t qualify, for some reason, which has happened, then I’ll put in another safety one and try to qualify, but I think two, for me, two is stretching it. I can’t do more than two anymore. I’m 41 and right now everything hurts.
The best Ironman event of my time
BRAD BROWN: Pedro, as far as the races that you love doing, you’ve been lucky enough to travel a bit and race a bit, other than Kona, what’s your favorite Ironman that you’ve done?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Ironman Nice, France, that was awesome, that was a very cool event. It was an Ironman I did maybe 5 years ago, but the best event that I have gone to, that I really, it was beautiful and it was the 70.3 World Championships last year in Austria in Zalamsi, that place was fantastic. The swim was in a lake that was drinking water, it was a transparent lake, beautiful, hilly roads and nice hot run, it was incredible. The organization was incredible.
BRAD BROWN: Austria is a beautiful place. As far as races you still want to do? You mentioned Frankfurt, there’s that one, what else is still on your list that you want to tick off?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: South Africa! South Africa, I was registered, I had a hotel, I had my flight and it didn’t happen.
BRAD BROWN: No, you’ve got to come, it’s an amazing race, I love Ironman South Africa, but I’m biased because I live here.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Yeah, I had everything but then I didn’t have anybody to leave my kids with and my wife with and so we couldn’t go.
BRAD BROWN: I had to settle for Texas.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: We’d love to have you. It’s an incredible race.
If you keep missing that Kona qualifying spot – something needs to change in your Ironman training
BRAD BROWN: Pedro, then finally, advice to someone who’s desperate to qualify for Kona, who keeps trying and misses spots. I’ve heard stories of guys who literally miss spots by one position, year, after year, after year. What advice would you give to those guys?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: You’re doing something wrong, listen to somebody else, that’s what I would say. If you’re not getting the results you want, don’t keep trying the same thing. Listen to somebody else. I have friends that have that same problem and they’ve qualified one time and then they don’t qualify for four years, usually they’re trying to make up, making too many changes to their training or trying new things all the time and then they’re like self-coached. I think that self-coaching is really hard. You have to listen to somebody and trust. Hire a new coach, change it, figure out, have somebody, without being subjective, analyze what you’re doing wrong because something that you’re doing, if you’re putting in the time and it’s not working, then you need to change it.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me a bit about your coach Pedro?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: My coach, I coach with Ronan Pavoni, he’s an Argentinian, he lives here in Panama. He raced pro for a while, but he races age group. He’s been in triathlon for, I’d say maybe 30 years, something like that. He keeps it fresh, every year different things. He trains with us, so sometimes when you need, this is one of the beautiful things that I appreciate about him, if I need to do a 100 mile bike ride, he’ll get on his bike and he’ll go with me and he’s there on the trainings and he’s there when it matters. To me, that’s awesome. He travels with me to races sometimes, that’s also pretty good. You have somebody out there telling you how you’re doing or parts of the race, helping you out, that’s pretty good. He’s expensive, so we split amongst the team members.
This is how you should be choosing your Ironman coach to get you to Kona
BRAD BROWN: Fantastic, if someone is looking for a coach, what should someone look for in someone who can coach them?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: First of all experience, I would say. I’m a person that believes you have to have lived it. If you’re looking to get to Kona and you’re talking to a coach that hasn’t qualified people to Kona, then it’s definitely not what you’re looking for. There’s a lot of athletes out there, a lot of good people in the US, for example, and in South America that are Ironman coaches, that have qualified people to Kona and not only, I’d say also figure out if people have, for example, it’s not the same to qualify an athlete to Kona that’s 25 or 30 than it is to qualify a person that’s 40 or 45 or 55, cause for example, I can’t do the same trainings that I did when I was 30 or 34. I need more rest, I need less stress, less kilometers and that’s important for your coach to consider, you don’t want to end up injured and not going to Kona.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned the age and age catching up with you, how have you had to adapt? You mentioned more rest and not being able to train as big a load, is it frustrating that your age is catching up and performance, would you say it’s dipping? What are some of the adjustments you’ve had to make as you’re getting older?
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: I think the first adjustment you have to realize that you’re racing your age group and nothing else matters, that’s for me. It doesn’t matter if I know somebody that’s another age group and they’re in front of me, when I race, I’m racing my age group only. That’s one thing and then the other thing, for example, I can do, there’s a lot of training that I did before on the bike and I did running, that I can’t do anymore. Now I do less volume, definitely and less stress, so more like tempo running, running a lot of tempo bike, I don’t do those hard, short intervals running, like I used to do 12 x 1km or 12 x 500m with 30 seconds, I don’t do that anymore. I find that I do that and it hurts too much, my knees, my hip, my back. I do a lot of steady load. I have 12km swim a week, 300km bike, between 40-50km running, that’s it for me. I can’t do anymore.
BRAD BROWN: I love that.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Maybe for the weeks, the high weeks, I may do 330km on the bike or 58km on the run, but I usually try to keep it there and not go crazy because if not, everything starts hurting and then I can’t run for a week because my heel hurts or my knees hurt. As long as I’m healthy I’ll enjoy training.
BRAD BROWN: Fantastic. Pedro, thank you so much for your time here on The Kona Edge, I’ve loved sharing your story, I can’t wait to catch up again where we talk about the individual disciplines, the swim, the bike and the run and touch on nutrition as well, but we’ll save that for next time. Thanks for your time.
PEDRO CORDOVEZ: Thank you, take care, hope to see you soon, bye.