Today Kevin Portmann joins us on The Kona Edge and shares his inspirational Ironman Story going from age grouper to turning pro.
It’s certainly a tough decision to give up your day job and become a professional. Kevin takes us through his struggles and reveals how he has overcome these obstacles in his first pro season.
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BRAD BROWN: We head to California now, to Oceanside on The Kona Edge and it’s a great pleasure to welcome Kevin Portmann onto the podcast. Kevin welcome. Thanks for joining us today.
KEVIN PORTMANN: Thanks for having me. I know it’s late for you so thanks very much for being willing to talk to me that late.
BRAD BROWN: It’s all good. I’m a night owl at the best of times so can’t complain. I love doing these things too and I understand with time zones it’s difficult to catch up. Particularly if you’re on the west coast of the States, but chuffed to have you on.
Tell me a little bit about the triathlon scene in Oceanside. We were talking before we started recording, climate wise it sounds like the perfect place to live and train.
KEVIN PORTMANN: We can’t complain really. Weather wise it’s nice and sunny all year round. It never really dips below 50 degrees in the winter and it never goes higher than, let’s say mid 70’s here on the coast in the summer. If you want to get some heat training you can ride inland and you can get some nice warm weather. But for the most part it’s pretty close to perfect training conditions here.
BRAD BROWN: That sounds horrible. I don’t know how you cope.
KEVIN PORTMANN: It’s terrible. Don’t move here, it’s horrible.
BRAD BROWN: That’s what I always say to people about where I live in Cape Town. The weather, it does get a bit windy and it does get a bit wet but it’s a magnificent place to live and I just tell people it’s horrible. You would hate it here; you wouldn’t want to live here. So it sounds about the same in Oceanside I guess.
Perfect training partners and weather all year round
KEVIN PORTMANN: Probably without as much rain. We’ve had a wet winter this year but we moved up here February last year and I think we had 3 or 4 days of rain throughout the entire year. Now I’m into swimming, biking and running so it’s really hard to beat I think. You don’t get the altitude but you get the perfect weather all year round.
BRAD BROWN: It sounds like it. Kevin tell me a little bit about the triathlon scene in Oceanside. Is it pretty big?
KEVIN PORTMANN: It is yes. We do have a few pros that train here. Luke McKenzie is one of them. Maik Twelsiek, the German pro is around here as well, and a few more ITF and some ITU folks as well but in general the triathlon theme is very competitive. Even in the age groupers we have very strong athletes so it’s easy to find people to train with if you train with these people on a day to day basis.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s take a step back to a young Kevin Portmann. Tell me a little bit about you growing up. Sport wise have you always been active?
In sports from the age of 2
KEVIN PORTMANN: Yes. I was born and raised in the Alps so skiing is obviously the sport that comes to mind. I was put on skis when I was 2 or 3. And it was easy for me because my parents lived 5 to 10 minute drives to 3 or 4 different ski resorts so it was easy for them to drop us off at the ski resort during the day and pick us up at night.
I grew up skiing and then playing Table Tennis for 6 or 7 seasons. That was a lot of fun. I think Table Tennis is underrated; it’s a very fun sport. And I wanted to do a team sport as well so I played soccer. Soccer being huge in France. I play for 4 or 5 years as well before we went to the States. I’m very active, anything sport related I enjoy doing.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me about the Table Tennis. People think Table Tennis, how hard can that be? But it’s pretty physically demanding. I’ve played a bit, messing around. Nothing serious, but you can work up a pretty good sweat in a game of Table Tennis.
Get your cardio up with Table Tennis
KEVIN PORTMANN: I’m going to raise my eyebrows if people listen to this podcast but yes. Table Tennis is underrated. It’s a dynamic sport and a good cardio exercise actually. I recall doing those pre-season training camps and I’d be completely spent after each day.
I think Table Tennis is one of the sports where people don’t consider it a sport but when you actually get involved in it and train competitively you get a good workout from it. I just wish it was a little bigger here in the States.
BRAD BROWN: And it’s good fun to play as well. Were you pretty good at it?
KEVIN PORTMANN: Yes, decent enough to play at a national level in France and picked up a few sponsors here and there. We did some tournaments in Germany and Switzerland and I had a training camp in Germany. My coach and one of the guys 04:52 – 07:06 audio skips
I haven’t had a chance to do that but you definitely can get a lot out of playing Table Tennis. If you play in a team to team sport, it’s a mental game as well obviously is a physical game to some extent so it’s fun. It’s indoors though. You don’t get the opportunity to be outdoors and breathe fresh air. That would be the only downside that I can think of when I think of Table Tennis. But definitely underrated, definitely a lot of fun to play. Ping pong as some people would call it.
From an indoor sport to a world of outdoors
BRAD BROWN: Yes, absolutely. Tell me about your introduction into triathlon. Where did your interest in the sport come from?
KEVIN PORTMANN: My really close friend in New York, he texted me on a Thursday telling me hey, I’m doing this great triathlon on Saturday. Are you interested in coming? I’m like yes sure why not. And I’d just bought a bike about 2 months before that so I was excited to actually get to ride on my bike. It’s kind of hard to ride your bike in New York City on a safe road. So we went the that triathlon thing knowing nothing about swimming, biking and running all at once.
I remember the race organiser telling us that there was a very short turn at the bottom of a very steep downhill, essentially that just sends you straight back up to the hill, telling us to slow down. You will see people warning you to slow down; don’t be that guy to slow yourself down. And of course, I was that guy who just didn’t really listen and I didn’t make the turn. So I ended up getting some road rash but it was a blast.
Experience the euphoria of your first triathlon
Just crossing the finish and getting your medal and cookies and pizza and it was a lot of fun just hanging out by the lake. I was hooked. I didn’t do that many triathlons after that first year. I think when I really got the bug is when I raced the New York City triathlon the following year and I raised funds for the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society. And I did pretty okay that day without putting too much effort into my training so I thought to myself that if I was a little more serious about the sport I wanted to see where that would take me.
A good friend of mine invited me to connect with his coach and to me it was like I’m going to work with this coach. I had my first year working with a coach and things just snowballed really quickly. I bought a tri-bike and decided to work with another coach the following year, the end of 2013 and from that point on I’ve been working with the same coach.
He took me to Kona twice, to 70.3 Worlds and Mont Tremblant and most recently he took me to clinch my procard and the win at Coeur d’Alene. So it’s been a very good 4 years, going into my 5th year in triathlon.
Get a coach – it’s worth it
BRAD BROWN: It sounds like it. Tell me about that moment where you decided you know what, I want to take this thing seriously and that conversation with the first coach. A lot of people think “I’m okay; I don’t really need a coach”. But tell me your thinking. And you had obviously been coached in Table Tennis, and coached in football. So you knew the benefit of having a coach. Tell me about that conversation.
KEVIN PORTMANN: There’s just so much going on in triathlon that it doesn’t take a lot to realise that balancing the swimming, biking and running and recovery aspect of training for triathlon, is a lot to take on. Especially if you don’t know anything about the sport. I usually need to be 100% in when I do things so it only made sense to me to talk to a coach.
I didn’t really do my research on who I should talk to and interview them, essentially. I was sold before talking to the guy. That was my mind-set, I was going to go in and do as he says. It was really good. He was a little more focused on the cycling part which is good because it’s my favourite of the 3 but it was too much focused on cycling.
Having a coach makes you accountable to somebody
And I realised as my first year went on that I wasn’t swimming enough and I wasn’t running enough. Started interviewing different coaches and trying to understand their philosophy. How they approach the coach, how they approach the different sports and it made sense to me to part ways with my coach because he didn’t seem to be willing to spend more time in the pool or spend more time running. For him the bike was, because it’s obviously the longest of the 3, it was what was important to him.
For me it just made sense and there’s so much that we don’t know and there is a reason why people study the sport and become coaches and build experience. It just made sense for me to reach out to a coach and then work with a coach. There’s just so much you take into account and balancing the 3 plus recovery is just so much that even with the little experience that I have now, I would not consider doing it myself.
I also need that accountability to someone else. If I were to coach myself, then if I were to skip 1 workout, it would be oh well, I’ll just catch up tomorrow. And I wouldn’t have that sense of accountability to someone else, if that makes sense.
BRAD BROWN: Are you one of those guys that if it’s on the training program it has to get done, come hell or high water?
KEVIN PORTMANN: Yes, especially with my coach Kevin Denner, he always gets me race ready for every single race that I do. He gets me race ready all the time. We build up trust that way and if he’s prescribing a workout then yes, it has to be done. You have one of those who would do everything he or she can do to just get the work in even if I have to wake up at 4am in the morning or get the bike in at 10 o’clock at night, I would do it.
BRAD BROWN: Why Ironman, as a distance? Why have you chosen to go there? I don’t know how long a competitive match of Table Tennis takes or a soccer game takes 90 minutes. Why Ironman? It’s a lot longer.
KEVIN PORTMANN: Yes. If you’re putting yourself out there to swim, bike, run and if you’re paying that much money you may as well go for the whole day. There are a few reasons. The sport is so competitive right now. People come in with an Olympic background and they’re just so much faster than me in the water and running, I could compete with those guys on the bike because I like to think that the bike is my strongest. But swimming and running I already have a disadvantage.
The appeal of Ironman
Obviously, Ironman you’re out there for 112 miles on the bike so I could make up ground on those guys. I just love the endurance aspect of the sport. My dad was big into mountain biking and I’ve always gone cycling a little bit and seen my uncle who was also a cyclist, seen them going out there for 4, 5, 6 hours, so it just made sense. And the appeal of the Ironman, watching videos of people crossing the finish and obviously getting myself the goal was Kona, I wanted to go there. So Ironman just naturally made sense to me.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about the setting a goal when you’ve got into your first Ironman. When did Kona get onto the radar? Was it from the start that that was the goal, you’re going to do what it takes? Or what was your experience in the sport as a whole before your first Kona?
KEVIN PORTMANN: It was in the glow of my first Ironman. In fact I didn’t want to jump into the Ironman distance too soon. I think there’s just so much that my body needs to get used in the shorter distances, before jumping into Ironman. To me it didn’t really make sense to jump straight into Ironman. I didn’t want to burn bridges. I didn’t want to burn myself out so I did a lot of 70.3 and Olympic races and sprint races to really get myself comfortable with the whole swim, bike, run ordeal.
Exceed expectations when family is watching you
And in 2014 was when I did my first Ironman in Zurich. I chose Zurich because of my family, it was a quick drive for them to come to see me. I wanted them to experience the Ironman event as well and I beat my expectation largely. I was very surprised; I had a great day there.
BRAD BROWN: How did you go in that first one? It’s funny you say that because I was in Zurich in 2014 at that race as well, and I’m putting money on it yours was a lot quicker than mine.
KEVIN PORTMANN: Expectations with my coach, we looked at the time and we looked at my bike and my run splits. And I told him that my stretch goal would be sub-10 hours. Close to sub-10 hours. And he said I think you can do it. If you have a great day I think if you’re able to put it together then you’ll be fine, but you have to be able to pace yourself from the bike. Because he knows that the bike being my strongest, I have a hard time pacing myself because I just want to go out there and hammer and thrash my legs.
Wanting what the qualifier has
But I was able to pace myself, thanks to power meters for that, and I think I clocked in at 9:39 on that first race. I was very pleasantly surprised and I thought this is cool. And then a friend of mine did Ironman Maryland later that year and actually won the race and he qualified for Kona. It was like; well I want to go to Kona too. Like I want to be there.
So, my coach and I talked about which races we should consider and can we actually qualify for. And I told him we have to do everything we can to get me race ready and competitive for Kona. Not knowing what the competition would be. But I wanted to put everything under my control so that I would show up to the race ready, and ready to compete and potentially clench that spot for Kona. So it started with 70.3’s and then Zurich was a good first experience. I think in part it would have been different if the experience wasn’t that good. But things worked out for me.
BRAD BROWN: I don’t think my Zurich, if that was my first one, I don’t think I would have gone back if I have to be honest but thankfully it wasn’t my first.
The tough decision to turn pro
Then the decision to turn pro and get your card to race as a professional, was it a big decision? What was the thinking behind that? The reason I ask is because we’ve got a lot of age groupers who are pretty good but the step up is pretty big from age group to pro. Tell me a little bit about the thinking there.
KEVIN PORTMANN: Yes it definitely was a tough decision. A lot tougher on me than it was on my wife. You’re in a spot where you’re doing pretty okay at an age group level and you’re wondering what it’s like to race as a pro. Racing as a pro, again because my mentality is if you do something you do it 100% or 150%. It didn’t really make sense to race as a pro while you have a full time job.
My wife told me one day, “Well you’re not getting any younger so you may as well just give it a shot for 2 or 3 seasons and see how it goes. If you see improvement then we’ll reassess”. That was tough because I enjoyed my job and it paid well. I’m not going to lie it paid really well so going from having a good financial stability to relying on only one pay check was a difficult motion but we pulled the trigger in February this year and so far so good.
Ironman win in rookie season boosts performance
I always think to myself what the hell am I doing because financially sometimes it’s just a little difficult. You can’t buy all those gadgets that you used to buy. But the first 4 races as a pro have gone better than I expected. So, so far so good. But it is a very tough decision to make.
BRAD BROWN: And you’ve got an Ironman win in your rookie season. That’s nothing to scoff at, you must be pretty proud of that.
KEVIN PORTMANN: I won Ironman Coeur d’Alene in 2016 as an age grouper because there wasn’t a pro field there and to date in my first pro season, I have PR’d at 3:52 last weekend in Calgary so I think it’s going well so far. We’ll see where that takes me but it’s still fast.
I was talking to my wife about the race and it just didn’t go as planned for me. The room for error is so thin and so slim that if something goes wrong it just messes up your entire race and your entire plan. So definitely a big step up from your age group world but it’s good, it’s interesting you know, getting your ass kicked.
Staying on top of your training intensity
BRAD BROWN: What’s been the biggest surprise in that jump to you? Obviously you had thought about it and you had considered all the options but what for you has surprised you in that jump?
KEVIN PORTMANN: I think it’s the intensity of my training. Volume wise, I’m training for 70.3 and it’s about the Ironman volume that I did last year when I was working full time. But the intensity is such that I haven’t found the right balance between training and recovering and I find myself tired a lot. Constantly tired.
So I have yet to try to adjust to that because if I want to jump back into the Ironman training, then I can’t even imagine going into that not being able to recover properly. So I think from a training perspective it’s the intensity of the day to day training load. I think from a race perspective, I expected that level.
Hard work and commitment will get you there
And the gap, the gap is huge I’m not going to lie; the gap is big. But you’ve got to realise that you’re racing people that have 15 plus years of experience at top level. The Kienle’s of this world and the Frodeno’s of this world didn’t get there by chance. It’s a lot of work; it’s a lot of hours put in so it’s hard to compete with those guys. But hard work and commitment will see where that’s going to take me in 2 to 3 seasons and we’ll just reassess then and we’ll see. But I think the gap I expected it to be big.
I think if you go in thinking you are going to be competitive from an age grouper to the pro field, it’s a little presumptuous. You need to be willing to accept that you will be at the bottom of the pack. And that’s fine, it’s worth the experience. It’s worth the learning experience, the learning curve.
BRAD BROWN: It must be tough though coming from a very competitive age group background where you’ll go to a race and there’s a good chance you’re going to be on the top step of the podium. You get used to that feeling of winning and believing you’re good enough. And then you get thrown the deep end with the pros and it’s not that easy. Is that something you struggled with?
Making the adjustment from age grouper to pro
KEVIN PORTMANN: Yes, I can’t deny it but that’s because I’m a competitor at heart. So obviously when you go from getting on the podium at some races to just being a normal pro, back of the pack pro, yes it’s difficult. Mentally it’s difficult.
But I also knew going in, that the next 2 to 3 seasons is an adjusting period for me and then if I see I can make progress then we’ll continue and if not then I’ll go back to age groupers. It’s nothing bad about it. It’s definitely mentally challenging but the learning experience is fantastic.
Having the opportunity to towing the line with the likes of Kienle and seeing them crashing it. It’s very inspiring. I was in Calgary and Josh Amberger destroyed the race completely. And seeing him run, it’s very inspiring. Hopefully one day I can get a little closer to his level but it’s cool. It’s a good learning experience so far.
Race your own race at Kona and have fun
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk Kona. In your mind, what’s the secret as an age grouper to qualifying to race on the big island?
KEVIN PORTMANN: To qualify for Kona or to race Kona?
BRAD BROWN: To qualify, to get the qualifying spot.
KEVIN PORTMANN: There are so many strong age groupers out there. And the age groupers that could race pro level are just fine. And you never know who shows up at an Ironman race. To me the biggest lesson was go out and do your race and have fun.
Have the goal of trying to qualify for Kona but don’t have the expectation that you’re going to qualify. Don’t be too cocky about your abilities to qualify for Kona. You just never know who is going to show up at a race. There’s just so much that can go wrong during the race, if you mess up your nutrition then you screw up your entire race.
Respect the competition in your Ironman race
So I think being humble going into a race knowing that you’ve done the work and you are race ready. Respect your competition to me is one key lesson that I learned. Not that I didn’t respect the competition but I see it with other people who go in very confident about their abilities and sometimes you say too much.
Trust the process, trust your training and see how the day goes. But there is nothing wrong about missing a Kona slot if you’re third in your age group and there are only 2 Kona slots. That means 2 people were stronger than you on the day but that doesn’t mean that you’re not Kona worthy. In the 6 or 7 Ironmans that I did, I always tried to respect my competition because there are some very fast people out there. There are very strong people out there.
BRAD BROWN: How much of it is belief? Believing that you are good enough. Yes, you’ve done the work, you’ve done the miles in training and on the day, I know you say not going in too cocky but being confident enough knowing you are good enough to mix it up with the best on the day.
When you’re good enough to be in the mix
KEVIN PORTMANN: It’s huge. For me, especially on the run portion because the swim and the run are my weakest by far. So if I mention to get out of T2 in a good position and fresh enough to do the run, then to me it’s my head that takes over.
Especially in Coeur d’Alene. It was an interesting race because I took the lead at mark 12 which is where I DNF’d at Whistler. So, as soon as I took the lead at Coeur d’Alene, my mind-set was so focused on the race and so focused on not letting it go and I would have done anything possible. Even if someone was chasing me down, I would have done everything that I could have to stay in the lead or stay close to the lead.
Negative thoughts will come during the race, and highs and lows, and you probably have more lows than highs. But if were to shrug the lows and think about putting yourself into situations that brings positivity, then I think that goes a long way. Especially for an Ironman.
Develop your mental confidence
When you’re at mile 20 on the race, there’s just so much more to cover. 6 Miles is such a long distance after 8 or 9 hours out there. So belief is huge. And that’s something that I’ve been struggling with. Mental confidence. That’s something that my wife has really been trying to get me to work on. At some point it’s all mental. I can do a lot better on that end but it will come with time.
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting you say that because we obviously train our bodies physically to take on the challenge. What are some of the things you are doing to make yourself mentally stronger right now to get your head in that game and in that space?
KEVIN PORTMANN: A few things. We started meditating. My wife is starting to impose meditation on me which is good. Clear up your head space. I started to read books as well about people and their successes and how they actually achieve their success and they actually, everybody faces lows and highs and how they actually overcome the lows.
Feed your worries with positive thoughts
I try to feed my worrying with positive experiences and stories that I read. When it comes to training and I start struggling on the run or on the bike, I try to project myself into a race situation where I’m in the front and I’m leading the race. Or maybe running side by side with Kienle. I try and put myself in a mental scenario where things are great, things are going well, and so I don’t think about the physical pain that I’m going through. That’s what I tend to do.
Obviously I try to shut down the negativity that one can get. I try not to spend too much time on social media. The race, the day, the week before the race. Just try to be in my own world of positive thinking. It helps if I don’t see it as a passion, that’s what I try to do. It’s still a work in progress though. You constantly have to work on that mental aspect, as least for me because that’s something that I’m lacking at the moment.
BRAD BROWN: What’s the biggest life lesson that Ironman has taught you?
Roll with the punches in your Ironman race
KEVIN PORTMANN: That’s a very good question. I’d say roll with the punches is what Ironman taught me. The perfect example is my DNF at Ironman Whistler. I had very good training leading up to the race and I felt really strong and 10 days before the race I start questioning myself. And almost all the good that I’ve done in my training block, the power of the mind and negativity can just erase most of your good training.
I went into the race wanting to do well but mentally maybe not in the right spot. That translated into me handing in my special needs bag too late and the bag never made the aid station on the bike. Another rookie mistake that I made was that I relied too much on my special needs bag. When I heard that they didn’t have any it just completely messed me up and I wasn’t willing to adjust my behaviour and take whatever was provided on course. because I never trained with it so I didn’t know how my body was going to react and it lead to cramping on the bike.
And at Whistler, I don’t know if you know the course, but the last 25 miles are uphill. Cramped up on the bike and badly cramped up on the run to a point where my glutes started to tighten up and my back seized. I just could not move. I was sobbing and I was crying. I was miserable. The worst day of my life when it comes to triathlon and I had to pull out of the race.
Changing your mindset can change your race result
That night, after spending 2 hours with the medics, I felt good. It was like how can I go from being so miserable physically, to being okay? And my wife mentioned Coeur d’Alene is a month out from now so it’s a possibility if you want to try to make Kona again. So I thought about the race when she mentioned that and 3 days later I signed up for the race.
And I went into the very short training block and into the race, with a completely different mind-set. I was maybe too focused on getting the Kona slot going to Whistler, and I wanted to go to Coeur d’Alene, still thinking about Kona, trying to qualify for Kona. But most importantly going there and having fun. Reconnecting with the joy of swimming, biking, running regardless of what the race was going to throw at me.
That wasn’t a perfect race by any means, at least not what I had in mind, but I was able to get out of T2 with a smile on my face. And I told myself whatever happens you smile running out of T2. And just seeing people cheering me on, seeing that I was having a good time and the smile on my face. I felt like the crowd was a little louder when I came out of T2 and it just gave me a little boost of energy. I was like, oh this is cool.
Dealing with the uncontrollables is key in your Ironman race
Kenley is such a beautiful venue that a lot of people running through the neighbourhood, people were telling me you’re running stronger, faster, is the leg giving you blisters I bet. And rolling with the punches, to answer your question, I think it’s the biggest lesson that Ironman taught me is, there are so many things out of your control. Being able to deal with it is probably key.
BRAD BROWN: And you talk about the perfect race, I don’t know if there is such a thing because of how long the race is. There’s always going to be something that can go wrong and will go wrong and like you say just roll with the punches you’ve got to have a plan B. If plan B isn’t working go to plan C. I think that’s what I love about this sport as well and I think that’s what the thing is that keeps us coming back for more is because we just never quite dial it in exactly the way we want it and I think that’s probably one of the big attractions to the sport.
Kevin it’s been great catching up. I want to chat about your swim, bike and run next time out but we’ll save that for another day. Thanks for your time on The Kona Edge today.
KEVIN PORTMANN: Sounds good. Thank you very much Brad. You have a good one.
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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