On this edition of The Kona Edge we head back to the United Kingdom to discover more about Paul Savage and his journey to the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge, we head to Manchester in the UK now and joined by Paul Savage, Paul, welcome, thanks for joining us today.
PAUL SAVAGE: Thank you Brad, thanks for having me on the show.
BRAD BROWN: Paul it’s great to catch up and I have to laugh because before we started chatting I thought, you’re from Manchester, you’ve got to support either City or United, and you support neither, you’re not a big football fan, you’re obviously big into your tri, is there anybody else in the UK that’s not a big football fan? I can’t believe it!
PAUL SAVAGE: There’s a few of us triathletes that can’t be bothered with it, yeah, too much money football, I don’t like the wages of players, it’s not worth it, so yeah, stick away from that sport and stick with triathlon where there’s no money.
BRAD BROWN: Yeah too funny, I was going to say, is that because you don’t have much time to sit down and watch a football game for 90 minutes?
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, I barely have time to watch television anyway, the Tour de France has been on the last three weeks and I try and catch the last half hour of each stage and maybe the highlights, but I don’t have a lot of time to watch television, let alone a game of football.
BRAD BROWN: Paul, let’s talk about your background, were you a sporty kid growing up?
PAUL SAVAGE: Yes, growing up my main sport was swimming, my mum is a swim teacher so I was in the swimming pool and competing in galas from the age of about 10 and then I got into triathlon in my early teens. My mum was a big influence around that time, she was competing in triathlon herself as an age grouper and I saw her go off to do the Gold Coast, to raise the World Triathlon Championships, I think it was 1991, so that was good seeing that, as I was growing up and my dad actually started up the first junior triathlon club in Britain in the early 90’s.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible. Often I chat to people on the podcast here who come from different sporting backgrounds, not necessarily a swimming, biking or running, maybe they played rugby or played a bit of cricket, but it’s pretty cool that you’ve grown up in the sport, it’s been part of your life for pretty much as long as you can remember.
If it’s in your blood there’s no escaping Ironman
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, I was really lucky from that point of view. I was racing as a junior for Great Britain in the early 90’s and half of the Great Britain youth and junior team was made up of members of the East Coast Triathlon Junior Club that my dad started up, which was pretty cool back then.
BRAD BROWN: That is pretty funky. What do you attribute the growth of the sport in the UK to right now? It’s really exploded hasn’t it Paul?
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, I think the success of the elite athletes. We’ve always had some of the best athletes in the world, growing up it was like Spencer Smith and Simon Lessing, Glen Cook, athletes like that helped to grow the sport amongst the juniors and then obviously in recent years, the Bramley’s, Chrissie Wellington, athletes like that. I think that’s really helped to grow the sport.
BRAD BROWN: Your favourite? You’ve obviously performed well at the Ironman distance level, but what’s your favourite distance to race?
PAUL SAVAGE: Probably Ironman. Now that I’ve moved to Ironman, I love to race that distance. I spent a lot of time racing the standard distance and trying to get faster over that distance, but yes, when I turned to Ironman, it’s just something very powerful about crossing that Ironman finish line, the high that you get from it, you just don’t quite get that high after a sprint or standard distance race. 70.3 were nice distance because you feel like you’re going fast, you can actually race a 70.3 all the way to the line whereas an Ironman, usually you’re dying about halfway through the marathon and you’re hanging onto the line. 70.3 and Ironman is the distances I like.
BRAD BROWN: Some of you are dying halfway through the marathon, some of us are dying halfway through the bike!
PAUL SAVAGE: You’re obviously pushing too hard on the bike!
BRAD BROWN: Paul, the decision to make the step up to an Ironman distance, for a lot of people who come into the sport very unaware of what’s going on and the ins and the outs of the sport and they think Ironman, that looks good, I’ll do one of those whereas someone like you who has grown up around it and the Ironman is a big thing. It’s a long distance, it’s a tough race, was it a difficult decision for you to make that step up, or to make the decision to make the step up?
PAUL SAVAGE: No, from 2006 to 2010 I had five seasons of racing, predominantly standard distance, as an age grouper I was going to European and World Championships each year. In 2010 I got 3rd in the Europeans and 5th at the Worlds, but I just felt like I couldn’t train any harder to get any faster over that standard distance and I needed another challenge. I was a good swim/run and not so good on the bike, so I thought I’d have a little dabble in elite racing. 2011 I did, I think it was three races in the British Triathlon Super Series, doing draft legal racing and that was great.
A really good learning experience, a lot of fun, but although I was a good swimmer, I was still a good one minute off the lead swimmers and I was already swimming 20 000m a week, so I just felt like I couldn’t do anymore training, I was working full time. I thought, well, the next step is Ironman, I’d sort of gone as far as I could over standard distance, I was working, I was never going to be good enough doing the elite racing, so it seemed like Ironman was the obvious next step.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about work and getting that balance right with regards to training for your first Ironman. First up, what do you do for a living and how do you get that balance right?
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, I’m very lucky now because I’m self-employed, I’m a physiotherapist and a triathlon coach. I do bike visiting, sports massage, I can fit my work around my training. So on a daily basis my training comes first and then I fit work around that. Going back 6-7 years when I was doing standard distance racing, I was working as a physiotherapist in an employed job, so I was having to fit training in early in the morning and in the evenings and yeah, I definitely couldn’t have done any more training at that time, to go faster over the standard distance.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think that’s advisable? Would you say to other age groupers who are possibly listening to this that if they can, to structure their work environment as you have now, that it’s a case of your training comes first, you need to fit everything around it, particularly if you want to perform and get to Kona and perform well at Kona.
Find the balance between work and your Ironman training
PAUL SAVAGE: Yes, if you can do that, then yeah, it’s a big advantage. If you think, pretty much all the races that we do, we race in the morning, especially if you’re doing an Ironman, you’re usually starting at 6am in the morning, so I think it makes sense to train in the mornings and if you can work your working day, if you can organize your working day so that you train in the morning and then work afternoons and evenings, then that just works perfectly for Ironman training.
BRAD BROWN: Paul, tell me about your first Ironman experience? It’s a big step up, as I said, from a sprint or an Olympic, even from a half Ironman distance, it’s a huge jump, tell me about your first one, did it go according to plan? You obviously enjoyed it because you’ve gone back for more.
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I was extremely worried and anxious about it from the moment I entered the event to the morning of the race, like 10 months, I had that sinking feeling that you get every day when you think about something that you’re concerned about. I had that feeling pretty much every day, but I think that helped motivate me, the fear of doing the Ironman and the fear of failure in my first Ironman motivated me to do the training, to get out on the bike. My first Ironman was Ironman UK, which is up here in the Greater Manchester area in Bolton, so it was great because I could train on the bike course and I rode that bike course to death and that was a big help in getting me around that first Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me about that fear Paul, I find that fascinating. What was the driving force behind it?
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, the fear of the distance, the fear of running a marathon after cycling 112 miles, that worry about getting the nutrition right on the bike and I think that fear really helped me to become what I would call a student of Ironman, listening to podcasts, reading as much as I could, just to make sure that I got it right on that first event.
BRAD BROWN: Did you?
PAUL SAVAGE: Yes. I did, looking back now, it was a really good performance and the goal was just to finish. The goal was to get around and not make a fool of myself, but I actually ended up about 4 minutes off the Kona slot on my first Ironman and yeah, I was fit, the performance was good. Looking back now, what I hadn’t done was paid attention to all of the marginal gains and if I go back now and apply all of the marginal games, I would have easily got a Kona slot on that first performance, but I’m glad I didn’t. It made me go back and do more Ironman’s before I managed to qualify.
BRAD BROWN: I also think it’s a case of easy come, easy go, if something comes too easy you don’t really value it and a Kona slot is something special and we’ll chat about that in a moment. Talk to me about those marginal gains, what do you mean by that?
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, the main thing is like, when I look at pictures of me on the bike in that first Ironman and I use it as examples now to the athletes that I coach and I say: Look at this idiot on the bike at Ironman UK in his first Ironman. I was wearing a standard road helmet with air vents in so that would have been creating a lot of drag. I had three bottles on my bike riding up the steep hill. I didn’t need three bottles on the bike at that time. I was wearing a long sleeve cycling jersey that was just a cheap thing that I bought from a local bike shop that was a bit baggy and would have been creating a lot of drag. Yeah, things like that that yeah, had I paid more attention to my equipment, to my clothing, I would have probably knocked somewhere in the region of 5-10 minutes off that bike split, I’m sure.
BRAD BROWN: Wow, that’s pretty impressive. Let’s talk about getting that Kona slot and then going back after that first Ironman UK and decided, I want to go for it, that’s the goal. How do you go about that? Is it as simple as making a decision and getting to work or is there a lot more planning and thought that goes into it?
PAUL SAVAGE: Because I was close on that first Ironman, I knew I sort of had the ability to be in that ballpark of a Kona slot and really it was just a case of, yeah, just doing another race and putting yourself in the mix and just seeing what happens. A Kona slot is never guaranteed and you’ve just got to be on your best form on race day and there’s an element of luck that comes into it and yeah, that’s kind of the approach I took.
Know how to select your qualifying races to get a Kona slot
Looking back now, and I would say to most athletes in Britain, if you’re looking to qualify for Kona, probably Ironman UK is not the easiest race, it’s one of the toughest Ironman races, but it’s probably one of the easiest places to actually qualify for Kona. The mistake I made was in terms of qualification, was the Ironman I did after UK was Ironman Austria which is a very fast course, attracts a lot of very fast athletes and I was actually quite a way off a Kona slot on that Ironman in 2014 in Austria.
Then the year after last year I went to Ironman Frankfurt, which is probably another bad decision in terms of the standard, is probably a step up even from Austria, but I think my influence was more about the experience and doing a fast and good race rather than the Kona slot. I thought, if I’m good enough, I’ll get the Kona Slot, but it was just as much about having a good experience. I had a decent race at Frankfurt compared to a lot of other people and because of the heat and basically got lucky there with my Kona slot.
BRAD BROWN: I find it interesting you went Austria and then Frankfurt. I’ve raced on the continent of Europe and I use the term ‘race’ loosely because I’m definitely not a racing snake like you are, but gee, I felt a bit like Miss Piggy at a weight-watchers convention, there was just racing snake after racing snake, it’s incredible, the athletes and the caliber of athletes that those races particularly do attract.
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, that’s right, there’s some very good athletes there, but because Ironman Frankfurt is a reasonable championship race, you get more Kona slots as well. There’s 75 Kona slots when I did it, compared to 40 at Ironman UK. There’s faster and better athletes in the race, but there’s more slots per age group, so I had that in the back of my mind. I think when I entered Ironman Frankfurt, which a race like that sells out in a couple of days, so you’re literally entering the year before, and when I entered it, I’m sure there was 100 slots, there was 100 Kona slots and then they reduced that to 75, but it was still just enough for me to get in.
BRAD BROWN: Paul, I find it interesting that you say that for someone who is possibly a marginal qualifier, UK is probably a good option and it is a tough one. Like you rightly say, it’s not one of the easiest ones on the circuit, why do you reckon it’s, I don’t want to say an ‘easy’ one to qualify at, an easier one on the circuit to qualify, with the lower amount of slots too, like a championship race, as you rightly said?
PAUL SAVAGE: I think the reason it makes it easier, I think maybe because it’s a tough course, some of the really fast Uber bikers – as they call them – from Europe, especially Germany, might not want to go to that course because they like doing fast times. That puts off some of the faster athletes, they don’t want to race on a slower course. I think as well because it’s late in the season, it’s like mid to end of July, some athletes have already qualified in earlier races such as South Africa, Lanzarote, maybe Austria, so some athletes have already qualified. Yeah, I think the weather, the British weather, especially the weather in Manchester puts people off, more often than not it rains at Ironman UK, so that puts people off. I think there’s a number of different factors.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve been lucky enough to race at various championship races, not just Ironman distance as you said, the shorter stuff, European Championships, what in your mind makes Kona special?
PAUL SAVAGE: The history, when I was growing up Mark Allen was my idol, yeah, I remember age 16 watching the 1992 coverage of the Hawaii Ironman, the NBC coverage that was shown on Euro Sport and it was just brilliant. The coverage of the 1992 Ironman, people who are listening to this show need to look it up on YouTube or whatever and watch that because it just has everything, it’s absolutely brilliant the coverage there.
I watched that and learnt about the Hawaii Ironman as it was back then, everyone called it the Hawaii Ironman, learnt about that race from a very early age, mid to late teens and it just, yeah it was always there in the back of my mind that one day I’ll race on that course. It was never an obvious goal, it was just a dream, a thought that I knew that one day I would race on that course and then I sort of resurrected that dream later in my triathlon career when I’d finished with the standard distance racing.
BRAD BROWN: How cool was it, once you’d booked your spot, when you’d picked up the slot to go, did it sink in then that you were going to race on that course or was it only once you arrived in Hawaii?
PAUL SAVAGE: It’s only once you arrive. The period of time between qualifying and landing in Kona, that period of time, to be perfectly honest, I found it quite stressful. Initially you’ve got to book your flights, find accommodation, you’ve got to recover from an Ironman and then you’ve got to train for another Ironman, all of these factors, I was paranoid about getting ill, getting knocked off my bike.
To be honest, it was quite a stressful period and then as soon as I landed in Kona, I don’t know, just like people talk about, it’s a bit of a cliché that people talk about it being a very spiritual place, very calm island. The people are calm and laid back and it just rubs off on you. When you’re there, it’s like right, I’m here now, I’m not ill, I’m not injured, I’ve survived the plane journey, my bike’s arrived okay, I’m here and I’ve got 10-12 days before race and let’s start to enjoy it. It’s absolutely fantastic once you actually get there.
BRAD BROWN: You spoke about the fear ahead of your first Ironman, did you have that same sort of fear leading into Kona?
PAUL SAVAGE: No, no, to be honest, that fear never returned. After the first Ironman, the fear of completing an Ironman and completing the distance was gone for subsequent Ironman’s. Definitely going into Frankfurt and again going into Kona it was much more of a feeling of excitement about the race rather than fear, especially with Kona, you can’t help but be excited about that, about racing on that course.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me about your race. Do you approach this thing to go, you know what, I’ve qualified, I’m going to work as hard as I can to be as competitive as I can. Or do you approach your first race in Kona the same way as you do your first Ironman and say, you know what, I just want to get through this thing and make sure I enjoy it and if I come back then I’ll look at racing it, how did you approach it?
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, that’s a great question because you hear so many different things from other athletes about respecting the Big Island and all that kind of thing and how many athletes do you hear about that end up over-cooking it and blowing up on their first race. I must admit, going into the race I had certain targets in my head that I thought, well, it would be great if I could hit those particular targets but I think the overriding feeling was that I should just try to enjoy the experience. But yeah, it’s one of those things, I always say with Ironman, you’ve got to let the race evolve and you just sort of see what happens during the race and if you’re feeling good and the time is looking good then you might push on. Then if things aren’t so good, then you just sort of, you can make excuses and just say I’m just going to enjoy the rest of the marathon, that kind of thing.
BRAD BROWN: Have you got unfinished business on the Big Island?
Enjoy the dream of being on the Big Island
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, definitely, the way my race evolved, I had a good swim, I was out of the swim in 62 minutes which was a little bit slower than Frankfurt. I was out in 58 minutes in Frankfurt but I was obviously enjoying the swim too much, looking at the coral, I think I did that whole swim with just a big smile on my face, it was absolutely fantastic. Swim was 62 minutes which was okay.
The bike, I was riding to Power, you’ve heard that a hundred times before about the importance of Power meters, I was riding to Power and that was all okay, but one mistake I made was I had a very flimsy carbon bottle cage on the down tube of my frame which is where I store my water bottles and at Kona they give out these flimsy plastic sports bottles that aren’t proper bike bottles and the first aid station I picked up one of these flimsy plastic bottles, put it in the down tube, bottle cage on the down tube of my bike and it just went straight through and out the other side and was then behind me on the road. I was like oh no, that’s not good.
Luckily I had a better bottle cage behind my saddle, but yeah, that did actually affect me towards the end of the ride because I lost another bottle at Y Kaloa and you’ve got about 40km back to town. As far as I can remember, there was no other aid station from Y Kaloa back to town. I cycled the last 40km without any water, I was riding past bottles on the side of the road thinking should I stop and pick one up, but until you’ve actually ridden past a bottle on the side of the road, you don’t know whether it’s full or empty or whatever. I’ve got some, yeah, the last 40km of the bike didn’t go so well.
Then on the run I kind of enjoyed it too much, running up and down Alii Drive and went a bit too fast there and ended up paying the price as you walk up Pualani Drive, suddenly the 7:30 minute miles became 8:30 minute miles and then yeah, then it just got worse from there. So yeah, I’ve got unfinished business and I’ll have to go back and do a better all-round performance next time.
BRAD BROWN: No pressure, but when are you going back?
PAUL SAVAGE: When I qualify! It’s funny, there’s so many, in UK and Europe, there’s so many good Iron distance races that are not WTC Ironman branded races, we’ve got one that was this weekend in Nottingham called The Outlaw which is brilliant. You’ve got, obviously, Challenge Ross in Germany and people say why don’t you do this and why don’t you do that, but I feel like I can’t enter an Ironman race unless it’s a branded race because I want to put myself in the position again that if I have a good race, hopefully that might lead to a Kona slot and therefore I can go back again. I think I’ll always continue to do, for the time being, Ironman branded events to give myself a chance of going back to Kona, but I’m not saying I want to go next year or I want to go in five years’ time. When it happens it happens because I just enjoyed training, I’m probably one of those people that enjoys training more than racing, but yeah, I’ll just pick another Ironman and see what happens.
BRAD BROWN: Knowing what you know now and with that experience, you mentioned the bottle cage issue and going back, is there anything you’d do differently or change or what advice would you give to yourself knowing what you know now, if you could do it over?
PAUL SAVAGE: Yes, obviously the bottle cage. On the run I would definitely back off the pace. You’ve heard it said before that in an Ironman marathon, the first 10 miles come for free, well, that’s quite dangerous in Kona because you get those first 10 miles for free up and down and up and down Alii Drive and you could be flying up and down there, but the race starts after Alii Drive when you go up Pualani and then you’re out in to the lava fields, it’s so brutal. So, those first 10 miles, you’ve just got to really back off the pace so that you’ve got something left and so that you haven’t overheated. I think I probably just overheated, my core temperature went up, so that by the time I got out onto the lava fields I was in a bit of a mess really.
BRAD BROWN: I wanted to ask you that, was the heat something that you struggled with or did you find the acclimatization pretty stress-free? You mentioned that you also arrived 10-12 days before race day, that must have made a bit of a difference.
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, I felt that after about a week of being out there, I’d acclimatized pretty well to the heat. Whether I was acclimatized, it’s difficult to say, it’s just you learn to deal with the heat. You’re sweating constantly and it’s a case of drink a sports bottle full of water before you go to bed, wake up in the middle of the night, dehydrated, drink another bottle, wake up in the morning, drink another bottle. Loads of salt, salt on everything, salt in the water, salt in the food and I think that, you just learn over the preceding week before the race, you learn what your body needs in that heat and humidity. I just think you’ve got to respect the heat and humidity. Everyone is affected by it, some more than others, but the main thing is you’ve got to slow down on the run, with the movement of the air over your body on the bike it’s not too bad, the heat and humidity, but when you start running, you’ve got to slow down out there.
BRAD BROWN: Paul, what’s the biggest thing you’re struggling with triathlon right now, what are you grappling with?
PAUL SAVAGE: Age! I hate to admit it, but things do change as you get older and yeah, the thing that is a limiting factor for a lot of triathletes is obviously running injuries and just because I’m a physiotherapist, it doesn’t make me immune from running injuries. I think that’s the biggest challenge. I turned 40 this year and I just can’t do the run training that I could do five years ago.
BRAD BROWN: You’re over the hill mate, it’s downhill from there.
PAUL SAVAGE: No, it’s uphill, it’s uphill! I’ve always been a good swim runner, which isn’t great as an Ironman athlete because as you know, it’s all about the bike, so I think what I’m focusing on now, what I’m going to focus on for the next few years is the bike more and more to take the pressure off myself to do the running sessions and risk injuries, I’m just going to put a lot more time into the bike. I’ve been doing a lot more time trialing this year, so yeah, I think that’s, the challenge is the injuries and the solution is doing more biking.
BRAD BROWN: We’ve got an interesting selection of listeners that listen to this podcast, we’ve obviously got the group of guys and girls who have qualified and are trying to qualify for Kona and then we’ve got a lot of newbies as well. Novice triathletes who are thinking about making the step up to doing their first full distance Ironman distance triathlon. What advice would you give to those new guys and girls? If you could go back to yourself, knowing what you know now about the sport of Ironman and the distance of the race, what would you tell them?
PAUL SAVAGE: I think you’ve got to earn your stripes. You’ve really got to spend a few seasons doing standard distance to really get fit. To get fit and to get faster over the short distance and to get lean. We do see a lot of people coming into the sport that maybe are a little bit overweight, a little bit unfit and I think it’s important to get leaner by doing the standard distance before you step up and then spend a season or two doing 70.3 distance races and then step up to Ironman. Don’t go from sprint distance to Ironman, work your way up through the distances, get lean, train in that zone two, that fabulous zone two where you’re fat burning, that’s the zone that the majority of newbie novice athletes should be training in, to get their cardiovascular fitness up and to get weight down.
BRAD BROWN: Paul, thank you very much for your time, much appreciated. I look forward to catching up with you again where we chat about your swim, your bike and run and some nutrition as well, but we’ll save that for another time.
PAUL SAVAGE: Yeah, okay, cheers Brad.
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