Although it took him 6 Ironman attempts before qualifying for Kona he persisted with consistency and patience and then he was rewarded. On this edition of The Kona Edge we touch base with Rob Hill who joins us to chat about his Ironman story.
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BRAD BROWN: We head to Melbourne now in Australia to catch up with Rob Hill. Rob, welcome onto The Kona Edge. Thanks for joining us.
ROB HILL: Thanks a lot Brad. It’s great to get a chance to talk to you and your listeners and appreciate the opportunity.
BRAD BROWN: Rob I love chatting to folks from Australia because often I chat to people in North America or in Europe. And obviously with the Northern Southern hemisphere thing it’s either terrible weather where I am and it’s beautiful where they are, or vice versa. But you’re pretty much in the same boat as we are as we’re recording this. Smack bang in the middle of winter.
Training for Ironman through winter is tough
ROB HILL: Yes, the Southern hemisphere here. I think any one of us that are fortunate enough to be training for Hawaii, it’s tough. We’re training through our winter and then early spring is often the wettest season in Melbourne. Then we have to get on a plane, head over to Kona and all the Euros and the mainland US people are tanned and coming out of their summer.
BRAD BROWN: Rob, Melbourne is probably the sporting capital of Australia. All the big sporting events happen there. I think of the big Aussie open tennis, you think of the MCG, massive cricket ground. They play footie there as well. You’ve got a big super rugby team. It’s a great place to live if you do lead an active lifestyle, isn’t it?
ROB HILL: Oh for sure. It’s interesting because the weather is not always ideal, as we were saying about winter. And again in summer it gets up in the low 40’s on the really hot days and the dry wind comes up off the desert inland Australia, and it can be quite harsh conditions. But there’s something about Melbourne and people love their sport here and people like participating in their sport too.
Modest beginnings starting around the block
Triathlon has always been big for as long as I have been doing it in Melbourne. We were just talking before about Ironman Melbourne and it has got a lot more interesting in people wanting to take part and understanding what an Ironman triathlon is. Even though it unfortunately only lasted I think 4 years and no longer, any Ironman Melbourne, but people still talk about it and it still got a lot of people interested in the sport of triathlon.
BRAD BROWN: As far as your interest in the sport, where did that stem from?
ROB HILL: From very modest beginnings Brad. I didn’t know regular exercise at all until I turned 30, would you believe. And I was pretty unfit and I loved to drink, and exercise didn’t really come to me as something that I should be doing. All of a sudden I hit 30 and thought I want to start running around the block.
So I headed out the door in my basketball shoes and I think I made it down the end of the street and had to walk back. I was so out of breath. That was day one. And I think I was 35 and a couple of years in it doing some shorter triathlons, I ended up deciding to do the big one, the Ironman triathlon. So it was a pretty rapid improvement to the level where I could take on a long distance triathlon.
The 3 sports of triathlon brings satisfaction
BRAD BROWN: Rob what was the attraction to triathlon as a sport? You mention going out the door and deciding you wanted to run. Being unfit, taking on one sport that takes a bit of athletic abilities is pretty tough. What was the thinking around doing 3?
ROB HILL: Look, I think for a lot of us if we’re the obsessive types, and I’d say if I was going to sum up triathletes, we tend to be obsessive types. I think having a race that we can compete in that has a swim then a bike then a run; there is nothing more satisfying than that.
And my first triathlon back in 97 it was a team event and we all had to swim, bike, run and then hand over the band to the next team member. Everything went wrong for me and yet I got to that finish line and it was the best thing I had ever experienced in my life and I thought this is the sport for me.
Race after race, the passion is still there
And every race I’ve done since, I couldn’t count how many triathlons I’ve done, but that feeling is still there. That even if it is a short sprint race or if it’s a half Ironman or an Ironman, it doesn’t matter. Just getting in the water at the start of the race and then onto the bike and then finishing with a run. There something about it.
And as we probably saw with the history of the sport and where many years ago duathlon was quite big, but it’s really died off because it doesn’t seem to have that satisfaction of getting to the finish line when you’ve done 3 sports in the one race.
No natural ability in sport
BRAD BROWN: Rob, as far as growing up, Australia is a very active, outdoorsy sort of country. You said you weren’t active until you were about 30. Growing up, did you partake in sport at school and that sort of thing? Were you active at all?
ROB HILL: I was one of those kids that if I could get out of sport I would. I didn’t show much natural ability to say the least. My father was a very good sportsman and he played cricket through school and university and then got into golf and had a handicap of 1 I think and was considering turning professional.
But he had a view that you were either born a good sportsman or you weren’t. It wasn’t something that you could work on and become good at. Which was an interesting mind-set and it’s certainly one that I don’t have. So I grew up, I had a bit of asthma like a lot of kids do and that sort of made it that much harder. I couldn’t really run without getting out of breath and I just thought well that’s me, I’m not athletic, I never will be and sports is for other people.
When someone says you can’t, then you do
It was only when, sort of in my late teens and becoming a young adult, I had a few life lessons where I realised hey; my dad’s view wasn’t necessarily the way things are. I loved him, I looked up to him but you eventually get to that age where you think some of his views were a bit different and I don’t agree with them.
I think part of the buzz for me was proving, not my dad wrong, but proving me wrong that I could actually become a good athlete.
BRAD BROWN: How often is that the case though, where someone says something and they don’t even realise that they’re having that impression on you. And you turn around and go “you know what, I think I’m different” And not necessarily like you say prove them wrong, but how big a driving force that is.
I met a doctor back in 2010 that said to me I’m crazy to think of running ultra marathons. And less than a year later I was on the start line of one of the biggest in the world. So yes, sometimes you just need someone to say you can’t do it for you to actually go out and get that fire in your belly to get it done.
Tell me I can’t and I’ll show you I will
ROB HILL: I agree Brad. For some of us, maybe us belligerent ones, we love nothing better than being told we can’t do something. But I think for me, it’s certainly probably more my previous personal view of myself that I couldn’t do it as much as anyone else telling me that I couldn’t do things.
But it fires me up even now, if someone sort of just even infers that I won’t be able to achieve a goal that I’ve set myself then almost guaranteed, I might not achieve it, but I’ll be doing everything possible to get close.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Rob when did you realise you actually had some ability and you were pretty good at this thing?
ROB HILL: When I started running, it was pretty much to try and clear my head. I was studying part time at that point, I was working full time and I couldn’t study after work because I was too mind dead. So I was getting up very early in the morning to study before I went to work and I just found it really hard to wake my brain up.
Early morning runs to wake the brain up
That’s when I started the running around the block and then the running around the block got longer and longer. Suddenly I would be doing like 10km runs but at 4:30am in the morning. It was dark, and no one was around so I never came across, or very rarely came across anyone else running. So I couldn’t compare myself to anyone else. The first couple of years I was running on my own and had no idea if I was good or bad or anything and it didn’t matter because I wasn’t doing it to compete.
But I started getting dragged into competitions from some guys at work who were into running and into triathlons and straight away I realised that hey, compared to others, I’m actually a pretty good runner and despite studying so late. So that was right early on at running at least, I realised I can be pretty good at this.
BRAD BROWN: And as far as racing on the big island and getting there, you have to have a bit of a competitive streak in you. Would you say you’re pretty competitive? Do you hate losing?
Unravelling the mysteries of Ironman racing
ROB HILL: I suppose in a way I do hate losing if I know that I could have won, if that makes sense. When I started out and I did my first Ironman, I came 100th in my age group, and I was like 770th overall, that was Ironman Australia back in 2000. A lot of friends of mine, they got into the sport because they wanted to race Hawaii Ironman.
And I remember watching it as a teenager with my dad and saying these guys are crazy. They’re running a marathon after riding through the lava fields, it was just insane. But I’d never had this desire and when I started in triathlon and did my first Ironman I just didn’t think I’d ever be good enough to do it. So it wasn’t ever really a goal. But then I’m the sort of guy that if I enjoy something I want to unravel the mysteries of it and work out how you succeed in it.
So I wanted to get better. Not to race Hawaii but I just wanted to get faster and have some results that I can be proud of. And before I knew it I started off in that 35-39 age group and then when I started looking at the 40-44 qualifying times for Hawaii, I realised I only had to improve another 10 or 15 minutes in an Ironman and then I’m right up there with the chance of getting a Hawaii slot.
Running your first marathon at Kona
BRAD BROWN: As far as that first Ironman that you mentioned, you’ve been around the sport for a while now. But the first one you go into it, you just don’t want to die. I think for most of us that is the goal. But time wise and splits wise, do you remember what you did in that first one?
ROB HILL: Look Brad, I was pissed off at the finish line and I think the main reason was that I had never run a marathon, and I still haven’t. I’ve been out to 20-something Ironmans and I’ve never done a straight marathon. But that first Ironman I thought I’m not only going to be doing my first Ironman, I’m going to be running my first marathon. Both of those were big things to me.
And I ended up, I think I swam an hour five, and then I biked five-thirty which for many years was my quickest bike split, so obviously I over biked as a lot of us do. And then I was able to run the first fourteen km’s and then I just couldn’t take another step running. I don’t know if it was dehydration or biking too hard I’m sure was a factor, and not training properly.
The hurt inside is your motivation to improve
Back then no-one had coaches. I was trying to read magazines of getting tips from Greg Welsch who said that you’ve got to go out and do 6-hour bike rides at your Ironman pace for training to know if you’re ready or not. I couldn’t do that. I’m coaching some guys now and I would never get my athletes to go out for a 6-hour Ironman pace bike ride because it just does your head in. On race day you can do it.
So I was so ignorant, I was naive and didn’t know what I was doing. I knew one guy in Melbourne who had done an Ironman and he wasn’t giving much away. And so I went into that race and I walked through the second 14k’s and then I finally recovered enough to run the last 14k’s and stormed home and thought, “Well that was a soft effort Rob”. I was down on myself.
But the next day I woke up and hey I was satisfied. I don’t know if it’s the secret of the sport that I’ve heard that if you really want to reach your potential and improve and achieve some good things, you’ve just got to get the right balance of satisfied with your result when you know you’ve given it all you could. But not too satisfied that you don’t hurt a bit inside which is then your motivation to want to improve the next time.
The thing that works for you to improve your Ironman performance
BRAD BROWN: But isn’t that one of the great things about Ironman? Because it’s so long, the odds of you having the perfect race where everything goes according to plan, is pretty slim. There’s always something left and some unfinished business you may feel after a race.
ROB HILL: Yes, for sure and so many variables. So many dials on the computer, so to speak, that we can turn. Whether it’s the nutrition knob, or it’s the training volume knob or the intensity knob. To try and find that thing that is going to work for us that is going to give us that improvement.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Rob, how has the sport changed? You mentioned I think you said 2000 was your first Ironman. Things have changed a lot. In your opinion, is it for the better, is it for the worst? What are some of the good things, what are some of the bad things?
Good and bad changes in Ironman racing
ROB HILL: Look it’s never clear cut and I can see positives and negatives with the changes over the last 17 years in Ironman. Back then and certainly in Australia, it was sort of fun for the athletes and the race, Ironman Australia used to be in a place called Foster town County. A small sort of twin town and almost too small to have the race because it was hard to get accommodation. If you wanted to go to a local restaurant in race week you had to go early in the week because closer to the race they were all full. It was really quite different.
But the organisers and the race director, it was all about their love of the sport and love of the athletes and it wasn’t just about the money. So that’s probably been the biggest change. For the sport to grow as big as it’s gotten and for us to have the opportunity to race in so many different locations and do an Ironman race. Let’s face it, the Ironman brand they do put on a good race. We know what we’re getting. We know that it’s going to be generally very well run and you know that you’re going to be looked after quite well. But for it to spread as much as it has and to have all of those new opportunities to race in different place around the world.
Ironman becomes more commercial
The downside I suppose as well, it had to become a lot more of a commercial concern and now it’s a billion dollar brand. Unfortunately the athlete is sort of not first, but second after the dollar. Prices have gone up. The experience in doing an Ironman I still think is fantastic. It would be great if it was more competitive, and Challenge had made a big push into competing with Ironman and especially a temporary sort of push into the US. But it’s hard and Ironman are playing a tough game and protecting their turf and putting their races up against the Challenge races.
It hasn’t been easy for Challenge but I think it’s better for the athletes, it’s better for everyone other than perhaps Ironman if there’s a bit more competition but that’s the way it is. And at the end of the day, the outdoor race and Ironman races they do put on a good race.
It’s not all down sided, the changes, but I just think it would be great to see a bit more exposure for the professionals. It would be great to see better coverage. There’s been a lot of criticism about the streaming of races, especially the championship races and the 70.3 World Champs. Hawaii has always had good coverage as far as annual highlights but I just think let’s promote the sport more. It would be fantastic to get more visibility with mainstream public. I’m sure it’s not easy.
Keeping Ironman passion alive
BRAD BROWN: Yes it’s definitely one of the challenges that they’re facing. Ben as far as keeping the passion going, we often see it in the sport and I’m sure it’s the same in Australia because it definitely is that way here. People burst onto the scene and they’re all gung-ho about the sport and they burn themselves out. 2 or 3 years down the line they’re gone. You don’t see them again. How have you managed to stay fresh and wanting to stay in the sport for as long as you have?
ROB HILL: I think my expectations, as I mentioned early on, were pretty low. I was training with quite a few guys back then and they were all about 10 years younger than me which did me the world of good. Because it meant that I didn’t get ahead of myself and they would kick my ass in training and often on race day and they kept me humble.
It’s so important and I would express with the athletes that I coach, that the main thing that I want out of all of them is for them to embrace that lifestyle long term. And get the health benefits and the mental health, not only physical health benefits from the sport. But also, it’s a tough sport. We probably all know guys that have had problems with just doing too much and needing an extended break from the sport because of injury or illness and just really wearing themselves out.
Ironman rewards your patience
And a lot of guys, and when I say guys it’s the boys and the girls, it’s everyone. We get impatient. That’s human nature. And we want, whether it’s an Hawaii slot or it’s the win or whatever it is, we want it tomorrow. We don’t want to wait for a number of years. And Ironman really does reward patience and to get good at Ironman, unless you’re just a born natural, and I certainly wasn’t. It took me, I think I did 6 Ironmans before I first qualified for Kona and as I said earlier on at my first Ironman I was 100th in the age group. And thinking of ever one day qualifying for Hawaii, it was a pipedream. I didn’t think it was going to happen.
BRAD BROWN: What is the secret to qualifying, in your opinion? Rob, looking at getting the work life, family, training, racing balance right. It’s one thing many triathletes struggle with. Tell me a little bit about your work life, domestic life. What’s the story, how do you keep things in check?
ROB HILL: I’m living the dream now Brad. I’m 12 months into leaving my corporate job of 33 years and taking on coaching full time.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to say, it’s like you’re a pro athlete Rob.
Living the dream comes at a cost
ROB HILL: Which has disadvantages. I finished up work last July and I thought fantastic, I’ve got Kona coming up and the 70.3 World Champs in Bulova and I’ve got all this time to train. And I knew so many people that had been in the same situation that have ended up getting injured or burnt out or whatever. And I thought I was being smart.
I had a pretty good race in Bulova and I had a pretty good race in Kona but both races just felt a little bit flat and in hindsight I’m sure that I hadn’t freshened up enough before race day, given the increase in training load that I’d taken on. And I was getting extra sleep, extra recovery, extra massages and all sorts of stuff which I thought would counteract the extra volume I was taking on. But looking back on last year it didn’t work as well as I would have liked it to.
But look, I had all of those years in balancing my training with a demanding corporate job and I think there’s a lot that I learnt from that which I pass onto my athletes now. Which is you’ve just got to work out a way of how you can be efficient with your time. With the classic thing of getting on the bike and doing an hour or two and then riding into work for your commute and then having a shower at work and then hitting the desk.
Learn to be efficient with your time
Things like that you can fit a lot more training into your day if you just work out what’s going to be most efficient for you with your time. Things like getting out for a lunch time run if you can because we all have families and we have other commitments and obligations so you don’t want the sport to start to detract from other things that should be and are going to be more important to you in the long run.
I used to find early morning is the one time, no matter how busy you are at work and what deliverables you’ve got on with pressures from the boss and whatever else, the early morning was the one time that was my own. So I’d set the alarm nice and early every morning during the week and get up and get on the bike for a couple of hours or go to swim squad or something like that where it was my own time. And then once I got to work then whatever happened, happened.
And that took a lot of pressure off and then weekends you can get the long rides in and the long runs and the stuff that you have to do for preparing for an Ironman. But I think nearly everyone on the start line, they’re doing pretty similar stuff nearly every weekend and a big part of what separates the front of packers to the people further back, are perhaps how much they can get done in the rest of the week. The Monday to Friday.
Good planning bring you home proud
BRAD BROWN: Yes and it all comes down just to planning properly and you’re so right about the early morning stuff. Because as soon as you, and this happens to all of us, as soon as you put a workout off and go we’re not going to do it this morning we’ll do it later this afternoon, things bleed into that time. And how many times is it the case that you actually never catch that workout up again because things get in the way and life does get in the way so it is vital.
Rob as far as your triathlon career, what would you say is something you’re most proud of. Looking back at it so far.
ROB HILL: Good question. I think definitely qualifying for Hawaii the first time was really important to me. As I said I had no expectations when I started in my Ironman journey, let alone my triathlon journey.
But given that my dad and I used to watch it on TV on a Saturday afternoon and talk about how crazy they were. He passed away about 6 or 7 years ago but fortunately he was alive for the first 3 or 4 Ironmans in Hawaii that I did and he knew it was a pretty big deal.
So I think out of everything that I’ve achieved that meant a lot to me and it was pretty special to get to go over there and race against the best in what I see as the ultimate triathlon.
Raising the bar to new goals
BRAD BROWN: The flip side of that coin, what’s still left to achieve?
ROB HILL: Yes, we’ve always got to keep raising the bar and having new goals. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been quite successful racing here. In the last couple of years I’ve raced in Ironman New Zealand and before that I was racing Ironman Melbourne for a number of years and picking up some age group winnings. And feeling like I’d come close to the perfect race as you were talking about before.
Definitely Hawaii is that holy grail I suppose of feeling that I’m really competitive there and I’d love to get up on the stage as top 5 in the age group. And once I’ve chewed that I know that it will be gunning for that number one position one day. My best result in Hawaii is 15th so I’ve got a bit of work to do. It’s not an easy race and if it was easy it wouldn’t mean as much to me and everyone else that does it.
BRAD BROWN: If I say the word Kona what do you think of?
Sleepy town basks in the magic of the Ironman
ROB HILL: I think of the place and the people to be honest. I love getting over there. Coming from Melbourne winter and having to acclimatize. Over the years I ended up going there earlier and earlier almost every year.
But I love that it’s so quiet and peaceful for the first week or two and then race week just gets crazy. If someone mentions Kona to me, I think of the palm trees and the heat and the sleepy little town that it is for most of the year. The race is almost like this foreign thing that happens to the place. But at the same time the race is a beautiful thing in itself.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Well Rob it’s been great catching up. I look forward to chatting to you about the individual disciplines but we’ll save that for next week. Thanks for your time today.
ROB HILL: Not a problem Brad. Great to talk.
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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