Turning from Rugby to Triathlon - Tim Rea's Ironman Kona Story
Turning from Rugby to Triathlon - Tim Rea's Ironman Kona Story

Turning from Rugby to Triathlon – Tim Rea’s Ironman Kona Story

Turning from Rugby to Triathlon - Tim Rea's Ironman Kona Story


After a serious rugby injury put paid to a potential career in the sport, Tim Rea turned to triathlon and found his home. This is his journey to the Ironman World Championships in Kona and beyond.

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BRAD BROWN: We head to Australia now to catch up with our next guest. It’s an absolute pleasure to welcome onto The Kona Edge, Tim Rea. Tim welcome, it’s good to touch base.

TIM REA: Thanks Brad. Thanks for having me on. It’s nice to finally catch up and have a bit of a chat.

BRAD BROWN: Tim, we’ve had a couple of Aussies on the podcast of late, and I always joke with them. Australia is a great place to take part in the sport.

The climate is very like what we have here in South Africa. There are worse places to live and train.

A country with a sporting culture

TIM REA: Yes, there are. I guess growing up here, we’ve got sun in the summer and we’re lucky to have the beaches and landscape that we have.

Being thrown into sport quite early, and growing up by the beach, and everyone swimming and staying active. So, I guess from childhood years you’re thrown into it. Whatever sport you move onto, for me it’s been triathlon. But we’ve got strong rugby and rugby-league cultures.

Sport is something in this country that’s held quite highly and that’s highlighted worldwide by the depth in athletes that are churned out over time.

BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Let me just put a proviso in here, I won’t talk about cricket if you won’t talk about rugby. That’s the deal, we won’t mention any of that sort of stuff.

You mentioned being sporty as a kid. And again, I think it’s one of those things, a lot of South African kids are sporty because of the climate. You guys are too. What sort of stuff were you into growing up?

Learning to swim when you’re young really helps

TIM REA: I learnt to swim at a very young age. My mum was a good swimmer at national level, so she had us in the pool from day one. Then throughout my junior school years and at high school, it was athletics. A bit of a mix in all sorts of events.

Kept swimming, and played rugby from about 6 or 7 years of age through until I was 22, playing at all ranges of levels. And then that all came to an abrupt halt which from there, due to a couple of different circumstances, led me to fall into triathlon.

Find your groove in racing triathlon - TIM REA's inspirational Ironman Story

BRAD BROWN: Looking at those sports, were you any good growing up? Were you competitive?

TIM REA: Through junior school and parts of high school I had swum and run at nearly a state level. As I said I was never a stand out in one event. I would have said I was alright at a variety of different disciplines but never one event.

Sport was something that I always had such a passion for and had always trained hard towards. If I hadn’t had outstanding results in something, I was always more than happy to just be doing it and completing it at a good level. And keeping myself interested that way.

BRAD BROWN: You mentioned finding your way into triathlon. How did that happen?

From injuries to Ironman

TIM REA: It was through a couple of injuries. I was still playing rugby at university and had developed a bad shoulder at the back end of one season, which went from bad to worse. And ended up getting shoulder reconstruction on my right shoulder.

Went through all the rehab. Got it ticked off, and at the same time I was working a couple of ski seasons in Canada to fill my summer holidays, while I was at uni. Went away and living myself out with my shoulder, I blew out my ACL on my right knee. Came back and got that checked.

They ran a scan on my shoulder to check it and make sure everything was fine from 12-months prior and found it hadn’t healed properly. I went back in 2-weeks later and had my knee done. 2 Weeks on crutches, then had the shoulder re-done. And then went through a slow year back to square one on the shoulder and the knee at the same time.

Then without going on too much with the knee and shoulder, I managed to, 12-months later, re-blow out the same knee. So, 2 shoulder, 2 knee reconstructions in just under 3-years. It took its toll, that’s for sure.

BRAD BROWN: With a dodgy knee and a dodgy shoulder, I wouldn’t think triathlon would be the logical next step. Maybe lawn bowls, that might have been more appropriate. But it wasn’t. Triathlon is where you found your groove.

Recovering from injuries slows you down

TIM REA: My masseuse said I should probably take up chess. Through the operations and the rehab, I was diligent with the rehab and getting it right. And obviously, as I went from the first to the second to the third to the fourth, it really was ingrained in me. That doing a recovery was perfect, because I never wanted to go through it again. It’s an absolute pain in the ass and really slows you down.

There’s a lot of things which you learn that you take for granted on a day to day basis. From there, I spent a fair bit of time in the gym. I’m still quite keen to get back into the rugby, but mum put an end to that quickly.

It was starting to impact my life day to day and I didn’t want to go through the chance of having something go again. So, I spent a bit of time in the gym and put on some muscle, and built up some strength from it having been depleted.

Taking on a dare and signing up

When I was about 10 or 12, my dad ran the marathon in Sydney. The year before the Olympics, which was a test of the course. I remember going out and watching him run it. From that day, I said it was something I always wanted to do. Sort of a bucket list kind of thing.

I did that probably 2 years after all my operations. And hadn’t done a half leading into that. Didn’t know what I was doing but managed to get through the marathon. And then I ran with a good mate of mine that day. On a whim, had signed up to an Ironman 70.3 which was Cairns 70.3 in 2014. He’d signed up quite early and I watched him go around up there and it got me hooked.

Find your groove in racing triathlon - TIM REA's inspirational Ironman Story

I’d always wondered about triathlon and sort of knew what it was and then one day, probably during winter 2014, around about the time before he raced Ironman Cairns, he dared me. I was intrigued to figure out what it all was, so I managed to get on the computer one day and signed up for Ironman  Port Macquarie 70.3.

Then went about trying to figure out what the hell it was. What I needed to do and how I was going to get myself to the start line in 3-months, with some hope of trying to finish the thing.

Your first Ironman experience

BRAD BROWN: How did that first one go?

TIM REA: Well, firstly, I didn’t have a bike and I’d weighed up a couple of different things. So, I managed to get myself a TT bike and a road bike. I’ve always been an all-in kind of person, so I knew that was going to be the way forward. And suddenly I knew I want to continue.

So, got my bike. Probably went through about 10 000 different ‘How to get to an Ironman 70.3’ coaching plans on the internet, and drew things from all over the show. Made myself a bit of a rough plan and then I think I had 11 weeks before race day.

Stuck to it 100% and sort of hoped that what I was doing, was working. But still went in with a big unknown. Having done some running and knowing I could run, it was more just to get to the run and I know I’ll be alright.

I think we did 90k or 100k before that. And it was going in and racing 100 or 90 and then how that was going to be off a swim that I thought I could do, but I just wasn’t sure. It was a bit of a lottery.

Find your groove in racing triathlon - TIM REA's inspirational Ironman Story

Your first Ironman lights a fire inside you

I didn’t know what it was going to be like because I’d never done a sprint and never done an Olympics. So, I didn’t have anything like an Olympic to go ‘gee, it’s going to be twice that’.

I remember on race morning just getting into it. Or the day before, checking the bikes in and walking past all the pro guys with their discs and their bikes. It just kind of blew me away. Brad Cowerfield who’d been to the Commonwealth games was racing, and it was sort of ‘Wow, I’m really in a bit deep here’. Even though they’re in a whole different category.

I don’t think it really hit me until I was getting out of the swim. Remembered hitting dry land and trying to find my feet to get up out of the water. I was getting cramps in my calf and the first thought in my head was this is going to be a long day.

Managed to settle into what I thought I could do on the day, and it ended up being a good day. From the moment I finished, I realised what I had done. The time and everything, it was something that lit a bit of fire inside me. I’ve been like a bull at a gate ever since.

BRAD BROWN: I must laugh, because I think we all go through that at some stage in our career. Making that step up from one distance to the next. Where you talk about doing a sprint or an Olympic and you think gee, I couldn’t do that again. When did it dawn on you that a full Ironman, you had to do what you had just done, over again?

Watching, thinking and then doing an Ironman

TIM REA: Strangely enough, before that first triathlon, the week before was Ironman Kona in 2014. And I remember bits of it probably growing up in my teenage years, when I’d seen Crowey and Mackie dominating it.

I know a lot of it doesn’t make the news but I think bits and pieces of it had, and there were always bits on the wide road of sport. I remember getting up early and watching on Sunday the week before my first race. And it had been like ‘these guys are just idiots, this is ridiculous’.

Then going around and doing a few Ironman70.3’s, I signed up to do one 3-weeks later. Then I got into racing, and raced quite a bit in 2015.

It was always something that intrigued me because it was the next step. But I physically didn’t know if I would be able to make the distance. I won’t lie about that. I found it quite daunting and I knew that through the hard work that I’d done, and the coaching that I’d fallen into, I knew I was getting good results. And I guess I was intrigued as to what the next step was.

How much is enough training for your first Ironman?

Everyone just kept telling me to wait and I thought it was the right idea, and I still do think that. And I didn’t realise until the first Ironman, probably until a couple of weeks out, really what I had to do. Before my first Ironman late last year, I still hadn’t ridden 180km.

So, going into it I think even as an athlete, the thought of getting your head around what you should do is one thing. Let alone then trying to explain it to a person off the street who just can’t comprehend going out there, and trying to exercise for 8 or 9 hours at a minimum.

BRAD BROWN: Yes, it is a big step up. And it’s interesting you say that you had the doubts and you’re not going to lie about it. That is such a normal feeling particularly for people starting out in the sport and training for their first Ironman. It doesn’t matter how well prepared you are, you’ve never done that distance and everyone goes through that. It’s normal, isn’t it?

Trust your Ironman training

TIM REA: You can do all the training you want and you’re still going to get to race day, whatever the distance, you’re going to ask questions every so often. I guess that’s where, as an athlete, you need to trust the training. You know when you’ve done the work and you know when you haven’t. And going into races knowing you’ve done the work and you couldn’t have done anything more. If you can think back to even one key session from a swim, bike or run, or a multitude of sessions over weeks, weekends like day in day out, getting it done.

I think that part of having a strong routine and sticking to your training 100% or as best as you can. Where you know, you’ve done the work, that goes a long way. I guess you steeling that self-confidence. That once you turn up on the start line you’re ready to go and you can get it done.

BRAD BROWN: When did you realise you’re good at this and you could be challenging, at that time, for age group slots, and potentially slots for Ironman Kona?

Taking 2nd in your first Ironman

TIM REA: As far as an Ironman, I’ll put that aside for a bit. That first 70.3 at Port Macquarie, I ended up finishing 2nd in my age group and got a slot to Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Zell am See.

And I remember crossing the finish line knowing I was in 2nd place. Once I had the thing of I’ve just done the race, I did the time to the minute that I wanted. It was like wow, I’ve just qualified for the World Championships. I ended turning down the slot because it was all just a bit beyond me. I didn’t know what it was and what was happening.

And then I went and did the Ironman 70.3 in Hawaii in May 2015. I ended up winning my age group there and finishing 2nd overall, behind a French professional athlete. And I guess at that race it hit home. That I might be alright at this sport. And then took my slot to the Ironman 70.3 World Champs in Zell am See for the 2nd time, and since then it’s been an upward build. Thankfully through the work that I’ve put in, my results have followed.

Find your groove in racing triathlon - TIM REA's inspirational Ironman Story

Ironman Kona, the pinnacle of Ironman racing

BRAD BROWN: You’ve raced on the Big Island as well. The Ironman  70.3 is obviously very different to being at the Ironman World Championships where the best of the best are there. But there’s something special about racing on that island, isn’t there?

TIM REA: Yes, there is. It’s the pinnacle of the sport. Kona, the Ironman. But just the island itself, I’ve been lucky enough to race there 3 times now. So, I did the Ironman 70.3 there in 2015 and 2016, and ended up winning the race overall in 2016. Which was a massive goal of mine for last year, to go back and try and go one better, and win.

And then obviously, qualified for  Ironman Kona quite late in the year and then went back and raced last October. Anyone that’s been there and raced and watched it on TV. Basically, any triathlete knows that is the place everyone wants to get to one day, and repeatedly get to go back.

When the Ironman Kona dream comes sooner than expected

Racing Ironman Kona is exciting, it’s daunting, it’s scary, the nerves are just unbelievable. Getting to go around in October last year with the Ironman World Championships was a nice surprise. I’d hoped to get there one day and to get there that soon, is something I’ll never forget. It was an amazing day.

BRAD BROWN: You talk about getting there one day soon. What was the plan? Were you one of those accidental qualifiers, or were you secretly hoping for a qualification spot?

TIM REA: I’d talked about it with my coach a bit, that was quite early on, and I guess we just sort of put it on the back burner for a bit. But it was always eating away at me. And then winning the Ironman 70.3 there last May, I got the opportunity to go to the mainland US and train with my coach in Oregon for a month.

When I got there, he asked me if I had thought about where I want to go in the sport, and what I want to do. He mentioned to me had I thought about turning professional, and until that moment I’d never thought about it.

Qualifying for Ironman Kona as a pro or an age grouper

It was always something that those guys were just on a whole different level. I said if you think I’m good enough then it’s something I want to explore. But I want to weigh up the option of trying to qualify to get to Ironman Kona, let alone get there and race it.

Beforehand, if I’m going to take my professional license, because I think it’s something that needs to be done as an age grouper. While you have an easier shot at trying to qualify, you can only nail one race and you can get there.

Whereas, as a pro it’s a whole other ball game. You can race over and over during the year and still miss one of the 50 slots. When we were in Oregon we decided that we’d just do some races. I was hanging around in North America. I had a wedding in Canada, and then it all lined up. The World Ironman was in Canada the following weekend. I ended up signing up 3 weeks before it and I’m not going to lie. I’d gone in with a strong desire to get a n Ironman Kona slot.

But again, like that first race in Port Macquarie, that’s exactly what it felt like. I was going in with such an unknown. I had no idea how it was going to go, even though I thought that I’d done the right amount of training to get me where I wanted to be.

Deciding to go pro after Ironman Kona

BRAD BROWN: You talk about making the step up to pro, and the difference in qualifying and how difficult it is to qualify as a pro. You’ve decided to make that step up now. You’ve been to the island, you’ve raced as an age grouper, but you’ve taken on that challenge. Talk to me about the decision to take up a pro license. What goes into that from a thinking perspective? How do you rationalise that in your mind?

TIM REA: Having ticked off Ironman Kona, I ended up having a great race there but it was straight away when I’d finished, that afternoon I already thought I need to get back next year. Try and go better.

Talking to my coach he said it was going to be a lot to try and, we’d talked about turning professional. It was as if I was going to hold it off for another year and put it all down to one race at Ironman Kona. Where for no reason, drastic things can go wrong on race day. So, the plan was to put in for my application and I was lucky enough, I had a result from earlier last year. Ironman 70.3 Busselton, which meant that I had an automatic qualifier for my pro license.

Turning professional – seriously tough work

So, I put that in and got it all back and sorted with Triathlon Australia and then with Ironman. It’s quite daunting. I’m not scared by it, but it’s going to be a different feeling lining up with those guys at the front. But it’s something that really excites me and I know they’re the best guys in the sport.

Still having been only young to the sport, I know I’ve got a lot to learn and yet I’m looking forward to the challenge this year. And I guess the different style of racing and knowing that it’s going to be seriously tough work.

BRAD BROWN: You’ve also mentioned your coach, and you said that your first Ironman 70.3 you were self coached. What went into the decision to find someone who could help you? How did you end up settling with the coach that you have now?

Find a coach early for your Triathlon career

TIM REA: When I first got into it, I’d heard that guys have coaches and all that. I don’t know if it was arrogant of me, but I thought I’d do it on my own and see how I go.

Didn’t want to invest any more money in the decision that I’d made one night by signing up. But then, having finished that race and instantly wanting to race more. And wanting to progress and wanting to get better. I started looking around and through a strange connection with my dad and someone that he works with.

He was getting some marathon coaching done by Tim Read and through that connection, we got talking.

Started getting coached, not by Tim initially, but by another professional who runs with him and under his coaching name at the Read Performance Group.

So, I was getting coached by Louis Martin for a while and then that ended up moving. Sam Appleton was coaching me for a couple of months, and then Tim took me on himself and has been coaching me for probably the last 18 months now.

Find your groove in racing triathlon - TIM REA's inspirational Ironman Story

BRAD BROWN: Would you suggest somebody starting out in the sport, it’s the way to go? Should somebody try to find their way without a coach, and then progress? If you had to do it over again would you have gone and found someone straight up?

Self-coaching can be suicidal for Ironman goals

TIM REA: I think it depends person to person. Going in and signing up for an Ironman 70.3 and trying to coach yourself there. If I said that to most people, they’d think it was suicide.

Whereas obviously, if I look back and starting with a sprint, then going to Olympic, and then just some Ironman 70.3’s, is probably a bit more of a natural progression and getting some guidance in coaching. Because there’s so many little things that you don’t get taught and you won’t read in online programs and coaching manuals. It’s just little things you learn around racing transition, set up, little training routines, exercises.

So, I think it’s the way to go. It’s only going to help an athlete. On the other side, you’ve probably got a lot less chance of getting injured from overloading yourself. None of that I ever knew about. Train too much or a heavy amount of fatigue, or any of that, so definitely.

Especially with injury prone athletes or people starting out in the sport. There’s big changes to your body in trying to adapt to cycling and running, as well as swimming and monitoring sleep. I think that getting a coach early on is the way to go.

The drive to get up and go brings Ironman success

BRAD BROWN: What motivates you? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

TIM REA: For most of last year I set race goals. I changed my approach a bit this year but in the past, probably 18 months of set race goals. Last year specifically set them out early in the year with what I wanted to achieve. Then it was a matter of going about what I needed to get them done. Sticking to my training 100% and getting myself to the start line in as best shape as possible, knowing that would put me in the best position.

I’ve got such a love for the sport. Having had some success and having been fortunate enough to meet some fantastic people in the sport. And getting to train and have Tim as a coach for me, the guy was World Champion last year. Having that guy on my side, and a few other people who I know who have gone a long way in the sport. Seeing what drives them has rubbed off onto me a bit.

I bring it down to everyday just getting out of bed, call it cliché, but trying to get a bit more out of myself. Get a little bit better and knowing that all those days add up and when it comes to the time where it needs to, it’s going to mean something.

BRAD BROWN: What’s the best bit of advice you’ve been given around the sport?

Achieve Ironman success through being patient

TIM REA: Probably put it down to one word, which is patience. At times, I haven’t had it and I’ve raced too much, and I’ve made some silly mistakes. And they’ve cost me in some big races. I know I’ll never get the opportunity to go back and relive those.

So, I guess it’s not trying to rush things. There’s no quick fix. Anyone who’s been injured understands that. It takes time for things to resolve, and if it takes time for things to resolve, it takes time for you to adapt to training. At times, you can do weeks and weeks of work on end but you don’t start to see the results for months. It’s just being patient and trusting the process.

Contain yourself in racing Ironman

I write it on my hand every race I do. Because I can get caught up with it at times in races, and I have it as something that works for me. I look down and see patience. It’s something that in the moment in a race when it can all be happening around you, it’s something that settles me down. And gets me back to maybe riding at the right power or running at a pace in a heart rate zone that I know I can sustain, and not letting it get ahead of myself.

So, I say patience and I think it can apply to a lot of different things associated with the sport.

BRAD BROWN: We’ve all made mistakes in our triathlon career. You mentioned some silly mistakes you’ve made while racing. If you could go back and change anything, what would you change?

Keep a cool head at World Championships

TIM REA: I’d probably change going to the 2nd corner at Championship. 100m in a 90k ride and I’d go in a bit slower. It wasn’t overly good hitting the depth of 100m in, with 89.9km to go on a freezing cold, wet day. But, I think it’s just not letting an opportunity get to you.

Going to Zell am See for the World Championships 2 years ago, the opportunity and experience got to me. And the whole thing of a week at the World Championship event. Looking back, I was way out of my depth but it was such a great opportunity. I’ll never look at it as a waste. It was an amazing trip. But I guess just not letting things get to you in a race specifically.

Control the controllable in your Ironman race

You’ve got to control what you can control. At the end of the day you can’t worry about the weather. The weather is going to be what it is. No one likes wind and rain, but you can’t control it. And every other athlete on the day must deal with it. If I’ve got a main rival of mine turning up to a race, I can’t control what he does. How hard he trains every Saturday, every week day. What his swims are, how many k’s he’s running. All I can worry about is what I’m worried about. What I’m doing, and just making sure that I can control the controllable. Letting everything else just go as is.

BRAD BROWN: Tim, you’ve got some big changes coming up in your life. You’re moving. And it’s not just in neighbourhoods, you’re moving continents. You’re heading to Miami, Florida. You’re going to be racing a bit on the US circuit as well which does open things up. Being Australian you sit with the same issue that we have. There aren’t too many races where we are, so to go and race and race lots in good fields, you’ve got to travel. Being based in the States is going to alleviate some of those issues.

Changing continents to race more triathlon

TIM REA: Yes, it is. I’m heading to Miami at the end of the month and fortunate to have my girlfriend live in Miami. So, I’m heading over to be with her as a main priority, but it also works hand in hand with opening more opportunities in race and triathlon for me especially. Australia is getting a limited race schedule and a few races here are becoming age group only. And as we discussed before the interview, both South Africa and Australia are just a long way from everywhere.

Being over there is going to be a great benefit to me. There’s so many races. At times, there’s 3 or 4 races a weekend in the US. As well as 70.3’s in Canada, down into South America. And I’ll be doing my first pro race at 70.3 Lima in Peru on 23rd April. So, I can’t wait to get down there for that one.

BRAD BROWN: Sounds amazing. And from a race schedule perspective, what does this season look like for you? You mentioned Lima. What else have you got on the cards, or is it fluid? Do you go according to how you go in a race and if it goes well, you take some time off? If not, you re-asses and then take it from there?

Re-establish consistency in your Ironman racing

TIM REA: I’ve got a rough schedule. It changed to last year and as much as I’d like to get back in and explore full Ironman racing, I’m going to hold back this year and just concentrate on some 70.3’s. Getting some racing experience at that pro level. And just trying to get some consistency back into my racing. Obviously, with the opportunity of more racing and events over there.

I worked at a couple of the Olympic distance races just thrown in the mix there which is always good. You can use them as good training and get out in bigger blocks of training, but currently looking at starting off with 70.3 Lima. Then looking at moving into maybe, probably another 5 to 6 70.3’s, throughout the year. A bit of Olympic distance racing. See how it’s all going.

If the body is not too fatigued, there is the opportunity to throw in a couple of more races. And then, still weighing up with the idea of an end of year Ironman. But obviously, sort of monitor fatigue and see how I’m going and see whether the hunger for another one hits out at the end of the year.

Setting goals for Kona

BRAD BROWN: Well, the bug’s obviously bitten. You love Kona. What’s the plan? When are you going to go back? Is there no rush, have you got a long-term plan on when you want to race on the island again?

TIM REA: It’s no time soon. And trying to crack that top 50 for the male at Kona. You’ve got a core group of about 20 guys, who are always going to be there as automatic qualifiers. A couple of other slots go and there’s not many of the 50 available. I don’t think it’s something achievable for the next few years.

Do what you need to get the best out of your Ironman

Some guys scrape the barrel to get there racing 3 to 4 to 5 Ironman’s a year to get points. I don’t think getting back with that amount of racing in you in a year, is smart. The goal now is to try and qualify for South Africa 70.3 Worlds next year, which is a long-term goal. And I know it’s going to be touch and go as to whether I can even get there. But I’m just waiting to see how the racing’s going. I don’t want to not have a goal, so I’m going to work towards that. Try and get some points where I can and do what I must do.

See where that goes and maybe throw in an Ironman at the end of the year, or early next year. I’m still nowhere near where I want to be and what I know I can get out of the race. But as far as getting back to Kona, I don’t think it will be on the radar any time soon.

BRAD BROWN: I think that’s a sensible decision. Tim, thank you so much for your time here on The Kona Edge today. I look forward to getting you back on to talk about the individual disciplines. But, we’ll save that for another time. Thanks for your time today.

TIM REA: Thanks very much Brad and thanks for having me on. Cheers.

About Us

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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