Learning to swim at 35 and then qualifying for Ironman Kona
Learning to swim at 35 and then qualifying for Ironman Kona

Learning to swim at 35 and then qualifying for Ironman Kona

Learning to swim at 35 and then qualifying for Ironman Kona

On this edition of The Kona Edge we chat to Martin Muldoon who doesn’t come from a swimming background.  We learn about the courage it took at the age of 35 to literally learn to swim when he took on the sport of triathlon.  We look at what he did to break down this mental barrier and see how he improved on his Ironman swimming performance and technique.

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BRAD BROWN:  Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge, I’m Brad Brown and we head back to London now and I’m pretty excited to chat to a returning guest today, just because of his background. He didn’t come from a swimming background, literally had to learn to swim when he took on the sport of triathlon and has done some amazing things, Martin Muldoon. Martin welcome, thanks for joining us.

MARTIN MULDOON:  Thanks very much Brad, good chatting again.

BRAD BROWN:  Martin, your swim story in your Ironman journey is incredible. When we spoke first time around, you spoke about your first triathlon, you were too scared to put your face in the water. You’ve come a long way.

Take time with your Ironman swim to be comfortable in the water

MARTIN MULDOON:  That’s right, it’s been a long journey. The swim has always been the tough one. The bike and the run, I’d done that as a kid, so there was no issue at all, but the swimming, I really struggled and it was a mental thing really. Let’s face it, anybody who is able bodied and given the right instruction can swim, but I had a mental issue with getting in the water and trying to get comfortable in that. Certainly in the start of the swim, in a race where everyone is beating each other up and there’s white water bubbles everywhere and you get a bit claustrophobic. So I was really starting from scratch and it took me a good couple of years to get comfortable with swimming.

I don’t think too much about it now, it’s quite natural to me, but that has taken a long time and I would say the thing that probably helped me improve most in the swim was just starting to enjoy swimming. I didn’t enjoy it for a good few years and as I did more and more of it and I got a couple of good coaches, a couple of good local instructors and I started doing more of it and meeting other swimmers, I started enjoying it and that’s when I really started to improve.

I probably knocked a good 10-15 minutes off my Ironman swim time just by enjoying it, by getting in the water and enjoying each time, looking forward to it, that type of thing. I would say, try and find a way that you can actually enjoy swimming, or any discipline, that’ll make it a lot easier to improve.

BRAD BROWN:  You talk about the mental bit of doing it, what was it that was holding you back, was it fear, have you managed to get to the bottom of it? Obviously the enjoyment now has made it a lot easier, but what was it in the beginning?

MARTIN MULDOON:  I think it was fear. I come from a background, my parents, especially my mother, was always very negative about water. And if you grow up listening to that as a young kid, swimming wasn’t part of my family’s life. You meet people who have been swimming since they were two and confident in open water at four years old, we were the complete opposite. We were always told to stay away from water and I never really tried.

Conquer the fears of your Ironman swim a bit at a time

There wasn’t a local swimming club or anything like that. So it genuinely wasn’t until I hit my early 30’s that I tried it. I didn’t believe I was one of those people who could do it. I’d just seen swimmers as another breed, people that do it and I wasn’t one of them. It took me just to sort of stop and rethink that a bit and to be honest, I didn’t envision it ahead.

It was more that it started happening because I was trying it and bit by bit I started to see that actually I can do this as good as anybody else. Not as good as the top guys, but I was good as any other starter, any other person who was a middle of the range swimmer. And as time has gone on, there’s been a few swims, I’ve actually been on the water in the top 10%, so yeah, it’s changed a lot. But it’s just breaking it down, trying to understand what is your mental barrier and just trying to attack it from different angles and you do finally get a way in there.

BRAD BROWN:  You mentioned the thing that really turned the corner for you, is enjoying the swim. You’ve done work with coaches from a technical point of view to get your technique right. A lot of it is technique and just getting comfortable and getting the breathing and that right. Would you say that is just it, is just spending time in the water and getting comfortable, getting that body awareness of what you should be doing and once that clicks, it just becomes a lot easier?

MARTIN MULDOON:  That’s right. There’s a company here in London called Swim for Tri, a guy Dan Bullock runs it. And they helped me a lot because it’s purely, they’re coming from the technical side of being a triathlete. So there’s lots of swimming clubs around and I’m in a great swimming club now, but you kind of need to know how to swim before you join them because they’re not really all that interested in triathletes.

Starting at zero to achieve a Kona swim

I spent a couple of years doing different stations with the Swim for Tri guys and they teach you right from the beginning. There’s guys who can’t swim at all, but these guys take you from that right through to being technically good. They do a lot of drill work, but they also do yardage because you can’t do one or the other, you have to do both at the same time. And you have to have the fitness to be able to hold the technique and vice versa, you have to be able to swim miles to get that fitness.

I think it’s something that was a good part of my journey in the early days, to learn how to swim. It’s completely different from anyone who is a proper swimmer. Who learnt from scratch and by the time they were 12 years old they were probably swimming faster than I do now. But I didn’t have that choice, so certainly going to that local hands-on coaching, with someone who is watching you, giving you tips, telling you when you’re doing stuff wrong and then watching you when you try to improve it. So yeah, it’s a long slog, but you’ve got to put the effort in and you have to be very determined.

For me, to be a good runner, it doesn’t take that much determination because it was more natural to me, but as a swimmer, I had to be hugely determined. Like 10 times more than any of the other disciplines. I think that’s part of it, you want to do it, is probably the biggest part.

BRAD BROWN:  You play your times down, you’re actually a pretty decent swimmer, your times now aren’t half bad. When you first started, what was your first Ironman swim to what it is now?

MARTIN MULDOON:  I think when I was in Germany I did 1:03, that was a wetsuit swim and to be honest, I was probably faster than I should have swum, that was maybe slightly above plan and 1:03, I probably should have been 1:06 or 1:07, but I was really happy seeing that time. I’ve swum as low as 53 minutes, but to be fair, that was in Mexico, where there is a bit of tail push. There’s no wetsuits there, that was obviously my fastest time, but I’ve done a few 57’s in normal conditions, with and without wetsuits.

Kona is a hard one to be fast, I’ve done 1:02 there, but I always find it’s measured slightly long, you don’t have the wetsuit, it’s very choppy, it’s extremely aggressive. Kona is the scariest swim out there, by far, nowhere else touches it, you just get beat up the whole way around and it’s all these A type personalities trying to better each other, so it’s a pretty difficult case to be fast, I think. That shows the real swimmers, anybody who swims under an hour in Kona, you don’t do that by accident, that’s proper swimming.

I’ve not done it yet this year, who knows, I’m not swimming particularly well at the minute, but I have improved it over time and I would say I got it to a place three years ago and I haven’t really improved too much since. Even when you’ve improved a lot, you still hit plateaus and I think the determination for me to knock another minute off it, it would take a huge amount of energy and I guess I’m trying to spread my focus across all disciplines, trying to keep it all moving in the right direction, so I probably haven’t focused enough in the last few years on the swim, but I’m at least keeping it where it was.

BRAD BROWN:  Are you grateful you played Gaelic football growing up, for the physicality of the swim in Kona?

MARTIN MULDOON:  Definitely, a lot of correlation for it, you get whacked in the back of the head. I think in some other backgrounds people might find that very strange, but to me it’s like you know what’s happened, you hear a bang and you realize you’ve been punched in the ear type of thing.

I think in most Ironman people don’t purposely try to hit each other, but it does happen by accident, probably 95% of the time. You do get the odd maniac who is in there who loves to swim over the top of people, it’s a very selfish thing to do and I don’t know many people that do that sort of thing and certainly they don’t admit to it. But I’ve been in races, mainly Kona, where people swim over the top of you and unless they’re blind, they know you’re there. The sea, they’re ducking you and putting you under pressure, they don’t care, it’s part of the macho Kona thing and you don’t really get that anywhere else. It’s part of the reason why I hate the swim in Kona, it’s beautiful, but it’s very few occasions on race day in Kona on the swim that I’ve actually enjoyed the swim section. Having that Gaelic background certainly helps, do a bit of boxing, by accident or not!

BRAD BROWN:  Martin, thank you so much for your time here on The Kona Edge, we look forward to getting you on next time to talk a little bit about your bike, but we’ll save that for then, thanks mate.

MARTIN MULDOON:  No worries, cheers mate.

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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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