We head to Finland for the very first time on this edition of The Kona Edge to catch up with Aku Oja. Having to contend with the long, cold winters in Finland, Aku shares with us how he manages to train and balance his parenting duties as a single dad. Aku Oja is a man who thrives on challenges and we follow his story from a running a standard marathon through to qualifying for Ironman Kona.
BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge and I love chatting to triathletes from all around the globe and we’ve been pretty lucky, we spread our wings far and wide and we’re going to a place we’ve never been before and that is to Finland.
We are just west of Helsinki in this edition and it’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the podcast Aku Oja. Aku, welcome, thanks for joining us today.
AKU OJA: Thank you Brad, I’m happy to share what I can with you and the listeners.
Chasing the same dream
BRAD BROWN: Aku, I love chatting to triathletes and I think the sport of Ironman just really brings us all together and it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what language you speak, we’re all the same and we all chase the same dream.
AKU OJA: Yeah, it’s been really interesting being part of the triathlon community. The people are pretty interesting and caring and open to each other.
BRAD BROWN: I love that about it as well. Aku, triathlon and Finland, in my mind, I wouldn’t associate the two together. We’ve spoken about it on the podcast, particularly in Canada, some of the brutal winters in the UK, but Finland, the winters there are ridiculous and they’re long. Triathlon, how big is the sport in Finland?
AKU OJA: It’s growing fast nowadays but yeah, it’s getting more attention year by year, but it’s definitely not like the most favorable sport, considering the weather.
BRAD BROWN: How did you discover the sport, how did you get into triathlon?
AKU OJA: It was back in 2010, after I had done my first marathon, I wanted something a bit more challenging and ended up finding this half distance race in Finland and I was lucky to speak a couple of my friends into it and have a go at it and that’s how I ended up there.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about that first marathon, were you a pretty good runner? You’re definitely a good runner now, did you realise when you were running marathons that you were pretty good at this?
AKU OJA: That’s actually pretty funny because back in those days I didn’t train competitively or I wouldn’t say even consistently. It was very occasional training, but still yes, whenever I went to some competitions or so, I always had a goal in my mind.
For this first marathon I thought, yes, I heard a lot of people say sub four hours is something like a mark that you have a good fitness if you’re able to do that and I decided to shoot for that sub four hours and eventually I did something like 3:50 and I was like, hmmm, yeah, that wasn’t too bad, maybe I should try something a bit more challenging. Maybe at that point I realised, actually I might be pretty good at running.
BRAD BROWN: I love that and when you talk about doing something more challenging, for a lot of people around the world, if you run a marathon, that’s incredible, to wrap your head around going on and doing a full distance, an Ironman distance triathlon is just a massive step up.
Can you remember, once you had done the half distance, the thinking behind going on and possibly doing a full?
Edging yourself on for a higher challenge
AKU OJA: Yeah, that took some time and thinking. I did that half distance race twice, like one race in a year, so I was training occasionally but yeah, after I’d done that twice I got that same flame burning inside me again, like I need something a bit more and I found out this Ironman brand, looking at the races.
Back then we actually had plenty to choose, even in European races, like you didn’t have to decide a year ahead if you wanted to sign in. So, yes, I was waiting until like the end of the year in 2012 and actually I had decided to do it, but I was plundering between races in Sweden and Switzerland and I decided to go with the Switzerland, to get even more challenged with the mountains and everything.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, was that Zurich?
AKU OJA: Yes, Zurich.
BRAD BROWN: An amazing race, I was lucky enough to do it back in 2014, it’s spectacular, it’s one of my favorites. Your experience of that first one?
AKU OJA: Yeah, that ended up being a pretty brutal race for me. In 2013 when I did it, we had that ridiculous heat wave coming in and the swim was changed to non-wetsuit swim and I can say I wasn’t prepared for that well enough.
I managed it, I did something like 1:40 to the swim, I just struggled. But then I biked, the heat was tremendous, at some point I was seeing the road lines in two, I was very dizzy on the bike. But yeah, I managed to get to the finish of the bike and then on the run I was still able to run pretty nicely, 3:40 or something after that and finished a little under 12 hours, which was my goal at that time. I guess it was 11:30 or something, so yeah, it wasn’t an easy day.
BRAD BROWN: One that was a good experience because you obviously enjoyed it enough that you’ve come back for more!
AKU OJA: Yeah, well, coming back for more actually goes back to before my first Ironman. I signed up for this training camp in Spain before the race, just to get an idea of cycling in the mountains because we don’t have any here in Finland, it’s pretty flat, just rolling hills, nothing like a mountain. So, I signed up for this training camp and I was having a blast there.
A lot of great people and coach there and yeah, people started joking during the camp, like seeing how I’m doing there, like: You should be racing in Kona. Previously, of course, when I found out the Ironman brand, I checked what kind of races they had and I kind of dreamed maybe winning a lottery slot to Kona to experience it and something like that, but during the training camp, that really hit me. Like gee, all these people are believing in me, I can do it.
Actually the visiting coach in the camp opened up an opportunity for me, that he could start coaching me with a realistic goal of getting to Kona, so that’s where I signed up with my coach and we started working pretty much after the Switzerland, for the Kona goal.
BRAD BROWN: If I think of Kona and the conditions and how tough that course is from a heat perspective and I think of Finland, I almost think of two total extremes. They’re so far removed from each other, was that a challenge? I mean it’s one thing living and training in Finland, you get to race elsewhere, but the conditions in Kona are so different to what you’re used to day in and day out.
AKU OJA: Exactly, there’s a tremendous difference. All in humidity and temperature and stuff like that, but I kind of have this karma with Ironman races I have done, they have all been ridiculous hot and humid. My first real attempt for the spot was in Majorca, 2014 and that also ended up being a ridiculous hot race.
I wasn’t, again, prepared for that kind of heat and didn’t manage it there. After that I signed up for Texas and that’s the race we knew with my coach, it’s going to be either hot or seriously hot! We actually started preparing for it and well, you obviously know the sauna in Finland, so I did some pretty nasty stuff when preparing for Texas, given the heat I’m going to race in. Sure enough, it worked well and I was able to manage the heat, now that I was prepared and did well in that race.
Weather can’t hold you back in your Ironman training
BRAD BROWN: Aku, let’s talk about your training and what you have to do. We’ve mentioned that the winters in Finland are pretty miserable, they’re also very long, how do you train? You talk about getting out on the bike and riding, it is something you can do fairly often? There’s maybe just a small window of time when you can actually get out and train in those sort of conditions?
AKU OJA: Well, a lot of people train mainly outdoors in Finland. I don’t, mostly because of time related issues I have. I have a fulltime job and three kids who live with me every second week. So basically every second week I’m a single dad with a fulltime job trying to be as good an athlete as I can, while managing everything else at the same time. Basically I do all my training indoors. Some longer rides or longer runs outdoors, but yeah.
BRAD BROWN: Aku, the more I chat to triathletes and try and figure out what it takes to get to Kona, the more I realise there is no one formula and hearing your story is inspiring to me. I’ve also got three kids, I work pretty much fulltime as well, luckily I’m still married, I’ve got a wife, but it’s not easy and that juggle to get that balance right is really tough. Is that something you really struggle with?
AKU OJA: It’s not easy, if I’m honest, I have to say I’m giving up a lot for the time I’m taking for the workouts I do, but so far it’s been working well. Basically before I started working with my coach, we made up a calendar, like what’s the time I need to use on myself, like family commitments, work commitments, stuff like that.
Times when I absolutely can’t train and then there is the rest of the time and I had to figure from that rest of the time, what is the time schedule that I can realistically train. Obviously it’s not all of the time that’s left, so I had to be honest with myself when I started training seriously, like how many hours on what days I can use.
After thinking that through in your head, then it was surprisingly doable, managing it, after I had really given it some thought.
BRAD BROWN: Would you say that’s been one of your keys to success, is really being totally pedantic about planning and making sure that everything is planned 100%?
Staying flexible in your Ironman training schedule
AKU OJA: I wouldn’t say everything is planned 100% with me. Like I don’t plan my week ahead, obviously I have my workouts for every day, but most often than not I do not plan my next day like clockwork, I’m going to wake up at this time, do a workout, then go there and do that because I also need my rest and if I try to force myself up every day at a certain time then I might be sacrificing some rest I need.
So, if I feel good in the morning, I do my first workout in the morning, if I don’t feel like it, I go to work and do my workouts in the afternoon. I keep myself flexible in that way and that also gives me a little bit more freedom with the workouts, I don’t feel so tied up in that I have to be in a certain place at a certain time. I can move around during the day.
BRAD BROWN: Aku, from a work perspective, what do you do for a living?
AKU OJA: I’m a warehouse manager in this electronics store, the biggest in Finland.
BRAD BROWN: Fantastic. What would you say is the number one thing you’re struggling with right now?
AKU OJA: Currently?
BRAD BROWN: Yes.
AKU OJA: It’s always been the time commitment with the kids, like how much time to take for myself and how much time do I take for them, that’s always been the biggest question mark and challenge for me.
BRAD BROWN: It’s a tough question, because I struggle with the same thing. Is there too much time, too little time, what’s the formula? Is it each to their own or is there a way to do it? That’s something I really struggle with too.
AKU OJA: Well, how should I put it? Every day when they’re staying with me, even when I’m riding my trainer in the living room, I try to be present for the kids, like if they’re playing something, watching something, arguing about something, I try to keep connected with them all the time.
We’ve even played some board games while I’m riding the Turbo, so they throw the dice for me and move my place on the board and I tell what I wanted to do and stuff like that. Yeah, when I’m training indoors, I can also spend time with kids at the same time. I can talk with them, I can watch them play or comment as they do something nice and stuff like that and obviously holidays comes, so at those times I try to get some big things done with them. Travel to nice places or anything like a little bit more nice, spoil them a bit, putting up with me throughout the year.
BRAD BROWN: Perfect. Aku, the qualification, getting your slot at Kona to race on the Big Island, tell me a little bit about that experience? Obviously you were chasing it for a while and when it finally came to fruition, it must have been a great feeling?
When despair turns to celebration for your Kona slot
AKU OJA: Oh yeah! That was an amazing experience. It was back at the Texas where I got the slot. I had a very good buildup to the race and I was staying with a good friend over there, so in that way I was also blessed with the best possible buildup to the race.
I wasn’t actually sure when I finished, because I had a really tough time during the run and being three loop run, you couldn’t really follow the race on your own, about the positions. You tried to follow people like okay, did he pass me, who did I pass, but it became impossible at some point. Once I got to the finish line, at first I felt pretty devastated, like oh man, I must have lost it again, but then finding out I finished 5th in my age group and they had six slots, the feeling was overwhelming.
I remember back at the awards ceremony when they were calling out those slots, it was pretty quiet, everyone was kind of taking their slot or letting it roll, there wasn’t much noise around. My coach also commented, I don’t really remember that moment so clearly, it was so precious but when my name was called, I stand up, I yelled “YES!” and pumping my arms up and people started cheering and clapping and after that pretty much every other athlete made a good show of securing their Kona slot.
BRAD BROWN: I love, it’s fantastic. Then building up to Kona, knowing that you’ve got the slot now, not that that was not hard work, it’s difficult to get a slot on the Big Island, but knowing you’ve now got an opportunity to go and race against the best in the world, did you change anything? The way you were training? As opposed with Texas to Kona?
Being caught up in the emotion and tensions of Kona
AKU OJA: No, we didn’t really change anything. I had a few shorter races during the summer and in August I had to even skip one race due to being sick, but recovered from that, but something was missing there at that time, with my swim and everything.
When I got to Kona, I guess I didn’t quite recover from the travels and emotions going on. The preparation itself was okay. I felt I was about the same fitness as for Texas, but I guess the travel and all the emotions really get to you, especially on the first time.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me about that feeling of arriving on Kona. Everyone I’ve spoken to said when you get off the plane, the first thing that really hits you is the heat and the humidity, but the second thing is the amount of incredible athletes around you, you almost feel like, how did it happen that I ended up here. Did you experience pretty much the same?
AKU OJA: You could say so, yes. Our flight arrived during the night, so it was pitch black everywhere, I couldn’t see any surroundings. I figured out right away it was open air airport, pretty small, but yes, it was already really warm during the night and a lot of triathletes obviously arrive pretty much on every plane, so you have bikes everywhere and people were kind of, they were happy, but you could feel the tension in everyone, waiting for the big moment to happen. It was definitely, you could feel it in the airport right away, that something big is going to happen.
BRAD BROWN: If I say the word ‘Kona’, what do you think?
AKU OJA: Again. That’s actually pretty tough. It brings so many things into my mind, but probably like getting there again, experiencing it again, that’s probably in the top of my mind now when somebody starts to talk about Kona.
BRAD BROWN: It’s funny you say that Aku because I was chatting to someone last week here on the podcast and I said to them that Ironman as a race is pretty addictive, especially if your first experience is pretty good. You want to keep going back and experiencing that again and I get that sense about Kona as well. As much as it’s great to race against the best in the world, there’s something magical about that place that keeps drawing you back and wants you to come back.
AKU OJA: Yes it does, but I’m not sure how many times. After my first race in Kona, because that was my long term big goal, getting there and now I had it done, so I wasn’t really sure in which way I want to go with triathlon now.
Do I go for it again, the Kona or just race locally or some other, just have fun experiencing different races. I could say it’s just these last couple of months or so when this flame started building inside me again, like I want to get back there again.
It took me pretty long and even now I haven’t signed up for a race to qualify or something, I’m still pondering because it’s a big commitment. It takes a lot of time and commitment to go for it again.
BRAD BROWN: It is huge. Other than Ironman and Kona, what do you still want to achieve? Are there races that you really want to do that are on your Bucket List, if you want to put it that way?
AKU OJA: Yeah, well, I’ve had all these crazy ideas, but one interesting thing would be to race Ironman in every continent, that would be interesting. There are a lot of nice races in every continent, but other than that, there isn’t any single race currently, like in Bucket List, I don’t ride for like PR races which are known to be fast or stuff like that. Maybe I like to aim for those super-hot and nasty conditions!
BRAD BROWN: I love that Aku, if you could go back and start your Ironman journey again, is there anything you’d do differently?
When your Ironman training works for you don’t change it
AKU OJA: Not really. I pretty much started my Ironman journey from training very occasionally, to meet up with my coach and then going like full on. I don’t know, if I would do it again, I would go the same way, like to see how much I can really give to it and then after I’ve experienced the top I can get, then I can decide again if I want to keep it there at that level or dial back down to more enjoyable racing.
BRAD BROWN: Aku, we’ve got quite a few people who listen to this, who either have qualified or are trying to qualify for Kona, but we’ve also got a very large audience of listeners who are thinking about doing their first Ironman. What advice would you give to someone who is contemplating doing an Ironman or making the step up from a half distance to a full distance, what would you tell them?
AKU OJA: I would say just in the perspective of finishing Ironman, I’d come up with a very clear understanding that you don’t necessarily need to commit as much time as people think to be able to finish it without too much trouble. I was able to qualify for Kona averaging something like 13-14 hours a week of training. So, yeah, if you can put something like 10, even a sub 10, you can still finish it fairly good.
It’s not the distance that would stop anyone doing it, it’s the speed. I guess people have heard it before, but when you see the distance, it is so massive that it can scare you and you really don’t think it’s anymore like, with a clear mind. Like if I go easy enough, then it should be doable.
BRAD BROWN: I couldn’t agree more, it obviously depends on your goal, but if you want to finish it comfortably, you might not go and race it and qualify or get podium spots, but to finish it comfortably, I think it is. Like you say, it’s the distance that freaks people out and it’s intimidating because it seems like such a long way, but truthfully, it’s the six inches between your ears. If you can manage the mental side of it, the rest takes care of itself.
AKU OJA: Exactly. I was looking for that word ‘intimidating’ for the distance, but it didn’t come up straight away. Yes, that’s the way, it’s doable for most of us.
BRAD BROWN: What’s next on the cards for Aku Oja?
AKU OJA: Well, I’m currently booked up for racing in Finland until August, we were actually lucky to get this Challenge Series race in Finland, so I’m signed up for that and if I do well there, I might get a slot for next year’s Challenge Championship Race, that’s an interesting opportunity also.
BRAD BROWN: Sounds amazing. Aku, if people want to connect with you, I know you’re pretty active online, Twitter and the likes, can they reach out to you on Twitter, Facebook, if they’ve got any questions or would like to follow your journey?
AKU OJA: Yeah, sure, of course, that’s pretty much why I made those public profiles for me, that if anyone is interested to follow, it is possible and give me a question, any time I’ll try to answer as best as I can and the other side is also that I don’t have to bomb my other friends with triathlon related updates all the time, I can keep them apart!
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Aku, what I’ll do, I’ll pop the links in the show notes to this episode, much appreciate your time and I look forward to breaking down the various disciplines and seeing what you do and how you do it, to get better in future episodes, but thank you for your time today.
AKU OJA: Yeah, all right, thank you very much.