Paul Burton’s journey to the Ironman World Championships in Kona
Paul Burton tells us about his perfect debut at the Ironman World Champs in Kona. An inspiring story, achieving his dream in the race of his life.
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BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge, I’m Brad Brown.
it’s an absolute pleasure to be with you today and an absolute pleasure to welcome our next guest onto the podcast, all the way in London in the United Kingdom.
He’s got an incredible story, he wasn’t one of those guys who qualified on first attempt. He’s tried and tried and tried and it’s taken him many years. There have been some pretty close calls as well.
Paul missed out on Kona spots twice by one position in his age group, so that really hurts, I’ll ask him about that as well. Finally qualified at Ironman South Africa in 2015 with a pretty decent performance, but had the race of his life in Kona and we’ll talk a little bit more about that as well.
Thank you so much for taking the time to download this podcast. Don’t forget, if you’d like to get all of them, all you need to do is subscribe to us on either iTunes or Stitcher, it’s as simple as that and if you love what you’re hearing, we’d love it if you left us a review on any one of those platforms.
Let’s get straight in to today’s interview with Paul Burton.
Chasing the Ironman Kona dream
Paul, you’ve travelled around the world chasing The Ironman Kona Dream for many years.
You came close, agonizingly close on a couple of occasions. Missing an Ironman Kona slot by just one place. How do you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go again?
It must be brutal to get that close and not make it?
PAUL BURTON: Yeah, thanks for that, it is brutal! I love the sport and I was always going to keep going until I got there.
I think if you miss out by quite a long way and you’re trying to qualify, at some point you say hey, maybe I’m not good enough. But it was painfully obvious to everybody who knew me that I was there.
I just needed to put it together and have the right luck on the day so I kept going. In South Africa this year I just had a solid race, got myself fit and qualified by miles in the end, so yeah, it was good.
BRAD BROWN: Paul, you played a bit of golf early on before you found triathlon. If you look at professional golf and the guys at the top of their game. They all can swing a club, they all can play, they’re all really good. But a lot of it is mental and how they approach the game.
Switching from golf to Ironman triathlon
Do you think your struggling to qualify for Ironman Kona like that, and what actually flipped the switch, was mental or did you do lots differently when it came to training?
PAUL BURTON: I don’t think it was mental. I guess, if I look at the difference between, so 2013 when I started trying properly, I got very close and that was all great.
I guess 2014, in hindsight, I was probably over training for the large stresses that I had. If you look at work set up and stressors that were going on, I had a career change this year and a job that wasn’t working out last year.
I think that took more out of me than I realized at the time. I think in 2014 I was over training for what I could do and then I got sick a couple of times. Which isn’t just bad luck, it was driven by the fact that I was horribly over training a lot.
I don’t think it was mental in the race, not at all. I don’t think the approach in the race changes one bit, you get the cards you were given and you execute them to the best you can.
The risk of overtraining for Ironman
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned the over training. That’s a trap that a lot of age groupers do fall into and I found it interesting. You were talking about the build up to Ironman South Africa 2015 where you did actually qualify for Ironman Kona. You said you came in under done and probably slightly overweight.
Not that you were carrying, if it was fat, but that you were slightly heavier, do you think it’s better to go into one of these things slightly underdone and overweight than the other way around?
PAUL BURTON: 100%. Look, when I say overweight, I mean we’re all acutely aware individuals when you get to the sharp end of the sport. I’m talking like 1-1.5kg compared to where I had raced in the past, but in 2014.
When I say I was over training for my large stressors, I was slightly underweight and that’s not a strong place to be and a resilient place to be. Carrying a tiny bit more weight and not having quite trained as much, it’s all about being healthy. If you’re not 100% healthy on the start line, you can forget it.
Where did the Ironman triathlon journey start
BRAD BROWN: Paul your fascination with triathlon, obviously coming to it later on, were you pretty active at school, like growing up? Where did this fascination with Ironman triathlon come from?
PAUL BURTON: Well, I mean I was active as a kid and very sporty and I did a bit of cross country and stuff, but I got hooked on golf at age 14/15 and then when I was about 16, I jacked in all other sports and focused on golf, through university and stuff like that.
The endurance sport thing came after I started working. I struggled, I started working in banking. There were big hours in the city.
There was a lot of weekend work and I wasn’t able to get to the golf course much. When I did get there, like once a month, I was terrible. As a competitive person, I really struggled with that.
You need to be competitive to qualify for Ironman Kona
I kind of lost my love for the game. Then doing long hours and eating badly and probably drinking too much. As you do early in your career in banking, a friend and I, we’re like, we’re out of shape here, we need to do something about it.
So we turned up to the New York Marathon in 2005 and the Ironman stuff all flowed from that. I enjoyed the first marathon, but got it completely wrong.
So I committed to training properly and actually getting it right and then I learnt how to run decent marathons and then as I was getting bored of that, tried a sprint triathlon in 2008 and you build up to an Ironman and it’s like a puzzle, I’m competitive and I’m a problem solver and Ironman was just a puzzle.
It was just natural to try and get it right.
Moving from a marathon to Ironman triathlon
BRAD BROWN: Making that step up to Ironman. I think for most of us it is a progression, but when did the seed of Ironman Kona get planted?
It’s one thing going and doing an Ironman and seeing how you’re going to get through that, but thinking and figuring out, hang on a sec, if I actually do this thing properly, I could go and race at a World Championships.
PAUL BURTON: I guess two things on that. The first one is that in my first couple of years in triathlon I qualified for the standard distance World Champs. The ITU World Champs in Australia in 2009.
Then the half Ironman 70.3 World Champs in Vegas in 2011. I knew at a standard that I’m a decent athlete. It was in 2012 when we were training for Challenge Roth it was clear. I went to that race with the goal of going sub 10 and I thought I could go something like 9:45.
If I could do that it showed me that I was probably someone who in the future was capable of qualifying for Ironman Kona.
Racing Challenge Roth planted the Ironman Kona seed
A whole bunch of us guys went to Challenge Roth. Actually, a bunch of South African guys in London and that’s when Black Line London was kind of set up around that time. I went and did 9:51 at Challenge Roth that year.
It was then I thought I’m probably someone who can think about Ironman Kona. I then went and did Ironman Wales at the end of that season and as I said earlier, I had a good race there. It was very competitive, I think I was 12th in the age group.
So I wasn’t that close to an Ironman Kona slot, but I was close enough that I knew that it was a realistic thing to think about. That’s when the next year 2013, that was the big goal.
BRAD BROWN: How satisfying was it, and we’ll touch on your racing at Ironman Kona in a moment, but you told me you were a marginal qualifier. You literally had to travel the world to try and get an Ironman Kona slot.
Ironman Kona qualification is a puzzle
Obviously you talk about Ironman being a puzzle, it is exactly that. Where you’ve got to piece things together. Maybe this doesn’t work on this race and you try something else the next time out. How satisfying is it when it does come together in a race?
PAUL BURTON: Oh, immensely because there are so many variables. It’s difficult to know which one is the one that has gone right or wrong in an Ironman race. But to have a good race, you need all of the variables to be right.
It’s the training, your health, the nutrition on the race day, your pacing and when you get it right, it just feels amazing,
If the distance has kicked your ass, properly, as it has done mine in the past, particularly at Ironman UK in 2013, when you get it right, it feels like it justifies all of the hard work. All of the hours and the money and the emotional energy you put into it, it’s an immense satisfaction.
When you start hitting kind of 25, 30, 35km in the marathon and you’re still running the pace you want to, that’s engaging.
It hurts like hell, but when you’re deep in that marathon, I’ve never felt so alive. When it’s going well, it’s amazing.
When it all clicks at Ironman Kona
BRAD BROWN: We’ll touch on the race but yours, where it all sort of slotted together was at Ironman Kona. How satisfying must it be for it to happen at a race like that.
PAUL BURTON: I mean that was a dream come true. My training buddies,my coach and I all knew that I was a better athlete than the guy who had been struggling to qualify for Ironman Kona. It was a case of, how do you unlock it, what do you do, how do you piece it together.
Actually, at the race and I knew at some point in the next 2-3 years I would have a race where it all came together. For it to happen at Ironman Kona, first time out, that was literally a dream come true. It was amazing.
BRAD BROWN: You set the bar pretty high now with races clicking and coming together. With it happening at Ironman Kona, do you feel pressure? It’s soon after Ironman Kona now and you’re obviously planning your next one .Is there pressure to go better than you did at Ironman Kona?
I’m sure you can, but gee, what a stage to do it on.
You need to be competitive to qualify for Ironman Kona
PAUL BURTON: Yeah, the only pressure is from myself. I’m a competitive guy and I’ve entered Ironman Austria next year. I’ve set myself a couple of goals for the next 2 years. Over the next 2 years and in a dream scenario they could both happen next year.
The thing about Ironman Kona is the realization and it was the, I guess it’s the same thing that happened to me in South Africa 2013, it was a realization of where I’m at with the sport.
In 2013 I realized I’m definitely somebody who can qualify for Ironman Kona. This year, I’ve realized that I’m definitely someone who belongs towards the front of Ironman races. It’s thrilling, but you know, the pressure is just my own.
I’m going to Ironman Austria next year, which is a very fast course. It’s a very competitive Ironman race, so I go into that race knowing that I’ve got to go under 9 hours or very, very close to it to qualify for Ironman Kona.
I did 9:34 at Ironman Kona and the people I finished around have all gone under 9 hours in Ironman’s, so why can’t I?
BRAD BROWN: I love that. Paul, if I say the word ‘Kona’, obviously it was a long struggle to get you there, what do you think?
What does Kona mean to you?
PAUL BURTON: About the word Kona, it just makes me smile. So, it’s not just the race itself. Clearly the race was amazing, but doing that, I’m extraordinarily fortunate to have a group of friends that I do the sport with.
It’s not just training, social groups and so in becoming the Black Line London gang. Frankly, it’s not a competitive sports team as such, it’s a group of friends who are like minded. We happen to have a number of them who are at the level they can do Ironman Kona.
There were four of us racing this year. Troy, Nico, Jane and myself. Also having been around the sport for a number of years, I’ve got a wider group of friends too. Being in Kona with such a close group of friends and some of their partners and also when you’re walking down the street in Kona, you can’t walk 50m without bumping into a friend of yours from the scene in Europe or the UK.
It was just an amazing trip and an amazing place and the whole thing was great. I’d love to go back.
The Ironman Kona Swim
BRAD BROWN: I’m not going to get into too much detail on the race because you’ve done an incredible race report, which we’ll link to this as well. Talk to me about being in the water at Ironman Kona.
At the start, we all do it, we all watch that broadcast online year after year, dreaming to be there, how surreal must it be to be in that water waiting for that cannon to go?
PAUL BURTON: Amazing and it was weird. I think this is the thing for the whole day, I didn’t feel any pressure at all. At that point, I was just excited. Having been on the start line of every other Ironman for the previous three years with a binary goal of qualifying or not qualifying, that’s pressure.
You either come away with an Ironman Kona slot or you don’t. I was on the start of this race and it didn’t matter how it went. It was just about have the best race you can. I was hoping I may go back again, but you never know, I may not enjoy it and not want to go back.
So being in the water there was just lap it up. You looked around, it was about a minute to go. I made sure I turned around and I wasn’t in the front row, because I’m a slow case swimmer.
The atmosphere in Ironman Kona Swim
As you swung around the three things I saw were firstly, there are 1 500 people lined up behind you waiting to smash you in the face, which is quite fun. Then you see the crowd four or five deep on the pier wall around the side, on the road. Then over to the right you see the sun rising over the hills.
This is just a scene that, a picture postcard of what I’ve looked at on TV for the last few years. It was amazing and then you look down and you see the scuba divers with the video cameras 20 feet below you in the water and it was amazing, just amazing to be there.
Racing with no pressure often allows you to race better
BRAD BROWN: You talk about the day you had. You went in there with, you’re saying no pressure. You had goals that you had set and in your wildest dreams you were hoping for a top 25 in your age group. Which you ended up not just achieving, but you were well within that.
That feeling coming down the carpet. Just finishing at a World Champs must be amazing, but knowing that you’ve had probably your dream race, better than you’ve ever had, it must be immensely satisfying.
PAUL BURTON: Yeah, that was cool and the most difficult bit of the race for me actually. I’d built it up in my mind and with my coach about the Energy Lab being really hard and actually the Energy Lab was fine.
The two bits I found hard were running up the Queen K to get to the Energy Lab and then that kind of like 10km back along the Queen K to get back. It sounds a bit weird, I know Paul Kaye really well. As a Black Line London group know him really well. He’s a big fan of ours and he has seen my little expeditions to try and qualify for Ironman Kona firsthand.
Familiar faces on the Ironman Kona route
He’s been at all of the races that I’ve tried. Knowing that he was at Hot Corner, which is 1.5km to go, so you run along the Queen K. You then turn right down Palani and there’s Hot Corner. On the race you go past that a number of times. Paul Kaye was on the mic kind of MC’ing Hot Corner and running on the Queen K was really hard.
I just was really, really driving myself, I wanted to see Paul and give him a High 5 on Hot Corner because I knew I was having a good race and I knew he’d be delighted and surprised to see me that far up.
So kind of, to me in my mind, I was trying not to think about Alii Drive. I wanted to get to Paul, have that High 5 with Paul. From there it’s literally downhill to the finish. You run around the town, seeing half a dozen friends supporting and running down that last bit of Alii Drive, knowing that you’ve had the race that was perfect, that was just amazing. It was like running in clouds, it was awesome.
BRAD BROWN: Paul’s back in South Africa in the off-season. I actually had a long chat with him yesterday. He is such an amazing guy and just doing some amazing things from an MC’ing perspective on the Ironman circuit.
Paul, for you, what do you think has given you the edge this year as opposed to previous years?
What changed from Ironman to Ironman
PAUL BURTON: It’s simple, I talked early about over training. You wouldn’t look at my training log and say, this is someone who is over training. There was a big realization this year for me around getting the balance right.
You’ve got your relationships and you’ve got your training and your sport, these are three things you’re trying to get right. They are all interlinked and in previous years I’ve probably been trying to train too much for the time I had available. The alarm was going off at 6:00am too much and I probably wasn’t getting enough rest.
This year I’ve just got the balance right. I’ve had a career change, which has enabled a more flexible work set up. I’m getting more rest and I’m absolutely loving my work this year. After a difficult couple of years in my previous job. I’ve been happier, so it sounds strange to say it, but I’ve been better at my Ironman this year because I’m a happier person.
Getting the Ironman balance right
BRAD BROWN: Balance, that’s the word. That’s what it boils down to, particularly for age groupers. It’s why I think I’ve got so much respect for age groupers, is just to get that. Many of them have got families. A lot of them have got high powered jobs. Jobs that they need to juggle along with the training, it’s not easy to get that balance right, is it?
PAUL BURTON: No and I’m really passionate about the point that I see, and too many people think that over training and training stress is what’s on your training log. What the little numbers and the little bubbles say.
People don’t realize enough what the non-training stressors are in their lives. If one of your family members is sick or if you’re going for a tough time at work. These things all add up and for example, your coach won’t know this, unless you’re incredibly honest with them.
I see in here about some of the volume that people are training and it knocks my socks off. For the three months to Ironman Kona, my training average was about 16 hours a week. I think that is quite a lot.
It’s as much as I can do in my life. I’ve got a pretty flexible set-up and still get everything right and get enough rest. You hear a lot of stories of age groupers training 20-25 hours a week. I genuinely struggle to see how many of those people can actually train with those volumes and not be putting themselves into a massive hole.
How many hours a week do you need to train for Ironman Kona?
BRAD BROWN: I struggle to wrap my head around those numbers too, but Paul. For you, looking at the three disciplines itself, is there anything that you’ve done from a specific discipline perspective that you think, you know what, this has made such a big difference, whether it be in the water, on the bike or on the run as well?
PAUL BURTON: I guess the overall thing is having the balance right. Fitness for Ironman, there is no single session or magic session or anything that gets you fit.
You only get fit for an Ironman with consistent training over 3 months and once you do that, that consistency gets you really fit and then you’re able to hit those big specific sessions.
Those big specific sessions actually for me. It’s not about the training effect then, it’s the mental approach. You need to be on that start line in a race knowing that to go through the race properly. You need to know in your heart of hearts, with no bullshitting, that you have hit the key sessions properly. You can only hit those key sessions properly if you’ve been really consistent and got yourself really fit.
If you try and do those big sessions when you haven’t quite done the work and the session kicks your ass, you’re on the start line of that race knowing that you’re not quite right, so you’ve got to back off a bit. There are some key sessions and things that I’ve done, but the overall thing is consistency.
Honesty will get you to Ironman Kona
BRAD BROWN: And it’s funny you talk about that. You know deep down, that’s one thing you were saying, I don’t know if it was in your Ironman Kona race report or another one that I read. You wrote about looking at yourself in the mirror. You need to be honest, going into one of these things, knowing what you’ve done in the build up to it.
PAUL BURTON: Yeah, it was in my Ironman Kona blog. There’s no bullshitting right, you know if you’ve done the work. For me people ask, how did you have such a good race at Ironman Kona. I got myself really fit and then you race sensibly and all you ever hope on a race day is that the race reflects your fitness and the work that you’ve put in.
If you’re honest with yourself and you race within your capabilities, it will do that. Now, if the work you’ve put in is just 75%, you’ll have a 75% race, if the work you’ve done is 100%, you’ll have a 100% race.
The dangerous one is when you’ve done a 75% training and you go on the start line wanting a 100% race and you go and end up walking for three hours.
BRAD BROWN: It’s not rocket science is it?
Ironman is not rocket science
PAUL BURTON: No, no. People by definition, us Ironman types and particularly those of us that want to qualify for Ironman Kona, we’re all in a rush. We’re all Type A goal seekers who want to be at Point B before they got to Point A.
There’s a little phrase and it used to be my Twitter bio. I think it was a Brett Sutton phrase, it’s ‘Hurry Slowly’. Everyone could learn a lot about that. Fitness and performance comes from consistency and patience. You’ve got to wait and that’s the biggest learning for me this year.
I was so focused on the race and the goal too often before. The qualifying for Kona and it’s about the process.
This year I’ve enjoyed training the most. I love the sessions that I do and the people that I do it with and if you get into that nice little routine around your training then it all takes care of itself.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, I’m on a bit of a trip at the moment where it’s ‘Do Less Better’ and I think it’s the same sort of thing. Just focus on the little things and the big things will take care of themselves.
Get all aspects of your Ironman life in sync
PAUL BURTON: Yeah and this is stuff that I’m trying to get into my other parts of my life as well. Frankly, I focus on fewer of my friends. I try and spend more time with them and work, I just try and do, yeah, it’s exactly it and so I haven’t played golf now for basically 2 years. That’s because I was trying to juggle golf as well as Ironman and a busy job and relationships and that. That is a recipe for disaster.
The golf has gone out the window, arguably you’d say I’m single, so maybe relationships have gone out the window.
BRAD BROWN: I’ve chatted to lots of age groupers who have qualified for Ironman Kona. May of them are full on about qualification. But missing out for you has almost made you philosophical about it.
Are you grateful now, thinking back, that if you didn’t qualify straight up, you’d be in a different place now?
Ironman set backs make you want it more
PAUL BURTON: 100% and that’s one thing I put in that race report is, I guess two things. If I had qualified in 2013 in South Africa, with that good race. 9:30 in Port Elizabeth in 2013 was a really solid race. I swam 57 or something, I rode 4:50 and then ran a 3:34 I think and that was a really good race. If I qualified then, I’d be going to Ironman Kona kind of, not cocky, but it would have all been relatively straightforward.
Turning up now with the Ironman distance having kicked my ass for 2-3 years, it makes you realize how much you’ve got to earn it. Everyone talks about making the day and all that kind of stuff. I turned up this year and I think the Ironman Gods were looking down on me pretty fondly.
This guy has done the work. But you do need that respect for the distance because as soon as you disrespect the Ironman distance. It doesn’t matter what course it is. If it’s a fast, flat course, or a hilly slow course, if you don’t fully respect the distance, it will kick your ass.
It worked out great that I hadn’t qualified before because I turned up ready for it. In 2013 I would have no way have been ready for the race in those conditions.
What it’s like being at the Ironman World Champs in Kona
The other thing is, Hawaii is an incredible place. There’s this massive explosion of probably 3 000-4 000 of the fittest people on the planet. I’m talking people racing, and their partners and families, and half of them are running down Alii Drive with their tops off all day long.
Looking like fitness models or Adonis and it’s pretty intimidating. You know when you go to a race and you see someone, their calves are ripped or look at their arms or shoulders. I remember Crowie talking about this. Look at Marino, look how fit he is, but it’s for everybody.
You see all these people running down the street and it’s intimidating. Those people are the ones that are walking back from the Energy Lab. The people that are running and the people that are hiding away in their condos, probably a bit skinny and a bit pale.
BRAD BROWN: I love it. I’m going to leave it there Paul, I think that’s fantastic. I appreciate your time today and we look forward to catching up again soon. One last question, when are you going back?
PAUL BURTON: To Kona?
BRAD BROWN: Yeah, no pressure, no pressure here.
PAUL BURTON: You know, in one or the next two years. I mean I’m doing Ironman Austria next year and Kona is a goal, but really I’m going there. The goal is to go as fast as I can and Austria is my A race next year. I’d love to get myself in sub 9 hour shape and I don’t see why I can’t do that, and if I do that, I’ll qualify for Kona.
So hopefully next year, but if not, I’ll go and do an end of year qualifier and try and get there for 2017.
BRAD BROWN: Fantastic, Paul Burton, thank you so much for joining us on The Kona Edge. Best of luck, we look forward to seeing how you go in Austria and seeing you at Kona again in the not too distant future.
PAUL BURTON: Lovely, good to chat to you.
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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