On this edition of The Kona Edge we catch up with Michael Harvey and explore his journey into Ironman. We learn the valuable lessons from mistakes he made in the early days and what he has subsequently done to change this. Coming from a strong swimming background, he shares with us how he had to learn to ride a bike and what he did to make him stronger in his Ironman bike and run.
BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge, we head to Melbourne, Australia now to catch up with our next guest, Michael Harvey. Michael welcome, thanks for joining us today.
MICHAEL HARVEY: Thank you for having me Brad.
BRAD BROWN: These time zone things are quite interesting. Obviously I’m in Cape Town, you’re in Melbourne. We’ve been talking about the Olympics before we started recording, which is taking place in Rio. It makes life interesting doesn’t it?
MICHAEL HARVEY: It’s like being on an airplane for the last couple of weeks, trying to keep up with everything that’s happening in the world, so we’ll lay in limbo.
BRAD BROWN: Exactly. Michael, let’s touch on your journey into the sport of triathlon. You were pretty active as a kid growing up, I think like most Australians, it’s a very outdoorsy country. The weather is conducive to be playing and mucking about outdoors. Tell me a little bit about your childhood?
The advantage of a strong swimming background
MICHAEL HARVEY: Growing up, I started off in little athletics, I learnt to swim as a child, as you do here in Australia. Here’s sort of a pre-requisite kids do when they’re 3 or 4, to get water confident. But I wasn’t too much of a fan back then and got into little athletics, which I did for a number of years. And then back where I was from, with a rural town in New South Wales and it used to be blistering hot out on the athletics field and it was very exposed and my granddad suggested to my mom that it would be cooler if I did swimming instead of little athletics. Therein started a 10 year competitive career in swimming.
BRAD BROWN: It’s funny how little things like that push you into directions that you go. Athletics and swimming. Swimming is pretty big in Australia, you’ve shown at the Olympics you’ve got some good swimmers, but it’s not one of the biggest sporting codes, obviously there’s a few others. I think cricket, rugby union, Ozzie Rules football, you didn’t play any of those growing up?
MICHAEL HARVEY: No, I definitely did the tame sports and it was, obviously as you get older and into your teens and you’re thinking more about friendships rather than just going along with what mum and dad are taking you down to. But yeah, the school sport and what-not are quite popular. I think from an individual point in Australia, I think swimming is the most participated in sport and I think that’s definitely why you see the strengths on water basis as well, it’s just so competitive over here. It was a good place to be competitive, because it helped you go to quite a high level.
BRAD BROWN: The shift into triathlon, did you stay active out of school, once you’d finished up? Often life gets in the way with people and they might be active growing up and as teens, but when they discover uni and beer and women, they end up letting that go by the wayside. Did you stay pretty active all the way through?
MICHAEL HARVEY: Yeah, in my later teens, particularly the end of high school, though the introduction of parties and girls and all the what-not led me away from sport for a little while. And for that part, that was when I actually got into playing a bit of rugby league and rugby union with my mates, finishing off high school and doing that side of things. I eventually meandered back to looking to go towards swimming. That’s when I stumbled across triathlon to try and get fit again.
BRAD BROWN: You found your way, so to speak.
MICHAEL HARVEY: Exactly right, back to where it all began.
BRAD BROWN: Back to the straight and narrow. Tell me about stumbling into the sport of triathlon. It’s one thing training for a sport on its own that you need to be competitive, now all of a sudden you need to train three. Where did your triathlon journey start?
No baby steps- it’s all in
MICHAEL HARVEY: It’s funny, it ebbs and flows looking back. I can remember vividly I was in a rental place that I was living in, in Northern New South Wales and hadn’t done anything. Literally hadn’t gotten into a pool for probably about two years, other than to splash around with some mates. I had been playing football, and I was sitting at home, eating lunch and the highlights reel came, the Port Macquarie Ironman, on the television. And there’s something about the challenges and I had that competitive streak in me from swimming to a higher level and I thought that was something that would challenge me enough to get me off the couch and get going. And so the next morning I trundled down to the swimming pool and spoke to the guy who owned the pool and said that I wanted to do an Ironman and funnily enough, he’d done about 5 or 6 himself. So he became the unofficial mentor.
BRAD BROWN: Talk about going big or going home. Straight Ironman, no baby steps.
MICHAEL HARVEY: That’s right, particularly you see how they package it and that was 10 years ago, so 2006. So it wasn’t as mainstream, maybe it’s mainstream because I’m in the industry a little bit more myself now, but I hadn’t seen anything like it and it was just really captivating. And naturally everyone has seen through the 90’s, the Hawaii Ironman, so there was all this mystique around it and I thought, this would be a really good challenge just to go and lay it down.
BRAD BROWN: And it was probably only an hours long highlights package, how hard can it be.
MICHAEL HARVEY: Exactly right, it would be perceptive.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about the journey to getting there. It’s one thing making the decision, but there’s a lot of hard work from making that decision to actually arriving on the start line and actually finishing it.
Completing an Ironman is hard work all the way
MICHAEL HARVEY: Absolutely. I was very lucky cause I had swum for so long and even though I’d spent a bit of time out of the pool in the two years, by that stage I had 10 years of swimming under my belt and so that was where I started. I went back to the pool and I thought, I can lose all the party weight by doing what I know and getting back in and getting fit.
I’d kept running bits and pieces throughout high school, doing cross country and what-not, nothing serious. But the swimming I find aerobically, and people will tell you differently, but I think aerobically it’s what can keep you at a pretty high level across all different sports. I started in the pool, had never really ridden a bike and so that was where I was really out of my depth. I had to literally learn from scratch and that was a long process of doing that.
I managed to, so that was in May. In September I did my first sprint distance triathlon and I’d signed up for Port Macquarie half Ironman, which was either the end of October, beginning of November. So not quite six months after I’d seen that highlight package and back in those days, you had to do the half to qualify for the full. I didn’t really get to choose to do the full. I had to do the qualifying part and so I went there and did my first half and I thought that’s incredible, I can’t even understand how you can do that twice and I was fortunate enough, I didn’t actually get an automatic spot. I got a roll down to compete in the Port Macquarie Ironman the following year in 2007.
BRAD BROWN: I love that you said that after that first half you thought to yourself, how am I supposed to go and do that again. That’s something a lot of us go through, when we do our first half, especially when, as you say, you watched it on TV and thought, how hard can that be because I was exactly the same, I was like, it can’t be that bad. My experience of my first half was exactly as you described it. That you get to the end of that, you’re shattered and you think to yourself, there is no ways that I could do this again.
From a mental perspective and you know that now and I do too, it is a very mental thing and once you’ve pushed through that, it’s actually not such a big step up. I know we’re playing it down, but it’s a lot of hard work, but for you, what did you go and then do differently in the buildup to that half that you did in the buildup to the full?
MICHAEL HARVEY: I definitely knew that I needed to do bigger things and like you mentioned, to really challenge, definitely physically because there was that part that you needed to develop, and the mental side. I had one of my mates and it’s funny, he’s a 120kg rugby player and he used to go out, we used to live together and he’d jump on the push bike and feed me food and water as I’m running along in the searing heat up in Northern New South Wales. You’d go and do a 30km run and I had no idea back then, after doing a run like that, I think I just had Gatorade the whole way.
Learning from your mistakes the hard way
I didn’t know that you needed to have either electrolytes and proper food and all sorts of stuff and I got home after this 30km run and I just threw up for an hour. I was very grey at the time and I look back at it. In two parts, it was such a big learning experience, but it was kind of good to cut your teeth the hard way rather than, I couldn’t even afford internet back then, in my late teens, early 20’s, so I had to really just self-experiment and learn that way.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think sometimes that’s the best, is that a lot of people get into the sport now have almost got too much information and they need to almost figure it out for themselves. Sometimes you need to make those mistakes to learn?
MICHAEL HARVEY: I definitely do Brad. I coach triathlon now as well and I obviously try and lead my athletes on the best path, but I also realize that people learn at their own rate. You can show someone a certain way, but until they can actually grasp it themselves and they have that bit of ‘aha’ moment, I think that’s when you can really run with it and you do. You learn, make mistakes, you learn, make mistakes and it just repeats and I think that’s really why Ironman, in my opinion, is so popular. Is because it’s such a hard beast to get right, that even in an elite level, professional, they still have that, where they’re just learning so much. It keeps people going that way as well, mentally.
BRAD BROWN: It’s also one of those races that because it’s so long, it’s almost impossible to have the perfect race. There’s always one part of it that keeps you coming back because you think you can do better in that part and you might get that right in the next race, but then you go and mess something else up.
MICHAEL HARVEY: So many variables, like you said, you could have the perfect 220km, but then the last 26 just goes downhill or it could be the first 26, so yeah, it’s the Phoenix, it’s hard to catch.
BRAD BROWN: I think that’s what keeps us coming back for more. Michael, as a kid, you mentioned the swimming and a bit of athletics, were you pretty good? Were you competitive? Did you win stuff as a kid?
MICHAEL HARVEY: Yes, so swimming-wise, I was a bit competitive. Swimming, particularly in my early and mid-teens, that meant the world to me and I committed a lot of time and I really enjoyed it. I loved the racing. I love that I can look back and go, people tried to beat me, but having that ability to almost out-will yourself to do better. Yeah, I swam to a national level here in Australia and so I think my best was, I got 13 in my age group at the time. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking, but it was in an arena where I felt like I was having a good crack and getting around some good swimmers. And now it puts a smile on the face where you can, I’ll be like one of those granddads one day sitting back and going, oh, I swam against this person. I swam against him as a child and he’s just gone to, either second or third Olympics now, so in good company.
BRAD BROWN: It sounds amazing and then making that step to triathlon, did you have that ability from a youngster? Did it carry into triathlon or did you really have to find your way and develop that ability that you have and has that taken some time to develop?
MICHAEL HARVEY: Yeah, I think with swimming. The swimming definitely set me up in terms of, some part of a competitive drive, but being relentless, let’s say. Saying right, this is what I want to do and you know, from when I did it, when I was swimming, I know that Rome wasn’t built in a day and I was going to have to put time and training down, but I enjoyed that process. It wasn’t a burden to me, I like the feeling of being absolutely spent at the end of a session. Or if you’ve done something really well or pushing hard in a race or something like that. There’s a lot of things and I still find that you can pick and pull other things from your life into current experiences that help you get the best out of them now as well.
BRAD BROWN: As far as your first experience of the full at Macquarie, you come out of the half and you’re thinking to yourself, there’s no ways I can do this. You go back and do the work, tell me about how things went in your first full.
MICHAEL HARVEY: The only bit of real insight that I had was that I knew what I would swim, roughly! The rest of it was going to be a bit of, just try and make it to the end of the bike leg and then if I’m off the bike in the cut off, I can probably walk the marathon.
On the day I knew that I was going to swim relatively well and back then it was a mass start with the pros. So they put the pros about, I think 20m ahead of the rest of us and I managed to tack onto, there’s a two lap course, after the first lap we caught the second pack of pros in the swim. And so I ended up swimming, I think it was about 50 or 51 minutes for my swim leg and mentally I’d spoken to, like I said, my mentor who was working at the pool at the time. And we knew that I was going to be out of the water at the point end, but we knew that I wasn’t going to be off the bike at the point end. I didn’t think about it at the time, but there was a lot of people, so I got out of the water I think in maybe 50th place overall and I think I got off the bike in like 1 050th place. There were a lot of people that went past!
BRAD BROWN: Did you find that difficult? Not just from an ego perspective, but you get out of the water and you’re up there, it’s easy to get carried away and think gee, this is going fantastically well. And Ironman is a long day, did you have to force yourself to hold back?
MICHAEL HARVEY: Not really, I think if the ride had been at the start maybe, but being that I had my best leg first, and I didn’t take it as a negative thing. I knew that there was going to be a drop back and in my head I was like well, at least running is my second best thing, so maybe I can go. And I think that’s where later in the run I suffer because of what I did early in the run, as a lot of people do. And it was a long day on the run and I can remember bits and pieces and there’s other parts that I don’t remember.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me the biggest lessons you learnt out of that first one?
MICHAEL HARVEY: Definitely nutrition, I didn’t have any nutrition plan going in. I remember riding on the bike and getting to the first aid station outside of town and they had [inaudible 0.16.27] biscuits and I thought, that’s a good idea, I’ll roll with that. [inaudible] biscuits and bananas were the go on the bike, it tasted nice but I don’t think it gave a hell of a lot of value nutritionally and definitely biding your time, to know that if you can just keep on chipping away, even if it’s a tough day, that you can keep on going.
That would be the two things I took out of it. There were plenty of times where, I remember one time, there was about halfway into the run leg and I’d started cramping and I had to sit down in the gutter. And a volunteer came over and they’re like ‘Are you all right’? And I went to get up and then the hamstrings cramped and so just had to sit there for about 5 minutes and let everything settle down. And it’s very humbling thinking back now what I have done, but I can relate to where people are now as well, if I’m coaching them. A lot of them see me for what I am now, but I’ve seen that and I actually value having gone through that experience as well. Rather than being all bells and whistles and all great from the first race.
BRAD BROWN: Time-wise, what did you do that first one in?
MICHAEL HARVEY: Just over 13 hours, so 13:06 if my memory serves me correctly.
BRAD BROWN: You’re giving me hope here!
MICHAEL HARVEY: That’s right, I think that’s what it is. You’ve got to look at it for what it is and I was literally less than 12 months into the sport, so I knew how much time I’d put into my swimming and how the gains became so small. I guess the exciting part is if you’re new in the sport, then you’ve got a lot more gain.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely and I love that you spoke about biding your time. Because I think a lot about Ironman triathlon is patience and a lot of people want things to come too quickly, but success in the sport, a lot of it is based on patience.
MICHAEL HARVEY: 100%. I was speaking to an athlete yesterday, massive hats off to Michael Phelps with the amount of Gold that he’s won, but I think one thing that people really don’t look at it is just how much time he’s put in to get those Gold Medals. He’s won 22, but he did his first Olympics when he was 15 in 2000. He spent, probably since he was 7 or 8 years old, just following a black line up and down a pool and that’s been rewarded. And it’s what you see when people put the time in to go and do that work. Then particularly in Ironman the same, year after year after year, if you can just keep on showing up, then you can make those steps. They’re small steps but eventually it adds up.
BRAD BROWN: Michael where did the seed for Kona get planted for you? You mentioned seeing and reading about the Ironman Hawaii when you first got introduced to the sport, but when did Kona really become a driving force and a goal for you?
Commit to get to Kona
MICHAEL HARVEY: Immediately after my first Ironman, and I see this often as well with people getting in too quickly. I was really burnt out, it took a lot out of me, not just physically but it was mentally very draining. I ended up spending about 12-18 months just dabbling, not really doing much, just keeping fit still then. But then I needed a carrot and I’ve always been that way, just being competitive, I’ve just needed something to actually get me out of bed, to go through the motions. I couldn’t tell you honestly the decisive moment that I figured it out, but I was like well, I’ve done one of these things, I survived it. Now let’s have a crack at being good at it and so that’s I guess where, well how do you define good? What’s the litmus test as to saying you’ve done well? And for me at that point it was to make it to the big dance with the best in the world and that was back in 2010. After a while that I decided, I’m really going to commit to having a crack at it and go from there.
BRAD BROWN: What did you do? It’s a decision, once you decide to do it, you then, every decision you take, everything that you do in the buildup to that is in that direction, what did you do? From a training perspective, from a coaching perspective, did you put things in place? What did you put in place that worked towards that goal?
MICHAEL HARVEY: I was lucky, again, I used, like when I swam and I got into the triathlon first, I knew all right, I’ve done this. I’ve done an Ironman, I’ve done a half, so I trained up and I was going to do my second half and so I did my second half and took off about half an hour of my initial time. I know I can get myself to a certain level and then I’m going to need to invest in help from somewhere else to get me past that.
I just worked away as much as I could until I thought, all right, I’ve hit a bit of a roof, hit the ceiling and then I’m going to go and get some help from there. And so I cut my teeth again, got a lot of injuries doing too much, doing too fast, all those different types of things. But again, I think hindsight is a wonderful thing, you look back and you go, I made a lot of mistakes, but because of that, it helped me learn a lot throughout that period of time as well. In terms of other things I was doing, like in between that and qualifying for Kona, for me it was anything that I could do that was within the rules of the game, I was prepared to do.
My injuries, if I needed 3-6-10 treatments a week, I’d go and get it and again, I spent so much time at physio and chiro and I joke with my athletes. Now that I have an honorary doctorate in sports physiology because I’ve just spent so many hours with these people learning about how my body works and what I’ve done and how to make it work better and what-not. My chiro, she’s like you should get this bed, it’ll help your back better. So I’d go and spend $2 000 on getting a new bed because it was going to help me sleep better, which was going to help me recover better. For me it was like, tell me what I need to do. I’m not going to leave any stone unturned. That was to the level that I really wanted to get there and it can be consuming. But at the same time I think if it means enough to you, then you’re willing to do the hard yards to get there.
BRAD BROWN: And you did, tell me about the qualification and once you’ve got to that point where it’s in the bag and you go, I’m going. I’m going to Kona. That must have been a pretty cool feeling.
MICHAEL HARVEY: Yeah it was, it was a unique situation because the race I qualified in Japan in 2013, I’d picked that race because of the course itself. I’m a slighter build, so I only weigh, at that stage I was less than 70kg, so quite small. And the hillier course, I found that I was better on the hills on the bike and my swim and run was good. So we picked there and I didn’t realize that I led out of the swim and I led the whole 180km on the bike. But because of the way the course was configured, you couldn’t get any, I guess time checks on anyone or anything like that. It was just sort of go along and it wasn’t until about 10km into the run that I could do a bit of a time check. I was looking at the bib numbers and we actually had a different colored bib for our age group. So I could work out who was who and I got the first time check and it was 16 minutes and I’m like surely that can’t be right, 16 minutes is a long time, you don’t usually get that.
I ran to the next turnaround point, there were two turnaround points, it was like a point to point and you had to do it twice and it was 16 minutes again and I go, I missed the bloke. There’s someone else that’s there, I’ve just not paid attention or they’ve snuck through or something like that. And so I ran again, this time I made it until about 25km into the run and finally this time it was like 16 minutes again. So I’m like yes, I think I’m in first. There’s no one else up the road and so yeah, I really started to then go into a bit of pushing too hard.
It was about don’t lose the spot and so I remember listening to something the year before. Pete Jacobs had won the Ironman over in Hawaii and he talked about how he strategically walked through aid stations to stretch his hip flexes, to stop him from cramping. And so I started just cautionarily stretching my quads and stretching hamstrings, just at different aid stations. Just to hold that in the bag and I held it 16 minutes and it feels like a lifetime ago, but I can still remember it so vividly. It was so fantastic just to sit there, something you’d been working so hard for and the finishers line, I’ve got a bit of a name for myself for the good races. Where I tend to turn on a decent pose, but it’s just raw emotion. You put so much in and to finally have achieved it. It’s just so empowering.
The first Kona experience is about learning
BRAD BROWN: Heading to Kona, did you change much or did you stick to the same formula, how do you approach a race like Kona? Obviously going to Japan, the goal was to qualify, but when you’re going to Kona, you’re racing against the best in the world. Do you go there just to experience it and we’ll take out what we can get? Or do you go to race the thing and see how good you are against the best in the world?
MICHAEL HARVEY: Yeah, in my head at that stage then, I’d sort of decided. I was in two minds, I wanted to go to Kona eventually and do well. Sort of like how I’d done my time to get to Kona. I realized you don’t go there and just generally, some people do, but most people don’t do well straight away. So I sort of gave me a three race thing.
I went out there the first one, just to learn. I spent a month there before the race, just to learn the course and to get used to the conditions. It was that acclimatizing part but for me it was more about just learning the course and being able to be comfortable out there. I’m one of those people, I tend to get quite anxious if I’m not aware of what’s coming up. I like to have all my ducks in a row, which you can’t really do to a certain extent in Ironman because it’s such a volatile event, but at least if you know the course. You know how to pace yourself at different points and expect certain hills, that type of thing.
I went there as a learning curve, a learning experience and that’s what it was for. Obviously to have a great day but not with the expectation of going away with a title or anything like that.
BRAD BROWN: How badly do you want to keep going back?
MICHAEL HARVEY: I went back again last year, I guess I look back at the first Ironman and look back at my two Kona’s and both of them probably been great days. They’ve been big races. The first one I learnt a lot about biking. And looking at my bike setup, again, being lighter, it was windy the first year I was there. So I went back and I was all right. I’ll change bike setup, put more weight on the front wheels so that I had more stability and then went back last year and it was just brutally hot. And I really suffered and still working through the causes behind that, but I think I might actually have had hypernatremia, so my body just started really swelling and retaining water and so I bombed out.
I sat under a marquee on the Queen K at about 17km into the marathon and was lying there next to a guy who was drifting in and out of consciousness, I was like is this out of a movie, what is this? Eventually I decided to get up and I was over there with a number of people that I knew at the time and I thought, I’ve done all the work to get here. As bad as I’m feeling right now and a bit despondent, I’d like to at least finish and to give a bit of support.
Whenever I saw the guys and girls that I knew over there, I’d give them a bit of a cheer, a pat on the back and tell them to keep on going. Just tried to switch the energy rather than being really negative about it, just to be there and enjoy the experience. In terms of getting back, I definitely want to get back. I think I’ve got a few other things, particularly I’ve started my own business this year, so putting a lot of energy into that, as I have done to qualify and I know if I put the energy in the right spaces, things go well.
BRAD BROWN: It must be quite difficult having unfinished business on the Big Island because it’s not like something like that happens in an Ironman just around the corner and you can go back next year and do it. You just pay the entry fee and you’re there, it’s tough, it must be a bitter pill to swallow.
MICHAEL HARVEY: 100% and that’s the thing. You do a lot of soul searching, you can see it in some of the eyes of some of the Olympians. For them it’s worse, every 4 years there and no doubt a lot harder to qualify for the Olympics. But both times I’ve sat back, even if you have a good day, I think you walk away and go all right, that went well and maybe step up next time. But when you really get hammered down, you take a look back and particularly when you qualify and you get there and you’ve had good races to get there, it makes you look at that. At the same time I look at, like I said earlier on, it’s that part of you make mistakes and you grow. And I think for that part, sometimes it can be the better learning experience to really do it bad so you really sit back, whereas if you have that okay race, you might go in a little bit complacent.
It’s something I say to a lot of people when I’m talking to them about doing their first Ironman. I will see a lot of people, if they’ve done the training, they’ve been patient and they’ve not gone in too early, I see a lot of people have really good first
But then they go to number two and they get a little bit cocky, they think they can do it better and they can push a little bit harder or do whatever it is in their second one. Sometimes it’s not as good as their first just because they’ve not respected it as much. Whereas if you’ve been humble, then you look for answers and look for clues as opposed to swanning back in to try and knock everyone out.
What would you tell yourself if you went back in time?
BRAD BROWN: You’re so right, and there’s so many great life lessons that you can learn from an Ironman. That’s why I personally love the sport so much. If you could go back now Michael and talk to the you before you did your first Ironman, what would you tell yourself? what are some of the lessons that you’ve learnt along the way, that you would tell yourself to fast track your journey?
MICHAEL HARVEY: The big one, this is one I stole off, many years ago, Brett Sutton, ‘hurry slowly.’ That would be the biggest one. A lot of people, there’s that patience part of the now, we want to have things now, we want to achieve it now, if we don’t do it now, then we can get really hard on ourselves. And sometimes if you just take that little bit of a back step and take the pressure off yourself, and just accept, all right, if this is what I can do training-wise now and you’re being honest with yourself.
It’s not about making excuses, it’s about going all right, realistically where am I at right now and actually being okay with that, rather than expecting something else and putting pressure on yourself. You’ve got to enjoy what you do and if you enjoy what you do, you’ll do well at it and you’ll continue to do it and therefore you improve. The ‘hurry slowly’ and consistency, if you’re willing to do the yards, you just need to keep showing up to be able to get the results in the end.
BRAD BROWN: Could not agree more. Michael, thank you so much for your time here on The Kona Edge, much appreciated. I look forward to getting you back on to talk about your swim, your bike and your run and we’ll touch on some nutrition as well. But we’ll save that for another time. Thanks for your time today mate.
MICHAEL HARVEY: Thanks very much Brad.