The teaching triathlete – The Ben Fuqua Ironman Kona Story
Teacher, coach, athletic coordinator and triathlete. Ben Fuqua shares his Ironman story and chats about how to balance it all and maintain important relationships.
We also find out how to deal with the post-Kona blues.
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BRAD BROWN: We head to Texas now to catch up with our next guest here on The Kona Edge and it’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the podcast Ben Fuqua. Ben welcome. Thanks for joining us.
BEN FUQUA: Thanks for having me.
BRAD BROWN: Ben, we were talking just before we got recording that you are not a native Texan. You’ve been implanted there. You went from California to Texas. What a change.
BEN FUQUA: I know, right. I’m originally from Los Angeles and then moved to Texas for university.
BRAD BROWN: And you stayed.
BEN FUQUA: Yes I stayed. I liked it.
BRAD BROWN: What is it that you like about Texas? It’s so different to LA, I’m sure.
Weather conditions for year round Ironman training
BEN FUQUA: I think I was just in Los Angeles my whole life and was ready for something different. It’s just a little bit of a different culture out here. The people are really friendly and nice. I enjoyed school and my friends and my job and figured I would stay.
BRAD BROWN: Climate wise, for triathlon, is it good?
BEN FUQUA: Yes, right now it’s really hot. That’s the only thing, it can get really hot. But there’s really not much of a winter so you can train almost year round which is great.
BRAD BROWN: That’s fantastic. Let’s talk about your sporting background. I’m taking it you’ve pretty much been active your entire life. Sporting background, what have you done? What do you come from?
Take your lead in sport from your parents
BEN FUQUA: Both my parents were athletes. My dad wrestled and my mom played volley ball and so I grew up in a very athletic family. My sister, who is a year younger than me, her and I grew up playing everything. Basketball, football, swimming, not a ton of swimming though. Wrestling, basketball, soccer, volleyball, all kinds of stuff and so we were always doing sports and we were active growing up.
BRAD BROWN: Were you any good at any of them?
BEN FUQUA: I was good. Funny enough the sport that I was really good at was golf and I had an opportunity to play at college level and just didn’t want to anymore because I was just burned out. So I decided to move to Texas and just go to school and not play sports in college. That’s kind of where things started.
BRAD BROWN: From a college perspective, what did you end up doing?
BEN FUQUA: As far as my academics?
BRAD BROWN: Yes.
Work keeps you physical for triathlon training
BEN FUQUA: I majored in History with a focus on teaching and that’s what I’m doing now. I’m a teacher and a coach. I’m also the athletic coordinator at my school for all the girls sports and I coach the girls’ cross-country and track teams at the school where I’m at.
BRAD BROWN: So all pretty physical from an athletic point of view, work wise as well. Does that give you some freedom to get in your own training or is it pretty tight? You’ve got a lot of extra murals and that sort of thing?
BEN FUQUA: You know, every year you get a little more put on your plate at work but it’s been really good. I love my job, I love the people that I work with and I love the girls that I coach. So really, it’s a great environment to be in as far as training. Having the summers off and having longer breaks is really nice.
A good support system allows improved Ironman training
My academic bosses and my coaching bosses have all been really supportive of me training and racing, so that’s been something that I’m really grateful for. It’s been a great situation for me the last several years.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about your venture into triathlon. Obviously you’ve done lots of stuff athletically, various sports. When did triathlon come onto the radar for you?
BEN FUQUA: At the end of college. I had gained some weight.
BRAD BROWN: As we do.
BEN FUQUA: I know, I was eating badly.
My dad ran a marathon when I was young and we would watch the Ironman broadcast growing up, in December every year. It wasn’t really a big thing for me. I just always thought that was really cool.
A few of my friends and I thought we should really do a triathlon so we signed up for a little sprint race. I didn’t even own a bike so I bought a cheap bike on Craigslist and got a little road bike and did a race without any training or anything. It was incredibly difficult.
Being sucked in after one race
It was very humbling even at a sprint distance but I just loved it. I thought it was so cool, I loved watching the people who were obviously deeper into the sport and more fit. I just thought it looked fun and something that I could really sink into and get into. And I kept doing sprints and getting a little bit better; training a little bit more and then kind of took it from there.
BRAD BROWN: Was it after that first one you got sucked in good and proper?
BEN FUQUA: I would say yes. I didn’t know what I was getting into but I thought “man I want to do this. This is something that I would like to keep doing”. All my other friends were like one and done but I was definitely in. I wasn’t thinking Ironman, I was thinking I want to do another sprint and do better.
I would go up a distance and get my butt kicked and then want to do better. Would do a little bit better and think about the next distance up and the same kind of process would play out.
BRAD BROWN: When did you realise you were fairly good at it, that you had some ability?
Getting better at each Ironman event
BEN FUQUA: I think the first time I was at about 5-and-a-half-hours Ironman, I thought “I’m kind of on the border here being good or being average”. And that winter I really trained hard and got focused on my diet and I came back about 6 months later and took 35 minutes off my time and qualified for the World Championships for the half distance.
And that was the first time, it was in New Orleans, and I was like “man, I think I’m pretty good at this”. That was after 6 months of really serious training. It was fun.
BRAD BROWN: Was it across the board? You say taking 35 minutes off a half Ironman time, that’s pretty good especially when you’re on the front end of the field. Was it across the board that you improved or was it in certain disciplines more than others?
BEN FUQUA: Going from 5 hours to 4:20 or whatever it was. It was a huge improvement in my bike and run. My swim was never really that bad, I’ve always been a pretty good swimmer. But my bike and my run improved significantly.
Shedding excess weight improves Ironman time
Over that winter I invested in a bike trainer and just saw really big gains on the bike. Then on the run as well, I picked up my training as far as the intensity and the mileage and saw a big improvement there as well. And eating clean. I probably lost 10 pounds and that helps.
BRAD BROWN: It’s amazing what a big difference that makes. So many people are spending a few extra hundred bucks because they want to take a few ounces off a set of wheels but if they lay off the cheese burgers that would make a big difference.
BEN FUQUA: Exactly and again, I didn’t go crazy. I still go out with my friends and have a beer and go get a burger. But I try to be really good with my diet Monday through to Friday. And try to really nail it and be disciplined so that on the weekends there’s no guilt there and I go have a fun time with my friends so that’s good.
BRAD BROWN: As far as making the step up to the full Ironman distance, it’s one thing making the jump from the sprint to an Olympic distance or from an Olympic to a half. But there’s something psychotic about a full Ironman distance. It’s big.
Ironman distance is not for everyone
BEN FUQUA: Yes it’s a big jump. The first Ironman I did was in 2011. It was at St. George, Utah when it was still a full distance. They only did that race for 3 years at the full distance because it was really difficult. I finished the race but it was not a great experience for me and I thought man this full distance is not for me.
I was glad I did it and glad I finished but after doing that I kind of came back down to earth and was like okay I’m just going to really focus on the half Ironman distance here for a while. And it took a good 5 years for me to even think about doing another full. It was good because I focused on the half distance for a long time and had some good results come my way from some good training. But yes, it took 5 years for me to do another full Ironman after St. George.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me about that first experience. Why was it so rough? Was it lack of training; was it you went in expecting something else? Tell me about that.
Do the distance to know how it feels
BEN FUQUA: Yes part of it is my fault. I didn’t train as well as I should have but some of that was just me not knowing. Being very young in the sport, it was my 2nd year in triathlon so it wasn’t like I’d been doing it a long time. I just think until you do that distance you don’t understand what it feels like to be out there that long.
But like I said the swim was fine. I wasn’t concerned about the swim but the bike just tore me up. That course in St. George that they had it was just ridiculous. The amount of climbing and the heat and the wind, it was very humbling and then you have that crazy, horrible feeling of getting off the bike and you have 26 miles to run. It was just a shuffle, jog, walk, shuffle, jog, walk for 6 hours or something.
It was just a hard course and I wish they still had it because I would probably be interested in just going back. But it was a humbling experience of like wow, that’s a really, really hard race. Enough to where I didn’t want to do again for a long time.
BRAD BROWN: As humbling as it is, finishing your first one is pretty special.
Sharing special achievements with special people
BEN FUQUA: Oh yes, it was great. I had my parents there and some friends there, and my grandma was there. It was a great experience to finish it, a great accomplishment but it was definitely very humbling at the same time.
BRAD BROWN: Can you remember time wise and split wise what you did in that first one?
BEN FUQUA: Oh yes. The first one I went 13:57 and my goal was 12 hours and at the athlete meeting 2 days before, they told everybody whatever your goal time is add 2 hours because this course is ridiculous. So I said well I guess if they are telling me to add 2 hours, I guess I want to be under 14 hours. So I was really happy with 13:57 for where I was at, at that time. It was an eye opening experience that’s for sure.
BRAD BROWN: Ben you’re going to make so many people on this podcast really happy because I get tons of emails from people saying it’s amazing we hear people in their first Ironman going sub-10 and they think they can never make it to Kona. I’m quite chuffed; my first Ironman was quicker than yours so I’m pretty chuffed about it.
BEN FUQUA: There you go. Well, in my first half Ironman I was 6:20.
Focus on shorter distances for a while
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible. Then you mentioned growing up and watching Ironman Kona on TV. When did it become a goal for you? You had obviously raced World Champs half Ironman distance once you had made the step up again after that 5 year hiatus on the long ones. When did Kona pop up and go you know what I want to do that.
BEN FUQUA: I really focussed on half Ironman distance for 5 years, and saw big improvements and was getting on the podium and really racing and understanding what it felt like to race at the front of a race. It was exciting for me going to Mont Tremblant for the Worlds for 70.3 in 2014.
My rear derailer shifter broke at mile 5 on the bike so I couldn’t shift. So I had a frustrating race with bike malfunction and then qualified for the next year in Austria. That was the first time going to a World Championship race that I was like “I think I’m going to have a really great race”.
Taking on a revenge race when things go wrong
I had a good swim, had the bike right where I wanted and thought I was going to have a great run. In the first mile I started throwing up which still to this day, is the first and only time I’ve thrown up in a race. And of course it was in Austria, like the furthest place from anywhere that I had been. So that was really frustrating for me because I felt like going into that race I was ready.
I came back to the States and signed up for Austin 70.3 which was about 6 weeks later just for kind of a revenge race and I felt like I had worked really hard for the fitness for Worlds and I didn’t get to use it like I wanted. But I had a great race in Austin.
I was 3rd amateur and won my age group by I think almost 10 minutes. That was really vindicating for me after feeling kind of robbed at Worlds in Austria. That was the first time that I thought I’m ready to give it a go for a real Ironman race. And so about a month after Austin I signed up for Ironman Texas, it being local.
I thought if I qualify for Kona I get to save a little bit of money as far as the qualifying race and I had a lot of friends doing it. I had a lot of friends that had good course info for me and it was in my home state. So I trained really hard from the fall all through the winter and early spring and had a great race in Texas. It was awesome.
BRAD BROWN: How did that 2nd one go? Tell me, split wise, the improvement must have been massive.
When racing feels like racing
BEN FUQUA: Oh it was huge. I swam right in an hour which I was very conservative. I was trying to really be smart with the swim and not go too hard so I was right in the hour.
That was the year with all the flooding that they shortened the bike from 112 to I think it was 95 miles. But the course was difficult because I think there was something like over 100 turns on the course, or something like that. So it was a difficult day and it was just kind of this feeling about halfway, like 50 miles into the bike where I thought this is a good day. I feel really good. And I just tried to keep my speed and my place in the field on the bike.
Everybody wonders what it is going to feel like getting off the bike because it was really starting to get hot and really humid like it does there at that race before they moved it back to April. I got off the bike and my legs just felt amazing. I had a great run in the heat. I ran a 3:10 and got 4th in my age group. My age group was stacked that year. There were some really good guys in my age group that year. I think 5 of the top 10 amateurs were in my age group.
Your Kona training should be exciting
So I was really happy that I got 4th there in my age group and qualified for Kona. It was a different type of Ironman. I felt like I was racing the whole time instead of just surviving.
BRAD BROWN: And obviously having that good experience, wanted you to come back for more.
BEN FUQUA: Exactly. I was pumped for Kona and I was a little frustrated with the course being short because I wanted to know what my real time was. I’ve heard a lot of people say add about 40 minutes to whatever your time was there and I went 8:18 which was a great time. But it also kind of plays with you because that’s 8:58 if you add 40 minutes. And then you add the oh man, could I have gone sub-9 there which you know sub-9 is like the holy grail, for amateurs at least. It was a great day but I felt really excited about Kona because I really wanted to see what my Kona time is. So I was excited to train for it.
BRAD BROWN: If I say the word Kona, what do you think of?
BEN FUQUA: Hot. I think of really, really hot. I have never experienced heat like that before, it’s unbelievable.
Dealing with the wicked heat of Kona
BRAD BROWN: That scares the living daylights out of me. If someone from Texas thinks that Kona is hot, then we’re in trouble I think.
BEN FUQUA: I had a great race at Ironman Texas which a lot of people think is a good tester for Kona. Living in Dallas, it’s really hot and I was doing some training outside. You don’t want to do too much because it just kills you. But I was doing some good training outside and felt really good and felt almost like an unfair advantage.
But as soon as you land in Kona the heat and humidity is just so wicked. It hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s just so different to anything else.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the experience of the big island, did you soak it all in. Did you take part in all the sideshows or were you pretty focused on race day?
Avoid nervous energy when you get to Kona
BEN FUQUA: I was pretty focused. I didn’t do the underwear run which I wanted to do. My flight got in late and I had to go get my bike, just kind of do scheduling stuff. So I didn’t want to overload my schedule too much. I stayed pretty focused.
I mainly hung out with my family and friends that were there and we got a house up on the mountain away from all the noise and heat. We spent a lot of time away from all the noise but I typically do that at all races.
I don’t like to hang around all the busyness and all the nervous people. I did soak it in a little bit and got to take some good pictures and walk around but honestly it was just so hot I was kind of scared of overexerting myself. It was funny and sad at the same time because people would go on these training rides 2 days before the race, just crushing it. I was like, what are you doing?
There’s just a lot of nervous energy there. You can just feel it. It’s so tense before the race and I’m not a tense or nervous person so I was out. I did not want to be around it. I tried to stay away.
Racing against the best in the world
BRAD BROWN: Ben tell me about your race. Tell me about that experience of racing against the best in the world all on the same course, on the same day.
BEN FUQUA: It was great. I loved the wave start because you know where you’re at the whole day. That was something at Ironman Texas that was hard because it’s a self-seeded swim so you don’t really know where you’re at but I loved the wave start. The swim was incredible. The water is just amazing. Being around that many people in the water is cool after it kind of settled down. The swim was awesome.
The first 20 miles of the bike are just so scary and hectic because everybody is just flying through town but you get to see people and you get to see your family as you zoom by and all that stuff which is fun. But once you get out on the Queen K, it was unbelievable.
Kona winds will play tricks with your mind
I remember I went over this one hill. Just a kind of a roller and you got to the top of this hill and it was the first time that the real wind hit you and I was like oh wow. I looked down at my Garmin and I had like 80-something miles left and I was like wow, this is going to be a long day. And I remember trying to soak it in but also feeling a little concerned because usually the wind doesn’t kick up until you get to Hawi, at least my experience is it got really windy on the Queen K this past year. Honestly the climb to Hawi, in my opinion was not that bad.
I felt kind of like let down in a way because it wasn’t that crazy but that whole time on the Queen K was just incredibly tense for me. It was hot, it was windy. People were starting to really bonk in a big way and you see people bonk on the bike and all you can think of is please, don’t let that happen to me.
I wanted my bike to be around 5 hours, or a little under but the wind was really playing with me. So I biked a 5:07 which I wasn’t mad about, I wasn’t happy about. It was just kind of right there, in the middle.
Keep going forward, don’t stop
But my back was super tight from just trying to stay aero in the wind. Got off the bike and I was just hoggling. It was the opposite of Ironman Texas. I was just limping and could barely stand up straight and within the first mile I stopped, which I never do, I never stop. That’s just my thing, I never stop to walk and I just stopped dead in my tracks in the first mile. I found a telephone pole and kind of hugged it. Tried to stretch out my back. Went to the bathroom and tried to relax for a couple of seconds. I had somebody come over and ask me if I was ok which also, was a new experience.
The back started to loosen up and I started to jog and that was kind of the last of the back problems for the day. Then I had a great run, started to make my way up to the field in the first 10 miles but once I got out to the Queen K it was just kind of that same experience of you get away from your family, you get away from all the people and it’s just quiet and hot and windy and people are really suffering.
But there is a part of that which I really liked because watching the broadcast growing up you see those pictures and those videos of just the suffering. And I had a couple of moments there where I was like man; I’m in it right now.
Even the pros suffer
It was kind of a cool experience just to look around and see the pros running the other way and seeing them suffering too, made me feel really good because it was just kind of a weird connection to something you’ve always thought about. I know for me growing up I was like Oh I’m never going to be there, and then you’re there. So it was really cool.
But I had a good run. I ran 3:17 and it ended up I think I was 50 something in my age group but I was top 10 American Amateur overall which I was really happy about. That was kind of a goal I had that I didn’t tell a lot of people about but being Top 10 Amateur American overall, I was pretty happy with that. To think there’s 10 people in the country who are in that group and I’m one of them. So I was pretty pumped about that.
BRAD BROWN: That’s awesome. As far as the feeling, do you feel like you’ve got unfinished business on the big island?
BEN FUQUA: I really don’t. I know some people will probably yell at me when they listen to this but I really don’t. I didn’t do it to start a trend of wanting to go back every year. I really respect that race.
Can you sacrifice that time commitment?
I just don’t know if I have the time in my life right now to train to beat 9:30. Like you said there’s some freaks out there that can just go 9:05 every year in Kona but I feel like 9:30 was my very best on that day in October last year. I think I can beat 9:30, I’m confident about that. But I don’t know if I want to. The time commitment and the amount of things you have to do to get there with where I’m at in life right now, I just don’t think it is going to happen. So I’m focusing on the half distance again and having a lot of fun.
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting you say that because I get exactly what you’re saying. You know deep down that you can go better but it comes at a cost and is that cost worth it for you right now and the answer is no, I think.
BEN FUQUA: Yes and you don’t know the costs until you do it. It’s easy for people to say oh, I would do Kona every year. But it’s like well okay. It’s really expensive; it takes a lot of time, a lot of investment.
Kona commitment comes at a cost
You miss out on a lot of things if you want to focus like that. I had a great experience doing that one time. I had a great race that I was really happy with and that’s enough for me.
BRAD BROWN: Are you pretty satisfied that if you never go back you’re satisfied that you’ve done it.You’ve qualified and you got to race. You’re cool with that?
BEN FUQUA: Oh yes. I can honestly say that if I never went back to Kona I would not have any regrets which make it a lot easier to have that feeling. I’m really glad that I had a good race and I was in the upper part of the amateur race and felt that way during the race and felt like I was being competitive at racing people and not just surviving.
Give it a rest when you’re not sure
And I think being Top 10 American Amateur was a big deal for me. It might not be a big deal for other people but it was a big deal for me and it was definitely something where I felt like I could walk away from Kona and never do it again and be totally happy with it.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk some gear if we can. Across the 3 disciplines, from a swimming perspective tell me what you use wet suit wise, goggles wise. You mentioned that you’re focusing a bit more on the half Ironman distance now, what is still left for you to achieve Ben? What are some of the goals you are working towards right now?
BEN FUQUA: I did Ironman Buffalo Springs 70.3 a couple of weeks ago and had a good race there. I actually tied for second overall which was kind of funny. Me and the other guy ran the exact same time but I missed out on winning by 18 seconds and I didn’t know it at the time but me and this guy that I was running with, we didn’t know we were in first and second place just because it was a wave start.
How to get through the post-Kona blues
I would like to be top amateur at a race but it’s not something that I’m super focused on. I don’t know though, that’s a really good question and I’ve actually had a lot of good conversations with different close people in my life about what I want in the future because I don’t know.
It’s definitely interesting, I don’t know if you’ve heard this term of the post-Kona blues but it has definitely kind of played with me a little bit. I don’t know, we’ll see.
I’m not going to be able to race Chattanooga this year just because of work commitments so that’s not on the radar which I actually enjoyed. The last 4 years has been nothing but focusing on World Championship races so it’s kind of nice to not focus on something like that right now and just train because I like it. But I don’t know, it’s a good question, I’m still trying to work on it and figure it out.
BRAD BROWN: Well seeing as you’re taking World Champs off in 2017, put 2018 on your radar. It’s on my back yard in Port Elizabeth in South Africa. It makes for a good holiday if anything, so make sure you qualify, come out and have a pretty good time.
BEN FUQUA: Yes, we’ll see.
Plan in your recovery days
BRAD BROWN: Ben as far as getting work life balance right, you said your employers from an academic and sporting perspective have been good to you allowing you to train and race. How do you get the balance right from a, not just work and training, but also social life? I’m not sure if you’re married. How do you get that family life and training and work in your life right?
BEN FUQUA: It’s something that’s always changing. It’s not something that I feel like I’m ever perfect at but I try to keep a good balance. Like I said I try to be really focused in my training Monday to Friday. I really don’t train much on a weekend which I know is different to a lot of people around the world.
I try to focus Monday through Friday for that specific reason of having days to recover and having days to spend with friends and family and just not train. Sit on the couch and do nothing if that’s what it comes to. I think it’s really important to remember that triathlon is a hobby and it’s a fun thing to do with your life but I try not to get too obsessed to where it’s not fun.
Workouts are not more important than relationships
I’ve been there before where you get upset if you miss a workout or you get upset if something at work happens toward you missing something that you think is important. I feel like I can say confidently that after being in the sport for 8 or 9 years at different levels of racing, there’s no workout that’s worth giving up time with somebody you really want to hang out with that’s really important to you. Whether it’s a loved one or a friend or a co-worker, whatever.
I’ve learned that training is important but your relationships are a lot more important. So I try to keep that balance and it’s funny because in the last couple of years I’ve really tried to do better at not being so focused on training and not so rigid with my diet. And I’ve actually gotten faster and I feel like it’s important to have that mental happiness because I think it helps you be a better athlete, and not just the training. It’s been a good experience for me.
Mental happiness helps you be a better athlete
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting you say that because the mental side of it does play a big part. Yes, the sport of Ironman is very physical but it’s easy to become mentally burnt out or mentally fatigued where as much as your body is responding to the training if your heads not right you’ve got no chance.
BEN FUQUA: Yes, and that was something even a few weeks ago in Buffalo Springs, I trained for the race and I did not give it a half-hearted effort. I trained and did what I knew I needed to do but it was definitely less training and less focus and less rigid focus on diet. But I felt happier than I’d ever been before and I had a 6 minute PR. I look at that as something very tangible that the happier you are, I think the more capable you are of having a great race.
Don’t miss out on things in your life
So I think having that balance is an important part of that because if you’re just training and training and training, you’re going to miss out on things that can help balance out your life and that’s something that I don’t want to miss out on.
BRAD BROWN: I dig that perspective. Ben it’s been awesome catching up. I look forward to chatting about the individual disciplines but we’ll save that for the next podcast. Thanks for joining us today.
BEN FUQUA: Awesome, thank 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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