We get to share another incredible Ironman World Championship journey today. As age groupers, we all struggle with getting our work/family life balance right but today’s guest has an added issue to deal with. Not only is Chris Montross an incredible athlete (He won the 55 -59 age group at Ironman Kona in 2015) but he has a job that requires him to work erratic hours and involves a LOT of travel. Chris joins Brad Brown on this episode of The Kona Edge to share his Ironman triathlon journey.
BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge, we head across to Miami, Florida, one of my favourite parts of the world, he’s not a Floridian by birth or by residence, he’s actually from California, but he’s in Miami for work purposes at the moment and it’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the show Chris Montross. Chris, welcome, nice to catch up.
CHRIS MONTROSS: Thank you Brad, likewise also, again, I’m very flattered that you reached out and were interested in chatting to me about my experiences.
BRAD BROWN: Chris, I love chatting to Ironman in general and particularly ones who have raced on the Big Island because I think it takes a special kind of person to have that dedication and discipline to do what it takes to qualify and race at the Ironman World Championships.
Your journey into triathlon, we’ll get into how you balance everything cause I’m fascinated by how you do get that right. Your journey into triathlon, can you remember how it first started, where the seed was first planted?
CHRIS MONTROSS: I remember exactly how it was. I’ll be 56 this year, at 52 my wife tried to talk me into a triathlon. Her employer had a triathlon team that went to Southern California to compete in a triathlon that raised money for the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
I initially was very reluctant but I allowed her and my daughter to talk me into triathlon. And later I learnt that before she asked me to start, she had already made a bet with her boss that I would beat everybody on the team. And once I learnt of that, my motivation, there was a switch in my head, my motivation went through the roof and it’s been something I have been passionate about since and that was in 2012.
BRAD BROWN: Does she regret sucking you into that race?
CHRIS MONTROSS: At times she does when I say: hey, it’s your fault, as I head out on a four hour bike ride, but for the most part, she doesn’t mind getting to go to Hawaii every once in a while.
Ironman with a demanding career
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure. Chris, you’re an airline pilot by profession, so there’s a lot of travelling and we’ll talk about how you juggle your schedule. But being an airline pilot, obviously there’s certain things and fitness levels you need to maintain and health levels you need to maintain. Have you always been pretty physically fit and healthy throughout your life, have you always been active?
CHRIS MONTROSS: I’ve always been active. In my early 20’s I thought I had knee and hip trouble, I’m not sure that I don’t, but I kind of don’t want to let that go. But in any event, as such, in my 20’s, 30’s and 40’s I spent a lot of time in the weight room. I’ve tried just about every different type of weight lifting program and regimen but I didn’t do any running, any biking or any swimming for almost 30 years until my wife talked me into doing a triathlon.
I’d always been very fit, I had some cardio, I have a Nordic Track that I wore out. As cardio I did some bike riding, I was kind of off and on on cycling, bike riding. And as I’ve aged, I’ve learnt that what I used to eat as a young man affects me differently as a more mature man and my wife and I have both grown over the years in what we eat and even more specifically, now that I’ve been very active in triathlon. I’m very picky and very finicky about what I eat and I find that that makes a huge difference for me.
BRAD BROWN: Chris, let’s talk about the age thing. You’re in that 55 to 59 age group, there comes a point in your physical activity and physical career when it comes to a triathlon where you can’t go any faster physically. Age starts catching up to you, how do you deal with that part of the sport?
It’s funnily enough a question I get asked quite often because very often we chat to a lot of younger triathletes on The Kona Edge but from your perspective, how do you deal with that as an age grouper in the higher age group categories?
CHRIS MONTROSS: Well, I don’t have the benefit, if you will, of competing at an earlier age where I most certainly would have been faster, being younger. I don’t know that I have completely tapped out my maximum physical ability and maybe perhaps I’m kidding myself, I like to be optimistic in that regard, but I recognize that there will be a decline.
I had hoped that at Kona in past October, 2015, do a sub 10 Ironman, which I didn’t do and I was disappointed with that. Overall the results I am quite happy with and I convinced myself that that may be, under those conditions, on that day, the best that a 55 year old man could have done.
I recognize that it’s going to be just a part of the process but in the meantime, as I’ve said in the past, I feel healthier and more vibrant now than I did at 18, just because I’ve got a better fitness level, a better focus and a far superior diet.
BRAD BROWN: Were you pretty competitive growing up, as a kid? We’ve spoken about some of the things you did do, but have you always had that competitive streak in you?
CHRIS MONTROSS: I have. My father was career navy, so we moved around all of the time. He is from where I live now in Fresno Clovis, California. My mother was from New England, Rhode Island and she had always been very fond of the ocean and the beach. We grew up moving all of the time, always into ocean type communities because my father was career navy and in 1970 I started swimming for the Pearl Harbor swim club and we swam at a pool that’s still there in Pearl Harbor, Richardson pool and it was 25m in length and probably 15 lanes across. And I remember always looking out the sides of my eyes for anybody that was going in the same direction as me and I had to beat them to the wall.
I think that perhaps that’s just the nature of young boys, perhaps maybe that’s something different for me. I don’t think it’s that different, if it is, but I’ve always had a pretty competitive nature, physically.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think to win your age group or to be competitive in your age group at Ironman level you have to have that, you can’t do it otherwise?
CHRIS MONTROSS: That is a huge component of it, in my opinion, if it gets you out of bed or up or out the doors, that you are training. I get a satisfaction out of training that I don’t normally necessarily, at least consciously, translate into being competitive and always, Brad you’ve done it, you’re out swimming, you’re out biking, you’re out running for a long period of time. There are all kinds of thoughts that run through your mind and the competition and doing the best you can are always in the forefront of my mind, so that never escapes me, but I’d say I’m more driven by what my own performance will be and how I will feel.
I’m always afraid I don’t finish a race, so I’d like to get that extra mile in, or just do the distance of the program for the day to know that I can finish that race. That’s a huge goal for me, is to finish the race and never be in a physically dilapidated or run down position where I think: I can’t finish.
BRAD BROWN: I couldn’t agree more but for someone like you who is very competitive, it’s been a few months since Kona 2015, what does it feel like to be the fastest Ironman in your age group in the world?
CHRIS MONTROSS: I don’t know that that has ever really settled in. At times I have, I don’t know, maybe a brief revelation of OMG, that’s a really big deal. And there are many that are familiar with triathlon and Ironman that are more than happy to comment as to the degree or the level of that success, but I can’t say, I don’t feel any different.
My wife and I have always kind of had a little running joke between us that we don’t know how it is that I have had that success because I’ve never felt like a world class athlete. I do put in the miles, the distance and I have the discipline, but to come out on top in Kona, it wasn’t that I had my goal set on that. I wanted to do a sub 10, I thought that would get to the podium. I thought I might be competitive. But I was willing to accept that there are people that I don’t know about that will be there and they want to know when and they’ve got the goods and they’ve got the training and that it just, my limit that day may not be as fast as theirs and it is really fun to win.
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure. You came pretty close in that sub 10, a 10:06:35 in the end with splits of 58:50 for the swim, a 5:21:46 for the bike and a 3:38:05 for the run and prior to this chat we chatted briefly about some of the competition. And you mentioned one of my countrymen actually who finished 4th in Kona last year, James Welsh, a South African who was 10:23, you say you were hoping for a podium, the podiums, you’re pretty much almost half an hour faster than the last podium in Kona. You obviously overshot the mark in 2015 Chris.
CHRIS MONTROSS: Again, that gets to where I think that I train in Fresno, California where we have summer days that are well over 100. In South Africa at that time you’re coming from winter into spring, so I don’t know what the training is there, so I think I had a better acclimation. Just using James as an example, to the heat and I think that could have played a big factor in my successes as being more adapted, more acclimated than others, but those are just totally unknown things.
I think I had the overall training regimen, distance, duration, time and acclimation for it, cause I’m told that it was an extremely hot, hotter than normal for Kona that year and I think that played into, especially as we age, I think that wears greater on us and I think that I just had the background and the environment that catered more to that than others might have had.
BRAD BROWN: Chris, looking at your journey to Kona, making the decision to do an Ironman is a huge decision. You mentioned how you got into the sport and your wife had got you involved, when did you make the decision that triathlon is cool, but I want to do an Ironman?
The step up from sprint triathlons to Ironman
CHRIS MONTROSS: When I started in 2012 I did pretty well. I actually won a triathlon. It was a sprint distance at Shaver Lake in California and I enjoyed it immensely and part of that enjoyment or I would say a bulk of that enjoyment, if you don’t like to train, then the races are just a bonus in my opinion.
You’ve got to like or get satisfaction or something out of the training because it’s a huge time commitment. Energy and effort, as you well know. You’ve got to have that satisfaction, so I enjoyed it so much. I liked the diversity of the activities, that at some point I had decided I would like to buy a TT, a triathlon race bike and they don’t give those away. I thought, well, in my mind, to justify that additional cost, I said, I’ve got to do more races, bigger races where I can really take more advantage of what that bike provides for me.
Part of it was, I was drawn to a lot of the gear and I liked it. I wanted to go faster and part of it, I was drawn to, I’d always been an endurance swimmer, I’ve always had good endurance. I’ve never been very strong, more fast and I had started doing some longer events and it seemed the natural evolution for me, to then try the Ironman. Plus, as a kid growing up, I remember as a kid, late teens, early 20’s, I remember Dave Scott on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I remember the ABC coverage and I thought I was a pretty tough guy and I watched that and thought, I’m not that tough, or at least as tough as they are.
I was born in Hawaii, I started swimming in Hawaii, I have a Pearl Harbor swim club jacket from the early 70’s that I wear when I go there, that I wear on the plane when I go to Kona. And so there was also that natural attraction and the affiliation I have for Hawaii that really drew me, just to Ironman and to get to qualify for Kona, of course, is just icing on the cake. And one more item on top of that is I was in the navy and the founder, John Collins and his wife Judy, he is a naval officer and we are alumni at the same school. There’s all these small components that fit my personality, my background, my experience, that made it seem like such a great fit for me.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, I get sort of gooseflesh hearing the story and those sorts of connections because I often think people are destined to do things and to me it sounds like you were destined to race on the Big Island.
If you could go back and tell that little boy looking at the cover of Sports Illustrated, knowing what you know now, what would you tell him about living life and experiencing that?
CHRIS MONTROSS: I would say and this of course with the hindsight of knowing what I was thinking, I would tell that boy: You may think that that is hard and arduous and it is. You may think that you do not have the fortitude, the discipline, the focus to do that, but you do. You may not find it now, but you will find it and when you do, embrace it.
BRAD BROWN: That’s fantastic. Chris, let’s talk about how you juggle getting all the training in that you need to do, doing what you do for a living.
It’s one thing working a 9:00 to 5:00 office bound job and having a family and being married and clocking in and clocking out and you have to get your training in around that way, but you travel a lot. Obviously because you’re a pilot you’re in different hotels, different cities, how do you get the balance right of having a career like that. But also then having to make sure that your family life is in balance as well and you can get your training in?
CHRIS MONTROSS: For me, clearly as you just stated, the travel is a huge component of my life and my occupation. I have been able to find very suitable training while I am at work, at a layover as we talked about earlier and actually, up until recently, up through the end of last year, I flew pretty might all-nighters. Los Angeles typically to Florida and I knew all the hotels that we stayed at and I knew the training environment there and I would adjust my schedule to the degree that I had control so that I could maximize my training while I was on a trip.
For instance, I would fly all night, say leave Los Angeles at 10:00pm. I would get up and I would train a good portion of the day. I’d fly from Fresno to Los Angeles, I’d get in a nap, fly to Florida, typically Miami, I’d get 6-7 hours of sleep and then I would train and typically that would be swimming on a swim tether in a hotel pool or out for a run or often both and a lot of times then I would add the weight room as well.
I would have the day before I go to work to train. I would train before I went back to Los Angeles to work, I’d get home that night after training in Florida and flying to Los Angeles. I’d get home that night, I’d be right back in the loop at home and train.
So now, I’m trying to fly, pick up more day trips as I am able, we’re a seniority based system, which is kind of tough for my seniority. But I’m trying to get more day trips, so it’s kind of a different routine, so I’m in some different hotels that I haven’t been. But the biggest thing I’ve done this year now is I started working with a coach.
If I missed a rest for Kona or I over trained or under trained I thought, let’s get somebody who knows what they’re doing in here to watch me with all these changes I have in my schedule. Or just your regular schedule, to bring in, to maximize my performance, maximize rest while looking at the big picture of the environment that I have to train in, whether it be work or at home.
That’s a big change for me this year, is working with a coach whereas in the past I had done it just as I described, as I started this conversation.
A coach can make a huge difference to your Ironman performance
BRAD BROWN: How big a difference has working with a coach made? We’re obviously all very different and our needs are different and that’s why I love doing these interviews because one thing I’m learning is that there is no formula for success when it comes to work and family life. Everyone is different and everybody makes it work, are you enjoying working with a coach?
CHRIS MONTROSS: I enjoy it quite a bit. Number one, my workouts were getting a little stale and I could add different things. There’s plenty of literature online for instance, The Kona Edge, that has voluminous amounts of information and it’s a matter of looking at the information and adapting what we can into our routine. My workouts were getting a little stale.
I would try to introduce different things, which I had done. So what I really like now about the coach is that I don’t have the challenge of creating workouts. She knows what my schedule is for the month, for work and then for the year, for racing. She’s making workouts for me, they’re different than what I would have done for myself. So I really enjoy that variety and she is now overseeing my rest, which is much better than I would have done. And I’ve got somebody else now that I can talk to and bounce ideas off of. So far I’m really enjoying it, it’s been really powerful and I’m really excited about it.
BRAD BROWN: Did you find you flogged yourself a bit hard when you were self-coached, you almost felt you needed to do more all the time and maybe didn’t recover as well as you should have?
CHRIS MONTROSS: I think that’s a key part of it. I was always afraid to rest. I would have rest days, but did I do more volume or not, or too much volume or more than I needed, I don’t know. I think though that I didn’t have my, maybe I had it perfect for Kona, I don’t know, 2015, but I think I could have rested a little bit more and maybe done a little bit more speed work.
I’m really excited about a coach and the other thing is, now I have somebody looking over my shoulder, which is a great motivator. And I’ve never trained with Power, so we’re starting to do with that as well as heart rate and so my intensity levels are higher now than I probably would have been doing by myself.
Having her look over my shoulder, the relief from the stress of making my own workouts and adding this intensity that I probably wouldn’t have done, I think are going to be very powerful for me this year and I’m very excited.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to say, how exciting is it, knowing that you came pretty close to that sub 10 in Kona last year, without all the help and the gadgets and the Power and the heart rate and you’ve got all these tools at your disposal now that can really dial it in and make you faster. I don’t think your competitors in your age group want to be hearing this Chris.
CHRIS MONTROSS: I think they’ve got their own program and if they’re gunning for Kona, they’ve got their program and I hope I measure up to them. I’m a year older, there’s always somebody out there. I kind of run scared. I worry about finishing the race, number one and to finish strongly is a very powerful thing for me and you never know who is going to come out of the woodwork. So I train to the best that I can perform and if somebody else outperforms me, then so be it.
Otherwise, I’m going to sit the high bar, I’m going to put in the work and if they still beat me, then I can’t wait to congratulate them, I really can’t.
BRAD BROWN: An Ironman is physically taxing and it does take a lot out of you, how many of these things do you reckon you’ve still got in you?
CHRIS MONTROSS: Good question. I am really enjoying this and as I know you read about Ironman, it’s a lifestyle and it’s a lifestyle that I’ve embraced. It’s been very satisfying for me, it’s filled in, I won’t say a hole in my life, but it’s given my life much more fullness than I would have thought. So I’m really enjoying it.
With winning Kona in 2015, that automatically qualifies you for the next year, Ironman World Championships, so I’m doing that. After that, I will probably back out of Ironman for a little bit, give the body a rest.
I’m looking at doing some XTERRA, some shorter events, for my foreseeable future now. And it’ll probably be spikes as I age up into the next group of where I will continue to do this. I don’t see me not doing it at this point in time. I’m healthy, I have no injuries, nothing debilitating, it’s something I look forward to, so right now I don’t see the end game of this. But I realize there are things that can happen pretty quickly that might change that.
BRAD BROWN: Chris, do you wish you’d got into the sport younger?
CHRIS MONTROSS: You know, that’s a good question. I’d had that thought many times when in 2014 was my first year at Kona and I was fortunate enough at age 54 that I was 4th and the number one and number two guys were talking.
Wolfgang Schmatz had won it in 2013 and he was second in 2014 and I remember him talking about, he’s getting tired and he thinks he might take a break and I couldn’t, I’m standing next to the World Champ and the runner up in male 50-54, Ironman World Champion 2014, I mean I could touch them. They would look me in the eye and talk to me. I was completely overwhelmed, hearing him talk about taking some time off, it kind of planted the seed that at some point in time the volume, the requirements of this can wear you out.
I had seen that earlier, but to answer your question, this is all still new and fresh to me. I don’t have 10 years of doing this, I have barely 5 years, actually this would be the 5th year now that I’ve been doing triathlons, so it’s still really fresh. The question again is, had I been doing this in earlier years, would I feel the same? I don’t know, but I do know that I’m new to it, it’s still really fresh, it’s still really exciting and still very stimulating for me, that I don’t see an ending anytime soon.
Ironman triathlons as an older Age Grouper
BRAD BROWN: This question is sort of two-fold and it’s aimed at the guys and girls who are young, that may be in the 18-24 age group who are thinking of making the step up to Ironman. And maybe guys and girls who are in the same age group or possibly older than you are now that are thinking about doing an Ironman. Would the message be the same to both or would you change it slightly for either?
CHRIS MONTROSS: I would have to say, if you’re drawn to it now, then do it. In Iron Week last year, they had, the Ironman has the All World Athlete Program and I was fortunate enough to qualify for that. And they had a breakfast at Splashers, which is the balcony of that looks right over the finish line for the Ironman World Championships.
I went to that breakfast and I found a table and there were two girls there who I didn’t know but I thought I’d crash the table because they’ve got room. And one of them turns out to be Cherie Gruenfeld and I believe that she has been there 26 times, she won last year at 71, so I mean, if she started when she was, if this was 26 in a row, that would have put her back at 46. And then a girl, Dianna, I don’t remember her last name, she was from Colorado, this was her 11th.
I would say to those people now, if they are interested now, try it, do it, see how it works for them. They have a gap where maybe it doesn’t interest them anymore, so be it, and then maybe they will get re-interested in it again.
Again, I would say my advice to them is, if it’s something that interests you, first off, I would start with a sprint or an Olympic distance and see how you like it and work your way up, rather than just jump right into an But if they have the passion, the motivation and the discipline and they’re excited about it, at whatever age, I would advise them to continue and race it.
BRAD BROWN: Chris, I love stories, particularly guys who started later on in life and interestingly, I haven’t actually shared this on the podcast, but my dad, last year in 2015, at the age of 67 decided he wanted to do an Ironman. He had never done a triathlon in his life and he finished Ironman South Africa at 67 last year.
I was lucky enough to run the marathon with him and help him home and what an incredible experience. I love the fact that the sport is, yes, it’s physically taxing, but if you’re young at heart and you physically are fairly strong, anyone can do this.
CHRIS MONTROSS: I believe that to be the case. I think that we are genetically evolved to do this kind of thing as being a superior endurance species and that we are drawn to it, deep in our genetic coding.
People say, is it fun? I don’t know if ‘fun’ is the right word for it, there is a satisfaction, there is a drive, there’s motivation that I don’t categorize as fun but that huge satisfaction, huge accomplishment. And that is really remarkable for your dad to have never done that and at his age, to jump in and do it because it is, as you have stated and you know personally, an incredibly challenging and difficult physical activity for any human being.
BRAD BROWN: I tend to agree with you too, the training is what really takes it out of you and the day is a bit of a reward. It’s hard and there’s no two-ways about it, but the day is a reward for all the months of early mornings and late night sessions that you’ve put in, in the build up to an Ironman.
CHRIS MONTROSS: There is and you know, I haven’t done it for, I’ve done four Ironman races and only in Hawaii and I kind of regret it. But I always make sure, and I’ve done Kona twice, I’ve been really lucky, and I’ve made sure I’m at the finish line at midnight for those people that maybe they aren’t the fastest there that day. But their drive is no different than the person who won.
I’ve always found that to be very exciting and the program that Ironman has there at midnight is just fascinating. I really enjoy that because I know that when I am racing, I think about those days that I was training and then I try to visualize as I’m training, different parts of different courses and races. So it is, again, it’s that every day, that continuity, that being consistent in your training that really pays huge dividends.
What does Ironman Kona mean to Chris Montross
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Chris, Ironman and now Kona has become a really big and special part in your life. If I say the word ‘Kona’, what do you think?
CHRIS MONTROSS: Yay, let’s go, I want to jump in a pool, I want to get on a bike, I want to run, I get very excited.
It has one meaning to me now, which I realize is, for those in Ironman perhaps it does, for others it doesn’t, but I would say that if I had a heart rate monitor and you said ‘Kona’ to me, my heart rate would go up.
It’s just very stimulating and very exciting for me.
BRAD BROWN: I love that. What do you still want to achieve in the sport? Obviously that sub 10, but is there anything else that you deep down want to achieve in the sport of triathlon?
CHRIS MONTROSS: Boy, there’s a tough question I hadn’t thought about. I would like to be able to continue at a pretty high level and to compete still. I really enjoy that.
This year I’m doing two halves, plus Kona, and then a bunch of local triathlons, sprint and Olympic. But in the sport of triathlon, you know, just being very generic, vaguely ambiguous because I haven’t given it much thought. But to be able to continue to race and to actually race, to be competitive for another year would be fantastic for me.
BRAD BROWN: Chris Montross, it’s been amazing catching up. I think your story is truly inspiring, congratulations on the win in 2015, an incredible performance and we look forward to following your progress to Kona in 2016 and we’ll be keeping fingers crossed that that sub 10 is on the cards.
CHRIS MONTROSS: Thank you Brad, again, I’m honored and flattered that you sought me out with a message for the interview and any time I can help, in any fashion, I’m always open, I’m passionate about triathlon and I’m passionate about triathletes and Ironman.