11 October 2007

Kona Blue

Kevin first sent this piece to me a couple of years ago. It's a great story that gives an insight into what motivates people to compete here in Hawaii.

I hope you enjoy it.

Dr. Kevin Purcell, D.C.

There is no place I would rather be than on the big island of Hawaii in October. My love affair with this place started suddenly in 1992; a mix of (1) a very old dream to do the Hawaii Ironman and (2) a chance 1992 meeting with the race while on vacation in Kona. The old dream began in 1980. I had a buddy in professional school (Chiropractic) who was training for Ironman and I’d tag along with him on his easy runs through Griffith Park in Los Angeles. I remember he had a shoe sponsor and his shoes had some whacky waffle patterns on the sole. I had never seen running shoes before. I was running in Converse basketball shoes. With his influence, I wanted to go over to Hawaii and give the IM a go. I think there was 6-8 months left to prepare before the late season event. I was a lifeguard during summers in Santa Barbara County, so when school let out I started to ride my bike 20-25 miles each day over the summer before taking my spot in the tower. We were allowed to swim and run along the beach during work so I logged about 5 miles a day running barefoot in the sand. No qualification was necessary to race in the early days, meaning I could have showed up and taken part; but as the summer ended I found I couldn’t finance the trip. It just wasn’t possible; so I put any idea of IM aside. However, my buddy, Bill McKean, was a 12 year navy SEAL team member and some of his SEAL pals did very well over there in the first couple races. Bill was (and is) one tough dude. He went that year and finished 9th OA on his first attempt at IM. Months later, he was 2nd OA in the Western States 100 in 18:52. Bill is now an excellent chiropractor up near Auburn above Sacramento.

The Hawaii IM dream was on hold. I graduated, was licensed, opened a chiropractic practice in 1982 in San Diego and am still there. I continued to watch IM from afar. I saw Moss crawl, bought Scott Tinley clothing and recall Scott Molina laying down what, at the time, was the 3rd fastest Kona finish on record (8:31) and first place. I gained lots of weight and did zero aerobic training over the next decade.

In October 1992 a friend offered me a promotional package trip to Kona for vacation. I didn’t know the IM was being held there in October. All that and a lot more was about to change. During my vacation we stayed in some blue roofed condos down by the old bike to run transition, The Kona Surf. On the trip, I didn't do much walking. I got around in a golf cart. I drove the little car everywhere, even over short distances. Always one handed as I had a mai tai or beer in the other. One day, cruising through the blue roofed properties while in route to get a newspaper in the hotel next door, I came to a roadside crossing where I had to stop for a long line of runners. I watched them go by. As an ex athlete who competed at a high level in basketball, I had respect for anyone who was able to do what it takes. But in '92, at 230lbs, running wasn't for me! I had no aerobic fitness and was lacking the motivation to run.

That is the place my head was at this day as I watched the runners file by. They all appeared focused and in some degree of discomfort. I asked an elderly lady what the hell they were doing. As she moved past me, she let me know that she had just gotten off her bike (silly man!). Then she growled back over her shoulder in a voice that sounded to me like something off a Black Sabbath album, “IRONMAN”. I was excited. I had stumbled upon the event and the drama I had admired since 1980. I got a vicarious rush that ran throughout my body. I immediately attempted to follow what was left of the 'race'.

It was the back of the pack that found me that afternoon. These athletes are tough and often deal with levels of pain that go with less than perfectly working bodies. I related to their struggle. Had I seen race leaders and eventual winners (Mark Allen and PNF) glide past me I may never had ‘seen’ that this race was possible for me. I parked the cart and I made my way by foot, back toward the finish line as the sun was setting. I saw all shapes, sizes and ages of athletes keep moving forward as the back half of the field made their way to the finish anyway they could. They limped, hobbled grunted and groaned. By the time I reached earshot of the finish area I was totally ROCKED by what I was watching. It was all glow sticks and guts. My adrenaline started to flow as I hurried on to the finish line. I was drawn like Richard Dreyfuss to the Devil’s Peak in Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of The Third Kind”.

When I arrived it got even better. Each athlete that finished was physically wasted – but ecstatic. The announcer called them out by name. He gave their ages and hometowns. The crowd was loud and my eyes misted. My throat ached. I was so happy for the finishers. I can’t explain how moving this was for me. I stood there watching for hours. That night, I vowed to do the race.

It took me six more years to begin _any_ training in 1998. I was unable to muster the strength to make lifestyle changes that would support getting fit. Finally, I realized that I had to give up a part of myself to be whole. I was 230lbs, but it never entered my mind that I had an unusual body for an endurance athlete. In university, as a basketball player, I was used to being one of the smallest people on the court and I guess I still saw myself as unfit but capable. I never considered that I might not be able to finish IM Hawaii – and I thought (wrongly) soon. I borrowed my brother’s bike and started riding and running in an old pair of Asics shoes. I swam in a 20 yard indoor pool – all beginning at 3:00am before work.

The chance meeting at the blue roofed condos and the Ironman was a catalyst for change in my life -- and my families. I dropped fifty pounds, down to 180 and once again became fascinated by health. I studied our sport, listened to and sought mentors. It wasn’t until 2003, eleven years after my vacation encounter and 22 years after Bill McKean’s example that I qualified and raced IM Hawaii for the first time.

I have now done 19 Ironman races all over the world and guide others to their IM goals. I still get a special feeling in and around this sport, specifically the Hawaii IM, Kona and the big island. I don’t think my feelings are unique. My gut tells me that there are hundreds, if not thousands of changed lives as a result of our sport. Here’s to change.


Coach KP specializes in guiding long course triathletes to their goals, both elite and first time Ironman athletes. In the last five years, he has coached over 15 athletes to qualifying spots in Kona (including FPRO 2x). That list includes five international Ironman Age Group wins and an AG podium at IM Hawaii.