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One Man's Dream - Clifton's Road to Kona
Written October 11, 2018, 2 days before the Ironman World Championship 2018; Updated February 1, 2019

I have thought about writing this post for the better part of the past decade. I have written it in my head a dozen times, but it's hard to put words onto paper the billions of thoughts that have gone through my head the past 14 years. That's how long it has been since I raced my first long course triathlon. If we go further back to 2003 at my first triathlon, that's probably when the tri bug really bit me. I didn't know how to swim properly - sure I could "not drown", but I didn't know proper stroke or breathing technique. I had just purchased a road bike that year but had come from a running background, so what do I know right? My best friend from childhood roped me into a sprint triathlon near Houston and it didn't take long for me to find the love of this new sport. After all, you NEVER get bored with three sports. You get to swim, bike, run, strength train, AND figure out proper nutrition for all three sports at the same time.

As a kid without cable TV, I never really got to grow up watching the airing of the Ironman World Championships on NBC each year. We were lucky to pick up one channel from a city 90 miles away that was an NBC affiliate. It wasn't until probably 2003 or so until I had ever even heard of Ironman. Heck, one year earlier, I didn't even know the sport existed. What kind of insane person wants to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, and then run a marathon on the same day? Turns out that I am one of those insane people. I have always enjoyed racing triathlons, but it wasn't until I started running marathons in 2002 and doing long course triathlon in 2005 that I REALLY found my passion in sports. I grew up playing football, baseball, running track, and lifting a lot of weights - almost every single day. I was never the greatest athlete, nor the fastest, but I could exercise for hours and hours and hours. It was not uncommon to practice football from 4-7 PM each day and then go lift weights for another 1-2 hours. I found peace in pushing the limits of the body, in my time lifting weights listening to Pearl Jam, Metallica, Stone Temple Pilots, Nirvana...oh the list is long my friends, and never had issues doing the conditioning at the end of practice. I was never the fastest, but man I would always lead the charge when we ran snakes. My peers would be tossing cookies and dying while I was able to just keep running in full pads. Little did I know that this endurance would turn into a full blown obsession of mine years down the road.

In the early years, we lived in a small town with no swimming pool, but we had a lake. I started my triathlon swimming as early as I could get into the lake to do my laps around the designated swimming area. This was pretty much May-September until I got a wetsuit. Then I was able to last a little longer, but never raced much beyond September or earlier than May back in the first couple of years. Once the move to Austin happened, swimming became a full blown passion of mine as I had ample places to train in the pools year round. I was fortunate enough to run into a guy in early 2009 at my local pool that started helping me with my stroke. We swam together about 4-5 times per week until he moved and started coaching a local high school swim team and was unable to get there early mornings. That was probably 2016 and I still miss swimming with Dean. He taught me so much that I can never repay him for being such a great swim partner all those years. Most of our workouts were "written" in our heads on the fly each day. Every day was different, and rarely did we swim the same sets. In the past 12 months, I have taken my swimming passion to a new level and am truly finding peace in the water more now than ever. So many triathletes just "get by" in the water so they can go hammer the bike and run. Things really changed for me over the years and I absolutely love my time in the pool now. Thanks Dean, you are truly my swim hero!

The "early years" of cycling for me were built on farm to market roads in the Heart of Texas where chip seal is a way of life and your aid stations are convenience stores in the nearest town. It was not uncommon for a group of us to go ride from Brady to Menard to Mason and back to Brady. Each town was a chance to refill our bottles and top off calories for the next 30-50 miles. You may be on roads where you don't see a single car, but maybe a tractor or two. Roads where you would be riding in the heat of the summer that would be so hot and quiet, all you hear are the jumbo grasshoppers jumping through your wheels and dying by the slice of your spokes. A pretty serious crash in my first year of cycling at the Houston to Austin MS150 left me with a giant fear of crushing my skull on the pavement - helmet cracked in 17 places when I landed ON my head. My cycling has come a very long way in the past 15 years and more from a runner that rides a bike to a guy that can hold his own in most bike courses. I used to be the guy that would come out of the water late, pace an okay average on the bike, and then run like hell to catch up and pass as many people as I could. Now, I'm probably a slightly above average swimmer, feel pretty solid on the bike, and am still running about the same as I did 15 years ago.

So how do you take a guy that tries not to drown in the pool, a guy that doesn't know the difference between a road bike and a mountain bike, but a guy that can run a sub 3 hour marathon and turn him into a triathlete with a dream? The best recipe is someone that has some OCD and Type "A" issues with a highly addictive personality that has loved sports and fitness since he was a young kid jumping bikes on homemade ramps at home or swimming in rivers as his parents would paddle the canoe downstream for a 3 day trip. He loves fitness, he loves water, and he loves to run. To add recipe for disaster, throw in a couple of guys in 1978 that decided to invent something called "IRONMAN". You may as well be pouring gasoline on the flames for me. Most people get tired of training for long course racing and "retire" from that distance after several races. Maybe it's a span of 3-5 years, maybe they raced longer for 7-9 years, but there are a select few of US that just don't seem to lose our passion for the sport and the distance. I know it's hard to believe but going out on a 5-7 hour bike ride on a Saturday in 110 degree Texas heat and humidity is a really fun day for me. Getting up to run at 4 AM to avoid that same Texas heat the following day can be exhausting, but nothing will change my mind when I'm rounding out mile 18 of a long run and see the sun rise over the horizon and know that God has given me another day on His planet.

I have been fortunate enough to race 8 marathons, 8 half marathons, 20+ half Ironmans, and 13 full Ironman races - and countless short course triathlons, 5ks, 10ks, and other races. Where does it stop? When is "enough"? What is the top of the sport? How long are you going to do this? These are questions I get asked often. These are things I don't know answers to, well, except for one. Top of the sport, that's the Ironman World Championship. Several years ago, I qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, Florida and raced it. I have qualified a few times since then, but the locations change for that event and frankly haven't interested me on those years that I qualified. The Ironman WC is a bit different. It's held in Kailua Kona Hawaii every October. I won't go into the history of this event, but it recently turned 40 and Hawaii is where Ironman was born. You can read more here as well. What started with only a few has grown to almost 2500 athletes jumping into the ocean to start their 140.6 mile journey the second Saturday in October every year. This is one of the only sports in the world where normal John Doe's like me can race against professional athletes. Yes, pros! They do this for their job, to pay the bills, and their athletic ability is like nothing you have ever seen before. For the rest of us that WANT to race the World Championship event, we have to qualify. That means I must race some other full distance Ironman event around the world and place in the top 1-5 men in my 5 year age group. When I first started, I thought this MIGHT be feasible. With each passing year, I'm finding this more and more difficult as more and more incredibly gifted athletic men enter our sport with a single goal of qualifying for the IMWC every year. As I stated before, I'm not athletically gifted, but I'm probably slightly above average. I have finished in the top 10 a few times, the top 20 MANY times, and even broken the 10 hour barrier. The problem is that a top 10 finish doesn't get you to Hawaii. A top 10 finish is almost like the saying "2nd place is the first loser". In baseball terms, "JUUUUUSTTTT a bit outside!" The margin of error is very small when it comes to racing Ironman. The smallest of errors can cost you the biggest on a race that takes 8-17 hours to complete by human standards. While I continue to believe that I can qualify for the IMWC, that dream has not yet happened for me. It's gonna take the perfect day in the perfect conditions. While 2018 was really shaping up to be that day, a health scare during the marathon of my big race really crushed that dream. In 2018, I had 2 pretty good races with one being on the podium and another missing the podium by 1 position leading into my big race in September. A cancelled swim possibly derailed the day for me b/c it altered the entire game plan (nutrition, pacing, warmup, etc.). The bike went great. The run fell apart with some breathing issues for 23.2 miles and ended the day with a very slow marathon (for my standards anyway).

How do you describe to someone how big a dream this is that may never happen? Thousands of age group athletes start Ironman races around the world every year with the goal of qualifying for Kona and very few succeed. Nearly my entire adult life has always had one eye focused on chasing this dream and knowing that it may never happen.

Many years ago, World Triathlon Corporation (owning company of the Ironman brand), had a lottery drawing every year where people could pay to have their number thrown into a hat and possibly win a chance to race the IMWC. Long story short, they were taken to court and ended the lottery and with it, my one real chance to ever race in Kona. A few years later, they created the Legacy program. You ONLY have to complete 12 Ironman full distance races anywhere in the world, have never raced the IMWC before, and you can have your name put on a waiting list to race in Hawaii. When your name is called up, you "GET" to pay for race entry and toe the starting line in Kona in October. You have to perform certain eligibility requirements like continuing to race 70.3 and full distance Ironman sanctioned races, but you will get the chance to race in Kona at least once in your life. Depending upon who you ask, there are a lot of people that will frown on this sort of thing. "You didn't EARN your starting line position b/c you didn't qualify." "I busted my butt to qualify for IMWC and you just raced a lot of times and they let you in?" I could go on and on with negative comments and questions that people will give you. I was always of the impression that it's the Ironman World Championship and despite how you get there, the organization that owns it believes you have some right to be there and race the best in the world on that day. The same argument could be said for the uber rich people that pay money on ebay for a slot to race. There are other ways to get into the race and they all get their fair share of negative responses from the athletes that qualified.

Why is this important? It's important b/c I have been doing this since 2003, racing long course since 2005, and racing full distance Ironman events for over a decade and despite coming close, I'm not really sure if I will ever qualify. This could very well be my only chance in my entire life to race the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kona Hawaii. I have been informed that my name has been called to race in October 2019. Yep, you read it right. I'm still pinching myself as I just can't believe it either. Did they make some mistake? They will send out registration details in the coming months, but for now, I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that I might actually get to race in Hawaii. My head is spinning with all the research that I need to do between now and October 2019. Who do I talk to? Who can help me with inside knowledge? Why does this feel SO different than any other Ironman I have ever trained for? Why do I feel guilty about this - probably b/c I didn't "qualify", and all the Debbie downers are leaking their negative thoughts into my head. Realistically, I feel 100% like I qualified for this race. I have put in my time and dedication to racing all triathlons of all distances and have come really close a few times. I came within a matter of minutes and a few slots on more than one occasion. I have broken the 10 hour barrier. I have broken the 1 hour swim on more than one Ironman. I have ridden 5 hours flat and averaged over 22 mph on more than one Ironman. I have run sub 3:30 Ironman marathon on more than one Ironman. I have been racing Ironman events since 2005 and feel I have MORE than paid my dues to the sport for the once in a lifetime chance to toe the starting line in the sand.

What is next? For now, I will continue to focus on my fitness, do a few races in 2019 as I lead up to Kona and just have some fun with the family. I have to complete at least one 70.3 or full distance Ironman race before August of this year to retain my eligibility and I should have two chances to do just that.

The unspoken hero in this entire post (and my entire adult life) has been my wife. In the early years, she would follow me around to races with our oldest son in the stroller. Then it was my oldest son pushing our youngest son in the stroller walking alongside my wife as their Dad was swimming, biking, and running in circles at races all over Texas. After almost 20 years of marriage, 7 years of dating before that, she continues to support me in my crazy endeavors. It doesn't mean she doesn't question my sanity, but she has never wavered in her support and Sherpa extraordinaire abilities. She has been at the finish line of every single Ironman I have ever done, and I would not want to do this one any different. How will I ever show her how much she means to me? How do you repay someone for showing what selfless acts of love look like for this long? She's truly my rock and someone that I hope to be her equal. She owns my heart and will until the very last breath I take on this earth. Love you Ta!

For any of you that question my qualification standards of getting into the Ironman World Championship, I'll just say one thing about that, I won't lose any sleep over your doubts, will you? I'm going to Kona Hawaii in October to race the best Ironman athletes in the world and I hope you will all be watching online.

The icing on the cake for this post is that I found out today I became an officially Ironman Certified Coach through Ironman U! So many blessings to celebrate, which would not have been possible without the love and support of my wife and kids or the guidance from my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! May all praise glorify Him.

James 1:17 Phil. 4:13





~Coach Troy


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