Star Wars, Joseph Campbell, and Kona

Star Wars, Joseph Campbell, and Kona

I have been an age grouper triathlete going on 13 years now competing on average a couple times each year.  I typically finish in the upper ⅓ of my age group but have never podiumed.  I have trained, overtrained, undertrained, and even done a couple “off the couch”.  And like pretty much every other above average triathlete, I dreamed of someday qualifying for Kona (the Ironman World Championships).  

For some reason, turning 50 flipped a switch in me that caught me completely off guard.  Call it a midlife crisis if you like, but I prefer to see it as an awakening.  Up to that moment I had seen triathlon as a hobby with perks.  Those perks being that the training produced decent fitness and for the most part improved health.  But as I approached my 50th, I began to feel something different.  I wanted something more from triathlon.  

At the time, I was reading Joseph Campbell’s classic “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”. Being a Star Wars fan, I had read something on how George Lucas drew inspiration from Campbell’s hero’s journey and wanted to learn more about Campbell.  It was in researching Campbell that I came across this quote commonly attributed to him.

“The cave you fear to enter, holds the treasure you seek.”

When I read those words, I knew immediately where that cave was and I had a pretty good idea of what was inside.  

My relationship with triathlon had always been governed by my perception of my limitations in the sport.  By all accounts I am not genetically gifted for triathlon.  I do not have the tall, rangy, lean body type of the classic elite triathlete.  I am shorter, carry more muscle, and frankly approaching 50 was just the wrong body composition.  Translation:  even though I was above average fit for the general population, I was too fat to be a competitive triathlete.  Add to this that I didn’t grow up competing in endurance sports (I didn’t run cross country, I wasn’t on a swim team - hell I barely knew how to swim).  Well, you get the picture.  Setting my sights on being an elite triathlete seemed illogical at best.  

In spite of (or maybe because of) the long odds I was facing, I felt like I was being called to seriously go after this dream.  It started with me clearly declaring what this moonshot goal was…  I was going to qualify for Kona Worlds - the pinnacle of triathlon.  The race in Kailua Kona stands above all others: 140.6 miles of pain, suffering, and glory in the place where Ironman was born: Hawaii.  Sidebar - wouldn’t it be awesome if this article ended with a photo of me crossing the finish line at Kona last year?  Well, it doesn’t.  But hang with me, I am still on that journey and I think there is something to share worthy of your time.  

Over the weeks following my 50th, I began formulating my plan and initially it looked similar to how I had prepared for every other race I had trained for.  I was completely focused on the actual training - the training volumes, what splits I would need to throw down etc…. All the while I kept trying to answer the fundamental question: “How was I going to go from never doing a full ironman to qualifying for Kona?”  I was struggling to find a way.  It seemed impossible.  Eventually, I realized it actually was impossible… at least for that current version of myself.  

Instead of accepting my limits and retreating into my former self though, this time I looked beyond the magnitude of the challenge.  To borrow from Campbell, I crossed the threshold from refusing the call and struck out on the real journey - the journey that leads us completely out of our current, comfortable world.  I was now on the path to becoming the man worthy of the challenge.  

In plain language, for me to have any chance at qualifying for Kona, this meant I needed to radically change my body composition.  There is some variation in elite triathletes’ physiques, but a universal truth is that top male triathletes are lean AF.  Generally speaking, 10% body fat is probably the upper limit.  At the time, I was in the low 20s.  Not bad for a genpop 50 year old dude, but easily twice where I needed to be.

So I decided that before I could seriously train for an Ironman, I needed to pull off a body recomposition project.  I immersed myself in the subject and came up with a new plan laser focused on losing fat while building (or at least retaining) muscle.  Conventional thinking is that the training volume involved in Ironman training will take care of any fat loss you need.  But I can tell you my experience is that once you are north of 40 years old, it becomes crazy hard to train your way lean if you have packed on more than just a couple lbs.  So I knew I needed much more control of my diet and a change in mindset for my workouts. I implemented food tracking to manage my calorie deficit, shifted my workouts to more zone 2 stuff, added a lot of walking, and lifting 4x per week. 

To lose fat in a sustainable way, you literally have to make your body burn the stored fat instead of food consistently over an extended period.  This led me to experimenting with nutritional supplements because I found it nearly impossible to sustain my target calorie deficit (300 per day), live a relatively normal life (I wasn’t a professional athlete with a personal chef, trainer, physio etc…), and ensure that I was getting sufficient micronutrients, minerals, and protein intake. And it was in this experimentation that I decided to launch my own brand of supplements which led to my actual mid life crisis - quitting my job to go all in on my supps startup. 

During this period of focus on body recomp, I continued to do some triathlon training albeit in an extremely reduced volume.  I even raced Ironman Arizona 70.3 basically for fun - and to knock the rust off because I hadn’t raced in a couple of years.  As it turned out, I had a great day and loads of fun on my way to a PR.  This experience convinced me that emphasizing strength training with the right nutritional supplements is a game changer for me.  

Cut to today, 18 months later.  Yep.  18 months.  I am now two weeks away from the start of my  training plan for my next race.  I have signed up for this year’s Ironman Florida (November 4).  I am 20 pounds lighter but significantly stronger.  Most importantly, I now feel ready to take on the challenges.of preparing for a full Ironman.

I may never qualify for Kona.  But by toeing the line at Ironman Florida, I will be stepping into that cave that called to me on my 50th birthday.  The 140.6 miles that will stand between me and the finish line is the dragon I must slay to claim its treasure.  As to whether the treasure inside will lead to me racing Kona, I have no way of knowing.  And maybe that is the point.  It may not be the treasure I am seeking, but I am confident it will be the treasure I was meant to find.  

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