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Chris Keysor’s Road to Kona (It’s all about Relationships) How He Qualified for the Ironman World Championship at Ironman Florida

Ironman Florida was more than a race. It was the culmination of many of my athletic goals all because of one thing…relationships. My trip to Ironman Florida really started in 2012 when I first joined Tri Coach Georgia with Harvey Gayer as my coach. What a journey it has been! In late 2012 I didn’t even know what I wanted to accomplish as an athlete, but I liked the approach to training and the goals Harvey envisioned. Today I would say I have been surprised at the goals I have committed to and reached. All due to the relationships built over the last nine years.

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Harvey and me together after he coached me through Ironman UK, my first Ironman (note my daughter Zoe photo bombing)

As I look back at my training peaks from 2012 I see our first big change together. I started running six days a week! In 2012 I was random in my training, injury prone, overweight and at best a middle of the pack finisher. By the time my first race came in 2013, Ironman 70.3 New Orleans, I had my first top 10 finish at an Ironman event and collected a roll-down slot for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas. Over the last nine years I have steadily improved on the 70.3 stage now being able to reach the podium and qualify for the worlds routinely. On the Ironman stage, after my first completion in 2015, I have been able to accumulate several top 10 finishes and even a sub 10 hour Ironman. But the goals of one day reaching the Ironman podium and qualifying for the Ironman World Championships (a coveted Kona qualification) increasingly seemed out of reach.

The progression was anything but steady with bumps and bruises along the way. So it would make sense that this year had both highs and lows. After starting the year out with a 3rd place at Gulf Coast 70.3 the year seemed to be on track and I was eyeing returning back to Ironman racing at Ironman Florida in November. But then Ironman allocated additional Kona slots at several races and I decided to jump into Ironman Lake Placid with only eight weeks of training available (including taper).

Ironman Lake Placid was a tough call personally since my partner Dana had just finished Chattanooga 70.3 and she was preparing to make the significant empty nester move as her oldest son graduated college and youngest son went to college. She jumped in and committed to being my Sherpa but still needed to make sure she had her entire move organized before we left for New York. What a commitment she made.

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Dana caught this picture of my hands closing towards the sky – whether I was praying or calming myself it didn’t work.

Although so much was lining up for a great Lake Placid half-way through the bike I hit a wall. The second 56 miles was horrible, and it felt like my entire body and mind had shut down. Dana talked me into trying to reset on the run and so I committed to do the first lap. At the end of 12 miles, I made the hard decision to stop. I DNF’d for the first time in five Ironman races.

As I processed my next race, I had to start asking the question, what happens the next time things get really bad? I quickly resolved to train again. That was easy and just part of everyday life for me. The harder part was that other people had invested in me as well. There was Dana, Harvey, work, and of course time away from my kids. The fact is not only do I invest in my goals, but others do as well. If I was going to race again, I needed to acknowledge and appreciate the investments being made from my relationships.

On my way to Ironman Florida I had decision points and tests along the way. The first was my “test” race at Ironman 70.3 Memphis. Harvey had agreed to drive up to Memphis and Sherpa for me at Memphis allowing us time to create a strategy and get my head on straight. Harvey would say it took the whole drive for me to commit to a pretty simple strategy: get the right nutrition (@here4slayrx) on the bike, pace my power on the bike, be ready to run on the hilly course and have the right attitude. Although most of this was simple getting my head right was the issue. I still had lingering issues with my DNF from Lake Placid, but that is what spending the weekend with your coach and your team will do for you.

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Amanie, Andrew, Kara, Billy, Sam, Missy, Tommy, Christy and Slayer. My tribe!

It turns out that Memphis was a big TriCoachGeorgia team weekend. Whether it was crashing Missy and Tommy Hatchett’s date night dinner, eating the pre-race dinner with Andrew and Doug, that were tackling their first Ironman (they crushed Ironman Arizona and left me with some wisdom), talking to Missy about anxious feelings before the swim (it’s good to have trained therapists on the team ☺), cheering for the team to finish including the Iron Family that were finishing there 51st 70.3 of the year and of course wishing Amanie a happy birthday as her entourage came to Memphis to celebrate with her! When you think about relationships in triathlon you must think about the tribe you choose to be with. I have a winning tribe!

I had a great Memphis, enjoying the entire race, smiling the whole way around. And for the first time I was able to reverse my results to have a faster age group placing in the run (2nd) than my bike. Even with a horrible swim I was able to move up to a 3rd place age group finish and qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in 2022. What worked? My nutrition was topped off completely on the bike and I paced the bike at a notch below my usual 70.3 power. And as crazy as this sounds, I put some fun into the race. For me that is “hunting” on the bike (serious but not burning matches) and interacting with my fellow teammates, athletes and spectators on the run. However good the result of the race was, it exposed my biggest weakness…the swim. Despite good swim training I was struggling in races.

During the final training block before Florida, I was able to recover from Memphis and extend my long run and rides out to a comfortable distance. I ramped up my swim training a lot and without realizing it, all the windy training days on the bike would pay off. My friend Michael Stainback and I were kidding that “at least if it’s windy at Florida we will be ready!” Riding in the wind is not just harder, it adds an element of risk and creates stiffness in the body. I arrived at taper avoiding injuries and pulled out a strong Functional Power Test in the last week increasing my power from Lake Placid. Everything seemed like it was in a good place to race with a good span of training over the summer (even if I lacked a lot of volume in the last month), good tests and injury free.

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Beautiful pre-race sunset and a home cooked meal.

We arrived in Panama City on Thursday. I checked in, went for a run and then got some good seafood with my girlfriend/Sherpa Dana. Dana and I went for a swim Friday (realized there were jelly fish!) and welcomed our close friends Tom and Denise who flew “Baron” their plane through 20+ mph winds and rain to join us! We had an incredible dinner of Chicken Piccata from Dana’s family recipe. What do you notice about these two days? Quiet and no risk. No practice bike and a home cooked meal instead of risking restaurants more suitable for spring break than a pre-race meal.

Sherpa support at the swim start with Tom and Denise Pecht and Dana.

Race day arrived with a wake-up alarm at 4:00. It was dark, cold, and windy as we walked to the pier. As I settled into the start, all the familiar rituals provided a calmness in me. The national anthem, the cannon as the pros started, the cheers as the challenged athletes start their heroic journeys. My hands came together many times as we slowly moved through the coral and the mood changed from tranquil to one of anticipation, but never anxiety.

Well, that lasted for about 10 minutes as we swam out to the first turn buoy in near perfect conditions. As I turned the first turn buoy everything changed. The waves rose-up in confusion and the swimmers started to struggle as we headed to the second buoy and then back to shore. It was chaos. And somehow it got worse for the 2nd lap. My swim took 1 hour and 45 minutes a full 35 minutes slower than Lake Placid! And getting on the bike I was in 52nd place!!!

If there was one thing I learned at Memphis, no matter how you leave the water, you have to get your head in the right place and enjoy the ride. As I got on my bike my Sherpa, Dana, commented that I looked happy. And I was! Which is surprising because I was cold and knew that the winds would create a hard race for at least the first 70 miles.

I had committed to keep my power down to about 72-74% of my Functional Power. I maintained that power, burning few matches and felt as strong at the end of the bike as I did at the beginning. I felt better getting off the bike than any Ironman before and I knew it.

Ironically, after all the windy training days I rode into transition with Michael which made me feel good about my ride. Then Dana said I was in 5th place overall and my first podium was within reach!

When I started running, I felt good, but a little choppy and I had to pee real bad. I felt less fatigued and more hydrated than in any other Ironman run I had done. I also knew I had Dana, Tom, and Denise on the beginning of each lap and Harvey and Julie on the back side. They would not only inspire me but also let me know how I was doing.

As I ran past Dana out of transition, I was in 5th place. By the time I reached Harvey I had already been passed virtually maybe even physically on the course. I couldn’t let that bother me and knew I just needed to keep doing the pace I could do. As the first lap ended I got my special needs and started getting my bladder under control.

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Mile 16 getting a little talk from Harvey and cheering from Julie

At mile 16 two things happened, I took an Advil and I passed my coach and his wife Julie on the course. It was inspiring to see Julie as she cheered for me, but Harvey had his own kind of inspiration. He told me, quite frankly, what I needed to do. I didn’t know if I could do it.

My pace was my pace and the 5th place guy just kept gaining time on me. So I resolved that I was just going to keep my current pace, not stop in aid stations anymore, and hope my wheels didn’t fall off at mile 20. At mile 18 I said, all I have to do is get to mile 20. At mile 20, I said every mile I run is better than I expected. At mile 20.5, I saw Harvey again and he told me I was back in 5th, but of course I should run faster ☺ So then I started clicking off the miles until I reached 23. I engaged more than ever with the supporters, my teammates…anyone. Mile 21, 22, 23! At mile 23 you are about 5K away. Anyone can run a 5k, right? And run I did, I let everything I had go , I talked to everyone I could find and I dropped about a minute a mile off my average pace.

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Dana and I agree the best part of a race is re-connecting after a long emotional day.

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Post-race finish pic with Michael Stainback and his Ironman father-in-law Chris Ellington

As I ran into the finishing chute the adrenaline was still pumping (is that possible after 140.6 miles) and I actually missed seeing Dana, Tom and Denise at the finish line! But that was short lived as Tom took this picture when after 11 hours we re-connected.

Before the race, during the race and certainly after the race I realized everyone one of my goals of finishing an Ironman, being on the podium of an Ironman and qualifying for KONA were all because of relationships.

So what did I learn from this day?

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Long Anticipated Hardware from an Ironman distance race

  • Never quit. Don’t quit after a DNF, don’t quit after a horrible swim and don’t quit before mile 20. This just means getting your head in the right place and then keeping it focused. Do Your Job!
  • Harvey and I had a solid race plan including holding correct power on the bike, keeping hydrated and properly fueled. Everything that happens in the swim or the bike is simply setting you up for the run.
  • Relationships! As you read through this race report although Ironman is an individual sport the athlete does not accomplish it alone.

To me Ironman Florida will always be the race where I accomplished all my goals, smiled the whole day (after the swim ☺) and built on relationships to do something I couldn’t have done alone.

So where now? Other than getting trained up for the original and hardest Ironman, Kona, I am also thinking I might tackle a stand-alone marathon. Even after completing five Ironman marathons, I have actually never raced a marathon. Maybe there is another goal after Kona.