Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Kona Coach's Race Report Part 2

After watching my first two athletes have the best races of their careers, even thru the lava fields, I turned my attention back to Matt Hoover. Matt’s day started off about as bad as it could have. I was standing with him briefly to review the plan for the race around 6:15 AM, and he suddenly was complaining of getting stung by something. “I think something just stung me in my back, and on my thumb.” I turn him around, and there was a HUGE all-black bee-like insect. I had never seen anything like it. I flicked it off him and stepped on it.

Now my concern was for Matt, and if he would have a reaction to the sting, but he assured me he was not allergic to anything. I took a deep breath of relief.

I had told Matt if he was off the bike by 5 PM, we could get this done. Sure enough, a couple minutes after 5 PM he rounded the corner from the transition area and onto Kuikini Highway. I was jumping up and down, excited for him. He looked rather tired though, and he confirmed that when I asked how he was doing. I grabbed my bike and rolled behind him, encouraging him and reminding him about the pace he needed to hold to make it in enough time. He wore a Garmin to help him keep track of his current pace.

I told him I just wanted him to brisk walk for the first 10 miles, then we would try to run. Things were looking fine thru 5 miles, despite the fact he kept vomiting. All the liquids he would take down would just come back up. We tried simple water, but it just didn’t matter. The heat was really getting to him, as coming from Seattle it was very hard to prepare for the temperatures and time he would spend out on the Queen K.

He had followed the planned watts on the power meter for the ride, and said he only had a cramp once, so I felt he should come out of it just fine. Meanwhile, people are cheering for him, taking photos, telling him, “America’s cheering for you,” and tons of other positive support. I was thanking people for him, because he was in such bad shape he couldn’t really talk, and with so many cheers it was draining him out.

Just before mile 9, I began to become concerned. He was dropping from 16 min miles to 18, and the vomiting persisted. He was not walking a straight line, and he began to complain of poor vision. I went up ahead to the aid stations to ask for a race radio, but no one had it. I later found a race official on a scooter, who called the medical van. It took until the Palani climb about a mile later before they came, and by now Matt was dropping to 19 minute miles. It was not looking good.

Up Palani, Matt was in really bad shape. He was staggering up the hill, and I was worried he might fall over. The medical staff was walking with him and asking him questions, and also discussing the situation with myself. His continuous vomiting worried them, and they said if he fell down, or became delirious, his race would need to be over. Suzy, his wife from the show was crying as she watched him, clearly worried.

Matt was vocal in that he would not drop out. We got to the top of Palani, and I tried to convince Matt to just stop for few minutes and regain himself. He didn’t want to stop. On we continued. By now, two of his friends had joined me to cheer him on, (Joe and Colin), and it was clear Matt was one of the last people on the course.

The run sweep guy, whose job it is to follow behind the last athletes, and decide when to pull the plug on the aid stations, was checking Matt’s split from 13 to 14 miles. It was not good. He had now drifted so far off pace, and was looking terrible. The run sweeper told me, “His last mile was almost 20 minutes. No one gets to 14 miles and then picks up speed. It’s over for your guy shortly. He has 12 miles left and must run no slower than 15 minutes per mile, or he won’t make it. And as of right now, it’s looking like he will finish around 1 AM.” He made me aware that soon he would need to pull the plug on the aid stations and there would be no support out there for Matt.

Meanwhile, NBC cameras are all over and following us on the Queen K, with their lights being the only thing keeping us able to see in front of us at times. (The Queen K is a dark hell at night). When they were filming, it was bright and easy to see, but when they turned off the camera and lights, you couldn’t make out the road.

Rich Cruse, a great sports photographer had become good friends with Matt thru some photo shoots, and he had asked me to keep him posted on how Matt was doing. I went to my Blackberry to send him a message that it wasn’t going to happen. I was just so bummed, I hesitated to send the message. Then I recalled Rich’s famous picture of Paula Newby-Fraser sitting on the side of the road while aid station workers and race officials poored a cold bucket of water over her. Rich had described the scene to me, and how it was amazing how Paula suddenly came back to life, and went on to finish fourth.

I rode back up to Matt and asked him if he still felt really hot. He replied yes, and I suddenly knew what to do. Matt was still a big guy, around 250 lbs, and certainly working that hard for this long left his internal temperatures high, and with the insulation of his body weight, he was burning up.

I surged ahead to the aid station and got 2 volunteers to get a half trash can full of COLD water and ice, and that they would dump on him when he would arrive. True to form, it changed him almost immediately. His next mile was back under 16, and more importantly, HE STOPPED VOMITING! He entered the Energy Lab looking clearly rejuvenated and we did the same thing. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing, and neither could the run sweeper! Matt’s fastest mile splits of the day to that point were thru the Energy Lab! That was just astonishing, because no one EVER does that! They were all under 15 minutes per mile, despite the hills! He knew the reality of the situation, and he knew he had to dig deep.

The aid stations meanwhile were overly excited to see The Biggest Loser and help him with whatever he needed. They were so loud when he came thru, you would have thought it was a packed football stadium in an overtime game! As ironic or cliché as it sounds, he really fed off the energy he found from the people in the Energy Lab.

When we left the Energy Lab, the run sweeper was in disbelief. He said he’d been doing this for years and had never seen anything like it. He shouted to me with an incredulous smile, “If he keeps this up, he’ll make it!” It was getting very close though out on the Queen K, and Matt was reduced to intervals of jogging for 30 seconds, walk thirty seconds. There was no way we could walk anymore. He had to find a way to get it done for the last 10K.

NBC had a lot of his family meet him at the 23 mile marker, and running behind him cheering. Then vounteers from the aid stations were joining in. It was amazing how much people wanted to see him make it. When we hit mile 24, I did the math, and he was back over 15 minutes per mile. It was looking so close, that I knew our only hope would be the Palani downhill and hopefully the crowds could feed him their energy to get him there. We could hear Mike Reilly’s voice from way out on the Queen K, and Matt was reduced to a shuffle, but just focused on the voice getting louder. We started counting out-loud from 100 down to 1, over and over, all 20 of us now, just to help him take his mind away from the pain.

He hit Palani, and we had to let him go. I told him he had 9 mins to make it from the top of Palani, I had to go past and get to the finish. It would now be all on him.

At the finish, I witnessed the clock begin to expire, as I prayed for him to come around that final corner on Alii Drive, as though the miracle would continue. Mike Reilly counted down the final seconds, as I watched Richard Decker be the final official finisher. I had spent a good amount of time out on the course talking with Richard as well. He had no idea if he was going to make it, and I was constantly telling him he was fine, trying to keep him focused.

I had felt so bad for Richard. Here Matt was about 400-800 meters behind him, and all the attention of the world. Constantly given splits, crazy cheers, and NBC cameras and lights. Richard had none of that. He was alone. No one telling him if he was going to make it. I had to help him keep his sanity, and eyes on the prize. He thanked me out on the Queen K, telling me how kind of a person I was to consider him and help his mind thru those miles. But I could only imagine how hard it was for him. I felt an amazing joy for him in that moment of seeing him finish. His fists pumped in the air, and he reached out and gave me a high five before hitting the finish chute.

And the emotional roller coaster continued. Joy for Richard, and utter disappointment for Matt, as he came charging around the corner, and actually running. He had already missed it, but he didn’t know that. The crowd didn’t let on either. People were high-fiving him, the music was playing, and he was still so delirious, he stopped before the chute, not aware of where the finish line was. He just saw all the people. I yelled for him to keep going. He crossed the line with his arms raised. Turned back to the people who waited the extra 3 minutes and 35 seconds past midnight, to thank and acknowledge them for their support.

Months of hard work, and lots of suffering, to come so close. I wasn’t disappointed in Matt, but rather disappointed for him. He was definitely a guy who had a lot of pressure on him.

Many triathletes were upset that he got a free-ticket to the race. Others made horrible comments about his weight problems in online forums and lead-up to the race. One of the things we told him late on the Queen K was that many would like to see him fail.

Matt battled a need to change his mental approach from wrestling, where they try to cut calories and constantly feel weak and under-fueled, to that of an endurance athlete who must fuel constantly, and doesn’t deal with much body-image issues. It affected his ability to recover from workouts and his consistency. It was more than a physical battle for him, like most people who deal with weight issues.

Matt was one of the most unique individuals I have ever coached. He possessed a stubbornness, and competitiveness that I’ve rarely witnessed in sport. He was also very good with technique, almost improving his technique and skills overnight, as witnessed by his dramatic swim improvements. We battled a beast. We lost…just barely.

From crying in the morning pre-race, to just speechless at night after coming so close. I sat on the wall along Kailua Bay, and thought about it all. From Scott and Adam’s incredible performances, to when I first met Matt, and getting this opportunity. To his near medical discharge from the race just a few hours before. And now, his amazing comeback to miss it by 3:35.

My friend Ryan found me there, and handed me a beer. He didn’t say a word, just handed it to me. A much deserved Longboard Lager beer! I guess my facial expressions were enough to tell him.

As a coach, I will always wonder where I could have gotten those 3:35 back. What an experience…I can’t wait to go back next year.

Coach Vance


Kat said...

Thank you so much for sharing this incredible story. Like any endurance event it has highs and lows and as an aspiring Iron(wo)man I cried at my desk reading all that Matt went through- not just this weekend, but thinking of his long road to get there in the first place. As an ultra runner I have learned that times are only a small part of the experience. Matt may have "missed" his goal by 3:35- but did he miss his goal? He swam, biked and ran distances that people don't even dream of. He had naysayers and I can't imagine the pressure to perform under such careful scrutiny from media outlets. In my eyes, Matt is a hero, a champion, and inspiration, and an Ironman. No one can take away from him that he covered those distances and did so while inspiring others to try our sport. Cheers to both you and him.

Dax said...

Wow Jim. What a great and inspiring story; thank you for sharing it. It was great meeting you at La Jolla a few weeks ago, and I hope our paths cross again soon.

Jonathan McKenzie said...

Just got chills reading the last few paragraphs you sound like a great coach and what a story. I would stand proud no matter the time.

Skip said...

What outstanding support you provided! You do our sport proud.

Well written, too. I was crying reading it.

sal said...

Is it common practice for trainingbible coaching to provide oustide assistance for their athletes?

Nothing personal but what you described on this RR is cheating and against the rules no matter the athlete and/or the circumstances...

arthur said...

Amazing. Thanks for sharing this story.

Jim Vance said...


Thanks for the response. I ask you if it is also common for you to be critical of coaches, companies and others while hiding behind some anonymous profile? Nothing personal, just being fair. It's a lot easier when you're anonymous.

It's interesting to me that when Paula Newby did this, she was not accused of cheating. The water was at the aid stations, I did not supply it. It was readily available for everyone.

Riding behind my athlete is certainly legal. If riding anywhere near an athlete is against the rules, then every Ironman athlete who has finished as the first, second or third overall in their sex, has received outside assistance when a cyclist rides with them, DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF THEM, and should be DQ'ed.

I rode up the road ahead of my athlete many times. Again, perfectly legal.

I certainly am aware of the rules, after having an elite license for many years now, and racing many Ironman and other events. The number thing we discuss at the pro pre-race meetings is RULES.

We also had a race official right with us, and never did we even receive a single warning, because we did nothing wrong.

In fact, we had an NBC camera crew, riding right alongside next to him. It's funny how that would be pacing, but we can't call it that, because that would mean the pro's are doing the same thing with the lead cars, the lead motos, and photographers/media.

I find it odd how much I have been accused of the same thing you are, on forums like Slowtwitch, by people who weren't there, and don't know what happened.

I'm ok with that though. I support my athletes. I make no apologies, nor do I regret any actions I made, because they were all within the rules.

Coach Vance

Sarah said...

What a truly INCREDIBLE experience this was - for you and your athletes. Thank you for sharing it with the rest of us, as well as your own personal feelings in all of it.

Matt did not fail. He accomplished SO much and there's no need to focus on what he didn't do. Focus on how FAR he came. Focus on what he did to overcome all of the battles he faced. He succeeded in spades and much of it was due to your help. You should feel SO proud! Sure, it wasn't an official finish but for somebody who nearly DNF'd - he came back and managed to complete the distance in a close enough time. I'm actually really amazed about that.

I'm really happy for both of you, as well as your other two athletes. It sounds like all three really did have a phenomenal day and an incredible experience they'll never forget.

As for Sal - of course there are always going to be critics. Sure, Matt rec'd extra attention from the crowd. But the coach is there to do his/her job and if the athlete needs the extra assistance THAT IS LEGAL, then it's the coach's duty to provide it.

Jim, there will always be negative people, jealous people, critics, etc. But I think you can move forward confidently knowing you're doing the right thing by your athletes. Their success is evidence alone of that with no further explanation needed.

Hats off to you and congrats!! :) Sarah

Honeypleez said...

What an inspiration! He never gave up even when he knew deep down inside he should...wow! I'm glad he crossed that finish line, he finished that race, he finished it.

Brittney said...

Funny, I got a 4minute penalty in an ironman for having someone ride next to me for 50 yards. I would have loved a cyclist following me for 20some miles out on Sat! It was brutal for everyone! But rules are rules. It is NOT legal to have a coach cycle with you for the entire run. A family member of mine started running along the sidewalk for 60 seconds while I was on Ali'i', and then told them to stop. I didn't want the penalty.

I have mixed feelings about all this. Not to take anything away from Matt, but he clearly got preferential treatment! Looks like they allowed him to enjoy the benefits of side line coaching, and then the finish line was kept open only because NBC wanted it that way. I was right there when Riley asked what to do and if the fire dancers should start and close down the line at midnight like they always do. NBC wanted a clear shot of the finish for their camera to capture Matt coming across the line and embracing his wife (man she was struggling waiting for him :() We all wanted him to finish before 17 hours! Matt was the feature of the drama NBC show, so it isn't his fault he got all the company out there, or that the line was kept open for an unofficial finish (which I'm sure we'll see on NBC's coverate).

By saying all this I don't mean to take away anything from Matt. He trained and he was out there fighting the whole way. Usually the NBC stories all get little added benefits, but this year not even the other 2 NBC stories got a break. Even when they missed a time cut-off by 8 seconds.

I love what you said about the final official finisher! He made it without camera's, without the extra cheers and without his coach cycling along side him for hour on end. Cheers to that!
Jim, are you saying you think it would be ok for your coach to follow you along the entire run coarse on a bike back in your racing days?? Not a bike escort if you were in the lead, not the timex time car, but your coach????

There's nothing wrong with asking for assistance from volunteers. Great idea with the trash bucket of ice water. Paula got assistance from the ref and volunteers...NOT her coach/spouse/friend. That is legal, so even making that comparison is ridiculous.

All that said, congrats to Matt for keeping the fight alive. We cheered as loud as we could to try to get him to the finish! And hopefully he is proud of his fight. It was brutal out there!

Jim Vance said...


I appreciate the comments and the willingness to see the bigger picture. However, I would recommend that if you want your comments to truly be taken seriously, then you should not hide behind an anonymous profile when commenting.

That said, let me bring to light a few things from your post…

#1 – You stated you “got a 4minute penalty in an ironman for having someone ride next to me for 50 yards.”

I have clearly stated that I was behind Matt, or far up the road, with little or no exception. I don’t claim to know and understand the circumstances of your penalty, but based on what you told me, it is not the same. I do however, know exactly what I did. What I did was perfectly legal. Do you know how many bikes and cyclists were out on that course watching the pro races unfold??? Do you know how many pro’s I saw with family, friends, sponsors, etc, out there on the Queen K earlier in the day watching the race?

#2 – I am saying it is fine for a coach to follow me out on the course, if not affecting other racers, and not in front of me, doing the pacing. (However, again the idea of a lead biker and car, as well as cameramen in cars riding next to pro’s and special interest stories clearly violates the rule, but no one bitches about that.) That’s the rules. Matt was the last guy on the course. Who were we interfering with? We also had a race official with us, and he and I were in constant communication. He never once hinted or even warned that what we were doing was illegal, because I knew it wasn’t.

#3 – You said, “There's nothing wrong with asking for assistance from volunteers. Great idea with the trash bucket of ice water. Paula got assistance from the ref and volunteers...NOT her coach/spouse/friend. That is legal, so even making that comparison is ridiculous.”

Actually, Paula got assistance from a referee getting a mayonnaise bucket from a restaurant on the course, and filling it with ice-cold water. That is NOT legal. Matt got all his assistance from the race course, not a restaurant He got it from aid station volunteers, not a referee. For proof, I offer the following eye-witness account:

Is there preferential treatment out there for certain individuals, like special interest stories and the pro’s? Absolutely. It’s impossible not to if television coverage is going to happen. Accept it, and move on.

In the end, it’s amazing to me how most of my time is spent defending the details, when this guy took on an incredible challenge in a short amount of time, relating to millions of Americans with weight problems, and nearly accomplished it! Everyone wants to act like I had a car pick him up and drive him down the road. I know what happened with the guy who did that for a marathon this year, and we were bound and determined NOT to cheat in any way. I think the fact he missed it by so little shows how honest we were. I wanted nothing more than for him to make it.

This is the last I will defend of my actions, because there is no need to defend them. If you have something positive to provide, feel free. If not, don’t bother posting, and don’t watch the broadcast if you have a real issue with it.

I honestly believe most people can’t believe I cared as much as I did, and spent all that time out there with him on the run. But that’s what I was hired to do. I was his coach. Maybe your coach doesn’t care like I do.

Coach Vance

Pricey said...

Why do people feel as though they must compare their own experience to someone elses personal journey? Sounds like sour grapes to me. Just be happy that there are so many of us overcoming personal battles to participate in ironman - otherwise you'd be on your own. Most of us are doing this for our own personal achievement! Well done Matt - you probably had to dig a lot deeper than most! RESPECT!

Scott said...

I think some of you are a little confused. Jim is my coach, my friend, and a proud supporter of my achievements. On Saturday, during the run, he did not give any "outside assistance." If you think riding a bike down the Queen K, stopping 100 yards ahead and cheering is "outside assistance" then I think you are mistaken. Never once did Jim follow along side of me during the race, never once did he pace me during the race. I saw many spectators on bikes throughout the race, many pros had "followers" on two wheels. For the very few who have experienced racing on the Queen K in Kona, you will know that a cheering cyclist provides very little "assistance" if you are even able to glance that way. I am grateful for Jim and how he supported me throughout this season, on Saturday, and throughout the rest of my triathlon career. To the doubters, lace 'em up, go to Kona, when you finish, you will be singing a different tune.

bigmike600 said...

Mr. Vance

Kudos to you and your passion for coaching and it shows how much you care about your athletes.

I did IMWI in September and didn't make it by 13 minutes. I share the same story as Matt. I went from 400+ pounds to about 220 and then over the last couple years put about 35 pounds back on. I know Matt's weight battle about as well as anyone can and how hard it is.

I didn't give up either. I crossed the line at 17:16.

Ironman is a distance, not a time. Anyone who has a problem with that can talk to the people who completed Ironman before there was a cutoff. Are they not Ironmen? Do you put an asterisk by their names and "grandfather" them in.

Way to go Matt. You didn't give up and went the distance. You are an Ironman.

Coastal Sports said...

Matt Hoover saved two lives on Wednesday evening.

And will probably save quite a few more. Say what you want about him, but I've had the opportunity to meet him a couple times this year and he's a great ambassador for the sport of triathlon and more importantly, the lifestyle of health and fitness that permeates triathlon.

He's pretty humble for someone that was a high school state wrestling champ and went on to wrestle at Iowa. I've met other state champs, or thought that they should have been state champs, and humble is never a word I would have used, until Matt Hoover.

Matt also understands the "culture" of Ironman. He honestly and openly admits that Hawaii was not his idea. He wanted to do an Ironman. NBC heard about his plans and since they have the TV rights to Kona, another special interest story was born.

To those that are slamming Matt, if you don't like it, then I'm assuming you must not like Dick and Ricky Hoyt, Scott Rigsby or Sarah Reinertsen or any other "special interest" story at Ironman. But unfortunately, that's short-sighted...

How popular was cycling in the US until an American coming back from testicular cancer won a three week race in France? Sure Gre Lemond had won it three times...but heck, only 2 of those were with shotgun pellets in the lining of his heart...

So how did Matt Hoover save two lives last Wednesday? Did he run into a burning building and save two kids? Lift up an overturned car and save a couple from certain doom?


He set an example that I used with my patients.

He is a leader.

Which means others will follow and do what he does.

I was in an urgent care, talking to patient (weight in the chart - 282) sitting there with her 8 year old son that probably tipped the scales well over 100 pounds...

Somehow, after we finished with her visit, she mentioned her weight and her frustration with it. Since I had just returned from Kona on Monday - I told her about Matt Hoover. Starting from 350+ pounds and going to tackling the Hawaiian Ironman.

She was in tears. She looked at her son and said "I don't want him to be fat. I don't want him to be unhealthy." She said she was starting an exercise program with him tomorrow - just walking - but her goal when she left the exam room was for her to do a 5k run in a year.

And who knows what she, or her son will do after that.

I do know that Matt Hoover, 140.6 mile swim/bike/run finisher in Hawaii, made a BIG difference in their life. And he made my life as a doc trying to motivate patients to a lifestyle of health and fitness, that much easier.

To him, I am deeply grateful.

Doc John
John Martinez, MD
Medical Director
Coastal Sports and Wellness Medical Center
San Diego, CA