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.