TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I had the real pleasure of talking triathlon with Ian Kelly. Not only did I get to know this great guy in the process, but I learned some funny new words. Among other things, Ian leads the TCSD Beginning Open Water Swim workouts as well as serves as a race referee. I know you’ll enjoy his story.
Craig: What sports did you participate in while growing up?
Ian: I never really thought of myself as an ‘athletic’ type, and often had the experience of being the last one picked (being either the weird or uncoordinated kid, relative to who else was around) when the neighbourhood was dividing up for touch football in the street. From elementary school through high school I played soccer. I proved too slow to be a striker, and mediocre at mid-field, but eventually discovered strengths at fullback, and then really had a blast as keeper. I was working toward the varsity team at school, but about that time the Scottish part of me took over. My mom had taught me ballroom dancing from early childhood (often standing on her feet until I figured things out) and in my sophomore year I was introduced to Highland dancing, sort of Gaelic frenzy contained within the niceties of ballet. I was hooked and quickly discovered that under my strongly B-type personality lurks a competitive A-type. I managed to have a successful eight-year competitive career that ended with me doing well in the US Western Regional Championships. The last few years of that were years at UCSD, where I briefly took up fencing (foil). With my dancing background, the footwork was easy for me, and opponents were often shocked to discover how much space I could cover in a flash. Once that initial shock wore off, however, they realised that my blade-work was an unmitigated disaster and they rapidly ticked off points against me. In dancing, I was driven to keep progressing into nationals and (hopefully) worlds, but the years of joint-pounding took a toll and the morning after my last event, I could scarcely get out of bed; not a positive sign for a 23-year old. Dancing is as close to flying that a human will ever attain, and I am not too proud to admit that I cried over that loss. I transitioned into being a cycling weekend warrior (and not very dedicated at that) and that was pretty much my joint-friendly athletic outlet for early adulthood.
Craig: What led to your first triathlon and what kind of experience did you have?
Ian: I was the poster-child for what not to do for training and racing. In mid-2005, my post-graduate studies meant that just about the only activity I had time for was a Saturday morning spin class. About 40-minutes into the class we would all be tired and hoping vaguely for an early end and a hot caffeinated beverage. The leader would then start this inspirational patter about how the only difference between us and endurance athletes was our mental focus. ‘Balderdash,’ I thought, because surely there must be a point at which your body determines where to make an end. I went to my physician for a check-up and demanded a series of knee x-rays to see just how bad the knees looked. Ah, the joys of youth; my joints had relatively normalised and I was otherwise in fair shape. I resolved to enter the most impossible feat I could imagine: a sprint triathlon. The gym had a copy of Competitor magazine in which I found an advert for the Mission Bay Tri. I went online and found an eight-week sprint training program; perfect timing for the race in early October. The cycling aspect was no worry for me. I had learned to swim as a kid (though in retrospect, I knew how not to drown) so felt naively confident that I just needed to get used to the distance. In high school, I had managed a sub-6:30 mile run. Suppressing the memories of countless, drudging laps around a hot, dusty track was going to take work, and to keep going for a whole 5k seemed impossible.
I started off on my training plan, completely on my own. I had never heard of TCSD, and the experience would have been a thousand times easier had I had the support and comradery that I discovered with the Club in 2008, but that’s getting ahead of the story. Cycling was certainly the easiest for me, and most enjoyable though the concept of actual ‘bike handling skills’ had not dawned on me at that point. My run workouts consisted of a treadmill at the gym, and I remember the real joy of finally hitting three miles without stopping. Brick workouts were not written into the plan, and so I had no real notion of how my legs were going to react after T2. Swimming turned into the real struggle. I could make two lengths of the pool (50m total), but then I was finished. Not knowing what else to do, I maintained a program of thrashing the water harder and harder. I became highly efficient at thrashing, but not so much at swimming. And then came the whole ‘open water’ issue. A friend loaned me her husband’s spring surf suit, which I took down to De Anza Cove twice with mixed results.
Come race day, I was vaguely excited about getting down to the expo to pick up my registration packet, and I wanted to listen in to the course talk to figure out how all this ‘racing’ stuff happens. During the talk, the question of wetsuits came up and spring suits, in particular. The expert advice was not comforting, so I dashed over to the Xterra booth and hired a blue full suit for the weekend. On race morning, once I had my transition area laid out like they had showed at the expo, I figured it was time to get into my wetsuit for the first time. As I picked it up and finally looked at it more closely, I realised it was inside out! So much for it being easy for the friend who had come along to pick me out of the sea of black! As I walked toward the water, I watched the waves ahead of me out in the water for quite some time before the gun went off. I had no idea how I was going to tread water for that long! Just swimming that distance was daunting, but then to be exhausted before I even started seemed to doom the morning. I toughed it out, made it into the water, and was surprised to find myself floating instead of treading water. Problem one sorted out. When the gun went off, I duly started thrashing the water, but something was wrong; I could not breath right. My feet were way high up in the water and that pushed my face deeper into the water. After flailing for an eternity that turned out to be about 50m, I rolled onto my back, and used my elementary backstroke for the next 350m. Crude but effective. Problem two sorted out! The bike portion did go smoothly enough, though who knew that pulling a cycling jersey over my wet torso would take so long? Getting on to the run course was simple enough, but then my legs suddenly seemed to be made of concrete and took a considerable amount of coaxing to keep moving. It took a mile or so to work the kinks out, but out they went and I was ecstatic to cross the finish line. It had been a major challenge for me, and I completed it the weekend before my 40th birthday. I could not tell you the finish time. Honestly, it did not matter to me. I had proven the point: it’s all in your head. That central lesson forms the nexus of everything, even today. My friend wisely suggested that I not try that again until I had graduated, so I took leave of triathlon for a few years.
Craig: You returned to triathlon after completing your PhD. Open water swimming was a major challenge for you. What did you do to address that?
Ian: When I was ready to get back to triathlon in January 2008, shades of the Mission Bay swim still haunted me, and I knew that I needed to sort out my swimming. I needed a proper wetsuit and I needed to stop thrashing my way through the water. In doing some research, I discovered that this group called TCSD offered phenomenal wetsuit discounts, so I joined and hied myself to Xterra. (“hied” is one of Ian’s funny words that means “hurried” or “rushed”.)
The newsgroup let me know about the swimming program at the Jewish Community Centre, and so I began at attend the ‘technique lanes’ in about February 2008. The notion that swimming could be smooth and even calming came like a thunder bolt. In a relatively short time, I was covering 400 yards each session without too much effort. Then came 25 April with the news that Dave Martin had been killed off Fletcher Cove (Solana Beach). That really freaked me out, as I had registered for the Spring Sprint just a week or two later. Back in the open water in a wetsuit I really had not trained with and thoughts of Dave created another ‘challenged’ swim portion.
The newsgroup made mention of a Thursday evening swim oriented to beginners. Steve Tally started this off and subsequently handed it off to Jonathan ‘JJ’ Jefferson, who was leading it when I first attended. I let JJ know right off the bat that I was a pretty freaked out, and his advice on the question of big fishies did help. He suggested going out into the bay to swim, and envision the biggest set of teeth imaginable coming up from the depths to get me. That was the last thing I wanted to think about, but…he was the expert, right? Out I went and did as he said. I am not sure that I would offer the same advice, but the fact is that the thought has not crossed my mind since then. With the mental side of things resolved, notions from Terry Laughlin’s books, JCC swims, and JJ helped me to develop a strong, fluid stroke that, when I push, can keep me moving at about 1:10 per 100m. The entire experience, stroke, and philosophy really came home to me one evening at a TCSD meeting where Lynne Cox, a world-record holding endurance swimmer, talked about how one must swim with the water, not in it.
The Thursday BOWS (Beginner Open Water Swim) became something of a home to me. JJ was a firm believer in keeping things moving forward, growing, and adapting, so he intended to establish a pattern of having BOWS leaders serve for two years and then hand off to someone else. Bobbie Solomon took over as coordinator for BOWS after JJ, and when her two years were completed it came my turn. I tried handing off at the end of two years, but my relief needed to leave the sport. JJ returned to BOWS leadership, despite having been diagnosed with widely-spread cancer, and had several of us working in support but ultimately found that he was unable to keep with it. In the year that followed, we modified the structure, expanding things so that while one person might manage the administrative side of things, a group—primarily Chip Slack, Bob Cunningham, Phil Castaldi, and Yours Truly—works together on Thursdays, covering absences and providing a wider range of strengths, teaching styles, etc. I have been extremely proud of the work our BOWS swimmers do and it is an honour to be with them on their journey to the joys of open water swimming. I also appreciate how Xterra has stepped in to sponsor Thursday BOWS this year.
Craig: What are your favorite memories of JJ the instructor and JJ the person?
Ian: The pool time at the JCC had certainly helped the mechanics of my swimming, but the time I spent with JJ turned me into a swimmer, and a pretty good one, if I say it myself. The water temperature did not seem to matter to him; he was never in a wetsuit for BOWS. His style was calm and gentle, though he certainly taught assertive techniques for racing. I am not able to pin-point specific memories of that season beyond his advice about big fishies (those who know me will recognise my incapacity for recalling virtually anything), but the overall spirit JJ the Instructor provided was confidence in the water. I wish I had known him better as a person, but the gentleness and willingness to engage with anyone was infectious. In his closing years, he took up beekeeping and offered bottles of the best raw honey I have ever encountered. It inspired me to try peanut butter and honey sandwiches for very long rides, and I cursed loudly that I had not bought enough of it to carry me through the races at Madison. Beekeeping struck me as a perfectly natural thing for him to be involved with. When I first heard about his cancer diagnosis, I knew that, if I had heard correctly, we would be enjoying his company for a limited time. Even so, he asked about returning to BOWS to carry on his love for open water. The amount of effort it took him just to walk from the parking lot told us everything we needed to know about the steely determination that lay behind his smile and laughter. In my line of work, I see people who allow a diagnosis to define who and what they are. I think that JJ would have said ‘I have cancer, so I will bend it around me and live as I am, not as my diagnosis.’ He passed away on 2 February 2015, and I am eternally grateful for the graceful gift of open water swimming he gave me. Swim in peace, buddy.
Craig: You are also a triathlon referee. What is the process to become a referee?
Ian: To become a USAT official, you attend a training session the day before a race and then participate as a ‘Category 5’ official at that race the next day. These experiences teach basic triathlon rules and reporting procedures. Provided you get the basics down correctly, you are immediately upgraded to ‘Category 4,’ and volunteer to work during at least two additional races. Again presuming that your reporting practices, knowledge of the rules, and interpersonal communication skills fit the requirements, an official can advance to Category 3 and begins to receive compensation for officiating. There are Category 2 and 1 officials, though I have yet to sort out incentives to advance into these levels.
USAT had the youth/junior nationals at Liberty Station in 2010, and they needed local volunteers to help with officiating the races. I joined as a volunteer official that year, and again when the same event was held in Chula Vista in 2011. At the time, it was a way to do something to support the event, but then I realised that there is a facet of racing that I had not considered before. I began the USAT certification process with the first Orangeman Triathlon (Dana Point, 2011), and typically work two or three local races each year. In 2012, I volunteered to work the Oceanside race as bike course marshall, which has a somewhat more limited role than a USAT official. Since then, I have become part of the ‘San Diego Team’ of Ironman officials working races throughout the western US. I am looking forward to being part of the officials’ team at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in September. One of the great aspects of working as an official is the opportunity to see a wider variety of courses than we see just in San Diego. I have had the opportunity to preview some races, putting some on the ‘need to do’ list (e.g., Vineman) and scratching some off (e.g., IM Lake Tahoe).
Craig: Have you had any particularly challenging issues to deal with as a referee?
Ian: I am regularly astonished at the number of athletes who train to swim, bike, and run, but are totally clueless about how to race. There are athlete guides and pre-race meetings for a reason. I must confess they are usually guys in my age group, and predictably riding a specific bike frame, who just put their head down and go as fast as they can, cluelessly leaving a trail of destruction behind them. When they get penalised for doing something stupid, they invariably whine about how someone else made them do it, or they didn’t know it wasn’t allowed, or a one-minute penalty really makes them reconsider whether they ought to race any more. My advice is for them to get over themselves. This is not about working out parental issues or proving their value as a human being. This is a race. Races have rules to keep athletes safe and support a fair field of play. Know the rules. Follow the rules. You’ll have a great day.
Craig: You completed Ironman Wisconsin in 2015. What was that journey like for you?
Ian: For as much as triathlon is an individual sport (don’t get me started about draft legal events), Wisconsin really reinforced the value of mutual support along the way, and I count myself beyond fortunate to have found world-class support through TCSD.
Wisconsin was a longer journey than I had expected. I spent much of 2014 training for the race, and was graced with Brooke Skora as a training partner. We had some great times in training, as well as days when it just was not working, and were excited to get there. I got some debris in my goggles during the swim and ended up with a scratched cornea. My vision progressively worsened on the bike course to the point that it was unsafe for me to continue and I withdrew half way through. I was able to get out of the hospital soon enough to watch Tina Valle and Brooke finish and celebrate. I have a rather wide stubborn streak in me, and I figure that if I started something, I was going to finish, and so registered to return in 2015.
Training for a full distance race takes over your life, and if I am honest I did not prepare as well for 2015 as I did in 2014. Unable to rouse myself out of bed for those crack-of-dawn training sessions, I worked a full day, then spent my evenings working out. Saturdays were long ride days, and Sundays were long run days. There were gorgeous swims, bikes, and even runs, sometimes in the company of supportive TCSDers. As I entered my taper (a week and a half, as opposed to the three weeks in 2014), I was fully confident that the race was in the bag, as long as I avoided another injury, and the only question was the finish time. Liz Sibley, now my sweetheart, agreed to make the trip with me and was the best Sherpa ever.
Race day held spectacular racing conditions. I was one of the first people into the water and was where I wanted to be just as the sun rose over the hills and Aaron Copeland’s ‘Fanfare for the Common Man’ (one of my favourite pieces of music) boomed out over the lake. I turned to face the sun, closed my eyes, prayed, and just drank in the beauty of the moment. As the music ended, I heard another athlete call out to me, ‘dude! You are the calmest person here today!’ Madison is one of the few races left with a mass start, and at the gun, it’s nothing but knees and elbows for the first 500m. At the first turn, it’s a tradition for athletes to salute Wisconsin’s dairy heritage by mooooooo-ing. My swim of 1:16 was far slower than I had wanted (it should have been ten minutes faster), but I had not trained as well as I ought and it still fit well into the overall plan for the day. Coming out of the water is the first real indication of the level of spectator support and involvement that covers the race course. From the water’s edge, you run up a parking structure ramp (‘the helix’) which is lined by thousands of friends, family, and curious on-lookers. In 2014, I had a cycling jersey custom made in tribute to my regiment, The Gordon Highlanders, and in 2015 I put it on again, this time confident that it would see me all the way along the course.
The bike course is a bit like getting nibbled to death by ducks. It comprises a series of climbs (85 or so summits in 110 miles) that individually are undaunting, but in total will wear you down unless you are mindful about your riding; the hot shots who blow through IMAZ would die in Madison. All along the course, families turn out in front of their homes—often creating their own party with blasting music—to cheer you on. There is an infamous series of three long climbs which is as close to the Tour de France as I am ever going to experience. At the bottom was a group of four or five college student variously costumed as demons and devils. As I passed by, a young woman smacked me on the butt with her plastic pitch fork and called out, ‘welcome to hell!’ Further up the climb, thousands (if not tens of thousands) of spectators line the street, cheering, encouraging, and generally carousing. If that fails to motivate you, nothing will. There was a young woman who I kept going back and forth with on the course, and somewhere around mile 80 I saw her in the distance stopped on the roadside with a flat tire. As I approached, I asked if she was OK, and she said she did not know how to change her tire. I stopped and changed her tire while we talked for a bit about how the day was going. With that done, she took off, I took off, and I do not recall seeing her after that, but it was fun hearing someone else’s story. You will have guessed by now that I do not possess a laser-like focus on racing; it is the racing experience that really catches my attention. As I returned to the transition area, I was chuffed to have that portion of the race done with everything going exactly to schedule, and to see my Sherpa cheering like a crazy person. (“chuffed” is another funny Ian word meaning “pleased”.)
The run is perhaps the most challenging part of any race for me, and Madison was doubly so. With my insufficient brick training, my legs were just not having the run portion. I adopted the motto ‘run when you can, walk when you must.’ Unfortunately, there was a lot of walking going on. Much to my delight, Brooke appeared in the crowd at about mile 7 and really picked up my spirits. She moved along the course at several points to find me, and get me through that troubled phase of the race. Madison is a two-lap course with the turn to the second lap only about 100m from the finish line; having to turn and head back out is perhaps one of the most mentally crushing experiences. Fortunately, Liz was there with a bright smile and loud cheers. I had to admit to her that the run was not going well, and that I would miss my aspiration of a less than 14-hour race. With her gentle reassurances, I made my way back out. (Little did I know that the smile was all about her plans to head directly to the Irish pub around the corner to settle down to a very well-deserved whiskey!)
Although I have watched an IM finish line countless times and heard Mike Reilly welcome racers in, it takes on a whole different meaning when it is for you. I developed a tunnel-vision where I knew there was music and people cheering, but these existed only in theory. Running down the chute, it was just me, that stretch of red carpeting, and the end of a road that had started in January 2014. As I crossed the finish line at about 15:45 and Mike declared me a Ferrous Individual, a close friend and fellow IM official, Ros Popham, stepped in front of the volunteers, put a finishers medal around my neck, and gave me a huge hug. Crossing the finish line was a thrilling experience, but I think that the people I encountered all along the way—Brooke to Liz to Ros and everyone in between—were far more motivating and meaningful.
Craig: What have been some of your most favourite destination races?
Ian: A few years ago, I spent Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) in Edinburgh with my son. I knew that he would be dead to the world New Year’s Day, and so, on a lark, I registered for a sprint race that morning: eight lengths of the pool used for the Commonwealth Games, three laps around Arthur’s Seat on the bike (a huge hill where if you’re not climbing or dropping like a rock, you’re on the quarter-mile stretch of flat ground with the North Sea wind blasting in your face), and finally one lap around Arthur’s Seat on the run (refer to my previous parenthetical explanation). It was 39 degrees at best, but the people were warm and friendly. It was a great time, and I highly recommend it to anyone. In California, I’ve come to enjoy the Vineman races in Sonoma. I have done all their distances except the full. The Monte Rio Olympic (early June) is a dynamite event. The river swim is a unique challenge, the cycling is gorgeous, and the run for the Olympic is mostly through redwood forest. For me, it’s a relaxing weekend of hiking, wine tasting, and oh-by-the-way a race. I live in hope of the Vineman half being resurrected.
Craig: What did it mean to you to be selected to be on the TCSD Ambassador Team?
Ian: Being part of the TCSD Ambassador Team in 2014 and 2015 was a great opportunity for me in a couple ways. First, I love this organisation. I know that some folks have complaints, some entirely accurate critiques and some just petty whining, but in the long view we are beyond fortunate. The ability to train, race, and socialise with people in TCSD is something that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Being a referee has shown me enough of tri clubs to know that, even at its worst, TCSD is well and truly the best tri club on the planet. Being able to represent the Club at events and races gave me the opportunity to give back in a small way. At the same time, it gave me the opportunity to understand the Club a bit better, to see how it works, who was involved in making it all happen.
Craig: Who has been the most influential person in your triathlon career?
Ian: It is difficult to identify a single person, because there has yet to be an encounter that has not influenced me somehow. JJ certainly turned me into a swimmer, which is a gift beyond comparison. Sandi Johnson, a former Club member, was an integral part of me getting back into racing and understanding the race of life and to her I am forever indebted. I realised how to be a partner, encouraging someone else’s development while also fulfilling my own goals. Brooke Skora laid down challenge after challenge and was there to meet them all. Liz’s tenacity despite Sacramento heat, family, work, and school daily inspires me to stop my own whining and get on with training. Beyond these ‘most influential’ people, I continue to rely on Steve Tally’s sense of humour and down to earth approach to racing. The Thursday BOWS crew and swimmers never cease to amaze and inspire me. Bob Babbitt’s exceptional knowledge and ability to talk with the very elite at TCSD meetings regularly astonishes me. Where do I stop?!
Craig: What do you do for a living?
Ian: I am currently a Supervising Hearing Officer the State of California’s Department of Social Services. We have a contract with the Social Security Administration to hear the appeals of individuals who have been notified that their federal disability benefits will be stopped. I have the best staff of administrative hearing officers in the State, which means they spend a lot of time making me look good. I enjoy the legal research I get to do in support of my staff, the teaching opportunities, and ensuring that, above all, we do the right thing.
Craig: Who has been the most influential person in your career?
Ian: There are lots of ways to view a ‘career.’ We’ve already talked about my racing ‘career.’ From a vocational perspective, there was a group of 17 Administrative Law Judges who apparently saw something in this kid who informally represented the State, and took me on as their project. They held my feet to the fire when necessary, and gently explained, taught, nudged me to the point that I can now do the same for my staff and bring out the best in them. More broadly speaking, my post-graduate advisor Andrew Mackillop was more than I might have hoped for. I had a very specific topic in mind. He handed me a short reading list and asked for a brief assessment. The readings made me realise how many assumptions I had made, and his response to the assessment (‘nice start…flesh it out to 5000 words and get back to me’) put me on notice that I was in for more than I bargained for. I am quite convinced that my PhD has nothing to do with intellectual power, but is merely an indication of unusual patience.
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you change?
Ian: I think I would make it so that athletes had to learn to race while they train to swim, bike, and run. They willingly excuse patent errors by saying ‘I do it that way at all my races.’ If a coach said to fix some aspect of their running gait, they would do it. How is that different from letting them know that taking up 6-feet of rack space is wrong?
Craig: What are your future triathlon goals?
Ian: I have three triathlon goals just now. First, I want to continue to shave time off my races, showing at least incremental improvement. Second, I want to find a great destination race. The distance is not important, though Olympic is by far my favourite, but I’d like to go somewhere that has a challenging swim, a beautiful bike course, and an easy run. Finally, I want to complete a book that I’ve just started. It is intended to be down to earth recommendations for those who are new to triathlon. There are lots of books from a technical point of view, how to pick up speed on the bike, or whatever. This is designed to be more basic and practical, like ‘don’t get naked in transition.’
Craig: Ian, I waited way too long to interview you. This was a lot of fun! I really admire your perspectives. Thank you for all you do for the TCSD and beyond. We are lucky to have you on our team.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.