The Journey

The Journey of the Ironman: Long-Distance Trials
By Jeff Wilson

Thousands of green- and orange-capped swimmers treaded water in the bay of Kailua-Kona on Oct. 21, 2006. Suddenly, a nearby cannon gave off a deafening roar. The water turned choppy as the swimmers rushed out of the bay, pushing and swimming over each other.

Keats McGonigal, '01, racer No. 1643, hoped he would not get kicked in the head as he started his first World Championship Ironman competition. A racer in an Ironman Triathlon must endure three segments: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.2-mile run.

Earlier that season, McGonigal struggled to qualify for the World Championships in an Ironman race in Coeur d'Alene. With his coach Scott Ward, '86, McGonigal trained for a year and then signed up for the race, confident he would qualify. On race day, more than 2,000 competitors vied for the 80 World Championship qualifying spots.

McGonigal was kicked in the head twice by another competitor during the 2.4-mile swim in Lake Coeur d'Alene. The first stretch of the bicycle challenge left him suffering from nausea, and he began vomiting with 128 miles still left in the race.

"At one point in the race someone rode up to me and said 'Do you need an ambulance? You look terrible,'" McGonigal says.

After seven hours of fighting nausea and 97-degree heat, McGonigal finished the race.

"I had been prepared, but I was not expecting to suffer physically for that amount of time. My goal changed just to finishing the race," McGonigal says.

His final time was 10 hours, five minutes and 55 seconds, placing him eighth in his age division. That put him three spots short of qualifying for the World Championships in Kona. However, three racers before him were not planning on using their positions for the Kona qualification, so McGonigal had the chance to go instead.

"It turned out that one guy had already qualified, one guy was doing another race at the same time as Kona, and the other guy's brother was getting married at the same time as the race," McGonigal says.

Racing in Kona is an ambition for any triathlete, but for a lifetime competitor it was just the next step.

McGonigal ran competitively throughout high school, but a knee surgery abruptly cut short his running career at Whitworth. After graduation, he moved to Pennsylvania with his wife, April (Clark, '01) McGonigal, and they began to seek a hobby they could share.

"Most people pick up dancing or stamp collecting; we picked up triathlons," April McGonigal says.

Keats McGonigal enjoys the physical challenges of training and looks forward to the reward of his work. For him, race day is like payday.

Triathlons are a constructive hobby and a physical challenge. The McGonigals faced the obstacle of learning how to swim competitively, so they decided to take swimming lessons at the local YMCA. During that first summer, they ran three triathlons together. Soon enough, Keats McGonigal was ready for a new challenge: an Ironman race.

Training for an Ironman is a consuming hobby. The list of items needed for a race, including a bicycle, helmet, running shoes and wetsuits, can easily cost a few thousand dollars. While McGonigal was intentionally frugal with his gear, he could not be frugal when it came to training. On some days, he would run and bike for seven hours straight.
"At first I took it pretty personal," April McGonigal says. "He's leaving me to go ride his bike. I mean, what's with that?"

However, the McGonigals were able to balance their relationship with the demands of Ironman races. April realized that racing was a passion for Keats. Before every race they made it a priority to discuss issues such as time, money, their goals and the challenges they faced.

The course in Kona presented the racers with unique challenges. The water was warmer than in other courses, so wetsuits (and the buoyancy they offer) were not allowed. The bicycle section ranged over open terrain, exposing the racers to strong crosswinds. The footrace was over blacktop where temperatures could easily reach 120 degrees. Undaunted, McGonigal raced against the world's best and placed No. 552 out of more than 1,600 racers.

McGonigal attributes much of his success to those who helped him through the tough times, especially his family.

"I couldn't have done any of it without April. And as long as I can remember, my dad has supported me in whatever I chose to do. If on race day it's 45 degrees and pouring rain, I'll see April and Dad on the side of the course cheering me on," McGonigal says.

Fitting in a workout when he can, McGonigal continues to train for future races. In 2007, he plans to participate in Ironman Canada as well as Ironman France. Both races could qualify him for another trip to Kona. His new goal is to return to the World Championships and finish in less than ten hours.

Triathlons taught McGonigal persistence and patience, qualities that have permeated his life. For him, one good day of work adds on to another, and they slowly make a week, a month, and a year of valuable training.

"I just have to take it a mile at a time," McGonigal says.