Sports/Human interest: Hawaii Ironman

Published in Easton Journal, Mansfield News, Norton Mirror, November 2003:

Easton man earns ironman status

By Lori Hein / Correspondent
Friday, November 21, 2003

Kelley competes in Hawaii triathlon

Let's say you're going to run a marathon. You've trained for months and hope you're ready. If you go the distance, at the end of the day you can call yourself a marathoner.

Now, let's say you're going to run a marathon, but not until you've first swum 2.4 miles in open water and raced 112 miles on a bike. Then, you lace up your shoes and run 26.2 miles. If you go the distance, at the end of the day you can call yourself an ironman.

Easton's Steve Kelley, 34, first became an ironman at the 2000 Ironman USA in Lake Placid, NY. (Capital "I" denotes trademarked races sponsored by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), while lower-case "i" refers to ironman distance in general and non-WTC events.) On Oct. 18, after 140.6 miles in 13 hours, 5 minutes and 4 seconds, Kelley crossed the finish line at Hawaii Ironman, granddaddy of all ironman-distance triathlons and holy grail of any triathlete who competes at that distance.

Many athletes spend years trying to snare one of Hawaii's 1,500 coveted slots. There are two ways to get one. You can race another Ironman to which slots have been allocated, and finish at or near the top of your age group. (If your time doesn't have an 8, 9 or 10 in the hours column, you won't.)

Or, you can enter your name in a lottery whose 150 winners are drawn in mid-April. If your number comes up, you then "validate" your entry by completing a triathlon of at least half-ironman distance. That done, you can buy your plane ticket to the Big Island.

Kelley had his name in the lottery for years and, this April, finally got lucky. His daughter, Ava, was born on May 2 and right after he and wife Kati brought their new baby home, Kelley started training for Hawaii. He did his validation race in June.

Ironman training is an average 18-hour weekly commitment to swimming, cycling and running. Kelley spent three mornings a week lapping for one-and-a-half hours in the Brockton High School pool. Wednesdays and Sundays meant four to six-hour bike rides. He'd ride "toward the coast," to Duxbury or Plymouth, where his parents live. His parents' house was a good place to fill his water bottle and hook up with riders who wanted to go out for a short leg.

"There were rides where I'd have ridden with four or five different people before the ride was over," Kelley said.

Occasionally, he'd hook up with his neighbor and brother-in-law, Easton's Mark McCormack. McCormack, the 2003 US Pro Road Race Champion, out on his own five to six-hour training ride, might call Kelley on a cell phone and the two would join up for an hour or two. On running days, Kelley stayed closer to home, doing loops around Sheep Pasture, Stonehill and Borderland. For long runs, he entered local road races.

Kelley, who has a law degree but left that field "for a balanced lifestyle, the general happiness factor," teaches U.S. history at Southeastern Regional. But triathlon is a major part of his life, and he is not only a serious competitor, but also an experienced coach and active multi-sport promoter.

His athletic resume is long. Kelley's been a triathlete for 15 years, is a certified triathlon and cycling coach, was assistant coach of last year's Wheaton College swim team, heads USA Triathlon's New England Region, is a six-time Boston Marathon finisher (marathon legend Johnny Kelley is his great uncle). USA Triathlon and the U.S. Olympic Committee recently named him Triathlon Development Coach of the Year in recognition of his work with young athletes.

In 1998, Kelley co-founded the Baystate Triathlon Team (, an adult team whose 125 members compete in races ranging in distance from sprint through Olympic to ironman.

From this team sprouted a junior team for athletes ages 14 through 23. Kelley channels much of the money he earns from private coaching into the Development Team (

Said Kelley, "Our hope is to graduate some of them into the ranks of professional triathletes."

One of their kids just turned pro.

Now to the Big Island. Ironman begins and ends in the tiny town of Kailua-Kona. In a day that puts human beings through extreme physical and mental challenges, one of the toughest is the bike stretch through the stark, searing lava fields of the Kona coast. But Kelley turned the landscape into a source of strength. As his plane was landing in Kona, Kelley "caught glimpses of the lava field. It was exciting. I could feel the energy of the island."

His hotel room faced the swim start, and in the days before the race, he would swim part of the water course, gauging currents, temperature, sun position, buoy placement, and cementing the hotel as a visual to keep himself on course in what would be a mayhem of thrashing arms and legs come Ironman morning.

Kelley wasn't alone at the swim site.

"The athletes strut around all week long," he said, and people sit on the pier and the seawall to watch the superfit bodies. The ritual flexing and gawking has earned this spit of sand the nickname "Dig Me Beach."

Race day. Fifteen-hundred athletes assemble for the 7 a.m. swim start. Fifteen-hundred athletes' worth of accumulated hopes, dreams, fears, prayers, focus, energy, training, determination, and sheer will.

Kelley described Hawaii as "definitely the most memorable swim start" he's ever done.

"There was intense energy at the start of the race. Thousands of people watching on the seawall and pier, loudspeakers blaring native drumming and chants in Hawaiian."

Helicopters hovered above the water, rotors stirring up the sea. He talked of the countdown. "Five minutes, three minutes, one minute. Then, a cannon goes off - an actual cannon- and 1,500 people get into the water trying to find a comfortable place to swim."

Kelley did the swim comfortably and in good time. He felt relaxed, saw "colorful fish," and described the experience as "enjoyable, tropical, sunny." After swimming for an hour and 19 minutes, Kelley ran up the beach to the transition area, where a volunteer handed him his bike bag. After he'd changed into riding gear, he grabbed his bike, and, eight and-a-half minutes after leaving the water, Steve Kelley took off for 112-miles in the saddle.

He felt good on the bike, and expected to, having put most of his training emphasis on cycling.

"The goal of any ironman is to come off the bike in one piece," he said. "If you come off the bike comfortable, not dehydrated, and with enough energy, then you're in good shape for the run." (Remember, there's a marathon at the end of all this.)

Steady headwinds at about 80 miles slowed him down, but he decided not to fight them, and to conserve energy for the marathon.

"I've learned, from 15 years in triathlon," he said, "that you have to be patient."

So, he spent more time on the bike than he'd planned.

"The worst part of the bike was wanting to get off it."

A five-minute bike-to-run transition put Kelley, after eight hours and nearly 115 miles, at the start of a marathon. It was about 3 p.m. He had leg cramps, but worked through them over the marathon's first 10 miles. By mile 18, he was running in pitch darkness.

It is crucial to keep eating and drinking all day, and Kelley's moveable feast included energy bars, pretzels, electrolyte tablets, water, Gatorade, and Coke. (When it was all over, he ate a pizza.)

Kelley described the finish on Alii Drive as "one of the most spectacular race finishes in the world. Complete darkness. Then, all these floodlights, illumination, the crowd. The finish is pretty intense. A really profound sense of accomplishment."

Kelley keeps an old poster of an Ironman finish, blurry, the way it looks to a depleted athlete seeing it within reach. The caption reads, "If you have to ask why, you'll never understand."

Kelley brought some people who understand to Hawaii with him, including wife Kati, a vice president at Community Bank and a runner.

"She's beat me in every marathon we've done together," Kelley said.

In addition, he brought six-month-old Ava. "Ava was a real hit in Hawaii."

Kati had dressed her in leis and a hat, and "she was in lots of photos and got lots of attention." Ava did well on the long trip, too.

"Not a peep on the plane. An excellent traveler," reported her dad.

On Dec. 6, Ironman comes to NBC. A show commemorating its 25th anniversary airs from 5 to 6 p.m.. Highlights of the 2003 Hawaii race air from 8 to 9 p.m. Keep your eyes peeled for bib number 196.

Lori Hein can be reached at 508-634-7563 or