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Heading to Hawaii: Matt Ward aims to conquer Ironman World Championship

by Chris Daponte

GUELPH-ERAMOSA - A lot of Matt Ward’s friends think he’s crazy - and he’s okay with that.

It comes with the territory, considering his typical Sunday this summer consisted of a one hour swim, followed by a bicycle ride lasting more than six hours.

But the Guelph resident hopes to soon prove all that training was worthwhile.

Oct. 8 will mark the culmination of his efforts, as Ward will be among the 1,800 competitors at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.

Widely regarded as the most challenging physical endurance event in the world, the race consists of a 3.8km swim, a 180km bike ride and a 42km run.

Annually the winning time is usually between eight and nine hours, although participants are given 17 hours to finish the race.

Considering the 32 to 38 C weather, 90% humidity, lack of shade and 40 to 96km/h winds, the primary goal of most competitors is to simply cross the finish line.

But the 39-year-old Ward, who grew up in former Guelph Township and still runs a family business there, hopes to finish in under 12 hours.

“There’s always a doubt [I won’t finish],” he said. “But I’ve never DNF’d in my life ... if I have to crawl across the line, I’ll finish it.”

Friend and coach Ken Kudo, who himself competed in the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in 1998 and has providing training advice to others since 2000, thinks Ward can finish in closer to 11 hours.

“His training this year has gone extremely well. His fitness level is very high,” Kudo said of Ward.

“He’s injury free and should be well rested going into the event. If he stays in control and deals with the extreme weather conditions, he should have a solid day.”

Ward won his spot in the Ironman World Championship through an online lottery that saw 200 lucky individuals awarded a spot in the race.

“Quite frankly, I never would have qualified for [it],” he said. He explained those who qualify are “genetically gifted”  and/or dedicate most of their time to training.

“On a lark I threw my name in a hat,” Ward said.

He added the odds of getting picked in the lottery are about one in 10,000 - but luck and a $90 fee to enter are the only criteria for those picked annually through the lottery.

“You just have to be crazy enough to think you can do it,” he said with a smile. “Anybody with $90 and a dream can do it.”

Ward explained those who win a lottery spot usually do well in the Hawaii race because they  take it seriously and realize it is “the chance of a lifetime” (some even quit their jobs for six months to train).

The first ever Ironman World Championship was held in 1978 as an attempt to settle a debate among several competitors in a Hawaii running race about who was more fit: swimmers, runners or other athletes.

Fifteen men participated in the initial event and 12 completed the race, led by the first “Ironman,” Gordon Haller, who won with a time of just under 11 hours, 47 minutes.

In 1981, 326 male and female athletes took part in the race. The number of competitors has risen steadily since that time, hitting 1,379 in 1991 and 1,734 in 2004.

“The 1970s saw the initial wave of people attracted to the challenge of the marathon,” said Kudo.

“In the last few decades triathlon and Ironman has somewhat replaced it.”

Indeed, the Ironman brand has grown in popularity, aided in part by extensive television coverage of the annual event in Hawaii. But perhaps the biggest draw for the average fan or competitor is the lottery component.

It’s an opportunity for the average athlete to compete on the same course as the best triathletes in the world. Some have likened it to winning a lottery to compete in the Superbowl.

So when Ward received an email in April confirming his spot in the race, he was ecstatic.

“I was jumping up and down and hugging my mom,” he said. He also called other family and friends to relay the good news.

“It was a very exciting day,” he said.

Ward, a married father of one, has completed four other Ironman races and was already training for a half-Iromnan race, so the transition to training for the longer race was seamless.

“I just doubled my training,” he said.

That meant dedicating 15 to 16 hours per week to biking, running and swimming, which Ward said is “on the low side” because he was already in decent shape.

A typical person training from scratch would likely spend 20 to 25 hours per week training, he noted.

Considering the climate in Canada, it can be hard to train for the Ironman race in Hawaii. So Ward took advantage of some very hot and humid weather this July and took several long runs and rides on days when the temperature reached 40 C with the humidex.

It’s something he never could have imagined doing when he was younger.

“I was extremely overweight,” he explained.

Then one day, about 15 years ago, a friend challenged him to run a 5km race. He accepted and started training, at first barely able to run around the block.

“The blocks have just gotten bigger,” he said with a laugh of his current conditioning.

Not long after completing that first 5km race, Ward tried his first triathlon, but it wasn’t easy.

Growing up in former Guelph Township, Ward never excelled at sports - “I sat on the bench a lot,” he admits - and that’s something he says has not changed, despite his physical transformation.

“I’m not very athletic at all,” Ward said.

The phrase seems bizarre, given what he has accomplished physically. Yet he insists it is true, and he smiles while describing his “shaky” hand-eye coordination, “flat feet” and “terrible” running form.

Yet he got hooked into a “great community” of runners in the Guelph-Fergus area and, over time, Ward began to appreciate the other benefits of training and running triathlons, including weight loss and increased self-esteem.

It’s one of the reasons he still likes to head to Guelph Lake and watch those taking part in their first triathlons.

“They’re doing it for the love of the event or to get in better shape or to challenge themselves,” he said.

After years of competing some people can become “jaded,” he admits. So he hopes his acceptance into the Ironman World Championship will motivate others to become involved.

“I’m hoping someone will look at me and say, ‘This guy is average and he’s doing it, so why not me’?” Ward said. “If it gets a few people off the couch, I’ll be happy.”

The magnitude of competing in the Hawaii event is not lost on Ward, who says he wouldn’t be able to compete without the help and support of his wife, Colleen, a physical education teacher and swim coach in Guelph.

“She is very understanding ... she’s definitely my biggest fan,” Ward said. “We both understand it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

He is also thankful for the support of his parents and in-laws, who often watch his 3-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, so he can train and so Colleen can have a break.

“My family has been excellent. I couldn’t ask for better support,” he said, adding his co-workers have also been in his corner from the beginning.

As for his friends, Ward said some shake their heads at his training regimen, while the more athletic ones are happy for him, if not a bit envious.

“All of them would trade spots with me in a second ... and I try to honour that by training as hard as I could,” he said.

His swimming usually took place at Guelph Lake or indoors at Guelph’s West End Community Centre, while he biked and ran on various local and county roads.

In colder or inclement weather he spent a lot of time running at the new Royal Distributing Athletic Performance Centre in Marden.

“It’s probably one of the best [facilities of its type] I’ve seen in Ontario. It’s gorgeous,” Ward said of the field house on County Road 30, just west of Highway 6 and only five minutes from his work.

Guided by the plan developed by Kudo, Ward reached the peak of his training  around the middle of September. From there he scaled back to about 12 hours per week, which he said “feels like heaven” compared to more strenuous weeks earlier in his preparation.

The week leading up to this weekend’s race, Ward said he will do minimal training, with a focus on resting and hydrating.

“At this point you’re either in shape or you’re not,” he said.

He hesitates momentarily before admitting he finds swimming the most difficult leg of the triathlon. Such is the case for most athletes, Olympic swimmers aside, but Ward again incorporates his self-deprecating humour to proclaim he personally is not a very good swimmer.

That may not be the most comforting thought, given the Pacific Ocean in Hawaii can hurl large waves at competitors, often pounding them to the point of exhaustion and/or sickness.

And yet Ward remains dedicated to conquering the grueling course.

“They’re gonna have to pull me out, because I’m not getting out until I’m done,” he said.

For more information on the Ironman World Championship visit www.ironman.com.

 

October 7, 2011

 
 

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