It was hard to decide which story should kick off our new Road to Kona series. Qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii is the ultimate goal for many and every athlete we have helped to achieve that has a special and inspiring tale.

However, Paul Duffy’s is among the most inspiring stories we could share and we thought it would be a good opener to our new series; he is no superhuman when it comes to athletic performance—you will read about these types later on. A combination of planning and luck delivered him that precious Kona slot. Paul is the family man, a working age grouper with modest athletic talent and little background in the sport who through hard work, discipline and patience accomplished his dream goal of racing in Kona.


Paul qualified for the first time at Ironman China 2009, when he was 7th with the time of 11hr 12. Don’t let the relatively slow time fool you: the conditions on the day were very tough, likely the hottest day in Ironman history. Rasmus Henning won the race in 8hr 53 with a 3hr 38 marathon, whereas on a good day he can take almost one hour off these splits such as in Roth in 2010 when he won in 7:52:36 with 2hr 39 marathon.

Just like most of our readers and Kona-wannabes, Paul works fulltime and during his preparation for Ironman China was holding a very demanding job as a Forex Trader in Singapore; 10 hours in the office starting at 6.30am and, due to the nature of the job, there were no training opportunities during lunch. In other words, there few options to get a second session done unless he was out on the road before 5am, which was his daily routine. After work, Paul would go straight to the gym for either a swim or a run before going home for dinner with his wife and their three daughters.

Training Overview

Morning and evening sessions were mostly 60-90 minutes. In the morning Paul would either ride or run, while he did his swimming in the evenings. On weekends, he was relatively free in the mornings; afternoon and evening was family time so training had to be done by midday.

To the specifics of each discipline: Paul is a heavy, muscular athlete. For athletes with this body type, a coach has to be careful with the amount of intensity work on the run as recovery time increases exponentially with the size of the athlete.

At the same time, we made the most of his natural strength by giving him a bike plan for most of his training blocks. We knew that our chances for performance were on the bike and Paul got to a level where he was riding very close to a 5-hour Ironman bike split even on slow courses and in tough conditions.

The swim was a tricky one. When an athlete lacks the proper swimming background, there is only so much you can do about it. It is hard to take an intermediate swimmer and get him or her to the front of the pack. While it can be done, it would cost bike- and run fitness. We decided to aim for efficiency, which means finishing the swim with a lower heart rate and enough energy to make up time during the rest of the race.

Plan of attack

Paul’s cards were dealt: he was an average swimmer, a very strong biker and a consistent though not a fast runner. This profile meant his chances were greater on a slow course, with little drafting and preferably hot weather. We came up with two options: Ironman Malaysia in February and Ironman China in April. Paul had also signed up for the Singapore half Ironman in between both Ironman races.

Ironman Malaysia went well, very well actually. Paul executed the plan and finished 10th in the M40-44 division in 10hr 42. We were pretty close but no slot.

The Singapore half Ironman was only 3 weeks after Malaysia. We raced that on a recovery plan, keeping his strength and speed, while giving his immune system a chance to restore. Singapore race day came and Paul had another great performance, finishing in 11th place in his age group in 4hr 57. The goal of a faster race had been achieved.

We then started our preparation for China. I knew he was tired from the back-to-back racing in hot weather, so the training plan was a lot more conservative and our goal was only to stay fit while allowing him to recover from those two efforts.

On race day in China, I remember following the event online; each time provided updates on the temperature and conditions I had a smile on my face. It was his race, an absolute war zone as conditions were just brutal, borderline unhealthy due to the heat. This not only suited Paul’s running style (strong, rather than fast), but also his fighter mindset.

Paul had brain cancer five years earlier; that changes your fighting instincts and pain threshold to a level only some will ever experience.

The result? While everyone else was falling apart, Paul kept ticking off the miles, not at the greatest speed but fast enough to secure him a slot for Hawaii. The conditions in China can be described as a “last-man-standing”-type of competition, and when you combine a fighting soul, tough conditions and a well-trained body, you have a pretty good candidate for success.

Enjoy your training!

Vinnie Santana, ironguides Head Coach

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What is Road to Kona?

Road to Kona is ironguides’ dedicated blog to high-performance triathletes aiming to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. The articles are written by the ironguides’ coaches who have helped these athletes make their dream come true.

Each article will feature the story of an ironguides athlete who made it to Hawaii. This is the perfect opportunity to learn about what it takes for regular age groupers with a job, a family and other personal commitments to make it to Kona.

Stay tuned for this series of articles to gather valuable insights on high-performance training.



Date: December 11, 2011
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