303’s Bill Plock: his triathlon journey, and his lens for reporting on Kona IRONMAN World Championships

Kona was his excuse, now it’s part of is story telling passion

With my hand clasped around the door handle to the gym, I pulled it off and walked away. Inside the other players were warming up for tryouts for a high school basketball team that would eventually be nationally ranked. A team I would’ve made, not played much necessarily, but still it would’ve been a helluva journey. By our senior year, every player was offered some type of scholarship. Instead, I walked the opposite way down the long shiny tiled hall decorated with pictures of all the all-star athletes that had played sports at Wheat Ridge high school. I felt a bit defeated, maybe embarrassed and definitely unsure if I made the right decision. I kept convincing myself I would focus on soccer, a sport I loved too, but not as much as basketball. But at 5’10 I weighed the potential, maybe of playing in college, and chose “my sport.”  I never formally competed in basketball again. I was 16. I had given up my driveway dream of playing for a living, and living my dream – and I had barely learned to drive.

I followed logic, not my heart or my passion, and at some point I discovered this life-changing decision. To this day I believe I would’ve probably ended up at some small junior college trying to “make it” on the court. The butterfly effect of that decision is enormous. What major I chose, what woman I would marry, what child I would have, and on and on. And relative to you, the audience of 303triathlon, you probably would never be reading my thoughts as I travel to cover my third IRONMAN World Championships. The consequences of THAT decision also determined what friends I made, what jobs I chose, and ultimately what sport I would choose to try. It was friends who introduced me to triathlons, and ultimately one friend in particular (who is competing in Kona this year by the way), who in 2010 made me curious enough to try my first IRONMAN, and to understand its madness.

The “decision,” as I refer to my teenage forked path away from basketball, for a while weighed on me as a regret; but as experiences often transform into wisdom, I began to dissect “the decision.” I have concluded that the real regret was being afraid to try. I did make the sophomore team, so there was no reason to think I wouldn’t make the junior team. It wasn’t the failure of not making the team, but maybe it was the failure of not making my dream of the NBA. I probably knew that was almost impossible but was afraid to try. Wisdom also tells me I simply let myself down, and I defied my passion, and my heart. I think from that day forward any time I have ever made a decision that makes me feel like I did that day, it has not worked out for me. I have come to learn that feeling, and it is my compass and has been for over 35 years.

It was that moment in the school hallway, pondering my basketball future, that I have come to appreciate as a moment that has driven my overachieving nature. My never can’t-do attitude. My “chip on my shoulder,” so speak. As years passed and I continued to play hours and hours of pickup basketball and organized soccer until my early 40’s, I began to focus more on cycling as I liked the adventure of it and chance to challenge my strength in new ways. I was always a decent runner, and I learned to swim, and eventually I did my first triathlon in 2008 in Steamboat Springs—an Olympic distance race. In 2010 I did IRONMAN Arizona followed by Cozumel, Canada, Arizona and Boulder three times.

I wrestle with IRONMAN all the time, and that feeling of logic-versus-passion constantly eats at me. Of the seven IRONMANs I have finished, in five of them I had results that left me feeling like I had done well—at least in comparison to others. Two years ago I stepped onto the podium in 5th place in my age group, missing Kona by one spot. I almost made it to Kona as an athlete and I relished the thought of Kona in 2016, but that never happened. I have mixed feelings as to wanting to compete again to try and qualify. I raced an Olympic distance this year for fun, and as I get further from the fitness needed to be at the top in IRONMAN distance, it gets easier and easier to let go of the dream of Kona.

Bill Plock

If I’m really honest with myself, I suppose, I don’t dream of competing in Kona enough right now to endure the effort to get there. I’m fortunate to have the athletic ability to make a few mistakes and still do well with triathlon, but let’s face it, to qualify for Kona takes an almost perfect race and a perfect season of training to go with it. It is tough to qualify— we all know that. But the mental edge needed to push through the pressures of discipline and enduring the time and often the pain that goes with it, separates the contenders from the pretenders, as they say.

Honestly, I think Kona was an excuse more than a goal, at least at first. The journey of my why, my why for even signing up for IRONMAN Arizona in 2009 and ultimately pushing my limits to where I actually had a shot at Kona span a spectrum of motives and reasons.

It began as a curiosity wondering if indeed I could do what my friend had been doing to finish a full distance race.  Training then morphed into a lifestyle that allowed me use training as a partial excuse to hide from other life challenges. But, because I was showing promise, to myself I suppose, I let it rule my life. I think I over-hyped my need to train to avoid some responsibilities and obligations, and I often both ends of the candle. In the wake of my transition from wanna-be-triathlete to age group contender, my marriage blew up and my life took a different course. One of major discovery.  But, I gained perspective and a true appreciation of the sport and once I began to resolve some personal issues, I realized the constant of IRONMAN training, when properly balanced and executed, opened up other doors. I made many friends, and rather than dedicating my existence to “using triathlon” to run away, I embraced it. I reached a new plateau of speed and enjoyment. I loved it so much that I wanted to make my career line up with my passion for training and competition and help inspire others to reach for their dreams and potential.

I had my two best seasons in 2014 and 2015 and came to Kona with a semi-sweet attitude in 2015, feeling like I could so easily be competing and not taking pictures and writing stories. I wasn’t upset, just pulled emotionally in many directions. But I landed at home ready to tear up 2016 and come back to toe the start line. It wasn’t meant to be and my race in Boulder didn’t go as planned. But, I came back to Kona to be a journalist in 2016, and it was in that trip I came to grips to with my dream to race here.

While this race collects the best athletes in the world, it still is just a race. It still hurts; it’s still a lot to prepare for, it’s not cheap and I’m not convinced competing in it, for me anyways, is that much more exciting than celebrating it as a part of the triathlon community.  I love part of the fabric that matters, and my heart is in telling the stories and applying my “why” to the lens I report through.

My hand is firmly gripped on the camera and keyboard and I am opening the door to the gym of possibilities that is my life. I have conquered IRONMAN, I have proved to myself I can compete. Competing here doesn’t make me a better person or even a better athlete. Being here lets me share my wisdom with you. I get the race. I get what the athletes endure. Not racing here doesn’t take away from my ability to see beyond surface of this race.

Someday I may return to racing full distance IRONMANs but only if I want to qualify to be here. For me there is no other reason to try. But right now Kona calls my mind, my eye for photos, and my use of the English language. I’m cool with that. My dream is to be a story teller. That’s what my heart wants to do. Remember, I learned to listen to my heart when I was 16, I’m not gonna stop now.

I offer you this window into my perspective, my journey so that as you read my accounts of this race experience over the next few days you will know where I am coming from!

Tri Hearter: Reflections on IRONMAN Boulder’s Epic Nature

Warren Mine

By Bill Plock

About 20 minutes after the last person crossed the finish line at IRONMAN Boulder, it hit me. That feeling of wow, what a great day. The next day at the awards ceremony it bowled me over just what had happened. The epic nature and vibe of an IRONMAN comes down to thousands of moments, some inspiring, others mesmerizing and many simply beautiful that causes the ultimate appreciation and respect for the race and the athletes. At some point it just becomes overwhelming if you let it–in a good way.

I was walking with 73 year old Warren Mine of California (the oldest to complete IM Boulder in 2017) to help him retrieve his bike talking about his race (his 20th+ IRONMAN) when champion Tim O’Donnell walked by on his way to get his bike. I kind of shook my head in disbelief and reflected. What a crazy sport I thought. Here is one of the top athletes in the world, having just won the race, simply going to pick up his bike, limping a bit and commenting how his legs hurt–like everyone else’s. When LeBron finishes a game I’m guessing he doesn’t even pick up his basketball shoes. The mingling of pro’s and amateurs all aiming for the same goal, with the same vulnerabilities, the same dedication and similar dreams and hopes sets triathlon apart. It endears all of us triathletes. It builds bonds and communities and lasts a lifetime.

To spectate IRONMAN Boulder for the first time convinced me more than ever that through this endeavor lives are changed. Relationships begin, are cemented, and are celebrated by a common event experienced uniquely for everyone. I parked myself for over two hours photographing hundreds of Colorado athletes as they entered the run course from T2. The relief and smiles to be on the run leg permeated most, and their hopeful gaze for a good run was greeted by hundreds of cheering people lining Boulder Creek. Hours passed. I walked miles, taking more pictures, cheering and remembering my runs on this creek for the past three IRONMAN Boulders. All I could think about was the love and support I always felt and that was the only thing I missed about not racing. It’s addictive and appreciated. I thought how lucky all these people were to experience it–especially first timers. They will never forget it.

Champion Tim O’Donnell awards finisher medals during the magical midnight hour

Later that night, during the last hour of the race, I simply sat a few feet from finishers who were greeted by Tim O’Donnell and his wife and three time IRONMAN World Champion, Mirinda Carfrae. The unofficial triathlon king and queen of Boulder graciously medaled each of the final age groupers. Most gazed in disbelief or were too dazed and confused to grasp the significance–but once they understood who was putting their arms around them, the smiles beamed.

To witness the tears, the joy, the pain, the end, and really the beginning of a new journey for so many sticks in my mind. Tears came to my eyes many times.

But no race is complete without recognizing those who win and rise above. Those who persevere the most, overcome amazing challenges and earn one of the toughest and most coveted entries in all of sport–a chance to compete in Kona. A spot reserved for the top 2%. The dreams of the athletes, their families and coaches hang in the balance of getting a spot.

It’s not as clear cut as you might think. Going into the awards all that is known is that 40 spots are awarded. They are then divided among all age groups proportional to how many people raced in the age group.

Some age groups have one entry, others as many as three of four. But not every athlete chooses to go or some have an entry from

EK Endurance Sports, Vixxen Racing & BTC Elite Coach Eric Kenney

an earlier race so their spot rolls down. Each time an athlete’s name is called and there is no response, some athlete hoping and waiting erupts in emotion–some show it more than others and it is wonderful to witness (you must be present to claim a spot). The tension can be thick.

Coach Eric Kenney and his athlete Liz West

In the female 30 to 34 age group, local athlete, Team Vixxen Racing member, Elizabeth West, was third in her age group with two spots up for grabs. She is coached by Eric Kenney of EK Endurance. I knew how anxious Eric was, hoping to see her dream come true. If you know Eric, you know he wears his heart on his sleeve.

As Mike Reilly began to announce that age group I was nervous. My personal connection and empathy for Liz and knowing how close she has been in past years and remembering how I felt missing a spot by one place two years ago, put a lump in my throat in anticipation. Mike called the first name. Silence. He called it again. More silence.

Tears swelled in my eyes and I gazed not at Liz, but at Eric a few feet away, standing alone to the side. He crumpled to a knee and couldn’t fight the tears. That moment will last a lifetime. Liz hugged many and tears came to her as well and her mom sat crying; it was simply beautiful.

Ironman Boulder is over, dreams are cast and inspiring stories will be told for a long long time.