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Long Course For Life: Finding Longevity In Ironman Racing

  • By Kim McDonald
  • Published Feb 6, 2013

Ken Glah, former pro turned age grouper, shares his secrets to racing 28 consecutive Ironman World Championships (and counting).

*Editor’s note: This feature was written before the 2012 Ironman World Championship. Glah completed the race in 10:12:27, bringing his consecutive Kona streak to 29.

This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec 2012 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

We all know local runners who return to the same marathon year after year, racking up an impressive string of consecutive finishes over one or two decades. Triathlon is also full of guys who brave the elements, injuries and the wrath of their spouses by showing up without fail to the same sprint, Olympic-distance or Ironman every year. But none of their feats is as impressive—or likely ever to be matched—as the Ironman streak of former pro-turned-age-grouper Ken Glah. This October, the West Chester, Pa., resident will be going for his 29th consecutive finish at the Big Kahuna of long-course triathlons: the Ironman World Championship.

Now in his final year competing in the 45–49 age group, Glah will in all likelihood extend his incredible string of consecutive Kona finishes to 30 when he turns 50 next year. And since it should be easier for him to qualify each year for Hawaii as he enters the upper age divisions, 40 consecutive Kona finishes when he’s 60, or even 50 consecutive Ironman Hawaii finishes by age 70, are all in the realm of possibility.

So how does he do it? How does this master of consistency, who racked up 10 top-10 Ironman World Championship finishes in the 1980s and 1990s—finishing third in 1988 and fourth during the famous 1989 Iron War duel between Mark Allen and Dave Scott—keep himself motivated to train and compete as an age grouper while watching his performances decline year after year? How has he kept healthy and injury-free despite doing two or more Ironman races every year for more than three decades? And what lessons from his years of experience as an athlete and coach does he have for those of us who simply want to stay in the game as we get older as well as balance work and family with the occasional Ironman?

Those were some of the questions I posed to Glah after he qualified for this year’s Kona by coming in fifth in his age group at Ironman New Zealand. That’s right—fifth. The man once known as the “Beast from the East” during his pro career after six Ironman wins—three straight at Ironman Brazil from 1998 to 2000, two at Ironman New Zealand in 1992 and 1993 and the 1993 Ironman Canada—is now like the rest of us, squeezing in whatever workouts he can fit in between work and family, even waiting around for the Kona roll-down slots at the end of the awards ceremony.

At this year’s Ironman New Zealand, which was shortened to a 70.3 due to bad weather, “I actually got the very last slot,” Glah says with a chuckle. “A guy who’s 79 who’s done a bunch of trips with us didn’t take his slot and when they redid the math, my age group got one more slot, which is how I got in.”

Glah’s main focus these days is Endurance Sports Travel, a travel agency for triathletes he started 10 years ago to make it easier for people to book trips to Ironman Brazil. As it has grown and expanded, his training and Ironman times have suffered. He now spends more than 200 days a year on the road booking trips and shuttling people around to more than a dozen races—mostly Ironmans and 70.3 races—in Australia, Canada, China, Europe, South America and the United States.

“I set my goals to fit my training, and my training now is next to nothing,” admits Glah. “There’s only so much I can do. And the reason I’m able to qualify for Hawaii—and it’s getting harder and harder as I get further and further away from my base—is that I’m living off that base. The consistent training ended maybe in 2003 and 2004 as I added more and more events to my travel company.”

Although his pro career was cut short, his transition to age grouper wasn’t difficult, he says, because he quickly learned to dial back his expectations. “If I have a good day,” he says before each Ironman, “this is what I’ll do. If I have a really good day, this is what I’ll do. And if all of a sudden I go 20 minutes faster than what I thought I’d do on a really good day, well, for me to get that kind of result out of my body, even if it was a 10-hour Ironman, I’m really happy with [that] because it’s way beyond what I expected. You have to set your goals based on what your training is, not what you did 10 years ago. And I think the higher you were at some point in your life, the harder it is to be more realistic with those goals.”

He says he believes the reason there aren’t more former pros still racing is that competitive athletes in general have trouble accepting the fact that they get slower with age. “People are so time- and place-obsessed,” he says, adding that even many top age groupers drop the sport because they think, “‘If I can’t go as fast as what I did last year or the year before, then I don’t want to do it.’”

Glah still strives to train consistently within the time limits imposed by his professional and personal life.   He’s found that even short workouts can make a big difference. “Once you’ve been doing this for a while, if you can go out and train for one or one and a half hours a day, even if you’re busy with work and family, that should allow you to retain the fitness for an Ironman,” he says. “If you have a huge base of years and years in this sport, you can get away with an hour or two hours a day. If you put in four hours on Saturday and five or six hours on Sunday, and an hour to an hour and a half every day during the rest of the week, you’re up to 15 hours. That’s not too bad, especially if you already have years of base. That’s going to get you through fine.”

Rise to the Top

Tall, lean and freckled from years of training under the sun, Glah looks much younger than his age, a result, no doubt, of his consistent training. He still keeps his shoulder-length hair tied back into his signature red ponytail, which once matched his fiery drive to win major races as a teenager in the early 1980s. Dean Harper, a former pro who now works as an attorney in Walnut Creek, Calif., recalls the time he met Glah at the 1983 Oxford Triathlon in Maryland, which that year was triathlon’s Long Course National Championship and later evolved into Ironman 70.3 Eagleman.

“I won the race that year and met a lot of the East Coast triathletes,” says Harper. “But I will never forget meeting Ken Glah for the first time. At the awards ceremony, he came up to me and introduced himself. He was all of 19 years old. He said he had placed fourth or fifth, I don’t remember for sure. But then he said, ‘And I am going to beat you next year.’ I just thought that was a pretty bold thing for him to say at the time. Funny thing is, he did beat me the next year.”

The following year, Glah proved he was a top contender at long-distance triathlons, finishing fourth at the Nice Triathlon, which at the time was billed the world championship for long-course racing. “So I was psyched to do well in Hawaii,” he says. But his first experience on the Big Island in 1984 turned out to be a disaster. He had a solid swim, was seventh at one point on the bike, then dropped to ninth at mile 12 on the run and ended up finishing 275th in 12:09, with a 5:49 run split after becoming extremely dehydrated and sunburned. “It was a tough day, but I got through it,” he says. That experience didn’t deter him from trying again the next year. He dropped out of Penn State to become a full-time pro and improved rapidly. In his second Ironman Hawaii, he finished 17th in 9:57; in 1986, he was sixth in 9:09; in 1987, he came in fifth in 9:05; and by 1988 he was third in 8:38. During the famed 1989 Iron War duel between Mark Allen and Dave Scott, Glah went out with abandon on the bike, leading the two on the descent from Hawi, and eventually finishing in fourth in 8:32 after Greg Welch passed him less than a mile from the finish.

Unlike many of the top triathletes in the 1980s, such as Scott Molina and Welch, Glah never migrated to triathlon’s mecca in San Diego but remained in his home town of West Chester and trained with other local pros such as Brooks Clark, Jan Wanklyn (whom he married in 1989), Steve Fitch, Jeff Devlin and Joy Hansen.

“Other than a cold winter, the area around West Chester is a great place to train,” Glah says. “I like the change of seasons, the rides and runs around here. And the winter was a good way to give me a good break, which helped extend my career as a pro and has helped keep me interested in continuing with the sport. The tough conditions in the late winter and early spring made me tough mentally, and the 95- to 100-degree days, with 90 percent humidity in the summer, were great for preparing for hot, humid races like Hawaii.”

Glah says what keeps him coming back year after year to Kona isn’t to continue his streak of Ironman Hawaii finishes. Because athletes like Lyn Brooks and Scott Tinley had a head start in accumulating so many consecutive Kona finishes before him, he says that had never really been his goal. “I do it because I love the race,” he says. “I am not able to race it the way I would like at the moment because of other things, but I do hope to be back training and racing it hard one day.”

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