Coach Simon Butterworth was invited to give a talk at the Iron Gents and Iron Ladies annual dinner held during Ironman week in Kona. The invitations are given to all athletes over 60. The MC for the evening was Cherie Gruenfeld a 16th-time winner in Kona who this year set the record for the oldest female finisher. Before Simon talked Missy LeStrange shared her wisdom from almost 30 years of experience racing in Kona and a similar number of wins. She won again this year. He felt humbled beside these two legends who had won more often than he had raced.
Here is his talk which he has edited for a wider audience.
“Thank you Cherie for inviting me to talk. I have to pinch myself at times to recognize how lucky I have been to be able to race here so many times. Lots of great support from many friends and family ( Simon lost his biggest fan, supporter and partner/wife of 52 years this summer postponing his 16th race in Kona).
You don’t have to be first second or even in the top ten to win in an IronMan, especially the World Championship. I got a reminder of how true that is in 2009.
Coming to Kona that year I was feeling strong. I had won Buffalo Springs 70.3 by 46 hard-fought seconds beating a friend who in 10 years of competition had left me in the dust every time. I had placed 7th then 6th the last two times I was out here. I was beginning to think I could get on the podium.
The swim and T1 went well. The bike felt good as I powered up the first short hill. I started to accelerate on Kuakini when with a clunk, the pedals froze. The bonded to the frame derailleur hanger had broken. I knew that it could not be fixed. Ideas came quickly as I walked back to T1. Single speed, find a mechanic borrow a bike. I got some puzzled looks on the hot corner.
I found a mechanic but had to walk back to where I had stopped, as those were rules. I had, and still do, Rotor oval chainrings and we could not get the chain tensioned to stop the chain from moving up and down 2-3 cogs. We gave up on the single speed after an hour of trying. The mechanic said he would look for a loaner at T1. After about 20 min of increasing frustration and waiting I was leaning against a telephone pole and crying. It seemed my race was over.
I composed myself and again walked back to T1 to make one last appeal for a loaner. I thought for sure one of the bike companies that had many demo bikes at the expo would not have packed up everything in 24 hrs but I was wrong. I was about to give up and collect my bags when a voice behind me said “I can lend you I bike”. I turned around and found myself looking into the eyes of Rocky Campbell, they were the same height as mine. Rocky at that time was the manager of construction for the race. (We had another great lunch together this year with his wife and other friends.) He set off to his warehouse to get the bike retuning about 40 min later. His day job as the owner of a lumber yard, and the bike was covered in a fine layer of sawdust. He apologized for that, I assured him that was just fine as the mechanic helped me adjust the seat height and transfer bottles and other stuff. Two and a half hrs after I got out of the water I was moving forward again and so happy.
At the first traffic light I discovered what was going to be the norm for much of the ride. The lights were now working and not just flashing, the timing mats were gone at the turnaround at the top of Kuakini. All the way back through town I was carefully following the rules of the road.
All the way up the Queen K the aid stations were now on the other side of the road for the retuning athletes. Starting up the climb to Hawi I passed my first competitor. In Hawi the mats were gone but there was staff to observe my passage. It’s nice flying down the hill with the wind at your back with no traffic or bicycles, I did not even have to worry about race Marshalls. Halfway back to Kona the van pulls up beside me and starts asking me questions and they left me worrying that they were not sure if I had completed the course properly. That sure had me worried but it wasn’t the time to fuss over that and I must have answered the questions satisfactorily.
Somewhere around Waikoloa I passed sister Madonna Buder and Rudy Garcia Toloson. Sister was attempting to become the oldest female Kona finisher at 80. Double above the knee amputee Rudy was attempting to set a new mark for Challenged Athletes, it was his first IM. Struggling into a stiff headwind sadly they did not make the cut off. He did go on to finish Ironman Florida. Above the knee amputee‘s lose the use of their quads and hamstrings and the only muscle to drive the leg of the Gluts. Think about that the next time you try and climb a hill.
I pulled into T2 at about 5 o’clock to find that my predicament was viral. Two ART friends were waiting to work on me. (I reconnected with one of them this year, Dr Charles Renick from Columbia SC). At 5:30, the cutoff time for the bike, I was threatened with disqualification and hustled out of T2. I was the last person to get on the run course.
I was on fire heading up the first short hill, a marathon PR seemed possible. I got down to the waterfront on Alli and found Lou Hollander. I hatched a new idea. Lou by this time was one of the 80+ superstars of the sport. Running with him to the turnaround was like being with a rockstar; everybody knew him and they were shouting out his name and giving him encouragement. Progress was slow but it was a hoot.
Finally, Lou had convinced me to press on by myself. But the stage was set. I was going to try and talk to anybody who was willing to engage with me. Time passed quickly chatting in the dark all the way to the energy lab and it was easier than I had ever experienced in six races. When I wasn’t talking to someone I was running fast so I made overall progress reasonably well. As I approached the energy lab I got into a conversation with a woman my age who was making good progress but having a hard time. We set off down the hill when suddenly she wasn’t there. She had gone off the curb and fallen. I helped her up. She was OK and we continued to the turnaround where she also chased me off and said go finish.
Somewhere back on the Queen K, I see a woman ahead of me in the traffic glare, cars were back on the road on the other side, weaving all over the road and almost into that traffic. As I came up on her I asked her what was wrong, “Back spasms” – she was doubled over at the waist. I told her she should get help. She thought that would disqualify her, but I explained it would not. Then I discovered that she was being followed by medics in the van. I wished her well and pressed on to the finish.
That finish was the one I will never forget, I was on a cloud, I had won placing 38th out of 42. And there were some bonuses.
NBC had been hiding behind me filming my encounter with the lady with back spasms. That was on their special in November as was my finish. Bob Babbit gave me a shout-out at the awards dinner telling my story and getting a big cheer.
Then two years later when I won my AG at Eagleman a lady walks up to me and says, “Simon you don’t remember me we ran down the Energy Lab road together in 2009. She said it saved her day.”
I already knew that the best part of the triathlon and any sports are our fellow competitors and the common bond we have and the friendships we make. This race was the coda to long-held idea and will be with me forever.
Remember even at the darkest moments on the darkest nights you always have friends out there. Put your mouth to work to help you move forward.”