Thursday, January 5, 2017

Road to Kona 2017


There has been a lot going on in my head lately and I believe I might better collect those thoughts if I attempt to put them down on paper.  I have applied to represent Team in Training at the 2017 Ironman World Championships next October.   Last year there were 3 entries available nationwide.  This year there might be less……….might be more.  I will interview with Team in Training next month but that is not why my mind is pre-occupied.  I trust the process and I trust Team in Training.  I am confident they will choose the person or persons that will best help us get closer to a cure.  If I am not chosen, I will certainly be disappointed but that will not take away from what I have accomplished to date and it will not change my feelings of sincere gratitude towards Team in Training for eternally changing my life.  If I am chosen, however, I will be ecstatic and petrified all at the same time. 

“Always Do What You Are Afraid To Do”
-Ralph Waldo Emerson

A recent conversation with my Mom goes something like this:

Me: I have applied to participate in the Ironman World Championships for 2017.
Mom: Really???!!!!!  I was so scared watching you at Ironman Florida.  I am not sure if I can handle watching another one.
Me: There was no reason to worry in Florida.  You absolutely should be worried about Ironman Kona.  It scares the sh*t out of me!
Mom: Why do it then?
Me: That is why.

There are many subparts to the answer (which unfortunately for you I might detail) but at the highest level I want to participate in Kona because it absolutely scares me.  It is such a grand event in the world of endurance sports and it is a grand event in the world of Team in Training.  As such, failure has a greater cost and fear of failure grows exponentially.  I have completed 4 Ironman distance events to date.  Kona is different.  I have raised a lot of money for Team in Training.  Kona is different.  I have seen success but what does failure on the final stage mean?  Is it what you will be remembered for?  Will people look past your one failure and remember all the good you did?  Will I, myself, be able to look past failure and remember all the things I accomplished?  What will your family think?  What will your friends think?  I honestly do not know the answers to these questions but I welcome the opportunity to find them out and I will give it all I have to be successful for I will be all that much stronger of a person for having given it a shot:

"The miracle isn't that I finished. The miracle is that I had the courage to start."
-John Bingham

As a coach for Team in Training, I always talk about the journey to race day being so much more important than the actual race.  When you are out on the course………no matter the distance…….it will be the memories you made prior to race day that invade your thoughts.  It will be the hard work, the tough workouts, the fear, the doubt and the stories you heard along the way that occupy your mind out on the course.  My journey has been a long one………….I will need every bit of the 140.6 miles to think about my road to Kona. 

The first part of this journey actually begins as a teenager sitting in front of a television with my best friend…… Dad.  It was 1982.  Her name was Julie Moss.  If you witnessed this race 34 years ago, you will never forget it.  She was leading the race by 20 minutes starting the marathon.  That is a mammoth lead as Ironman events go but over the course of the next 26.2 miles, her body would deteriorate.  She would ultimately lose the ability to stay on her feet as the finish line was in view just ahead of her.  She would keep getting up.  She would keep falling down.  She would ultimately be passed with literally yards to go.  She did not win on that day but she continued to crawl until crossing the finish line.  It was unbelievable and one of those moments that can forever change you. 

While all of this was transpiring, I was a high school cross country and track athlete.  I was decent.  For not having been in  the sport of running for long, I could knock out a 10K in 36 minutes and I helped my team out on the cross country course.  That being said, I watched the 1982 Ironman World Championship thinking you had to be insane to even attempt such a feat and despite some personal running success…………I remember clearly thinking this event was beyond me.  While that might be a normal thought process for a 16 year old (Chris McCormack excluded), my thought process would be the same 22 years later when stumbling across the doorstep of Team in Training.  Thankfully my time with this same organization taught me about self imposed limits and how to push past them:

"What we can or cannot do, what we consider possible or impossible, is rarely a function of our true capability.  It is more likely a function of our beliefs about who we are."
Anthony Robbins

“What we could not do yesterday has no impact on what we can do today”
Yours truly

The second part of this story is the one many of you are familiar with.  It is why I ever started writing at this blog.  You can read all of my earlier posts but it started in 2002 when my father was diagnosed with leukemia.  

My Dad several days before becoming an Angel
He would fight until January 2004 when cancer would win their battle.  During the 15 months my Dad fought to stay alive, my daughter Isabella passed away. Shortly after my father lost his fight, my wife was diagnosed with cancer while pregnant with my son Jaden.  She would win her battle this time and again when it returned 5 years later.  This part of the journey is what defined me.  To be honest, I think this part of the story created me.  It woke me up to my potential.  It was a tough time. 
My wife winning the 1st of 2 battles

Cancer took a lot from me.  It has taken a lot from my friends.  It has taken a lot from the world.  What cancer did not expect, however, is for me to fight back.  For a brief moment after cancer took my  father, after God took Isabella as an Angel and after it tried unsuccessfully to take my wife, I curled up in ball.  I was defeated but only for a moment.  After that, I stood up in strength and started fighting back.  I started making a difference in the fight against cancer.  I started changing my life and the lives of others all the while trying to honor some promises I made to my Dad, daughter and wife.

During this second leg of the journey, I accomplished some amazing things. Once my father was in the terminal stage of his fight, I moved back east to be with my parents until the end.  During this time, I felt helpless.  There was nothing I could do to change things.  I tried my best to keep my Dad occupied and to make him laugh. We managed some good memories in those final months but I always felt I needed to do more so I came up with the idea to run a marathon in his honor.  Even when I was a solid high school runner, the thought of running a marathon instilled a great deal of fear in me.  My father was the kind of soul that looked for opportunities to stare fear in the face so I thought this was a meaningful tribute.  This is when I found Team in Training by accident………or perhaps God escorted me through the doors of that small running shoe store on Hilton Head Island.  The owner of the store was a coach for Team in Training.  Not only could I run a marathon but I could raise money to fight back.  Now that I knew there was an avenue to honor my father, I was off and running.  That introduction led to my first marathon which led to my first Century Ride which led to my first Ironman which led to coaching for Team in Training so that others might experience the joy of accomplishing more than they thought possible………so that others could fight back for their loved ones.  I have fundraised for 13 events.  Twelve were for Team in Training and one was the 2014 Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Man of the Year campaign which launched We Will Find a Cure.   I am not sure the exact total of funds I have raised over these events but it is somewhere around $250-260,000.  As a coach, my Westside team has raised millions of dollars to help us find that cure and many of the people I coached have gone on to do amazing things. It is my legacy, if you will, and fills me with great pride.   

While I am proud of all these accomplishments, I am truly the blessed one to have been granted the opportunity and ability to participate in these events.  Many of my favorite memories are wearing purple as part of this amazing organization……either crossing a finish line or coaching on the course somewhere in the country while others realized their dreams and potential. People often say to me that Team in Training should be grateful to me for my accomplishments.  I honestly never feel this way…….not for a split second. My story of loss made me who I am…….I was born out of the trying times but without Team in Training there would be no platform to realize my potential.  There are not enough years in my lifetime to repay Team in Training and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for what they have provided me.

To spend a little more time on Team in Training and perhaps provide a little more detail, my strategy as a participant has been to build from event to event and show progression so that I was putting myself on the line while asking for donations one more time. To leap to the conclusion, it is this progression coupled with the third and final part of my story (detailed below) that makes Kona the important final piece to this puzzle.  I started with a marathon.  Next I signed up for the Century Ride without even owning a bike.  I followed that by signing up for an Ironman without ever having swam one lap in a pool in my life.  Given this, it goes without saying that the Ironman was the first triathlon I ever signed up for.  It may not have been smart but it was strategic because I could write about my insanity when asking for critical donations.  I did not always outdo myself from event to event. Sometimes I simply changed the story and trained for a friend’s loss versus my own………. sometimes I did both as with 216.8 Miles For Ryan which was my last fundraising event for TNT.  Ryan was the son of Katie Mattingly who is an amazing lady that made her way to one of the marathon teams I coached.  Ryan is a survivor with a complicated story and I came up with this crazy idea to do three events on his behalf. I completed a marathon, my first 50 mile ultra marathon and closed out with my 4th Ironman at Coeur d’Alene in 2013………all adding up to 216.8 miles.  Shortly after this 4th Ironman (June 2013) and shortly before Sarah Weston Clark, friend and amazing LLS member, recommended me for the 2014 LLS Man of the Year campaign (December 2013), my athletic journey took a turn for the worse which is the subject of the third part to this story below.  Before getting there, however, it is important to talk about the Man of the Year campaign.  As I mentioned earlier, Sarah Weston Clark recommended me to participate in this competition.  Truth be told, she not only recommended me but stood by my side the entire way. She shared in my joy, my fears and stood by me when the tears started to flow during the 10-week campaign. 
Man & Woman of the Year top fundraisers

I am digressing but I will forever be grateful for Sarah believing in me enough to throw my name in the mix.  It was a life changing experience that was really difficult to sign my name to………tied to the same fear of failure that would accompany a Kona nomination.  Ultimately, it was the enormity of my fear that prompted me to accept the nomination.  My Dad would have done it.  I had to.  Besides that, I had coached hundreds, if not thousands, of people to stare fear in the face and shove it out of the way.  It was time for me to do the same.  I agreed to participate, some amazing people stood by my side and we won having raised $126,000 in 10 weeks.  You might look at this resume and think it is enough.  For me, there are still people suffering, I am still breathing, cancer is still breathing and circumstances changed that make Kona quite the challenge for me.  I am very afraid of it.  I think about it in my sleep.  I think about it all day with every step I take.  This leads to the final part of this story.

As mentioned, Ironman Coeur d’Alene was my 4th Ironman.  It was only supposed to be a training race before making a strong run at a great time for a to be determined 5th race.  Once my body recovered from this 4th event, I began to train again for number five.  I was in great shape.  I train by heart rate and I was at the peak of my life.  I was confident but I guess I should have known from my earlier story that life can change in an instant.

September 7, 2013.  Most of my Ironman workouts were in the dark or a lit pool late at night.  Ironman requires hours of work but I always commit to take as little time away from my family as possible.  This unfortunately meant training alone most of the time but the perk was being able to get to all of my kids events.  On this particular Saturday, I got a later start than normal although I was still one of the first people to hit the streets.  I was only riding about 25 miles so I started on a course I had traveled literally hundreds of times before.  I rode through Marina del Rey, across Ballona Creek into Playa del Rey and crested the hill on Vista del Mar that led to a view of the ocean to my right.  It would now be only 2 miles until my left turn on Imperial Highway to head into Westchester Parkway.  Because it was early enough, there was minimal traffic and minimal cars lining the street that would later be packed with beachgoers.  One pickup truck.  That is the only car I saw and the only one needed to disrupt the day and my life since.  I always scan car windows to determine if someone is inside that could cause some harm.  All looked clear but I was wrong.  In an instant, the door flung open too fast for me to make an adjustment.  I slammed into the door of his large Sanford & Son steel tank, flew about 10 feet and landed in the street facing the wrong direction.  I remember three things: the driver dropping an F bomb, some horrible pain in my left arm/shoulder and staring at a Volkswagon quickly approaching me as I lie in the street.  From there, other riders stopped, cars stopped, police and fire trucks showed up along with an ambulance and, of course, my family as they had been contacted.  

There is no need to relive the entire day.  I was in pain.  I hoped I would heal quickly.  I managed to only miss one week of coaching the 2014 Fall Westside Marathon team although I probably should have missed more.  At one point I thought all that was lost was my bike………an amazing bike at that.  I had a Specialized Shiv that was relegated to a trash dumpster.  Time would prove that the bike was not the only one to suffer long term damage.  I would spend hours and hours in physical therapy for my injuries.  In time, my right knee would give in tied to the impact from the accident and I would have surgery.  

Pre-surgery note to the surgeon

In more time, the tendon in my right foot would give in and I would have to decide on whether to have another surgery.  This decision was important for two reasons.  The first is that it forced me to withdraw my application with Team in Training for the 2016 Ironman World Championships. That was a very tough day for me but there was no way I was going to risk taking someone’s slot when I might not be healthy enough to participate.  The second reason this decision was important was tied to timing.  I proceeded ASAP with the surgery with the sole intention of giving myself a chance at this 2017 opportunity.  
That is my tendon. You can see the tear.

2 weeks post surgery. 2 hours pre blood clot drama

As it turns out, withdrawing my application was a smart move.  Complications resulted from the surgery.  I developed blood clots which significantly delayed my recovery.  Even as I write today more than 3 years later, I train with a great deal of caution.  I have had setback after setback but am finally making some progress (last week as of writing this I trained over 170 miles which is a great sign).  This being said, the road ahead will be full of land mines.  I can hammer out training on the bike and in the pool but will strategically run the least amount possible to finish the race.  There have even been days when my right foot creates challenges on the bike………..sometimes I cannot get out of the seat to pedal or have to use my left leg for most of the effort.  One of many things, none of which I can really pinpoint with accuracy, can trigger a flare up in my foot.  It will eventually pass but I proceed with caution on a daily basis all in the spirit of protecting my chance at crossing the 2017 Kona finish line.  My current life is having to practice everything I have ever taught.  Daily I have to push past doubt.  Daily I have to push past fear.  Daily I must believe with my heart when my mind tells me to give up.

“If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere.”
Frank A. Clark

Kona would be full of obstacles.  My goal would be to raise $130,000 as it would be a personal fundraising record for me.  That is quite a significant amount of money and I will need an army of support to be successful.  Will people help me yet again?  I honestly do not know the answer but I must remain hopeful.  Will I be healthy enough to finish 140.6 miles?  I honestly do not know the answer to this question either.  I am damn certain I will have setbacks.  I am certain I will have to overcome injuries and I am certain there will be many times that $130,000 seems out of reach. If I get past these obstacles, there is the heat.  I am old which means I know my body well and it does not respond well to heat.  My heart rate is unbelievably higher in heat than the moderate temperatures of SoCal so I will have to train differently and race accordingly which means slow down.  My first Ironman finish was in 100+ heat.  I barely survived that day and barely crossed the finish line in time. For now, I can only hope I get the opportunity to face these fears. If I do, I will give it everything I have to be successful and I can only pray that you guys will stand by my side yet again.  Either way, thank you to everyone that has been a part of my journey.   I would have accomplished literally nothing without people stepping up time and time again to join me in battle. 

Forever grateful,
Christopher D. Wilno


  1. As always you are truly inspiring and amazing. Thank you for everything you do and please know that I (& your friends, family and TNT family) will always have your back. Much love, brother! #GoTeam #BeatCancer

  2. You have such an incredible story, Coach Chris! Although there are many sad places, you have been able to pinpoint moments when you needed to be strong. The fact that you can describe it so well to share with others helps give us further inspiration to keep going as well - whether it's a cure for cancer, personal battles, or just working out to be healthy of mind, heart and body. Thank you for that, and I hope you get chosen for Kona! It would be awesome to see you out there again. Good Luck!