Sam Hobi has had a meteoric rise since doing his first triathlon in 2013. Among other things, here he talks about life lessons from the sport, his journey to Kona, and beating down a would-be car jacker in a Whole Foods parking lot.
Thanks for the time, Sam, and best of luck at the World Champs!
Three sport athlete in high school (football, wrestling, and track - hurdles and mid-distance sprints) and continued football throughout college. About 10 years into my professional career, I began supplimenting my weight training with some running for fitness, which I did in ernest for about a summer. After re-locating to Utah I fell into short-course triathlon in 2013 and then full Ironman races last year. I knew very little about the sport. Initial impressions: The swim is awful; This sport is too expensive; How can other people swim so fast; Races here are all on Saturday (sweet!); How much is that bike? The swim is killing me; This is sooooo fun!
As you may remember I swam with you and mutual friend Jackie Muterspaugh once at Black Ridge… at the time you were a self-proclaimed “terrible swimmer” but I think that was an exaggeration ;) That said, what do you most attribute to your vast improvement in the water?
I've come to appreciate that swimming is a high-skill sport requiring good technique, properly structured workouts, and a lot of practice to improve. During the summer of 2013, my first year in this sport where I raced short-course, swimming was my glaring weakness and I became fixated on getting better. Over the past two years, I have had a good coach and a good group to swim with regularly. I think the instruction, good surroundings, and my eagerness have all played a role. It's the most technical aspect of triathlon and for beginners it's likely love-hate. But patience and a steady approach will bear fruit. I must say that this journey of learning to swim has been quite fulfilling.
After getting into the sport, how soon did Kona become a big goal for you? Did you believe it was possible right away, and if not, when did that belief set in?
My first consideration about Kona came from my then swim instructor, now triathlon coach, Wes Johnson. One day, after a master's swim session, he said, "I can get you to Kona in two years." I honestly didn't understand the reference. "What's Kona?", I asked myself. Given some success at short-course and a reassuring first half Ironman (St. George) in 2014, I began to believe it was possible. I had the motivation, the support, and was willing to make time for the two-year commitment. From then it took two years and two months.
To address your question of belief, from time to time after setting the goal I did experience moments of doubt. "How can someone who can barely swim without a distance running background who hasn't been on a bike since he was a teenager qualify for the Ironman World Championship?" Not to mention the reality of supporting and raising a large family. During such moments, I leaned on my wife, my coach, and the lessons I'd learned through past experiences for grounding and then simply continued to work. My confidence grew considerably after Ironman Florida in November of last year (my second IM) - where I was in the money for a Kona slot until I ate something disagreeable, causing vomiting and a lot of walking the last 10 miles and finished 12th.
Ironman is a big commitment, why do you do it? What made you consider Kona?
A couple reasons. First I have sought Kona to prove to myself, and to show my family that big goals can be accomplished. In the big picture, Ironman is a small thing, but can become bigger by teaching principles required for a successful life. So seeking Kona has served to remind me of this connection while providing regular practice to internalize such principles. From this journey, I hope to help my family to understand and to improve in similar ways.
The more personal reasons are spiritual in nature. As funny as it might sound, I have sought Kona to experience God; to see if we could do it together. In the past with me, the bigger the challenge, the more I focus, the more I feel God, and the more we accomplish. Yet I was unsure whether He'd give me this one. Although there have been periods during this journey where I haven't felt Him near, I have experienced on the other hand sweet moments with the heavens while training and racing. This spititual reward is a real motivation for me. It also helps me leave the results to the heavens, buckle down and focus on the process--where I tend to find Him anyway. This rapport I hold quite close to my heart, which started during my teenage years when I began my personal walk with God.
What were your emotions throughout the debacle and afterwards that was IM Texas in May? (the shortened bike course, swim venue change, storms, pulling people the course, etc)
The shortened bike course caused initial angst given my relative strength on the bike. The swim course change I saw as a positive change given the fewer turns. (on the contrary it turned out to be quite a rough swim). Either way, I had little issue with the course by race start. We all had the same course to race. Fortunately for me, I finished before the storm hit leaving me to internet stalk my friends still on the course while trying to gauge the storm severity from my comfortable hotel room--yeah, not fair, I know.
The race result for me at IMTX was instructive and humbling. Once more, I was positioned safely for a Kona slot before bonking towards the end of the run caused by a nutritional mis-step made on the bike. After understanding this reason, I felt quite disappointed that since starting Ironman last year, I had made significant nutritional mistakes on each of my races. I was now 0 for 3. So, now what? I had signed up for Ironman Florida again but that wasn't until November--after Kona. The day after the race I learned that Vineman was not only on Saturday, but also still open for registration. By that evening, I had signed up. Time to revisit the plan and try again.
On the flip side, how sweet was it when you learned you had KQ'd at Vineman? Did they make you wait until the day after to find out for sure?
I knew I finished third soon after crossing the tape and that the slots went three deep after an unofficial conversation with a race director. I let time go by to ensure the place stuck given the staggered swim start. By the evening I felt confident of my ticket. It has taken a bit to set in, I'm surprised to say. What's helping here is the number of people who seem interested, who congratulate me (even if we're almost strangers). I'm obviously looking forward to it.
Were you aware of your AG placing through the race and were there any head-to-head battles? Looking at the results, you beat a fellow M4044 by 7 seconds... was that the difference or did he qualify as well?
I raced my own race until mile 18 of the run when I counter attacked a man passing me. I had moved from fourth to second on the run by this point, but I assumed I was still fourth. As he slowly edged by me my first thought was that letting him go I was moving to fifth--most definitely out of the Kona allocation. I asked him a couple questions including whether it was his last lap (and it definitely was). I gathered that he was on the edge and I believed that I could break him so I picked up the pace and dropped him until mid-way through the 23rd mile when his steady-eddy approach came through (I probably should have remembered the tortoise and the hare fable). The move almost cost me Kona as I needed to collect myself from the effort running some slow miles mixed with walking (one at a snail-like pace of 10:22 min). In the end, I estimate it cost me 3-5 minutes. So in hindsight, the move was a bit too early, which, combined with skipping half of the aid stations in the process led to the short circuit. I had to dig deep, focusing on my oldest daughter, to push through it and eventually put the wheels back on. God was truly good to me here. I can see Him quite clearly in this part of my race. This man took second. The man I beat by 8 seconds crossed the finish line before me given he began the swim sooner. He also qualified gaining a roll-down slot from the winner of our age group.
Vineman appears to be a popular race among Utahns (~70 competed this year). For those considering it in the future, what can you tell us about the course?
Vineman is a picturesque course. The Russian River is a quaint sitting at the base of tree-filled surrounding hills. The water level is shallow and for years has been wetsuit legal. The bike is touted as one of the most beautiful on the circuit taking you through the rolling hills of the Northern California wine country. Much of the run course offers similar views. The bike gives you about 4,000 feet of climbing and the run 1,000. This year's run course was altered to a three- vs. a two-loop course as in years past. I'm unsure what next year's will be. The two transition areas sit about 15 miles apart which extend your pre-race prep and make spectating more challenging for family and friends. It's still typical Ironman, yet the race had a comfortable, almost small-race feel.
Similarly, any advice for people doing it next year?
On balance, it's a challenging, but not overwhelming course, relatively near home for those in the Intermountain West, offering a wetsuit swim, mild weather and a managable path to finishing--even for beginners. If considering, train with hills on both the bike and from time-to-time on the run--luckily something almost unavoidable for most Utahns. I imagine this race growing in popularity so sign up as soon as practical.
Occasionally I'll see posts related to nutrition from you on FB. How important do you consider healthy eating to your performance?
Over this past year, I have learned that the constraint for improvement for me in Ironman isn't training necessarily, but recovery. Healthful eating, along with sleep, became the two critical elements for quick and meaningful recovery. I've eaten well for years so I needed few adjustments for successful triathlon fueling--save making sure I had enough nutrition, which has caused me to consider meat and dairy from time to time vs. my more strict regimen.
On a similar note, rumor has it you got into a knife fight in a Whole Foods parking lot. Is this true? Was some cretin trying to steal your fresh veggies??
Yeah, I sure didn't expect my car to get jacked at my local Whole Foods. After getting out of the car, I was immediately appoached by a man with sun glasses, hat, baggy clothes, a knife, and a strong stench of alcohol.
After realizing his intentions some words were exchanged, some shoving, and eventual jostling in the front seat before he got the hint that he wasn't getting my car--besides, my bike was in the back! Fortunately my son and property were safe and I sustained only a sliced upper hand and the loss of some sleep. I missed most of my much anticipated race-simulation the next day as a result, a bummer at the time, but little else was affected. So be careful shopping at Whole Foods while driving a 14-year old car with a broken bumper--apparently a magnet for the not-so-skilled car jackers.
What do you think it takes to make it to Kona?
First of all you have to find purpose in the journey. It's a lot of work and time, which wears on you especially if Kona is the only motivation. Beyond the love for the sport, I have considered a few elements that have at least helped me. I call them the three "Cs": commitment, consistency, and coaching. You need to structure your life to a considerable extent around the sport if you seek to race at a high level-- particularly true if you have little or no experience in the sport.
Consistent effort in diet, training, and recovery has kept me improving. I have not taken any meaningful breaks. By mid-week following an Ironman I'm itching and back in the pool. This approach fits my personality I suppose and isn't for everyone, but I think the point is that taking long breaks or training inconsistently fails to provide the necessary base for the long distance. Finally, coaching matters. I had a hard time convincing myself of the value given my confidence in my prior sports experience/knowledge and that Ironman is quite straight forward: just go straight as fast as you can. But I have learned that even though the sport requires less coordination and technical skill (outside of the swim) than many mainstream American sports, Ironman racing is punishing and deceptively strategic, requiring a wise training plan and a thoughtful approach.
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