The Loss of a Friend and a Return to Kona

For many athletes, using a coach is a way to get more out of themselves and to give their best effort to the sport they love. But sometimes, the coach/athlete relationship evolves into a friendship and over time, that friendship get stronger and you become more like family than friends. That was the case for myself and Joe, an athlete who I had the honor of coaching for 15 years. Over time, Joe and I went from athlete and coach to friends to very close friends whose lives and families grew together. We celebrated the good times and talked through the bad. We shared our hopes for the future, and even helped each other shape that future.

But sometimes the future doesn’t end up like you envisioned. In an instant, everything changes and you’re left with an empty feeling that just won’t go away. For me, that happened on April 19th, the day Joe passed away unexpectedly. With his passing, Joe left behind a wife, a brother, a mother and father, and countless friends who all miss him every day. He also left a goal that he had yet to accomplish - racing the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. Joe had spent years training in order to qualify, and now, after he had been selected to race, he was gone. But his hard work will not go to waste. As his friend, and to honor his dedication, I will be lining up in Kona to race in his honor.

The Beginning

The story of Joe and I starts in late 2002. I had just been certified as a USA Triathlon coach and joined D3 Multisport (a coaching company). The owner and founder of D3 Multisport, Mike Ricci, saw that someone had been to his website and partially filled out an inquiry form. Of course Mike followed up immediately with a phone call. After a good conversation, Mike mentioned that he had just hired a new coach who he thought would be a perfect fit. The coach was me, the athlete was Joe Vrablik.

When I started coaching Joe we both lived in Boulder. We had our initial meeting, and he told me his story. Joe had been heavy most of his life and at one point he weighed over 400 pounds (he was about 6’ 1”). He decided to do something about his weight so he started swimming at first. As the weight dropped, he started with other sports and soon found triathlon. He had done a few short triathlons and weighed around 300 pounds at the time. But he told me he wanted to do an IRONMAN and so we started planning.

After the first year, we started to bond more as friends. I had moved to Highlands Ranch, Co. which is about an hour south of Boulder, but we talked often. He was single and trying out the dating scene, I was married but still tried to offer advice. We talked about his job - he was an IT Support Tech for the University of Colorado. He was also very smart and kept up with local, state, and national politics and what was going on around him. He could tell you why certain counties were better for tax reasons, and why a local ordinance would actually have the opposite effect of it’s proposed goal. His opinion was never void of facts or reason. He was also very true to his word and honorable. He was the type of person who could look himself in the mirror every day and be proud of his decisions and actions and I always admired that about him. 

But Joe also had his struggles. He held on to stress, be it at work or just life in general, and that lead to some poor nutrition choices. It was his way of dealing with the stress. The training was a way for him to keep his weight down. It was an odd combination, and it didn’t always work. Through the years, his weight would ebb and flow. But the training was also a way for Joe to get away from all of the noise. He’d often type “Sanity Break” in his workout comments. I like to think training was his sanctuary. He was consistent, but not perfect. The winter months were a challenge with the weather and he would travel to see family. This fluctuation in training wasn’t a big issue, but with an eye always on his goals, I tried to get him to do a bit more during the winter.

The Start of IRONMAN Racing

His first IRONMAN was Wisconsin in 2006. Joe had some very consistent training and while I felt he was capable of finishing I was also nervous. One thing Joe had going for him was that he never let his ego lead the way. He knew what he was capable of and was happy with that. Since online tracking was not yet a thing, I had no good way of knowing where he was during the race. With his training and all of the advice I could give him, I knew he was ready, but there was still a lot of anticipation and hope for his race day. I spent much of it wondering how he was doing. That curiosity was soon answered as Joe finished in 15:02 and had the biggest grin for his finish line photos. This was to be the start of Joe’s IRONMAN journey.

The next six years was pretty much the same. Training, a few local races, then off to IRONMAN Wisconsin. He loved Madison- the course, the people, the atmosphere and seeing the same people at registration and the volunteers. Joe would train less in the winter, and the weight would come back on. The spring would be a bit of a struggle, and sometimes the weight came down, sometimes it did not, but he was always able to get in the majority of the workload and surprisingly he had very few injuries. Despite being a tech guy, Joe didn’t use any fancy gadgets and rarely even used a heart rate monitor. As his coach, I would have liked him to use it more, but I always let the athlete decide what makes them happy. For some, the more technical things get the more stress it brings, and I think that was the case for Joe, despite his job.

Naturally, throughout this time coaching Joe, my life changed. After 11 years of racing triathlons, 13 Ironman races and two years racing professionally, it was time for something different. I kept coaching, but in 2008 I started to do more freelance writing. At first, it was for triathlon related magazines, but later I branched out to general outdoor magazines as well. Then, in 2011 my wife and I got hired to start an all-digital triathlon magazine, TRI, based near Ventura, California. It was a big step, but it was a lot of fun. I was still riding a lot, mostly because I did all the bike reviews, and was the managing editor of our sister publication ROAD Magazine, but only raced little. Most of the racing I did was road or mountain bike races with a few tris here and there. I found a new interest in stand up paddle surfing and surfed nearly every day. At this time, I coached only three to four athletes, and of course, Joe was part of that mix. We had our usual groove of some short local races leading to IRONMAN Wisconsin and then things changed in late 2012.

The Legacy Program Changes Everything

IRONMAN announced the Legacy Program. This program stated that any athlete who finished 12 IRONMAN events would automatically qualify for the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii and be let in the race with a few years of qualification. Kona is the goal of just about every triathlete, and Joe knew this would be his only route there. Joe instantly expressed his desire to go for it. We immediately set out a long-term plan to get Joe to Kona as soon as possible. He was already signed up for IRONMAN Wisconsin (again), which would be his sixth IRONMAN, so we had six more to go.

In early 2013 my wife and I moved back to Colorado and were now living only 5 miles from Joe in Erie, which is about 15 miles east of Boulder. My wife and I also had our daughter, Emma, in July. Joe was so happy for us and our friendship grew tighter. We had dinners together, celebrated Thanksgiving early with a Turducken (Google this, it was delicious). It was during these next few years that our friendship would evolve to a new level. Our Legacy Program plan was ambitious. It involved doing three IRONMAN races in 2014 and 2015. It was a lot, but the goal was not to push every IRONMAN to the limit, it was to finish and do as little damage as possible.

Still, Joe had lost quite a bit of weight and was racing much faster. At IRONMAN Wisconsin in 2013, Joe set his PR of 12:08:57. Our Kona Legacy program started in 2014. The plan was to race IRONMAN New Zealand, IRONMAN Boulder, and IRONMAN Wisconsin (again!). Another big change was that Joe had been dating Steph, a girl he had met in college through a community service fraternity they were both a part of. Steph was incredibly supportive of Joe from day one and we got along great. Joe loved to travel and recruited his longtime friend Luke Douglas to go with him to IRONMAN New Zealand. Joe raced smart, and despite some crazy bad luck (being struck by a trailered boat), he finished in 13:08. Joe and Kevin had a blast after the race traveling around the countryside. Being a fan of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, seeing where parts of the film were shot was a big treat for him.

IRONMAN Boulder was a new race on the calendar, and the idea of getting to race locally was a big deal for him as his friends were eager to see him race. Of course, I was there as well cheering him on the course. It was at this race that I finally got to meet his mother and father, brother David, and David's wife Tawnya. Watching him run down the finish chute for the first time was a moving experience for me. This was also the first IRONMAN that Steph was at.

Wisconsin was almost an auto-pilot race for Joe by this point. He got it done as always, finishing in 13:38. For Steph, this was a big race because Joe had gotten her a VIP Pass and she was able to medal him at the finish.

For 2015 we had the same idea but substituted IRONMAN South Africa as his early season IRONMAN. Steph was joining him as well. Before he left for South Africa Joe told me he was going to propose after the race. The race was brutal, Joe said it was one of the hardest races he had ever done, but he finished in 15:18. I texted him good job and told him that now it was time to get to the important stuff. He proposed and she said yes.

IRONMAN Boulder was another tough day for Joe. The heat and lack of humidity took their toll, but Joe got it done in 15:45.

Finishing the year with IRONMAN Wisconsin (again!), Joe pushed himself to a 15:30 finish. At the end of 2015, he now had the required 12 IRONMAN events and he put in for the Legacy Program. One stipulation of the program was that you had to finish an IRONMAN race every year to keep your eligibility. We knew that at best he would be racing in 2017, but likely it would be 2018.

New Beginnings

After so much racing we backed off, letting him recover from his two-year journey and dialed it back to only one IRONMAN race per year. While Joe could have easily stayed local and raced in Boulder, IRONMAN Wisconsin was his favorite and it made for good timing for him to get in shape through the summer. Plus, Joe and Steph were planning on getting married in the spring of 2016, so it made for better timing.

In April of 2016, Joe and Steph were married. I was a groomsman and my two and a half-year-old daughter was a flower girl. It was a beautiful wedding at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, CO, overlooking a small pond with mountains in the background. After years of searching, Joe had finally found the right girl and they were ready to spend their lives together.

However, all of the planning and stress meant a lot of stress eating and a lot of the training went undone. His weight was higher than it had been in awhile. Joe was unprepared for IRONMAN Wisconsin, and he knew it. But his goal was to simply finish and knowing his determination and willingness to stick to a plan I was confident he would finish in time. For a few years, Joe had used a company called Beacon Athlete Tracking so family and friends could track his progress. Steph was at the race, and I was at home anxiously watching updates. He made the bike cutoff, but his run was slow. I was nervously watching the dot on the screen, trying to will it to go faster. Steph was texting me since she was concerned he wouldn’t make the time cutoff. The computer had him finishing with minutes to spare. And at 16:51, Joe crossed the line. It was only the second time he’d been at the 16 hour mark.

After they were married, my wife and I got together with Joe and Steph even more. One of the things Joe and Steph had in common was their love of Disney. Joe had spent part of his childhood in Florida and had gone to Disney World often. Steph grew up in California and had gone to Disneyland regularly. She had even worked at the park as a character. Between the two of them, they knew everything about Disney. In fact, we took two trips to Disneyland with them and they were the perfect guides. They knew which rides to go to and when, which restaurants to hit and which to skip, and how to get the best seats for the shows. Both Joe and Steph bonded with Emma, and she immediately trusted and loved them.

While we had hoped Joe would get into Kona for 2017, that did not happen because while he had achieved the requirements, the eligibility still remains a lottery. However, we knew he’d be in for 2018. He raced again at Wisconsin, finishing in 15:35 much to everyone’s delight. Sure enough, in mid-November, just before his 39th birthday, Joe got an email from IRONMAN saying he was in for Kona for the following year, October 2018.

At that point, it was pretty much all hands on deck. We all knew that this was likely Joe’s only shot at Kona. Joe and I discussed the strategy for the whole year leading up to the race. I wanted to make sure he was ready to handle the day, how far to push his limits and how much to keep it under control to make sure he enjoyed the day. It’s a fine line between pushing yourself and having a great day and pushing yourself too far. We knew from past experience that humidity caused issues for Joe, and we were addressing that.