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 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.
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.
Joe and Steph dialed back their travel schedule so Joe could train more. Steph was building her photography business, Joe was still working at CU, and the rest of the time was spent training. Still, Joe wasn’t as consistent as I had hoped. He was dealing with work issues and other things in his life. He had a tendency to feel responsible for things that weren’t his responsibility and it caused extra stress in his life.
To add to things, in November of 2017 I began working with them to find a new home. I had just earned my Real Estate license and was happy to help them find their home together. So that was added into the mix of training, work, and life. Joe had spoken with his long time friend Kevin and his wife Amanda about finding some lots together and being neighbors. Sure enough, we found a new home build with land and models they both loved. They would be living just 1/4 mile from each other.
Through the winter his training hadn’t been as consistent as I had hoped, but I certainly wasn’t panicking either. His weight was also higher than I wanted, but he and Steph had talked with me about a nutrition plan and I sent them contact information for a good daily nutritionist on staff at D3 Multisport.
In early April, Kevin lost his father suddenly. Joe was very good friends with Kevin’s father and he took it very hard. It had been two weeks since we had spoken, and I knew I needed to check in to see how Joe was feeling. His training had been a bit behind with everything so I wanted to help motivate and get him back on track. I had meant to text him a few times but got distracted, but on April 19th I called and thankfully he picked up.
I remember that we talked about the loss of Kevin’s father and how difficult it was for him. He talked about some drama that was causing stress, and we discussed a few things about the new house. Then we talked training. With everything that had happened, he had missed a lot of training days, especially on the bike. He mentioned that the running was feeling great, and it was the one thing that was helping him cope. I stressed that we really needed to buckle down and he agreed. When we were talking about the training his voice was upbeat and optimistic. While things weren’t perfect, I knew Joe was OK and that we still had time to get him into good shape for Kona. Joe had a habit of being able to really crank things down when he needed.
That was the last conversation I had with Joe. Later that night I was sitting on the couch, it was around 7:45 and my daughter was in bed and my wife was at a yoga class. My phone rang. I saw it was Steph and I thought she might be calling me with some home questions. When I heard Steph’s voice I knew something wasn’t right. Her voice was off, she sounded dazed and distant and all she said was, “A.J., Joe’s gone. My Joe is gone.” I was stunned. My brain froze, I couldn’t even process if I knew anyone named Joe. “Joe? Joe who?” I thought. There was no way that the Joe I knew could be gone. But he was.
I stammered out the best words I could, but there was little I could say or do. After hanging up I paced my house, not wanting to believe what had just happened. When my wife came through the door her eyes opened wide when she saw me and she said, “What’s wrong?” I told her the tragic news and she was as stunned as I was. We both cried and stared at each other in disbelief.
It took a bit to get everything straight regarding what exactly happened. At first, I was told he had a heart attack while on the bike. This made me feel like I directly had caused his death. Then I found out he was actually still at work and was getting ready to ride when something happened, but it wasn’t a heart attack. His co-workers found him immediately and paramedics were there within 6 minutes (he worked across from a hospital), but he was gone before they arrived. I immediately wondered if the training over the years had contributed to his early passing. The next day, I looked back at years and years of data, searching for an abnormality but found nothing. Since Joe wasn’t a big tech user in his training, there wasn’t much to go on. Joe had regularly gotten physicals and had just gone for a physical three weeks prior. Plus, Joe was not the type to ignore his body. If he had ever felt something was off with his heart he would have said something.
What we were eventually told after an autopsy was that he had developed a tear in his heart. It likely formed over a day if not hours, and there was no way to prevent this. Plus, even if he had been in a hospital when it happened doctors would not have been able to save him. Nothing genetic, nothing preventable, just really bad luck.
The days after were rough. We had to tell Emma, and she took it hard. Joe’s funeral service was filled with friends and family coming together to mourn a loved one, and the support was truly amazing. It seems like only now that I look back do I realize how much Joe meant to me. I don’t think I took him for granted, rather I think I didn’t quite understand how much a part of my life he was, especially over the last few years. I miss him every day
THE QUESTION OF KONA
I knew the topic of Kona would come up. Having raced there myself three times (2004, 2005, and 2006), and having traveled to the race 14 times, I know what that race entails. I had a feeling that Steph and the family would want someone to race in his honor, and that I would be the most obvious choice. Joe had worked so hard to get to Kona. He had put years of training in to accomplish something very few can achieve and the thought of him not completing Kona just tore at me. It is a feeling of an unresolved goal, a dream that what missed, but I could, in a way, finalize that journey. Plus, if it was going to happen it was going to be this year.
Selfishly, I also thought about what it would be like to cross the line with my daughter watching. She’s seen me race a few bike races, and I’ve taken her on the podium of some races, but Kona would be a scale she’s never seen before. Having raced there before, I know the inspiration and energy of that finish line first hand and it gives me goosebumps to think of finishing with Emma watching. While she is already naturally competitive and very active, there is something in me that wants her to see me accomplish this and show her what you can accomplish if you put your mind to it. So I said yes, let’s go for it. I didn’t want to look back in 10 or 20 years and regret not having at least tried to race and honor Joe in this way.
But I also had some reservations. The thought of full on training again, and racing Kona in less than four months was daunting. At 41 years old, my body is not quite as strong as it was when I was 28 and training 20 to 25 hours a week. I hadn’t raced a triathlon in four years, and my last IRONMAN was in 2008. I have kept in shape on the bike, but my running has been sporadic and swimming has been completely non-existent.
And the past three years have been very difficult for me personally. In 2015 my wife and I experienced unexpected tragedies suffering two miscarriages after the birth of Emma. Going through that put me in a spin I haven’t quite recovered from. I felt a deep emotional pain that I’d never experienced. It changed me physically, I lost focus, felt a never ending fatigue and my drive to push myself physically was gone. While I once relished pushing my body to its absolute limits, I began thinking, “What’s the point?” It was as if the fire to train and race had been surgically removed. My last race was December of 2016, where ironically I won the Colorado Cyclocross State Championships in the 40+ Cat 3 Division. After that, everything pretty much stopped. Rather than go for a ride I was happy to spend my days with my family and truly didn’t miss any aspect of endurance sports training at all. In 2017 I did not do a single race. Not a bike race, running race, triathlon or anything. It was the first time in probably 20 years that had happened. And I had no plans to race in 2018. I was actually getting back into tennis, a sport I played in high school and college, and wanted to pick up golf.
But this race is not about me. It is about honoring my friend in the best way I can. It is about finishing something that a friend worked so hard to achieve and then never got the chance to finish. My heart simply said, “yes” I had to at least try to race for Joe. So with their permission, I wrote a letter to IRONMAN on behalf of Steph and the family to inquire about racing Kona for Joe. I explained the situation and was adamant that this was not about me finding a way to racing in Kona, it was truly for Joe. In addition, Mike with D3 Multisport was able to lobby IRONMAN, and Steph wrote an email too.
At this time I started to train a bit. I was just riding and running when I could to be prepared to do some real training if I did get in. It was difficult to get started because I kept thinking about Joe a lot. But I knew I had to keep at it if I was to do Joe proud.
On June 15th email from IRONMAN hit my inbox – I was in for Kona. In that instant, everything changed. I was happy/nervous/excited/scared all at once. And I was also sad. Sad that I even had to get this email, that it was now me racing instead of Joe, that he was no longer with us. The reality hit that that I also had to get my butt in gear to be prepared.
I started training in earnest that day. Within 20 minutes of reading the email that I was in for the race I was out for a run. I started swimming, got some nutrition, and gathered up some of my old gear. Ironically, about six months prior I had donated a lot of my old but still usable gear to the CU Tri Team.
The training has been solid so far, but there have been some struggles too, just like there were for Joe. Plus, I looked at the training as a way to maybe get things back on track for myself. I have no intention of getting back into racing, but the only way to get better is to change something. So maybe this is Joe helping me, giving me a challenge to shake me out my funk.
My first swims were much better than I anticipated. I am only about 10 seconds per 100 slower than I used to be. I am able to run 8:00/miles pretty consistently and have already run over 10 miles. My cycling is by far my strongest sport, but I haven’t been on a tri bike in about three years. I also didn’t have a tri bike anymore. Joe was about 6’1” and had bought a custom Alchemy Boreas from his friend Ryan at Kompetitive Edge. Joe had always supported Ryan as he built up his business, so it’s more than just a bike, it’s another symbol of his loyalty and friendship to those who knew him. The bike is a size too big for me, but I’ve swapped the stem, slammed the seat forward and have been able to make the bike work. It also has Joe’s name on it, so that makes it even more special. I am taking things slowly and simply working on building my duration with very little to no intensity. Again, this race is not about finishing in a time, it’s about finishing.
My motivation still comes and goes. I often whisper, “Thanks a lot Joe,” as I head out the door. It’s a bit of humor that I think Joe would appreciate as his level of snarkiness was the highest of anyone I know. And that’s how it is with friends. Of course I think about him while I train. I miss him a lot and sometimes the training just reminds me of the losses I’ve suffered in the past few years. It hurts, but there’s no use hiding from the pain. It will always be a part of my life and I need to find my way to move forward as best as I can. And that’s what I’m going to do because that’s what Joe would have done.
I miss Joe every day. I think about what he will miss, and how those in his life will miss his presence. It’s not often that you get to have people like him in your life. He was a role model for a lot of people, even though he didn’t always want to be. He wasn’t shy about telling his IRONMAN story, but he didn’t shout about it either. As he got older, he got more comfortable talking about his journey. He was even featured in the athlete welcome video at IRONMAN Boulder and IRONMAN Wisconsin. He did what he said he would and was always looking for ways to help others. He didn’t do IRONMAN to prove anyone wrong or to make a point, he did it simply because he loved it. That is what I most admired about him, he was always his own person.
So I’m going to give it my best and do everything I can to make my effort worthy of Joe. It won’t always be pretty, and I hope that by sharing my journey someone else may be inspired, or maybe even learn a few things from what I’m doing. If you want to follow this crazy journey, follow me on Instagram at @ajoutside, I’ll also be using the hashtag #thisisforjoe. You can follow my workouts on Strava too. I’ll also be writing a few follow-up posts to keep those interested up to date.