A recent study released by researchers at the University of Texas suggests that exercise makes us smarter. The study, which was published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that students earning A’s exercise at least 30 minutes 3.52 times per week compared to those making C’s and below who, on average, exercise less than 3 times per week. If this research is true, allow me to introduce you to the smartest man in the world, Paul Terranova.
What makes Paul so smart? Well, in addition to being a graduate of the Texas Evening MBA program, Paul is quite the athlete. A former Army Ranger, Paul is well known in the Austin running and triathlon community. He’s a fixture on the medal stand for many distance races and triathlons and even serves as an Austin Marathon pacer for those looking to break the elusive three-hour mark.
While those credentials alone are noteworthy, it is what Paul did earlier this year that makes him the smartest man in the world. In fact, Paul’s feat is so impressive that he is the only person in the world to ever accomplish it. He calls it the Grand Kona Slam. Others would simply call it crazy.
So, what is the Grand Kona Slam? The “Grand Slam” consists of four of the oldest 100-mile endurance runs that make-up the “Grand Slam of Ultra-Running” - The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, The Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run, The Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run and the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run. Since 1986, only 234 people have completed this ultra-running juggernaut. Not only did Paul successfully complete these four races, but was also the top finisher for 2012 and the 8th fastest finisher all-time with a cumulative time of 80:53:58…and he wasn’t done yet.
Paul had one additional challenge remaining - the grueling Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The Ironman triathlon, which consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run, is generally considered one of the most difficult and challenging athletic events in the world. Amateur athletes must qualify to participate. Paul did so at Ironman Cozumel in Mexico last year. Fresh off four 100-mile runs, Paul completed the Hawaii Ironman in 10:24:39 this October…an astonishing time all things considered.
For those counting at home, that’s 540.8 miles in 91:18:37. Put another way, that’s roughly the distance between San Antonio and El Paso, covered primarily on foot within a span of four months. Terranova? Try Supernova.
I recently caught up with Paul, figuratively of course, and asked him about his impressive feat, the Texas MBA and what’s next. Here’s what he had to say.
So, how did you come up with the idea for the Grand Kona Slam?
The concept for the Grand Kona Slam arose from three different sources of inspiration over the past couple of years. The first being my friend Lee’s shadowbox on his home-office wall containing just three items: a Boston Marathon finisher’s medal, a Hawaii Ironman Triathlon World Championship finisher’s medal and a Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run silver buckle (awarded to those who break 24 hours). When you already have the first two, attempting to get the 3rd is just a matter of time!
The second inspiration comes from another close friend Doug who completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning in 2004. Hearing all the stories and tales of how singularly focused and epic his summer was that year, I knew that one day I’d like to give it a shot.
Finally, the third inspiration comes following a successful race at Ironman Cozumel in 2011 and re-qualifying for the Hawaii Ironman after having raced there previously in 2005 and 2009. At the time, only 221 people had completed the Grand Slam since 1986, and none of them had also completed the Hawaii Ironman.
And the follow-up that I’m sure people are wondering….why?
Well, as the saying goes, you only live once and what better way to challenge yourself in a variety of ways than to try and do something that’s never been done before?
Tell us about your training. How many hours per week did you devote to the goal and what did you do?
Well, this summer has been a culmination of many years of multisport training, starting with four years of lightweight rowing in college, six years of active duty in the Army, marathon running, adventure racing, triathlons, and, more recently, trail running of distances ranging from 30km to 100km. My training log would not look much different from a typical marathon runner, except for the extra uphill and downhill repeat sessions, strength training, heat acclimation in the sauna, altitude acclimation treadmill runs, weekend trail runs, and monthly train-up races. It’s not any one big workout that gets you there, but the compound effect of lots of little ones. On average, probably 15 to 20 hours per week were devoted to training, not including routine physical therapy and massage sessions to help the body recover quickly. Most of my runs were in the early morning hours before work with Rogue Running, gym work at Pure Austin, and weekend long rides with my triathlon teammates from Jack and Adam’s Bicycles.
How did you balance your career and family life with the rigors of training of training?
I like to think that training keeps me from overworking and work keeps me from overtraining. As a consulting project manager for HNTB Corporation, I get to work on some exciting mobility projects in Austin - projects that in some cases take years or even decades to complete. It’s complementary to also have the balance of some relatively shorter-term goals to strive for in my personal life. Fortunately at home, my wife (and dietician) Meredith has been my biggest supporter this summer and as a result we’ve spent more time together than we ever have in our eight years of marriage. She’s more of the trail runner in the family, and I’m more of the triathlete, so I’ve been dabbling on her turf this year. Plus we’ve learned to alternate who has priority for races each year, so when she decides on her next epic year, I’ll be her number one supporter!
What was the toughest part and was there ever a particular moment when you wondered if you could finish this feat?
No doubt the first 100-miler this year at Western States in June was my hardest moment. It was my first taste of running over 100km and over nine hours, and my legs suffered mightily despite finishing well under the 24-hour mark. My pacers, Matt and my sister Nicole, kept me moving forward and Meredith was eagerly waiting for me at mile 99 after pacing our friend Aliza to a 3rd place women’s finish. She was not at all pleased to see me walking and properly motivated me to get running or else!
I know you had pacers with you for some of the time, but I’m sure it got lonely at times. What would you think about during those times? Were you focused on the task at hand or did you try to take your mind off of what you were doing?
My strategy for most of the runs was to focus on each section from aid station to aid station, typically about 5 to 7 miles, or anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes of running. Each section by itself is absolutely manageable, whereas the enormity of 100 miles can be bit harder to wrap your mind around. Along the way, the views, scenery, and fellowship with fellow runners helped to pass the time…not to mention keeping up with nutrition, hydration, and electrolyte balance needed. Many times I had to virtually pinch myself and give thanks to God for the opportunity to be happy, healthy, and still moving forward!
Turning to TEMBA, what about your experience at McCombs helped you prepare and complete the Grand Kona Slam?
McCombs definitely taught me the value of prioritizing the activities in your life, the importance of sometimes saying “no” to commitments that don’t or won’t help in achieving a goal, and of course, the eternal value of teamwork. Very few business objectives are accomplished alone by a single person. Trying to squeeze in 5 races in 16 weeks meant lots of coordination, planning, and adjusting by our entire team along the way.
What advice would you give someone considering the TEMBA program?
Without a doubt, try and soak up as much information as you can while drinking from the proverbial fire hose. It will go by so fast - sometimes taking a moment to soak it all in and reflect on the journey you’re on will give you much needed perspective.
Each Friday morning, TEMBA students and alums meet at Lady Bird Lake for a run, affectionately known as the TEMBA Trot. Is it true that the Grand Kona Slam was at least partially fueled by post-TEMBA Trot blueberry pancakes at Austin Java? (laughs)
Absolutely! A weekly treat of mine this summer has been the post-TEMBA Trot blueberry pancakes with peanut butter and honey on top, and a side of egg-whites too! It’s important to stay well fueled both while in the McCombs program as well as when training for ultra-marathons. Offering some small incentives along the way doesn’t hurt either!
Do you think others will now attempt the GKS?
2013 will definitely see a number of top professional trail runners attempt the Grand Slam, whether any of them are in a position to qualify or be accepted into the Hawaii Ironman remains to be seen. If you know of anyone else, send them here for more information: http://www.run100s.com/grand_kona_slam.htm
What’s next for you?
So far this fall I’ve been slowly catching up on the long list of home and vehicle maintenance projects that I deferred all summer. After that, I will begin training in earnest for the 100km USA Trail Championships in Bandera, Texas in mid-January. I placed 6th this year, so I’ve got some room to improve!
Thanks Paul and, again, congratulations.