By Kent Gray/Triathlon.kiwi
He’s the best amateur Ironman athlete on the planet. At least he will be until the early hours of Sunday (NZT) when, in Matt Kerr’s ridiculously fit, increasingly fast and singularly focused world, he starts from scratch and intends to prove it all over again.
After the inevitable hurt at the Vinfast IRONMAN World Championships is done and Kona’s volcanic dust settles, the 30-year-old Tairua secondary-school teacher still won’t rest. Not for long anyway. You see, the reigning age-group Ironman World Champion from Utah in May cannot bat away the speculation any longer. Yes, the pro-life beckons and oh boy, does he intend giving it an almighty nudge.
You could call Kona the ultimate on-the-job interview, conducted via 3.8km’s of saltwater-infused freestyle, 180km’s of aero-critical cycling on his Felt I.A 2.0 carbon kilometre eater, with a full marathon to finish. Except he’s already training and thinking and talking like a seasoned professional.
There’s the low-carb diet, Mooloolaba, European and Maui training blocks in the company of Wanaka pro Braden Currie, and even media commitments like the big names with legendary Ironman Hall-of-Famer and breakfast show host to the stars, Bob Babbit.
The only real unknowns from here are how fast he can race in the oppressive heat and humidity on Sunday and then how far he can take the sport when his very livelihood depends on it.
But that is for later. For now, his focus is blinkered and has to be. Every year since the original Ironman moved to Kona in 1981, the Big Island has eaten up and spat out even the most supremely fit and well-prepared athletes. It’s a place where pro debutants rarely win and age-groupers go to, well, mostly just survive.
But Kerr is different gravy. He might only be five Ironman races deep as an endurance athlete but his planning for Kona has been nothing short of meticulous.
“It’s gone that way in the last three big races [Utah, Cairns and now Kona] because of the determination and passion I’ve had in the sport and where I want to go with it,” Kerr says.
“I wouldn’t say full-time but more of make work possible around training as an age-grouper, given the goals and aspirations that I have. I am definitely at the upper end of the age groupers in terms of where I resource my time. I get that. But I think in the day that we are living in, the competition is demanding of that.
“I wish to see excellence in what I do and excel where I can so I’m trying to give myself the best opportunity to see success, whatever that looks like.”
Success in Kona will be executing the game plan he’s honed in the company of Currie the past five weeks in Maui.
As a former Westlake Boys’ High School water polo rep and surf lifesaver, the swim in Kailua-Kona Bay shouldn’t pose too many curveballs providing he can avoid the early washing machine. But thereafter on the bike to Hāwī and back, things get intense. It’s so hot amid the Queen K’s baked lava fields that you beg for a breeze and then quickly curse those demon thoughts as you slog into head or crosswinds.
After that, there’s the small matter of a full marathon, back out onto Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway to the Energy Lab, a roughly 8km stretch 25km into the run. It’s the turning point for home with a nasty wee 138m decent before the hairpin turns into an even nastier 138m kicker up hill. On race day, it’s a spectator-less and soul-sapping landmark where the pain cannot be masked, the race is often won and lost and only those comfortable in agony thrive.
“What I’ve learned the past five weeks about just this single race and this single environment is phenomenal compared to say, St. George,” Kerr says. “They’re two races that are exactly the same in terms of distance …but they’re two completely different races with condition considerations, you’ve got different race profiles…so yeah this is a new one.
“Even being here, I only got here on Friday and it’s now Monday, and in that time things have been off the Richter scale busy. The place is buzzing, there are people everywhere and other than the race and hype with what “Kona” is, of being this brutal, heavy race, there’s just a lot more stuff to manage going into it.”
Kerr is content he’s done all he can to be ready for the unknown, both on Sunday and beyond. It’s a carbon copy of how he’s prepped for Utah where Kerr won and Currie finished third in the pro men’s field and again in June at Ironman Cairns (the Asia Pacific champs) where Currie was runner-up and Kerr set a new age-group course record. In August, they trained together again in Samorin, Slovakia where Kerr won his age group (30-34) at the World Triathlon Multisport World Championships and finished second age-grouper overall.
“It’s been really invaluable working with Braden in a training partner relationship and being exposed to what he has on his plate, in terms of obligations, sponsorship and the like. I do have an obligation in some respects because I have had some help to get me to where I am and I still have help which is awesome.
“A lot of people look at what I’ve done and how I’ve got to some of the successes in the races and it’s like Utah … we went to Utah early and went and lived in that altitude for three weeks and tried to prepare accordingly. So it’s been pretty valuable being in Maui the last five weeks.“
* * *
Kerr hears the whispers, especially the one about him being a shamateur. He gets it but would also like you to know that while he trains like a pro, he’s only four years into this triathlon lark and has still had to work to supplement the help he has received.
While Whangamatā Area School has generously given him two years of unpaid leave to see how far he can progress in endurance sport, the realities of life mean he went back to the Coromandel school to do relief work last summer. He’s also fulfilled part-time contract roles during the training stint in Mooloolaba, along with doing a bit of “coaching on the side” which is ongoing.
Indeed, the road to Kona has been a training-work hybrid and very much a family affair. Partner Nivana and proud parents Jane and Scott will be screaming him on where and when they can in Kona, as will coach Grant Schofield and the family of the AUT Professor and Chief Science Officer at PreKure.
“A lot of people would think he’s off living the pro-life but you’ve got to work for it. I have sponsorship help that enables me to do that and I am also still working…it’s a bit of a hard one because you sort of cop it a bit, like he’s still an age-grouper racing as a pro but there will be a time for transitioning and that will come in good time.”
Talking of good times, Kerr’s Ironman best is 8hrs 24min at last year’s Ironman New Zealand. The 2022 edition in Taupo will likely be his first full Ironman as a pro. His debut could perhaps even be the 70.3 pro race in Taupo this December.
But for now the focus is, remember, solely on Kona. So, can you win?
“A lot of people are like is your goal to win? And, of course it is. But it’s not at the top [goal],” he said.
“I have a hierarchy of goals going into every single race and the first one on the priority list is to finish, no matter what. That’s always the goal, whether you walk through the finish line or run through it, the No.1 thing is to finish. Then it goes down, down, down and if we can get a win in there, that’s fantastic.”
It’s clear Kerr is wired a bit differently to other top weekend warriors. It is the cliched ‘Death before DNF’ but he’s also not in this for the finisher medals either.
“When I did my first Ironman in 2019, I got a qualification spot for Kona and as tempting as it was to take it, I didn’t. And I guess every Ironman that I’ve raced from that point on I’ve had the opportunity to accept the Kona slot and it hasn’t been something that I’ve just done out of just having the opportunity.
“This spot technically came from Busselton last December and at that point, we felt like we were ready to give Kona a really good nudge in terms of preparation time under the belt in this sport, and a little more knowledge around it too. There’s quite a bit that goes into it in terms of getting here, expenses, and it’s not just a financial thing either, it’s also the satisfaction of trying to have a good day.
“Winning is amazing. When you are out the front, having a good day, things just go 10-fold better. But ironically it’s not like I line up on the start line and go, my very first goal for this race is to win because it is not actually. It is to execute what I need to on the day…and if there is another athlete out there that out-performs me, then they were going to be the better athlete on the day and they were always going to beat me.”
That is a distinct possibility on Sunday although you know it is going to take an exceptional athlete having a very good day to deny Kerr his second world title inside a year.
After that? Well, we’ll just have to wait and see after Sunday. The only guarantee is that Kerr will be prepared. Meticulously so.