Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of articles leading up to the Ironman World Championship on Oct. 11.
Ryan Lopossa knows plenty about mental toughness. It’s a job requirement for someone whose profession requires him to run into burning buildings on a regular basis.
Running a full marathon under the blazing Kailua-Kona sun after having already swum 2.4 miles and biked 112? That’s a different kind of mental toughness.
Lopossa, a Southern California native who moved to the Big Island more than a dozen years ago and has been a firefighter for Hawaii Fire Department for the past 10, is set to run in the Ironman World Championship on Oct. 11.
The mental preparation that he has gone through for his training as a firefighter might give him an edge on the race course.
“We go on a bad car accident, when we go on a structure fire, you’ve got to think clearly when stuff’s hitting the fan,” he said. When you’re out there on the bike and want to quit or out there on the run and want to walk or throw in the towel, I’m sure it does cross over that you can dig from within and overcome it.”
A veteran of about 12 triathlons, Lopossa knows the challenges of swimming, bicycling and running long distances in succession. He also knows that none of the ones he has completed is as grueling as the Ironman and that, even with his training, it’s possible to hit a mental wall.
“I think the one I learned the most from what this last Honu, a few months ago,” Lopossa said of his previous triathlon experience. “I had a great swim, a great bike and the first half of the run was awesome. The last half of the run was a mental breakdown. I tried to run and I couldn’t. I had to walk and then run and then walk and then run. Mentally, I just got taxed. It was a very good learning experience.”
He’s confident that it won’t happen again Sunday, when he competes in the much shorter Hilo Triathlon, or when he competes in the world championships in October.
Lopossa has seen firsthand what the Ironman course in Kona can do to world-class athletes. When he first arrived on the Big Island he served as a driver for medical vans during the competition.
“It blew me away,” he said. “It took me a few years to comprehend and get a grasp of how severe this race is and how challenging. It took me doing my first triathlon, which was Lavaman at Waikoloa to have a little bit of a grasp or understanding of the extreme endurance and mental fortitude for those athletes that do the Ironman.”
As he switched to the competitive side of the triathlon, Lopossa realized how important the volunteers that he once stood alongside are to the sport.
“It would be so difficult to do a full Ironman with no volunteers,” he said. “It’s a massive help. They’re always very supportive and cheering you on as you go by. If anything happens, they’re there to help you. They’re a huge, huge, massive help.”
Oddly enough, Lopossa’s path to one of the world’s toughest endurance challenges began not because of a grand desire to test his physical and mental limits but … well, because it looked like fun. He jokes that his best discipline in the triathlon is the after-party.
“That’s honestly how I got into triathlons,” he said. “I went up to the Lavaman, and I was like, ‘Wait a minute, if all triathlons are like this — burgers and beers on the beach — I’m sold!’ And I signed up for the next one and the next one and the next one. That’s the sad truth.”
Of course, there’s plenty of work to be done before he can have those burgers and beers. Lopossa has been training regularly to get ready for the October event. On a recent day he ran 13 miles after putting in a 24-hour shift at the fire station.
The three months that he has before the big event alternate been too little time to train and too much.
“There’s days I feel good like, ‘Gosh, I just want to do it already,’ ” he said. “And there’s days where you’re kind of hurting and like, ‘Oh, those three months are going to come up real soon. Better start training.’ ”
Lopossa has trained with some of the other Big Island lottery winners in preparation for the race as well as with his girlfriend, Susannah Roy, who is a strong runner and helps him keep his pace.
He said that living in Kailua-Kona, which has a very active and supportive athletic community, is a tremendous help to him as it is to others here.
“We’re extremely fortunate. It’s awesome,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity for sports and outreach and community events. It’s a good way to live life, I think.”