Brad Kelley is an ultra endurance athlete who, in 2003, was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks part of the nervous system. The first symptoms of this disorder include weakness or tingling sensations in the legs and in many the sensations spread to the arms and upper body. These symptoms can increase in intensity until certain muscles cannot be used at all and, when severe, the sufferer is almost totally paralysed – it affects one in every 100,000 people yearly, but Brad is not only living a normal life he’s gone far beyond what doctors said he could accomplish…
TriGear: Were you an athlete before the GBS diagnosis?
Brad Kelley: I’ve been an athlete from a very young age. I played football, baseball, and wrestled in school. After college, I continued to play baseball, softball and occasionally run and lifting weights but nothing in the way of triathlon.
TriGear: What spurred you on to push for endurance events? Most people might wish just for a recovery and the chance for a ‘normal’ life or to compete at a fairly low level. But you pushed hard…
Brad Kelley: At first, I really just wanted to get out of the bed at the hospital, then wheelchair and walker. As I started to get stronger I wanted to do more and expected the best of myself. About this time I met a guy at the health club who was a triathlon coach and it all fell into place. I started very small and just worked my way up very slowly. In fact, at first I couldn’t even swim 50 yards without stopping to catch my breath.
TriGear: Do you think this drive is hardwired in you? Have you always been driven and competitive?
Brad Kelley: There is no doubt I am hardwired to do more at my best effort. My father instilled that in me very early and growing up with three brothers everything in our house was a competition and it still is to this day 40-plus years later.
TriGear: Tell us about that journey from GBS to Ironman…
Brad Kelley: Guillain-Barré Syndrome came upon me very sudden and within three days I was bedridden in the hospital not knowing if I would ever walk normally again. After four days of intensive medical exams and blood tests I was diagnosed with GBS. I then underwent a five-day blood transfusion and was released from the hospital in a wheelchair about a week later. I followed that with months of rehabilitation.
In 2009, I did my first sprint triathlon where I finished second to last in my age group but I was so happy that I even finished. I raced in a few more small local triathlons then I registered for the New Orleans Ironman 70.3. Despite the tingling and numbness in my legs that always is present throughout the bike and run portions I was able to finish in 5:31. The following week I went to my yearly checkup with my neurologist and I asked him if he ever thought I could do a full 140.6 Ironman race. He said: ‘I don’t think that is possible for you to do a full Ironman race, I’ve never heard of anyone with GBS finishing such a long endurance event.’ I left the doctors office determined to do a full Ironman and to this day my doctors words telling me ‘I don’t think that is possible,’ continues to motivate me on a daily basis and gives me the determination to do longer, more challenging events.
TriGear: You have completed eight full Ironman to date – Two part question: Do they ever get any easier, which of the eight was your real standout event?
Brad Kelley: Obviously different events might be easier because of the terrain but anyone who has done an Ironman or beyond will tell you it is a long, hard day. My first one was by far the most memorable because I proved to myself – and all doubters – that someone with GBS could do an Ironman and more. My first one was also the only full Ironman my incredible mother attended before she passed away in March of 2012.
TriGear: Of the swim/bike/run which discipline is your favourite and which is your toughest?
Brad Kelley: Prior to doing triathlons my swimming background was never for exercise and is, by far, my least liked and toughest of the three. I just get through it. The bike portion is my favourite because I love speed and it causes less tingling problems with my legs than the run does.
TriGear: How does your training between the disciplines generally break down?
Brad Kelley: Depending on where I am at in my training schedule prior to a race generally speaking I will do swim two to three times per week, bike four to six times per week and run three to four times a week. I try very hard to take at least one day off and the rest of the days I do different combinations of brick workouts. Once a week I make sure I do a very hard workout where I inflict as much pain and suffering as I possibly can without really hurting myself so that I can remember those workouts when a race gets difficult and I have thoughts of giving up.
TriGear: How much do you ramp up the training leading up to an Ironman or a 70.3?
Brad Kelley: For a 70.3 event I commit myself to minimum 10 to 12 hours per week but usually do more because I like to exercise. I am always in race ready mode because of my GBS. Exercise has proven to be the best thing I can do and need to stimulate my nerves. I do not take long periods without training in some way. Ironman distance I add a couple more hours on and then Double Iron a couple more hours. In preparation for the Triple I didn’t add any more time but I focused very hard on interval training and had a very specific purpose for each workout. Many beginners get caught up with having to do a specific amount of miles or time but if you have a good weekly workout plan and specific goals for that day you spend less time training and do just as well.
TriGear: Tell us about your Ironman 70.3 World Championships experience.
Brad Kelley: I was so excited when I got a rolldown slot and the opportunity to compete with some of the best athletes in the world. If it had not been for my good friend being there and encouraging me to push on despite the pain I would have never made it. Leading up to the event I felt great and I was confident I would do well. A day after arriving in Las Vegas I came down with a stomach virus and felt horrible on race day. Despite being sick I started the race and although it was a very long, hot day when I finally crossed the finish line (still sick) I loved the experience of being part of the World Championships. This race was definitely one of those times I wanted to give up and quit…
TriGear: At what point did you think you would want to step up to a Double Ironman?
Brad Kelley: I know how blessed I am to be given a second chance to compete on athletics so after finishing my first five Ironman I wanted a bigger challenge. Not just within triathlon but also in my community, I was able to go beyond Ironman distance by racing in a Double Iron and also raise over $3000 for the Special Olympics… I volunteer regularly with these athletes and they inspire me to do more on a regular basis.
TriGear: Training for that must have been intense and time consuming – how do you juggle everything (work/home/family) and prioritise training needs?
Brad Kelley: I work nights for UPS and it allows me to do workouts in the daytime while my family is at school and work. Fortunately, I am a person who only needs about five hours sleep and I feel great. I am very organized about keeping up with my calendar of events. As for the time needed on bike, I am on my Computrainer most of the time and I’ve been known to watch a movie with my son while I am working out. Sometimes on my lunch break at work I use that time to do a structured speed workout or drills. I adjust my training schedule around church, spending maximum time with my son and volunteering, instead of the opposite.
TriGear: What’s your diet like leading up to something as intense as a Double Iron?
Brad Kelley: I eat clean 90% of the time but I have to have my chocolate chips and almond butter. I have a hard time maintaining my weight during intense training because of all the calories I burn but I drink a lot of blended mixed greens and fruit smoothies with protein because it digests easily.
TriGear: How do you tackle nutrition on the day? Any tips?
Brad Kelley: I always overload my suitcase with nutritional products for an event but when race day comes I might grab a couple of my favourite Gel energy packs from my suitcase and one or two bottles of my favourite drink. Once the race starts I use the food and drink on course with a few items I enjoy in my special needs bags. I try to stay very minimal on my bike. You do not need to have four drink bottles on your bike and all of your nutrition in your pockets of your cycling top; It’s extra weight to carry up the hills. My prerace breakfast consist of a sweet potato, a small bowl of oatmeal with honey and a banana. 20 minutes before starting I take a salt tab and eat a chocolate gel pack. I sip on water right up to swim start.
TriGear: Now you’re aiming for a triple – that’s a whole other level…
Brad Kelley: I am always looking for bigger and more challenging events before I even finish the previous one. To me that’s progression and a new challenge once I cross the finish line. Along with doing four full Ironman in 2014 I am already looking at a Quintuple triathlon in October when this Triple Iron finishes. I like to sign up for my next big race shortly after my present race ends that way I am committed to whatever it takes.
TriGear: How far do you think you can push it?
Brad Kelley: Quite honestly I don’t know what my limit is yet. I’ve only been doing triathlons four years and so far I have made it to every finish line. As long as my body feels good, I am not the last one to finish, the Guillain-Barré Syndrome does not return or get too uncomfortable I honestly believe I can at least make it to the Decaman status within a couple years. Next year I will still be doing a couple of full Ironman’s but will focus on the International Ultra Triathlon World Cup races consisting of Double, Triple and Deca Iron distance triathlons around the globe.
TriGear: Greatest inspiration or sporting hero?
Brad Kelley: Although I admire many pro athletes and the great things they can do within their sport my real inspiration comes from those that are less fortunate from birth like the athletes within the Special Olympics Organization. These athletes have had physical or mental disabilities all their life and yet they are out there competing, trying their best and in many ways inspiring people to do more.
TriGear: What’s your proudest moment?
Brad Kelley: To know that I have made a difference in my own community, been a positive role model and influence to many young children over the years through my volunteer efforts, coaching, and church activities. Proudly volunteering for Special Olympics and those with life long disabilities it’s taught me that I am so very lucky and blessed no matter what life brings my way.
TriGear: What’s the one piece of advice you would give a triathlete thinking of stepping up to Ironman (and beyond)?
Brad Kelley: Know that it is a slow process and your body will adjust as you train more. Be sure to enjoy each and every accomplishment, progression and finish line no matter what your finishing time is. You have taken the first step to a better lifestyle and are among the few who ever compete in a Ironman event. Likewise, learn from setbacks and the mistakes you make. When I first started I would sprint through the Ironman finish line even though the entire day I moved at a much slower pace. Now, I take in the moment of celebration, give the crowd high-fives, even stop to say hello to a young child and wear a big smile each and every time I cross any finish line no matter how much pain I am in.
lower image (c) DanElliott.com