Ritch Viola is the creator of the Every Man Jack brand and after finishing second in his age group in Kona he finally agreed to an interview. This pursuit of Viola actually started more than three 3 years ago, but he always had stated that he felt that many others would be more deserving of such attention. And for those unfamiliar with Every Man Jack other than seeing it on the kit of some very fast age group triathletes, it is a line of natural men's grooming products.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Ritch.
Ritch Viola: Of course, I am happy to finally connect.
ST: What are you up to as we speak?
Ritch: Busy with work really. We are launching a bunch of new products in January and finalizing all the details now.
ST: I have actually tried to interview you for a long time now but you did not accept. Or better said you stated that you felt other guys on the team deserved it more. I am glad you finally relented.
Ritch: Hahaha, well I had an epic year of racing in 2014 and did a few interviews and since then I honestly did feel like there were other more deserving athletes to be interviewed. Still do! But glad to finally chat with you.
ST: Deserving is a very relative term of course and in my view it surely is not always about speed or rank.
Ritch: Well isn’t that the truth. It is so cool to learn about the various paths we have all taken to get into this sport. And one of the things I like the most about triathlon– name a sport that celebrates the final finisher more than the first place winner. That is so refreshing – the final hour of Ironman Hawaii is electric!
ST: In Kona this year you went 9:20. Were you happy with you day?
Ritch: Well like any Ironman I think we think we can always be and do better – that’s what keeps us coming back for more! I was really pleased with my bike this year – and “Felt” I really rode the course well. Unfortunately, I was dealing with an injury that impacted my running – and wasn’t sure what to expect off the bike. I definitely had some rough patches on the run but I managed to pull it together and run at a steady pace for most of the back half. I did the best that I could on the day, and that is all we can ask. And turns out my best that day was good enough for 2nd place in my AG – tough to complain about that!
ST: Where did that place you among the Every Man Jack team that raced there?
Ritch: Well now for the real race! I was leading the EMJ team until about mile 12 on the run. I think a few were surprised by that. The best part is when teammate Greg Lindquist passed me, he tried so very hard to get me to go with him. It was one of the highlights of the day for me – it was so genuine. I ended up 3rd out of 18 guys - and as the 2nd oldest teammate out there – I was pretty stoked with how I stacked up against this talented group! We had an absolute ball in Kona this year with the crew.
ST: So to get on the team the measure is not “you have to be able to beat Ritch?”
Ritch: Hahaha – that is the opposite of the team contract. I put in the fine print that “you are not allowed to beat Ritch head to head”. And I have seriously joked with applicants near my age – “I can’t add someone that might beat me in my age group”. Of course, completely kidding or I would have had to kick off a lot of athletes after Chattanooga Worlds! We have an application process like most other teams and we looked at speed, social media activity, age, and geographic location to make sure we will deliver on sponsor expectations and have a well-rounded team in terms of cities and age groups. I also speak personally with each athlete before finalizing the roster – I want to be certain we are adding quality human beings above all else. No tolerance for any triathlon arrogance!
ST: How big is the team as we speak?
Ritch: Team will be about 75 guys again next year. I am pretty adamant that this is the max for us. Any bigger, you really become more of an affiliation than a team, every athlete doesn’t know each other and you can lose control of the culture a bit. I think we have a good thing going and the size feels right to me.
ST: Back to Kona. Talk about the race.
Ritch: Well first off Kona week is so fun and being there with all my teammates was fantastic. If I race again, I am going to remind myself throughout the training how fun the week is and not over obsess about my training, fitness, race weight, nutrition etc. For some reason Kona WC just takes up more of my mental capacity in the weeks leading up to it and that needs to change. (Insert wife with massive head nodding). It is just another race!
As for this year’s race day, I slept fantastic the night before – like really well, which was odd! Of course, woke up to the usual race nerves but they weren’t as bad as years past. Made my way to the Pier with a bunch of teammates. I was lined up and ready to get in the water at the front to try to be on the front line. Honestly, they just let us in the water too soon. We are treading water out there for almost 25 minutes. The swim has just gotten more brutal. I think removing women from the mass start has turned the swim into somewhat of a boxing match. Within a minute of the start, I was punched in the face twice, googles came off, lost my left contact – and that was all before the first buoy! The swim was just so physical – on numerous occasions guys just grab my shoulder and pushed me back. I am a strong swimmer and I could not wait to get on the bike! So swim was a little slower than I think I am capable of. But as we all know, it is such a small part of Ironman day. The bike ride was fantastic, I just started playing around with power on the bike, so I was going between HR and power throughout the ride. I was able to ride with other people for most of the ride and that was really awesome, just helps keep me focused. I really paced the ride well and felt great the last 30 miles, which was a huge mental boost.
Off the bike I was running slower than I wanted from the beginning. At the mile 5 turnaround I decided I would stop looking at the watch and just run the pace that I could hold for the remaining 21 miles. I walked every aid station to ensure I got what I needed – I had never done that in any previous Ironman race. The strategy worked for the most part – I had a little tantrum when I got passed. I believe I was leading AG until maybe mile 10/11 or so but I pulled it together a few miles later. Once in the Energy Lab if you stalk the other bib numbers you can get a sense of where you are. And I knew I was in the hunt for podium spot, but I didn’t change my strategy. I still walked every aid station and ran steady the entire way back. And while my run time was slower than any other IM race I’ve done – it was the first time that I was running the same pace throughout the entire marathon. And that felt great.
ST: What power number were you trying to hold on the bike, and what about heart rate?
Ritch: Good question – I am still trying to figure that out. I didn’t really look at watts for the first 75 miles and focused on keeping the HR below 150. In the final 30 miles, I was less focused on HR (as it was still in range) and tried to keep watts above 250 for that final stretch on the Queen K. That really helped me stay focused and on task for that final stretch - historically my mind starts to drift and I just want to get the hell of the bike. Not this year – I really enjoyed that final section of the bike.
ST: How many times have you raced in Kona?
Ritch: I have finished this race three times now and the first two times I missed my family in the finish shoot. Not this time – I made sure to find them and I was thrilled to be done! There is no other race like Kona – it is such an honor be able to race there and after a DNF in 2015, it was very rewarding to run down Ali’i Drive and cross the line.
ST: Your background is swimming. What was you best event and what swim times did you do then?
Ritch: Yes I swam for Cal. I was a breast stroker – 200 yard was my best event and 1:57.45 was my best time. That was even a school record for maybe five years.
ST: What are some of your freestyle PRs?
Ritch: I think I showed some talent in the distance freestyle early on but I hated it so much. Those are definitely not the “sexy” events in swimming so I specifically remember racing the 500 and 1000 freestyle at a big meet in high school and not trying my best so that my coach would not send me down that path. Isn’t that terrible? I did do the 500 freestyle in high school championships and I think I got down to a 4:38 which likely sounds very fast to a triathlete but any serious swimmer is not impressed by that time.
ST: How fast could you swim the 500 freestyle today?
Ritch: Well if I went from the start blocks, I would say maybe 5:10-5:15. It would hurt so bad!!
ST: And how much swimming do you actually do these days?
Ritch: Well swimming is my least favorite of the three sports – but I try to get in 2-3 sessions per week and I always have to swim with other people. We usually swim for about 75-90 minutes and around 5-6,000 yards. After I started working with Matt Dixon in 2013, I really increased the intensity of my swims and it really helped my overall fitness and allowed me to hop on the bike feeling very fresh.
ST: Which discipline do you think you can still improve the most?
Ritch: Definitely the run. I have yet to run to my potential in an Ironman race and still believe this is an area of improvement for me. I am very pleased with the progress I have made on the bike. Next year will continue to be about improving my run at all distances.
ST: During the season how many hours do you spend training?
Ritch: I usually train between 12-15 hours a week. Always in the am before work – as doubles aren’t an option for me with a family. I limit weekend workouts throughout most of the off-season and in season try to do any longer rides on a Friday if I can swing it with my work schedule. I am done with the 6 hour Saturday ride until my kids are in college – that isn’t how I want to spend my weekend.
ST: What other interests do you have?
Ritch: Well between family life, running Every Man Jack, training for triathlon and leading the EMJ tri team, I don’t really have a lot of time for other interests. But I do enjoy watching sports and going to the theater with my family – live theater that is. We go to shows when we can and such a great thing to do as a family. Oh and I love a good party! Bourbon + Coke + Splash of Red Bull!
ST: Let us talk about weight. What was the heaviest you were prior to doing triathlon?
Ritch: How did you know I was overweight? I was probably up to 210 after my son was born.
ST: How tall are you?
Ritch: I am 5’ 11”
ST: How does your weight now compare to the top pros in Kona?*
Ritch: Well I weighed 170 in Kona – but I have no idea how much the top pros weigh. I do think I am definitely a “bigger athlete” for triathlon and but try to ignore the super fit, eight pack ab athletes as that can be intimidating. And the clock doesn’t care how many abs you have!
ST: Plus you really are not a pro, which some age groupers often forget.
Ritch: True. I am a hard working professional that does triathlon as a hobby. I just try to do the best I can to juggle it all – and I know I train less than pros and honestly less than many age groupers. I don’t ever waste time thinking about that, when the gun goes off on race day – I just try to beat as many people as I can and have fun out there!
ST: So what is next on your race calendar, outside of a turkey trot?
Ritch: Well, I am planning our community Turkey Trot – will have about 300-350 people run and should raise about $7,500 for a local charity! That will be fun. I was scheduled to run North Face Challenge marathon this weekend but haven’t run since Kona to heal up my leg – so just looking towards next season and my first race will be Oceanside 70.3 in April.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Ritch: I think something that surprises some people – I don’t watch TV. I think that was the biggest shift when I started triathlon – cut it out completely. I also have a huge sweet tooth – my kids hide all candy from me – I’m a huge fan of basic milk chocolate, like a Hershey bar (KING SIZE)! Treating myself to sweets helps me get up in the morning to burn it off or earn it – however you want to look at it.
In all seriousness, I am very grateful to live the life that I do. I have an amazing family. I love my job – creating and growing the Every Man Jack brand has been such a blessing. I love triathlon and being apart of the EMJ tri team – I have met so many incredible people through the sport and team and made some lifelong friendships as a result. #gratitude
* Here is a story we did on the top 15 pros in Kona with all their data including height and weight: Kona Top 15 bike