At age 35, Matt Russell was still short of his dream of a top 10 finish at the Ironman World Championship in Kona. His best shot had been a 12th place in 2016, but he was supremely confident as he came to Kona last year in the shape of his life. That all changed when a driver crashed into Russell on the Queen K and smashed that finely tuned and trained body into pulp 20 miles into the race.
Yet he was lucky. A deep cut missed his carotid artery by a sliver. While the 30-mph impact that rattled his brain led to bouts of short-term memory loss, doctors and the careful care of his wife Gillian helped him gradually come out of the clouds. If he was prone to any self-pity, Russell had the example of his wife who handled their newborn and the temporarily invalided father while coping with her own serious post-natal injuries. Russell thus adopted some primary baby care during his own recovery.
On a perfect day, Matt Russell left the word impossible behind as he scored the day’s 5th-fastest 4:12:58 bike split, passed nine men on the run, and finished just 4 seconds out of 5th place in a time of 8:04:45. Behind him were a roster of stars – Joe Skipper, Andy Potts, Cameron Wurf, Michael Weiss, Javier Gomez, Tim Van Berkel and Andres Dreitz.
This is his story.
Slowtwitch: Last year you were fitter than ever before the accident. You said you were dreaming of a top 10 finish. How did you almost make top 5 – losing by 4 seconds to Braden Currie in a finish sprint – this year?
Matt Russell: Last year I came out in the second swim group in a great position to finish in the top 10. If I swam like that all of my previous Kona races, I’d be in the top 10. Obviously, I didn’t get that chance last year so I had unfinished business to finish what I started last year. Just crossing the finish line was going to be a victory for me. Finishing in the top 10 would be icing on the cake.
ST: As I understand it, your injuries were a sliver away from death. They included:
A concussion. Russell suffered several aftereffects including loss of some short-term memory.
A severed SCM [known to doctors as the sternocleidomastoid muscle, is one of the largest and most superficial cervical muscles. The primary actions of the muscle are rotation of the head to the opposite side and flexion of the neck.
A jugular injury – which cut just millimeters away from the carotid artery.
Rhomboid and shoulders were wrecked which had to work hard to adapt for weak neck muscles, which felt on fire during a workout or race.
ST: What kind of shape were you in when you returned to competition at Texas 70.3?
Coming into Texas 70.3 I was in pretty good shape and didn’t experience much pain at the time.
ST: How were you at Ironman Texas?
Matt: A few weeks later during Ironman Texas is when I experienced difficulties with my body. My antagonist muscles on my neck were working overtime and were on fire in pain. So much that I had to walk for the first time ever in an Ironman. My mind was ready but my body was obviously not.
ST: Your brain injury left your short-term memory sub-par. How did that affect your relations with family? With work?
Matt: It is frustrating. Mentally I felt like I was fine and everything was ok. However, that was me being in denial. I’m not someone who gets worked up over the simple things in life and I felt like I had a short fuse. I was/am more forgetful. My wife Gillian if probably the better person to answer this question as she notices the issues I’m experiencing more than I do.
ST: How was it welcoming the birth of your first child right shortly before your accident?
Matt: My son was born 7-7-2017, three months old at the time of the accident. It was a difficult time for my wife as everything fell on her shoulders and she was still recovering from a very difficult pregnancy and birth. I did spend a lot of time with Makaio as it significantly helped my recovery process.
ST: At any point in your recovery, did you despair that your pro days were essentially over?
Matt: I really didn’t entertain this thought and just took things one day at a time.
ST: How much support did you get from friends, family and fellow athletes?
Matt: It’s been a tough journey these last 12 months and it’s been so important to have support from my friends, family and the triathlon community. I’ve had a lot of tough moments but having support helps me get through those tough times.
ST: How did you maintain an optimistic outlook on life?
Matt: I focused on being positive and took one day at a time. I concentrated on what I could do and not on what I couldn’t do.
ST: I see things got better later in your season. At swim canceled Ironman Chattanooga you finished 2nd to Cody Beals - 11:32 behind. What did that tell you?
Matt: I was actually pretty disappointed that there was no swim in Chattanooga. I had been working on my swim and knew I could get out with the lead swim group like I did in 2016. I was in very good shape coming into Chattanooga but my race result didn’t show it. I had a good race but it wasn’t a great race for me. I averaged 302 watts for the first 72 miles and then on the second bike loop I was forced to slow down with it being so congested and I missed getting fluid at most of the aid stations. With that said, I got very dehydrated and my power fell and I wasn’t able to run to my potential. After the race I went to anti-doping to try to give a sample and couldn’t produce enough urine. 14 pounds of fluid and 90 minutes later I was finally able to produce a sample.
ST: At Ironman Mont Tremblant, did you need a top finish to qualify for Kona?
Matt: The rumor had it that I needed to finish 3rd to get enough points to get back to Kona. I later found out that I was the second person to miss out with Tim Don being the first. Tim Don then got a roll down slot and I was the first person to miss qualifying. I wasn’t upset as my goal wasn’t to trying to qualify for Kona. A few days later I got a call from [Ironman CEO] Andrew Messick. He said that I deserve to have a wild card after what happened last year. I told him that I have to talk to my family about it before making a decision. After a night’s sleep, I decided that I did want to go back to Kona and finish what I had started.
ST: What did your Mont Tremblant finish time of 8:25:14 with splits - S 57:58 Bike 4:30:37 Run 2:52:25 - tell you? You were 14 minutes back of Beals and 1 minute back of Lionel Sanders?
Matt: First, it told me that I need a masters swim group to stay on top of my swimming. I had been swimming solo all summer in our home in Sarasota, Florida with pools that had limited hours. That really hurt my swimming. I had a decent bike and a pretty good run with minimal pain in my neck and I was able to push through the pain that I was experiencing. I knew I was starting to come back into my form after that result.
ST: What was your dream goal coming into Kona?
Matt: My dream was to have closure with what happened last year. I rode the whole bike course on Sunday before the race. I rode by the site of my accident and it was emotional. The second time I rode by, I was fine. Just finishing the race would be a huge victory. Finishing in the top 10 was just icing on the cake.
ST: How were you feeling?
Matt: I was mentally and physically in a good place. I picked up my Andean [triathlon bike] from the crash a few days before the race as I wanted to put all that behind me and concentrate on giving my best race day.
ST: Any good signs last minute?
Matt: For the Ironman training practice swim the weekend before the race, I swam a 50:50. At Ironman Mont Tremblant I was nearly 3 minutes behind Lionel. For the practice swim I was 32 seconds ahead of him. I was also ahead of Cam Wurf by 8 seconds. I was really happy about that swim.
ST: What was your best Kona finish prior?
Matt: My best Kona finish was 12th in 2016. [Swim 54:02 Bike 4:33:08 Run 2:54:24 Total 8:25:52]
ST: What was your best Ironman anywhere else?
Matt: Besides winning Ironman Canada in 2012? In 2016 I finished in between Patrick Lange and Terenzo Bozzone at the Ironman North America Championships in Texas. Also in 2016 I finished 1 minute behind Frederik Van Lierde at Ironman Cozumel.
ST: Did you expect your 54:02 swim split on race day?
Matt: I expected to be out much quicker because of my 50:50 Ironman training swim. However that 54:02 swim was effortless because I was sitting in 3rd position in the group. Maybe it’s better to swim a 54 and come out fresh vs swimming a 50-51 and being gassed.
ST: Where did you stand coming out of water?
Matt: I believe I was in the 3rd swim group. Maybe exited in 40th position? Swam about the same time [precisely the same time) as last year.
ST: Looks like you surged into contention on the bike. Do you realize your 4:12:58 split was far better than Normann Stadler’s 2006 course record?
Matt: My body felt great on the bike. I tried to keep my power steady but my power meter wasn’t working so I went on feel. My bike split might be far better than Norman’s course record but you really can’t compare them because it was a different day and different winds.
ST: What back and forth did you experience on the bike?
Matt: I rode the first 30+ miles with Lionel and Sebi. Then we caught a large group of around 30 riders. You try to find where there’s a gap and then push on the gas (burning matches) to try to pass 5-6 people at a time. It’s very tough because while you pass, that gap that you saw was open ends up closing.
ST: Do you enjoy playing Pac Man passing so many riders?
Matt: I don’t enjoy the dynamics of trying to pass all of those riders. After the descent from Hawi, I ended up riding solo the whole way back until I caught the lead pack around mile 105 with the Patrick, Tim O’Donnell, Gomez group.
ST: What was your toughest moment on the bike? Your best move?
Matt: I coach myself and have really learnt to listen to my body. I think a lot of people overdo it on the bike and that hurts their race.
ST: What was your highest standing in the race on the run?
Matt: I started the run around 15th place and throughout the whole run kept hunting down guys. Around mile 20, I passed Javier Gomez [who faded to 11th] and I moved into 6th.
ST: Any doubts or fears?
Matt: As most people know anything can happen in an Ironman and you don’t want to blow up at the end. The last thing I wanted was to blow up or cramp up and go from 6th place to 11th place. It’s not over until you cross that line.
ST: What was your duel to the finish with Braden Currie like?
Matt: With a few miles to go I could see Tim O’Donnell and Braden Currie running side by side about a minute or so up the road. At the 40k mark people were saying that Braden was hurting. That’s when I really started pushing hard. My heart rate went from the average of 158 up to 183 and I ran a sub 6-minute mile. I just kept pushing and came up 4 seconds short. It stings a little, but in a great way. Having this type of performance helps me build the confidence to take it to the next level. More fuel for the fire, so it’s a great thing.
ST: Did you ever think you could finish 6th – or close to 5th – at Kona?
Matt: Yes I thought it could be possible but I never really set my goals to be there this year. This is a great learning experience for me. Maybe I should shoot for the stars and try to win Kona and I’ll fall short and land on the podium. My 6th place will certainly build confidence.
ST: What went through your mind and heart at the finish?
Matt: There were times when I was running when I started to get emotional but I had to put that on the back burner and remain focused. I knew I’d be emotional once I finished no matter what place I was in. Finishing 6th made it more emotional. Once I finished, I threw my hands in the air and praised the Lord that I was still alive. Exactly 1 year ago I was in the hospital and almost lost my life. The Lord has a plan for everything and he has much bigger things that lay ahead of me.
ST: What did your wife and kids tell you?
Matt: They were proud! It was very emotional for the whole family and I couldn’t have done this journey on my own.
2018 Ironman World Championship
8:04:45 (4 seconds behind Braden Currie)