It was around six years ago, at the end of a vacation coming off a cruise ship, Joe Kali realized something.
“I was pretty much overweight,” he said.
The Kauai man was packing more than 210 pounds on his 5 foot, 11 inch frame. He had fallen into the habit of working, then drinking, and wasn’t happy with how he looked or felt.
So one day, not long after coming off that ship, he did something he hadn’t done before.
“I decided to go for a run,” Kali said.
When he got home, his girlfriend Ihilani, today his wife, asked him how far he had run. Six miles, Joe answered.
Since he was gone only 50 minutes, she doubted the distance.
“No, you didn’t,” Ihilani said.
So the two of them went out and drove the course he just ran. It measured out to six miles.
His wife was impressed.
“For your first time running, that’s pretty good,” Ihilani said. “You may be a runner.”
In the following weeks, Kali formed a new habit: take up his iPod, lace up some old shoes, put on some shorts and head out the door.
“I kept running, kept running, kept running,” he said.
And he kept getting faster.
A few weeks later, he ran the Kauai half marathon. A few months later, he finished the Honolulu Marathon. Then, looking for more challenges, he decided to try a triathlon — swimming, biking and running. His first tri, he recalled “really, really sucked.”
“I was like maybe second to the last to finish. I was terrible,” he said. “I sucked on the swim and bike, but I did really, really good on the run.”
Encouraged, feeling better by the day, Kali committed more hours to training. It paid off.
Today, the youthful 29-year-old is a trim and toned 160 pounds. He’s one of Kauai’s top runners and triathletes. He’s completed Ironman New Zealand twice and qualified for the Ironman world championship in Kona, where last year he finished the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run in 9 hours, 45 minutes and 47 seconds.
He has become, to many, Kauai’s Joe Ironman. And he’ll be at the starting line again on Saturday, wearing bib number 2029, for the Ironman championship that attracts many of the planet’s top athletes.
“I feel pretty good, a little nervous, mainly because it’s Kona,” said Kali, who left Wednesday bound for the Big Island. “It’s supposed to be really, really hot this year. Conditions make it a tough day.”
He is confident his training — average 150 miles a week of biking, 60 to 80 miles of running and hours in the pool — has prepared him well, though it wasn’t quite what he would have liked. But his experience with nutrition and pacing in three Ironmans, knowing what to expect, should give him an edge.
“I’m hoping the fact I’ve been there three other times will definitely help with the whole situation,” he said.
And bike rides like the one he and a few friends completed Sunday, from Kee Beach to Kokee, some 76 miles in about 4 and a half hours, indicate he’s ready to roll past the lava fields.
“Those are 76 Kauai miles, there is no flat part,” said Kali, a captain for Blue Dolphin Charter.
Being able to push hard up the steep climb of Waimea Canyon, “basically as tough as it can get,” felt good.
“It definitely boosted my confidence,” Kali said. “When I’m putting out that effort in the race, I think I should be OK.”
He has no worries about the opening leg of Ironman, the swim. He’s not all that fast, he says, but he’s strong and comfortable in the water. Not even the hitting, elbowing and kicking that goes on at the start of the swim, when 2,000 or so mostly muscled athletes are battling for position, concerns him. He’ll be right in front.
“I tread water until the gun goes off. That’s when my switch goes off. Survival of the fittest. People grabbing legs, swim over you, that’s when you’ve got to basically fend for yourself. I’m really, really good at that,” he said, smiling.
As for the final leg, the run, he knows what he wants to do.
“If everything works out, I’m trying to run a 3:15 marathon off the bike,” he said.
Late in the race, he knows the pain will come. He knows it will hurt so much, he’ll want to stop and take a nap. But he won’t.
“You’ve got to be able to take the pain because when the pain starts kicking in when you’re not fresh, you have got to rely on your past experiences, race experiences, and what you’re been through all of you life. You’ve got to pull all of that in just to make it another mile when you still have 13 miles left.”
What drove Kali to Ironman at first was simply to see how fast and fit he could get. But more and more, he’s found inspiration from others who defy the odds to finish what is considered one of the most demanding sporting events. To see a 75-year-old cross the finish line, or to see the woman who overcame cancer pushing ahead long after darkness has settled on the course, is to Kali, amazing.
Everybody in Ironman has a story, Kali said. Hearing those stories humbles him.
He recalls last year during the championship, late in the race, he was running steadily, head down, many miles to go, his legs shot and despair was setting in. He began to feel sorry for himself. It was then he looked up and saw another runner going the other direction. The runner was missing his legs from the knees down.
“I just looked at that, I looked at me, I was like, ‘What are you whining about?’ Stuff like that just inspires me.”
So, right before the starting gun goes off, is he planning a strategy? Studying the conditions? Giving himself a final, motivational talk?
Nothing like that. Really. Nothing.
“I like to think of absolutely nothing. Otherwise my nerves will get a hold of me and I become an emotional wreck.”
One advantage of being an Ironman, he notes, is it allows him to satisfy his love of ice cream.
“I try to stay away from sweets, but man, I’ve got a sweet tooth,” he said, laughing. “Ice cream is to me like Krytonite is to Superman. I can eat a whole tub of ice cream in one sitting. Basically, I have an endless belly.”
The downside of Ironman training means time spent away from his wife and his friends.
“You kind of lose a lot of contact with people,” he said. “You put friendships aside to train for this race.”
But Kali remembers those who helped get him to this point. He insists on giving a shoutout to his sponsors, Kauai Athletic Club, Halo Headband, Altra Running and Kalapaki Joe’s. He praises training partners like Lisa Ledesman and the lifeguard at the YMCA, whose advice turned him into a stronger swimmer.
Last, but not least of course, he thanks his wife Ihilani for being supportive of his training that takes him from home. She understands his stress and worries that arise when preparing for a world championship.
“She helps bring me back down to reality,” he said.
So, are there more Ironmans in his future after this one?
Kali smiles and shakes his head.
“I’d like to say no, but that would probably be a lie,” he said.
He knows, when he crosses the finish line in Kona Saturday, he’ll replay his performance in his head. He’ll tell himself he could have gone faster, that he did something wrong, that he should have pushed harder there. He knows what that means, too.
“That’s going to make me want to do another one,” he said.