Friday, July 8, 2016

Interview with Kona Qualifier Rob Buren of Rock the Chair

I first met Rob Buren at the LPC Florida Triathlon Camp back in 2015 – and then saw him again at camp this year, where I learned more about his incredible journey and quest to qualify for Kona. I asked him if I could interview him for this blog – and he was more than happy to participate. Of course, you can find out more about Rob’s journey on his own awesome blog: Rock The Chair.

The amazing thing about profiling Rob is that he answered my interview questions on his way to competing in the Texas Buffalo Springs 70.3 race – one of only three Kona qualifying races for handcyclists. In Texas, Rob came in second in his division, earning his chance to be one of just four handcyclists to compete on the Big Island (and here I thought competing for Age Group Kona slots was difficult!). Can’t wait to cheer him on come October!  

So, without further ado – here is my pre-race interview with Rob!
Robert Buren

Tell me a bit about yourself – have you always been into sport?

I’ve always been active, but I wouldn’t really have considered myself an athlete until I started training for my first half Ironman in 2012. I grew up on a bicycle and loved anything with two wheels. As a young kid in my big brother’s shadow, as soon as he let me ride his minibike I was hooked on motors and going fast.  In my teens I had a few junkie dirtbikes, when I turned 17 I got my first street motorcycle, and once I started working I took up Amateur motorcycle racing.  In 2008 my wife, Sabrina and I trained for and completed our first half-marathon. That same summer I purchased a carbon bike and loved it. The plan was to look into triathlon in 2009.   Unfortunately, two weeks after my half-marathon, I broke my back in a mountain biking accident.

Fortunately, someone in rehab learned that I wanted to do triathlon and connected me with Chris Bourne, one of the pioneers of paratri.  Knowing it was possible, I set out on my journey to become a paratriathlete. Just weeks after breaking my back I was on a borrowed handcycle doing laps around the hospital. Over the next year I learned how to push the racing chair and swim without the use of my legs.  I went from completing one event to the next, and in September of 2012 I did my first triathlon, the Wasaga Olympic distance.  I was hooked.

What has been your biggest accomplishment – in life and/or in sport so far?

My biggest life accomplishment is a work in progress… trying to stay positive and productive since breaking my back in October of 2008. It’s a daily decision to make the best of what ability I still have, and live life to the fullest. Some days are better than others (like everyone), but overall, I’m surrounded by an incredible wife, kids, family and friends that keep me motivated and positive. I’m lucky that way.

In terms of sport, completing the Full Louisville Ironman in 2013 has to be my biggest accomplishment. No other Canadian paraplegic had finished this distance, and in the beginning I wasn’t 100% I could either.  On August 25th 2013, both Sabrina and I completed the race and proved to ourselves that we can achieve big athletic (and mental) goals. This is a special accomplishment that means a great deal to us.

7 or 8 years ago, you had a major spinal cord injury. What was (or is) the most challenging part of dealing with this kind of injury?

I often tell people “not walking is the easy part of being paraplegic”. It’s the stuff that people don’t see, and few paraplegics will talk about, that are hard.  Neuropathic pain, loss of bathroom and sexual function are my big ones. In terms of accessibility, there are few places that I can’t go, or things I can’t do, the challenge is finding the energy, patience and resources to want to venture into inaccessible or inhospitable territory. I know that Canada is a good place to have an injury like this, but there are still many places that are not wheelchair accessible.

What prompted you to sign up for your first Ironman? What did it mean to you to cross that finish line?

A few able-bodied friends had completed the Full IM, and I was in awe of the accomplishment. I hate the idea of being left behind, and I love a challenge, so this seemed like a pretty good one to tackle.  Over a few years I proved to myself that I could do each discipline on its own, but wasn’t sure if my arms would agree to do them all in one day.  Crossing the finish line was a little emotional for me. Putting so much effort into a goal like that, when it happens it’s pretty special.  Having my daughters there was icing on the cake.

What’s the most difficult part of triathlon training and/or racing for you? Why?

The hardest part of triathlon training for me is the solitude. It’s lonely.  This year I’ve found someone to swim with, which has been great.  For every two lengths I do, she does three. We push each other and it’s great knowing that she’ll be at the pool waiting for me.  For the bike though, I’m slower than most able-bodied cyclists so unless they’ve got a recovery ride to do, the speed difference makes it hard to find a cycling partner.  When it comes to running, I’m averaging 18 km/h in training, so I’m faster than able-bodied runners.  Also, I do most of my training during the weekdays, so unless you’re retired or self-employed, it’s not likely that my friends are available to join me.

You’ve now set your sights on Kona. Why? What do you see as your biggest challenge toward accomplishing this incredible goal?

After I completed the full in Louisville, I found myself in a bit of pickle. I know I can do it now, but do I want to train to just do it faster?  Kona is Ironman, and the thought of racing with the world’s best is big enough to motivate me to go for it and to suck up all the shit (good and bad) that comes with it.  Qualifying is the biggest challenge right now. There are only 4 or 5 male handcycle slots every year. There are only 3 races at which to qualify for one of these spots.  Australia Half IM in Cairns had one, Luxembourg, the week later had two, and I’m currently flying to the middle of Texas to complete for the last male slot. If no women handcyclists race, there will be 2 slots for men.  9 handcyclists have signed up, so it’s going to be an interesting race.   Last year I raced in Luxembourg and came 4th out of 7.  I’m hoping to do better on Sunday.

Aside: And he did it! Read Rob’s riveting account of the race and qualifying for Kona here.

How has working with Coach Mark Linseman changed your approach to training (if at all)?

Coach Mark has been great. He’s invested time in going back and looking at the training and races I’ve completed the past few years to figure out what we can do differently to improve.  My last coach was all about going out hard and trying to hang on. With Mark, we’re striving to keep the enthusiasm in check at the beginning of each discipline so that I can increase effort throughout. I’m responding better to this approach and my results are improving, so I would recommend Mark to anyone looking to improve. 
Rob and Coach Mark

If someone reading this blog is interested in any form of paratriathlon, but doesn’t know how to get started – what advice would you give them?

Call me.  There’s a lot to know and if I can accelerate that process for anyone, I’d be happy to.  It might mean that I’ll have someone to train with too.

Aside: Rob’s an awesome person – not at all intimidating. Take him up on his offer!

If you’ve learned one thing over your journey the past eight years, what would it be?

If you commit to a goal, tell people what you’re seeking to do, and then show the world that you’re working your ass off to achieve that goal, the world will respond to help you. I’ve benefitted so much from family, friends and even strangers helping me to achieve all the things I’ve accomplished since my accident.

I know you do a fair bit of public speaking, so probably get a lot of questions. What's the one question you wish more people would ask you? (And what's your answer?).

It’s less that I wish people would ask me a specific question, but rather I hope that people will ask themselves, “what motivates me and how can I make the most of any abilities I have?”  When people tell me “oh I couldn’t do that because I have bad knees”, I can’t help but think “so what, find a way…. Go for a swim… do something”.
Just re-reading this interview with Rob makes me inspired for my next adventure. He's proof positive that whatever happens in life, you can do whatever you set your mind to. So get out there and do it!
Big thanks to Rob for taking time out to chat right before his big (and awesome) race!
To follow Rob to Kona and whatever crazy goals he sets after that...bookmark his blog

You can also follow him on Facebook and on Instagram.