John Bye knew something needed to change.
Into his late 30s and about 30 pounds overweight — as much as 230 pounds — the McDonell graduate challenged himself and wanted to see how far he could go.
It was a process that has taken him as far as the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. At first, John thought simply finishing the competition that tests an athlete’s endurance and will through swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, then running a marathon would be enough; but then, found a passion for the competition that drove him to want to qualify to compete in Kona.
Bye identifies two men from his youth who helped instill in him the drive for sports that has carried him through the decades since he graduated from McDonell in the late 1980s — Gerry Uchytil and Tom Swoboda.
The Wisconsin Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee Uchytil had a strong track record of success during his tenure leading the Macks program from 1977-87, instilling an air-based offensive attack that would pile up plenty of points and gain notoriety nationwide, being featured in articles from the USA Today and other publications.
It was also Uchytil’s ability to adapt to his surroundings, personnel and circumstances that drew the admiration of his former linebacker and helped carry the program to the WISAA Class A State Semifinal Championship Game in 1987, one season after John graduated where McDonell fell to the much-larger Milwaukee Marquette 26-20.
The late Swoboda coached a number of sports at the youth and high school levels prior to passing away last year. Swoboda began coaching John prior to high school and it was the motivation and lessons instilled from both that helped him rebuild his body at an age when most people are slowing down.
“I have a passion for sport that was largely fired up in me through Uchytil and Swob,” John said. “Through my coaches I’ve had back in Chippewa in my younger days — the stuff that those guys (said), their philosophies, their training, and their positives attitudes, the ideas that they shared mattered. It had an impact that served as foundation for what I am today.”
Bye has never considered himself a runner, admitting he doesn’t have the standard body type seen in most marathon competitors; but was a decent swimmer and strong cyclist. He had thought back on a ‘deck of cards’ mentality he heard from his football coach earlier in life, saying you only have a certain hand you’re dealt but what you do with it is up to you.
The next step
Bye points to his wife, Chris, as being the driving force behind his 100-plus triathlon journey over the past 20 years.
Bye participated in his first triathlon in 2001 and first IronMan in Wisconsin in 2003 and at that race, quickly discovered it was no walk in the park. Chris has always been the triathlete of the couple according to John and she first qualified for the Ironman World Championships in 2010 before competing in it four more times in the next several years. It was around the time Chris qualified for Kona for the first time that John started to amp up his training.
“Standing on the shores of Kailua Bay and training with some of the best amateur athletes in the world is a remarkable, inspirational experience,” Bye said. “If that doesn’t stoke a fire, nothing will.”
Upon return, while in a spin class, a friend of his leaned over to John and made the comment that really gave him the final push to put in the necessary effort he would need to do to change things: “Johnny, if you lost some weight, you might actually be good at this stuff.”
After moving from Chicago to South Orange, New Jersey in 2003, John’s weight went up to around the 230-pound mark by the end of the decade.
“I was 230 pounds, way out of shape, completely overweight (with) back pain,” John said. “I was having every problem you can imagine about being overweight. I used to look in the mirror and think ‘what happened to the young athlete I used to be?’”
John began to put forth a more intense exercise regimen and diet change that resulted in him starting to lose weight.
“There’s an adage amongst runners that every pound you lose results in a 3-minute reduction in your marathon time,” Bye said “So, with every pound I was losing, I was getting faster.”
Therefore he also started dropping time in his triathlon performances by focusing his efforts on the half-ironman distance (1.2-Mile Swim, 56-Mile Bike, 13.1-Mile Run) trimming his 2009 time of five hours, 51 minutes and 47 seconds at the IronMan 70.3 Timberman Triathlon where he finished in the middle of the pack (614 of 1,200 Male Competitors) all the way to, in 2018, finishing in 4:36:17 with a podium position in the 45-49 age group at an event in Atlantic City..
But even as he improved his times significantly across all triathlon distances and qualified and competed on Team USA in the Olympic Distance World Championships (.9-Mile Swim, 24-Mile Bike, 6.2-Mile Run) and multiple Ironman 70.3 (half-ironman distance) World Championships Kona was becoming a dream just out of reach.
His times were good, but not good enough to clinch a berth that comes by finishing in the top few of your age group at qualifying events.
“Despite constant improvement across the board, my run was still not where it needed to be and although, at the Ironman races I was participating in, I was coming off the bike in striking distance of a Kona qualifying spot, I would lose a lot of ground on the marathon and finish well short of goal,” Bye said.
Entering 2019 at the age of 50, John knew that this was probably his best chance to ever qualify.
Being the youngest in his age group, a friend reminded him that, as you get older, reaching podium in triathlons is often a game of attrition; that is, beating out others in your age group who are simply growing tired of maintaining the fitness level or too injured to continue at the high level. John hired a coach and altered his training efforts to work to a regimen more suited to someone of his body type of a big, tall man competing against a competitive set who are 30-plus pounds lighter.
John marked the beginning of his 2019 race season with Florida Ironman 70.3 and went into the race in what he considered the best shape of his life, tipping the scale at less than 200 pounds. He started strong and led his field through much of the day. But ultimately with under a mile left to go, faded and got passed by five competitors to finish seventh in his age group, a bitter pill to swallow.
A month later would be his Ironman race which would be in Santa Rosa, California. But despite a high level of fitness, John would have to overcome several hurdles. Shortly after racing in Florida, he came down with strep throat, costing him five important days of training. Nine days out, John got food poisoning from drinking some wine while watching a race course preview webinar resulting in him waking up in the middle of the night with a significant headache and severe stomach discomfort.
“The irony of the situation was that I thought I would have some Chalk Hill Chardonnay while I watched the course preview as you climb ‘Chalk Hill’ twice during the race,” Bye said. “However, unfortunately, I was drinking a corked bottle.”
Bye had considered dropping out of the race all together; but, after a talk with Chris was convinced to just go and do it.
With all that had happened to John between the Florida race and Santa Rosa, John’s mind was elsewhere and he entered the competition with modest goals — swimming as hard as he could, having a fun bike ride overlooking the course as it winds through the vineyards of Sonoma County, and running a “marathon I’d be proud of”, sub-9-minute mile pace to complete the race.
Weather for the day of the race was perfect and very pleasant and on the bus ride to the start line of the event, John listened to Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ on repeat, a song that stuck with him the entire day.
John made it through the first two portions of the race in good shape and as he hit the 7-mile mark of the marathon portion communicated with a fellow competitor who had dropped out of the race, letting him know he was in fourth place in his age group, within striking distance of third. . As John got further into the run, he started developing stomach pains and feeling dizzy and thought, ‘here I go again’, consistent with some of the circumstances that had hurt him in previous races. After a brief stop, John returned to the race and felt “surprisingly OK” and continued with the race and continued gaining time on third place.
His stomach felt better and as the miles dwindled down, Bye started to see his 110-plus race triathlon career flash before his eyes. He remembered his first races, all the training, and all the people who helped him along the way. This motivated Bye to ‘turn myself inside out’ for the final 5.2 miles of the race and he started singing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ in his head over and over again until he crossed the finish line to finish the marathon at 3:41:51 (an 8:28-mile pace) and a personal best total time of 10:09:56, then collapsed.
As he was helped up by race volunteers he heard his friend yelling something to him, expecting to here a few people caught him at the end but only to find out he took third place and qualified for Kona, a mere three seconds in front of the fourth place competitor he had been chasing for the past several hours. Bye was speechless and fell to a knee and cried over his achievement. He looked at scoreboards and on apps to confirm the time, but it was true. And soon after the congratulatory texts and calls started to flow in and a dream thought to be out of reach was realized.
In 2019, John competed in the USA National Championships in Cleveland, OH in August and qualified to compete on Team USA in 2020. Then began, what he described as a series of ‘Victory Laps’. In September, he competed as a member of Team USA at the ITU Sprint Distance World Championships in Lausanne Switzerland, competed a week later at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Nice, France; then, went on to the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii in October.
The performance in Kona was not noteworthy as he finished 1,477th overall, 151th in his age group and 1,198th among men with a time of 11:41:36. John’s main goal was already completed in Santa Rosa — getting to the start line in Kona and back into Kailua Bay where he dipped his toe in the water and the decade long pursuit began. He just wanted to enjoy the experience in Kona as a victory lap for his dedication; that is, the countless training miles and the 1,406 Iron Miles he raced to get there.
“I enjoyed every second I was there and looked at the race as nothing other than a swim in the ocean, a nice long bike ride, and a fun run around the island,” Bye said.
Hard work, dedication and tremendous support helped John work his way into an elite IronMan competitor. But as the calendar turned to 2020, he started to wonder again.
What if he committed himself beyond his main goal — which was to be a competitive triathlete — to a new goal of once again taking another big step.
To do so, John said he would need to drop another 20 pounds and give it another go.
It all comes down to dedication.
“Your ability to get better and better really is up to yourself to be able to say how hard am I willing to work for the goals I set for myself and not just look in the reflection in the mirror and say ‘oh I’m old so I can’t do anything anymore’,” Bye said.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!