From Cubicle to Kona: An Interview with Elite Ironman Triathlete Rob Mohr
Posted on December 29 2015
Rob Mohr's a specimen. He's an elite Ironman, creative consultant, and, as we found out, a fiercely committed and intelligent guy. In November, Rob punched his ticket to the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii when he placed first in the highly competitive 25-29 age group at Ironman Cozumel, Mexico. Before Rob left to compete in Cozumel, we got a chance to sit down with him at his Chelsea, Manhattan apartment to learn how—and why—he became an elite Ironman.
It's almost 9:30 a.m. on a Monday when we finish taking pictures of Rob Mohr running along the West Side Highway. Usually by now the twenty-nine-year-old Ironman would be submerged in an Upper West Side pool and well into his swim work-out.
See, last March Rob left his job of five years to pursue the offbeat dream of becoming one of the best Ironman triathletes in the world. Since then, he’s adopted an almost monk-like schedule. It looks like this:
7:00 am: Wake up/ Breakfast/ Work
8:30-10:00 am: Swim work-out in a pool on the Upper West Side
10:30-12:00 pm: Stretch/ Recovery/ Lunch at the apartment
12:30-3:30 pm: Bike ride over the George Washington Bridge and into the Palisades
4:00-5:00 pm: Run along West Side Highway or on the treadmill
5:30 pm: Dinner
6:30-9:00 pm: Work/ Recovery
9:00 pm: Bedtime
We walk into Rob's Chelsea, Manhattan apartment, where he lives with his longterm girlfriend, Marla. We take some lifestyle photos as he gives us the tour.
"My girlfriend gives me so much shit with all my bike garbage here and just for all these different receptacles," Rob jokes, pointing out his racing bike and equipment bins. "Like this thing," he adds, picking up a bin full of triathlete gear. He grabs an aero cycling helmet at the top of the pile. "She has a point, I think."
They're sprinkled throughout the apartment, these distinct markings of a serious triathlete. On his refrigerator, for example, hangs a collection of pictures of iconic Ironman moments. One of the photos looks familiar. We ask him about it.
"These two guys are the most famous people in the triathlon world," says Rob, admiring the photo.
The photo is of two men running shoulder to shoulder down the middle of a desert-like highway. The men’s names, Rob tells us, are Mark Allen and Dave Scott. The race is the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
Before this epic race—which is now known as Iron War—Dave Scott had won seven consecutive times, thoroughly crushing Mark Allen in each race.
"Finally, in 1989 they stayed with one another for the entire race, until the last three miles," says Rob who smiles, and gestures to the photo. "In the last three miles Mark Allen finally broke Dave Scott, and it was this historic moment in the sport."
It's this intensely competitive and freakishly fit tradition that Rob Mohr has risked a lot of things to become a part of.
Since taking the big leap last March, Rob's decided to move out of his Manhattan apartment. He's spent many hours on the road with his girlfriend, traveling hundreds of miles up and down North America to compete in qualifying triathlons. He's posted up at shoddy motels for training retreats at triathlete hubs in Tucson, Arizona and southern Florida.
He has—for being a generally very cool and laid-back and funny guy—made what a lot of people would consider to be fanatical lifestyle changes. As such, he's moving to Colorado in December, where his coach lives and where he can train year-round.
He's done all of these things and more to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii next October.
Rob, in a lot of ways, sounded like our kind of guy.
Below is an abbreviated version of our conversation with him in November.
WC: So, Rob, 2.4 miles in the water, 112 miles on the bike, and then you run a full marathon...and you’re racing it—a full Ironman is punishing. What percentage of triathletes can actually do the true ironman?
RM: What you often see is that there are phenomenal triathletes who crush the half ironman. But when they try to do the full, they blow up on the run or blow up on the bike. After that they do not do the sport anymore. They realize their body is not meant to do the full Ironman.
As I led up to a full Ironman, while I’m a pretty confident person and confident in myself, at some point I was like How’s this going to net out? Like, am I a total fraud? I am someone who believes that they can do this sport and excel in it, but there’s a strong possibility that I get through the swim and the bike and my body is just unable to run. Is my body going to be able to take it? As someone who had left their job in March, decided to take this leap, I was relying on a lot of faith in myself, that I’d be able to do the full race.
WC: How’d you do in your first full Ironman race?
RM: The race in Mont-Tremblant [a qualifying race Rob did this summer] went well. I was able to go fast—and while I’ve had a lot of turning points in terms of training, it was huge to actually be able to put it together in a race and see that I can go far in this sport. Because at some point you’ve really got to quiet the side of you that’s doubting whether you can do it.
WC: How fast did you go? What time do you need to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii?
RM: Right, so the goal is qualifying for the world championships in Kona. A very small percentage of people are able to do that, especially in my age bracket, which is 25-29. 105 people in that age group from around the world are able to compete in Kona. So there’s forty full distance Ironmans around the world, which means about 2-3 from those qualifying Ironmans gets a spot. I knew going into Mont-Tremblant that I would need to be on the podium. I thought anything under 9 hrs and 45 minutes would put me there.
I hit 9 hrs 39 minutes, so I was super pumped up to have beaten my goal and raced that fast. I thought that I got the best out of myself on that day, but unfortunately it put me in fifth place. One, two, and three got Kona slots. Both me and the guy who beat me missed out. And I think it was in any other age group we would have qualified. I looked to see how these guys did in Hawaii and of the 105, the guys that beat me all were in the top twenty.
WC: How’d this all start? What first got you interested in triathlon?
RM: I was in my first year working in New York City—working long hours and trying to figure out how to stay in shape. I was still lifting a lot—I had been since high school—and was just like Why am I lifting weights? Is there something I’m building towards or training for? Outside of training for the beach, I needed some other form of motivation.
It’s funny, because now with the boom of Crossfit, I’m like Oh my God, because I know if Crossfit had come along like six years ago, I would have been this Crossfit nut-case—so thankfully Crossfit didn’t come out for another six years.
WC: We tend to agree. So you found running instead?
RM: In 2008, my dad recommended I do this Turkey Trot, this eight-miler in Dallas, because I was gonna be there for Thanksgiving. He ran it twenty years earlier and ran a seven-minute pace. Appealing to my side of competition he asked, “Can you beat that?”
WC: And you did?
RM: I did—and the experience was incredibly rewarding. I remember training and making a promise to myself that each day I was going to run longer or faster than the day prior. So either I’m going to do 3 miles faster or 3.5 miles today. And I was just blown away by the fact that I could see gains as quickly as I was seeing. Each day I could either go further or faster. Whereas with lifting I’d been doing it for so long that I was just lifting to maintain as opposed to seeing gains.
WC: Was there a pivotal moment for you when you started to see yourself as a true endurance athlete?
RM: In April of 2010, I went back to Vanderbilt for “Rites to Spring,” which is a music festival on campus, and there happened to be a half marathon/ marathon that weekend. One of my buddies was doing it so I was going to pace him for it. I had a fun the night prior, woke up the next day, and arrived at the race—but because I had missed registration the day before, I ended up just scabbing it. I ran the race without a bib.
And it was one of those things where I’m running the race and I was halfway through—and it’s this glorious day and there’s the split for the half marathon and the full marathon—and I decided to take the left turn and do the full marathon. Twenty miles in I was like What have I done? This is so terrible.
But when I finished, it was one of those pivotal moments where I could actually see myself as more of an endurance athlete. From then on, I was obsessed with running and anything endurance. I started competing in a lot of races. Prior to running the Turkey Trot, I’d never ran more than three miles in my entire life.
WC: How did these long-distance runs play out with work life? When did you find time for your runs?
RM: The running really complemented working. It gave me more energy, and it wasn’t a huge time suck. For a while I was running after work. It was a good way to burn off energy.
Eventually, though, as I got really into running, there was this point in time when I’d be stuck at the office at like 7:30 at night and I’d start to freak out and wonder Like when am I going to get this run done? And I would notice slips in productivity later in the day because I was obsessing about getting this run done. So I started doing the runs in the morning.
WC: What’s it like living the life of an Ironman?
RM: There are a lot of sacrifices that go into it. From the shift I’ve made from working full-time to working a few hours—that certainly impacts my financial situation. The sheer amount of training and energy required to train properly for an Ironman is monumental and it can have a big impact on your social life.I’m a very social person by nature, I love hanging out with my friends. And so while I’d love to be with the twenty friends of mine at the bar watching football games, I’m instead knocking out training in the pool or downstairs in the basement of my building to make sure that as I approach a race I am confident and feel I’ve done everything possible to get the most out of myself on race day. I want to do my best in the sport and, unfortunately, you simply can’t try to do both. So I’m more keeping a very chill type of social life.
Recovery is huge, and that requires getting a lot of sleep. I sleep like ten hours a night now. I’ve got a super supportive girlfriend who has been in New York for five years now and is used to the normal social scene here. So my girlfriend’s getting back from work and we’re having dinner right away. I’m in bed by 9 pm and waking up around that 7 a.m., so getting ten hours of sleep. And it’s essential for what I’m trying to do. If I am looking to be successful in the sport, that’s what’s required.
WC: So qualifying for Kona’s the big goal for you, but what else inspired this pretty radical lifestyle shift?
RM: Yeah—I think something innate in me likes the physical activity and likes to push myself physically and wants to find out what I’m capable of. And I think a lot of that is born from when I was a little kid—just loving to play sports and loving to be active. Constantly being obsessed with recess and wanting to maximize that duration of play. And something with sitting at a desk, while I really liked my job, really liked the people I worked with, was doing really well at it, I lacked that ability to push myself physically.
WC: It is kind of like being a kid again—looking longingly out the window during class, counting down the hours until recess.
RM: Yeah, and essentially my mentality towards triathlon started to manifest into OK, what can I really do in this sport? And that’s easier if you have a goal. So the goal is qualifying for Kona. I still see that as a long-term thing but I see it as short-term in the grand scheme of life. So that’s my first check point in seeing what I’m capable of. It allows for me to have something to focus on.
WC: We spoke earlier about going Vegan as a part of your lifestyle shift. How has your diet changed your performance?
RM: It was a gradual process. I started out saying “Can I go a week with just vegetables?” I knew that with fruits and vegetables, you should be eating more of them. So it was less about meats being bad and more about having a better diet. I knew if I was only eating fruit and vegetables I would eat a lot more of them.
I did that and then quickly recognized my recover time was faster. Not having a big thing of chicken or meat in my stomach allowed for me to go from eating to training very quickly rather than having to allow for a three hour period of time. And given that oftentimes I’m having to do things back to back and needing to eat between that, it’s nice to have a quick meal and be able to get back after it.
WC: I imagine that there must be moments during an Ironman when it would be so easy to take a mile off. How do you stay motivated?
RM: A lot of the things I’ve gotten from other athletes in the sport. With an Ironman, it’s crucial to get the absolute best out of yourself in the portions of the race when it’s hardest to do so, especially the later stages of the marathon.
Some triathletes have a huge discrepancy between their open marathon times and Ironman marathon times. And that’s because of the mental aspect, of forcing yourself to dig deep and go to the well at these portions of the race where other people want to give up. And while your body is capable of it, mentally you’re not prepared to hold that pace.
But you cannot allow yourself to let up mentally, to tell yourself you’ll take this mile off and make up for it, because once you do, the race is over. The way I think about it is, This might be the last time I ever get to perform, so let’s make this one count and remember why it’s important.
WC: How can a regular guy get started in triathlon?
RM: Just get out and start as opposed to planning. Especially in a sport like triathlon, it’s so easy to get tied up in the minutiae of it. To look at this big picture and want to know all the pieces that go into it. Like, what kind of heart rate monitor should I buy? And what kind of bike should I buy? What tires do I need? What wheels do I need? What kind of watch do I need? It’s very easy to focus on these little things that aren’t running or swimming or biking. You can easily go down this rabbit hole of b.s. that doesn’t really matter.
One of my favorite sayings is “Do The Work” and it’s so true and applicable to everything really. What do I need to do today to get there. And once you’re able to boil it into what you need to do that one day then things align and reach that bigger picture.
Had I started off not trying to just hold that seven minute pace during that Turkey Trot, but looked 6 years down the line and said I need to do a seven minute pace for this Ironman after the 2.4 mile swim and 112 mile bike, I would have failed. But by breaking it down to smaller chunks it’s much more manageable and makes it so that you can achieve things you never thought possible. And that’s how my training is now. Trying to get the best out of myself each day. It’s what allows me to go to sleep the night before a race and feeling as though I’ve done everything possible up until this moment to go as fast as I can tomorrow.
WC: What do you love most about triathlon?
RM: The thing that I love the most about endurance sports is that they are pretty linear. You get out of it what you put in. And that is one of the things that started to draw me away from working in an office and towards doing Ironman is that when you show up to work each day and put in eight hours of really hard work, you’re not quite sure what that’s led to. And sometimes that can lead to a really strong deliverable or something for the client but a lot of that is still kind of random. A lot of life can be kind of random and subjective. In a sport like triathlon you can see a very clear line between working hard in training and having success on race day. And there’s a lot of beauty in that and being able to clearly see the rewards of the effort put in.
WC: A little contradictory to what we’ve been discussing, because it is so much about the day to day and the journey, but if everything were to go perfectly, where would you end up?
RM: What I’m really trying to do is see what I am capable of and I still don’t know what that is. I know that with my most recent race, I can produce a race that will qualify me for the world champs in Kona. But I’m still on this trajectory where I don’t know where the curve starts to round, and I don’t know what the fastest time is that I can produce.
I’m still taking it day to day and I feel like it’s one of those things where oftentimes it’s like I have this wake up moment of Oh my God, while I’m still earning some income, I’ve take a step back significantly from working full-time, and I’m like Ok, I basically don’t have a job here, I’m pushing myself in a sport that I think I could be very good at but I at the same time don’t know where that’s going to end up.
But sometimes in life you’re doing things and you feel like you’re on the right track. This is one of those things where I feel like provided that I continue to put all of my energy into it, it will put me on the right path.
WC: Last question, what happens if you don’t qualify for Kona?
RM: In my mind it’s not if, it’s when. There are so many things that go into having a perfect race and I need to have a perfect race. In Cozumel, I’ll need to come in 1st or 2nd of my age group, and my age group often has people who are trying to go pro. So the person who finishes first can often be far above what is required to qualify. So I’ll be looking to go as fast as I can. While I'm confident that I can KQ [Kona Qualify] in Cozumel, there’s always the possibility of it not being your day. Either you’re sick or the cumulative volume of training doesn’t pan out that day, or you have a mechanical on the bike. For example, if my bike chain breaks, my day is over. The last four month block of focused training has been, in a sense, for nothing. While I know that all of this is a possibility, at the same time, I don’t want to think about my backup plan of doing a race after Cozumel. I want to focus only on the race at hand, and making sure I get everything out of myself in that moment. I know that I'm fit and I'm strong and I have the commitment required to perform well and qualify. Based on my time at Mont-Tremblant I know that it’s something I will do—knock on wood because there are things that can go wrong—but I think it’s something where it’s not an if, it’s a when.
WC: We think so too.
In late November, Rob did it. He qualified for Kona when he took first place in his age group at the Cozumel Ironman.
Want to keep track of Rob’s journey to the World Championships, where he’ll compete next October? Follow him on Instagram: @followmetokona.
Awesome stuff and good luck, Rob! #DoMoore #DoMohr