Kevin Fergusson goes from beer-swilling smoker to Ironman star.
Reece Homfray: SA Weekend insert, Mar 21, 2014 10:00pm
The number “Five” has not been kind to Kevin Fergusson.
His mother, Joy, lost her battle with cancer on January 5, 2006, and his father George was 55 when he drowned while fishing for freshwater lobsters 27 years ago.
Fergusson turns 55 tomorrow and he wants to make it a number to remember for all the right reasons.
It’s why he’s racing the Melbourne Ironman, which will be the first of five gruelling Ironman Triathlons he will do for the year. That’s a 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42.2km (marathon) run – five times in nine months.
Fergusson wants to win all five and set five course records in his 55-59-year age group, and along the way raise $55,000 in the fight against cancer in a project he’s calling “Iron 5 for 55”.
“Five before was a bad number for me,” says Fergusson, who gets up at 4.30am to train before work.
“Now I’m trying to change that. Five is too many … I don’t think it’s healthy to do five Ironman races in a year, but that’s what the challenge is all about – I’m going to put myself into pain.
“But someone with cancer and the pain they go through, for me this is only one day every few months.
“It’s about hurting myself to try to raise money and awareness for cancer.”
Aside from working full-time as a diving instructor and outdoor lecturer at TAFE, Fergusson is one of the best athletes in the state, even at the age of 54.
He is a sponsored triathlete and beaten only by professionals when he races across SA. When he races overseas he is one of, if not the best, triathlete in the world for his age group.
It is the most unlikely of stories given 25 years ago Fergusson was a beer-swilling, cigarette-smoking, country footballer working on locks and staying in pubs on the River Murray.
He played footy for teams like Blanchetown-Swan Reach and Moorook-Kingston, where they partied just as hard as they played.
“Even after training there was the social side of it,” Fergusson says with a sheepish grin as his mind goes back two decades.
“And life as a commercial diver meant I’d be away for two weeks at a time.
“You go away, stay in pubs where you’re playing eight-ball, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer.”
But in 1989, with his brother Grant’s persuasion, Fergusson decided enough
was enough. “I became very unfit and so did Grant and for some reason we saw a flyer for a local triathlon at West Lakes,” he says. It was a 300m swim, 19km ride and 3km run – which nowadays Fergusson could do in his sleep – but it took a big effort that year to conquer it and Fergusson was hooked. That sparked another lifestyle change.
“We were both still smoking at that stage and that was before Christmas so we made a New Year’s resolution to give up smoking and do a bit of training and another triathlon,” he says. “From that year onwards I haven’t looked back. I did smoke a couple of cigars after my first world title but as far as cigarettes go, nope.”
His first Ironman was in Forster, NSW, in 2004, the same year he debuted at triathlon’s mecca on the Hawaiian island of Kona. He has since completed 17 Ironman competitions and prides himself on finishing every race he’s ever started – once carrying his bike for kilometres because of recurring flat tyres.
Three months before racing in Hawaii in 2004 he had a prolapse between the C4 and C5 vertebrae in his spine and woke up the morning after a night dive to find he was paralysed. He went to hospital by ambulance and morphine eventually released the grip on his body and allowed him to move again.
“I was in a neck brace and couldn’t train and shouldn’t have done Hawaii but I’d paid the entry fees and accommodation,” he says.
“So I went over and had a go and halfway through the bike I thought ‘this is hurting too much’ so I got off my bike and sat on the side of the road.
“I was waiting for the ‘sag wagon’ to take me home and after a while it didn’t come so I did a few stretches, got back on my bike and kept going.”
As experienced as Fergusson is, what he’s attempting to do this year is uncharted territory and even he admits it’s an outrageous goal. He averages only two Ironman races per year, which in recent years have been Melbourne in March and Cairns in June.
“I’m usually pretty tired by the time I’m on the run in Cairns,” he says.
“Now, I’m putting that extra one in between those, then doing another two later in the year so it’s going to be tough.”
He got the inspiration for the challenge after racing last year’s Melbourne Ironman as a cancer fundraiser in memory of his late mother. After noticing there were five petals on the flower that represents the Cancer Council, he came up with the idea of “Iron 5 for 55” – five Ironmans to raise $55,000.
After Melbourne tomorrow, he will race in Port Macquarie on May 4, Cairns on June 8, Hawaii on October 11 and finish with Busselton on December 7.
The hardest thing he’s done previously was winning four age-group world titles over four different distances in six weeks in 2009. He thinks the five Ironman victories are realistic this year, but in course-record time he’ll need favourable weather conditions.
The course record for his age group in Hawaii is 9hr 18min and Ferguson did 9hr 16min in 2009 so he’s a chance.
The scary thing about Fergusson – a self-coached, married, father of two – is he keeps getting faster. A magazine article a couple of years ago went with the headline The Curious Case of Kevin Fergusson – a play on the movie about character Benjamin Button who ages in reverse.
It typically takes him 9hr 30min to complete an Ironman, which equates to roughly 55min to swim 3.8km, 4hr 40min to ride 180km (at an average speed of 38km/h) and 3hr 30min to run a marathon at the end.
“I’ve got a sponsor (Giant) that’s come on board with good bikes and that’s helping me go faster,” he says.
“And I’ve found different things to motivate me to train. The Lakers (West Lakes Triathlon Club) are a great group and I’m training with younger people and trying to compete with them.
“I don’t think I’m 54, I don’t feel 54… although I might feel 55 on race day.”
Fergusson is a competitive beast.
“There’s nothing better than catching the professionals who start 15 minutes ahead of you. That inspires you to go harder,” he says.
“One year, Macca (Chris McCormack) was training for the Olympics and turned back to Ironman racing. And in Cairns he wasn’t in top form, but I remember passing him on the bike and thinking ‘wow’.
“We came into transition pretty close together and the second age grouper came up next to me and said ‘that’s Macca up there, I’m going to try to catch him’.
“Something clicked, I took off, dropped the age grouper and did the first 10km of the Cairns Ironman side-by-side with Chris McCormack (two-time Hawaii world champion) and as an age grouper that’s the biggest buzz you could get.
“He out-ran me by 20 minutes in the end but it was an ego thing and I knew I couldn’t maintain that pace.”
To help reach his goal of raising $55,000 this year, Fergusson has set up a Website and Facebook page where people can “buy a second and save a life” by trying to guess his finishing times in all five races. The website went live in January, his sponsors donated prizes and major partner Nimblewear tipped in a $5500 donation to the tally.
At the same time, his endeavours this year are going to cost him plenty as well with the average Ironman entry costing just under $1000 and then there’s travel and accommodation.
Part of the fun, he says, has been the reaction of people when he tells them what he’s doing.
“A lot still relate Ironman to surf lifesaving and they don’t understand that you’re out there punishing your body for half of the day,” Fergusson says.
“But when you break it down and say you do a 3.8km swim, 180km ride and 42.2km run at the end, they say, ‘you’re mad’.
“Then they find out you’re doing five of them in the one year and they say ‘why would you put your body through that?’.
“But when you cross that finish line of an Ironman, especially the first time, you’re
a changed person. It changes your outlook on life and puts new meaning on it.
“No matter what size or age, it has got to be one of the greatest achievements of your life.
“It prepares you for anything because you will go through times in the race where you think ‘what the hell am I doing out here?’
“You’re going to get kicked in the guts and you always get back up and that is a good way to approach life.”
You can donate to Fergusson’s campaign by visiting iron5for55.com