IRONMAN Journey: Ritch Viola
Forty-two-year-old Ritch Viola turned to triathlon in his 30's, looking for a change. The former college swimmer was bored with lap workouts, and putting on the pounds. "Life was getting busy, and I was heavier than I’d ever been," he recalls. "I was always intrigued by triathlon because I felt I had the most terrifying leg of the race down—the swim!" He signed up for his first multisport race in 2007, an Olympic-distance event where, ironically, the swim was cancelled. Logistical confusion resulted in a crowded rush for the bikes, and Viola was cut off, crashed into, and left the race in an ambulance. Despite this, the Tiburon, Calif. native came back for more.
In 2009, Viola took on his first IRONMAN 70.3 at Vineman, with the hopes of qualifying for the world championship. It was an ambitious goal, since he’d never run a half marathon before. Though he describes that particular race as disappointing, he ended up qualifying for Clearwater that year. A week later, watching his sister complete IRONMAN Arizona, he got the bug to go for the full 140.6. He signed up the next morning for 2010.
His performance (first in his age group and third overall amateur) would earn him a trip to Kona in 2011 for his first world championship race. Though the five-time IRONMAN finisher knows the Big Island is a special place for triathlon, his focus has always stayed closer to the heart. "When I’m racing, I want to feel like I’m truly fighting and competing to the very end. I care about the end result," he says.
For Viola, that approach tends to land him on podiums. While racing the inaugural 2013 IRONMAN Lake Tahoe, Kona was not on his mind as he hit the water with his Every Man Jack teammates. "It wasn’t a goal to qualify again, and I would only take a slot if several of my training partners qualified," he says. Team Every Man Jack had a good race with team members earning a slot. Viola was Kona-bound once again.
While triathlon is an individual sport, it’s the "team" aspect that keeps Viola successful and engaged. "I surround myself with athletes that are more talented than me. I am a social person, and I wouldn’t be able to complete the training sessions Matt Dixon [Viola’s coach] gives me on my own—that’s just not how I’m wired!" he says.
At the 2014 IRONMAN World Championship, Viola enjoyed spending time with 12 teammates, making the week leading up to the event and the race itself more special. But as every IRONMAN knows, even with the strongest team support and the best spectators in the world, there comes a time in the race when it all comes down to you. Viola recalls his own tough spots from the 2014 race, "I thought about quitting at mile 10 of the run. It was a dark patch that came on way too early in the race, but I just kept encouraging myself to push and bounce back." Bounce he did—onto a first-place finish in his age group.
With all of Viola's success, one might guess that he's a perfectionist about his training. His secret to success is simple, however. "This is my hobby, and it should be fun," he says. "I don’t diet or obsess about the food that I eat to hit a certain race weight. If I have a bad race or workout, I don’t dwell on it. The minute this doesn't feel fun to me, or I feel 'down' because I didn’t hit a certain goal, it’s over!"
Viola says he keeps coming back to the sport because of the elusiveness of the 'perfect race.' "Usually, you finish knowing that you can improve some aspect of your performance," he says. "After the initial exhaustion wears off, you’re hungry for more!"