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The Ironman: Chef Jon Bonnell takes off his toque for a challenge

The Ironman World Championship has been held annually in Hawaii since 1978, owned and organized by the World Triathlon Corp. The original list of instructions included the exhortation: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!” The Hawaiian Ironman is considered one of the most prestigious triathlon events in the world.

For those who don’t know him, Jon Bonnell is the executive chef and owner of Bonnell’s Restaurant Group. Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine put Fort Worth on the culinary map as a must-dine location when the doors opened in 2001. Since then he has branched out with the highly acclaimed Waters Fine Coastal Cuisine and Buffalo Bros. Pizza Wings & Subs, and he serves as celebrity chef of Texas Christian University’s Amon G. Carter Stadium. With television appearances, cooking schools and wine tastings, publishing three cookbooks and participating in charity events, he’s a busy man. And that’s without mentioning that he is the father of two.

So what does a busy guy like that do in his down time? Train for and compete in triathlons, of course.

He took up running seven years ago, when his age and metabolism began inching in the wrong direction, a byproduct of his trade. “I was overweight and out of shape, in an industry that celebrates obesity, so I started running for my health. I lost 45 pounds that first year,” said Bonnell, now 45.

He just competed in the International Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 10. The grueling race consists of a 2.4-mile swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run. That makes 140.6 miles total.

When Jon and his wife, Melinda, arrived in Hawaii, they headed immediately to Ironman Village to locate his bike, which had been shipped over ahead of time. Bonnell had just a few days to recover from travel and get ready for the big race on Saturday. Bonnell kept a journal of his adventure.

“On Thursday morning, I officially checked in as an athlete and got my orange wristband, clearly marked “KONA ATHLETE” in huge letters. It’s pretty surreal to see your own name listed on the World Championships Page for the first time,” said Bonnell.

“Now it was time for a few last-minute tune-up workouts, so I headed over to the practice swim area. Swim-skin, goggles, ear plugs − all set. Time to get a feel for the ocean where the first leg of the race would start,” he said. “The swim went pretty well, but swimming in the Pacific, with rolling waves and current, was much trickier than I thought,” he said.

Next, Bonnell took his bike out for a spin and made a few minor adjustments to his front wheel. “I got a quick 10 miles in on the bike and had a chance to see the Queen K (the highway I would call home for most of the cycling course) for the first time,” Bonnell said.

Running his first Ironman triathlon in Tahoe two years ago, he thought the challenge was out of his system. But Ironman Kona is the most elite triathlon and reserves about 400 spots for charities and lotteries to fill (giving non-qualifiers a chance to take part).

The Team in Training (TNT for short), which raises money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, gave Bonnell the opportunity of a lifetime. He was accepted initially just as an alternate, but got the call that he would be one of five members on the team just three and a half months prior to the big race.

Bonnell ran in honor of two leukemia patients – David Publicover, who died from the disease during their junior year of high school at Country Day in Fort Worth, and Jack Duffy, a family friend who died in 2004 – “in the hope that funds raised here in his honor would prevent kids in the future from ever having to endure what Jack went through.”

Friday was filled with final preparations. “Nerves began to really hit me at that point as I headed back to the hotel for as many carbs as I could cram down for lunch,” Bonnell said. After that, the challenge was to remain calm, stay off his feet and get plenty of rest.

The vast majority of participants had already won another triathlon just to qualify for the competition. “It was the best of the best from 52 countries, who had all traveled to Kona, the legendary birthplace of Ironman, to compete on this hallowed ground. Exactly 2,367 participants signed in, with only 400 of us who didn’t have to qualify. We got the lucky few charity or lottery slots and got to line up with the world’s elite to give this thing a shot,” he said.

Bonnell felt that he was completely out of his league. He had raised over $84,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and had trained tirelessly in the Texas heat. “I’m in, by far, the best shape of my life, but I was completely full of doubts at this point,” he said. Questions were swirling through his mind. “Can I even finish this thing? Have I trained enough? Am I good enough to even be here? What have I gotten myself into?”

Race day

Race day began at 3 a.m. Once he arrived at the staging area it was time for body-marking. “Body marks were applied by volunteers, one on each arm,” he said. “Athletes were directed to our bikes for last-minute details. I booted up my Garmin on the bike and hit the reset button so all fields read zero, then activated my race belt with the GPS chip so everyone could follow along back home,” he said.

“Finally we were led down the beach and told to make our way out to the starting point, which was just an imaginary line between two huge buoys,” Bonnell said. “The sun had yet to peek out, but the morning light was stunningly gorgeous over the Pacific and it was just a sea of blue swim caps treading water at this point, all waiting impatiently for the starting cannon to fire. There we were …1,600 guys all treading water just waiting for that sound, then suddenly a concussive BOOM and it began.

“The swim starts off like a massive washing machine, all arms and elbows banging around, creating a white froth. Swimmers are all jockeying for position, everyone wanting to be farther ahead, and willing to do anything necessary to get there,” Bonnell said. It took him a full 15 minutes to find a hint of clear water.

“There are no straight lines in open-water ocean swimming. If you aim at a target, that target drifts sideways,” he said. “This was not at all the way I had practiced swimming. Eagle Mountain Lake has no current.”

After an hour and half of fighting against other triathletes and the tide, he finally reached the shore. “I quickly shed the swim-skin, goggles and ear plugs and grabbed a hose to wash off the saltwater. I began sucking down Gatorade like crazy.” Once his sunscreen was applied, and his helmet and glasses were on, he settled in for a very long ride.

There was a lot to keep track of, including pace, winds and calorie counting. “At this point in the race, I had calculated that I needed to take in roughly 350 calories per hour, minimum, so I kept munching on energy cookies, chews and Gu packets all along the way. My feet began to go numb, but I knew they would be back later.”

Another chef

Then the rain began. “Blinding rain and ridiculous gusts were making it difficult to even stay on the road,” Bonnell said. “Right about that time I passed one guy who was not wearing any glasses … wait … is that Gordon Ramsey? Holy crap, what’s he doing without glasses on? We were likely the only two chefs on the course that day, so in my head, I was really glad to be winning my division.”

It wasn’t until the end of the race that Bonnell learned Ramsey’s fate. The British reality show chef, who has competed in several triathlons, was pulled from the race by medics for severe dehydration.

“Finally it was time for the second transition. We hit the dismount line, where volunteers eagerly caught our bikes and whisked them away so we could head into the changing tents,” he said. “My bike disappeared quickly and with my first step on solid ground in hours, both hamstrings instantly cramped and I hit the floor like a sack of nickels. Imagine that … I counted 26 bottles of water and 14 bottles of Gatorade that I had consumed so far and I was severely dehydrated!”

After washing down a couple of salt pills and Advil, it was time to run. By this point Bonnell was spent, but he still had 26.6 miles left to go and his feet were still numb from the ride.

“After roughly 12 miles, we headed back out on that infamous Queen K Highway one more time, for our last out-and-back loop, and things got very lonely, very quickly,” Bonnell said. “The crowds were gone. With only the tiniest sliver of a moon, the darkness enveloped us quickly and glow-in-the-dark necklaces were handed out, reminding me of the ones they sell for $50 apiece at the rodeo. It’s the only thing that kept us from running directly into each other as we headed out through the darkness against the constant stream of runners returning for their long-awaited grand finish.”

Having traveled nearly 140.6 miles through blazing sun, gusting wind and even blinding rain, for Bonnell the day was nearly over. “Slowly, the glow of the Kona city lights began to emerge over the horizon and finally the faintest sounds of the finish line could be heard,” he said.

After enduring nearly 15 hours of the punishing triathlon, Bonnell crossed the finish line. “I ran, completely oblivious to any pain, down an Ironman-logoed black carpet, hearing Mike Riley announce ‘Number 831, from Fort Worth, Texas, Jon Bonnell, you got it JON, you’re an IRONMAAAANNN!’ There are no words that can accurately describe that exact moment,” Bonnell said.

The race took Bonnell 14 hours and 52 minutes to complete. His day started before sunrise and ended long after dark. He placed 1,970 overall, out of 2,367 competitors from 52 countries. About 150 entrants did not reach the finish line that day. Just surviving was a victory. “Very few get the chance to race Kona,” he said. “I was lucky enough to get to do it once in my lifetime.”

It was an emotional victory as well.

“Tears filled my eyes as I realized that our entire Team in Training group had all finished one of the toughest Kona Ironman races to date, while raising in excess of $360,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in the process,” Bonnell said.

Bonnell’s Fine Texas Cuisine

4259 Bryant Irvin Road

Fort Worth 76109



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