East County Sports

Heartland’s Madden still world class

Kurt Madden



By Nick Pellegrino

ECS staff writer

SAN DIEGO – Kurt Madden, one of the original age-group coaches from the Heartland Swim Association in the mid-1970s, is far from finished in his athletic career. Known worldwide as a pioneer in ultra-distance triathlons, Madden capped the 2019 racing season with induction into the Hall of Fame of the Ultraman World Championships.

An Ultraman champion when the sport of triathlon was created, this event features a demanding 6.7-mile ocean swim, a massive bike ride of more than 250 miles (over two legs, with 14,000-feet in vertical climbing), then a double-marathon, of 52.4 miles through the lava fields near Kīlauea volcano, all held over a three-day period (as opposed to triathlon,  which covers shorter distances, but all held on the same day) from its headquarters in the town of Kailua-Kona on the big island of Hawai’i.

Madden, 65, remains a world age-group leader, continuing to conquer both the physical and mental tests available among such endurance challenges.

“I’ve been fortunate to race all over the world,” said Madden, a homegrown talent who graduated from Kearny High and San Diego State University (master’s degree) “I turned professional as a triathlete in 1980, three times finishing in the top 10 overall the at Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona.”

At the time, Ironman was considered the Super Bowl of endurance sports, but public acclaim was slight since USA Track at the time did not recognize such events, forcing Madden to heavily competed around the globe with great success.

He finally took a break — he called it a “dark period” — in order to “get serious about being a husband and a dad;” he’s been married his wife Kelly for 42 years.

Professionally, things turned as he returned to the world stage. Madden closed the 20th Century by trail running, which eventually transferred into a return to Ultraman competition.

“I did all sorts of crazy stuff — marathons, ultra-distance races and 100-mile runs,” he mused. “I guess I was born to run.”

Included was the Leadville 100-mile Trail Race in Colorado, twice placing among the top ten, including a second-place overall finish in 1997. One of the high-altitude events at Leadville was particularly memorable for Madden.

“I was able to run against the Tarahumara Indians,” he noted about a Native American people living in north-west Mexico who often run more than 400 miles in approximately 50 hours. “That was the race which most of the book about them (“Born To Run” by Christopher McDougall) was based on.”

Madden believes his biggest challenge might have been a taxing, 24-hour endurance race, the USA Track & Field 24-hour National Championship.

“I finished first overall,but I just missed my personal goal of running 140 miles,” he noted.

Place an asterisk on that on “missing” the milestone after running 139.6 miles (244.67 km).

Nearing the final moments of the race, Madden was acclaimed by race officials for coming to the aid of a runner in distress. After running together for 18 hours, the fellow competitor simply needed to stop.’

“He quit and said he couldn’t take another step,” Madden recalled. “He was obviously in great distress, so I stood with him as the clock ran out.”

The goodwill gesture is something the running community is known for; the motto for Ultraman is “Aloha, Ohana and Kokua” (in the Hawaiian language, “ohana” means “extended family,” while “kokua” translates to “spirit of kindness”).

Madden never realized how his hard work proved to be a motivating factor other athletes.

“We all have challenges. In my (running) life, it’s Mile 23 at Kona and that last, little hill,” he said. “The last time I was there in 2019, that’s when I saw a fellow competitor who was a double-amputee.”

“At Ironman, whenever a competitor reaches the finish line, the track announcer (Mike Reilly) would declare to every one of them, ‘You are an Ironman!” So when I went by him, I said, ‘You are Thee Ironman!” He rocked my world.”

The double-amputee would eventually finish the race under the 17-hour time limit, with plenty of fans remaining to offer a standing ovation.

Conversely, Madden has served as a motivation factor to others, both as a coach and as an athlete.

“Apparently, I inspired a guy named Alexandre Roberto, who at the age of 17 saw me win the first triathlon at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro,” Madden said. “Years later, when he won the same event, when they interviewed him, he said (in Portuguese) that he was watching me throughout the day in that first race in 1982.”

“He said I taught him to think like a champion, work like a champion, and live like a champion.”

Madden again took some time out before Ultraman came knocking again when he was “hanging out with local jocks” while working for the Bear Valley Unified  School District as superintendent.

While living in the Big Bear Lake/Lake Arrowhead area, Madden was “hanging out with local jocks, iI was doing some trail running, snow-shoeing and Cross-Fit. But in 2015, I decided to start my own coaching business and get much more involved in triathlon.”

And back into the world spotlight once more.

In 2015, Madden again qualified for the Ironman World Championships and continued that trend through 2019. From 2016-18, Madden was ranked No. 1 in the world in his age group by the Ironman-sponsored all-world athlete rankings.

Other noted finishes included reaching podiums at the Hard Rock 100 in Silverton, Colo., running through the Colorado Rockies at elevations of more than 10,000 feet.

Shortly thereafter, Madden was declared a Hall of Fame inductee of the Ultraman World Champions. Considering he owns a first-place overall finish in the 1983 debut event, plus the title in 1985, then a 7th-overall finish in 2013, and an age-group crown 2019, for the UWC committee,  Madden was an easy selection.

“Easy? I wouldn’t know — I wasn’t at the meeting! But when I found out, it was surreal.”

Along with his coaching business and serving as a coach for TriDot Racing based in Texas, Madden works for Motivated Youth Academy charter schools and four other non-profits as the CEO, which serves more than 6,000 students in 15 counties in California.

“Our teaching model is attractive to both students and parents because it’s very personalized and very engaging. Despite the COVID pandemic, the students really enjoy it.”

As for his coaching enterprise.

“I feel so fortunate. In 2019, I had three people qualify for Kona, and all of them reached the podium (for a Top 5 finish). They were ‘on’ that day and trusted the process. To see them on the podium makes my life complete. So many people have given to me and I enjoy giving back to others.”

After working for Heartland, Madden was a well-respected coach at El Cajon Valley High from 1987-89, coaching track, cross-country, girls soccer and girls tennis. Such a variety of activities was part of his own playing career, participating in the unique double of football — under legendary head coach Birt Slater — and swimming at Kearny.

As for the future: “The sport of triathlon running is now a billion-dollar business. And once we come back from after COVID, the stories will be incredible.”

Meanwhile, Madden’s story continues to expand.

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