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Kopac's Corner

I Am Ironman

by Bob Kopac

The Ironman USA Lake Placid, NY Triathlon on Sunday, August 15, 1999, forged both professional and amateur Ironmen. The inaugural event attracted top professionals from the rarefied Ironman world, such as 1997 Hawaii Ironman winners Thomas Hellriegel and Heather Fuhr, and 8-time Hawaii Ironman winner and legend Paula Newby-Fraser. I was there to cheer on amateurs Jay Crooker, Andy Jackson, and Nigel Morgan of North Carolina. In all, there were athletes from 30 countries and all 50 states.

The professionals competed for $50,000 in prize money, while both professionals and amateurs vied for the coveted Hawaii Ironman positions. Lake Placid featured 80 qualifying slots this year; next year there will be 100. Athletes highly prize a qualifying slot, for thousands of people may try, but only 1500 of the top athletes in the world qualify for the Hawaii Ironman competition in early October.

The Ironman competition first started in 1978 when Navy Commander John Collins and a few of his friends were sitting around in Hawaii debating who was the fittest: bikers, runners, or swimmers. Being guys, they all had their opinions and no one could agree. Commander Collins felt the only fair test was to have an event that combined all three sports. Thus on February 18, 1978, the first Ironman event was born.

Modeled from existing race courses, the course consisted of the 2.4 mile Waikiki Rough Water Swim course, the 112 mile Around-Oahu Bike Race course, and finally the 26.2 mile Honolulu Marathon course. From 15 entrants in the first race, the Hawaii Ironman has grown to be the culminating championship of 10 international full Ironman qualifiers and, beginning this year and into next year, three new full USA Ironman races.

In previous years, athletes wishing to participate in an Ironman qualifier in the USA competed in half Ironman events, which were the shorter Olympic triathlon distances. The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) decided to replace these half Ironman races with full Ironman events. This year's Ironman USA Lake Placid competition was the first of these longer races. For the Hawaii 2000 Ironman, there will be three full Ironman qualifiers in the USA:

At the pre-race press conference, the professional athletes agreed that they could describe each Ironman course in one word. For example, the German course was fast, and Lanzarote in the Canary Islands was hideous. The word for Lake Placid was "beautiful."

The Lake Placid course features double-loop courses on the swim, the bike, and the run, which is perfect for spectators. The professional athletes had no reservations about getting out of the water for a short stretch before getting back in to swim again. It might add a little time to the swim, they said, but otherwise it was not a problem.

Although the triathlon will be an event at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, none of the professionals were going to the Olympic trials. The consensus was that the Ironman was a different race than the shorter Olympics triathlon. Heather Fuhr said she would like to participate in the Olympics if only she were a better swimmer. In the longer distances of the Ironman, she feels she can overcome her swimming weakness by performing better in the other events, particularly in the marathon. Heather also explained that the Olympics event allows bike drafting, whereas Ironman does not. She prefers the Ironman rules because it eliminates the tactical team strategy that makes the Olympic triathlon more of a team event rather than an individual event.

Randy Caddell was the lone wheelchair Ironman at Lake Placid this year. Randy said his mission is to establish the wheelchair division so that wheelchair athletes can receive prize money. He said top wheelchair marathoners would enter Ironman races if there were prize money. Randy believes that, by his example and hard work, he is helping to pave the way for future wheelchair participants in the Ironman.

After the professional athletes press conference, I had an opportunity to interview Thomas Hellriegel. Thomas had placed second at the Hawaii Ironman twice before finally winning in 1997. Thomas freely admitted that after he won in 1997, he had reached all his goals and he lost his motivation; he did not train with his usual discipline. However, his bitter defeat (8th place) at the 1998 Hawaii Ironman helped him to refocus. Now he is motivated; now he wants to show the world that the 1997 win was not a one-day event.

I asked him why Germans were such a dominant force at last year's Hawaii Ironman. Thomas felt there were two main reasons. First, because Germany has held an Ironman qualifier competition for the past 10 years, there is very strong public support. For the German Ironman events, there are up to 140,000 spectators on the course; there are 30,000 spectators on one particular hill. Thomas mentioned that at one race, the spectators on the hill became so excited that they swarmed onto the road, surrounding the lead vehicle and bringing it to a stop.

Second, he felt that Germans have the discipline necessary for the relentless training that must occur to compete in the top ranks of Ironman. Sadly, he said, part of his discipline is not to drink beer during his training. At most, he drinks one glass of wine with dinner.

When asked about the course, Thomas said, "It looks like a tough course, difficult but beautiful." However, he was looking forward to trying someplace different, which is why he came to Lake Placid. He said a small town is better for the athletes; it has better atmosphere. He felt he would do well, but he was not sure since it had been only 7 weeks since his last Ironman event in Germany. Although that usually is not enough time to recuperate, he said that he was 100 percent after 5 weeks, most likely because the German Ironman was his first event since Hawaii last October.

Thomas said that it usually takes him 5 to 6 weeks to recover from an Ironman competition. The first three days afterwards he cannot walk stairs. For the first 2 weeks, he spends at most 1 hour per day training. After 2 weeks, he begins to train again.

Thomas prefers biking outdoors. He has a 120-kilometer loop at home that he does once a week. The first part of his private course is hilly, and the last half is flat. Best of all, there are no traffic lights on the course. In bad weather, he uses a mountain bike. He dislikes stationary bikes; when he does bike indoors, he prefers to put his bike on rollers. He said it develops his balance and is good training for riding straight.

Being 28 years old, Thomas thought that 4 to 5 more years are possible for him to be at or near the top. After that, his goals are to go back to study at the university for a degree, possibly in tourism management.

This past January he was always sick, which he attributed to his having less than 5 percent body fat at that time. Now he is at 8 to 9 percent body fat and feels much better. He weighs 70 kilograms (154 pounds). He compared his training to "walking on the ridge of a roof." If you do not train hard enough, there will be someone stronger to beat you; train too hard, and you become sick. It is determining the balance that is the most difficult part of training for him.

For first-time Ironman participants, Thomas recommended that it was better to train for more distance but with less intensity. He said the first goal should be just to finish and not try for a certain time. He suggested to put in enough mileage for the swim, but try not to be too tired after the swim; try for a time of 1:10 to 1:30. For endurance, biking is the best--good advice from the best cyclist in Ironman.

Thomas usually spends 40 hours a week training. His training methods vary based on the time of the year. In the early months of the year he focuses on swimming and running. In the spring he concentrates more on biking, getting up to 600 miles per week on the bike.

Thomas's training schedule amounts to a full-time job, as it does for most professional Ironmen. However, there is another type of competitor at Ironman competitions where training is not a career. That is the amateur Ironman.

Amateurs Jay Crooker and Andy Jackson had competed at the 1998 Hawaii Ironman, and both wanted to qualify again. Jay had placed 358th with a 10:37 time in Hawaii, while Andy had finished in 10:19, good for 243rd place. Both said that they suffered post-Hawaii-Ironman depression, that it was over in a flash. Earlier this year, Jay had traveled to the New Zealand Ironman but suffered an injury shortly before the race. This would be the last chance to qualify for Hawaii this year.

Both Jay and Andy combine jobs with post-graduate studies. After that, they find time in the day to train for Ironman. They train 10-15 hours per week in March, increasing the training to 25 hours per week as they get closer to an Ironman competition. The time constraints are typical for the average amateur.

A recent survey showed that amateur Ironman hopefuls spend an average of 3 hours a day in training. It requires a tremendous amount of focus and dedication to live a life and also train for an Ironman. As Andy explained, Ironman is more than a lifestyle. For him, it is what he is. He may or may not qualify for Hawaii, but that is not as important as the attempt to qualify. Andy's goal is a sub-10-hour Ironman, while Jay's long-term goal is to finish in the top 100 at Hawaii.

The morning of the Ironman started out with cool temperatures and overcast skies. Right before the 7 AM race start, however, the sun came out to further energize the already festive crowd of spectators.

Many of the competitors were wearing a temporary pink-ribbon tattoo. The tattoo was a sign of support for fellow triathlete Michelle Kelly of Connecticut, who was unable to compete after recently being diagnosed with cancer.

I chose a spot to stand on the course near the swim start/finish line. One elated participant ran over and tightly hugged the person next to me. As the swimmer left us and entered the chilly water, the woman told me that was her sister, Misty Althizer. Misty had recently had breast cancer surgery and had completed radiation therapy 6 weeks before the Lake Placid event. Now she was attempting to become an Ironman.

At the sound of the starting gun, the water foamed with the thrashing of the swimmers. Each competitor had to be careful to avoid being kicked in the head. Some swimmers, to conserve their leg strength for the biking and running, used mostly their arms and avoided leg kicks as much as possible.

The first DNF dropped out after swimming one loop of the course. Officials speculated that hypothermia occurred because the contestant entered the water too soon before the start of the race.

As each swimmer finished the course, he or she ran up to a gauntlet of "peelers." Ironman has its own set of jargon. A peeler helps to remove the wet suit from each competitor. Each triathlete flops on the ground, and a peeler strips the wet suit from the swimmer. At the orientation two days earlier, the officials asked the contestants to help the volunteers to make sure that the wet suit was the only thing that was peeled.

The scene was well-organized bedlam. There was one problem where a transitioning swimmer accidentally kicked the head of a swimmer being peeled on the ground. The downed swimmer at first appeared very groggy but was able to shake off the blow and get up and run to the bike area.

Officials restricted the traffic on the bike-route roads to one direction only, except for allowing local traffic to go in both directions. There were 11 aide stations on the 2-loop bike course, spaced 8 to 10 miles apart. The course consisted of a counter-clockwise loop from Routes 73 to 9N to 86. After the rolling hills of Route 73 and the fairly flat Route 9N that traveled through a flood plain, the riders turned left on Route 86 and immediately encountered a steep hill--welcome to pain. The riders struggled up the hill until the top, then tried to avoid drafting.

Ironman events prohibit bike drafting. The bikers must ride staggered in respect to each other and ride 30 feet apart. The idea is to avoid bike team packs. If a biker decides to challenge and pass, that biker has 15 seconds to make the pass; otherwise, the challenger must fall back. If a biker is passed, he or she must then fall back behind the bike that passed him or her. Violation of either case results in a blocking penalty.

The penalty for drafting or for violating the passing rules is 3 minutes. Usually for Ironman events, there is a penalty box at the bike-to-run transition area. The course official radios ahead, and the errant biker has to wait in the transition area before being allowed to start the marathon. However, officials did not trust the communications systems in the Adirondack mountains. Instead, the 3-minute penalty was assessed on the course at the point of the infraction.

As the bikers traveled along the course, they encountered a strong headwind that kicked up during the second loop. The headwind proved to be the undoing of many bikers who had gone out too fast on the first lap. Even premier biker Thomas Hellriegel had a slower split on the second loop. To help any bikers in trouble, there were two roving doctors on the course, as well as ambulances and bike support. One biker crashed, ending up at the local hospital with broken bones.

The volunteer job of bike "handler" in the bike-to-run transition area turned out to be an unexpectedly nasty job, as described by one surprised volunteer. She described the smell of urine on the bikes as each rider disembarked. I learned that riders urinate on the downhills only.

Thomas Hellriegel dominated the biking portion of the race. Following a surprisingly strong swim, Thomas lived up to his nickname of "Hell on Wheels." By the end of the bike leg, he had a commanding 24-minute lead, which was impossible to overcome. Thomas followed his strong biking with a very strong 2:59:01 marathon. His 08:36:59 finish (49:31 swim, 4:43:21 bike, 2:59:01 run) bettered second-place finisher Jurgen Hauber's time of 09:03:39 (57:09 swim, 5:05:47 bike, 2:56:03 run) by over 26 minutes. New Zealand's Cameron Brown finished third in 09:09:14 (49:08 swim, 5:07:47 bike, 3:07:59 run).

After the race, Thomas said that he had stiff legs. He said it was chilly in the morning during the swim and that he preferred warmer weather. Although Thomas liked the warm sunshine during the marathon, this same heat was the undoing of many other runners.

In the women's division, Paula Newby-Fraser was in first place after the swim and bike portion of the race (52:28 swim, 5:32:17 bike). She started out on the marathon course but never completed the race. A severe stomach disorder caused her to DNF. She later told me that 2 weeks ago she had been in China on an adventure racing trip doing kayaking and mountain biking. She thought she perhaps had picked up an intestinal problem that finally manifested itself during her marathon. For Paula, it was unfortunate timing.

Heather Fuhr proved her dominance once again in the marathon by overcoming a 10-minute disadvantage after the bike portion to win the women's race in 9:51:38 (55:47 swim, 5:39:02 bike, 3:11:36 run). She can now add this victory to her victory in Ironman Brazil this past May. She felt the Lake Placid hills were deceiving and tougher than they appeared. Surprise challenger Mary Uhl of Santa Fe, New Mexico came in second place in a time of 10:03:22 (56:54 swim, 5:31:09 bike, 3:29:44 run). Jan Wanklyn finished third in 10:03:38 (52:24 swim, 5:46:20 bike, 3:19:12 run), a scant 16 seconds behind Uhl.

Once the professional leaders settled the question of who would win, the focus of the Ironman shifted to the amateur competitors. Nigel Morgan finished in 19th place overall in a time of 09:45:37 (53:45 swim, 5:19:23 bike, 3:24:53 run) and is bound for the Hawaii Ironman. Jay Crooker's time was 10:27:51 (59:15 swim, 5:30:07 bike, 3:48:40 run), good for 95th place out of 1380 finishers. Unfortunately, it was not enough to qualify for Hawaii, as there were 19 people ahead of him in his age group of 25-29 year-old males.

Andy Jackson finished in a time of 11:14:06 (53:05 swim, 5:43:45 bike, 4:26:39 run), in 260th place. As so many other cyclists had done, Andy had pushed too hard during the first loop of the bike route, which caused him trouble when the headwind increased in the second loop.

Misty Althizer, the competitor who recently had finished radiation treatment, reached her goal of becoming an Ironman; she finished 1013th out of 1380 finishers in a time of 13:42:31 (1:43:28 swim, 7:15:27 bike, 4:29:53 run).

At the finish line, volunteers held up a tape for each of the runners to cross. Andrew Klatt of Winnipeg, Canada ran up to the finish line and jumped over the tape. Another runner stopped and performed 5 pushups before crossing the finish line. One runner carried a sign that read "NEED BEER." Others held themselves together until they crossed the finish line before collapsing in the arms of the volunteer "catchers."

Many runners, including winner Thomas Hellriegel, carried the flag of his or her country at the finish, while others carried or ran alongside their children across the finish line.

The energy of the spectators increased as the clock ticked inexorably towards the 17 hour cutoff. People danced on the finish-line bleachers to the loud rock music. Ironman officials, their children, and professional Ironman Jan Wanklyn walked around the finish chute, throwing freebies such as sports watches to the crowd as everyone waited for the remaining runners.

Each runner who beat the deadline received wild shouts and applause. One woman, in obvious pain, finished late in the race with one shoulder at least one foot lower than the other shoulder, but her wide smile showed her joy. Manabu Ueda of Tokyo, Japan came in at 16:49:12, beating the 17-hour cutoff and finishing his 36th Ironman competition. Mark Smith of Fairfax, Virginia, became an Ironman by finishing at 16:58:04 to a crescendo of deafening noise.

At that point, the announcer informed the crowd that there was one runner left out on the course. As the seconds ticked off, the tension in the crowd increased. Finally the clock rolled over to 17:00:00 and the crowd visibly sagged, showing empathy for the runner still struggling on the course, now with no possibility of being an Ironman.

The announcer then asked the spectators to stay and to show a great welcome for the runner when she finally came to the finish line. Very few people left. However, the clock kept ticking away, seconds turning into minutes. Finally the announcer told the audience that the last runner could not finish the course. The athlete had swum, biked, and run 139 miles, only to falter one mile from the finish line.

The failure demonstrated that it is very difficult to become an Ironman. The participants struggle, battling the course and the limitations of their bodies. They call on all their reserves of strength and will. Sometimes it is not enough.

What is most important for all participants is the journey--the hours, days, and months of training combined with the thrill of being an Ironman competitor. For those who do cross that finish line, they can joyfully say, "I am Ironman!"