November 10, 2005

The Strength of an Ironman

Print More

By the time I rolled out of bed at 10:15 last Saturday morning, Geoff Howe had already swam 2.4 miles in the Gulf of Mexico off Panama City Beach, Fla., and was about 20 miles into his 112-mile bike ride. After that, he only had a full marathon left before he could call it quits for the day. He’s not crazy – he’s an Ironman.

In 22 races around the world each year, thousands of amateur triathletes and an elite group of professionals compete against each other and their own limits over a 140.6-mile course. The professionals are running for money, the amateurs are doing it for themselves, but everyone wants a spot at the World Championships, held each year in October in Kona, Hawaii. For the past seven years, the Lake Placid Ironman has had a bike aid station at Mile 22/78 – also known as my front yard. Between handing out water, Gatorade, bananas and GU power gel, I’ve gotten to know some pretty crazy characters – but none quite as out there as Geoff.

Geoff saw his first Ironman in 2002, and was so entranced that he stayed at the finish line in Lake Placid cheering himself hoarse in the pouring rain until the midnight cut-off. Walking home afterwards, he vowed to do the race the following year.

Lots of first-time spectators say this, very few of them actually follow through. But since then, Geoff has finished four Ironmans. Maybe it’s because his athletic background is as a Nordic combined skier, and he’s used to throwing himself off 120 and 90-meter ski jumps with nothing but some extra-long skis to catch him. I guess when you already know what it feels like to fly, the so-called impossible is a little less intimidating.

He started training for the July 2003 Ironman in January of that year, swimming a few times a week and getting out on his bike when he could. He’s not a big fan of running, and his marathon times reflect this – he’s only broken four hours once, and twice he’s failed to beat Oprah’s time (4:15:00).

Nevertheless, he stepped into the water to start his first Ironman when he was 21 years old and in his first race, he stunned friends and family by finishing in 11:15:52. My high school history teacher used to do the Ironman, and even went to Kona, but in years of religious training and following a strict dietary regimen, he never ran that well. Geoff was drinking beers right up to a week before race time, but managed to finish third in his age group – despite breaking his big toe against a rock running across the beach between laps of the swimming portion.

Watching someone compete in the Ironman is simply inspirational – they’re pushing their bodies to unthinkable heights, all for a medal and the space blanket they wrap around you when to cross the finish line to ward off hypothermia. In his second attempt, Lake Placid 2004, Geoff ran a personal best of 10:29:25, hanging with the pros for the first half of the bike and coming in 134th out of roughly 1,200 people. He missed qualifying for Kona by 30 seconds, which drove him to queue up the following morning to buy a spot in Lake Placid 2005.

That time out, he was on track to earn his first berth at World Championships – 1:04:36 out of the water, and just under 2 hours for the first 56-mile loop of the bike. Then he got a migraine. Those are no fun under normal circumstances, but when you’re trying to steer a road bike moving at 20 mph on a curvy mountain road with hundreds of other bikers surrounding you, it’s even worse. When he got to the transition area, he couldn’t see anything, and the medical staff suggested he give up. But Geoff’s a stubborn guy, and he went out anyways. Nearly five hours and a marathon later, he made it to the finish line.

People look at Geoff with a mix of respect and bewilderment – it’s amazing that he can do this, but many people wonder why. Twenty-four hours after finishing the migraine race, Geoff was in the hospital, hooked up to an IV to rehydrate him and drugged up on muscle relaxants – apparently, he was under so much tension while he had the migraine that his muscles could not unclench. Regardless, he’s signed up for Lake Placid 2006, and he’s still looking for a trip to Kona.

There are a lot of crazy characters on the Ironman course – one guy did the whole race wearing jean cut-offs, a white cotton T-shirt, and Converse All-Stars. There’s one father who carries and then pushes his wheelchair-bound son the entire race. Another man runs with his one good leg and a metal prosthesis. I’ve seen people wearing bunny ears during the marathon, and witnessed two marriage proposals at the finish line.

But every year, the one who boggles my mind the most is Geoff. This sport takes his time, his money, and wreaks havoc on his body, but he keeps coming back for more. Maybe the sheer amount of endorphins rushing through your body is addictive. Maybe it’s the awe and admiration of people who would never dream of doing such a thing. Maybe I’ll never be able to explain it until I’ve done it – if that ever happens. But until then, I’ll just have to appreciate watching Geoff and the other Ironmen demonstrate the power of human will over physical limitations by driving themselves 140.6 miles in less than 17 hours.

Olivia Dwyer is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. Forever Wild will appear every other Thursday this semester.

Archived article by Olivia Dwyer