Lessons from the Ironman

By Jeff Banowetz

It was harder than I expected. 

Not that I expected an Ironman triathlon to be easy, but the months of training I had behind me made the race seem within reach. I would soon understand what eventual winner Cameron Widoff said in the press conference before Ironman USA in Lake Placid, N.Y.: 

“This is an Ironman. Absolutely anything can happen.” 

No matter how crazy it initially seems, the Ironman triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run) eventually becomes the goal of most serious triathletes. Like the marathon in running, the Ironman stands as a life-changing test of endurance. It requires a level of training and dedication that pushes the limits of both mind and body. The Ironman is one of sport’s most grueling tests of mental focus and physical determination. 

At least that’s what I like to tell people. 

In reality, I wanted to do an Ironman because I enjoy triathlons. I like swimming, cycling and running, and the Ironman offers an unparalleled challenge in all three disciplines. 

Of course, you can’t deny the prestige that accompanies the race. After all, most people have seen at least some coverage of the Hawaii Ironman, the sport’s world championship and crown jewel. My Ironman experience had a different flavor in Lake Placid, which is nestled among the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York. Instead of the unbearable heat and wind of Hawaii, Lake Placid’s course features an obstacle even more devastating to a Midwesterner: hills. The Winter Olympics were held here (twice) for a reason, and while those hills provide Lake Placid with a postcard-perfect setting to hold an Ironman, they made an already tough day even tougher for triathletes. 

My goal was to finish in under 13 hours. And when I put that down on paper, it really didn’t seem that hard: one and half hours for the swim, seven hours for the bike and four and half hours for the marathon. I was training comfortably at speeds that would meet those goals—I just had to put them together in one day. 

One of my biggest lessons from this experience is that many things look easier on paper than on the race course. 

I got through the swim without much trouble, finishing in 1:18. Next I was off on the bike for two 56-mile loops. The crowd was amazing (including my support crew of 10 family and friends who made the trip) as I flew down several steep declines out of Lake Placid. The smooth, freshly paved roads were a cyclist’s dream. The course wove its way through one of the most beautiful parts of the country, and we were quickly surrounded by rolling, tree-covered mountains. 

At the halfway point, I was right on pace. I approached the pick up area for our “bike special needs” bag, which we filled before the race with anything we would need. I stopped and a volunteer opened my bag for me. I saw the mounds of Clif Bars and GU. I looked at all the food. I had some GU left, but aid stations were giving it out on the course. They also had bananas and energy bars, so I just grabbed a Clif Bar and decided to leave the rest behind to lighten my load. 
It was my biggest mistake of the day. 

I started to get low on food about halfway through the second loop. At the next aid station, they were out of food: no bananas, bars or GU. I took stock of what I had, and thought I could make it to the next one. But when I reached it, I was out of luck again: no solid food, just Gatorade and water. 

By now, I was really getting nervous. Just past mile 90, I started to get lightheaded, and I knew I was in trouble. I stopped my bike and ate and drank everything I had. At the next station, I refilled with Gatorade, but again they had no GU or bananas. At least they had energy bars. I didn’t like the taste, but it was food. I ate two or three as fast as I could. Eating so quickly didn’t do much for my stomach, but I knew I needed sugar fast. My hands had started shaking, and I was worried about keeping control of my bike. 

I made it to the next aid station, but I felt bad. I knew it wasn’t safe for me to continue until I regained my composure. Once again, they offered Gatorade and water, but no GU or bananas. I got off my bike and started eating energy bars again. As I was eating, I noticed a banana smashed under a box. I asked a volunteer, “Can I have that?” 

“It’s all squished,” he replied. 

“I don’t care.” 

He looked at me a little odd, but he handed over the banana. It was misshapen and viscous, but I scooped the gooey contents with my hand and swallowed as much as I could. It was glorious. I scanned the area for other abandoned fruit, and found another banana fragment. I was like an alcoholic scourging the cabinets for cough syrup. I considered going after half-empty containers of GU, but the efficient aid station had cleaned those up long ago. 

I was so close to the bike finish—less than 20 miles—but I couldn’t stop shaking. I waited for at least 20 minutes before I decided to try riding again. All I really wanted to do was go back to the hotel and fall asleep. Before the race, quitting never once crossed my mind. Now it suddenly seemed a likely option. 

While my pace slowed considerably, I started to feel better. Going back into town, crowds of people were cheering, and I received a huge boost. I rode into the transition area and instinct kicked in. I grabbed my running gear and changed, raring to go. But that didn’t last long. I wasn’t able to escape my fuel problem, and I quickly slowed to a steady mix of walking and running. I drank as much as I could, but I just could not stomach any solid food. 

After a brutal half-marathon, my body had enough. I managed to run through downtown on my way into loop two, and my brother asked me how I felt. All I could manage was, "This is hard." 

They all had a good laugh. 

I started walking as I left town, and try as I might, I couldn’t run. Five or six steps were all I could manage before having to walk. Another runner saw my plight and made a suggestion: 

“You just need sugar,” he said. “I’d forget about the water and Gatorade. Just drink Coke. Coke and chicken broth. That will get you through. Don’t worry, you’ve got plenty of time.” 

Once my new friend made the suggestion, it made perfect sense. Both were available on the course because they’re a great way to get what the body craves—sugar and salt. I walked the next five miles, but at every aid station, I drank two to three cups of Coke and a cup of chicken broth. 

Walking sounded like such an easy thing beforehand, but it turned out to be the toughest part of the race. I wanted this to be over. The thoughts of a finisher’s photo and all the Ironman USA apparel I had bought were no longer important. I just wanted to stop moving. 

By the turnaround point of the second loop, it was dark. I had long missed my goal and finishing still seemed far away. I did some quick math and figured that if I continued at my current pace, I’d finish somewhere between 10:30 and 10:45 p.m. I started to feel sorry for myself, and the distance ahead still seemed immense. 

And just as I was at my lowest point of the day, the sugar finally kicked in. I broke out of my zombie state and started running. 

By now it was getting late, and the run course had started to thin out. A dotted line of people stretched off into the darkness, each illuminated by a green glowstick, all purposely intent on a single goal: moving forward. 

I didn’t expect to be a part of this race. I was supposed to be finished before dark. But when I finally started running again, my attitude changed. I became overwhelmed by the athletes surrounding me. Some people were in bad shape, others were smiling. All were just focused on getting to the finish before midnight. We were no longer competitors, but teammates working together. 

Runners swapped encouragement as they passed each other. I ran with dozens of people, some for a mile or two, others for a few yards. And in a sport that prides itself as the ultimate test of individual achievement, I found that the greatest part of the day came from bonding with the other athletes. 

I may have missed my original goal for the day, but I was now experiencing something amazing. I started feeling better and picked up the pace. I passed a runner wearing a shirt that read “Iron Friar.” He was Father Dan Callahan, a local Catholic priest who was competing to raise money for the drug and alcohol rehab center where he works. 

At the prerace press conference, he was asked how the Ironman fit into his spiritual life. In his reply, he offered one of his favorite quotes: 

“The glory of God is to see man fully alive.” 

It was a quote that I had reflected upon often during the day, and I think it describes that night better than I ever could. 

As I made my way toward Lake Placid, the spectators were still there. People sat in lawn chairs in front of their houses, providing an incredible boost to every athlete who ran past. 

With about a mile left to go, my watch gave me nine minutes until 10 p.m. The crowds were getting bigger, and they could see that I was picking up the pace. They exploded with enthusiasm as I went past, and I finally made my way toward the Olympic Oval and the finish line. 

The bright lights were the first thing I noticed as I made my final turn. They were so bright that I couldn’t initially see the clock. After a moment or two, I saw it: 14:59:18. Plenty of time. The person who finished ahead of me was from Lake Placid, so the crowd had already erupted, and they continued their cheers as I crossed in 14:59:26. 

Somehow my girlfriend made her way into the finishers area, and she embraced me with all her might. All the pain through the course of the day disappeared, and I made my way with her to the rest of my family. I actually felt great. I was tired, but I was happy to blabber on about the race. (By my unofficial count, I drank close to 25 cups of Coke, so that probably had something to do with it.) 

I started to walk toward the hot tubs, and suddenly the pain returned. My feet were in bad shape, with huge blisters and several beat-up nails. Those hills look their toll. But despite the hobbling around, I couldn’t help but keep smiling. 

It’s hard to explain the appeal of an event that’s so draining, both physically and emotionally. Part of its allure comes from the fact that it is such a challenge. I certainly would like another chance for a faster time. But what I think will, someday, possibly, bring me back is the emotional impact of being part of such an event. The blisters will heal, and I’ll hopefully feel like running again someday soon, but I’ll always remember what it was like work with those other triathletes to push the human body to its limits, and revel in its glory.