In “You are an Ironman,” Jacques Steinberg follows six would-be Ironman aspirants who, as amateurs, must squeeze in their hours of training between work and family obligations. All are seeking to cross the finish line of the Ford Ironman Arizona 2009 in Tempe. They are:
Leanne Johnson (Wilmington, N.C.)
When “Runner_GirlNC” found “Slowesttriathlet” on Match.com, neither could guess the road would lead to marriage … and an Ironman triathlon. Leanne’s husband, Scott, born with cystic fibrosis, had defied all odds by surviving a double lung transplant and recovering to become a triathlete. Leanne was a nurse in Wilmington by way of Canada, attempting her first half marathon. Soon, they were training together, and Leanne was on the sidelines to witness Scott cross the Ironman finish line for the first time. As she announced, “Some day, I will do that,” Scott vowed that when Leanne embarked on her first Ironman, he would be there with her—for every stroke, pedal and step along the way. Meanwhile, Leanne would find a charitable cause that she would use to give broader meaning to her Ironman quest — a cause that was excruciatingly personal to a husband and wife she’d never met, but whose lives would be changed by her efforts.
Bryan Reece (San Antonio)
Four years ago, overweight, out of shape and wracked with back spasms on an examining room table, Bryan admitted to his doctor that he had not been in a gym for 30 years. Looking at his blood work, the doctor replied, “You’re a heart attack waiting to happen. I’m surprised you haven’t had one already.” With the support of his wife, Debbie, Bryan joined a local gym, where he soon took up spin classes and then swimming. Although his first triathlon was a short course designed for young children, less than two years after that life-altering hospital visit, Bryan boarded a plane with Debbie for a three-hour flight that would have seemed unthinkable only a few months earlier. Their destination: Tempe, Arizona. It was the week before Thanksgiving 2008, and Bryan was signing up for the Ironman race that would be staged there a year later. On the surface, Bryan was all Texas swagger as he handed over his credit card to reserve a place in the following year’s race. But when asked, in light of all the health problems he’d overcome, whether he was nervous, Bryan had to admit, “Hell, yeah!”
Laura Arnez (Sacramento)
Laura Arnez grew up a “bookworm” who “ate too many tortillas and refried beans and too much chorizo.” A plump child by her own admission, Laura nevertheless admired the marathoners whose annual race would close down the streets in her home town. At 46, the former social worker and mother of five finally decided to take up running. A fast walk turned into a walk-jog that turned into a run that culminated in a first marathon so fast that Laura’s finishing time put her in the top 10 percent of runners. Marathoning took its toll, though, and while sidelined with running injuries, Laura turned to lower-impact sports like cycling and swimming … and her thoughts turned to the Ironman championships she watched every year on television. Laura (and her children) would come to refer to her training as “Mommy’s Recess Time.” But even more challenging than finding the time to prepare sufficiently for her Ironman were Laura’s efforts to fend off the debilitating panic attacks that would seize her as she swam — and threaten to sink her Ironman aspirations before she could ever climb on her bicycle.
Tom Bonnette (Phoenix)
Since he was a boy growing up in Arizona, Tom, an English teacher in Phoenix, had watched the nationally-televised broadcasts of the original Ironman race in Hawaii, and he dreamed about competing in one himself. Although he suffered from asthma as a child, he had later outgrown his allergies, and as an adult he had completed five marathons and several Olympic-distance triathlons (one-quarter the Ironman distance). In October 2008, at 42, he finished his first half-Ironman; known as the Soma Triathlon, and located in Tempe, it featured the same lake as Ironman Arizona and much of the same bike and run course. Now, Tom felt confident, he was ready for the full distance, a journey he hoped would inspire his three daughters and his students. The obstacles he faced would include a series of financial setbacks, and an accident that would occur at the least opportune moment.
Seth Cannello (Colorado Springs)
As the director of the fitness center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, Seth organized an annual sprint-distance triathlon that ended at Schriever. Although he swam, biked and ran the course each year to ensure that it was safe and ready for participants, he had never raced against the clock. Almost 15 years earlier, while stationed with the Army in South Korea, he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Although his treatment was initially successful, he had a second cancer scare several years later, when doctors detected cancer in his lymph nodes. Again, the cancer was successfully treated. And by the time Seth overheard two defense contractors trading triathlon war stories, he was cancer free—and hooked on the idea of completing an Ironman, not least because he wondered if he could possibly do so. The lingering effects of his cancer treatment (which included a marked sensitivity to prolonged immersion in cold water) made meeting his goal no sure thing.
Tracy Tucker-Georges (Los Angeles area)
A nurse with two teenage children, Tracy eased her way into triathlons, as one friend invited her along on group bike rides and another persuaded her to join a group training for the Los Angeles Marathon, though as a walker. In 2008, she headed to Ironman Arizona as a volunteer to support friends—her “boys”—who were racing that year. The boys urged her to sign up for Ironman Arizona—applications for 2009 would be available the day after the race—and Tracy decided, almost on a dare, that with three marathons and numerous triathlons under her belt, she was ready to attempt the Ironman distance. Neither she nor her friends, though, could have predicted what would happen at a tune-up race in which she participated in the lead-up to Ironman Arizona.