Jacques Steinberg on the Today Show

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Pursuing the dream from ambitious athlete to ‘Ironman’

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In “You Are an Ironman,” bestselling author and New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg strives to understand the drive six individuals feel to feverishly train and push themselves as hard as they can to be able to be able to complete the world’s most formidable triathlon. Here’s an excerpt.

Nell Martin loped between the glass towers of downtown Tempe and at last broke through the wide band of tape that had been stretched taut in front of her, snapping it as if she were popping the cork from a bottle of champagne. The watch on her left wrist read 10:34 p.m.— more than three hours after the sun had set over this gateway to the Arizona desert. High above her head the numbers 15:34:36 were illuminated in neon yellow, as bright as a Times Square billboard, signifying the 15 hours, 34 minutes, and 36 seconds she had taken to complete her day’s journey. Her skin was caked white with salt, the result of a continuous sweat that had long ago dried in the cool night air. Willing herself to a stop a few steps past the finish line, Nell allowed a volunteer whose hands were sheathed in latex gloves to wrap her in a foil blanket. He then escorted her toward a table piled high with pizza, of all things. There she could begin restoring her body to normal—including tending to the leg muscles that would soon begin to throb uncontrollably—a process that would ultimately take more than a week.

An anesthesiologist and married mother of three teenagers, Nell was in better shape than many of those recovering around her. Nearby, as if at a makeshift Red Cross disaster tent, several dozen men and women laid out on cots were receiving sugar water and other intravenous fluids through needles tethered to clear plastic bags. Occasionally a wheeled stretcher would be summoned to take someone by ambulance to a nearby emergency room for more intensive attention. But Nell needed no such intervention. For five years she had trained diligently for this day, as a way to mark her fiftieth birthday, which she had celebrated only a few days before. As her heart rate slowed, her mind kept returning to the ten words the announcer had said to the crowd assembled in makeshift bleachers on either side of the finish line.

“Nell Martin of Grand Junction, Colorado,” he had boomed, “you are an Ironman.”

On that Sunday before Thanksgiving 2008, as much of the nation contemplated gorging itself on turkey and stuffing with family and friends, Nell and more than two thousand others swam, cycled, and ran longer and farther in one day than many of us will do in a lifetime. Ranging in age from eighteen to seventy-six, they were competitors in the Ford Ironman Arizona, one of twenty-three officially sanctioned, 140.6-mile Ironman triathlons staged around the world that year. Eight were in the United States, including the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, the original and best known of such races. In an Ironman, the already formidable elements of a typical triathlon (known as an Olympic-distance)—0.9-mile swim, 26-mile bike ride, 6-mile run, all of which was sufficient to kill at least eight participants in 2008 alone—are supersized.

An Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile open-water swim (the equivalent of about 175 lengths across a community lap pool), followed by a 112-mile bike ride (imagine pedaling from New York City past Philadelphia), and then, as if some kind of cruel joke, a 26.2-mile marathon run. No physical exam is typically required, nor is any previous experience— other than for Ironman Hawaii, which is open mainly to top finishers in various age groups in prior qualifying races. Those who choose to put their bodies and minds through such a gantlet, nearly all weekend warriors with jobs and families, must complete the entire event in no more than seventeen hours—which includes any time spent recovering from the swim or changing from biking gear into running shoes. Nell Martin, for example, had emerged from Tempe Town Lake shivering so profoundly that it took sixteen minutes before she could mount her bike.

With the swim beginning at 7:00 a.m. sharp, the deadline that looms is the stroke of midnight. Even someone crossing the finish line ninety seconds late, as one woman did at Ironman Arizona 2008, is branded with the scarlet letters every Ironman triathlete dreads: DNF, or “did not finish.” Mike Reilly, the announcer whose hoarse voice has welcomed nearly 200,000 successful Ironman competitors across the finish line in more than a hundred such races since 1989, has a special message for those who have come up painfully short.

“You are an Ironman,” he tells them over the public address system, “in our hearts.”

Why would so many people choose to put themselves through so much agony and effort in pursuit of a single goal? What toll does their training, oft en upwards of fifteen hours a week for months on end, exact on their families, their friends, their jobs? To what extent does engaging in such a grueling endeavor endanger their health, in the short term and beyond?

To what extent is the role of the mind as important as that of the body, if not more so, in someone’s completing an Ironman? What is the payoff , psychologically and otherwise? For those willing to put in the enormous time and training, does it represent, in the words of Jimmy Riccitello, the head referee of the Arizona race, a “poor man’s Everest”—a feat of remarkable endurance that is for many people actually attainable? And what does it say about our society—three decades after we became a nation of runners—that for tens of thousands of Americans, a standard marathon no longer presents a sufficient challenge?

To feel fulfilled athletically and in other ways, these Ironmen (and would-be Ironmen) insist, they need to train simultaneously in three sports. More than a few participants in Ironman Arizona could be heard dismissively referring to the marathon portion of their race as “our cool down.”

In this book I examine the phenomenon of Ironman triathlons (and, by extension, triathlons in general) through the eyes of those who have chosen to participate in them. More specifically, I follow a small group of people from across the country as they prepare for—and then compete in—Ironman Arizona in November 2009.

Each of the main competitors I profile in the pages that follow selected Arizona as the setting for his or her first Ironman attempt. The hurdles they face in attempting to cross that finish line are substantial. These include not only getting into sufficient shape and staying free of injury in the months leading up to the race, but also completing the first two legs of the Ironman event before the cutoffs imposed by the race directors.

Those interim benchmarks, which if missed result in automatic disqualification, are 2 hours 20 minutes, for the swim portion, and 10 hours 30 minutes (timed from the beginning of the swim) for the bike.

Though several dozen athletes in each Ironman race are professionals who live off their prize money and sponsorships, their stories are not my focus. Instead, the pages here will be given over primarily to the experiences of so-called age-groupers, people who, like most triathletes, regard the sport as a hobby, albeit for some of them an all-consuming one.

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