The ultimate Ironman: 15:58:48 and a lifetime of bragging rights

After finishing 15 Ironmans, the author got a chance to compete in the Super Bowl of triathlons earlier this month.
Courtesy of Rich Donnelly

Anything is possible. That's the Ironman mantra and it couldn't be more true than for this triathlete who participated alongside some 2,000 of the most fit humans on the planet at the 35th Ironman World Championship in Hawaii on Oct. 12.

I was able to get a number in the prestigious race through an initiative called the Legacy Program, which was started last year for those who have completed a minimum of 12 Ironman races, but never qualified for the Super Bowl of the sport. "There are a ton of people who due to genetics are not fast, but they're not any less committed, so I felt strongly those guys deserved a spot to race at the mecca of our sport," said Andrew Messick, chief executive officer of Ironman and the creator of the Legacy Program.

As someone who has completed 15 Ironmans in my career, I jumped at the chance to secure one of the coveted 100 spots in the Legacy lottery. My fastest time was my first at the inaugural Ironman USA Lake Placid (N.Y.) in 1999 when I crossed the finish line in 14:01:29. The winners historically break nine hours in a race where the cutoff is at midnight, 17 hours after the cannon fires.

For me, the good news was I got into Kona. The bad news was that I got into Kona and now had to put up or shut up.

While Lake Placid is known for its tortuous mountain climbs, Kona is infamous for its searing heat and unrelenting winds. And the conditions were as advertised. Although the professionals -- led by men's and women's winners Frederik Van Lierde (8:12:29) and Mirinda Carfrae (8:52:14) -- talked about how ideal the weather was this year with lighter winds and greater cloud cover, that wasn't the case for me and the slower athletes when the winds picked up on the later stages of the 112-mile bike through the barren lava fields along the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway (the Queen K) on the coast of the Big Island. It felt like riding in a sauna for seven hours, every pedal stroke sapping my flagging energy.

I'm a good-sized guy, carrying 50 pounds or more than the pros, and was nearly blown off my bike a few times by fierce crosswinds. But being slower turned out to be a blessing in the marathon. Because I was my running after Van Lierde had crossed the finish line, I didn't experience the notorious heat rising from the roadway in a section known as the Energy Lab at the 18-mile mark. That's what happens when you run in the dark.

The swim, my strongest leg of the day, was mind-blowing. The clear turquoise waters of Kailua Bay made it feel as if I were swimming in a tropical aquarium. And although I wasn't lucky enough to see the dolphins that were frolicking among the swimmers on the 2.4-mile course, I was accompanied by a sea of colorful fish.

My physical limitations are not an issue on the swim. I was mowed down by a hit-and-run driver as a high school senior and had several surgeries and a bone graft to repair my broken left tibia and fibula as well as surgery for a fractured eye socket. The orthopedic surgeon who greeted me when I woke from an overnight coma said it was a good thing it was a Volkswagen Beetle and not a Cadillac or we wouldn't be having this conversation. I still have the scars and an awkward gait from the accident. But while it may impact my speed, it doesn't diminish my desire and determination to get to the finish line, where my wife, Jean, is always waiting.

My training partner has been an inspiration and driving force behind my Ironman career. We met 11 months before my first Lake Placid race and were married six weeks after. An 18-year triathlete and multiple half-Ironman finisher with whom I do 10 or so races a year, Jean is a breast cancer survivor who lost 75 pounds 20 years ago and has kept it off. She's a 32-time Ironman volunteer (the backbone of every Ironman race), who has helped thousands of triathletes achieve their dreams. Jean gets me up in the morning, is there to calm me before the swim, encourages me after the bike and catches me at the finish.

I've been an athlete my whole life. I did the mile swim as a Boy Scout. I played varsity football (a two-way starter at center and linebacker), JV baseball, ran track, ski, golf, you name it. Back in 1978 all I knew of "Iron Man" was the Black Sabbath song title. After Sports Illustrated helped expose Ironman to the world in its seminal piece (May 14, 1979), when golf writer Barry McDermott followed 15 brave souls who paid a $25 entry fee (today it costs $800) for the race's second installment, it got on my radar along with everyone else.

"Sports Illustrated started it all," said Judy Collins, wife of Ironman founder John Collins, at the pre-race banquet in Kona.

Like Messick, Collins wanted to include the everyday athlete. In addition to the 30-plus qualifying races that are held now for the Ironman World Championship, the organizers also had a lottery each year for a limited number of entries. I never felt I belonged next to the superhumans who qualify, so I never entered it.

But this being 2013, where marketing is king, the race also invites a number of celebrities to participate. This year Hines Ward, a two-time Super Bowl champion, and noted chef Gordon Ramsay joined the party. Both finished the race with respectable times, Ward in 13:08:15, Ramsay in 14:04:48. Ward was so jazzed at his accomplishment that he got an Ironman tattoo the next day.

Although I'm not a tattoo type of guy, I will carry the memory of this experience with me the rest of my life.

When the race began in 1978 on the shores of Oahu's Waikiki Beach, John Collins gave each racer for the inaugural Hawaiian Iron Man Triathlon a brief set of instructions, the last of which read: "Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!" And after finishing on Ali'i Drive in 15:58:48, I secured my bragging rights.

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