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My First Ironman

By Dr. Steve Jonas | Dec. 16, 2020, 4:44 p.m. (ET)

1985 marked my third season in our sport.  In 1984, I had done 6 tri’s and du’s, including 3 tri’s at about what we now call the Olympic distance (1.5k swim, 40k bike, 10k run).  They brought my career total of multi-sport races to 8.  I had also done the Long Island Half-Marathon in the spring and the Marine Corps Marathon in the fall (of 1984).  And for some reason that I certainly could not place now, as I went into the 1985 season, with that little race experience behind me, I started thinking about going longer.  But in my thinking at the time, “Ironman” was of course “out-of-question.”  Who in their right mind, especially a former non-athlete (except for downhill skiing) like me would think of doing such a thing (which is just the way I thought when I contemplated doing my first triathlon back in 1983) and indeed how I had contemplated downhill skiing itself before I went for my first trip down a (very short) slope in 1959. 

Looking around on the available calendars I came up with something in-between an ironman and the then-“standard” race.  It was called the Vermont Steelman.  It consisted of a 2.5-mile swim (in a lake, so, calm and warm), a half-marathon, and a 60-mile bike.  For some reason which I cannot recall now, I thought “doable.”  And on the way to it, I would go the International Masters’ Games on Toronto, Canada, sort of an open-entry (fee-paying) Olympics for older athletes, where I would do a 5K. swim, a long bike (cannot remember the distance), and a 1/2 marathon.  (There no triathlon at the IMG that year.) 

I did OK in Toronto, went off to Burlington Vt. for the Steelman, and managed to do OK on it too.  The bike, the terminal leg for that one, featured a very hilly ride through the mountains of Southern Vermont, but I made it, finishing last overall, but within the time-limit.  I had achieved my objective for the season: I did a “long one.”  And then, I remember lying on my bed in my hotel room afterwards, very tired, of course, but totally exhilarated, and all of a sudden, wouldn’t you know it, for my “finished” season, the word “steel” was replaced in my head by the word “iron.”

I knew that in two weeks an ironman called the Bud Light Endurance was scheduled on Cape Cod, MA.  And I thought to myself, “I’ll never be in shape like this again” [little did I know]. “I’ll send in an entry, and if I get in, I’ll see if I can do it.”  Well, in those days ironman races were looking for entrants, not turning them away.  And so, I found myself at the start line on an overcast morning in September, 1985.  Also at that start were Dick and Rick Hoyt, the now-famous father-son duo, Team Hoyt, the father incredibly strong, the son with a severe form of cerebral palsy, but plucky enough to be pushed and pulled by his father over an ironman course.  The Hoyts finished that race (which may have been their first ironman, due to the tremendous foresight of the race director, the great Dave McGillivray who would go on to become the renowned race director for the Boston Marathon) and many others over a 30-year period.  

The swim went OK.  I was especially motivated by a single-leg amputee who was actually swimming just in front of me.  I had one of those “if he can do it, I can do it” moments.  Then, having set up a schedule for the race for myself, and actually being ahead of it after the swim, I waited around the transition area for a bit before taking off on the bike.

The Cape Cod Endurance had to have been the easiest ironman ever, because both the bike and the run were mostly flat.  In fact, I got ahead of my schedule on the bike and actually stopped for lunch --- a hamburger and a coke at a snack bar along Cape Cod’s famous Route 6.  Up to Provincetown and then back down to Hyannis.  Going well.  When I got out on the marathon it was of course getting dark.  I was comfortable, I was on schedule, and I was last.  But that didn’t matter because I knew that if I just kept going at what was a comfortable slow-trot/fast-walk pace, I would make the 17-hr. time-limit with some minutes to spare.  The folks at each volunteer support station were very happy to see me, because when I left, they were able to wrap up and go home.  But not all of them did go home.

Looking at my watch, in a bit of forest along the road, I knew that I was coming to the end of the marathon course.  And then, I rounded a curve in the road, came out onto an open space and saw the finish line, about 200 yards ahead.  And, at mid-night, there was crowd there, cheering for me.  They were the volunteers for the finish but also numbers of the volunteers from the aid stations out on the course, who had come down to see me come in.  And what was playing on the sound system?  Why of course, the theme from “Chariots of Fire.”  I get tears in my eyes every time I tell this story, and have them now, as I write it down, 35 years later.  That’s triathlon and what it has meant for me and my life.

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Steve began racing tri’s and du’s in 1983.  By the end of the 2018 season, his 36th in the sport, he had done a total of 256 races.  He did not race in 2019 because of personal illness (now fully recovered) and has not raced this year because of COVID-19 (and virtual racing is not for him).  He has remained in shape, and does hope to get back out there in 2021, especially because if he can manage it, he will have just aged up to the 85-89 age group.  But that’s for next year.  Right now, he is doing this series on his favorite races, this column being about his very first one.

As some of you know, he has also been along-time writer on the sport.  His first book on multi-sport racing, actually the first one written specifically for beginners, Triathloning for Ordinary Mortals®, 2nd Ed. (New York: WW Norton, 2006) can still be found at Amazon and Barnes and NobleHe also had several other titles. 

He has written columns for various USA-T publications since 2006.  Since he began writing for the USAT Blog, (in his own section, the “Ordinary Mortals© Blog,”) many of the columns have been  drawn in part from his book, 101 Ideas and Insights for Triathletes and Duathletes (Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning/Coaches Choice, 2011), from which texts are used with permission. The book can available at https://coacheschoice.com/#, and Amazon.com.

Steve’s most recent multisport book is Duathlon Training and Racing for Ordinary Mortals®: Getting Started and Staying with It (Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press/FalconGuides, 2012), available at Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.