By Jeremy Berger
on 8.10.12
Photo by Paul Berger

I’m out of the water in 46 minutes. Not setting any records, but this is only the second time I’ve ever swim 1.2 miles — and the first time took 80 minutes. I have to pee. Badly. It’s hard to pee while swimming, plus it doesn’t seem like good karma to pee a few feet from another swimmer’s face. Cowbells ring on the beach and up into the transition. Thumbs up for the camera. 69.1 miles left and my first triathlon is in the bag.

I take my sweet time stripping off the wetsuit. It comes off pretty easily this time since I’m covered head-to-toe in Body Glide like…well, we’re all familiar with personal lubricant. The hydration pack is filled with snacks and gels and coconut water. Less than five miles into the ride a guy is down on the shoulder, one knee in the dirt, changing his tire. Bad luck. Mechanical failure can happen to anyone. I take a deep breath and pedal on.

Three hours, 56 miles, three Honey Stinger waffles, and one package of gummies later I’m off the bike. The run should be the easiest part. I’ve been running for years. I don’t feel great, but it’s supposed to take a few miles to find a rhythm. What’s with the dizziness, though? And why am I so cold? It’s taking everything I’ve got just to shuffle my feet.

Road to Ironman
Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: Conversation with Phillip Bauman, MD | Part 3: Swim, Bike, Run, Eat | Part 4: Training with a USA Triathlon Amateur Athlete of the Year | Part 5: Into The (Sort Of) Wild

Cowbells ring on the beach and up into the transition. Thumbs up for the camera. 69.1 miles left and my first triathlon is in the bag.

Let’s talk about a lesson we all know too well from childhood: In order to stop Dr. Wily’s treachery, Mega Man must first do battle with Bomb Man, Guts Man, Cut Man, Elec Man, Ice Man and Fire Man — and that’s before he even gets to the castle bosses. Each victory, each new weapon, makes the next win possible. That’s the last video game I played, though, and I guess I forgot this lesson around the same time I learned to write cursive.

The original plan was to enter Ironman with no previous triathlon experience. My father kindly suggested that this was a poorly-hatched plan. Of course! Why did I think I could take on Ironman if I’d never done battle with a lesser foe? Fortunately, Mascoma Man, a half-Ironman distance triathlon, was waiting in my native New Hampshire.

I entered and headed north for 10 days of training, culminating in my first test of endurance on Saturday, July 28.

The first morning in New Hampshire I confronted the piece of the triathlon that concerned me most: the swim. I’d only been swimming correctly for six weeks, and only in shallow pools at the YMCA and local rec centers. The manager at my local running store, a multi-time Ironman, had warned me that open-water swimming was a whole different animal, not to be undertaken lightly. These past few months had been filled with warnings from strangers. The most common refrain? “You know, people die doing these things.”

Take Note:

8 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT IRONMAN


Gordan Haller, a US Navy Communications Specialist, won the first Ironman triathlon in 1978 with a time of 11:46:58.

Australian Craig Alexander set the Hawaii course record in 2011. He finished in 8:03:56.

Ironman competitors burn about 10,000 calories during the race.

The EPIC 5 is a race of five Iron-distance triathlons, on five consecutive days, on five Hawaiian islands. Only 4 people finished in 2011.

Lance Armstrong, who won Ironman 70.3 Hawaii (a half-Ironman) earlier this year, is banned from competing in the World Championship while he’s under investigation for doping.

Drafting isn’t allowed in Ironman.

Tandem bikes are also prohibited.

Same goes for public nudity.

My parents and I packed the Jeep and took off for a nearby lake, where I swam next to a GPS-wired canoe for well over an hour. It was ugly and exhausting affair with a variety of strokes, but I made it 1.2 miles. The extra buoyancy provided by the wetsuit didn’t hurt. Two days later I put an hour in at the ocean. I just wanted to get this race over with.

For the last seven miles of the run I’m in an inexplicable amount of pain. I can barely walk, let alone run, but I keep trying, convinced that I’ll snap out of it any time. A thumbs up from another runner lifts my spirits, then it’s back to the old shuffle. I jog for a few minutes with a guy who says his entire body cramps when he tries to run. I wish him the best and carry on. A very tan, healthy-looking woman in her 40s passes me with a big smile on her face, says she did it last year, too. I cross a covered bridge with views out onto the lake. A man in front of me grabs at his hamstring and limps off the trail, muttering “son of a bitch, son of a bitch.”

It’s a revelation how uplifting contact with another human being can be the body is in pain. The staff at the aid stations are saints with cowbells, water, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I feel that I don’t deserve their unconditional cheering, but deep down I need it. It doesn’t hurt that they’re members of the University of New Hampshire women’s swim team. I finish the race in 6:13:33, a respectable time, but I’m concerned about the run.

Back in New York I called my old buddy Chris Thomas, USAT Amateur Athlete of the Year. I explained my symptoms and asked what the hell happened. “How many calories did you take in?” he said. I estimated 700 throughout the race. He had a good laugh, then apologized for laughing, then explained that I needed at least three times that amount. I bonked during the run. Classic case, he said. Obvious.

I’d heard the term bonk before, seen bonk bars at REI, but it’s such a silly term that I figured it wasn’t so bad. It turns out bonking, aka “hitting the wall,” sucks the big one, marked by weakness, fatigue, dizziness, even hallucinations. I’ve been fairly lucky with pain over the years (knocking on wood here); the worst I’ve had is mouth surgery and a few broken ribs from karate. This was somehow more insidious, more debilitating. Fortunately, the solution is just to eat more.

I hope they’ve got good food in Kentucky.


Road to Ironman
Part 1: Introduction | Part 2: Conversation with Phillip Bauman, MD | Part 3: Swim, Bike, Run, Eat | Part 4: Training with a USA Triathlon Amateur Athlete of the Year | Part 5: Into The (Sort Of) Wild