EVERETT — Plunging into a frigid lake to swim 2.4 miles, then changing clothes to bike 112 miles, and then setting out to run 26 miles, 385 yards is difficult enough.
But explaining to family and friends why an otherwise sensible person would undertake this activity, known as an Ironman Triathlon? That’s really hard.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people think you’re nuts,” said Jim Toye of Mukilteo, who has entered an Ironman every year for nearly a decade and expects to do more. “A lot of them don’t even know what you’re talking about when it comes up in a conversation. They say, ‘What’s an Ironman?’ So you have to explain it and then they say, ‘That is so nuts. Why would you want to do that?’
“Even in family circles,” he said, “most people think we’re pretty crazy for doing this.”
So here’s what you should know about being an Ironman triathlete. It takes a commitment to an arduous workout schedule, a willingness to set aside most hobbies and other activities because there just isn’t time, and a determination to train even when the brain and other body parts are screaming “Stop!”
Sanity, it seems, is optional.
OK, so the people who do Ironmans are not your ordinary loonies. Toye, who is 50, is a Boeing engineer. Shawn O’Donnell of Mukilteo is 49 and a successful Everett restaurateur. And 47-year-old Gary Wood of Mukilteo is a chemistry teacher at Everett’s Cascade High School.
Toye, O’Donnell and Wood are part of the “Endorphine Junkies,” a club of some three dozen male and female triathletes from Snohomish and Island counties. Several club members were in Idaho on June 21 for the annual Ironman Coeur d’Alene, one of the premier Ironman events in the United States every year.
Along with more than 2,000 other competitors, the three men swam, biked and ran. And lived to tell about it.
“All in all, it’s just a fantastic experience,” O’Donnell said. After nearly 14 grueling hours, he approached the finish area “and there’s my 70-year-old mom jumping up and down like a cheerleader, My dad’s going nuts and my kids are going wild. It was a spectacular feeling. It was very euphoric.”
“Running down that finishing chute with a couple of thousand people there, it was just a great, great feeling,” Toye agreed.
Of course, the elation of a completed triathlon follows months and even years of diligent, demanding training. For O’Donnell, the weekly preparation for Coeur d’Alene went something like this — he ran 13 miles on Monday, swam a mile on Tuesday, rode 40 miles and then ran 5-6 miles on Wednesday, swam 2 miles on Thursday, and did a bike ride of 80-100 miles on Saturday; Friday and Sunday were generally off days.
“People will say to me, ‘I don’t think I could do that,’” O’Donnell said. “And my answer is always, ‘I guarantee you that you could.’ Anyone with good knees can do it, if you want to dedicate yourself to the training. … I always had the (attitude), ‘No one is going to tell me that I can’t do it.’ I just wanted to get out there and see if I could.
“I love the lifestyle of the triathlete,” he added. “They’re healthy, they’re active and it’s a great way to live.”
“My friends think it’s crazy,” Wood said, “but they know I’m sort of a goal-oriented person. So once I set my mind to it, I go do it.” Or, putting it another way, he said, “It was being told you can’t, so now you must.”
There are clear benefits to being a triathlete and the most obvious is health related. Triathletes tend to be lean — “And you don’t have to watch what you eat because you just eat everything, which is kind of nice,” O’Donnell said — and have low blood pressure and a low pulse rate.
In fact, when Wood visits his doctor, his low heart rate often prompts teasing. “They always tell me, ‘You’re hardly alive here,’” he said with a smile.
The tradeoff for all that training “is that the yard goes to hell and the car needs to be worked on,” O’Donnell said. And because he usually trains in the middle of the day, his work schedule “shifts late into the evening. So I get home at 10 o’clock because I took a four-hour break in the middle.
“My wife is the one that really comes up on the short end of the deal because of the time away,” he said.
“For about 10 years now, this has been my thing,” Toye said. “I train for triathlons, and that’s all I have time for. … There’s a certain amount of family time that you’re going to lose, but I have an understanding wife who does the same thing (with her activities).”
Because of the time commitment and the resulting conflicts with family activities, Wood isn’t sure if he’ll do another Ironman. O’Donnell, though, vows to be back, and he’s eyeing the popular Ironman Brazil, which could tie into a nice family vacation.
Likewise, Toye expects to try again, although maybe after a one-year respite.
“But I’m sure I’ll be back at it again because I won’t be able to resist it,” he said. “I’ll be in triathlons for my whole life. I just love the triathlon thing.”