Book follows grueling path to Ironman triathlon

“You Are an Ironman: How Six Weekend Warriors Chased Their Dream of Finishing the World’s Toughest Triathlon” (Viking), by Jacques Steinberg

For many recreational runners, the achievement of a lifetime is to complete a marathon; the Holy Grail for cyclists may be to pedal the 100 miles that make up a century; some swimmers aspire to circle their favorite pond or swim two miles in open water for the first time.

For a special subset of athletes, however, the goal is nothing less than an Ironman triathlon: a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run that must be completed in that order and within 17 hours. The Ironman, which originated in Hawaii more than 30 years ago with a field of 15, has ballooned to an event held at locations around the country in which more than 50,000 athletes crossed the finish line.

Anyone wondering who might take on such a grueling challenge and what their motivation might be would do well to read Jacques Steinberg’s account of three men and three women, most of them in their 40s, who fork over a nonrefundable $525 a year in advance to sign up for the 2009 Ironman Arizona. Through interviews and their entries in blogs and training diaries, the reader follows the six as they put their normal routines on hold and adopt rigorous training regimens in preparation for the big event.

The athletes are fascinating in their own right, which helps to create an instant bond with readers and should make the book a compelling and inspirational read for obsessive exercisers and couch potatoes alike.

Among the cast of characters is Bryan Reece, who was “overstressed, overweight, oversedentary and overwhelmed” when back spasms led him to the emergency room. After a doctor warned that his high blood pressure made him “a heart attack waiting to happen,” the 48-year-old investment adviser from San Antonio turned his life around and began a swift and remarkable turnaround that set him on a path to an Ironman.

Leanne Johnson’s goal was the outgrowth of a vow she made after cheering on her husband, Scott, to his first Ironman finish. It was a feat that almost defies belief: Scott had been born with cystic fibrosis and underwent a double lung transplant before setting his sights on an Ironman. It was now his wife’s turn, and the 30-year-old nurse from Wilmington, N.C., draws the same support from her husband that she gave to him.

Others looking to join the ranks of Ironmen include a nurse with two teenagers who takes on the challenge almost on a dare; a cancer survivor who got the idea after he overheard two men swap stories about their triathlons; a former social worker and mother of five who takes up running as an adult; and an English teacher who was inspired by the nationally televised broadcasts of the original Ironman in Hawaii that he had seen as a child.

Steinberg, a New York Times reporter, makes it plain early on that his book is not intended as a “how-to” training guide for triathletes. Nor does it address the small group of elite entrants who compete for Ironman prize money.

Instead, we follow the six leading actors as they go through their training and take part in marathons and sprint, Olympic and half-Ironman triathlons while battling injuries and periods of self-doubt. The narrative, at that point, can get somewhat tiresome, but readers will surely want to carry on and experience the excitement that leads to the finish line in Tempe, Ariz., where the race announcer proclaims to each entrant who comes across that “you are an Ironman.”

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