by Michael Bowen

The top finishers get all the glory. For this Sunday's Ironman USA Coeur d'Alene, they'll come in from far-flung places and haul away their trophies. But what about the middle-aged triathletes, the age-groupers from around here who will finish several hours and hundreds of places behind the leaders? What about all their hours spent on lonely runs and bike rides? What about their aches and pains?

Kent Breckenridge, 46, an anesthetist from Veradale, has finished two Ironman competitions -- but that was 10 years ago, at Ironman Canada in Penticton, B.C. "I was going to do another in '95," he says, "but I got injured, and then kids and life catch up with you, you know." As for training, Breckenridge -- who plays both indoor and outdoor soccer and competitive tennis -- says "I go by hours, not distances," and that 10 to 12 hours of training is a big week for him.

John Heckard, 48, juggles a career in construction management with "about 15 hours" a week of working out on the roads around Spokane. "I'm a middle-of-the-pack guy, more of a weekend warrior," he says. Heckard, who has also finished twice at Penticton, says that during an Ironman, "you have to tell yourself to slow down, constantly." This time, he kept his training as a secret from his girlfriend "until about three months ago, when it became obvious."

A demolition engineer from Coeur d'Alene, Mac Cavasar, 52, finished Ironman Canada in 2000. (There are fewer than 40 Ironman-distance events in the world each year.) While that's his only Ironman, he's not exactly inexperienced: "I've been doing triathlons since 1982," he says. "I've done so many, it's hard to keep count, but I've probably done around 40 Olympic-distance [roughly one-quarter of the Ironman length] and, oh, 20 or 25 half-Ironmans." Cavasar puts in seven-hour days at the peak of his training ("in a week, 150-200 miles on the bike, about four to eight miles swimming, and 30 or 40 miles of running"), and, unlike many other Ironman triathletes, sets out to do over-distance work: "I did 125 miles on the bike one day," he says.

Gerri Lewerenz, 61 and retired from her career in health care, is an Ironwoman, as it were. "When I first saw them [doing triathlons] on TV, I thought they were crazy," she recalls. Yet this weekend will be her fourth Ironman. She reports that "it's a lot easier to train ever since I retired." Lewerenz describes a hard week of training as taking up 35 hours -- "12,000 yards swimming, 200 miles biking, about 40 or 45 miles of running."

Post Falls resident Rod Wharton, 46, has finished four Ironmen -- three in Canada and one in Hawaii. He rattles off his training regimen: "Monday, Wednesday, Friday, 3,000-yard swim; Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, bike for one and a half hours -- that's about 30 miles -- and then Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I run, with my long run on Sunday, about 18 miles." Most people would regard that as extreme, and Wharton doesn't disagree: "Sure, it's obsessive-compulsive," he says with a laugh. "Is that a bad thing? It's no more obsessive than somebody who plays golf four hours a day on the weekends."

Wharton got into the sport around 1990. After he'd done a few Olympic-distance triathlons, he recalls, "a friend in Coeur d'Alene said, 'Let's do the Troika,'" referring to the half-Ironman held every August in Spokane. "Well," says Wharton, "worst day of my life -- I'd never run more than 10 miles, ever. But a year later, I did an Ironman." In one such race, he reports, he came into the changing tent after the bike leg and "took a nap, until some guy woke me up." Or so he thought. In fact, he had passed out, and the man had been yelling for a medic. Wharton shrugged off help and set out on the final 26-mile section of the race. "I walked every step of the way," he says, and just that portion of the race took him seven hours to complete. But he finished.

Brad Vanwert knows a little bit about finishing an Ironman: He's completed 27 of them. But after you've done a handful of 140-mile races, haven't you pretty much proven that you can meet the challenge? "You have to be a Type A personality," Vanwert says. "That's just part of it. It's a sickness, but a good sickness." So what keeps him going? Why does he return every year to Hawaii, where he has competed in 13 Ironman world championships? "My wife likes to shop in Kona," he jokes. Still, Vanwert displays the pre-race pessimism typical of triathletes: Despite all his 100-mile bike rides and three-hour runs, he claims that "I'm way undertrained for this race."

Naturally, these six people are nutrition-conscious. Lewerenz is a vegetarian who has a hard time getting in all her protein. Cavasar swears that the key is "eating a really good breakfast, since you'll be drawing on that energy all day"; during the race itself, he relies on "PB & amp;J sandwiches and Nutter-Butter bars." Vanwert, for his part, scoffs at all the "techno-geeks who spend thousands of dollars on their bikes, when all they really need to do is lose five pounds -- or else they'll load up their bikes with about 500 pounds of Power Bars."

And the expected results after all that running and pedaling? Most of this group estimate -- and hope -- that they'll finish somewhere in the 12- to 14-hour range. Heckard says that, after a 7 am start, he just wants "to get in before sunset." Breckenridge admits that he wants "just to finish." Vanwert, the most experienced, lists a three-tier goal: "first, to finish; second, to come in under 10 hours; third, to be in the top three in my age group [men 45-49]."

Sometime Sunday afternoon, these six people will all face yet another hill on the bike -- with the marathon to come after that -- and surely the doubt and self-questioning will creep in. Part of preparing for an Ironman is dreading the pain.

But Heckard is still enthusiastic about what can be described as the most extreme sporting event to attract significant numbers of competitors: "Have you ever seen 2,000 swimmers hit the water all at once?" he asks. "When you run in one of these, you can't see that. You should come on down. It's wild."

Publication date: 06/26/03

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.