Obsession: The fragrance of the Ironman

Originally Published: October 12, 2004
By Robert Alfert | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: Robert Alfert will be sharing his experience of preparing and running in the Ironman Triathlon World Championships with ESPN.com this week.

Now in its 26th year, the Ironman Triathlon World Championship on the big island of Hawaii is just old enough to have legends worthy of consideration. Chief among those is Madame Pele, the ill-tempered Goddess of Volcanoes, who over the decades has earned a reputation for heaping all sorts of elemental abuse on the elite athletes who dare challenge her domain by foot, bike and water.

Robert Alfert has tried to squeeze in training in between hurricanes.

She lords over a lava-made landscape that resembles the face of the moon. She taunts her guests with winds reaching 60 miles an hour, reducing even the most powerful riders to a snail-like pace. Lighter riders literally get blown off their bikes. Then there is the sauna-like heat and humidity. Paired with the "mumuku" winds, it's like racing into the face of a blow dryer.

So I'm told.

I am not an elite anything. I'm just a weekend warrior, an overworked trial lawyer from Orlando with a wife and son who tolerate my passion for the sport. I'm the common man that John Collins, father of the Ironman, envisioned as always having a place in this race of races.

If I can finish the Ironman in Kona, in what I hope is a respectable time, then perhaps you can, too.

The organizers of the event granted ESPN.com a media slot in the race Saturday so I could show you what it's like -- from the everyman's perspective -- to line up with the pros, my idols. Beginning today, I'll be writing a series of columns leading up to and through the end of the race that will explore various aspects of this most taxing of athletic events.

I fully expect to swim the requisite 2.4 miles, bike the 112 miles, run the 26.2 miles, and then as Collins once suggested of those who defeat Madame Pele, "brag for the rest of your life."

I completed my first full-length triathlon last November, in 11 hrs, 53 minutes in Panama City, Fla., at Ironman Florida -- not a bad time for a former Clydesdale like me with very limited training time. But Kona is an entirely different challenge. It is a race of mythical proportions, an event that will forever be defined by the memorable footage of Julie Moss crawling during the 1982 race, the muscles in her body having shut down. You can feel her pain as she loses the lead and gets passed just shy of the finish line.

More than a handful of my colleagues, friends and family members question my sanity. Many of them once knew me as a wine-quaffing, stogie-puffing workaholic whose notion of sport consisted of a weekend round of golf with my buddies -- cart mandatory -- followed by a few rounds at the 19th hole. Before discovering triathlon, a strenuous workout meant a jog around the block. Now my ideal afternoon consists of a five-hour bike ride in the 95-degree Florida sun with a like-minded Type-A companion.

My route to Ironman had a rather ignominious beginning. On the morning of my first competition, a shorter triathlon, I rode into a cherry-red pickup truck parked along the street, nevertheless finishing the race with bruises, abrasions and wobbly wheels. Weeks later, before the race, I crashed into the leader of a local triathlon club. My back still bears scars from the front sprocket of the man's bike. The marks would later be joined by multiple patches of road rash from other spills.

The months leading up to my first Ironman were a precarious balance of family, work, training -- and the unshakeable belief that I was not training enough. The sacrifice was sleep. My runs started at 3:30 in the morning, fueled by espresso. I ran late and ran often. I swam early and cycled long on weekends, all the while trying not to blow my job or neglect my wife, Chris, and son, Nick. My body was sore quite literally every single day for three months.

I persisted because fear is a tremendous motivator. It is a rush of adrenaline as palpable as the race itself.

With Kona looming, fear has given way to nervous anticipation. Finishing Ironman Florida gave me the confidence to challenge Madame Pele, but she is a resourceful foe. I'm convinced that she conspired in recent months with her elemental kin halfway across the globe to interrupt my training. Surely it cannot be coincidence that four hurricanes vacationed in Orlando this summer. They confined me to the indoors for days at a time, pacing from window to window in search of even temporary breaks in the torrential rain. I toyed with the idea of popping in an old Christy Brinkley aerobics video to maintain some basic level of fitness. Instead, I did sit-ups and push-ups.

When permitted to go outside, my workouts resembled adventure racing. I rode and ran on dark, debris-covered streets crisscrossed by fallen oak trees. The stench from rotting garbage -- the emptied contents of refrigerators -- was nauseating. Dead animals of all sorts added to the miasma. My reward for such perseverance was to come home to swelter in a house devoid of air conditioning, as electricity was out.

Now I read in the paper that the long-dormant volcano, Mauna Loa, is showing signs of erupting again. Evidently scientists believe that the 350 earthquakes recorded under the volcano since July is a sign of something.

Bring it on, Madame Pele.

Robert Alfert is an attorney in Orlando. His series of columns on the Ironman World Championships continue all week on ESPN.com.