Every waking minute is about performance

Updated: October 14, 2004, 10:29 PM ET
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.

The Ironman is not a race encompassing three distinct sports, as commonly perceived.

It is an exercise in one distinct mindset: Obsession.

Take Gordo Byrn, for instance. He's a well-known coach and athlete who has raced the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, which I'm competing in Saturday for the first time. Between the months of March and August, while ramping up for Ironman Canada, Byrn left his home only twice for something not related to training. The first time was for a dinner with Mark Allen, a legend in our sport. The second was for a lunch with two training buddies.

Byrn would place second in the race, by the slimmest of margins. Crossing the finish line, he probably thought to himself, "Damn, if I just would have skipped that dinner with Mark ..."

This type of dedication is typical of the elites. If the activity doesn't relate to training, it's not on their radar. These guys use every waking minute for something performance-related. Standing in line at a grocery store, these guys are contracting their glutes, crunching their abductors. When they are waiting around, they stretch and meditate.

Not even a natural disaster can distract a committed triathlete. As you may have heard, we've had a few hurricanes here in Florida this summer. Each hurricane has what are called "feeder bands," hefty gusts of wind that live on the outer edge of the swirling storm. A friend of mine used the pinpoint meteorological data that was broadcast on local television to time his runs, knocking off one-mile repeats before each new feeder band whipped through his neighborhood.

As explained in my first column, I'm no elite. As an attorney, there's only so much contracting of the glutes I can do in front of a jury before a mistrial is declared. As a husband and father, there is only so much time I can stay away from the home before my wife hires one of my partners to issue divorce papers. But that's not to say I'm mentally balanced, either.

I see the look on neighbors' faces when they're walking their dogs at 5:30 a.m. -- thinking they're getting an early start on the day -- and I'm drenched in perspiration, shoes squeaking from the moisture of a two-hour run. I notice the perplexed nods from colleagues gathering in the elevator lobby as they head off to a power lunch, while I'm sneaking away with gym bag in tote, trying to squeeze in a 3,000-meter swim.

An afternoon of furniture shopping with my wife, Chris, is an opportunity to run home. When my son goes to swimming lessons, I do laps on the side. And then I run home. If I could have figured out a way to work out while we were car shopping one day, Chris wouldn't be driving that luxury SUV she tools around in now. I just had to get home to my bike.

My water bottles are loaded with all kinds of sports drinks, concoctions that would impress Victor Conte. Maybe I don't have designer steroids, but my pockets are stuffed with salt tablets (to fight off sodium loss in the interminable Florida heat), little packets of powergel (calorie-rich, caffeine-loaded pudding in a pouch) and multiple flavors of powerbars.

Ironman should be an X Game, for everything about the sport is extreme -- including the cost. Our bikes alone can cost $5,000 or more. And they don't look like your normal bike. They are more like a cross between a botched NASA experiment and a medieval torture device. We call them Franken-bikes, as they are made of space-age technology and materials but are equipped with none of the creature comforts of the modern age. In order to achieve that "aerodynamic" position, we contort our arms and shoulders into a rack of sorts, lock our feet to pedals, then drape ourselves over the bike like a slinky straddling a staircase.

We cheat the wind in such a position. Then we pay thousands to chiropractors.

The Freak. The Terminator. G-Man (that's Gordo Byrn). Hollywood dreams up names like these for characters. In my sport, they are the names of coaches. These are the monikers that we give the obsessive savants whom we hire as trainers to improve our times. The more inhuman the reputation, the better -- as we want to push past what we think, but don't want to believe, are our human limits.

My coach is Mad Marty, who has been getting me ready for Kona. A wiry guy in his early 30s -- the peak years for athletes in my sport -- Mad Marty wins things. He swims like a blackfin, rides like the wind, runs like a gazelle -- and earns his coaching fee like E.F. Hutton. A genetic mutant, he drags me through 100-mile training sessions on my bike. When done, my arms and legs are covered in a heavy sheen of sweat and sunscreen, and stuck to my torso are colonies of dead bugs, road grime and some bile from the last hill (yes, they exist in Central Florida).

The latest science of Ironman training and fueling requires nearly a doctorate to understand. So Mad Marty, a logistics engineer by day, sends me monthly workout directions, all laid out on a hyper-detailed spreadsheet. He creates nutritional strategies so elaborate they take many bouts of trial and error to tweak just right.

Our bikes and bodies are wired to measure heart rate, wattage, speed, cadence and a myriad of other arguably irrelevant bits of data. I even have a beeper on my computer to remind me when to eat.

Of course, even with all that, G-Man could still whup me on a Huffy cruiser.

Robert Alfert is a litigation attorney in Orlando. He can be reached at ralfert@broadandcassel.com.

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