Triathlete stars are still ordinary people

Updated: October 15, 2004, 9:40 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 road to Kona, from my temporary condo a half hour to the north, is a lonely ride.

The only highway along the western coast of the Big Island of Hawaii, the Queen Ka'ahumanu is carved out of lava fields, all of which are black, or really black, or brown-black. There is no sign of life in the pre-dawn hours, the vast nothingness illuminated faintly by the rising sun and the headlights from my Jeep.

At the Ironman Triathlon World Championship on Saturday, I will traverse this route again -- without the benefit of a car. I will be atop a bicycle, my legs serving as my only engine, for 112 miles of hills under an oppressive sun.

As I think about what lies ahead this weekend, the butterflies go to work. They are same nerves that awoke me at 3:37 a.m. after just five hours of sleep. The same fears that have kept me from climbing volcanoes and boogie-boarding in the surf in the week that I've been here -- terrified that I might injure myself.

After all, can I really compete (and I use that term liberally) with these guys? It's intimidating, thinking that I am among the 1,700 or so athletes who will swim, bike and run for glory on our sport's biggest stage. Even though I know I will be nowhere near the podium, it's somewhat mind-boggling to know that I am actually going to be in the same race as such superstars as Tim DeBoom, Peter Reid and Natascha Badmann.

Then I arrive at the Pier, where the race will begin in a few days and where, this day, I plan to take a one-mile practice swim. Entering the water is Joe Bonness, goggles on his forehead and yellow LIVESTRONG bracelet on one wrist. The sight of Bonness makes me smile, recalling a conversation we had several years ago after I finished my first half-Ironman in Panama City, Fla.

At the time, we were both milling around in the finish area when I worked up the courage to introduce myself. Bonness is something of a legend in our sport, a middle-aged businessman who somehow manages to put in the training necessary to win prominent events in his age group category.

"How'd you do?" Bonness had said to me.

"Missed my personal goal by one minute," I had responded.

Knowing that the heat index that day was more than 100 degrees, he said, "Great job! How long have you been doing triathlons?"

"Just over one year," I said.

"Well, you're off to a great start," he said.

It was a conversation that suggested, in this sport, even the elites value the participation of beginners. It's not that way, for instance, in cycling, where you virtually have to win -- or come close to winning -- to get any respect. There is no welcome.

As my interest in triathlon grew, I continued to see this egalitarian ethic at work. I noticed that some of the biggest names in the sport hang around at the finish line to cheer on their more recreational peers. Many of the most famous coaches have websites in which they regularly, and often with genuine interest, answer training and racing questions from ordinary folks.

Through those websites, I became aware of the man now entering the water, Clas "The Baron" Bjorling. The Baron, an exceptional runner and a rising star, is an intimidating guy. His physique is a road map of every muscle, tendon and ligament in the human body. His skin suit cannot hide what appears to be 12-packs abs, eschewing the notion that a 6-pack is evocative of fitness. I subconsciously suck in my gut and expand my pecs as he glides into the surf.

But I am comforted again as I look around at the competitors surrounding him on the Kona beach. Not all of them are as physically imposing as the Baron. Many of them look like self-made athletes, with angular bodies, relatively narrow shoulders and tightly wound muscles and tendons. They seem to be creatures of commitment and discipline more than the products of genetic advantage.

A few minutes later, I witness another sight that speaks to the very Ironman notion that we're all in this together. A fit competitor in his 40s passes another athlete in his 60s, obviously an acquaintance from some past event. They are both in Speedos.

"You're looking good," the younger man said.

"No, you're looking good," the older man responded. "I'm an old man."

"That's what I mean," the younger man said. "I hope to look like you when I'm your age."

These conversations encapsulate the spirit of Ironman, a sport in which elites and amateurs, and the young and old, are not balkanized. Baseball, basketball, football and other mainstream sports have come into such money that many of the pros have lost their sense of connection to ordinary people. They often live in affluent neighborhoods, surround themselves with agents and sycophants and end up getting separated from the everyday people who underwrite their salaries. That's hard to do in Ironman, a sport not awash in television or ticket money.

Perhaps it is true that, in our sport, the pros need the recreational athletes more than they do in other sports because we buy the gear that their sponsors -- often their biggest benefactors -- are trying to sell. They cannot wall themselves off to the rest of us. But my sense is that the top athletes, and the officials who run this sport, also genuinely believe that a bond exists between all triathletes.

It's that thought that I will take into the water with me on race day.

And it's that thought I will try to keep in my head as I run in the darkness while Bjorling and Bonness are getting their free, post-race rubdown.

Robert Alfert, a litigation attorney from Orlando, will file his final column Sunday after he's had a little time to recover from Saturday's race. He can be reached at ralfert@broadandcassel.com.

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