Essay

My son the Ironman

A father reflects on watching his child finish a gruelling test of endurance

ROBERT LEWIS September 10 2001
Essay

My son the Ironman

A father reflects on watching his child finish a gruelling test of endurance

ROBERT LEWIS September 10 2001

My son the Ironman

Essay

A father reflects on watching his child finish a gruelling test of endurance

ROBERT LEWIS

in Penticton

Competitor number 523 was nearing the halfway mark of the swim competition. He was making good time, his stroke strong, his spirits high despite the churn of the mass start. But suddenly out of nowhere two swimmers converged in front of him, creating a V-shaped human trap. The six-foot, twoinch, 195-pounder slid to his left over two thrashing legs and somehow hauled himself into open water. It was a big challenge for an amateur with a regular day job, seeking to finish his first Ironman—a competition that began at sunrise with a 3.8-km swim, continued during a demanding 180.2-km bicycle race and ended in a gruelling marathon of 42.2 km. Fortunately for 523, the watery collision was the only eventful incident in a day that began for him when he awoke at 3 a.m. and never went back to sleep.

At the very end, after 11 continuous hours and 45 minutes on the course, he sprinted towards the finish line in the fading evening sun, removing his tinted shades and hoisting his arms triumphandy for the official photo. As he broke the tape at 6:45 p.m., he gave his tearful father a big, sweaty hug, walked unassisted to the transition area for a sip of Gatorade and planted a big kiss on his mothers cheek. Then he called his brother, Timothy, at work in Hong Kong. The smile that graced his face throughout the day now radiated with the satisfaction of knowing he had joined an exclusive global club, a finisher in the worlds most demanding test of endurance, physiology and psychology. I can report all this because 523 is our firstborn. That Christopher Robert Lewis, 32, finished easily within the top third of a field of 1,992 competitors from around the world in the Subaru Ironman Canada in Penticton, B.C., was an unfathomable feat; that he showed up at all for the starting gun at 7 a.m. on Aug. 26 was a triumph that brought joy and many tears to two folks who once held him, literally, in the palms of their hands.

You had to be there—as a relative or friend of one of the dedicated men and women, aged 18 to 70, who went to the start. There was pro Peter Reid, the angular 31 -year-old world champion from Victoria, winning his ninth Ironman title, and $14,000, in a mere eight hours, 27 minutes and 47 seconds. And Gillian Bakker, 31, an engineer from nearby Winfield, B.C., taking the female crown and the same egalitarian $ 14,000 in 10 hours, four minutes and 27 seconds, despite having to stop twice because of blown tires (Chris later realized he went to high school with her in Toronto). There was Sister Madonna Buder, 70, a Roman Catholic nun and the oldest finisher, who came in to the cheers of the crowd at 9:35 p.m., fully 14 hours and 46 minutes after she started. And in a gutsy performance, Dale T. Buckman of Spokane, Wash., made it to the line just one minute and 25 seconds before the midnight close of the race. In all, 142 entrants, including eight pros, did not finish. There were people running for breast cancer survivors and to raise money for leukemia research and Crohn’s disease. Along the way, legions of competitors helped one another, pumping up tires, exchanging hugs, passing food and just plain celebrating the family spirit of Ironman. Chris, who trained with a group of half a dozen men and women—they called themselves “Ironchicks”—noted after the race: “I was grateful for having a great group of training partners. That’s what got me through.”

Ironman is only for brave hearts. On the 10-km ride down from Yellow Lake near Penticton, Chris and many competitors reached speeds up to 75 km/h. And always, there was the dreaded fear of “bonking,” failing to finish because of dehydration, nausea, cramps or the potentially life-threatening sodium loss known as hyponatremia. In 1982 at the world championships in Hawaii, when Julie Moss collapsed near the finish, then crawled over the line on all fours, the replays on ABC’s Wide World of Sports became the Zapruder film of Ironman— and a parent’s nightmare.

As I stood at the finish in Penticton, anxiously awaiting the arrival of 523, I stopped being a reporter on assignment as I watched dozens of people dizzy with exhaustion, vomiting, collapsing or being trundled to the medical tent for emergency treatment. Before the race, I jokingly said to my wife, Sally: “Whose son is he, anyway?” But now, it was no laughing matter. Where was number 523, anyway? Was he out on the marathon course in a tent getting an IV drip? Was he dazed and hobbling in the desert-like conditions of this breathtaking Okanagan Valley? Finally, from her perch in the “Ironmates” bleachers, Mom spotted 523 make the turn at what we came to call “Chrissys Corner,” the spot at Winnipeg and Lakeshore where the runners make a left for the final run out and back along the shore—and where we had chalked the loving exhortation on the pavement: “GO Chris.” As he rounded the corner, Chris looked down and said, “Wow.” We like to think it provided an extra bounce in his step.

S

The quest for Chris started in January when he began workouts indoors with his mates—Kelly, Kim, Andrew, Ron, Ivan, Cathy, Martin and Cary— riding bikes on a stationary platform for 90 minutes a stretch in a basement, watching video tapes of the Tour de France. They swam in local pools and ran through the snow. Come April, the regimen intensified. According to his meticulous spreadsheet, between April 7 and race day, Chris swam a total of 60 km, hiked 2,867 km and ran 445 km. His standard daily diet included five servings of fruit and veggies and two litres of water. In June, he completed the short-course Muskoka Triathlon in three hours and 30 minutes. In July, he won his Clydesdale division at the Peterborough Half Ironman with a time of five hours and 12 minutes.

Not surprisingly, the Ironman tradition began as a bar bet. A group of Navy SEALs having some beers in Hawaii in 1978 decided to prove they were the fittest athletes by staging a three-part race over water, on bikes and on foot. Fifteen people completed the course. Today, Ironman has grown into a thriving business, generating revenue of more than $ 1 million a race. There are events in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. Graham Fraser, the Canadian-born power behind Lake Placid, N.Y.-based Ironman North America, is responsible for staging seven races next year, including the 20th running of Penticton. Despite the expense—bikes cost $4,000 and more, wet suits for the swim $600, shoes $200, plus a hefty $500 entry fee and travel costs— the sport is growing around the world, fuelled, notes Fraser, by a desire to compete in athletics longer in life. “This,” says Fraser, “is the peoples Everest.” And, he adds, competitors have “a common personality trait—they are Type As.”

Penticton is one of the most popular events of the season, in no small part because of the 4,500 loyal volunteers who cheerfully work the medical tent, staff the aid stations that dot the bike and run routes, and catch the wobblers at the finish. Typically, Sharon Hickey has been a volunteer for 13 years and now runs the transition area where the athletes make the dash from swim to bike to run, changing clothes and stoking their bodies with nutrients while volunteers smear them with sunscreen. “I do it for the athletes,” says Hickey. Penticton native Diane Swanson, who was in charge of the race medals, is mindful of the estimated $ 10-million infusion of cash to her community. “Our economy needs all the help it can get,” she notes.

The athletes from 39 countries who entered the Penticton competition came with individual goals and aspirations. For Chris Lewis, an 11-year veteran of triathlons, Penticton was the ultimate test of his preparation, his training and his inner reserves. And he plans to be back next year, aiming to be faster and stronger. For our part, mom and dad are not sure we can put ourselves through the agony and the ecstasy one more time. After all, he is still our Chrissy, even if he is now an Ironman. E3

Contributing Editor Robert Lewis, former editor-in-chief o/Macleans, is now vice-president, content development, of the magazine’s parent company, Rogers Media Inc. He can be reached at: rlewis@rci.rogers.com