For local athletes, path to Ironman World Championships paved with long hours, deep belief

The Baltimore Sun

Rick Armiger is well aware of the grueling hardships that come with running in Ironman Triathlon races.

"Sometimes, while you're racing, you wonder why you were so stupid to sign up for this," the 43-year-old Sparks resident said.

For Armiger, it's the memory of his son, Emerson, who died in 1996 of severe heart complications just three weeks after his birth, that inspires him to continue racing.

Armiger is one of nine Marylanders who will be competing in the Ironman World Championship on Saturday in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The race consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run. Then, a chance to exhale.

Athletes gain entry into the Ironman World Championship one of four ways: by earning a slot at one of the qualifying events held worldwide, by being selected in the Ironman Lottery, by being selected in the Ironman Legacy program or by winning a slot through the Ironman Foundation charitable eBay auction. To qualify, participants must finish in the top 1 to 2 percent in their age groups.

Armiger, now a father of two, is the co-founder of the Ironheart Foundation, which raises money for athletes with heart problems. He hopes to raise at least $5,000 for this cause.

After his son's death, he decided to make changes in his life.

"Within two years of my son's death, my father-in-law died," Armiger said. "They both died of heart problems. I was also overweight once I got out of college, and wanted to get more active and healthy."

Armiger participated in his first triathlon in 1998, and Sunday's Ironman will be his 21st. His first Ironman race was in 2000.

"I wanted to celebrate life," Armiger explained. "It's a way to celebrate my son's life and my life."

Perhaps the only thing more challenging than the race itself is the training.

"I average around 16 hours of training per week," Armiger said. "I swim maybe 4 to 5 miles a week, bike around 175 miles a week and run about 40 miles a week."

Other Maryland participants in the event have similar regimens.

"My training varies from week to week; usually around 10 hours a week," said Steve Russell, 45, of Severna Park. "Once I get geared up for bigger races, it can be 15 to 16 hours a week. My training is done at 5:30 in the morning before work."

Patricia MacNabb, 61, of Glenwood trains about 18 hours per week.

"For the last three weeks, I've gone on 100-mile bike rides on Saturdays," MacNabb said. "I go for two to three swims during the week, and I run for an hour to an hour and a half."

Kevin Levi-Goerlich, 21, of Columbia has been training 12 to 16 hours a week for 14 weeks.

"It's been swim, bike, run every day," said Allysin Bridges, 41, of Cockeysville, who participated in the 2006 Ironman in Florida.

"During peak season, I train about 16 to 20 hours a week," Cockeysville native Billy Busko said. Busko, 50, who now lives in New York, competed in his first Ironman in 2005, when it was held in Canada.

The training is not only grueling but also time-consuming. Luckily for Armiger, a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley, he makes his own hours.

"The hardest part, for somebody who's never done it before, is worrying about your schedule," he said. "It's like a second job. It helps to have a flexible schedule."

MacNabb, a physical education teacher at Hereford Middle School, benefited from having an entire summer to train, but she has had to balance her preparations with the start of the new school year.

"The summer is great for training," MacNabb said. "It has been quite the challenge going back to school and trying to get my training in. I do all my training when I'm tired, so maybe that's why I do so well" in the races.

Levi-Goerlich, a senior at the University of Maryland, where he serves as vice president of the triathlon team, has had to learn how to juggle his training with school and work.

"It's a lot of time management," he said. "I've gotten really good at that through the years. You have to be willing to make sacrifices. This summer, I was working full time while I also helped coach a youth triathlon team."

Bridges, an occupational therapist, acknowledges that balancing training and working can be very stressful, even with flexible work hours.

"It's a lot," she said. "There are certain things you have to sacrifice, like sleep. My job is luckily a little more flexible, and I can cut my hours back to train, but it's really hard to balance it all."

In a race as daunting as the Ironman, doubts can creep into the minds of competitors, no matter how prepared they are.

"Your mind is your worst enemy during this," Bridges said. "It's this constant mind battle: 'Am I going to finish? Am I ready?' "

During adversity, Bridges often thinks of her late father, who died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in 1997 at age 62. "Whenever I have any doubts, I just think of him."

When uncertainty begins to set in, MacNabb simply tells herself that it's not going to be easy.

"It's a mental game the whole time you're out there," she said. "There's lots of self-doubt here and there. You really have to talk to yourself and realize that if it were easy, there'd be a lot more people out there."

For all of the race's physical and mental challenges, the aftermath can be just as rewarding.

"The race is painful and difficult, but those are the things in life you remember most," Armiger said. "The sense of accomplishment after the race is like nothing you can describe."

Russell described the finish as "an unbelievable feeling."

"In a day that long, if you properly pace it and eat and drink a lot, you can bounce back," he said.

With the Ironman taking place in Hawaii, some participants are making a trip out of the race with their families. Russell plans on spending a little over a week there with his father, while Bridges' mother will accompany her. Armiger will be traveling with his family as well.

"You rely on other people for encouragement and support," Armiger said. "As much of an individual sport as it is, there's nobody that crosses that finish line alone. Everyone has their family with them in their heart."

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Follow the race

When: Oct. 11, staggered start times

Where: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

Online: ironman.com, starting at noon race day (live webcast, radio show, blog and athlete tracker)

TV: NBC (Nov. 15, 1:30 p.m.)

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