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 “Chrissy’s 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.
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, biked 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 people’s Everest.” And, he adds, competitors have “a common personality trait — they are Type A’s.”
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.