It was the third aid station on the course and I staggered to a stop, just several meters from the first table with its lovely array of cola, electrolytes, bananas, watermelon, and crackers. My legs felt like they were being electrocuted. A small platoon of volunteers tirelessly handed out cups and gels while giving encouragement. It was roughly four in the afternoon by my watch, on my 10th hour of racing, and there was no beating around the bush. I had had a good swim and a decent bike, but now I was in the back half of the marathon and the shit had gotten very real.

I was in PAIN. I had swum 3.8 kilometers earlier in the day, ridden 180 klicks of a supposedly flat bike course, and now I was at kilometer 24 of the marathon. I still had 18 kilometers of running left, and any self-confidence I had coming into this race several months prior had been ground to a pulp. I wanted to just sit down and close my eyes and take a nap. I wanted to take a piss but I was afraid blood might come out. I wanted a plate of my mom’s homecooked adobo but we were a looong way from home. I wasn’t thinking about time targets or placings anymore. I just wanted to finish this fucking race.

Welcome to the Ironman.

Photo by Quino Al/Unsplash

NBC makes a nice, if somewhat melodramatic, show about the World Championships every year. They play up the agony on the race course, the human interest stories, the storied rivalries. It’s every die-hard triathlete’s dream to one day make it to the World Championships. Personally, after a yearlong hiatus from the sport, I had a less sanguine objective. First, I needed to earn my Ironman medal before I could even think about qualifying for Kona. As a coach, I try to cultivate a culture of toughness and resilience among my clientele. They might not be aiming for the podium, some of them just want to be doing sprints, but by God I’m going to make them my Alphas. Yet in the back of my mind I’d always been bugged by the fact that I had personally never done an Ironman yet. I’d helped several athletes become Ironmen, but I’d twice been denied the chance to do the deed because of Mother Nature.

But I strongly believe in God’s own time for everything, and this year everything seemed to be pushing me to my first Ironman. I signed up for the inaugural Ironman Gurye in Korea in September, which promised cool weather and a “relatively” easy course. Business was rolling along, my health was good, my sponsors were backing me up, and I had my wife’s blessing. All I had to do was not fuck it up.

I had no reason at all to not come into Ironman Gurye with nothing less than 100 percent confidence, right?

I began my year with a modest buildup to Ironman 70.3 Subic, followed by lots and lots of riding at an aerobic base. I also hit the weights to work on my weaknesses, developing a stronger core and sturdier limbs for the demands of the Ironman.

I started my race-specific training 12 weeks out. Nothing fancy, just longer and longer bricks and runs, alternating weekends with epic long rides shared with a few close friends. For time efficiency and safety I did most of my weekday training indoors: having my ass handed to me on Zwift, or staring at the mirror while doing miles and miles of repeats on the shop treadmill. I nailed all my key workouts like a champ, whether it was for a personal time target, a wattage or pace goal, or just the overall sensation. My last run workout was a doozy: eight miles under the pouring rain, with lightning and “Rocky” playing in my iPod, too. Memories of everything I had been through, in all my years of racing, flooded back.

My dad, teaching me how to run properly when I was just 7 years old. My first BMX. My first win. My first big loss. Our wedding day. Max telling me I was his hero along with John Cena. Everything that mattered in my own little world. I cried that last mile, giving it everything, cursing at myself, “Come on, asshole. One. Last. Fucking. Mile.” I nearly punched the air when I finished. The fat kid done good.

I had no reason at all to not come into Ironman Gurye with nothing less than 100 percent confidence, right?

If you don’t count the handful of moments when I had paralyzing anxiety attacks, where I’d literally just curl up in bed and wonder if maybe death would be better, then yeah, I felt good. Only the strength of my wife Sheryll and her full confidence in me gave me the will to keep moving. It’s always been about her. All my best performances came from the strength of our bond. It meant the world for me to have her blessing and her trust, letting me put in the miles, away from the family, because Dada had to do the work.

Andy with his family

Three days before Ironman Gurye, we linked up with friends from Tri Clark and Cycles & Hubble. We stayed at a charming pension just by the lake.  It was clean and convenient and the manager—Mrs. Lee—took good care of everyone. My little team consisted of myself, Sheryll, Max, and my mum—the only other woman who can put me in my place. She still looks out for me even to this day.

We did our course recons, the mandatory sign-ins, the Friday night drinking session, but I kept my social interaction to a minimum. I was slowly getting in the zone. To help myself fall asleep despite my nerves, I read a book.

Race morning and it was me among 1,400+ athletes nervously suiting up for what would surely be a long day.  As we shuffled to the pontoon swim start, the look on our faces was the same. Nervous, happy energy. I went through my own personal hell to get to this start line, as I’m sure everybody had to deal with their own shit, too. “I’m here and I’m scared but I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna be an Ironman today or die trying!” Everybody has their own Ironman story to tell.

The rolling start had us jump into the foggy lake and it was a largely uneventful swim for me, other than the fact that I was a little faster than I expected. God bless wetsuit swims! Climbed out of the water and into the tent, changed into a proper cycling kit for more comfort and away we went!

Photo by Artem Verbo/Unsplash

Onto the bike, keeping cool and just maintaining a modest cadence of 80-85rpm. I set a ceiling of 200watts, soft pedaling the descents whenever possible, ignoring the packs and the faster riders. I took a gel every 30’ and ate a pack of Gu Chews every two hours, but I still felt the hurt by the third hour. I took to stretching every 20’ just to stay focused and loose.

Liters and liters of Pocari Sweat down my gut helped ease my cramps somewhat, but I couldn’t wait to get off my bike by the fifth hour!

I hit T2 in 5:48, pretty relaxed by my standards but still just a bit worried I might have fried my legs for the run. I sat down for a few minutes to have a Fig Bar and gather my wits, doing some mental exercises to check my state. Stretched, peed, had a drink, then on to the run course. Ran past my family and the Tri Clark cheer squad at kilometer 2, woohoo yeah! I went sub-5 minute/km pace in the first 4k! I rejoiced at the life in my legs and the silly idea that I had this Ironman in the bag. I only had a full marathon to tackle, right?  Never mind that it would only be the second marathon I had ever done in my life, or that my longest run for this race was 30k.

Reality check at kilometer 24.  It’s a whole body suffering that’s hard to explain unless you do it yourself (hehe). Legs are on fire, lungs feel so tired, even my brain felt so fucked. All I could process was how long to the next aid station, and even then I went into a mini-panic when it seemingly didn’t show up as advertised. I kept looking at my Suunto Spartan just to ensure I was on pace; at least I could focus on just one thing to keep going.  I had made it through the first two laps in relatively good shape, but coming into the third I was in uncharted territory.

Never raced for longer than seven hours in my life, never ran longer than 30k off the bike, and my stomach was also going south.  I set to focusing on going the distance per aid station. Yeah, that’s it. One thing at a time. Don’t panic. Keep moving. Focusing on my stride, not quite ignoring the pain as embracing it. That’s right. If you can’t beat the pain, then BE the pain.

I wish I could tell you that the last few miles were full of drama and suffering, that I stumbled or I burst an appendix or I suddenly went off-course as my brain went into lockdown, but it just didn’t happen that way. And that’s a good thing, because those aren’t good for the health. I do remember running like a robot, arms pumping, legs churning, no more waving or saying “hi” to friends on the course. I remember the extreme effort it took to duplicate each perfect stride over and over—foot strike, roll, toe-off, and repeat—the mind having to force the muscle to work the way it should, something it never had to do before when the body wasn’t on the verge of shutting down.

One thing at a time. Don’t panic. Keep moving. Focusing on my stride, not quite ignoring the pain as embracing it. That’s right. If you can’t beat the pain, then BE the pain.

I remember constantly thinking “I hate this fucking race. I hate this fucking race. One last fucking mile. Come on, you pussy. One. Last. Fucking. MILE.”

I made it to the finish chute, my friends cheering, and my family going ballistic, “DADA!!!!! Go Dadddaaa!!!!” I almost didn’t hear the trademark finish line greeting, “Alexander Leuterio, You Are An Ironman!!!” Cross the finish line, fall into my family’s embrace, drained like never before, hating the experience but not really meaning it, extremely happy to finally get rid of that monkey on my back, and with the people who matter the most to me. I’d never been so happy to just make it to the end. An Ironman isn’t for everybody, but for those who dare to dream, it really can be everything for that one special day.

Congratulations to all the finishers of the 2017 Ironman Gurye Korea!