'Our 36th and final finisher, in a time of 35 hours, 38 minutes and 17 seconds, competing with two artificial hip joints, Larry Piper of Midland, Michigan.' These words from race director Ray Shepherd climaxed my 18 month quest to complete a Double Ironman Triathlon.
Although this description is being written with the perspective of 13 years after the event, the specifics of that period of my life are seared into my memory such that it seems like only yesterday. Hardly a day goes by that I do not reflect on what was achieved. I have replayed over and over in my mind the details almost like tales of old were transmitted by word of mouth from generation to generation.
The 13 sections that follow are a chronological path from my first thoughts of attempting a Double Ironman to the post-event happenings. While you may wish to skip directly to The Event, I am sure you will want to return to the details of the many steps required to prepare for this monumental achievement. The Background will provide general information in both multi-events and how I came to this stage of my competitive life. The Decision is about setting a personal goal. (Goals are dreams with a timetable.) The Committment is about my family's involvement; this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity definitely was a team effort. Seeing the Real Thing will take you through the complete event as a support member of a team in 1993, and the invaluable lessons I learned.
Next we move to Hard Core Training, a detailed record of daily, weekly and monthly goals which I set and, for the most part, met. How to train smart is an integral part of this chapter. Then comes the mental exercise of finding answers to those Questions we all have...How can I ride my bicycle 224 miles, after swimming 4.8 miles, in the heat of Alabama on Labor Day ...
The Announcement is about making one's goals public--something I did not do until late in the process. We will consider when is the time to go public and what are the consequences. Then comes an interesting exercise as we examine those 40 other athletes from around the world who qualified for the 1994 event. Each person's story could become a chapter in a book; the hard part would be classifing the book as athletic, psychological or just plain fiction.
Finally comes The Event. I hope to recount as many details as possible, but in retrospect, it was the journey, viz., the training, that is the real story. The Post-Event will cover what happened in the days and months that followed.
Note: This story has been copied from my autobiography book, It's Time To Pay The Piper. The book contains 20-25 pictures of the event; most have not been included here because of difficulities locating the original photos.top
In 1977 some guys made a bar bet about who was the better athlete: a runner, a biker or a swimmer. They decided to resolve the issue by combining three existing events that were already being held: the Honolulu Marathon, a 2.4 mile open water swim and a 112 mile bike event (there is some question about whether all 112 miles of the bike event were conducted on one or two days). Organized by Navy Commander John Collins, he and 14 other men competed in the first-ever “gruelathon” on Hawaii in 18-Feb-1978. I believe there was an article in Sports Illustrated about this initial event. In 1979 the event was again held with about twice the original number of entrants. One woman also entered. In 1980 the event attracted 108 entrants and a national TV audience—most likely Wide World of Sports. In 1981 362 entrants showed up; the triathlon was the hottest new sport. The event moved from the island of Oahu to Kona Coast in 1982. It also picked up Bud Light as a sponsor. The organizers realized that the traditional February race date severely penalized much of the continental U.S. Because they could not adequately train over the winter. So 1982 saw two Ironman events, one in February and the other in October. All subsequent Iron events were held in October. After some normal growing pains of sponsorship and who owns what rights, the Ironman Triathlon became a legitimate event.
I uncovered a promo brochure dated 1983 that succinctly describes the swim portion of the event.
“It is generally accepted that the novice biker can survive a 112-mile bicycle race, and a
middle-of-the-pack marathon runner can make it to the finish line with some rest stops
along the way. But cold-water distance swimming gives no quarter. You finish or you
don’t. Donning orange swim caps and covering their bodies with grease to prevent
hypothermia, most triathletes also remove all body hair to cut down on drag in the salt
water. Water temperatures around 68 degrees and one-to-two foot waves can combine
to make the shortest leg of the triathlon the most difficult.”
Marathon running was beginning to be passe, and the macho factor of a triathlon, regardless of the distance, was a powerful magnet. After one year when a Japanese guy taped a shaving mirror on his chest and floated the 2.4 mile swim on his back in 4.5 hours, the race director saw the need for tighter controls. Qualifying times were established as well as cut off times for each of the three segments. Soon the number of entries was capped. I knew a couple of Midlanders who made the event in the early ‘80s. I could see there was no way I could meet the new qualification standards, much less afford the money and time to travel to Hawaii.
I came into the triathlon world almost by accident. In the late ‘70s I believe there was only a single triathlon held in Michigan. It called itself the Michigan Championship—since there were no other events, and it was held near Traverse City. The hangup for me was that it was held on the second Saturday in June, the same date as the Midland Invitational Track Meet. I was committed to coaching a team of 25+ girls at this all day event still held at Northwood’s track. We were getting 300+ other entrants from Michigan and a few of the nearby states. Fortunately, the Club still had a couple other veteran coaches and a designated person as the Meet Director. So I decided I could miss this meet if I could get Judy to fill in for me, something that would have been impossible in the subsequent 22 years.
I am guessing the year was 1979. Scot went along, and that would make him just under 15 years old. The swim was held at Silver Lake (I think), and the water was really cold at this time of the year. The bottom line is that we both finished—I think Scot was second or third in the 16 and Under division. I was hooked on triathlons.
This first triathlon had three other memories associated with it. The first memory involves Ross Shingledecker. When I returned to Fleet Feet practice the following Monday, a story unfolded about the previous Saturday’s meet. Ross was the Meet Director Although this was his first attempt at running the entire meet, he had been with the Club for two years. A Meet Director is truly where the “buck stops.” He (and in later years, she) must make a number of decisions to keep the meet going. These decisions can come at you fast and furious, and this is what happened to Ross. He candidly admitted that his brain literally shut down. He froze for a moment and could not deal with anything.
The second memory also involves freezing, only this time it was the competitors. Swimming the one mile course in Crystal lake meant you were in the water 30-40 minutes. Many of the thinner athletes suffered from hypothermia, and I always had leg cramps. Both times I swam in this event I hugged the shoreline. The one mile course was measured straight across the lake, so those of us who were closer to shore probably went 1.1 miles. There were times when both legs had a cramp, so it was critical that I be able to get my feet on the bottom to work out the cramps. Also, there was at best only a couple boats on the entire swim course which could have come to your rescue. So when I eventually do reach the end of the swim, there strewn in front of me is a body about every 10 feet, shaking from hypothermia. Meet officials, mostly women, were trying to cover them with blankets. This continues right into the tent set up for changing from your swimming suit to your biking clothes. Modesty went out the window as those of us who were still able-bodied changed clothes in front of all the women aid workers.
The third story captures the fanaticism of a triathlete. First some facts. A typical triathlon would consist of lake swim between one half and one mile in length, followed by a bike ride of 30 to 35 miles, followed by a 10K run. The bike course was often a 10 mile loop which you traversed three times. This was the case in my first triathlon. Since I was always one of the last athletes out of the water, that put me behind all the bike riders. As I pulled onto the bike course, I saw what looked like a money clip lying in the middle of the road. I kept on going. As I came around for the second loop, the money clip was still there. I could see this time that there was a wad of bills. Similarly, on the third loop, the money clip still laid in the middle of the road. Everyone was in too much of a hurry to stop and pick up “free” money.
As I look back today, all these “short course” triathlons blur into one another. Between 1980 and 1986 I would say that I participated in 7 to 8 of these short distance triathlons in Michigan. I went to Traverse City at least twice, to the Mark Mellon event at least twice, and to a local Sanford Lake event at least twice. I swam in Lake Ostego a couple of times, but this may have been where Mark Mellon was contested. (Appendix H is an attempt to chronologically list all the running, biking, triathlon, paddleball and racquetball events I entered. I would take these listings with a grain of salt, particularly the date.) There are at least five other triathlons that I know I entered. I call them Glass City, Sylvania, Land-o-Lakes, Davidson, and Purdue. Let me say a little about each.
The Glass City triathlon was held in Greenville, IN, near Fort Wayne. I took Laura along with me, and I remember she was about 15. That would have made it 1982. I had the yellow Vega car that had a habit of sticking in reverse. I remember nothing else about the event; I do have a nice plaque that says I finished 92nd in 4:31:10. I know Laura had to drive the Vega to meet me a couple times during the event.
Sylvania was held at Sylvania, OH. This was a class event with a generous sponsorship by Nautilus or one of the other body building equipment manufacturers. I drove down on Friday for the pre-event activities. I slept in the back of the yellow Vega, but I remembered I had trouble finding a safe place to park. The swim was a short 800 yard affair. I would like to tell you more, but I picked up a tack in my tire about two miles into the biking event. I was not carrying any spare tube or pump, so I learned a valuable lesson.
The Land-o-Lakes was a half distance Ironman event. It was an official Ironman qualifying event, so the field was reasonably high class. It was sponsored by Bud Lite and Nautilus which also guaranteed a class event. Scot and I participated; the exact year was likely 1984 or 1985 because my hips were giving out. I walked about 30% of every one of the 13 miles. The actual location was in north-west Kentucky. It was a fishing haven, and it was very quiet and serene. The turn-around point for the 56 mile bike event was a place called Golden Pond. I still have a nice medal I received as an official finisher. A number of years later I stayed there overnight with Judy. I had been telling her how quiet this place was. Little did I know we would be the ONLY people staying at this hotel that had over 100 rooms. Creepy.
The Davidson event was memorable for two reasons: Laura competed and because it was different. Davidson, MI, in the’70s and ‘80s had a group of sports-minded citizens that supported all sorts of activities. Their triathlon was an example of the lengths that a committee will go to overcome logistical problems. I believe the committee had two restrictions: the swim portion had to be held in a pool and the city could not block off streets for the bike route for long periods of time. Davidson’s solution was to (1) reduce the duration of the event to something like 300 yards swim, 10 mile bike and 4 mile run, (2) hold the bike event first so the bikers were relatively bunched up, and (3) split the field as they finished the biking—half would do the swim next and the run last, and the other half would do the run next and the swim last. The pool was a local, outdoor pool of 25 yards length. They had counters in each of the 6-8 lanes. You likely swam only 4 or 6 laps. I remember some young guys just walked on the bottom of the pool because they could not swim. I suspect some people had to wait their turn to get into the pool, and they lost time accordingly. I wish I could find the T-shirt from this event.
Purdue was a about a one-third Ironman distance. The swim was held at French Lick, a summer amusement park that was closed for the year. The biking was a non-descriptive course and the 9 mile run finished on campus at one of the frat houses. I remember my hips were starting to hurt. I remember that Mark and Marty and Judy were trying to figure out who would do which part of the triathlon if they entered as a team. Finally, I had a watch that I set to ring every 10 minutes, and it was going off all the time during the swim. This was my last triathlon in which I could run.
Paul Watson and I participated in an Ironman clone in Austin, MN, in August, 1982. He finished, but I stopped near the end of the bike event with a flat tire. I also went to another similar event a couple weeks later in Iowa. I failed to even finish the swim. These two attempts at the full Ironman distance left a bad taste in my mouth. As I look back, I was severely handicapping myself by not having a support crew and using a so-so bicycle. After 1986, my hips were shot, and I could no longer run. I decided to add the details of these two Ironman attempts with the next story.
I realized late in writing this book that I had left out the details of my two experiences at the traditional Ironman distance. Both of these attempts were failures. However, I would agree with the saying that we (can) learn more from our failures than our successes. I know this was true for me, both in the first two marathons which I failed to finish in Canton, OH, in 1972 and 1973, and the two Ironman’s in which I entered.
I’m not sure of the exact moment in which I made the decision to do an Ironman. I am sure that I had surveyed all the possible locations. Besides Hawaii, the only two other Ironman events were held in Austin, MN, and Iowa. There might have been one later in FL and possibly one in CA. What I am sure of is that (1) I was in excellent physical condition and (2) the decision was a joint one with Paul Watson.
Paul was very close to my age, and he also was a Dow employee. We had struck up a casual acquaintance at various biking events. I always felt that he was the stronger competitor, particularly in swimming and running, but I was the brains and organizer behind the effort. It was early in 1982 when we identified the Ironman event in Austin, MN, officially known as the Midwest Triathlon Classic, to be held on 28-Aug-1982, as our goal. I do not recall us ever working out together; we each seem to know how to prepare for such a grandiose event.
Both of us had Team Fuji bikes, circa 1980 models. I had an odometer/speedometer/cadence meter mounted on the handlebars that must have been 5”x3”, which was the current size for its time. I know it was very impressive to the other competitors; I don’t think anyone else had anything other than a small gear that counted wheel revolutions and gave a total mileage readout. Both of us had a few marathons under our belt; both of us had done a few century bike events; neither of us had ever swum more than a mile at other triathlons.
Paul’s actual job was a pilot. He, and always a second pilot, flew Dow executives to meetings. Once they discharged their passengers, they had the rest of the day to kill. Paul said most pilots hung around the airport bar. Paul would take his running clothes and get in a good workout. He expressed some guilt at working out on company time, but also admitted that the senior pilot once told him that, had he used his waiting time to study instead of lounging around airports, he would have become a rocket scientist.
We traveled to Austin in Paul’s VW micro-bus. We were not that well organized, and I think we camped out in route. I always thought I was cheap, but Paul put me to shame. Judy’s main memory of what I told her was I couldn’t believe how cheap Paul was. But that fact did not hurt or help my chances of finishing. Looking back, it was egotistical and optimistic on my part to attempt such an event without Judy’s support. (I had completed at least one marathon and all of my century bike events without any family support.) The Austin event was maybe in its second or third year of being held. It was fairly well staffed and run, but the course layout was difficult for the competitors. The swim start was on a little used lake about 80 miles north of race headquarters, which was a school in downtown Austin. I think we had to take our bikes up to the lake the day before, and then we returned to the school to sleep overnight in Paul’s van in the parking lot.
The entry board showed 55 competitors but I later wrote there were only 45 who participated. There was one other guy from MI who was slightly older than Paul and I. None of the remaining competitors stand out in my mind. Most were local, and their bikes were not that unusual. I do remember making a phone call to Judy about 7 pm after all the race preliminaries had been completed. I was excited, and I told Judy that for the first time I thought I could make it.
When we awoke in the morning (Saturday), the weather had turned nasty. It was overcast and windy. I don’t remember what we ate in the morning, but we had to ride a bus the 80 miles to the start. The swim is always the toughest for me; I usually am the last to finish. The course was triangular in shape; the lake was so small that each leg went from one shore line to another. But for me the real problem is not so much that I can’t swim very well as is the fact that I can’t see at all without my glasses. (It took another 5 years before I eventually found prescription goggles.)
So the gun goes off, the field rapidly disappears from view, and I don’t have a clue as to my direction – there was no accompanying boat. I remember when I rounded the buoy after the second leg, I got a leg cramp. Fortunately, the water at that particular point was shallow enough that I could put a foot - down. I struggled to the finish line. I remember it was one of the happiest times in my life – I had finished a 2.4 mile, open-water swim. There were still a half dozen guys (I don’t recall any women starting this event) hanging around at the finish line, eating a sandwich or waiting to use the one porta-john. I felt I needed to take a dump, but after 5 minutes of waiting, I hopped on the bike and headed south.
I was really pumped from finishing the swim, and my initial biking was likely too fast. I do remember I felt so good that I skipped the first aid station at 25 miles. That was a big mistake. The rest of the bike event is a blur. I do know that a head wind picked up for those of us at the back of the pack. I also know I rode the entire event alone; I did pass a few people whom I could have rode with, so that was my second mistake. I also remember I had to stop beside the road to take a dump about the half way point. I was wearing old, smooth soled tennis shoes, and the wet conditions made it difficult for me to climb out of the ditch where I crapped. Then at 90 miles I really began to struggle. We were in a rolling hill terrain, and I often had to get off my bike to walk on the uphill portions. My body and mind were falling apart, and I stopped around the 105 mile point. A sag wagon picked me up and took me back to the school headquarters. I was wasted. A doctor examined me and said it was good that I had stopped – I think my heart was racing. The meet director got me a chocolate shake to drink and I slowly recovered. I went out to Paul’s van and slept for 3-4 hours. I did get up to see Paul finish, but I missed most of the other finishers.
The next morning (Sunday) when I went to retrieve my bike, it had a flat tire. I am convinced that by the 90 mile mark I was so far out of it, both mentally and physically, that I did not notice that my tire was getting flat. Maybe if I had ridden with someone else, they would have noticed. Paul ended up winning the 40+ age division. The other MI entrant quit at the end of the bike portion. A local church held a corn-on-the-cob luncheon, and that is where we met some of the other competitors.
There must have been a brief awards ceremony. I know we left right away and drove straight home. We arrived back in Midland about 9 AM on Monday. I know Paul and I wrote a short article and took it down to the Midland Daily News in time for Monday’s paper.
I was happy for Paul, but I was extremely frustrated, mostly because I felt my bike had betrayed me. I now knew that I could make a 2.4 mile open water swim; I thought I had a good chance of finishing an Ironman. It turns out that the second Ironman I mentioned above was only two or three weeks away. So I made one of those wild decisions to try it. As I stated earlier, I was in superb condition; I didn’t feel any need to give my body an extended rest period. Unfortunately, I have no dates, pictures or entry blanks to jog my memory of this second Ironman. Everything I write from here on is based upon memory.
I was driving a yellow, 1981 Vega wagon at this time. It was ideal to sleep in the back; I could attach the bike to the rear bumper and not disturb my sleeping area. I had finished my first Copper Country 125 mile bike ride at Michigan Tech with this vehicle. I later drove it to Flint, won the Walter Taylor Paddleball tournament, slept in the Vega two nights, and ran the Detroit Free Press marathon – see Chapter 11, Greatest Sport Day of My Life. So I felt I could jump into my Vega and take off for anywhere at very little cost to me.
The Iowa triathlon, which I will call IT, will remain nameless. I have no records or memory of its location. I had read results from the previous year which told me the swim portion was 72 lengths of a 50 yard pool. A pool would have been ideal to calm my open water swimming fears; however, I knew the current year’s event would be outside. There was day-of-event entry allowed, so my last minute plans were OK. In retrospect this loose entry rule should have raised a red flag. When I was the event director for the National One Mile and the Delta Marathon, I noticed that last second entrants were the ones that gave me and the entire event the most problems.
So I loaded the Vega and took off. The word half-cocked comes to mind. The distance to Iowa required an overnight stay, but it was likely in the back of the Vega. What I do remember is that the car battery gave out somewhere on the interstate about 11 pm at a rest area. I waited until a ‘suitable’ guy stopped to give me a jump start. I stopped at the next open gas station and bought a new battery. I remember that I drove around looking for a camp ground – that was my first exposure to how expensive the Jellystone campgrounds are. The next day I drove on to what I thought was the triathlon’s location. Somehow I had gotten the wrong town in my brain. By the time I got to the real town (about 15 miles away) the pre-race meeting has just ended. I gave the meet director my entry fee, got a T-shirt and some maps, and headed for the lake where the swim would be held.
Then the fun really began. My battery died again. Since this was a new battery, it had to be the generator. Somehow I found a small service station, got a new generator installed in a couple hours, and continued on to the lake where the IT was to start. This had to be on a Friday, with the actual event taking place the next day. By the time I arrived it was twilight. The other entrants were there, camped out in their tents. The meet director cooked some hot dogs over an open fire. It was a festive but relaxed atmosphere, more reminiscence of my Y-camp days as opposed to the normal, hectic pre-race atmosphere. Oh yes, the lake was calm with only a hint of small waves rolling in.
The total number of entrants was only 12-15. It was truly an eclectic bunch. They were mostly young, no permanent job and only one besides me that was married. We took a group picture and I recall there was a debate whether it should appear in a triathlon magazine or in Field and Stream.
When we arose Saturday morning, the conditions on the lake had drastically changed. Waves over a foot in height were rolling in. The swim course consisted of starting on the beach, swimming out through these crashing waves to about 100 yards off shore, then swimming about a mile parallel to the beach, turning around, and swimming a mile back. Even a 100 yards off shore the waves were still significant. Since I can breath only on my right side, every time I took a breath, I swallowed part of the lake. My breathing on the return loop would have been away from the waves, but I never made it that far. My overall mental state was one of frustration from having to fight the car for the past 24 hours. I also knew that if I made it to be finish, I would have to hitch a ride, with my bike, back to the lake to pick up my car. So it was easy for me to quit, which is what I did about 20 minutes after the swim started.
The meet director was disappointed that I had to quit; I was not too upset, although in retrospect, this event was the poorest managed of any triathlon I ever entered. I drove straight home and arrived about 2 AM on Sunday morning. Judy remembers she was surprised to see me so soon. I never once made any calls home during this entire episode. A couple weeks later on 7-Nov-82, Scot and I ran the Marine Corps Marathon, an indication of how good my physical condition was at this time of my life. This was the last marathon I did; my time was over 5 hours – see Appendix H for all my events. If you check out the details of the 24 Hr bike event I did in Dave Holmes’ event, also held in Iowa, you will see that Iowa has been my Waterloo.
I had an extensive calendars of other multi-sport events, but my body seemed to be telling me I would not be doing any more running or triathlon events. Still, a voice inside of me said I had one more event left in my body. I could not run, but I could race walk. I knew there was a 16 hour total time limit for the Ironman; this translated into a 14 minute/mile race walking pace. That was not possible for me. So I started thinking about longer events.
The Double Ironman has a 36 hour time limit, a real possibility for me at 17 minute/mile race walk pace and a 17 mph bicycle pace. Swimming 4.8 miles would be another matter. The 224 mile bike part would be the focus of my training. Making the 36 hour cutoff in the Double would depend upon my bike time.
So when I left Dow in March, 1993, the idea of a doing a Double Ironman came rushing back into my plans. I soon made the decision to try it. Actually, my brain and my body were doing a feasibility study. I could see no obstacles which could not be overcome by my 55 year old body with two total hip replacements. After a family meeting (described in the next story), I made the commitment to go for it.top
After a couple months of accelerated training, I finally admitted to Judy that I would like to try to qualify for the Double Ironman Triathlon in Huntsville, AL. She had been wondering what the hell I was going to do with my retirement. We took a 10K walk (on a course which I had already marked out for the 52.4 mile run/walk part). I explained the event, the fact that it would take me over a year to train for it, and that I needed to put the rest of my life on hold. Judy essentially said “Go for it”; maybe is was a relief to finally hear what I was up to. We told no one else about my plans—a personality trait of mine. Neither Judy or I feel the necessity to announce to the world our personal plans. But the COMMITMENT had been made.
I made training my full time job. I trained seven days a week, slowly increasing the time each day from 2-3 hours up to 6-8 hours. The details of my training were complicated and involved.1 I did keep extensive records, but they would be of interest only to another triathlete. Essentially I just did more and more of swimming and biking, all at a low intensity effort.
In August I tried a maximum effort day. After swimming for a couple hours, I took off on what I hoped would be an all day bike ride. I blew a tire at 10 miles. That taught me a valuable lesson about carrying spare tubes—cell phones were not in my life at that time.
1Serious Training for Serious Athletes by Dan Sleamaker.
My most important lesson was going to Huntsville in September, 1993, to see the actual event. Judy went off to Anniston to visit with her Army friend, Ann Davis Koonce. I kept the car and talked my way onto Stephen Johnson’s crew. Stephen was a first time participant from Canada. His only crew member was his wife, so I was very a valuable addition. I saw the preparation that various participants and crews were using. I got a feeling for the international flavor of the event. I saw the effects first hand of the heat on Labor Day in Huntsville. I found that I was able to stay awake for much longer periods of time than I thought possible. Most importantly, I fully appreciated the fact that I was less than half the way to the necessary training to complete a Double.
About two weeks prior to this visit to Huntsville, I decided to take a reading on my fitness level. I planned to go as far as I could in one day. So I got up early in the morning and swam 2+ hours at the Community Center pool. I probably made a little over three miles before the swim period was over at 8 am. Then I drove home and climbed on my bicycle. I was planning on a minimum of 100 miles on the bike before switching to walking. Unfortunately, I blew a tire at 10 miles, and my experiment came to an end. (The tire incident was a valuable lesson, because I was not even carrying a spare tube and pump at the time. After that flat, I always do. Cell phones were not in my life as yet. It turns out that thee is still no cell phone coverage even today in this particular area where I had the flat.)
Many memories stand out from seeing the event first hand. The first memory was watching a German hyperventilate at the start. He just plain got over excited. Here was a guy who had invested a year of his life in training, spent the money to travel from Germany, and then blew it all in the first 20 minutes of the event. A second memory was the bicycle finish. I was standing at the finish line about 2 am, and the first three places had finished the bike part. Ray Shepard, race director, made a call to his bicycle lieutenant, who was still out on the course. He wanted to congratulate him on his course measurement. Although two of the first three guys had their bike odometer calibrated for kilometers, when you made the conversion, the first three finishers had odometer readings of 224.0, 224.2 and 224.2 miles. The response was something like, “Am I good or what.” But the real story here is that these finishers had their equipment so finely calibrated. Such is the story of the Double. No detail is too small to take into consideration.
I soaked up the atmosphere of the event. I could clearly see that most competitors had two bikes. They had not only multiple spare tires and tubes, but spare wheels. Almost all had a van as a support vehicle; some had two support vehicles. Over half of the support vehicles were jury-rigged with boom boxes that could play motivational music as they followed their rider. (This was the one rule modification that is different from a regular Ironman. Since we were on a deserted military installation, and there were less than 40 cyclists spread out over a 20 mile loop, support traffic was not a problem.)
Each crew was organized as to duties. They had a tent set up out on the bicycle course so their rider could stop for refreshments on any of the eleven 20-mile bike loops. Some even had a crew member who would ride along with their man to keep him company—I don’t think there were any women in the 1993 event. The crew also manned a second tent area for the run segment which consisted of eight loops of a 10K course. Sleeping and eating needs of the crew had to be subordinated to the needs of the competitor. The importance of having good crew members was the major lesson I learned in 1993.
The environmental factors of competing in a Double Ironman in September in Alabama on a deserted military installation were also valuable lessons that I learned. It was hotter than normal in 1993, a factor that always bothered me on long bike rides. The open water swim in the Tennessee River was going to be new for me. I saw that each competitor was assigned an “escort canoe” by the local Boy Scouts. I quickly formulated plans that I would place Scot in my escort canoe, and we would work on pre-arranged signals for navigation and feeding times. We rehearsed our plans near the Edenville Dam in the summer of 1994.
I returned home after this eye-opening experience and redoubled my training efforts.
By the fall of 1993 I had been training almost every day for the past five months. I was probably in the best shape of my life. Still, I was not even ready for the normal Ironman distances. I was still involved with my normal family activities. I was still playing paddleball at least twice a week and entering tournaments every month. I also had a major time commitment to the Saginaw Computer Club.
So the first decision I made was to cut out all outside activities. I enjoyed the paddleball, but I was afraid of an injury. I know I didn’t completely shut off paddleball, but I backed way off. It was the computer club activities that I really shut off. I talked with Lynn Kauer, then President, and begged to be released from all my responsibilities as both a Club and Board member. I was not that big a factor in the operation of the Club, but just hearing Lynn tell me to go do my thing took a load off my mind. I am sure that Judy quit bugging me about anything on her to do lists. Essentially I existed solely to train for the Double Ironman. (This status is like many professional and Olympic athletes.)
Next I made plans and lists. I was already keeping detailed records of what I planned to do each day as well as what I actually did each day. I expanded upon these plans to include everything that went in and out of me, how much I slept, and how I felt. If I wasn’t training, I was either sleeping, eating or writing in my exercise diary.
But it is not like I was training a lot or covering long distances. I continued what had been my running philosophy—long, slow distance. My major focus was on swimming, but I was biking and doing the Stairmaster every day. I discovered rowing, and I soon added that to my daily schedule. Judy walked with me nearly every day, but I knew we were not putting in nearly enough miles. I used one other technique in my training, what I have always called “maximum effort” days. Since I never used my Dow vacation days for actual vacations, I had developed a habit of taking off a day every couple months when I would do nothing but train. This training was usually for long runs or bike rides, but I might add swimming or walking. So now that I was training full time, these maximum effort days were like an exam to see what progress I was making.
One essential training tool is “sprints” or more correctly “intervals1.” There is no training technique that will improve your conditioning faster than doing intervals. However, intervals are the quickest way to injury or overuse problems. So I seldom used interval workouts. Running intervals were out since I could no longer run with the hip replacements. Biking intervals were rare, at most once per month. Maybe I did a 20 mile time trial once a month. Swimming intervals were done more frequently, maybe every couple of weeks. I seldom scheduled an interval workout; they usually occurred spontaneously when I felt good.
Two of my routine workouts, Stairmaster and rowing, occurred in the Exercise Room at the Community Center. In 1994 Todd Hunt was a personal trainer who regularly worked there. We became good friends and swapped training tips. Todd’s specialties were biking and climbing. He was my chief supporter and PR agent. The Community Center had begun changing their employee policies soon after, and Todd left to start his own fitness center.
The swimming was always uppermost in my mind. It was always my weakest event of the triathlon. I had developed the habit of swimming with Zoomer flippers. They are shortened flippers which allow you to maintain a 6-beat kick, but gave you additional thrust. Each Sunday I would go with the full-size, scuba flippers to get even more power. I had determined that my swim times with Zoomers was equivalent to wearing a wet suit without any flippers—which would be the mode of swimming the the Double Ironman. (As my back has gotten progressively worse, I switched from the Zoomers to the full size flippers. Now I find that my leg and back muscles are so weak that I can barely swim with the Zoomers. Without any flippers, I would be lucky to make one length of the pool.)
Swimming at the Community Center in the summer of 1994 was an enjoyable experience. There were three times each day in which one could swim for two hours straight, and none of the sessions were particularly crowded. For the first time in my life I achieved what might be called a “swimmer’s nirvana.” You feel like you could swim forever. I define this as a condition where your cardio-pulmonary capacity is strong enough to overcome your drag in the water. I was averaging around 1.5 miles every time I swam, which tended to be every day. My speed was about 40 minutes a mile, not particularly fast, but quick enough such that I could finish the 4.8 mile swim portion in 3:12, well under the 4.5 hour cutoff time.
One day I decided I would swim at all three sessions. I believe the actual swim times would have totaled 7.5 hours if you swam the entire time. I made 10 miles that day, a PR that few non-team swimmers will ever exceed.
On June 30, 1994, I had the pool to myself most of the time. I convinced the lifeguard to stay open a little longer so that I had a continuous, three hour swim. I had the lifeguard sign a piece of paper that she had witnessed me swim 3.75 miles in 2:54, and I sent it in with my entry blank as required proof that I could handle one of the three events. (This is a 48 minute mile; I had planned on 40 minutes.)
I eventually purchased two wet suits. I practiced in them maybe 4 or 5 times to allay any fears that I could swim in them. By July, 1994, the outside pool at Plymouth Park had opened. There was a noon swim period each day, although it only lasted for one hour. This outside pool was 50 yards in length, and it was much colder than the indoor pool. I got to swim with Charlie Moss, Midland’s premier Masters swimmer during these noon sessions. His one piece of advice: don’t start out too fast.
I remember now that the outdoor pool was still open in Central Park next to the Community Center. While used primarily for family and children swimming, it did have a 50 meter lane open for length swimming. This pool was very shallow and with its large surface area, the sun warmed the water too much. Al Gooch, who was then aquatics director at the Community Center, told me they had to bring in cold water from Lake Huron each night to offset the heat generated by the sun each day. So this pool looked like a spot where I could length swim for 3 to 4 hours straight. Unfortunately, the day I picked to make by long swim, some kid crapped in the pool, and we all had to get out. I think we were able to get back in in 30 minutes but the “mood was gone.” I never returned to try again.
I was still coaching in Fleet Feet in the spring of 1994. I had to be careful that I didn’t run too much with the girls. Other than that, I don’t recall any time conflicts with my training. As yet, I had not made any general announcement of what I was training for.
Before we leave this section on hard core training, I need to revisit the concept of how I measure my training efforts. The unit of currency is aerobic points. I have previously mentioned this idea in Chapter 9—Running By The Numbers and in Chapter 11—Aerobic Diary and Greatest Sports Day. Aerobic point chart have been established based upon three things: (1) which activity you are doing, (2) how long you do the activity, and (3) hard intense you do the activity. Dr. Ken Cooper, who is one of my heroes in Chapter 10, has done all the math for you. He has published a number of books with aerobics in the title that categorize all manner of exercise by age, by sex and even my altitude.2 Dr. Cooper then set a standard for what he considered an optimum number of points one should achieve to be considered fit. This standard is 30 aerobic points per week. All the rest is nitpicking: can I get my points all at once or should they be spread out over 7 days? Over 4 days (it doesn’t matter, but you should spread them out to maintain your motivation); it is too hard for me to jog to get my points (then swim or bike); one point swimming is much harder for me to achieve than one point walking (it won’t be when you learn to swim); why do heavier people earn points faster than us skinny people (they have more mass to move).
While Dr. Cooper said that 30 points a week are sufficient, historically I had a pilot light that told my body to achieve a minimum of 60 points per week. When I was into any sort of a training mode, I tried to maintain an average of 100 points per week. If I were training for a marathon, I felt I should be getting 200 to 250 points per week, at least for the final month before the marathon. A little math says that 210 points per week is equivalent to 30 points per day, i.e., getting an entire week’s worth of exercise every day. By the spring of 1994 I was swell beyond even this 30 point level. As the weather warmed up, I added longer and longer bike rides into my schedule. Then Easter arrived and I missed a day at the Community Center—because it was closed.
If you were to look at my exercise log following this Easter Sunday, three prominent items would jump out at you: (1) I never missed a day of exercise until June 4, (2) every day consisted of five different exercises: swim, bike, Stairmaster, row and walk, and (3) the AVERAGE aerobic points for each day was about 60. I was getting two weeks worth of exercise crammed into every single day.
Needless to say, I was sleeping well. My weight had come down only slightly, to about 170. And as we used to say back in my construction days, “I had muscles in my shit.” So what happened on June 4 to cause me to break this string? Read on.
1An interval is a short burst of all out effort, followed by an ‘interval’ of rest. The process is then repeated from 10 to 20 times. The longer the rest interval, the faster you become; the shorter the rest interval, the better conditioned you become. I typically would do twenty 50 yard swims in 75 seconds, i.e., swim 50 yards as fast as you can and then rest until a total of 75 seconds has elapsed. Repeat! As I go stronger, I might lower the time to 70 seconds.
2One aerobic point is defined as the body’s ability to process 7 liters of oxygen/min/kg of body weight. Aren’t you glad that you let Cooper do the math?
My body is now so finely trained that if you fired a starting pistol, I would go 20 miles before my body would respond to a second false start shot. I didn't feel like a needed a day of rest; still I knew for some time that I would essentially miss all training on this date. What follows is an excerpt from the same story in Chapter 9.
June 4, 1994, for me, was a date that will live in infamy. I was the chief timer for the Michigan State High School Class A track finals. While that meant we were the backup watches for an electronic timer, it did involve training and organizing 20+ people. My day would be about 8 hours long, and Judy was the assistant head timer. Leading up to this day, I had been at the peak of my training for a Double Ironman Triathlon. For the previous 2 months I had engaged in a regimen that each day involved: swimming, biking, walking, rowing and Stair Master. The combined effort was over 60 aerobic points per day—equivalent to two weeks of exercise every day. So June 4 would be the first day I had missed my training in over two months.
Also, leading up to this date was the placement of my mother-in-law into an adult foster care home. Things were not going well, and by June 2 it was clear she needed to be moved. On June 3 we heard that she would need moving now. Oh yes, June 4 is our 34th wedding anniversary.
So it was with much trepidation that we arose on that Saturday morning, June 4, not knowing if we would have to move Geneva. We get to the the track about 8 am in order to get our timers organized. As usual I did not have a full 27 compliment of timers—three watches on each of the nine lanes. But I adjusted personnel, and I was not too concerned since we were backups. However, by 8:30 I had not seen the electronic timer guy. Finally he shows up and gets ready to time the first event, the 100 meter dash preliminaries. The first heat is run and I can see there is a timer problem. After the second heat, the meet director, Roger Hansen of Saginaw Valley State University, walks over and says those memorable words, 'Piper, your watches are official; the electronic timer is malfunctioning”. I quickly recruit a couple more timers, put my best timers on fourth and fifth place since that will determine which runners advance, and we continue the meet.
A sidebar to this story occurred at the noon break. Judge Thomas Beale, a running friend of mine, wanders by. I was describing the hectic events of earlier in the day. Tom comes up with those memorable words, “Piper, I think I would have had to take the matter under advisement back in my chambers.” This captured the flavor of the day—you had to think on your feet and act NOW.
So we got past June 4, 1994, without any further problems from Geneva. It should be noted again here that is was during the first half of 1994, when I was ramping up my serious training for the Double Ironman, that Judy and I had the full responsibility of Geneva Officer’s care. The details have already been spelled out in Chapter 8—Commitment Process for Geneva. Judy scrambled on the following Monday and found a great place for Geneva to stay (K&K) We moved her on June 7. Now we had Geneva under 24 hour care, and a tremendous mental load was removed from Judy’s shoulders.
I think that Judy may still have had her Alterations And More business going, but she folded it soon afterwards.
One other factor arose in my plans. I had always assumed I would take Laura along as part of my crew, primarily because of her athletic background. But now we found out that she was pregnant. So Scot and Robyn became my choice for the crew.
It isn’t too long before you have to answer the obvious question: “Can you make it?” This question from others may take the form of “How can you make it that far?” The answer I always give is, “You break the event up into manageable pieces.”
For me the real question was really a series of questions.
1 – Can I ride the bike 224 miles?
2 – Can I ride the bike 224 miles after swimming 4.8 miles?
3 – Can I ride the bike 224 miles after swimming 4.8 miles in the Alabama heat?
4 – Can I ride the bike 224 miles after swimming 4.8 miles, in the heat, and finish within the time limits?
5 – Can I ride the bike 224 miles after swimming 4.8 miles, in the heat, finish within the time limits, and not get sick?
6 – Can I ride the bike 224 miles after swimming 4.8 miles, in the heat, finish within the time limits, not get sick, and still keep eating and drinking and keep my bodily functions working (as well as keeping my weight loss under 3%)?
Interestingly enough, so well conditioned were all 39 starters, that one additional factor raised its head: Can I ride the bike 224 miles … without going out too fast? As stated earlier, one German in 1993 hyperventilated during the start of the swim and had to drop out. All of us had to keep telling ourselves to pace ourselves.
Personally, I was most worried about the swim. I was prepared for the swim to take up to 3.5 hours, but that would put my total swim + bike time near the disqualification time limit. Next, I was really concerned about the heat—my ultimate nemesis on distance events. For me, heat problems equal stomach sickness and inability to eat and drink. That is exactly what did happen at 80 miles into the bike ride—as you will read about later.
So my answer to the above questions took the form of the following strategy: (1) Finish the swim. (2) Keep going on the bike as long as I was under the cutoff time. (3) See how far I can go on the walk. If my walk times exceeded the cutoff times, I was prepared to continue on and be an unofficial finisher—something that the race director had allowed in past years.
The track meet is out of the way. I go back to my heavy training. The next item on my agenda was to qualify for the Double Ironman by riding over 200 miles in the National 24 Hour Challenge. I have previously described that event in Chapter 11—Biking. Once I had rode 228 miles in the 24Hr, my confidence was high that I could actually make the Double Ironman.
I still had not made any general announcement that I was training for a Double Ironman Triathlon. Frankly, I am not sure exactly when that was. I do know that Todd Hunt, the personal trainer at the Community Center, went to bat for me. He put up posters announcing my efforts. He invited people to sign the posters with their well wishes. More than a few of my “friends” questioned my sanity. The poster has signatures of three friends who are now dead. Priceless!
But it was the two newspaper articles that really got the ball rolling. I am pretty sure that I instigated both articles. I probably talked with my contact of the past 15 years at the Midland Daily News, Don Winger, Sports Editor. He sent out Jon McQuinn, one of his assistants to interview me at my home. Although he didn’t include any pictures, Jon did write a “fair and balanced” article of what I told him. Jon’s favorite quote of me was when I said something about Eisenhower didn’t have as detailed plans for D-Day as I had prepared to the Ironman.
I also contacted Bill Laitner at the Free Press. We were still taking the Freep at the time, so I was familiar with Bill’s column. Bill was not part of the Sports Dept. He wrote human interest stories under the title of Body and Mind. My competing in a Double Ironman with two artificial hips was too much for him to resist. An interesting spin-off came from Bill’s article. About a month after I completed the Double Ironman, I received a phone call and letter from one of the officers at the Milan State Prison. It seems that some of the prisoners had seen Laitner’s article, and they wanted me to come speak to them. It was early in December before we scheduled a date. The Milan prison and its inmates were entirely different from my experience at the Jackson prison—see Chapter 11-Great Escape Run. I got so much interest in my talk that I almost didn’t get out before the next head count. I remember I used one of Hyrum Smith’s techniques as a speaker: greet everyone with a handshake at the door when they first arrive.
I still had not received any notification if I would be accepted into the event. Not knowing if I was to be an official entrant helped to keep the lid on my emotions.
The entry blank for the Double Ironman was very detailed and very specific. The cost was $300, but there was no guarantee at all that you would be excepted. I continued to train as if I would be an entrant. I was even considering at what point I should start tapering. Then in the last week in July, I received a phone call. It was from the race director’s daughter. She wanted to know some more specific details about my personal life. When I said something about not being an official entrant, she matter-of-factually said, “Oh, yes, you have been accepted.” The next day the official letter arrived in the mail. I probably slept that night with the letter under my pillow!
A list of 26 entrants was included with the acceptance letter. (Appendix T contains full size copies of the entry blank, acceptance letter, three lists of entrants, newspaper articles, letters I sent, and some photographs.) It turns out Ray Sheppard was still juggling entrants. The final entry list as of Sep 1 has 39 names, one of the larger fields for this event. I am aware of two others who qualified, Epstein and Mr. Flake, but both were injured and could not start. Also, one relay team was accepted; they finished 4th overall.
If you examine all the entry and finish lists, you will find the following breakdown among the 41 qualifiers: 39 started, 2 were injured and could not start; there were 2 female, 39 male qualifiers; there were 14 foreign, 27 USA qualifiers; there were 20 veterans, 21 first timers; there were approximately 9 blue collar, 32 white collar qualifiers.
The numbers, 1 to 42, were assigned in an organized fashion. Number 13 was not used (it had been Epstein’s number). The first 14 numbers were given to the veterans, arranged alphabetically. The remaining numbers were given to the first timers, also arranged alphabetically. My number was 40, which meant there was only two newbies with a last name beyond Piper.
I would like to make a brief comment about some of the memorable qualifiers. My comments are in the order of the impression they made on me.
John Quinn: John was the overall winner in 19:36, a world record. He was awesome. The #1 cyclists from the local bicycle club was assigned to accompany John. John blew the guy away. At the awards ceremony John admitted that he sat down on the curb during the second marathon and was ready to quit. Can you imagine that? He was leading the event, in world record time, and even he felt like quitting. The best triathlete out there had serious doubts about finishing. (I later read that John had competed, and won, a Triple Ironman just one month earlier.
Tina Bischoff: She finished third overall. Tina owned her own cable company in Florida. In 1980, at the age of 22, she was an Olympic qualifier. But Jimmy Carter pulled the USA out of the Moscow Olympics. So Tina looked around at an alternative swimming event. She decides to swim the English Channel. She completes the swim and sets a record. Not the women’s record but the OVERALL world’s record for fastest swim time. Tina, it turns out, had recently competed in a Triple Ironman along with Quinn. Only Tina fell asleep on the 336 mile bike ride and crashed.
Doty Burkey: She ran a nutrition store. Doty was 50 but she looked 30.
Martin Feijen: Martin was seeded #2 based upon past performances, but he failed to finish. Martin had won this event a couple years earlier. At the awards dinner he said he was the director of a similar triathlon in the Netherlands. He praised Ray and Nancy Sheppard for their excellent event.
C. J. Ong: C.J. Claimed to be a philosopher. He walked around in a T-shirt that said, “That which does not kill me makes be stronger.” Nietzsche He also had three beautiful bicycles.
Steve Bozeman: Steve had finished 6 of the 8 previous Double Ironman's. More importantly, he is a Marine. And he brings his marine buddies to run with him. Steve gave me the highest praise I have ever receive after I finished. “God, you’ve got guts.”
Peter Dannenberg: Peter was the German who had hyperventilated during the swim in 1993. He came back in 1994 to finish in 31:30.
Robert Abate: Richard was a fireman, and he recruited the nearby Huntsville fire station to give him a fire engine escort during his final run to the finish line.
Stephen Johnson: I crewed for Stephen in 1993. He returned for his second Double Ironman and cut over 5 hours off his 1993 finish time. I noticed that Stephen won the event in 1996 with a time about 3 hours faster than his 1994 finish.
Jimmy Brazil: Jimmy was a personal trainer, with a lot of emphasis on the “personal.” He developed this huge blister on his toe during the running segment. I noticed he began to emulate my race walk style in order to finish.
Herbert Lang: Herbert was a minister. He started out the event at age 58 and finished at 59. Herbert was standing next to me when he gave the opening prayer that I mention in the next section.
Will Shipley: Will had done 6 previous Double Ironman and had finished 4, but only barely. He was behind me for most of the event, but passed me about 5 miles from the finish. He actually challenged me to race to the finish line, but Judy kept me under a tight leash.
Rick Fitzgerald: Rick was the youngest finisher, and his marathon times were actually slower than mine. The next year Shepherd lowered the finish cutoff time for entrants Rick’s age. I figured that could be called Rick’s Rule. There was one other entrant who was also Rick’s age who had finished he previous two Double Ironman's. I saw him when he had to drop out, and he was really pissed.
Ted Epstein: Ted is a well known biker who had competed in RAAM. He was struck by a car just weeks before the Huntsville event, so he could not compete. I was disappointed because I had heard of Ted, and I wanted to ask him questions about his RAAM experience. It turned out that Ted’s absence allowed me to claim Ted’s bike accompanist, Don Wallace, to ride with me. Don had a PhD in Civil Engineering, and he taught at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. We had a lot in common to talk about during the 224 mile ride. (Don’t tell Don I said this but I decided my Masters in Chemical Engineering from the University of Michigan plus my years of experience at Dow Chemical gave me an edge over his PhD in Civil Engineering from the University of Michigan.)
The Flake: I never was able to determine this guy’s actual name, so I will call him Flake. He also had been severely injured by a car accident a few weeks before the event. Only Flake made a showing at Huntsville, albeit on crutches. Flake had this story about his bike accident which had occurred in Europe. He called it an International Accident: "I was an American riding a French bike who was struck by a German driving a Swedish car in Belgium." Flake told another story about one of his experiences at another triathlon. He arrived with no crew, so he “acquired” this doubly flake guy to help him. He gives the guy $100 to buy supplies for the event. The guy is gone for the longest time, and when he did return he had bought chips, pretzels, pizza and beer plus some Playboy magazines.
Judy was the crew chief. We all agreed I would stop only when she said so. This is tacit acknowledgment that I would not be in any shape to make rational decisions. Robyn would be the official timer and photographer. Scot would be the gofer. We had two vehicles, my van and Scot’s car. The van would follow me during the entire bike event. Usually Judy would drive the van.
Judy and I made the trip to Huntsville on Friday. We took in the sights and sounds of the pre-event festivities. I was interviewed on the local TV station, and we attended a pre-event party at some mansion. We had scouted out the swim starting area on the Tennessee River, and we had driven the bike course on the Huntsville Arsenal. Scot and Robyn did not arrive until Saturday. We all slept in our motel room on Saturday night. Sunday night we had no motel room because we were planning on being out on the course. We got another room for Monday night to crash in.
Our van was a 1993 Lumina. It was packed to the gills. I had placed my stuff in alphabetically coded bags depending upon what part of the event it would be needed. I think I went from A up to Q. I neglected to provide a key to the rest of the crew as to what was in each bag. I think we took all the seats out except for the driver’s and front passenger. I had two bikes, at least two coolers, many bags of food, a tent, a cot, and a boom box fastened on the front bumper.
Don Wallace, pictured on the left, became one of he Piper crew under mysterious circumstances. As I stated above, Don was scheduled to crew of Ted Epstein, but Ted dropped out after a serious bike injury. Don was a finisher in 1993—although I don’t recall seeing him at the time. Although the race organizers clearly state on the entry blank that they will not provide any crew support, they do get locals like Don who want to volunteer. Following my acceptance letter from Sheppard, I had received a second letter from Candy, who said she was in charge of crews. I must have given her some indication that I would like to have a person to ride with me. Scot was available to ride, but I wanted to hold him in reserve.
Mentally and physically, I was ready to go on Sunday at 7:00 am.
4.8 Mi. Swim, 224 Mi. Bike, 52.4 Mi. Walk
Huntsville was on different time schedule (like Indiana); the 7 am starting time was more like 8 am for the rest of the Eastern Time Zone. We, of course, were up much earlier to get some breakfast and handle the myriad of details on race day morning.
I remembered Peter’s hyperventilation problems at the start of 1993, so I was trying to keep calm as race director Ray Sheppard marks #40 on my arm and thigh—that is to help identify the body! It helped me that there were no crowds, no music playing and no hubbub around the starting location.
My crew was in fine working order. They hardly complained at all at having to sort through 16+ bags of clothing, food and bicycle parts in order to find some last minute item which I requested. The other crews were also models of efficiency.
What was somewhat disorganized were the Boy Scouts. There was one canoe assigned to each of the 39 competitors, with two 14 year old Scouts for each canoe. My assigned canoe was damaged, so Scot took charge and commandeered a new canoe. Scot also rode in the canoe—something we had planned on all along. It turns out the other half of my canoe crew was the scout leader, so I ended up with the best canoe crew of the lot.
As the starting time approached the canoes all formed up out in the river—as you can see from the accompanying photo. The rest of us had a moment of quiet to contemplate the start. Then Herb Lang, who was standing next to me, offered a prayer. It was from Isiah 40:13, often used in connection with sporting events. Only this time the words would come back to haunt me:
“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings as eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.”
Check back with me around mile 45 of the run/walk for the significance of the last line.
A word of background information is in order here. One of Judy’s last words to me was the question, “Seriously, when do you think you will finish the swim?” I answered that three hours was my best estimate, and that was what I expected based upon my pool swim times. If she said anything else, I don’t remember.
Some of the eager-beavers swam out to the middle of the Tennessee River to tread water behind an imaginary starting line. I stood in the water near the shore to save my energy. I don’t remember what kind of starting device was used, and apparently neither did Robyn. She forgot to start her stopwatch! The field quickly separated into their own pace, and each canoe found their swimmer. Strangely, I was not the last swimmer, and I could always see a couple other swimmers. (I am now using prescription lens goggles.) I had a pre-arranged signal with Scot to blow a whistle every 20 minutes and I would swim over to the canoe to get something to eat from him. I swam strong and the time passed quickly. The balloon tied to my canoe made it easy for me to keep track of Scot. I wore a yellow swim cap on purpose so I stood out from the other competitors who had on red swim caps.
By the second whistle stop (40 minutes) we were exactly under a bridge. I had figured it would take me 60 minutes to reach this spot, so I was swimming 50% faster than planned. What apparently was happening was that the river current was much faster than I planned. By the fourth whistle stop Scot offered me some chocolate chip cookies, something my brain had completely forgotten about. While most of the swimmers clung near the shore—the Tennessee River was over a quarter mile wide—I wandered all over the place. Scot said later that when he realized I was out in mid-stream he left me alone because I was doing so well. Besides feedback from Scot, I could tell I was getting near the finish line when I started tasting gasoline in the water from the boat dock. I don’t remember being particularly tired, but that may have just been the adrenalin flowing in my body.
The picture on the left shows me coming out of the water with a swim time of 1:57:53. This is almost one hour, or 50% faster than I planned—exactly what I had noticed at the second check point. I recall making a comment to Ray Sheppard that, if I finished in two hours, there would be a world’s record set today.
The swim finish was the highlight of the Double Ironman for Judy. She has always been worried about my swimming, or lack of swimming, abilities. At every previous triathlon I had entered, when Judy saw me come out of the water, the event was over in her mind. My crew was able to follow my progress during the swim because a road ran near the river. Once she could see I was rolling in the swim, she drove on to the swim-bike transition area. The lead swimmer came in after one hour—everyone was making great time in the swim. Another finisher exited the water every 4 to 5 minutes. By 1:50 much of the field had finished. Judy was getting worried, knowing that I had told her three hours. About that time Robyn said she thought she saw me. Judy said no way. But Robyn said she could see the balloon on Scot’s canoe. Judy has the biggest emotional high of the entire event when she saw I was finishing the swim.
Apparently many other guys had not planned on finishing the swim so fast. At least two other crews were not even present in the transition area when their man finished. So, even though I was the last one out of the water, I was not the last one to ride out of the transition area. Don Wallace met up with me and we began the bike event together, a partnership that would last 224 miles and over 17 hours. You can see from the picture on the right, I rode near the right side of the road with Don in the middle. Don gave up trying to get me to ride in the middle of the road; I told him that was where I was used to riding on Michigan roads.
The bike course was a 20 mile loop which we traversed 10 times. There was a check point on the loop where event officials monitored our progress. There also was a shady area where most entrants had set up a crew tent. The course was just like the photo: no traffic, flat and no shade. The loop did have one steep hill of about a quarter of a mile. I rode up this hill on the first and last loop, but I walked part way up on the other 8 loops. That was based upon my previous rides at the Copper Country 125—see Chapter 11-Biking. I knew that my legs would eventually pay the price if I pushed it on the hills.
The biking is the make-or-break event. One three of the dropouts, #12, did so on the bike portion. The heat is relentless. Too fast a pace can catch up with you on the run segment. The wind was significant, but not a game-changer. When I look back after the event, I wish I had owned a better bicycle. (I did buy a 1994 model Trek a month after the Double Ironman. It was a symbolic present to myself for finishing.) A better bike might have cut an hour off my total bike time. But that is just speculation. I did switch to my lighter bicycle after the sun went down and the wind had died down. That bike switch seemed to make a significant difference.
But I almost didn’t make it that far. About 120 miles into the bike event I was sick. I stopped at the crew tent and laid down. My problem was the Piper version of heat exhaustion. I told Judy I wasn’t sure if I could go on. However, both Judy and I had seen me in this state before. While I looked and felt terrible, I knew what was my problem was. I sent out for a chocolate shake, but it was a simple butterscotch pudding that revived my system. I know Don Wallace thought I was done for, and he said as much later. Judy earned her pay as crew chief. She told me we had not come this far to quit now; she willed me to continue on. I was cold now, and I put on my Gortex sweat outfit. I think I made the bike switch shortly after my illness bout.
Riding at night on the Redstone Arsenal can best be described as surreal—whatever that means. I had the van behind me to help light the road. There was very little traffic after 1 am because all but two or three other competitors had finished the bike portion. I was still ahead of Will Shipley. There were cows in the field, so their mooing added to the night time sounds. Fog was present on much of the course, further adding to this crazy scene. I had shut off the music from the boom box. The final check point on the course loop was a welcome sight, but it turns out I still had seven miles to ride into Huntsville proper and Grissom High School. Now I had real traffic to content with. About a half mile from the finish I stopped and had Judy turn on our boom box to play the University of Michigan fight song. My bike helmet had been specially painted to replicate the U/M football helmets. The race officials appreciated this gesture.
The time was about 4 am when I finished the bike, then in 35th place out of 36 left in the field from the 39 starters. I took a quick shower while Judy straightened up the van. Scot and Robyn slept in their sleeping bag, and Don Wallace went home. The run/walk course had been changed from 8 loops of a 10K distance in 1993 to 26 loops of a 2 mile loop for the 1994 event. I made a couple loops on my own while Judy was resting . I was remarkably alert and flexible at the time, and I was moving at better than my planned 17 min/mile race walk pace. I adopted a stretching routine wherein I touched my toes for 10 seconds at each turn around point. This would pay dividends later.
The run/walk portion of the event was traversing a two mile loop 26 times. You turned in a numbered card with each loop so race officials could monitor your progress. I remember very little details of the walk. Judy covered at least 32 miles with me and maybe as much as 42. Our walking practice paid off in her walking abilities. Robyn walked a couple loops to give Judy a break. Heat was always a problem for me, so we made use of a cold towel around my neck. Don Wallace came back to walk with me for the second marathon. By mile 45 my body’s gyroscope was about gone, so each time I bent over to touch my toes, he had to hold on the the back of my shorts to keep me from falling over. Herb Lang’s words of ‘they shall walk and not faint’ came back to me, in spades. I remember Don describing his second marathon from the previous year. He said his digestive system had completely shut down, and he could take in nothing to eat or drink for the last 7 to 8 hours.
Every 2 mile loop I passed all the other competitors going in the opposite direction—with the exception of the top three who had already finished. There was much camaraderie among the runners and their crew. Most of the competitors were still running, albeit at a 9 to 10 min/mile pace. Each runner had at least one crew member with them, and some had 3 or 4. The actual running course was on the sidewalk along one of the main thoroughfares. You had to watch out for cars at each intersection, but that was your crew’s function. The traffic was light this Labor Day morning.
I remember only a couple specifics from the walk. Shortly after finishing the first marathon, I decided to lay down to rest. I actually fell asleep for a few minutes. When I awoke, I almost didn’t get up. I was stiff and, of course, very tired. Judy and I quickly made a decision that I could not afford to lay down again. Then around 29 hours into the event, which would make it noon on Labor Day, many of the competitors were finishing. The noise and the enthusiasm on the course notable picked up. Everyone was high-fiving everyone else, at least figuratively. Abate even had the local fire department follow him to the finish line, siren blaring. Needless to say, I also got swept up in the celebrations. But then these guys all finished and I was left nearly alone with six more hours of walking to go. I was sapped of energy that I couldn’t afford to loose. Director Sheppard asked me around this time if and when I thought I was going to finish. I was still feeling pretty good, and I told him yes I was going to finish in another 5 hours. That would have made by total time 34.5 hours. In reality I was fading fast. Judy and I decided to slow down—but not stop—so as to assure that I would finish period. Will Shipley passed me in the last hour, something I normally would resist happening. But my crew chief kept my emotions in check. (As I have reflected back in later years, the question naturally arises on whether I could have made it under the 36 hour cutoff time if I had had to swim the additional hour that I projected? Judy says that I WOULD NOT have made it. I think it would have been close. I would have been tireder from the swim, but I did purposely slow down by at least a half an hour in the final marathon. Also, when you subtract the time saved by not having to do 336 turnarounds in the pool, I might have gained another 15 minutes.)
My actual finish time was 35 hours, 38 min and 17 seconds. Director Ray Sheppard met me as I finished, shook my hand and uttered those memorable words, “do your orthopedic surgeons know what you are up to?” The answer is yes, and you can see Dr Brems’ letter in Appendix T.
The official cutoff time was 7 pm on Labor Day. That also was the time the awards ceremony was scheduled to start. (In previous years Sheppard had allowed people to remain on the course after the cutoff time. I don’t think Sheppard was going to do that in 1994. In the next year Sheppard lowered the official finish time for some of the younger participants.) When I finished at 6:37 pm, I had a couple decisions to make. The first one was how bad I wanted to make the start of the awards ceremony. I felt good, but I did want to take a shower. Of more immediate concern was the option of taking one or two liters of replacement fluid. I had noticed that many of the earlier finishers were in the hospital area getting an IV. I declined to do this, not because of the time crunch, but because I did not want to overly upset Judy and the rest of my crew. Officially, I only lost two pounds in body weight.
Although my body was cold, I was able to walk around, speak and generally enjoy the awards ceremony. Director Ray Sheppard announced each finisher, in reverse order, presented us with a trophy (all the trophies were the same size), and said a few words about each of us. That is when I heard the words mentioned at the start of this chapter: “Our 36th and final finisher, in a time of 35 hours, 38 minutes and 17 seconds, competing with three artificial joints, Larry Piper of Midland, Michigan.” I received a hearty but sincere round of applause. We lined up for a group photo of the finishers. The #2 guy—who had dropped out—praised Sheppard for a fine event. The #1 finisher, John Quinn, told of how the spectators were so helpful in getting him going again after he effectively had said “I quit” about the 45 mile mark in the run segment. In a follow-up newspaper article, Tina Bischoff was quoted as saying she was sick to her stomach and had to stop for 20 minutes. It helped me to hear that even the #1 , #2 and #3 competitors struggled just like I did to finished the event. (The newspaper also said that Quinn had promised Nancy Sheppard a world’s record, so the thought of him stopping was doubly hard for him. Nancy was quoted as saying that historically, 20 to 40% of the entrants dropped out.)
All 36 finishers received the identical award, a nice 34” trophy that had our name on it. I spent $88 on merchandise as well as four free T-shirts we received. I ordered a video tape (VHS) of the event for about $20; I have not watched it in 10 years.
After the awards ceremony, I got some advice from Don Wallace on what is was like when your friends know you are a Double Ironman finisher. I thanked Don again for all his support, and I promised to write. Scot, Robyn, Judy and I returned to our motel room for some shuteye. Judy and I had been up for 41 hours straight with a couple 10 minute naps. Scot and Robyn did get a four hour snooze early on Monday morning. I was not overly tired, but I also did not have any trouble getting to sleep.
After four hours of sleeping, I awoke. My mind was wired, so I went down to the hotel lobby and wrote my memories of the event for the next three hours. (I have not found these notes as I write this page.) By then some of the competitors who had an early flight out of Huntsville were stirring. It was about 6 am when I met the marine, Steve Bozeman, as he checked out. He uttered the ultimate compliment to me: “God, you’ve got guts.” I did get to talk briefly with a couple other competitors; we generally spent the time congratulating one another.
Scot and Robyn needed to get back to Michigan, so they left soon after they woke up. Judy and I, on the other hand were not in any hurry to rush home. I got on a phone in the lobby and called Don Winger, Sports Editor at the Midland Daily News. He was expecting some follow-up from me if I finished the event. Don was a little hesitant when I told him who I was. The reason I found out later was that Don knew I had just been inducted into the 1994 class of the Midland County Sports Hall of Fame. When I got home, Jon McQuinn came out to my home to write a follow-up article in the sports page. Before we left Huntsville, I went down to the local newspaper office and bought a copy of the paper for the next couple days and had them shipped to Midland.
I sent off a letter to two of my past ministers, Ralph Steele and John Rawlings, as well as three of my orthopedic doctors, Douglas McKeag, Les Borden and John Brems. The biggest change in my life when I got home was the notification that I had been inducted into the Midland County Sports Hall of Fame. While technically the nomination had been submitted by Dan Latal for my work with Fleet Feet, my court championships at the Community Center and now my Double Ironman finish were also mentioned. I had about a month to prepare an acceptance speech and find someone to introduce me. Since Dan Latal was not available, I quickly selected Don Kasper. We had a close relationship that had developed over 10+ years of working with Fleet Feet as well as both being regulars at the Community Center. He made another of the famous quotes of congratulations, “Piper, I knew if it came down to heart and determination for you to finish, you would be OK.”
Then from left field I got a phone call from Debra Henning, a worker at the Milan prison. They had a personal motivation class that used one of Og Mandino’s books as a text. The prisoners had read Bill Laitner’s article in the Freep about me, and they wanted to hear more. That was a positive experience for me, particularly when contrasted to the times I ran a 10K inside the Jackson prison.
One of my swimming friends was Bud Carpenter. I knew him when we both worked at Dow, but now his job was the PR person for the Chamber of Commerce. Bud became my unofficial PR agent. He never tired of telling people what I had done. I appreciated his enthusiasm, but he never could get the details straight as to the distances. Bud was an example of the saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
The Double Ironman in Huntsville continued on for three more years. Stephen Johnson actually won the event in 1996. Following the 1997 event, the Redstone Arsenal declined to let Sheppard use their base for the bike event. I got a letter from Sheppard that said besides the Arsenal change, no sponsors were forthcoming. I think Ray and Nancy were also worn out after hosting the Huntsville event for 13 years. To my understanding there has never been another Double run within the United States.
The final post event comment would be what you are reading right now. I had all these notes, photographs, and memories of the event, but I never could seem to get a complete description on paper. I have found the notes which I put together for the Dec 7, 1994, talk at Milan prison. That was the most complete compilation of facts surrounding the Double Ironman which I ever did. I did write some cursory notes on my web site about 10 years ago, but there was more missing than what was written. I also put together a 56 item slide show about three years ago.