Doing Ironman, Iraq-style

When Craig Sylvester signed up for the Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene race last year, he never thought he would participate in it from Iraq.

While 2,200 competitors will dive into the cool waters of Lake Coeur d’Alene this Sunday, Sylvester, 37, will swim laps in Saddam Hussein’s former palace pool, which is 90 degrees.

As cyclists and runners pour onto the roads, Sylvester will ride his computerized stationary bike for five hours, then run 17 laps around Baghdad’s razor wire-encased Green Zone, wary of heat stroke and increasingly common mortar attacks.

“Part of (my motivation) is therapy, a way for me to find peace in the craziness over here,” Sylvester said by phone from Iraq. The Seattle resident and Navy salvage diver was shipped to Iraq in January shortly after signing up for his fourth Ironman triathlon, his second in Coeur d’Alene.

“The other piece is there are soldiers and young kids out there doing jobs much tougher than what I am doing,” said Sylvester, a father of two young children who initially went to Iraq to do engineering work. “In some ways this is my attempt to give back to them and show them what they are doing really means something.”

Sylvester now manages personal security for officials throughout Baghdad, a job that forces him to confront the difficulties of daily life outside the gated area.

Inside the heavily guarded government section of Baghdad that makes up the Green Zone, Sylvester plays down the danger. He calls the location a “unique training environment.” He runs a dusty mile-and-a-half loop on a dirt road along the Tigris River, because even the guard towers don’t make him feel safe in some areas of the compound.

During his daily two-hour break, Sylvester trains in his 9-by-20-foot sheet metal trailer, pedaling on a computerized bike to the sounds of Coldplay and Christian rock. Originally from West Virginia, he is growing accustomed to the bombings and speaks about it like a summer thunderstorm.

“There’s very little you can do besides hope and pray, so sometimes I just turn the music up and keep riding,” he said.

Sylvester has recruited a colleague to compete in the triathlon with him, despite heat expected to reach 113 degrees Sunday.

“I’m surprised at how much the human body adapts,” he said, adding he’ll drink 5 gallons of water during the race. “I feel like a lab rat, but I just learned overall if you provide the right balance of hydration and fuel you can manage the heat.”

Hussein’s pool, part of what is now the American Embassy, will serve as the start. Sylvester will swim 2.4 miles worth of laps before jumping on his bike next to the pool, then dashing off down the footpath that functions as his track. A television will show him the Coeur d’Alene cycling course, and other video screens will play previous Ironman competitions.

He could finish before Coeur d’Alene’s racers begin.

“I think it’s really cool, just amazing,” said Paul Huddle, 44, his coach during the 2003 Coeur d’Alene race and a bike course coordinator for this year’s competition. “It allows him to maintain touch with the normal life he lived up until now. He loves this race, was hoping to do it and wanted to keep his goal intact.”

The company that hosts the event, North America Sports Inc., does not officially endorse the Iraq race. But Ironman spokeswoman Helen Manning will receive e-mail updates about Sylvester’s progress throughout the race.

Former military officials have returned from Iraq and competed in the race, but Sylvester will be the first to participate while overseas.

“We won’t solicit people to do it,” Manning said, “but we support him and others like him doing something outside of their regular duties.”

While the crowds wave handmade signs of support and scream encouragement from the sidelines in North Idaho, Sylvester, who is stationed in Iraq for another six months, is hoping for a quiet day.

And he’s bracing for more than sore calves and chapped thighs. “If things are not quiet, then we will just take the action we need to take and keep going,” he said. “It’s a matter of personal survival.”


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