Tom Aylward’s two years of training for the 2011 Ford Ironman Coeur d’Alene has always been a journey fueled in part by grief.
When the Spirit Lake man’s wife died in May 2008, he became depressed and ate and drank too much. He ballooned to 319 pounds before grabbing onto the idea of completing Ironman to help him climb out of that dark hole.
He lost 80 pounds, began eating healthier foods and learned to swim, bike and run. He completed numerous shorter triathlons and three half-marathons. He developed a support network of friends and training partners.
On Sunday, the 62-year-old will toe the start line on Coeur d’Alene’s City Beach with about 2,700 other competitors, ranging from first-timers to professional athletes from all over the world. They’ll plunge into the water at 7 a.m. and will have until midnight to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles.
The winner is likely to finish in about 8½ hours, but downtown Coeur d’Alene will remain a noisy party until the final competitor crosses the line. Some 3,600 volunteers will join Ironman staff to make the Coeur d’Alene race come together for the ninth year.
Friends have told Aylward that during the 17 hours of the race, he will feel his late wife’s spirit guiding him. Aylward thinks that may be true; as race day has drawn closer, Donna has been on his mind.
“I wanted to run for somebody,” he said. “I wanted somebody that close waiting for me at the end.”
The friends he’s acquired during two years of race preparation will do their best to fill that gap. “Everybody loves you,” Aylward’s trainer, Shawn Burke, told him recently. “Everybody wants to see you succeed.”
‘Anything is possible’
Over the past couple of weeks, Burke has kept a closer rein on his clients. With all the athletes who have flooded into town in recent weeks, Burke has scheduled his clients’ workouts so they encounter as few others as possible because he doesn’t want them comparing themselves and losing focus.
On Thursday, Aylward, Burke and training partner J.T. Patterson, of Hayden, were second, third and fourth in line to register and pick up race packets. They walked through Ironman Village, a mass of tents in City Park where athletes can buy and rent everything from wetsuits to bikes. They shopped at the Ironman store, filled with clothing, mugs, license plate holders, stickers, water bottles, visors and numerous other items adorned with the race logo.
Aylward bought a T-shirt that has every competitors’ name, in tiny print, making up the Ironman logo. Across the bottom of the shirt it says, “Anything is possible.”
“That’s the motto for this year,” Aylward said.
The trio went to Burke’s nearby office and spread out materials to pack their bags for race day. Five bags divide the gear for the start, transition zones and halfway points on the bike and run, where athletes can stash emergency food, clothing or gear. Burke, a 17-time Ironman finisher, taught them tricks to make everything go smoothly, such as perfectly rolling socks or arm warmers so they’ll slip easily onto a wet body.
“Believe me, the less stress you have, the less you have to worry about,” Burke said.
Into his bag for the marathon halfway point, Aylward crammed food and energy gels, but also an air cast, in case his injured left foot acts up.
The nerve irritation in his foot has never completely disappeared, and Aylward accepts that he’ll likely be running in pain. Ten days ago, he had two final cortisone injections to help get him through the race. On Tuesday and Thursday, he had last-minute massages to ease cramps in his left calf.
Aylward stuffed his race belt with salt and electrolyte tablets and took in advice about how often to drink and eat. Do not pass up aid stations, Burke said. “It’s like a pit stop. It’s like the Indianapolis 500.”
When the crowd is screaming, Burke said, “I want you to absorb the crowd as energy. I want you to think of thousands of people rooting for you. I want you to suck that in as, ‘This is why I’m doing this.’ ”
‘A life-changing experience’
In the last mile of the marathon, Burke told them, the race is mostly over and you can begin to savor the accomplishment. “When you come down that finishers’ chute,” he said, “all the hours of misery will be gone. It will be the most electrifying moment of your life. It will be a life-changing experience.”
Ironman already has created a new lifestyle for Aylward, who is signed up for shorter triathlons and races throughout the summer and fall. He doubts he’ll do Ironman again, but can’t predict how he’ll feel when he crosses the finish line. The sign-up for 2012 opens Monday.
These final weeks have taken him through a roller coaster of emotions, alternating between wishing the race were over to wanting another month to train. Within the past week, however, he has become focused – and nervous.
Aylward is expecting to finish between 11 p.m. and midnight.
“In my heart, I say the real athlete is the guy that finishes in 17 hours,” said Race Director Mac Cavasar, himself a four-time finisher. “He’s been out there longer.”
All along the way, athletes will be buoyed by the crowd – a screaming throng holding signs and rooting for mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and friends.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world. I just think it’s so inspirational,” said Sue Kerton of England, who’s here to watch her daughter, Penny Hood of Spokane Valley, compete. “If I was 30 years younger, I’d be doing it myself. You can’t help but get excited watching it. You just want to cheer them on.”
The louder the better, as far as Aylward is concerned. In all the shorter races he’s done, he knows the lift he gets from people rooting for him. He said he can’t wait to get to the finish line and hug everyone who has helped him along his path.
“I need cheerleaders out there, cheerleaders on the run. Cheerleaders help,” Aylward said.
Then he smiled.