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Thursday, January 18, 2007
 

By By Kathryn Bertine
Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: Just how hard is it to make the U.S. Olympic team? Does it require a lifetime of training and devotion? Would an average person with an athletic background have any shot at all?

E-ticket will find out the answers over the next two years. We've tapped Kathryn Bertine, a former ice skater, professional triathlete and accomplished author, to see whether she can somehow find her way to Beijing in 2008. In what sport? Well, that's what she's trying to find out.

Since I've been a professional triathlete for the past two years, I couldn't blame you for wondering, "Well, why don't you pursue that sport to get into the Olympics, dumb ass?" Here's the conundrum: The Olympic distance in triathlon is a .9-mile swim, a 24.8-mile draft-legal bike leg and a 6.2-mile run. The distance I'm most proficient in is the Half Ironman, which is double the Olympic distances — more geared toward endurance than speed, and with a non-drafting bike leg. Sadly, the Half Ironman is not an Olympic event. But cycling is, and it's my strongest discipline of triathlon. Oddly enough, my figure skating background made me a decent cyclist. The leg muscles used for jumping and landing on the ice are the same muscles used to push down and pull up on the pedals. And the spandex is pretty much the same, minus the sequins. So until Iceycling becomes an Olympic sport, road cycling is my best shot. Unfortunately, "best" does not mean "easy."

For women, there is the 90-mile race and the 25-mile time trial in road cycling. There will be Olympic trials in these two events (whereas some sports use a hand-selection procedure to choose an Olympic team), and to get to the trials I will need to be a Category 1 cyclist (think black-belt level) with enough points to qualify.

So that will be my goal over the next 18 months. But before focusing strictly on road cycling, I realized I had one itch left to scratch, one last triathlon left in my pre-Olympic career.

Get some cocoa — it's story time.

October 2006
Most people associate Hawaii with vacations, honeymoons and surfing. These people are normal. I, representing the terminally abnormal, have come to Kailua-Kona to race in the Ironman World Championship. Composed of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike leg and a 26.2-mile run, this race began 27 years ago when two wackos in California sat around arguing which sport was harder — a long-distance swim, a century bike ride or a marathon. One of these fellows, likely inebriated, suggested stringing all three sports together to see whether such an event would be possible to complete. Soon enough, type-A wackletes everywhere began crawling out of the endurance woodwork. Since then, triathlons have multiplied like mutant genes. Now there are four triathlon distances (one of which is an Olympic sport), with two kinds to choose from (road and off-road disciplines), and competitors range from younger than 10 to older than dirt.

More ...

Don't miss out on Kathryn Bertine's series on her efforts to become an Olympian. So far, she's explored pentathlon, team handball and track cycling. Check out earlier columns:
PARTS: 1 | 2 | 3

The Hawaii Ironman is the holy grail of long-distance racing. To be part of the 1,500-person field, one must first qualify at one of a group of highly competitive Iron races or win one of the 50 coveted lottery spots. In other words, getting to Hawaii is difficult. I should know. I barely made it myself.

Background info: In 1998, I was on tour with a figure skating company in South America. (Yes, seriously. I couldn't make that up if I tried.) I was walking through Mar del Plata, Argentina, one day and a herd of cyclists wearing bathing suits flew past me. I was intrigued. When I got back to the States and started grad school in Tucson, I joined the University of Arizona triathlon team. Instantly, I was hooked. I trained and raced and improved and turned pro. Fast-forward eight years.

Before embarking on my ESPN Olympic quest, I competed in 10 triathlons during 2006. One of them qualified me for the Hawaii Ironman. This was both a blessing and a curse, as it would be my second Ironman in six weeks, and the human body usually does not tolerate such behavior. I "qualified" at Ironman Canada, where I actually had the worst race of my career. But I managed to snag a roll-down spot from one of the elite racers who decided to pass on Hawaii. After trying to qualify for six years, I happily accepted the gift.

While I love the Ironman distance, my body rebels during any race when the temperature surpasses 85 degrees. Perhaps this is a symptom of growing up in ice rinks, but extreme heat simply melts my innards. The tricky part of long-distance triathlons is that one has to eat on the bike to fuel up for the run. My body loves to eat, just not simultaneously while working out. Something about high temperatures shuts down my digestive system, blimps my intestines into distress, and often forces me to walk during the run. Sometimes the entire run, as happened in Canada. This is bad, especially if you race professionally. For starters, you don't win any money when you come in last. Nor do you feel like a rock star when staggering across the finish line four hours after your fellow competitors. Also, it doesn't do wonders for the self-esteem when a grandmother sprints by you in the marathon. But I've learned that dropping out hurts twice as much as finishing last. In the great scheme of things, it is a freaking privilege to be able to take part in these races. Dropping out because you are having "a bad day" is not karmalicious.

So, not wanting to suffer another Ironwalk, I sought out three nutritionists and physiologists to help me settle my gut warfare before Hawaii.

During one nutrition session, I underwent a sweat test to find out how much fluid and calories I need per hour of racing. I was hooked up to a machine that spat out some data as I ran on a treadmill. The verdict: I burn 12 calories per aerobic minute, which means that I'd need about 1,000 calories during the Ironman bike leg and about 500 more during the run. I should be drinking 10-12 bottles of fluid during the bike, the nutritionist told me.

"I've been drinking four or five bottles in past races," I said.

"That's a problem," she said.

Great. It had taken me eight years of triathlons and probably $5,000 worth of bad races to find out all I needed to do was drink more water. Genius. At least now I had it all figured out in time for the World Championship in Hawaii. Or so I imagined.

Sacrificial Jelly Beans
I arrive in Hawaii on Oct. 15, the day of a 6.7 earthquake, hoping it does not foreshadow anything personal. My bike, which travels in a large, cumbersome box, likes to fly on its own schedule. My other baggage has decided to accompany my bike. Seems that traveling United is anything but. The next day, an airline employee calls to tell me that my duffel bag and "surfboard" have arrived safely. "Any chance that surfboard has wheels?" I ask the attendant. It does. I'm glad. Surfing 112 miles of pavement would definitely put me at a disadvantage.

I assemble my Trek Madone "surfboard" and ride for an hour along the Queen Kamehameha Highway, where the bike leg of the Ironman will take place. Barely pedaling, I cruise along at 26 mph. When I turn around, my tailwind abandons me and my speedometer reads 9 mph. Back on Alii Drive, glistening triathletes run around the pedestrian district in their Speedos at a crazy-fast pace I refer to as the Speed of Narcissus. I spend the rest of the day resting with my feet up, watching bad daytime soap op … I mean, ESPN. Yeah, I watched ESPN.

The next day, I get up early to swim. Triathletes flood the Kona Pier, swimming willy-nilly across the racecourse, completely ignoring the signpost suggesting the proper flow of traffic. This frightens me. I once had my nose broken by another swimmer's oncoming forehead. I've also been stung by jellyfish, cut by barnacles and kicked in the noggin on countless occasions. That probably explains a lot.

In the afternoon, I go on a recon mission. I drive the bike course — 56 miles out to Hawi, 56 miles back — to check out the conditions. There is a bit of damage on the road shoulders from the earthquake. The broken lava rocks are dark and crumbly, and the clustered pebbles look like the crunchy cookie layer inside Carvel ice cream cakes. But probably less tasty.

Along the Queen K, windswept trees with permanently slanted branches tell how windy this island can get. In past years, the wind has been so bad it has blown riders off their bikes. Any weather-related wrath on the island is attributed, by legend, to Madame Pele, a rather emotional Hawaiian goddess who is believed to control earth, wind, rain and lava. Superstitious triathletes have been known to leave trinkets of good will — leis, flowers, even photos of themselves — for Madame Pele at the Church of St. Peter, hoping for kind weather on race day. This sounds like a good idea. I leave Madame Pele a packet of fruit-punch flavored SportBeans, the electrolyte-enhanced jelly beans made by a company that sponsors me. I imagine spirits probably need to top off their glycogen stores during a busy day of prayer-answering, and who doesn't like red jelly beans?

That evening my father, Peter — my official cheering squad — arrives at the Kona airport. I'm psyched. My dad is a triathlete, too, having optimistically picked up the sport four years ago at 66. We go out to dinner on Alii Drive, and as the appetizer arrives, so does a fantastic surprise. My super-duper boyfriend, Steve, who was supposed to be on a business trip, has flown from New York City to Hawaii to watch me race. Now that's a damn good man. He also kicks my butt on the bike. I'm learning to cope with that.

Race Day! And Night!
The Hawaii Ironman starts in deep water off the Kona Pier. The pros line up at 6:45 a.m., treading water while waiting for the send-off cannon to fire. This day, the undercurrents are cha-cha-ing all over the place and my usual sub-hour swim time is in jeopardy. The 2.4-mile swim seems to drag on longer than usual and, at the halfway point, I'm quite sure I see Japan in the distance. Exiting the water, I'm 12 minutes slower than normal. This is not a happy omen. I weave through the transition area and onto the bike. Slowly, over the next few hours, the heat sets in, leaving my legs feeling heavier than whatever really heavy thing hasn't been used in a metaphor for a while. In other words, I'm thigh-fried, calf-knackered, and my toenails are turning black and falling off. Could this have something to do with my recent Ironman Canada walkathon, or possibly from eight continuous years of racing, not even to mention my pentathlon, handball or track cycling bouts of cross training? I try to think cheery, uplifting thoughts, like, "Hey, mile marker 10! Only 102 to go! And then a marathon! Sweet!" I stick to my customized nutrition plan, but at mile 70, my system rejects all food and fluids. The words of my friend Diane come to mind. Her amateur assessment of my stomach rebellion is that "You might just be messed up inside, Kathryn."

I finally roll in from my protracted bike efforts after a whopping 6 hours, 45 minutes, well over an hour off the leading women. Though I've trained at a sub-eight-minute-mile pace for the marathon, I immediately slip to a 10-minute pace. Then 12. Then I lose track. At the 11-mile mark, I see another pro on her way back from the marathon turnaround. She is walking and lamenting to a friend about being the last pro. I call out and show her my faded pink race number, which only the female pros have.

"Don't worry," I console. "I'm picking up the night shift."

She immediately brightens, and I notice her pace quicken.

Halfway into the marathon, volunteers hand us our special-needs bags, in which racers had previously packed food items they might want mid-run. The sun is beginning to set. A young girl calls out to me, "Hey, mister, want your special-needs bag?"

At this point in the race, I'm just happy to be recognized as human. The sun goes down. A volunteer hands me a glowstick, which I bend into a halo around my head. In its pale fluorescent light, I take note of the silhouettes passing me. Four men, each missing one limb, have run by me in the past hour. Is that a raindrop? I'm now tired and grouchy and a good two-hour's limp from the finish line. Everyone says Ironman Hawaii is magical, and I'm trying to remember this as I run down the crumbled shoulder of a dark highway with cars on my right and lava rocks on my left and rain pouring down and blisters forming on unmentionable body parts.

When I finally make it to Alii Drive, I see my dad and Steve and Debora from Jelly Belly, soaking wet at the finish line, all wearing matching SportBeans T-shirts. Still, they're smiling and offering to hug me at the end of a very long, sweaty, smelly 13-hour day. I immediately notice that hugging hurts, but welcome it anyway. My father tells me that in the Navy, both the first- and last-ranked man of each graduating class get a standing ovation. He stands to clap for me. Dads are awesome.

We head to the med tent (which looks like a M*A*S*H* unit) for a quick blister bandage, then weave our way out of the race area. My day is done. So, too, is my long-distance triathlon career, at least until after 2008. Perhaps I can get a stomach transplant by then. Or a lobotomy. While the day hasn't gone as planned, I'm still in awe of how much I learn at each race, even after eight years of competing. Here is what I've learned at the 2006 Hawaii Ironman World Championships: I'm capable of racing terribly. I'm capable of finishing proudly. That after 140.6 miles of athleticism, I look like a dude. That my boyfriend disagrees. That darkness makes everyone look faster. That Madame Pele doesn't like fruit punch. That my father is the original St. Peter. That toenails aren't really necessary. That I need a month of sleeping in until noon. That I'm ready to put swimming and running on hold and pour all my energy into long-distance bike racing. That becoming a world-class cyclist won't be easy, but if I can get through a day like today, maybe I'm stronger than I think.

When racing, Kathryn represents SportBeans/NTTC, Trek and TriSports.com. You can e-mail her at ESPNOlympian@aol.com . She might just share her SportBeans with you.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: Kathryn gets an elite athlete physical assessment at Canyon Ranch, and finds out that luge is nothing to look down on.