Why We Run
Some compete in the Ironman because it’s a challenge. Woodrow Freese does it because it’s now a gift.
For five years, Woodrow Freese refused to wear a visor from the 2007 Ironman World Championship, bought for him by friends who had watched the Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. Freese felt he had to earn the right to wear it, and the only way to earn that right was by running across the finish line of what many believe is the toughest one-day physical competition in the world: a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. On October 13, the 50-year-old BU associate director of residence life did that, and fulfilled a dream he had held for decades. Parts of his race, and the days leading up to it, were recorded by a film crew from NBC and will be included in the network’s 2012 Ironman World Championship special, to be broadcast on Saturday, October 27, at 4 p.m. EST.
Freese had competed in Ironman Triathlons before, 26 of them, but the Kona, Hawaii, race is the most prestigious and possibly the most grueling. The first such event took place in Hawaii 34 years ago, a less-than-scientific answer to an argument about which athletes were the most fit: swimmers, cyclists, or runners. This year almost 2,000 athletes participated: 1,750 qualified for the event based on their times in other World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) events, 100 were chosen in a lottery, and 100 “legacy” athletes (men and women who have competed in 12 or more Ironman events sponsored by the WTC) were also chosen by lottery. The legacy route won Freese his spot, although not until his 22nd application.
Freese, who is 6-foot-4 and weighs 215 pounds, was not always an athlete. As an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, he says, he was one of the slowest runners on the cross-country and track-and-field teams. He competed in his first sprint triathlon (a half-mile swim, a 15-mile bike ride, and a 5-mile run) on a dare. “I recall being something like 145th out of 150 athletes out of the water and moving up steadily on the bike and run, finishing in the top 10 percent. “After that, I remember saying I would never do a longer tri, because those people are crazy.”
Two years later, Freese competed in his first Olympic distance triathlon (a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride, and a 10-kilometer run) in upstate New York. “After that,” he says, “I swore I would never do a half-Ironman (a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run), because those people were nuts!”
Three seasons and several sprint and Olympic distance events later, Freese did his first half-Ironman tri, vowing to never do an Ironman “because Ironman distance athletes were totally wacked!”
Twenty-six Ironman Triathlons later, Freese is going strong, although he admits that what has kept him going has not always been rational.
“For years I used this in a very unhealthy way,” he says. “It was addiction, which spun out of control, and led to bouts of depression and OCD, among other things. As a result, I neglected responsibilities and compromised important relationships along the way. Triathlon became everything to me—in all the wrong ways. A series of events made me reevaluate what was important. Now I do it for enjoyment.”
In the diary below, Freese reports on the thrill, the fear, and the gratitude he felt during the most exciting physical challenge of his life.
Monday, October 8, 2012
Left Bay State Road at 4 a.m. to get to Logan. Managed to convince US Airways to upgrade my seat to an emergency row (little more leg room) from Boston to Phoenix. Not so lucky from Phoenix to Kona. Arrived in Kona at 2:30 p.m. local time (8:30 p.m. EST). Picked up bike and gear bag from Tri Bike Transport. Unpacked five-year-old Ironman Hawaii visor, a gift from several years ago. I have kept that damn visor, with the promise to myself to not try it on, remove the tags, or wear it until I crossed the finish line someday. Silly perhaps, but I think it is bad karma to wear clothing of a race you hope to do, but have yet to finish.
The flight over was long, but filled with many emotions and memories: 22 lottery applications, 29 years of racing, and this opportunity, a dream come true, was finally happening! Much of the time was spent thinking how I had used this sport in unhealthy ways in the past—and how grateful I was to be participating in a much healthier format.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Athlete #591. Yahoo—registration is complete! Practice swim is short and sweet, staying closer to shore, as it was choppy and rough. Practiced for the first time using the Profile Design speedsuit. Run for 30 minutes. INCREDIBLY humid. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!! Very worried about this. On Monday, I drank almost two gallons of water and Gatorade to replenish sweat loss, and STILL dehydrated!
Stopped by a church on Ali’i Drive and said several prayers, asking for a safe race and good weather and giving thanks, among other things. Asked for forgiveness in using the sport in an unhealthy format and gave thanks for having a chance to participate in a healthy way. Also asked for forgiveness for the relationships that had been compromised as well as offering forgiveness to those who brought negative energy and aspects into my life, Thanked the island gods for this amazing opportunity and asked them to keep watch over all of us, bringing everyone back safely.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Cycled for an hour. VERY humid. Bike shop visit to double and final check the Trek. Legacy athlete reception at 4:30. Practice swim—water was BEAUTIFUL! Colorful fish, turtles, spectacular coral, and so serene. Much calmer in the morning. Tried to time the swim as it would be on Saturday morning, in an effort to figure out sun position and goggle choice (clear vs. dark). Dark it is! Then to airport to pick up Sue Kennedy, a BU assistant provost and a powerful source of support for all of this.
The swim, despite being beautiful, was intimidating today, despite doing this distance many times. I thought about the movie Hoosiers. In one scene, coach Norman Dale (played by Gene Hackman) leads a group of unlikely basketball players to the Indiana high school state championship in the 1950s. The players, who played on a very small home court, arrived at the gym and looked intimidated/overwhelmed by the size of the championship court. Dale had the players take a variety of measurements of the court they were going to play on—among other things, the height of the rim. He reminded the players that the dimensions of this court were the same as their home court. As I looked out over the swim course, I tried to put all of this in perspective—and keep things in check. I reminded myself that regardless of the fact that this was the world championship course, with the fastest long-course athletes in the world, it was still “just” 140.6 miles. I had finished the distance 26 times previously and, barring any equipment malfunction or nutritional failure, I should finish. That was only goal!
At the legacy athlete reception, I met Julie Moss, Kathleen McCartney, Greg Welch, Paula Newby-Fraser, and Heather Fuhr—all past champions and/or high-profile athletes—as well as race director Diana Bertsch and WTC CEO Andrew Messick. I remember watching the Julie Moss/Kathleen McCartney duel on ABC’s Wide World of Sports 30 years ago with my dad. At the time, I don’t recall wanting to do triathlons (triathletes were crazy, after all!). I do, however, remember how inspirational it was to see Julie’s perseverance as she was crawling to the finish line.
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Practice swim is breathtaking! Ran part of the race course. Tons of car traffic in/out of Kona; one has to navigate traffic very carefully. Very, very humid. Hydration is certain to be an issue. Given that I often end up in the medical tent for dehydration issues, I need to focus on drinking often. Tonight, sleep is very important. HYDRATE!
Friday, October 12, 2012
Met with the coach, Patrick McCrann (CAS’96), from Endurance Nation Multisport after breakfast and reviewed wattage for the bike and HR/pace for the run. HYDRATE! Final check of equipment. HYDRATE!! Drop off bike and gear bags. HYDRATE!! Walk through transition area to get a sense of where to go. HYDRATE!!
Stopped at the church, gave thanks, asked for forgiveness, and asked for a positive day for volunteers, spectators, and athletes. Early dinner of chicken and pasta. Early to bed.
A million thoughts running through my head. When things started to spiral out of control, I reminded myself that this was a gift and it should be embraced as such. I just wanted to finish with dignity.
Saturday, October 13, 2012 (Race Day)
Breakfast at 3:30 a.m. Earlier in the summer, a sports nutritionist and I carefully mapped out a plan for prerace meals and a system for hydration and fueling during the race. Under the circumstances, I felt really calm—almost an out-of-body experience. It was dark and eerie, as you could hear the ocean but couldn’t see it. Body marking. Dark ink stamps on your biceps—very different than the traditional black magic markers from other races. Last-minute gear dropped off. Apply plenty of Bodyglide and sunscreen, listen to music, and lay down, trying to relax. HYDRATE! Try to relax and focus. Patience.
I thought a lot about Sue and her support—she understands, appreciates, and respects this event, knowing it is different from other races and that this was a dream being fulfilled.
Also thought a lot about my dad. He passed away in 2001. While he couldn’t travel to races (disabled veteran, U.S. Navy), he was supportive of training and racing. He lived vicariously through some of my adventures, and I know he was with me on race day.
On Friday, I had a lengthy conversation with my daughter, Keegan. She was frustrated by the lack of playing time she was getting on her high school varsity soccer team. One of the things that ran through my head was that I hoped to show her that you didn’t need to win, didn’t need to place in your age group, didn’t need to be the best, but if you continued to work hard, persevere, and give it your all, you would be successful. I wanted her to appreciate that she was part of a great team, and while she wasn’t getting the playing time she might want, she was part of something much larger and more important.
“The Star Spangled Banner” was moving. Not sure why. But this always has an emotional impact on me. Gave Sue a huge hug and kiss and told her I would see her at the finish line.
Walked to the water and said a very quick prayer on the shore. Quick warmup swim of a couple of hundred meters to get lose and shake off any last-minute anxiety.
Intentionally lined up at the back of the pack. Given that I am not racing for a podium spot, I opted to let the scrum go ahead of me.
Swim: The swim was simply spectacular, like swimming in an enormous salt-water aquarium. Schools of fish, turtles, and beautiful coral provided a distraction to the swells and chop of the swim. Came out of the water slow and relaxed. Went for the fresh water rinse hoses to get as much salt water off the body as possible. Chafed around the neck and armpits, despite Bodyglide. Chafing + salt water + sunscreen = wicked ouch!
Bike: Incredible winds and heat/humidity. First 10 to 15 miles were in the village of Kona, before we navigated out to the lava fields and the Queen Kaʻahumanu (aka Queen K) Highway. The crowds were deafening and the volunteers were AMAZING! Reports of 30–40 mph gusts of wind in the lava fields and an ambient temperature of 120 degrees on the highway were shared with spectators. I looked up at cyclists in front of me and saw that they were riding with bikes/bodies in a 1:00 position—heavily leaning to the right. At times, I was white-knuckle gripping the handlebars. If someone my size was getting blown around, I feared for smaller and lighter athletes!
At the turnaround, we were hammered with monsoon rains that made it feel like we were being sandblasted, making road conditions slick and dangerous. Riding on the Queen K Highway, there were sections that resembled what I imagined it might be like to cycle on the moon. In an odd sort of way, it was a harsh beauty and not like any course I have ever done before.
It was interesting to see the attitude of some athletes, especially those who qualified and were having a slower day than expected. I passed one guy who was miserable. I asked how he was doing. He responded, “This sucks. I can’t wait to be done!” He then asked how I was doing. I told him that “a bad day in Kona was better than a great day doing yard work in Boston!” He sneered, made a few choice comments, and I rode on.
In the end, on the bike, I drank 14 bottles of lemon-lime PowerBar Perform (almost three gallons), consumed 14 PowerBar gels and 10 Succeed sodium/electrolyte capsules, ate a dozen Clif Bloks and 2 PowerBars, and splashed my body with water at every aid station to try and cool off. The heat was like nothing I have ever felt before.
Run: The heat and humidity continued until the sun went down. The most amazing sunset over the ocean distracted many athletes from thinking about the miles left. Once we hit the Natural Energy Lab, it was pitch black, as the sun had set 45 minutes earlier. The only light in some parts of the course was from aid stations, about a mile apart. At times, it was difficult to see the white line threading the lane and shoulder of the road. Once the sun went down, all athletes were given a flexible glow stick to wear, so you could be seen. Traffic, with the exception of race support and medical vehicles, was nonexistent, so I was truly alone out there! The stars were just BEAUTIFUL! Pace was slow, but very enjoyable. In the end, I drank 16 ounces of orange mango PB Perform every mile, 6 PB Gels, 6 Clif Bloks, 6 Succeed caps, as well as chicken broth and cola at each aid station.
14 hours, 10 minutes, 56 seconds: one of the slower Ironman races I have had.
That said, the last mile was spectacular. I ran a sub-eight-minute mile and felt like I was walking on clouds! The crowd was like nothing I have ever heard before—deafening. Coming down the finisher chute, you could hear announcer Mike Reilly winding up the crowd, some of whom had been there since 7 a.m. It was like a vortex sucking you in: the crowd, the noise, the excitement. All day, I focused on dialing things back, intentionally slowing down, so I could savor the day. And yet, in the last mile, I wish I had taken more time to enjoy the crowd and surroundings. For every athlete who crosses the finish line, Mike yells out athlete names, a bit about who you are, and where you are from, as well as “YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” Despite having heard this in the past, the words were never sweeter. Despite having watched this on television many times, it was a feeling like none other.
Sue had access to the VIP area and was front and center when I crossed the finish line. What a treat! She walked me back to the medical tent.
Three bags of IV fluids with a shot of anticramping formula (magnesium, I believe)—incredibly helpful!
After the medical tent, we opted to stick around and watch the later finishers, among them Rob “the Firefighter” Verhelst, who crossed the finish line wearing full firefighter gear during the marathon, raising money for fallen firefighters, and Lew Hollander, an 82-year-old athlete. Harriet Anderson, 77 years young (the oldest female finisher), crossed the line with 20-some-odd seconds to spare. These were the folks I could most closely identify with. Yes, many age groups finished hours before I did. This day wasn’t about a time or final position. It was about fulfilling a dream, and the dream is now fulfilled.
Why do I do this? Many people have asked that question. The answer is, as my college track coach once said: “If you have to ask why, you will never understand!”
Woodrow Freese’s race, and the days leading up to it, were recorded by a film crew from NBC, and will be included in the network’s 2012 Ironman World Championship special, to be broadcast on Saturday, October 27, from 4 to 6 p.m. EST.23 Comments