I’ve seldom met a hair-brained idea I didn’t like, and apparently I’m not alone! Enter No Limit Fitness owner Matt Dingbam and his client-friend (and my cousin-in-law), John Melvin.

Both DeWitt residents and I were among the 2,606 athletes who competed in last month’s July 20th half Ironman in Racine, Wisconsin.

I remember speaking briefly with Matt at last year’s Paul Skeffington Memorial Race during which we both mentioned the I-word. Forget the fact neither of us had an ounce of experience with triathlon, the idea of taking on an Ironman was brewing in each of us.

flat jenny Racine 70.3 2014While I’d run countless races including several marathons, that Skeff Race was quite special for Matt and John. It was their first. EVER.

Their experience in DeWitt, from the cheering crowds to seeing family members on the course, prompted the two of them to sign up for more races throughout 2013, culminating with the IMT Des Moines Marathon in October. From 5 miles to 26.2 miles in four months! Even I’d call that cray-cray!

This seemingly over-zealous approach to running offers us a peak into the psyches of Matt and John. Meeting each obstacle with fortitude, each goal with tenacity, it’s no surprise neither man shied away from the challenge of the 70.3, which represents the cumulative mileage of a half Ironman—1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run.

While I’ve logged thousands of miles on foot and bike, and probably as many laps as far back as college, I had a smidgeon of what would be required of me. Matt and John? Gut instinct, alone.

“I had always thought about triathlons,” Matt told me, “but I had never even road biked or really swam for distance. I decided to ‘Go Big or Go Home’ and signed up for Ironman Racine, knowing I would figure it out along the way.

“Of course, John Melvin followed my lead as he did not want me to do this alone!”

John and Matt knew each other, but it wasn’t until John began attending boot camp at No Limit Fitness when Matt unlocked John’s potential and the two developed a friendship that would transform their goals into a partnership.

Matt came at the 70.3 with calculated training and focus while John brought the grit, fine-tuned by his years in the military.

“I’ve always reminded myself to ‘Embrace the Suck,’” noted John, using a mantra made common by Iraq war veteran and writer Col. Austin Bay.

“The truth is that my preparation plan was changed constantly due to weather, work, family, money and any other reason.”

In fact, John’s work took him out of country to India for three weeks during the final month before Racine. As if the surroundings weren’t taxing enough, the 16+ hour work days prevented any training and it was then that John decided the Ironman was lost.

Perfectly understandable, life getting in the way and all, skipping the Ironman gnawed at John. Yes, the training wasn’t there, “but why not try?” he wondered.

At the last minute, John opted to ‘Embrace the Suck’ at a level few of us will experience. “Using this logic,” he explained. “I’ve been able to adapt to obstacles on and off the course that are always working to keep you down.”

He, Matt and I met up at the Ironman Expo the day before the race and then John and I drove the bike course.

It was during that drive when he verbalized the essence of strength: facing the fear regardless of outcome. Fear of the unknown robs so many from achieving greater heights. Sure John wanted to finish, but it was facing the possibility of trying and not finishing that was his foe.

But is it such a novel foe? Matt, John and I all brought our own fears to the 70.3 table. Turns out all three of us were less than enthused about the swim in Lake Michigan.

“When I arrived at Lake Michigan I got a sick feeling,” Matt admitted. “I could not quit looking at the lake and wondering how in the world I was going to be able to swim 1.2 miles in this huge body of water.”

Though water temperature was a chilly 61 degrees that Sunday morning, we were lucky to have calm conditions and a glass-like lake. Starting in waves divided by gender and age, we each navigated the breath-stealing cold and fell into steady swims that, once finished, buoyed our spirits for the remaining bike and run.

While Matt and I were confident of our abilities on the bike, John faced the real “meat” of this challenge during the ride. Prior to the Ironman, the longest John had ridden was 25 miles. Aside from the common aches and pains every cyclists copes with, John rode a borrowed bike in which the seat sloped downward. This would be his proverbial shining hour, shining four hours, to be exact.

He knew he could probably reach the 30-mile point, and the 13.1-mile run? If all else failed, he could walk it, but those final 26 miles on the bike? It was a giant, looming cloud of wonder that he answered with a ROAR by cruising through those 26 miles and on through the run.

All three of us reached our goals.

For Matt, this was his first triathlon and he finished in 6 hours and 28 minutes. “The sense of accomplishment and ‘runner’s high’ lasted for two days straight!” In the Finisher’s Tent, Matt met Lionel Sander, the overall winner who snagged victory with a time of 3:45.

“Even though I was totally satisfied,” Matt said, “I knew I would need to do a full IM (Ironman) to reach my full goal! At the same time I was thinking this, I got a text from John that said the exact same thing!”

For John, this was his second triathlon and despite the training woes and borrowed bike, he conquered the fear and crossed the finish line at 8:04!

“There was a time when the Crossroads (Triathlon) was the most difficult obstacle in front of me, then a marathon, then a 70.3,” John said. “My point to anyone thinking about doing something outside the box is this: keep moving forward and focusing on your goals. Everything else always seems to fall into place.”

Myself? I came in at 7:03, 27 minutes ahead of my goal! And yes, as with Matt and John, I too have set my sights on the bigger, badder full Ironman: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run.

Matt put it best, “To be continued . . . when (we) sign up for the 140.6.”


Originally published 2 August 2014 in The Observer.

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