Saturday, December 22, 2007

I Know Why I Race Ironman Triathlons

Warning: Exceptionally personal and tear jerking content ahead!

Ask any Ironman athlete why they train so much and race the distance and you'll probably get a multitude of answers. Up until yesterday evening, my answer was much like George Mallory when asked, 'Why climb Mount Everest?' His response, "Because it is there." A perfectly fine answer which no longer applies to me.

A little background.

My dad is a great athlete. Show me a 65+ year old who can go to a 90+ mph batting cage with his 38 and 33 year old sons and match us pitch for pitch. (My dad is still the single greatest baseball coach I've ever had.) To this day, my dad, brother and I can tell you flaws in "pro" baseball player's swings and what would improve them. My dad was the City of Chicago High School batting Champion for both of his varsity baseball years and was 4th during his sophomore year when he was "called up" to the varsity team too late to get enough at bats to qualify him for the title chase. For over 40 years, he worked at a very physical job that required him to be up at 11:45pm and return home at about 2 or 3:00 pm the following day; 6 days a week for 40 years. In our younger years, dad would bring my brother or I to the batting cage or to the baseball field to get us some "raps" and practice swings before games. He suggested that we both start swimming to get stronger for baseball. In high school, I swam varsity for four years and my dad was at most of the meets - still dressed from work. I know at least twice dad had to be awakened to see me try to win the meet in the final individual race. (That's ok dad.) I won most of them and in true Mitera form we would discuss how to be better next time.

My dad has only missed a few weeks of work in 40+ years, all due to broken bones. In the fall of 1985, my dad broke his foot and ankle trying to help a handicap person up a ramp. He finished his route that day - with a severely broken foot pounding on the clutch for another 6 hours. In the emergency room later that afternoon, his foot was so swollen the doctors had to cut his boot off. I just remember dad being pissed about the boot. Good work boots are expensive. (Well, for us they were.) His foot rehabilitation partner? Michael Jordan. Union 734 sent him to the best surgeon in Chicago and Michael was there too. Let me tell you, working that consistently is no small feat here in Chicago. My dad worked in The Blizzards of 1967, 1976, 2001 and other 20+" of snow "events". He has been out there in the howling wind, -45 F, 106 F and all points between. Dad would simply walk in out of the elements and say, "Wow, that was a tough day." The only other days dad left work early? When my brother or I were competing in the state championships in our high school sports. Even then...I think dad went in early to get all the work done first.
Dad busted ass for me, my brother and my mom. Dad worked hard and has a high pain tolerance. (Perhaps why Michael Jordan and dad were paired up as ankle rehab partners.) Jordan (pictured above with Mike Adamle) won 6 NBA championships on raw, hard work and using his physical gifts to the limit. Dad taught his boys to work smart. Our family didn't really travel as a kid. My parents have never been on a "real" cruise and have never gone to Hawaii. Below, is Dad fishing with me in Wisconsin mid-triathlon season this year. (gasp) Wisconsin fishing trips are the only vacation they really know.We did go to a Cub or Sox game in the summer. We'd go to a Bears, Blackhawks or Bulls game when we'd get tickets. Money was usually tight. (We aren't monetarily rich by any stretch.) We are the only nuclear family in our very large extended family to have all the kids to go to and graduate from a major University. I was the first to go to "college" and when I went a lot of folks around me asked me, "Why do you want to go to college for?" My response was, 'Because it is there.' I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. The only thing I had was the family motto, "Average is failing" and a lot of people we knew weren't going to college. I've extrapolated that out a little more to say, "If everyone is moving one way...take a look in the 180 degree opposite direction before going anywhere."

Last night, we went to Christmas services and then to dinner to celebrate my dad's retirement. It was the first (and only) meal "off the wagon" of my post season diet. Dad and I even took down a large dessert together - just like big game - the "Chocolate Eruption" never had a chance and certainly didn't see us coming. We laughed and talked. My dad is recovered from his 40+ year working stupor. After dessert, mom and dad gave me the best Christmas present they could ever give me and it hasn't cost them anything (yet) and if I can save enough money...they won't pay a dime for it. I'll pay.

In 2000 when I won the Ironman World Championship lottery, my parents and grandparents couldn't go because of union vacation rules and...of; they couldn't be there. My newly minted in-laws went and hung out with my brother who was an awesome host at the condo about 10k into the marathon. They even laughed when Michael held up two Miller Lites as I ran by and said, "Hey! How about you picking it up a notch? There is a girl in front of you." (A lesser known pro female.) Michael knew she was a pro which is why he said it. She laughed and we briefly spoke shortly before she dropped me like third period Spanish. When I figure out how to upload the video I'll post it for you to laugh at. It's really quite funny.

Raw Emotion Meets Physical Gifts
Excitement can be faked. Raw emotion cannot. Mix emotion and gifts and you have opportunity. When opportunity and preparation mix...greatness. Here is the picture on my training binder for 2008. I don't know him but I believe I understand what he is feeling. This is the emotion of a guy (Torbjorn Sindballe) laying it all out on the line. See the raw emotion on his face? This is a man who is not accepting average out of himself. I identify with that. That was my missing. That is me. Just "because it's there" really doesn't cut it anymore for me. I have a picture of a well known age group triathlete on a well known team. I won't post it because it is personal for him. It is a picture of his dad, his girlfriend at the time (now his wife) and him looking at the paperwork for his first Ironman Triathlon World Championship. Raw emotion meeting preparation. (I missed Kona that year by 11 seconds after being hit by a drunk in an SUV in May. That race was my first workout longer than 90 minutes since May.)Dad and mom told me that they decided that if I ever go back to Kona, they are going to be there. I would be their reason for going. "Why else would we want to go to Hawaii?" mom said. This set off a long conversation (Hawaii Tourism need to call- I took care of it) we spoke of the physical beauty of the islands, the people, everything I recall. We (Lorrie, my in-laws and I) explained the beauty of ohana on Hawaii. So here it is...

I race Ironman because of the following reasons:
  1. Average is failing. (the family motto)
  2. No person is average. If you except average in your life, you are failing. Do what it takes to be great.
  3. I have been given a gift of strength; physical and emotional.
  4. I have a supportive and close family.
  5. I am always inspiring others to try to be better. (family, friends and general public) That inspires me to be even better.
  6. I am a triathlete and there. Next time with my parents in attendance (and probably my niece / God daughter Lauren).

Now...I still have to qualify. To say I have found a renewed fire this fall and winter is perhaps the understatement of the new millennium. I say this now when "the band isn't playing"; Lou Holtz once told me that it was easy to get excited about hard work when the "band is playing on football Saturday". The road ahead is difficult and qualifying will be a very hard effort. I really understand "Average is failing". A qualifying attempt might not come in 2008. When it does come, keep a weather eye out for me. I'm racing for my family and specifically...for my dad.

This was the single greatest gift I've ever been given. The gift of motivation. As I prepare for an Ironman qualifier to be determined...I train for my dad, my mom, my family. Not me. It's far bigger than just me.

Average is failing - regardless of if that is in your family, triathlon, education or fun.

Mele Kalikimaka me ka Hau'oli Makahiki Hou


  1. Man, that is good. Really, really good.

    I wish you luck.

    Ron Gierut
    Cedar Rapids, IA

    PS. Punch your old man in the arm for me :-)

  2. Bob,
    This is your best post ever! Only pure motivation, success and drive can come from within. No one can "make" someone FIGHT for what they want. This is so hard for some athletes to understand, but this post encompasses your dreams so well. Congrats to your dad on his retirement! Jen H. :)

  3. Good luck! YOu're right that is some motivation!! Your Dad sounds great

  4. LOVE it! I promised not to read any blogs on Christmas or Christmas Eve... but today I logged on just went to your link from my page... I AM glad I did! Too many sappy stories-yours was "inspirational" to say the least! Now I really am turning off the computer... Thanks for leaving me off on a GREAT note! You and your dad are AWESOME!

    Have a GREAT holiday!