For endurance athletes, there often comes a point in a race where things are going so badly, it feels like it’s time to pack it in to save it for another day. It could be injury, reaching that dark place that ultra-distance runner Joe DeVreese talked about in a previous endorphinrelease.com, mechanical issues, or a combination of things. I’ve been there more than a few times. So believe me, I know.
But at last week’s Ironman World Championships in Kona, Santa Barbara triathletes Elke Peirtsegaele and Sandy Roberts both reached those points, yet they pushed through to triumph and defeat the arduous 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run triathlon. The 24-year-old Peirtsegaele finished in 12 hours, 12 minutes and 8 seconds, and the 70-year-old Roberts came in 15:51:36. To finish 15th in their respective age groups in a world championship event is a feat in itself. But how they managed to do it made it all the more impressive.
Elke Peirtsegaele on the run course at the Ironman World Championships Photo by David “Gonzo” Gonzales
When riding on the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway, or the “Queen K” as it is informally known, with the legendary Mumuku trade winds blowing her to and fro during the entire first half of the 112-mile bike ride, Peirtsegaele couldn’t wait to get to the Ironman bike turnaround at the tiny north Kohala village of Hawi. She had a decent swim leg by her estimations, but the ride-normally her favorite part of a triathlon-was getting old really fast…err, slow.
“It was just hard from the start, and even at the beginning I knew it was definitely one of the hardest bike rides that I’ve ever done,” she said. “But I knew that once I got to Hawi, that would all be behind me because I’d have a tailwind.”
Unbeknownst to Elke at the time, the Ironman in Hawaii doesn’t exactly work that way. As the day goes on, the anthropomorphic wind that seemingly comes as a sign of vengeance from the Hawaiian fire goddess Madam Pele, shifts to the other direction turning a hopeful first half of a ride into a cruel joke of a double headwind that nobody laughs. A few miles after making the turnaround, she found that out the way only those who have ridden the course know.
“It was so disappointing, I started thinking, I wanted to stop right now,” the Lompoc native said. “I even started thinking that if I crashed out, I’d be done with this race, it could all be over. That’s how bad it was. But then again, here I was at the World Championships, so I had to at least try to finish.”
A little sticker on the side of her bike also served as a reminder to Elke that this wouldn’t be an option. There were no words on the decal, just the letters “LLL”. Yet it spoke volumes about her very existence as an athlete.
Growing up in the northern part of Santa Barbara County, Elke followed the outdoor loving lead of her father Lieven Peirtsegaele, her mom Yvonne van der Linden and sister Nikki. Along with water polo and swimming, Elke loved to mountain bike with her family. It was during one of these rides on a favorite trail with family and friends last December, that the patriarch crashed and suffered catastrophic injuries to his upper spine that ultimately claimed his life. Although it was an unspeakable tragedy, something good came out of it she said. True to his nature as a well-loved and caring individual, Lieven Peirtsegaele was a donor-and his skin, corneas, and vital organs were used to save others.
“That’s who he was,” Elke said.
And for family and friends, the constant reminder is there on their bikes, LLL, Live Like Lieven. So out on the Queen K, with her arms being scorched by the sun before her very eyes, Elke soldiered forward buoyed by the sound of cheering spectators.
Entering the bike-to-run transition area, she sat down, changed into her run clothes, and slowly headed out for the marathon.
“I wasn’t feeling good when I was changing, and then when I started running, I started getting shivers during the first 10-miles,” she said.
She was suffering from heat stroke, a dangerous predicament that could turn fatal when the core body temperature reaches 104 degrees. Bowed, but not broken, she slowed down to a walk and started consuming mass amounts of liquid, drenching herself with water, and sponging herself down. She said a few words to her late father-this one’s for you. Yeah, there was no way she wasn’t going to finish.
“I thought a lot about my dad, who was such a go-getter that nothing could ever stop him, “Elke said. “My parents were so proud of anything my sister and I ever did. He and my family were there for my first Ironman in Arizona so this year was really tough doing each race without him there to cheer me on. But I knew that he would have wanted me to finish, so I had to keep going.”
With her mom and sister, and Nikki’s boyfriend Kevin Strongin on the course cheering her on, Elke had “great” support from her boyfriend Matt Ison.
“I loved seeing him, especially at mile 24,” she said. “I was so happy to see him because I knew I was almost done. He would run behind me encouraging me, then run ahead to take pictures. It was pretty funny and much needed because my legs were hurting so bad. I was smiling though, and it helped that I passed another girl in my age group-which was the cherry on top.”
Through the darkness, she made the final turn onto the famed Alii Drive and a short time later, the bright lights hit her full force as she ran down the finish chutes through the cheering crowd. A short time later, a bright light of a different kind hit her- her family.
“After I crossed, my mom kept repeating that my dad would have been so happy and proud,” she said. “I knew that, but it felt so good to hear.”
Sandy Roberts-Making the Cutoff
Sandy and Helen Roberts courtesy of Kelsey Roberts
The term “the clock is ticking” can be applied for sports, office deadlines and even potentially explosive devices on 1970’s cop shows. For those not having an ideal day in endurance races, another dreaded term “cutoff time” causes much stress. I experienced that at the 2005 Boston Marathon, when race organizers unceremoniously removed a timing chip mat right in front of a few of us stragglers. For Sandy Roberts at Ironman, his steeled resolve managed to make these mere speed bumps en route to finishing his second Ironman (along with two halves 70.3 races) in several months.
An admitted water neophyte, Roberts learned to swim properly just a few years ago alongside nine-year-old kids. Yet despite this, because of pretty darn good biking and running, the 70-year-old had placed himself in the upper echelons of triathletes within his age group to qualify for world championship races like Ironman.
Long known as a difficult bike and run course, the Ironman swim in itself is difficult enough first of all there is that no-wetsuit rule. Due to the warmth and salt content of the water to keep one buoyant just enough, wetsuits have been verboten since the race’s inception. That provides a distinct disadvantage for triathletes like Sandy, who possess virtually no body fat, where there is also a two hour and 20-minute limit.
“I was somewhat concerned going in, but my coach Mike Swan put me on a program had me doing a lot of distance and gave me the strategy of starting in the back and then just keep out of other people’s way, where he thought I would be fine,” Roberts said.
Sure enough, when the cannon went off, Roberts started in the back and made his way towards the turnaround boats over a mile away. The other thing about the Ironman swim that parallels the shore is that the tide is very deceiving. If one doesn’t use the points along the shore as sightlines, a swimmer could end up zigzagging their way out to sea-causing them to lose precious time.
Swimming virtually alone, Roberts cut a solitary figure in the vast expanse of the ocean. Until virtually out of nowhere, he had company-not in the form of a fellow competitor, a spinner dolphin, or even a sea turtle, but in the shape of a smile.
“I looked up and there was this guy on a surfboard with a million-dollar smile,” Roberts said. “He was constantly nearby, sometimes as close as a foot or two away, which meant I must have been one of the last ones.”
Throughout the swim, Roberts churned through the course with his smiling partner ever-present.
“If I drifted too far away, he would call out and point me to get back on course,” he said. “When I tried to ask him a question, he would just tell me to put my head down and swim. So I kept going, made the turn and headed back. When I got towards the swim finish, I was thrilled.”
As Roberts approached the end of a swim that he finished with 10 minutes to spare, the guy gave him one last thumbs up before heading out to sea like an aquatic version of the Lone Ranger who left before being thanked. Safely on terra firma, Roberts got on his bike and promptly rode into a different kind of trouble. The electronic gear shifting on his bike stopped working less than a third of the way into the bike.
“I saw a tech guy and he had a few people in front of him,” Roberts said. “The guy said that he couldn’t help me at the time because the other people were waiting, so I just decided to keep going.”
Approaching the halfway point, Roberts saw the tech van again and approached. The so-called wrench discovered that while the battery was working, the unit was not and immediately disassembled it. As the cutoff time at the halfway point of the bike loomed, and his bike in pieces, Roberts made the decision to just gut it out on a bike with no gears the rest of the way.
“When I was going downhill, because I couldn’t pedal, it felt like my heart rate was at zero,” Roberts quipped.
As darkness approached, Roberts made it back to the transition area with time to spare where he was greeted by fellow triathlete Romy Suzuki, who was volunteering and had Roberts bag in hand. She greeted him with a welcome hug.
“How cool was that?” he mused.
Out on the run course, Roberts went at it alone in the dark until he caught up with a Japanese competitor from the same age group. Despite the language barrier, the two were able to communicate enough and enjoy each other’s company. Save these encounters and welcoming sightings of his wife Helen and daughter Kelsey out on the course, Roberts was like a lone man on his own island. The one thought in his head was not winning his age group or even finishing.
“All I wanted was a Coke, because I found that it really helped me in the later stages of races,” he said.
When he got to mile 17, his momentary hope was dashed when the aid station had run out of the soda that once claimed it was the Real Thing that added life. A mile later, like manna from heaven, the Coke was there for him and perhaps took him back to his childhood when he would go to A & W Root Beer stand across the street from his house and quaff the tasty beverage from chilled glasses.
“That’s when I knew it was going to be fine and I drank one at each aid station, because I didn’t want to come down off of it,” Roberts said.
Even in the dark, the rolling hills on the return trip indicated that he was getting close, but the doubts weren’t erased.
“I was worried that I was going to freeze up and get cramps,” Roberts said.
For the last time, his senses saved him, this time it was the aroma of the smell of a familiar Kona sight, the windy, expansive branched banyan tree.
“From then on, it dawned on me that I was going to finish,” he said. “When I saw the bright lights and heard the roar of the crowd, that feeling of floating on air rushed over me. The hard work had paid off. I rushed in with a smile on my face where my wife and daughter were waiting. When I crossed the finish line, it was a ‘not-of-this-world moment’ that even now, a few days later has stayed with me.”
Kelsey, Helen and Sandy Roberts Enjoy Hawaii