Elis take the Ironman challenge

On Sunday, Sept. 10, 2006, after almost 12 hours of participating in Ironman Wisconsin, Wookie Kim ’09 was grabbed by a group of volunteers he did not know. Without checking to see whether this 19-year-old from Yale was coherent, the throng hugged him and threw a medal around his neck. Moments later, Kim found himself in front of a photographer, prize hanging over his chest and tears in his eyes. These were not tears of pain or distress.

“You can’t really explain the sort of high you get from completing such an incredible feat,” Kim said. “Forget cocaine, forget ecstasy, forget nicotine. Ironman is the ultimate, ultimate high, and it lasts forever.”

Kim is not alone in his fervor — nor is he alone in his achievements. On Sept. 10, Kim, Taylor James ’09 and Michelle Gosselin ’07 competed in the fifth Ford Ironman Wisconsin along with more than 2,170 other athletes. The triathlon in Madison included a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike race and 26.2-mile marathon run. Despite the day’s cold, wet and windy conditions, the three members of Yale’s triathlon team completed the challenge with respective times of 11:59:24, 13:52:25 and 12:44:27.

Of the 83 men between the ages of 18 and 22 who finished, Kim placed 29th and James 63rd. In the 18-24 division for women, Gosselin came in eighth out of the 28 who placed, nearly qualifying for the world championship Ironman in Hawaii. Together, the Elis also entered in the three-participant Collegiate Team category. In this division, they ranked third with a combined time of 38:36:16. An award ceremony took place the next day, though no members of the Bulldog team were there to attend.

Jacob Gramlich GRD ’09 heard the ceremony. This graduate student also participated in the competition, finishing with a time of 11:46:24, placing him 48th in the male 25-29 division. It was only by coincidence that he connected on race day with the three members of Yale’s triathlon team who were present.

But it isn’t just the numbers or the ranks that get Kim and his fellow ironmen and women so “high.” Nor is it just the exhilaration of racing or the sound of announcer Mike Reilly proclaiming, “You are an ironman.” Rather, it is the whole experience — from training through finishing — that leads these athletes to crave the challenge and savor the victory.

“It’s a celebration of the legs, arms, and will power that God has given people,” Gramlich said.

The preparation

The Bulldogs who competed just over a week ago in Wisconsin may have known about the Ironman for a long time, but none of them imagined that they would actually one day make it. Like many of their peers, the Elis believed ironmen and women to be unnaturally fit professional athletes, not undergraduates who are juggling heavy course loads and athletics. But they soon learned that anybody with any body can participate.

“As long as you get in shape, and as long as you push yourself a little, you can do it,” Gosselin said. “It doesn’t matter how long it takes you.”

Gosselin, like James, Kim and Gramlich, did not start her athletic career as a “pure” runner, swimmer or biker. It was only after she quit the varsity women’s soccer team last year that she decided to compete in sprint triathlons.

James, too, had no experience in these marathon events until college. When injury prevented him from playing football and baseball in high school, James looked for other means to stay in shape. It was only when he arrived at Yale that James discovered triathlons could be his new sport. He participated in his first event, Hammerfest, exactly one year ago.

James was also the inspiration for Kim, a former wrestler and coxswain. Last year, the two Elis went for a bike ride of about 70 miles, during which Kim told his friend about his summer plans to cycle across America. When Taylor suggested that Kim take it to the next level and compete in an Ironman, Kim said he thought to himself, “Damn, maybe I should.” And that was that.

Gramlich, who also did not have a pure running background, played soccer for the University of Virginia. He said he only recently discovered triathlons after finding that there are not as many avenues for team sports after college. In 2002, he began competing in marathons and half Ironmans, only taking a break in 2005 for marriage.

So you want to be an Ironman?

There is no set way to train for an Ironman, though there are recommendations for how one should go about preparing his or her body. Depending on the person and his or her other commitments, training may be planned far in advance, or it may be more spontaneous; it may be personally oriented, or it may be more interactive.

Gramlich said that while triathletes tend to be highly individualistic, it is always nice to have a community.

“It does help to ask someone [for advice],” he said. “And to ask someone who has done it before.”

Last September, two members of the team, Peter Chiu ’08 and Chris Connelly ’06, attended the 2005 Ironman Wisconsin, where they finished with a combined time of 24 hours and 53 minutes.

While Kim, like his teammates on the triathlon team, sought advice from coach Matt Clancy, he also designed his own plan. Over the summer, he cycled across the country with the Habitat Bicycle Challenge, riding 70 to 80 miles a day. While these distances sufficed for his cycling training, Kim supplemented his riding with about 20 miles of running per week. After the trip ended, Kim went with his family to Hawaii, where he swam in the reefs at Ala Moana. He described it as “the perfect beach” and was excited to discover that many other triathletes were training in the same waters. Kim also welcomed the opportunity to taper during his last two weeks of summer as he traveled in East Asia.

Gramlich, who began training for Ironman Wisconsin in a monthly cycle back in February, shared the mantra of the friend who coached him.

“Festina lente,” he said. “Hasten slowly. It’s a good motto to avoid injury.”

The race

On Sept. 10, Kim, Gosselin, James and Gramlich awoke at such an early hour that many of their friends at Camp Yale may not yet have gone to bed. After eating a hardy breakfast, the athletes descended upon the course with many goals, but only one purpose: to become ironmen. In spite of the rainy and windy weather conditions, the Elis were determined.

The three undergraduates were among the youngest participants at the day’s event.

James said he remembers one of the first comments he heard from a fellow competitor.

“What! You’re doing this? You can’t even drink yet,” the athlete said.

Similarly, Gosselin said she recalls someone exclaiming, “Twenty? You’re just a baby!”

But being among the youngest did not discourage Gosselin and her Eli peers; quite the contrary, though the three had their anxieties about messing up, they were equally anxious to get out there and race.

Kim’s goal for Ironman Wisconsin was to break 12 hours. He said he based this number on what he knew of his body’s ability to exert itself and on its limitations, but he viewed 12 hours as a very aggressive goal. Prior to Wisconsin, Kim had only ever run a 10K, so he did not know what to expect. The other members of the Yale triathlon team just wanted to finish — and they did, finishing in less time than either thought they would.

Though the weather conditions on the day of the race were miserable, the Bulldogs found some solace in the rain and cooler temperatures. Gramlich said the challenging conditions made finishing even more rewarding, while the others said they were simply glad the day had not been too hot.

In spite of the exhilaration of competing and completing an Ironman, the athletes found one of the most elating parts of the day to be the crowds that lined the course, since triathlons are not usually considered the most exciting sports to watch, especially when the weather conditions for the day were so unfavorable.

Gramlich said he cried at the end of his first biking loop when he saw his family’s smiling faces. It was at this point that they reached their hands up and Gramlich managed to make contact. Seeing how happy his family was to see him was enough to make him bawl, he said. James’ father was an avid supporter of the undergraduates; he stood on the side of the course and cheered on his son’s team.

But the familiar fans were not the only ones who kept up the energy of their friends and relatives. Each athlete wore a bib with his or her personal information on it, allowing various spectators to yell for men and women they had never met.

“It was almost as if I had to finish for all the fans out there, who were standing in the freezing rain, getting soaked to the bone,” Kim said. “Every time someone yelled my name, I could feel my body surging with a little more energy.”

More than just a race

An Ironman is not just a test of strength. It also requires mastery of two other disciplines — nutrition and logistics — as well as a certain financial commitment to buying and maintaining the necessary equipment and food.

Fueling the body is crucial to completing the course. Because the race takes the better part of the day and consumes a large number of calories, it is crucial for athletes to consume and digest. Race day snacks range from fruit to gels to even junk food.

“Your body is like a car,” Kim said. “You have to stop for gas all the time.”

There are aid stations along the course every 15 miles during the bike and marathon sections. Participants can also carry food in their bikes.

Gosselin, who prefers eating power bars, said she unwrapped her snacks in the morning, and also consumed gels and Gatorade. James, on the other hand, preferred to snack on nachos, while Gramlich, who has many food allergies, came equipped with his wife’s homemade, wheat-free granola bars.

In order to consume food and handle the inevitable chore of relieving oneself, participants in the triathlon had to work out the logistics of self-maintenance. This included such techniques as Gosselin’s open wrappers, and it also included tactics like slowing down in aid stations and using restrooms only when absolutely necessary. Logistics include methods of changing from wetsuits into biking and running gear. Failure to help and change oneself can waste precious seconds.

The race itself is long and can be very solitary. To cope with the sense of isolation, many participants make the event a more social one by chatting with one another. Kim said he met people with whom he had mutual friends, while Gramlich listened to the crazy stories of those from across the globe who he ran with.

The end?

140.6 miles, around 12 hours and over 8,000 calories later, the triathletes made it to the finish line to hear Reilly’s famous announcement.

“It isn’t about your time,” Kim said. “Everyone who hears Mike Reilly say, ‘You are an ironman,’ is a champion.”

But even though James and Gosselin said they do not remember hearing that exact phrase, the two Bulldogs can recall other parts of Reilly’s announcement. Gosselin said all she heard crossing the line was “Only 20 years old from New Haven, Connecticut.”

Similarly, James said he recalls hearing, “Only 19.” The rest, he said, was all in the distant background.

The 2006 Ironman Wisconsin may be over, but the race to do triathlons is just beginning for the three Bulldogs who competed in last week’s event.

“I’m completely hooked,” James said.

Despite the physical and monetary demands of preparing and competing in an Ironman, there is something about the sport that captures the spirit of anyone who participates. Although Gosselin said she isn’t sure where she’ll be after graduation in May, one thing is for sure — she’ll compete again.

“I love it when people say, ‘You’re freakin’ nuts,’” she said.

Now that Gramlich is married, he said, he is not sure whether he will compete in an Ironman again. But Kim, who initially said he would not commit himself to another Ironman due to the taxing nature of training, said he is now reconsidering.

“The Ironman spirit is in me,” he said.

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