Last April I returned to TV hosting for the first time since “Fresh TV” – for those who don’t know – it’s only the greatest travel-entertainment-reality-cable access show of all time. I was a co-host for a TV pilot called “Immersed,” which was a cross of “Dhani Tackles the Globe” and “Pros vs. Joes.” Essentially three co-hosts serve as adventurers and fully immerse themselves in the life of an action sports athlete for a week. The show was created by Joyce Entertainment, which is the executive producer of “Plimpton!” – a documentary that follows the incredible life of writer George Plimpton. He’s the psychiatrist that Good Will Hunting calls “gay.” He’s also a man that others call a real life Forrest Gump; he even tackled Sirhan Sirhan after Sirhan shot RFK.
The “Immersed” pilot was filmed in Kona, Hawaii, where the hosts followed and trained with world champion Ironman Chris Lieto. We stayed at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows, an exotic resort that included world class athletic facilities, including a top-50 golf course rated by Golf Magazine; tennis courts where Michael Chang played; and a Playboy Mansion-esque grotto serving as some sort of outrageously luxurious spa treatment.
This shoot was an exercise in awesomeness and I will most likely come off sounding like a real douche if you continue on. So call me a douche! I wrote a story about my experience and pitched it to Traithlete Magazine, ESPN.com, and Grantland, but the douche factor was too overwhelming. That’s why it’s appearing here on the blog. It’s a long-form piece that clocks in at a Simmons-esque 4,000 words, so I’ll be impressed if anyone actually finishes – a cookie to anyone who does! My preamble is complete.
“Just throw up.”
That was the advice the sleek man with the shaved head gleefully gave me as I hunched over my knees and contemplated what a terrible place Hawaii can be. “I… can’t,” I mustered, seemingly minutes between words.
“You’ll feel better. Just do it. Come on.”
The man continued, grinning from ear-to-ear like the Cheshire Cat; devious blue eyes hidden by a pair of customized Oakley Jawbones. The man could hardly contain himself. We’ve barely run two miles, and my legs had the consistency of sashimi while my heart pumped like Jason Statham’s in “Crank.”
This is training with three-time Ironman champion Chris Lieto.
THE PLIMPTON EFFECT
A month earlier, I received a call to train with Ironman Champion Chris Lieto for several days near his home in Kona, Hawaii. I would be one of four hosts for a TV show pilot. Essentially, I will immerse myself into the life of one of America’s best triathletes; follow his routine, observe what makes him tick and discover the demands of the sport. It would be a new age George Plimptonian maneuver.
|The talent of “Immersed”
Lieto is at the top of his sport. In addition to three Ironman wins, the 39-year-old has 16 top-level triathlon victories, a U.S. Ironman championship, and several top-10 finishes at the World Championships in Hawaii. He very likely would’ve taken last year’s title if not for being hampered by a stomach illness. Despite being under the weather, he still finished 10th. He’s a former college water polo player who got into the sport at 25, an age when most Ironmen begin their peak. A former fashion model, Lieto is now the model image of a triathlete.
Here’s the breakdown of my assignment: fly to the Big Island to meet with Lieto at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows, follow him around and try to keep up with him as best as possible as he bikes, runs, and swims around the resort in preparation for the Ironman World Championships. Seems innocent enough – except for the fact that I’m atrocious at all endurance sports.
I’m 30, stand 5’9, and weigh a relatively fit 165 pounds. I fancy myself as athletic, yet frequent visits to the chiropractor would argue otherwise. My swimming technique involves improper breathing, useless strokes, and voluminous imbibing of liquid. The last time I ran more than a mile was as a high school freshman. My bicycle is a women’s cruiser with a basket. I wish I made that up. Not even on Nintendo am I on the cusp of swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles – the distances in the Ironman World Championship. The closest I’ve been to an Ironman is Red Box; yet here I was, ready to go toe-to-toe with the best in the sport? Walter Mondale had a better shot of beating Reagan. Right?
ALOHA: AS IN GOODBYE
|View from hotel
As I set foot in the airy, ceiling-less Kona Airport, I’m taken to the lovely Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows; an upscale resort that caters specifically to athletes, and even more specifically – triathletes. It rests directly on two beaches so open water swimming is less than a stone’s throw away. The property features a multi-lane 25-meter lap pool with an instructor who has finished multiple Ironmans. The tennis court that looked straight from Flushing Meadows is complemented by two world class golf courses that “Golf Magazine” listed among North America’s best. That’s not even mentioning the full-scale outdoor spa center complete with what appears to be the grotto from the Playboy Mansion. The resort’s media relations director, Bree Dalwitz, says in her inviting Australian accent, that a soothing water massage is done in this cavernous inlet. I bet.
Despite these and numerous other amenities, it’s arguably the roads that are perhaps best suited for triathlon training. Long paved roads weave throughout the entire property like spilled spaghetti. The non-linear terrain helps train for uphill battles and downhill breakaways. Smoldering lava rocks assist heat acclimation. And of course, access to Kona’s main highway is a quick ride or run away. Some might say it’s perfect for cycling and running. I say it’s daunting.
LOOKING THE PART
My first introduction to Ironman training involves putting on a pair of Speedo-esque trunks known as “jammers.” They’re the exceptionally tight racing trunks that allow for minimal interference in the water – and minimal interpretation for the imagination. For some reason, my jammers are white in the rear and once wet — become somewhat transparent. Why on earth would you make a Speedo see-thru? Don’t get me wrong, I can think of reasons, but it doesn’t seem to help with performance. Perhaps the fact I’m dwelling on my new swim trunks and not focusing on swimming will affect my future performance? Nah.
|Later Donatello ate pizza and fought Shredder
In the water, the Speedos do make a difference. While board shorts weigh you down, these newfangled crotch-huggers allow freedom of movement and glide in water. If Walter Iooss Jr. took one of his classic close-up action photos, you’d probably be able to see the liquid roll off the body like oil and water.
Next it’s time to get fitted for a road bike at Cycle Station, a performance bike shop run by Oliver and Julia Kiel. Oliver has short brown hair and a thick German accent that makes him sound like Dirk Nowitzki. He’s a courteous guy, but when he talks to you, you get the sense that he’s got something better to do. Like train. Oliver is probably 95% more fit than any of his customers and seems to have the motor of a Volkswagen. He’s completed the Ultraman, which involves swimming 6.2-miles, cycling 261.4-miles, and running 52.4-miles and takes three days. That’s 320 miles combined, roughly the distance from Washington DC to Ontario. Dude be fit.
Oliver instructs me to change into my cycling bib. These look less like bike shorts and more like Borat’s fluorescent green mankini. Below the waist, the overall-style shorts provide significant butt padding; above, it prepares you to Greco-Roman wrestle Alexander Karelin. Its snug design minimizes wind resistance and makes you look as uncool as possible.
|So close to stealing this
Oliver fits me for a black-and-red Trek Madone 3 Series, an ultra light carbon-framed road bike with a value of about $2,100. For some reason, the bike conjured images of a black widow spider. As I first sit on this Ferrari of road bikes, I could practically hear it sighing in disappointment. The seat, or saddle, feels made of marble. It’s hard on the bum and my Rulon Gardner outfit immediately provides a solid return on the investment. The road bike puts you high in the air as you hunch over like Quasimodo to reach the handles. I doubt this posture is pediatrician recommended, but it apparently helps you go fast.
I’m wearing cycling shoes that require you to click onto the pedals. Attaching the shoe to pedal helps maximize speed and saves energy. Cyclists get power on the up and downstrokes. When the foot rises, so does the pedal, saving valuable joules when you’re working on mile 100 – or for me – 3. The trick, however, is getting in-and-out of these snapping contraptions without toppling over. It requires a quick thrust of the foot away from the bike – a maneuver I never mastered, but didn’t have to because I planned on using normal pedals when riding with Lieto.
My reasoning to bypass cycling cleats, other than to avoid broken wrists, which would’ve occurred while bracing for inevitable falls, was to help with my transition speed between the swim and cycling portions of the Ironman. While swimming, your bike, shoes, socks, water, and whatever else you need await you on a nice towel. When you emerge from the water, you run through the sand, wash your feet, put on your shoes, and cycle off as fast as possible.
During my transition practice, I could sense valuable seconds wasting away as I struggled to put my socks around my moist feet. So ultimately, I ditched my socks and put on my pre-tied running shoes. It helped with my transition speed. It also helped Dr. Scholl’s stock as I would undoubtedly have to buy some sort of foot odor spray after cycling.
As transition practice wrapped around 8 in the morning, Chris Lieto, his wife Karis, and their adorable 3-year-old daughter arrived at the Mauna Lani. They came bearing a large stroller filled to the brim with water and supplies. Lieto, draped in casual K-Swiss gear, isn’t a physically imposing force like say LeBron James or Peyton Manning, but the slightest glance and you can tell he’s an athlete. He’s as aerodynamic as a human can get. If LeBron James is a Lamborghini, Chris Lieto is a Ducati. He stands at 6-feet and is 160 pounds of lean, cut muscle. His body fat is in the negatives. His head is shaved to maximize performance. So are his legs and arms. Speed is in the subtleties. To win an Ironman, it not only takes extreme fitness, but also anatomical assistance. His fingernails seem trimmed to the maximum distance, but Lieto says some competitors remove them completely.
The workout itinerary includes a morning bike ride of 4.2-miles, a quick meal, followed by a 4.2-mile run. This is just a small excerpt from Lieto’s normal training, but for videography and production purposes – this is what we’ll do together. I am certainly cognizant that those numbers don’t sound daunting, but because they are so modest, it will undoubtedly make my struggles all the more humiliating. Make no mistake about it – I’m worried. I’m not quite George Clooney before his last stand against demon vampires in “From Dusk ‘til Dawn,” but I am concerned.
A production crew crams into a white Dodge minivan, leaving the trunk open to shoot unobscured video. Lieto hops on the saddle to his Trek bite and immediately flies along the roadside lava rock. His effortless pedaling resembles pistons firing off in an engine. Biking is Lieto’s strongest triathlon event. He’s widely considered the strongest cyclist in the field. In fact, Lance Armstrong even called him out to race.
“I found out about it on Twitter,” said Lieto of the seven-time Tour de France winner’s challenge. Armstrong tweeted he wanted to race Lieto as they trained separately in Kona early 2010. In what became known as the “Twitter Time Trial,” Armstrong beat Lieto by a mere 15 seconds in a 14-mile sprint.
|Lieto is like 27 miles behind me. Riiight….
In the beginning of my ride with the guy who barely lost to Captain Livestrong, everything felt great. The adjustment to the harsh saddle and the crouching tiger posture was easy. Concern of falling over on the narrow road bike subsided since there were no harsh acute turns on our route. That being said, I could still feel the strain on my legs as I cygled through even the slightest elevation change. My thighs burned. I tried to compensate by changing gears, but I could never remember which direction were the higher gears (for downhill riding), and which were the lower (for uphill). I cluelessly switched gears like a monkey handed a remote control, and this constantly resulted in excess joule exertion. As Lieto rode further ahead of me, I regretted forgoing the clip-in cycling shoes. The momentum of being attached to the pedal not only saves energy but propels you further faster, and I needed any advantage I could.
As we briefly ride side-by-side, Lieto tells me about the places he’s traveled to because of the sport. India, Africa, Mexico – he’s certainly seen his share of Sky Mall covers. But his trip to Mexico was perhaps the most poignant. That’s when he realized the depths of poverty firsthand, and juxtaposed that image with the all-inclusive resort he was staying at. He remembers clearly the images of impoverished young children sitting in trees and families living in cardboard boxes. It was an area of desperation and need.
That led him to begin “More Than Sport,” a non-profit organization devoted to helping children and communities around the world. According to its website, the organization has raised more than $100-thousand in supplies, education, health care and other needs in the last year. A man of deep faith, Lieto has enlisted other athletes to join More Than Sport’s cause of compassion.
Lieto pulls well ahead as we race back to the resort and I notice his legs. They are so sinewy his veins protrude like the sides of a 4th grader’s plaster of Paris volcano. In fact, they are so healthy they actually look unhealthy – almost fragile. His calves are rocks and his thighs are straight equine. Even when he coasts, Lieto looks to win.
After the ride, my legs are a bit jelly-like, but I’m satisfied with my performance. I know Lieto was operating on cruise control while I was going all out, but the fact I was able to remotely keep up was pleasing. My goals aren’t that lofty. Lieto heads off to grab another bite to eat, and the television hosts take turns cycling for the cameras. Altogether, we bike around 8.4 miles. About 15 minutes after the crew finishes individual cycling shots, it’s time to start running.
IT DEPENDS ON YOUR DEFINITION OF “SLOW”
The running route is the same as the cycling. I know for a fact I will not be able to keep up for long. The fact my legs feel like udon is not an excuse, but it is a convenient to note. Once again, we’ll chase the camera crew in a minivan. Apprarently “worry” is painted on my face, because Lieto leans to me and says, “We’ll go real slow.”
Thanks. But it won’t matter.
Lieto starts off at a super slow pace. His K-Swiss sneaks seem like they’re shuffling along the road. He’s a notch above speed-walking at this point.
|I begin to fall behind from the pack
Not me. His walk is my jog. Within a quarter mile, I’ve already significantly dropped off his pace. I’m sweating like Kris Humphries before proposing to Kim Kardashian and am barely registering in his rear view. By the ¾-mile mark, he’s a blip in the distance. I estimate my pace to be around an 8-minute mile. Considering I never run to just run, I have no real basis of comparison. If I were on a treadmill, it would feel like I’m going about level 5.5.
My heart is pumping hard. I’m trying to breath with discipline. Inhale through the nose. Exhale through the mouth. Some experts say you want to breathe with a 3-to-2 ratio. Meaning, you inhale on the left, right, left foot; then exhale on the right and left steps. This supposedly helps you get more oxygen to the muscles, while clearing the body of carbon dioxide. Regardless, the method is lost on me as I breathe like a Labrador in the Sahara. The front of my gray shirt sports a massive parabola of sweat that reaches below my navel.
By the time I reach the 1.75-mile point, I’m pretty sure Lieto has run to California. The Ironman, camera crew, co-hosts – all are long gone. I’m by myself “running” alongside the lava rocks. I take solace in the fact I don’t have a side ache, my legs haven’t cramped up, and I’m still going.
Eventually, the van returns and the producers tell me to stop. I didn’t reach my 2.1-mile finish point and wanted to keep going, but the film crew wants to capture different shots of each host running individually. The momentary break helps rejuvenate, but rejuvenation doesn’t mean reincarnation. I still can’t run fast or long and I’m quickly struggling again. I stop. Breathe heavily. Hunch over.
Lieto sees this from afar and decides I need some extra motivation. He runs to me, in high spirits, puts his hand over me, concerned for my well-being. Then smiles. Wide.
“Just throw up.”
I can’t do it. Even though I seemed to have reached the end of my running point for the day, I don’t have anything in the esophageal go-position. The thought of vomiting certainly doesn’t seem like it will make me feel better, especially since it would have to be self-induced – which Lieto insists I do. He’s playing with me now. When I tell him I have no intention of doing that, Lieto smiles, “It’ll be good for the camera.”
Seeing as how his goading will not work, Lieto runs off. Leaving me all by myself again. This time to walk.
|This would’ve been a preferred mode of transportation
The crew finishes getting all the shots they need and offer rides back to the resort. Lieto says he knows a short cut and starts running back. All the hosts follow, including myself, albeit reluctantly.
Soon enough they all run out of my vantage point again. But I can’t help but smile. That might be hyperbole because I’m too exhausted to lift the sides of my mouth – but I’m content. Sure I’m legions behind everyone else. If this were the 1994 Oscar race between “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Pulp Fiction” – I would be “Cabin Boy.” Yet I’m still jogging at this point. In my mind, that’s all that matters.
It’s about 6:30pm by the time we return to the Mauna Lani. We decide to eat dinner at the Ocean Grill, the resorts’ casual beachfront restaurant. It’s a low-key evening with Lieto – no cameras, just company.
Lieto orders an array of appetizers including tuna tartare. He’s quite the diet guru, which isn’t a surprise considering he’s constantly eating to compensate for his tremendous calorie burning. In fact, Lieto founded Base Performance, a nutritional supplement company for endurance athletes. Lieto says nutrition is vital to the success of a triathlete. A strong nutritional base helps the body train, recover, and adapt. He doesn’t cheat his body.
As I order a tantalizing, and masculine, tropical cocktail complete with pineapple chunk, cherry, but sans umbrella, he won’t even slip with a Michelob Ultra. Those commercials are full of shit.
As his fresh mahi mahi tacos arrive, Lieto has let a bit of his guard down, talking about growing up in Jersey and moving to California. At the beginning of the production, Lieto, like most professional athletes or entertainers, is careful as to what he admits and reveals. But in this dimly lit, relaxed setting with waves crashing behind us, he lets in. He tells us he’s a very religious man, which contributed to starting More Than Sport. He opens up about the difficulty of balancing training with family. He says the long hours and travel take its toll on the family; and he’s actually regretted not being more available in the past. But recently, he’s shifted his priorities and reaffirmed family as the most important part of his life. It’s all a balance.
|Mauna Lani’s backyard
He also admits he’s frustrated with television coverage of the sport, especially the main event and how the show has been condensed, glossed over, and dramatically packaged for the most casual viewer. Lieto distinctly resents Ironman commentator Al Trautwig’s on-air remark that Lieto would have to “wait ‘til next year” – a perceived affront to a man who’s dedicated his life to achieving a goal.
Lieto says his only goal left in the sport is to win the Kona World Championship. Realistically, he only foresees a few more years in the sport. While he’s on top of his game now, Lieto knows everything can change as quickly as his time trials.
At 6 a.m., Lieto is ready for an open water swim from Nanuku Inlet, thru Makaiwa Bay, to Beach Club Beach, roughly a distance of around 1600 feet. The third host of this production, Wes Dening, will swim alongside Lieto as best as he can. Dening is an outgoing Australian TV host and producer who used to swim competitively as a teenager, including against Aussie swimming superstar and Olympian Ian Thorpe, or the “Thorpedo”. Felsch, the other co-host, will kayak next to the swimmers as cameraman Brendan Love shoots video with a GoPro, one of those tiny mountable cameras that are used prevalently in sports videography. Lieto plans on swimming this distance to and fro several times; Dening, a round-trip. Me? I’m walking.
Lieto glides in the water like a greased up porpoise. It’s the sport he’s had to work hardest on to improve, and each effortless stroke proves how much that practice, time, and effort has paid off. There’s hardly any splash with each kick and stroke; and each controlled breathe is an exercise in discipline. Impressively, Dening is not far behind him and neither is winded by the time they reach the shore.
The swimming shoot requires each host to swim to and from a catamaran that’s anchored around 200 yards off shore. Being the poor swimmer that I am, this part of the triathlon gives me the most anxiety. Instead of my jammers, I’m wearing board shorts. I dive into the water, which is obligingly calm, and try to go for as long as I can. At what seems the 150-yard mark, I switch from freestyle to backstroke. 20 more yards and I’ve stopped swimming and start treading water. The crew continues to shoot from the kayak. In my head, I feel I can make it to the boat, but there would be zero chance I can swim back to shore. I make the call. The towel is thrown.
I turn around and head back in. After swimming for what might be around 30-yards or so, I’m completely gassed. I’m breathing heavily but no breath is satisfying enough. I grab the back of the kayak as the crew rows me back in. I ride to around 20 yards from shore then laboriously swim the remaining distance. Maybe 20 feet away from the beach, I can stand. The ground is rigid and full of uneven rocks, but to me it feels like heaven. I can’t wait to stand and walk. Once I make it to the beach, I can’t wait to lie and sleep.
Maybe 15 minutes later we shoot some more swimming scenes. It’s brief and not nearly as painful. After the cameras wrap, Lieto and Wes swim back to the resort, while Lindsey and I kayak. The training is over. The Ironman experience is complete.
BORN VS. BRED
Later that day we would shoot some interviews reliving our experience – or for me – the charade. Going into the week, I had this perception towards the Ironman – it’s a sport where athletes are bred, not born. To succeed in basketball, football, etc., there’s a genetic makeup involved. An average Joe, with all the practice in the world, cannot become an NBA superstar. There are physical limitations: height, vertical, speed. However, an Ironman consists of basic exercises: swimming, cycling and running. If you have the mental and physical discipline, finishing an Ironman can be achieved through hours of devotion (not finishing first, but finishing).
|Realizing one sucks at all sports is disheartening
Training with an Ironman, I feel that statement is only half-true. Surely it can be accomplished, but it takes a certain personality and mental make-up – and not everyone has it. Chris Lieto does. It’s less personal drive than instinct. When a friend ran over Lieto’s foot with a car and threatened his ability to walk – let alone do a triathlon – Lieto pushed himself through the pain and eventually became an Ironman champion. It was something he knew he had to do. Lieto has molded his mind in such a way that his threshold for pain is like few others. Heck, it’s nothing short of David Blaine if you ask me. The mental mastery it takes to be a top-flight Ironman competitor is just as impressive and rare as Andy Roddick’s 155-mph serve or a Wayne Rooney bicycle kick.
Over the course of the week, Lieto told me several times, “Anyone can do a triathlon. It’s just a matter of how long it takes to finish.” Looking back, I question if that’s truly accurate. What I do know, is that it sure helps with a kayak.