Some athletes take a big step out of their comfort zone and participate in a full running or ski marathon, or maybe enter a century bike race.
Some–just for the variety of it–enter a lengthy triathlon.
As over-the-top as those events seem to the average Joe, try to imagine combining a century-plus ride with a full running marathon. After swimming for more than an hour for 2.4 miles.
Two Merrill natives and another long-time resident did more than just imagine the gut-busting effort of competing in an Ironman triathlon, they trained and completed the Ironman Wisconsin, held September 9 in Madison.
MHS grads of 2001 and close friends Tyler Gehrmann and Jake VanDerGeest, both 30, and resident Kesh Pillai, 44, all mention the personal trial as a driving impetus.
“I just looked at it as a big, big challenge,” VanDerGeest said. “It would take a large commitment to pull off. I always look in life for bigger challenges and this is one of them.”
Gehrmann added, “Two year before I had done a triathlon with Jake, in Waupaca, and the next year we did a few more. It was a fun activity. I enjoy the cycling part; it’s not as monotonous as just a long run. I guess it was the challenge of it. We figured if we could do a (Racine) half-marathon, we could take on the full Ironman.
“It’s a race not so much against other people as against yourself, proving you can do it.
Pillai noted, “I don’t like water. I have a neck injury. I can’t find shoes that fit properly. I don’t like treadmills. I can’t sit on a bike for more than an hour. Plus, I had lots and lots of other excuses as to why I shouldn’t attempt an Ironman race. However, I didn’t want to be 80 years old and reflect on my life and say, ‘I could’ve done an Ironman, but I chose not to because of (place excuse here).’
“My dad tried to instill in me the desire to push myself in three areas of my life–physical, mental and spiritual. As intimidating as this race is, I wanted to see if an average guy had what it took to complete swimming 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and then run a 26.2 mile marathon in 17 hours. My desire was not to brag, but to inspire.”
You might imagine a person would fight demons of anguish and pain before and during an event of this magnitude. In Pillai’s case you would be right.
“The hardest part of training wasn’t doing the distances, it was pushing myself without causing injury,” he said. “About two months out from the race, my legs gave me some difficulties and I even considered not doing the race (thanks Dr. Silverman!). However, I didn’t want to give up because of all the training I had done up to that point, so I pressed on.
“During the race, the hardest part was keeping myself hydrated and eating yucky power gels/bars to avoid cramping and body failure. I’m pretty sure I swallowed half of Lake Mendota during the swim portion. The Madison bike course has the most hills of all the Ironman courses; plus it was windy. At about Mile 15 during the run I felt my body cramping up. That’s when my family and CHAOS youth group members prayed for me and amazingly, the cramps went away very quickly. After completing the race I felt as if a weight of doubt was lifted off me.”
But the younger pair found the race surprisingly well within their limits.
“My body felt pretty good,” VanDerGeest stated. “Obviously I was a little exhausted, but I didn’t cross the finish line thinking I couldn’t take another step. So I think the training regimen Tyler and I did–we did the same plan–was the right one.
“The biggest challenge during the race was the swim. If someone hasn’t seen the swim in an Ironman, I suggest they YouTube it. It’s just a mass of people. I was getting punched in the goggles, kicked in the back. Mentally, the biggest challenge was to focus on keeping proper form and keep moving in the water.
“The bike ride was tough, too. Madison is one of the hilliest courses, but the nice thing is fans lining the hills cheering you on. Having my family there was a big deal, too. Seeing them on the bike course and run course helps keep things in perspective. Like I can do this; I can do this for them. It just gives you added motivation.”
Gehrmann used a piecemeal trick.
“During the race it was all about breaking it into smaller pieces,” he said. “During the bike ride I would think 30 miles more, 30 miles more, taking it piece by piece, not thinking of it as a 112-mile bike ride.
“Concentrating a lot on what you’re eating and drinking takes your mind off it, as well. You’ve got to take in a lot of calories during the day. It is (difficult) for me on the run, so I focused during the bike ride, every half hour, what should I eat or drink by that time.
“After it was done, I think the runner’s high after spending over 11 hours out on the course, and the sheer satisfaction of completing it, is tough to explain. I was all smiles. You don’t notice any aches or pains at that point.”
Gehrmann finished a very respectable 289th overall in 11 hours, 17 minutes and 37 seconds, while VanDerGeest ranked 477th in 11:45:11. Pillai was timed in 15:40:55, rating 2,096th of nearly 3,000 finishers to breach the 17-hour cut-off.
Jake turned in the fastest swim of the trio at 1:13:30, followed by Tyler (1:29:32) and Kesh (1:43:55).
Tyler passed Jake later in the bike ride, as they posted times of 5:46:00 and 6:06:59, and Tyler brought the run home in 3:45:27 to Jake’s 4:04:35. Kesh had a bike time of 7:57:18 and run of 5:29:52.
“I caught up to Jake on the bike and we rode together and talked for a bit,” Gehrmann said. “It was neat. I thought at some point we might cross paths. Jake always beats me in the swim.”
Considerable preparation is needed to beat that time limit, made all the more difficult for family man Pillai with five kids and a dual job as an NTC alternative high school teacher and youth pastor at Bible Presbyterian Church.
“The training took a measure of dedication I wasn’t sure I had (lots of family time sacrificed...thank you, Sue, for believing in me), and the race was a lot more of a mental game than a physical torture,” he said. “I give God all the credit for giving me the ability to finish this race, and I want to use this experience to show Jesus in my life. After completing the race, I am solidified in my belief that it isn’t your accomplishments or awards that makes someone a ‘man.’ To me, what makes someone a true man is the depth of his character and the ability to place the needs of others before his own.
“I didn’t like any of the training schedules I found online, so I made my own. I knew the distance of the race, so for about a year I trained my body to get used to a certain distance and then up the distance slowly. During winter, I rotated days of running on a treadmill and using stationary bike for hours and hours at the gym. I used a portable DVD player to watch movies to avoid being utterly bored.
“When spring came, I shifted to running and biking outside as well as doing endless laps in an indoor pool. Eventually, I trained by combining 2 of the 3 events- such as run/bike, swim/run, swim/bike. Eventually I had to combine all three areas and train with long distances to see how my body held up. I rotated between Riverside Athletic Club, Wausau YMCA, NTC gym and Snap Fitness.”
VanDerGeest is also married, but with two young children, while Gehrmann is engaged and soon to wed. Jake sells medical supplies for diabetics while living in Racine, while Tyler travels frequently for management consulting out of Plymouth, Minn.
“Yeah, that was the biggest challenge–to fit in time to train,” Jake said. “There were a lot of early mornings. My youngest son, Logan, was born the week after I started my 30-week training plan.
“I have a friend who did the Ironman last year, and a book he suggested I buy, Be Iron Fit, has several plans and gives lots of suggestions. (Tyler and I) followed the same plan. It was really nice that we met up several times in Madison to bike the course, did the Verona Olympic Triathlon and the Racine Half-Ironman. When you ride the course a few times, from a mental standpoint it definitely helps out.”
Tyler appreciated the joint plan.
“The training is fatiguing with lots of weekends of long bike rides and long runs,” Tyler said. “It was neat Jake and I were able to meet up and do a few bike rides in Madison and a 2.4-mile swim. Even though we were far away, it helped to share the aches and pains with Jake.
“You definitely need to prioritize. Fortunately for me, during the week I was able to fit it in. Being on the road helped, too, since there’s not much else to do but go back to the hotel.”
All three see another potential Ironman in their future, but have put it on the back burner.
“I want to be an example to my own children of what can be accomplished through training and pushing yourself to your limits,” Kesh said. “I would do another Ironman someday, but only if my children do it with me.”
“Yes, I will,” Tyler said. “Not next year, but at some point in the future I will definitely have to do another one. I’ll try to find a half for next summer, but a full will be a year or two down the road, yet.”
“I think eventually I will,” Jake added. “My sister (Jess) said at some point she is interested in doing one. She does marathons now, but said how motivating it was to see me do the Ironman.”