Beyond Natural Limits
Sandy Native Peter Wenzel prepares for multiple Ironman events in four months. But the training and the race test his reasons for competing
On the big island of Hawaii, the town of Kona sheds its traditional surfer and beachgoer paradise identity and transforms into purgatory for those willing to not test, but rather exceed their physical limitations.
Every October, it is home to the Ironman World Championship triathlon, a life-changing event that feeds upon individuals whose work ethic is rare. It consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and ends with a 26.2-mile run - the distance of a marathon.
Its reputation alone scares many away.
Those who complete it, though, believe they've accomplished one of life's most trying feats.
That's what brought Sandy native Peter Wenzel to Kona last October. It would be the last of two Ironman events in four months.
Wenzel completed Ironman Coeur d'Alene, his first Ironman event, in June. It was there Wenzel qualified for the world championship in Kona - the Mecca for competitive triathletes.
Since winter of 2010, Wenzel had this event circled on his calendar, but completing two Ironman's in four months turned his preparation into an occupation. It would be the culmination of a three-year devotion to the sport.
In the month's prior to Kona, the training became an addiction.
Wenzel's perpetual desire to train and enter races was to discover what his mind and body could endure. Pinnacles didn't exist, only gateways to new, laborious challenges.
In a sport where a number determines your success, it was easy to determine your worth, and it fit his goal-oriented personality.
While being driven by a time, Wenzel crossed the finish line 30 minutes short of his goal and three minutes short of his personal record. At that moment, those three minutes defined his months of training. But in the hours and days and weeks to follow, Wenzel's expedition continues. Not so much physically, rather mentally, as he discovers more significant reasons why he is a triathlete.
'It's simply an opportunity for me to turn around, look back, learn and get back at it,' he says.
Wenzel's introduction to triathlons began with a recommendation from a friend: complete a duathlon.
He never expected it to become an obsession.
Peter Wenzel is an ironman.
Valedictorian of Sandy High School's class of 2006, Wenzel spoke at his graduation. He talked about his mother, Gillian, who struggled severely with depression. On February 4, 2005, during Wenzel's junior year in high school, she took her own life. Just 17 years old and the oldest of four brothers, Wenzel's character was tested.
'Choosing our fate and then collapsing at the first sign of trouble will equate to many lost dreams,' he said during his speech. 'Instead, with every action that each one of us takes, we need to commit to battle it through, fighting to the very end.' Speaking to classmates, who were just embarking on their adult lives, the value of the message was immeasurable. Everyone will face tragedies and obstacles. It's how we respond that will define us, he said.
'I am here today to share with you that there is always hope in life, no matter how dim the situation may appear,' he said. As true then as it is today, obstacles impel Wenzel to be successful. Following her death, Wenzel continued to excel in school. He maintained a 4.0 grade point average throughout high school.
This wasn't just a chance to act for himself. He asked to be an example of how limitations can be broken.
Responding to tribulations positively was habitual for Wenzel.
- 'This will be like
nothing you've ever
It was June 2011 and Wenzel, 24, was in the heart of his 10-month training excursion. Ironman Coeur d'Alene was a couple weeks away and staring down Wenzel like a tidal wave. But Wenzel was too eager to be intimidated.
He had trained for other triathlons, but the training for the Ironman was a lifestyle. He was unquestionably devoted to anything and everything that the preparation required. And the requirements were more than logging long hours on the bike, in the pool and on a run.
His workouts were a science. Every calorie and every type of food he ingested was tracked. He wore a Garmin heart rate monitor to gauge how hard he was pushing himself. He was fixated with that watch. He recorded how he slept each night to see how he responded to his workouts. Given the chance, he stretched the limit of what he could endure.
Wenzel describes himself as having a Type-A personality - he's aggressive, ambitious and competitive - and that's why triathlons were enthralling. He could structure his life in a way that would maximize his production. The devotion wasn't a chore.
It was nirvana.
And because this was a new experience, Wenzel's relationship with aura of the Ironman was still in its honeymoon stage.
'The first Ironman, you're excited,' he says. 'You've never done it. The whole thing is new.'
Triathlons also suited his personality because the results were tangible, and Wenzel was about to learn the worth of his commitment.
In terms of the script of the race, it's predictable - 140.6 total miles.
How the body will respond is anything but. Competitors race at the mercy of the Ironman.
Wenzel, however, was in control throughout the race. His submersion in the training was being rewarded, and the training was proving more difficult than the race.
Peter's sister, Rachel, was watching the race online and texting their father, Dave, with updates on Peter. When Peter finished the swim, Rachel's text to Dave read, 'Did you know Peter's in 700th place?' It was impressive for a first-time competitor.
But Peter was just warming up. After the bike ride, Rachel's text said, 'Did you know Peter's in 168th place?'
Dave met Peter at the eighth mile of the run and asked how he was doing.
'Phenomenal,' Peter replied. He was adrenalized, and most importantly he felt in rhythm.
Then Dave told Peter he was in 168th place. Without hesitation, Peter responded, 'really?' and took off, hoping to increase his position. 'That's so Peter,' Dave says.
Days before the race, Peter called his dad to talk about the race. Peter jokingly told Dave that if his time was better than 11 hours, he would go pro.
He finished in 10:26.
'Our jaws were on the ground,' Dave says.
The next morning, Peter learned he qualified for the world championship in Kona. It was another chance to challenge himself. His test for Kona: break 10 hours.
- 'You may superficially feel good… but you quickly realize you have such little energy' -
Four weeks. For every athlete it varies, but that's roughly how long it takes to recover from an Ironman. The recuperation is as detailed as the training, but it can also be overlooked. Moments after Peter crossed the finish line at Coeur d'Alene, he was thinking about how he could improve his time at Kona - a time he couldn't even fathom before the race.
'I wanted to get back into it as quickly as possible,' he says.
Peter's post-Ironman plan had been devised weeks earlier. The first week is largely spent avoiding bikes or pools or running. In week two, Peter gradually increased his running distance, but mindful of what his body could handle. The time and distance of the workouts progresses in the third week, and by the fourth week, Peter should feel optimal.
The recovery depended on listening to his body because within a week, Peter's mind was bombarding him with lies that he was fine.
'Triathletes in general are all Type-A personalities, and we're all driven,' Peter says. 'Sometimes we overlook the recovery portion.'
So Peter tried to ignore his mind and trust his training plan like a Bible, as he gradually prepared for Kona.
- 'It's very easy to let this sport suck you up very quickly and then you're burnt out' -
Kona was about a month away, and Peter's relationship with the Ironman was becoming stale. Every day for nine months, Peter had grinded through workouts, rallied for 100-mile bike rides when it was raining and scripted each day.
'I was on the edge (of breaking down),' he says.
The motivation that had kept him energized was quickly fading. Then four weeks before the race, Peter faced another hurdle. He tore his anterior tibialis, a muscle located near the shin. Doctors told Wenzel the recovery takes six weeks. The good news: he wouldn't make the injury worse by competing. But the Ironman was still in jeopardy.
His training was severely limited. He could swim and bike, as long as he took it easy, but he could only get in two more runs before Kona.
Exhausted and overwhelmed Peter called his father for the inspiration he was struggling to find.
'I remember talking to my dad and saying, 'tell me I can get through this. Tell me that this is worth it. Tell me that I'm close,' ' Peter says.
'(The Ironman) was beyond anything that I've ever been involved in before,' says Dave, who has competed in Hood to Coast 14 times. 'It's really hard to comprehend how much it cuts into your schedule.'
Peter did find relief from his injury with a compression sock. It took away much of the pain, and with it, he'd be able to race.
Peter's time with his friends and family had been limited because of his training, so a week before the Ironman, Peter and his family traveled to Kona for a pre-race vacation. He also wanted to build up his excitement and anticipation. For a stale relationship, there's nothing better than a trip to Hawaii.
- 'For me, it's about achieving a
As he drove to the race, he experienced feelings of nervous anticipation. After he checked in, there is about 45 minutes until the race starts. He tried to remain calm, knowing it's important to pace yourself mentally as well as physically.
As far as the pain from his injury, it wasn't as bad as he anticipated. The sock was working, and he didn't believe it would be a hindrance.
At the starting gate, the gun is fired, and Peter, who is treading water with more than 1,800 other triathletes begins the swim. With that many flailing limbs, the swim becomes about self-preservation. From land, the water appears to be boiling as racers fight each other for position. A fellow training partner in Kansas City used to jokingly tell Peter he would just make fists and start swinging.
'It really throws you for a loop, and your adrenalin is rushing, and it's really hard to catch your breath and get into a rhythm,' Peter says.
When he got farther into the swim the bodies started to dissipate, but Peter still couldn't find his rhythm. Prior to the race, he felt his swim had improved, but he got out of the water in 1:22 - seven minutes slower than his target time.
'It certainly hadn't improved,' says Peter, who was in 1,500th place after the swim. 'I was pretty disappointed by the swim.'
He wasn't just disappointed, though. He was infuriated.
Before the race, his coach, Ben Schloegel, told Peter to just enjoy the whole experience. Running on anger, however, Peter's transition time between the swim and the bike went quickly.
On the bike, it was like he had been hit by a branding iron. With 138.2 miles remaining in the race, it's important to pace yourself. Initially, Peter just wanted to make up time. The bike was his best leg of the race, so this was the time to do it. It was working. He was passing hundreds of competitors, but it didn't last.
Around the 70th mile, Peter started to struggle, mentally and physically. Peter was well outside of town, on a road in the middle of a lava field. It was over 100 degrees, and this Ironman was unfolding much differently than in Coeur d'Alene.
There were water stations positioned 10 miles apart and each became a landmark where he would drench himself and be refreshed for the next 10-mile chunk of road. Then he's focus on each rotation of the pedals - left, right, repeat.
He'd think about his family and spend a few minutes praying for them.
Peter was trying desperately to escape the anguish.
Peter's family was positioned along the bike course. Their cheers provided Peter with vigor.
The cheers increased as Peter reached the end of the bike ride. Crowds surrounded the transition area between the bike and the run, spurring Peter on as he started the marathon.
'In a way, I do look forward to the run,' he says. 'It can be fun, and at that point the crowds are out cheering you on. The finish is almost, sort of, kind of in sight. But you're on the last leg, so it will be the most difficult.'
Forcing himself to grind through the bike portion moved him up more than 600 spots, but it also drained him heading into the strenuous road run.
'My gut told me it was going to be a long four hours,' he says.
The crowds were out for the first six miles, and energized, Peter searched for a decent pace, which still proved elusive. His vibrancy and his drive were fading, and now his nutrition plan was failing too.
Just as he did during Coeur d'Alene, he limited himself to Gatorade, water and power gel packets. But, now, every time he took a gel packet, his body would reject it. His jog became a run as he looked for the next bathroom.
'It threw me for such a bad loop,' Wenzel says. 'If there's anything that's going to mess with you mentally and mess with you physically and mess with your rhythm, it's stopping and going to the bathroom.'
Once he stopped, Peter regrouped, but he realized he wasn't going to break 10 hours. He was devastated but still motivated. Now he just wanted to better his personal record. 10:26, that was the time to beat.
'So I calculated what I needed to do in my head, as far as per mile, and it came out to around eight minutes per mile, which was totally doable for me,' Peter says.
Around mile marker eight, he
saw his father and said, ' 'Dad, I'm going to (set a personal record). I'm going to do it.' '
But twice more Peter needed to make pit stops.
'It was incredible how up and down I was the whole day,' he says. '(I've) never experienced this before.'
Hitting the line in 10:26 seemed unlikely.
- 'I'm not going
to PR' -
Much of the race was an out-of-body experience for Peter. The tricks he was using to escape his suffering had been working. There were times during the bike ride where his family saw Peter, but Peter didn't remember seeing them.
On the run, again, it became a mind game. He'd feel good, then he'd feel terrible, and that jostling continued throughout the run.
'It played with my mind in so many different ways,' Peter says. With every mile, 10:26 was slipping away.
Dave was positioned two miles from the finish line and had calculated when Peter would need to reach him to break 10:26. The time came and went without sight of Peter. One minute passed, then two minutes passed, and he still hadn't emerged from around a corner.
Two and a half minutes after Dave's calculated time, a teary-eyed Peter came into sight. For the past few miles, he had been overcome by an unacceptable realization.
Those tears Dave saw were not just a byproduct of Peter experiencing more pain than he had ever felt.
Around mile 22, Peter realized 10:26 was unreachable.
For once, Peter wasn't going to succeed by his standards.
Peter's mind never thought a goal was unattainable, but his body couldn't meet the required pace. This ironman, who never reached his limit, had expended every ounce of energy he had - a couple miles short of the finish line.
Peter was raw. He didn't care what happened to him. He didn't care where he was or where he was going. He was as vulnerable as he could be.
'It tore me up,' he says.
Peter spent each day for the last 10 months thinking about this one day. He had spent 279 days living for Oct. 8. Here it was, and Peter didn't break 10 hours and wasn't going to set a personal record.
Despite the pain, despite the exhaustion, despite the disappointment, maybe Peter's toughest challenge that day was to discover the less tangible reasons why he was a triathlete and why he was in Kona.
'It was a very defining moment for me,' Peter says. 'I really had an opportunity to think about all the reasons why I was out there, aside from simply the time. I'm very competitive, but the opportunity I had to spend it with my family, to be in the world championship, to go on vacation, those are all things that I really worked hard in those last few miles to appreciate.'
He was pushing himself to bounds he had never experienced. Without the incentive of 10:26, amazingly, Peter's drive never stalled. No matter when he crossed underneath the white arch with the revered Ironman logo centered across the top, Peter was trying to do it without regrets.
'I want to cross the finish line and just drop to the ground,' Peter uttered to himself.
He was in an all-out sprint. He was searching for reason and searching for energy. He was just yards from the finish line and with a look of torment and determination.
'It was difficult to see him in that amount of pain,' Dave says.
At 10:29:53, with his arms raised and a gleaming smile, Peter crossed the finish line - three minutes short of his personal record. Disappointment existed, but Peter was trying to fight it.
In a state of exhaustion he's never experienced, two volunteers escorted Peter to a rest area. He needed to be alone. His mind was racing without control. He was trying to process why he had devoted so much of his life to this. For about 20 minutes, Peter tried to 'get back to planet Earth,' he says.
When he crossed the finish line, he told himself he would smile. He tried to maintain that outlook in the moments following the race. But thoughts of those three minutes remained.
- 'I want to make sure that I'm out there because I love it' -
After Kona, Peter has transitioned into a life free of Ironman obligations. His days are no longer a juggling act, where he lives minute to minute.
Peter is stepping away from triathlons - he is not sure if this move is permanent or temporary. Although, he does believe he'll compete again in some fashion. It's just deciding how much time he wants to devote to the sport.
He wants his enjoyment of the sport to come from greater reasons than a time. Discovering those reasons is an ongoing process - one that's often been a topic of conversation between Peter and Dave.
'I think you have to find some amount of joy in what you are doing,' Dave says. 'If you are able to find enjoyment, don't do it out of a compulsion to win. This should be a spiritual experience for a person, otherwise it's just a duty and obligation and you're going to burnout.'
He's experiencing an Ironman rehab of sorts.
'I think the really important thing that I've worked hard at in the weeks that have followed this race is to gain perspective,' he says.
He is currently working as a distribution business manager with Texas Instruments. And today, no longer buried by the intense training hours, he works 80 hours per week
Regardless of his decision, Peter will remain driven, eagerly awaiting opportunities to challenge himself.
Peter Wenzel is an ironman.