My feature on Tim DeBoom’s 2001 Ironman World Championship for our December, 2001 issue of Competitor Magazine
Tim DeBoom needs it.
Badly. Sure, he’s happy for
his friend Peter Reid.
But fair is fair.
He has waited in the shadows
His year, his life, and his career
are wrapped around this one day.
That is his mantra.
Just win it.
The date was October 14, 2000. They embraced at the finish line. What could be better? Two training partners, two buddies taking first and second place at the most important triathlon on earth. But as they dripped sweat on each other, their thoughts were oh, so different. “I was thinking, ‘I lost the Ironman by two lousy minutes,” remembers Tim DeBoom. “I knew that every time I went out for a ride or a run or a swim for the next 12 months, that two minutes would both haunt me and push me. Two minutes? You’ve got to be kidding.” Peter Reid, on the other hand, saw the same two minutes, but it told him an entirely different story. “Winning that race was so hard knowing that Tim was coming back on me,” remembers Reid. “Every step was agony. It was so much tougher than my first win in Hawaii. I decided that 2001 would not be close. I would train so hard that I wouldn’t just win the lronman, I’d dominate.”
Be careful what you wish for.
It’s an oxymoron. When you use the word ‘dominate’ and ‘Ironman’ together, caution is in order. Kona is a magical place that is both dangerous and beautiful at the same time. Over time, you learn that it is important to tread lightly on Madame Pele’s turf. The wind howls, the heat bakes, and the body suffers. That is a given. But when will the wind start to swirl? Will the day dawn calm and stay that way? Or will the Mumuku winds devour your best laid plans and leave you – and them – mutilated on the side of the Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway.
The Ironman doesn’t offer perks to former champions like two-time winner Reid. Just like everyone else, there is but one option: One foot, then the other. Repeat. And pray you get there first. After the 2000 race, Reid had begun training full time with Lance Armstrong’s main man, Chris Carmichael. If Reid rode faster than ever before, the Ironman would be over by the time he got off the bike. The run would simply be a parade lap. Wave to the crowd, kiss some babies, collect his $70,000, and become a three-time champion. It all sounded so perfect.
“I never took any time off after last year’s Ironman,” admits the Canadian. “I was doing more in November than I had ever done in my life. I was so pumped up from my win that everything seemed so easy. I was so psyched. I was doing six-hour rides all alone in the pouring rain and loving it. I had won by just a little over two minutes. No way that was going to happen again.”
Carmichael’s philosophy might be great for a cyclist like Lance Armstrong, but it didn’t work for someone who had to balance running, swimming, and cycling. Reid went backwards on the bike and wore himself out with his huge mileage and long training days. By the time Wildflower rolled around in early May, Reid was totally toasted. He had dug himself a Grand Canyon-sized hole that he would spend the rest of the season trying to burrow out of. By June he had gone back to his original coach, Roch Frey.
“It was too much,” says Reid. “My cycling suffered and my weight dropped. In the past when I won Ironman, I was at 164 pounds. This year when I arrived in Kona I came in at 158.”
Tim DeBoom, on the other hand, was a man on a mission. A little over two minutes – 129 ticks of the clock to be exact. That was the motivation, that was the impetus. “There wasn’t a day that went by where I didn’t think about it,” says DeBoom. “What could I have done differently? Peter was dying, but I wasn’t doing much better. He was coming back to me, but not fast enough. I had this image in my mind for a long time – Peter running away from me. It’s a lot tougher on you to finish second than it is to finish third. I knew that, if I was going to win it this time, I had to have a plan and not deviate.”
Well….let’s say not deviate MUCH.
The plan was to get an Ironman out of the way early, in April in Australia. But DeBoom overheated in the swim and, his body steaming, had to be pulled from the water. He returned to the states and immediately signed up for Ironman California in May. He ended up going head-to-head with his older brother Tony before surging away around 18 miles into the marathon. “Getting my first Ironman win was big for me,” he insists. “It made me feel like everything was falling into place for Kona.”
Things were not falling into place for defending champion Reid. He dropped out of lronman Europe in Germany and decided to fill the void and build his confidence by going back to Ironman Canada where he was the defending champion. Canada was a scant five weeks before Kona. “I won Canada six weeks before Kona last year,” says Reid. “I didn’t think it would be a problem to recover.”
He won easily.
“Everything in Canada went perfectly and going into Ironman I felt great.”
Kona. The Big Kahuna. The one lronman where everyone would be: two-time champion Luc Van Lierde along with Germany’s best: including 1997 champion Thomas Hellriegel, Lothar Leder, Jurgen Zack and Normann Stadler. Top athletes gear their entire season around traveling to the Kona Coast for the infamous dance with the devil.
“The Ironman is six months away,” said Tim DeBoom after Ironman California, “and I can make myself physically ill just thinking about what I’ll be feeling the night before the race when I go to bed and at 4:30 in the morning when the alarm goes off.”
The alarm went off for DeBoom early in the Ironman bike ride when he was pulled over by lead marshal Charlie Crawford. That meant he had to do a stand down on the side of the road and then a three-minute stretch in the ‘sin bin’ at the end of the bike ride. “It was a tough situation to deal with,” remembers DeBoom. “Last year I dropped my chain and had to go hard to catch up. That uses up extra energy. I knew that meant I needed to eat more. I needed to ride hard to get a couple of minutes on Peter, Lothar, and Luc to make up for my three-minute penalty.” At Waikoloa, Germans Andreas Niedrig and Lothar Leder led, but Van Lierde, Reid, DeBoom, Stadler, Spencer Smith, Hellriegel, and the other players were all right there.
Except for one. The X Factor known as Steve Larsen.
Larsen started out as a roadie and was a teammate of Tour de France Champion Lance Armstrong on the Motorola Team in the mid 1990s. He came over to triathlon from the sport of mountain biking where he was a two-time NORBA National Champion and immediately made an impact. He was fourth in his first-ever road triathlon at Wildflower. “When he passed me on the bike, I thought he was just some roadie out for a ride,” remembers Jurgen Zack the day before Ironman. “Cam Widoff goes, ‘Hey … he’s in the race.’ I was pretty impressed by the way he rode by us.”
A long pause.
“But that was Wildflower and that was in May.” Big smile. “This is not Wildflower. This is not May. This is the Ironman.”
Since Wildflower, Larsen has won both the Vineman Half lronman – running a sub-1 :15 half marathon – and Ironman Lake Placid where he ran a 2:57 marathon after obliterating the field on the bike. Larsen came out of the water on Ironday in 240th place. He was hoping for a 57 or 58 minute swim. Instead, he was 1:00:45. “I was concerned, thinking I was 12 down to the lead,” he recalls. “But it turns out everyone was off by about two or three minutes. I was really only eight down. I might have been too hasty early and gone too hard.” On his hot new 27″ Lotus with the 56×11 monster gear on the front, he went through the field faster than a Sumo convention through a Denny’s all-you-can-eat buffet. “I was taking some chances out there,” he says. “I was really hanging it out in the tailwind section.” Headwinds and crosswinds were plentiful, but tailwinds… On this particular day, they were as rare as body fat in Kailua Bay.
How windy was it, you ask?
Let’s take a listen to one Kimberly Arsenault of Toronto, Canada, who was doing her first Ironman in Hawaii. On the way to Kawaihae she was blown completely off her bike by one of the 45-mile-per-hour gusts. She lay on the ground and, one hand on her brake hood, attempted to stand up. The bike blew into the air like a kite and was hovering at a 45-degree angle pointed to the sky as the 5’2″ 100-pound Arsenault attempted to hang on for dear life. Sister Madonna Buder rode by and yelled for her to get control of her bike. “I was trying to get my hand on the handlebar to bring the bike to the ground, but the wind was too strong,” Arsenault remembers. This is a 22-pound bike and, yes, the wind is keeping the damn thing airborne. “I’m thinking, ‘This is stupid,’” she says, “I never swear and I must have used the ‘f’ word 1,000 times that day.” Eventually, a marshal showed up and helped her lower her Cervelo to earth. “He says ‘You are a hazard right now and I’m here to help.’ He held the bike down so that I could get back on. I was going about 11 kilometers an hour on the flats. It was awful.”
Steve Larsen had no time to worry about the gusts. He was busy out-splitting the field by almost 12 minutes. “He went by me like a rocket,” says Normann Stadler. “I couldn’t believe he was going that fast. I thought I had no legs, but I was going 35 kilometers per hour when he went by. He put 200-300 yards on me in 20 seconds.” Thomas Hellriegel was equally impressed. “I liked his pedal stroke,” Hellriegel admits. “It was very nice to watch.” He didn’t get to watch it for long as Larsen hammered his way toward the lead. Peter Reid was more concerned about Tim DeBoom. And DeBoom? He couldn’t have answered the challenge if he wanted to. “At the point Steve passed me I was feeling so crappy I couldn’t even think of going with him,” says DeBoom. “I wanted to make sure I had a lead on Peter going into the run. Because I knew I was going to lose three minutes to him in the penalty box.”
At 80 miles, Larsen had gone by everyone except Normann Stadler. By mile 95, Larsen was leading, but he was running out of road. He was hoping to have upwards of 10 minutes by the end of the ride on DeBoom, Reid, and Van Lierde. By the end of the ride, he had about five minutes on them. A mile and a half into the run, he had 4:45 on Reid, 6:00 on Stadler, and, after his stand down, 7:28 on DeBoom.
“I thought I was there,” admits Peter Reid. “Going into the race, I felt so ready, so confident.”
By the run, he just felt flat.
“I never felt this drained before,” remembers Reid. “I did a lot of things wrong. I skipped my special needs bags. I never do that. I thought, ‘I’m going to win today….’ and then I was walking.”
And then he was out. Along with Spencer Smith, Luc Van Lierde, Dave Scott, Jurgen Zack, Tony DeBoom, Bryan Rhodes, and many, many more. It was that type of day. On one minute, gone the next.
DeBoom caught his old training partner along Ali’i Drive and tried to get Reid to run with him. It was no use. “I said, ‘Let’s go Pete’ when I passed him,” remembers DeBoom. “The hardest thing in the world is to struggle and have a bad day. Pete had one of those days anyone can have here.”
“I tried to run with Thomas Hellriegel and then Lothar Leder, but nothing worked,” Reid says. “I’m disappointed in myself for not finishing, but I just didn’t have it.”
De Boom did. He was in hot pursuit of a cramping Steve Larsen. Out on the Queen K Highway, about the 10-mile mark, DeBoom made it official and eased by to take a lead he would never relinquish.
“I tried to race smart,” he says. “Usually I try to catch the leaders on the bike. I wasn’t even thinking about Steve beforehand and nothing he did was going to change the way I raced.”
Nope. This time he let Larsen go, took his three-minute penalty, and then fashioned a 2:45:54 marathon, the fastest of the day, to win his first Ironman Hawaii title.
“When I passed Steve, the sun seemed to intensify,” DeBoom admits. “I suffered.” So did Larsen, who was doing his second-ever marathon 10 weeks after his first at lronman Lake Placid. He paid the price. “My expectations were high for myself,” says Larsen. “I was in a position to win. I needed to seal the deal at the end there, but I didn’t. I learned a lot and hopefully I’ll figure out what made the wheels come off 10 miles into the marathon.”
The wheels come off for everyone, Steve. The temptation is to go hard too soon. Maybe scorch past 239 people in 112 miles. Or skip your special needs bag. Or change your bike position. Or go too hard too early. Or do another Ironman five weeks before Kona.
This time, Tim DeBoom resisted temptation.
Sit back, be patient and take what the island gives you. Get greedy, give in to temptation, it’ll cost you – big time.
That’s why they call it the Ironman.
In 2018, two-time Ironman World Champion Tim DeBoom joined me on Breakfast with Bob in Kona during race week to talk about the challenge of winning back to back titles.