Triple triathlon tests mettle of ironmen

Out of the darkness they come, each more bone-weary than the last. Like refugees drifting into a U.N. camp, they know there is only so much here to relieve their misery: open-sided tents, food, something to drink, perhaps a change of clothes or a place to sit.

But this tiny rest stop is much better than what they have left behind for the moment. Out there is only blackness — lit faintly by a gibbous moon and the pinpoint beams of their headlamps — and mile after mile after mile of pavement.

Had I stumbled on these wretched souls trudging through Lake Anna State Park near Spotsylvania, Va., I surely would have stopped to offer help. But I knew they were here voluntarily. In fact, each had paid $575 to $650 to take part in the Virginia Triple Iron Triathlon.

That's right, 17 people had signed up to do a 7.2-mile swim, a 336-mile bike ride and a 78.6-mile run — essentially nine consecutive marathons, without stopping, without sleeping. Another 25 slackers were doing only the double Ironman: 4.8 miles of swimming, 224 miles of cycling and 52.4 miles of running.

I was invited by one of the participants in the triple, Frank Fumich, of Arlington, Va. Fumich and I struck up an email correspondence while he was training for, and completing, the 2011 Spartan Death Race, one of the few people to finish that two-day sufferpalooza. He persuaded me to witness this festival of masochism.

Fumich, 43, is not doing well as I arrive. In his 37th consecutive hour of physical exertion, he is trying to emerge from one of those deep holes that can last an eternity in an ultra-event. He is into his 32nd mile of running, and a long-anticipated burst of energy has not yet come to his rescue. His thinking has become fuzzy. He is in a lot of pain.

“I'm basically shuffling,” he tells me as he eats a slice of pizza at his tent, where his two-person support crew offers him a variety of food and drink. “I'm walking the ups and shuffling the flats and downs — if I'm lucky — at this point.”

Everyone else appears to be walking, too, except for some double Ironman racers who are still on their bikes. The triple began at 7 a.m. Friday; the double a day later on the same course. Because he hates to swim, Fumich persuaded the race director to let him do 16 miles on a stand-up paddle board instead.

Originally, Fumich had hoped to finish in time to drive 90 miles to Washington, where he would run the Army Ten-Miler in honor of his father, a World War II POW who is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. But he hammered too hard on the bike leg and is paying for it on the run. He completed his first 26.2 miles in about 7½ hours, much too slow for a guy whose personal best is 3:23.

Now he just hopes to break 50 hours, but as I jog-shuffle-walk beside him in the darkness, that goal also seems out of reach. If anything, he is moving more slowly on the second marathon than he did on the first.

In his unfathomable exhaustion, many things irk Fumich. He is having trouble recognizing where he is on the course. He can no longer calculate his pace and progress in his head. And the chafing and inflammation of certain body parts are unbearably painful. “A few twigs and we could start a fire,” he says.

In the interest of safety, if not sadism, the organizers have laid out a tiny five-mile bike loop and a two-mile running course. Do the math: After more than 67 laps cycling the same stretch of blacktop, Fumich is now in the midst of 39 out-and-back trips on foot. He finds it maddening, and with a certain resigned dread, he acknowledges that he will be here another 12 to 14 hours. He expects hallucinations soon. Later he would tell me that he saw lawn furniture and cars in the woods around him.

But there is no chance Fumich will stop. “He doesn't have quit in him,” says Jeff Gordon, one crew member. “You'd have to drag him off the course in an ambulance,” agrees the other, Jamie So.

Fumich has completed the Four Deserts race series (Sahara in Egypt, Gobi in China, the Atacama Crossing in Chile and the Last Desert in Antarctica); the Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, Calif; the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii; and climbed three of the Seven Summits, the highest mountain on each continent, to name just a few of his endurance accomplishments. He rates the triple Ironman as one of the most difficult events he has attempted.

“I do it to see if I can finish it,” he tells me a few days later, answering the only question that matters. “If I learn of a race, it bothers me to think, ‘I don't know if I can do this.'

“Making it a goal, training for months to do it and then actually doing it, and then looking back and knowing you've actually done it, is awesome.”

But then he says: “The actual running of it, I don't enjoy it. I don't actually enjoy the training either.”

In that case, Fumich spends a lot of time unhappy. One of his heavier training weeks went like this:

Wednesday: a 24-mile easy run, 8 minutes of running for every two walking;

Thursday: a hard 100-mile bike ride;

Friday: paddle-boarding for as long as he could and weightlifting;

Saturday: off;

Sunday: paddling for two hours, cycling 110 miles and running 12;

Monday: a hard 50-mile bike ride and weightlifting;

Tuesday: off.

Fumich firmly believes that many people can accomplish the physical side of what he does. It's the mental discipline that sets him apart. “Much more physically capable people than me drop out of these all the time,” he says. “They just can't stay in the game. When they feel that bad for that long, they just give up.”

Around midnight, after another marathon in the 7½-hour range, Gordon begged Fumich to take a short nap, as many other runners were doing. Fumich agreed to rest for 10 minutes. His body immediately stiffened up.

Then he stood up and, with Gordon pacing him the entire way, ran the last marathon in 5:10, nearly 2½ hours faster than his previous one, to finish the race in 48:03, good enough for sixth place.

Frank Fumich, of Arlington, Va., nears the end of the 336-mile bike leg of the Virginia Triple Iron Triathlon at Lake Anna near Spotsylvania, Va. Courtesy of David Brooks
Frank Fumich, of Arlington, Va., rates the Virginia Triple Iron Triathlon as one of the most difficult events he has ever attempted. Courtesy of David Brooks
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