Ironman competitors reach new milestones

Josh Heldt and Gary Walters keep their hopes alive. Two lakes area men, who fell minutes short of completing the second leg of a desert triathlon in 2014, made a stronger showing Sunday and were pushing forward to complete a marathon before midnight.


Josh Heldt and Gary Walters keep their hopes alive.

Two lakes area men, who fell minutes short of completing the second leg of a desert triathlon in 2014, made a stronger showing Sunday and were pushing forward to complete a marathon before midnight.

The Ironman in Tempe, Ariz., includes a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle leg followed by a full marathon. Heldt and Walters first decided to take on the challenge for the 2014 Ironman. Heldt, an Iraq war veteran, suggested they tackle the challenge. Heldt has been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder since his return after an extended tour in Iraq with the Minnesota National Guard Red Bulls. Walters, who is known for his physical challenges each year to raise funds, awareness and mentors for Kinship Partners, said he couldn't say no to Heldt's request.

The swim was a daunting task for both men, who struggled through it last year. The swim in Tempe Town Lake puts two men who normally swim in a pool in murky water flowing along a wide concrete urban channel.

The Ironman organizers made a change in the swim this year, which was expected to help swimmers of varying skill levels. Instead of a mass of thousands of swimmers entering the water and swimming to a start out in the channel, swimmers took to the water in a rolling start.


"We believe it will further enhance the athlete experience while reducing athlete anxiety during the swim in Arizona," the Ironman race organizers stated. Instead of swimming a distance out to the start, this year the swim time started as each Ironman hopeful entered the water.

In 2014, both Heldt and Walters said they panicked for a time in the water before they were able to get into a rhythm.

On Saturday, Walters said the rolling start would be a benefit because it meant swimmers wouldn't be climbing over the top of each other.

This year, Heldt and Walters had the advantage of knowing what to expect as they got up hours before dawn to be in place to descend the stairs to the water. Walters said knowing what to expect helped with the fear of the unknown, but there was some benefit with ignorance of what they were facing.

Walters completed the swim in 1:53:52 and was on the bike about 16 minutes later. He completed the 112 miles on the bicycle in 6:59:53. The gusting wind, which was a major race factor last year for slower lap times, was not in evidence Sunday.

Held completed the swim with seconds to spare before the cut-off time. He completed the 112-mile bike ride in 7:26:55 with barely more than six minutes between finishing the swim and transitioning to the bike. He had another short transition of five minutes and 23 seconds between completing the bike portion and getting on the course for the marathon. Last year, Heldt fell about two laps shy, or 18.7 miles short with each leg about 9.3 miles, of completing the bike course. Walters was about three laps short of finishing the bike course.

Jackson Walters, Gary's son who also took part in the Ironman, did not complete the bicycle portion, according to the race tracker.

Walters was going through final preparations Saturday as he stayed at a relative's home in Arizona and was planning to turn in early to be ready for the 4 a.m. alarm on race day. He took part in the practice swim and said they gained extra insight into how to prepare from race officials who help those who enter the Ironman by raising about $5,000 for charity. One of the tips was drinking something to settle the stomach after the swim and ingesting the murky water. Walters said some swimmers actually swallow Listerine once they leave the water. A second option was to drink flat Coca-Cola. Walters hoped he would be able to get into a groove once he was in the water, but the swim remained a daunting idea. The water was colder than last year. The Ironman advisers brought up ways to reduce the anxiety of swimming in the tight wetsuits with other swimmers in every direction.


Walters has taken on numerous physical challenges, such as biking, walking and in-line skating, in distances across the state and the nation. He said he'd never be able to do any of it if he was doing it for himself, but taking on the challenges for Kinship Partners means more. Walters describes himself as an average guy who takes on challenges that are a little more than average. And, one he said, who hopefully survives 17 hours of pain.

"I think everybody should do something like this," Walters said of something that pushes an individual to do more than they may first think they can accomplish. It's a push, he said, to be more active and ultimately more fit.

"This is a serious push," Walters said.

Walters who recently turned 50, said this challenge is another reminder of his goal to become more healthy. He said he's overweight, has high blood pressure and is probably borderline diabetic.

"If I don't take control of my health, it won't be a happy 60th," Walters said. "It would be kind of cool to cross the line as a 50-year-old."

After a high of 66 degrees Sunday, much cooler than a year ago, the desert temperatures dropped into the upper 50s as Heldt and Walters moved to the marathon. The forecast in Tempe called for a 60 percent chance of rain and a low of 49 degrees.

"I'm scared about tomorrow," Walters said Saturday. "I can't say for sure I'll get through it. I hope I do. But I'll do something. I have to keep pushing myself to get in shape."

RENEE RICHARDSON, associate editor, may be reached at 218-855-5852 or . Follow on Twitter at .


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