Last Sunday was made for running, cycling and swimming. Kim Loeffler did it all. The Colchester triathlete was competing in the Lake Placid Ironman, a 140-mile event that sends racers stroking through Mirror Lake and hoofing and peddling over hilly Adirondack terrain. The ordeal can last as long as 17 hours.
There's no question that being active is good for your health. But what about when you take athleticism to the Ironman extreme? Can that actually be good for you?
"It takes a physical toll," says Kristen Dieffenbach, a coach, trainer and psychology consultant based in Maryland. "It's not uncommon to come away from an Ironman with an overuse injury from running, neck problems from being on the bike and holding your head in one position for so long, or something else from having just done the swim. It's not like jumping into the local 10K."
During the swim, athletes suffer popped shoulders, hypothermia and -- from breast-strokers' errant frog kicks -- black eyes and broken noses. Doctors report at least one or two occurring at each race. In 1984, the entire field of competitors at a Fort Lauderdale triathlon was stung by man-of-war jellyfish. In 2002, during the swim portion of a Utah Ironman, a 53-year-old man drowned in 8-foot swells.
The bike leg has seen deadly crashes, broken wrists and collarbones, while running competitors have stumbled off the course with heat cramps, nausea dehydration and hyponatremia -- a potentially fatal electrolyte imbalance caused by drinking too much water. In the Australian Triathlete magazine, registered nurse Peter Martin reports that during the run portion of Ironman New Zealand, a man started vomiting blood, then got amnesia and woke up in the medical tent at 2 a.m. Disoriented, he hitchhiked home with a busload of passing Maoris.
Even for those who cross the finish line -- and make it home without hitchhiking -- the physical consequences can be far-reaching. "When you're done, you're just blown," says Dieffenbach. "And most of the time it's not the Ironman itself that's going to be negative over the long term, but the intense training."
The Ironman began as a game of bragging rights, when Navy Seals stationed in Hawaii bickered about who were the world's fittest athletes-- swimmers, cyclists or runners. On February 18, 1978, Navy commander John Collins enlisted 15 competitors to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run a full marathon of 26.2 miles. "Whoever finishes first will be called the Ironman," he said.
Today, 18 full-distance races take place around the world each year. Loeffler has competed in several of them. With impressive results, including a 15th-place finish at the prestigious Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, she acquired sponsorships from Timex, BioBuilde and other athletic companies. At last year's Lake Placid race she placed fourth, nabbing the title of 2004 U.S. Ironman champion.
Preparing for an Ironman means months in the pool and on the road and treadmill, a regime that becomes dangerous when athletes fail to refuel with enough calories. "I see people trying to diet at the same time as training, because lower body weight is better performance-wise," says Laura Keller, a conditioner from California. "This leads to problems -- your body ends up basically breaking down; it's an eating disorder, and it's pretty high among pro athletes." According to the American College of Sports Medicine, nearly half of athletic women experience irregularity in their menstrual cycles or amenorrhea, which can lead to impaired fertility, osteoporosis and stress fractures.
Despite this risk, many women, including Loeffler, are determined to make the most of their primetime. "I'd like to have a family someday," she says, "But I'm only 32, and as a female endurance athlete, you really have until your low forties to peak, especially in the Ironman, because so much of the race is about experience, nutrition and mental toughness."
Proper diet planning is key to a healthy training regime, experts say. Dietitian Monique Ryan of Chicago recommends that a 135-pound female triathelete consume a daily total of 3450 calories -- a quantity Loeffler gets through five meals a day. "If I go out for a long ride, I'll have over 1000 calories just on the bike -- Power Gels, Power Bars, sports drinks," she says. "You can never really go hungry, because you'll decrease your glycogen stores and your next workout will suffer."
As soon as she completes a workout, Loeffler fixes herself a recovery drink and protein pills. Then she stretches -- another key to successful training. "Elite athletes know that if they do X amount of work, they need to do Y amount of recovery," says Dieffenbach. "Triathletes are really good at time management; maybe they don't go out to the movies during the week because they have to work out, and maybe people think they're nuts, but they find a balance with life and training. It's about making it work for your life and what everyone else thinks be damned."
Loeffler has made physical activity a priority all her life. She played basketball and softball as a child, and began running seriously in the seventh grade. She ran track-and-field and cross-country at her Long Island high school with her twin sister, Kelly, who is now an elite marathon runner. At Northeastern University, Loeffler earned a Master's in exercise physiology. Today, in addition to training 30 hours a week, Loeffler coaches other athletes through Burlington's On Track fitness facility, which she owns with her husband Brian, a physical therapist.
Health considerations convinced Loeffler in 2001 to switch from running to triathlon. "I had two surgeries within about six months," she says. "I was mentally drained, and I was sick of being injured." With her weekly running mileage down from the low 100s to the low 60s, Loeffler found the distance required by the Ironman a natural fit. "It's so much fun having the three different sports to train for," she says. "You're able to stay healthy longer -- train more, but stay healthy. . . Training is a science; you can't just wing it."
Loeffler's preparation for the Lake Placid event -- one of the most grueling on the Ironman circuit -- paid off. She flew through the Lake Placid Ironman in nine hours, 49 minutes and 44 seconds, to take second place behind Canada's Heather Fuhr.
"I just went really hard and ran really hard," Loeffler said afterwards. "I'm really happy -- this was a great race for me."
Tony Delogne came in first -- he broke the tape in 8:56:11 -- but had a different reaction post-finish line. The Belgian-born winner proclaimed, "I'm done for life."