WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Apolo Ohno made a career of frenzied, 40-second bursts around the track so the speedskating champion knows his crusade to join the exclusive Ironman fraternity is daunting.
It is also downright frightening, admits the eight-time Olympic medalist, who will have television cameras documenting his every stride.
Ohno says it is not just the 140.6-mile Ironman combination of swimming, biking and running a marathon that has him on edge, but the punishing conditions he will have to endure.
“Hell yeah,” the short track maestro offered with a nervous chuckle when asked if he was uptight about competing in next month’s World Ironman Championship in Kona, Hawaii.
“The reality is, as a human being, there is a little fear in there. I’m thinking, ‘Man, I might hit the wall and I might not finish.’”
Ohno, the most decorated American in Winter Olympic history, has clearly been pondering the harsh setting he and some 2,500 other triathletes will encounter on Oct. 11.
“It’s a 2.4-mile open water swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride in up to 30-40 mph crosswinds, followed by a full marathon, all in one day, in 100-degree heat, 100-percent humidity, running and biking through perhaps 136-degree ambient temperature because of the black lava rocks,” he said.
“It’s extreme. It’s a tough test on the human body. You find out what you can put yourself through.”
Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl MVP Hines Ward, a friend of Ohno’s, competed in the same event a year ago and is quick to say it’s the hardest thing he’s ever done.
One minute into it, he knew it was going to be rough.
“With the open-start swim in the ocean, everyone starts at the same time,” said the 38-year-old Ward, who retired from the National Football League in 2011. “That was a mental challenge. People grabbing on you, getting kicked by both guys and girls.
“I felt like I was on the gridiron.”
He got little solace on the bike after he jumped out of the water.
“The headwinds were right in my face. I’m hammering down on this bike and going absolutely nowhere,” he said. “It took everything out of my legs.
“That’s something I’d never experienced. But those are the elements.”
The 32-year-old Ohno has been a dancer, game-show host and broadcaster since hanging up his skates after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. He said he decided to try the Ironman because “a retired Olympic athlete is always striving for new challenges to push him or herself physically or mentally”.
“I came from a sprinting background, a 40-second athlete followed by periods of rest of 20 minutes or more,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Well, you’re an Olympic athlete, this should be easy for you, no problem.’ No, this is different.
“The reason why it’s so much different is because I spent 15 years of my life shaping my body to produce the most amount of power into the ice for only 40 seconds long.
“I trained my central nervous system to shut down and prepare for a recovery period. Now though, I’m on the bike, I’m on a run. I simply don’t have that luxury.”
Paula Newby-Fraser, winner of the Ironman World Championship eight times, is training Ohno. The 52-year-old, who grew up in South Africa, said she had to “basically blow apart” everything the ice skater knew about training as a short track athlete.
“The constant in this is his athletic talent,” said Newby-Fraser, who also trained Ward for the Ironman. “It’s a gift. He’s an athletic force of nature.”
Despite his physical tools, Ohno is certain he will not finish in the top 10 at Kona. Newby-Fraser said comparing an Ironman athlete and an Olympian “is like a whole different genre of music”.
“It’s like being at a Kiss concert and then going to a concert of classical music,” she said. “Just because Gene Simmons is great on stage, you can’t give him a violin and expect him to be great. It’s just that different.”
Ward said his first triathlon experience in San Diego was “humbling,” getting passed by men in their 50s and 60s. “Here I am a Super Bowl MVP, a Super Bowl champion, an elite athlete and I’ve never felt so out of shape in my life,” he said.
Last year in Kona, “I was just getting off the bike and the winner was just finishing,” he said. “The crowd was going crazy. It was so demoralizing. You’re just starting on the run and you see all these people finishing up.
“I was like, ‘Oh, geez, I still have to run a marathon.’
Despite finishing so far behind the leaders, Ward got a tattoo of the Ironman logo the day after the event. The fact that he has no NFL tattoos but got an Ironman one right after the event says something about the accomplishment.
“The Ironman is one of the most grueling events out there,” he said. “Crossing that finish line is one of the most rewarding things ever.”
Ohno, whose journey is being chronicled by his sponsors, said “it’s hard to accept” that he won’t win because he’s a “competitor by nature.”
“I’ve come to terms with it,” he said. “It’s something I understand, it’s the reality. I’m not a triathlete but I’m doing my best to become one.
“And hopefully come Kona, I’ll become one. I may not be one of the best in the world, but I know that I’ll be the best that I can possibly be.”
Editing by Frank Pingue