There Is No Second Place 

The Merciless Obsession of an Ironman

The Merciless Obsession of an Ironman

Bruce Gennari is a crazed man. There is no use sneaking around that fact with euphemisms or talk about his “competitive spirit.” He has friends, he has a real job, and he loves his mother, but, at 32, Bruce Gennari is driven by the need to see how far he can push himself, mentally and physically.

Last October, he joined 1,500 kindred spirits to compete in Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon, the mother of all extreme-sporting events and an outing even the average marathoner considers well over the top. The basics are scary enough: A 2.4-mile ocean swim. Followed by a 112-mile bike ride. Followed by a marathon. But those numbers don’t communicate what the Ironman Triathlon is really about.

Imagine 1,500 superbly conditioned athletes, jazzed and snappish from training (and, in some cases, from training enhancers, legal and otherwise), in the undulating water off the west coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. They’re wired on adrenaline and hungry for any advantage; as they wait for the start, fights break out fistfights, 40 yards from shore, in ocean water that’s over their heads.

Then a cannon fires; there’s a great scramble seaward; people climb over each other, clawing and kicking as much as swimming. ken.

Imagine Hieronymus Bosch with a really bad hangover depicting the pool party from hell.

The bike ride follows the Queen Kaahumanu Highway through a landscape that resembles the surface of Venus. The humidity reaches 90 percent. Reflected heat from black lava beds pushes the temperature to 100 degrees. The wind blows hard and hot. There are a dozen hills of varying length with slopes on a grade that can reach 6 percent. There’s plenty of time to contemplate the fact that, once the bike race is done, the marathon waits 26.2 miles along the same hellish roadway.

When Bruce and his wife, Tammy, arrived in Hawaii six days before the Oct. 20 event, he hit town like a rookie test pilot reaching Edwards AFB in the ’50s, awed by the pros around him.

“There’s Thomas Hellriegel, just running down the street!” he told Tammy, sighting a member of the triathlon world’s German aristocracy, the powerful 27-year-old cyclist who finished second overall in 1995 and ’96. He spotted two more of the living legends he knew from triathlete magazines and the Ironman videos he watched over and over. “There’s Kenny Glah and Dave Scott!” He saw the world’s best triathletes warming up and working out in full regalia on tiny “Dig Me” Beach, which got its name because it’s the site of so much preening, flexing, and general oozing of testosterone. “This,” Bruce kept telling himself, “is really the Ironman.”

As much as he was in awe, Bruce was also part of the elite. Tens of thousands had competed for the 1,500 spots in the ’97 Ironman. Bruce earned his at the Springfield, Ill., Iron Horse Triathlon after months of training that included swimming 10 to 12 miles, cycling 250 to 300, and running 35 to 40 each week. Tammy said the day Bruce qualified for the Ironman was one of only three times she’d ever seen him cry.

If you were going to colonize Mars, building civilization from scratch in a hostile environment where any lapse in concentration could spell disaster, you’d want to take Bruce Gennari along. A sleek 6 foot 4, every one of his 175 pounds has a purpose. He possesses laserlike focus and absolute intensity. His eyes are an impenetrable brown. Like black holes, they seem to take in light without letting it out.

He speaks rapidly, as if there were more to say than there is time to say it. He lives life at his highest gear. It is obvious that if his obsession hadn’t been triathlons, it would have been mountain climbing, or 100-mile desert races, or swimming the English Channel. He has sought challenge and competition as long as he can remember.

“When I was a kid, whether we were running or playing football in the middle of the road,” he says, “I always wanted to win. It was just a natural thing. That could be good or bad, but it sure motivated me.”

He was 13 and a student at Berry High School in his native Birmingham, Ala., when he discovered swimming. Right away, he knew he had found his niche. His mother learned that, in order to get his attention when he was acting up, she only had to ban him from a swimming lesson. “It killed me,” Gennari recalls. Until he was 16, his parents drove him to twice-a-day lessons and spent many of their weekends at meets, sacrificing to pay for hotel rooms and food.

By 10th grade Gennari had reached the national championships, where he was exposed to competitors from California’s Mission Viejo High School, which is to swimming what the Juilliard School is to music. Swimmers from around the world attend Mission Viejo, and fundraisers make it possible for the school to pay their expenses when they reach the nationals. Bruce jumped at the chance to transfer. “Who in their right mind wouldn’t go after a college swimming scholarship?” he says. “That was my bottom line. I felt I owed it to my parents to get a scholarship to repay them for the money they’d invested in me.” In California, he lived with a host family for two years.

Bruce’s strategy worked. He won a scholarship to the University of Alabama, where he swam middle distances (ranging from 200 yards to the mile) and qualified for the NCAA Championships three times. In his junior year, Alabama won the Southeastern Conference swimming title, and Bruce finished second in the 500-yard freestyle. “If you’d have given me 20 yards more,” he says, “I would have beaten him. I was closing on him when the race ended.”

After a year of grad school, Bruce took time off and became an ocean lifeguard in Boca Raton, Fla. One day another lifeguard brought a racing bike to work and Bruce took it for a 15-mile lunchtime spin. “The minute I got on it, I knew I had found something,” he recalls. The friend told him about a sprint triathlon a mini-version of the big event, including a 1.5K swim, a 40K bike ride, and a 10K run six weeks later in Boca. Bruce was there. Two hours is a good showing for an experienced male athlete in a sprint triathlon. Bruce finished his first one in 2:03. “It filled the void in my life that had been filled by swimming since I’d been 13 years old,” he says.

Because his funds were limited he took part in only a few triathlons that first year, but once he began to share rides and accommodations with other racers, his participation picked up. After earning an MBA at Florida Atlantic University, he took a job in Tallahassee, where he married Tammy and started training again in 1992. In 1994, they moved to Nashville, where Bruce works as a systems analyst for Phoenix Healthcare.

Nashville, Bruce says, is where his triathlon career “really picked up.” He began biking and running and working out at the 50-meter pool at the Athletic Club at Maryland Farms, which opens at 5 a.m. While he was out biking one day, Bruce met three of Middle Tennessee’s best triathletes Ray Ashworth, Pete Fitzstevens and Marty Crutchfield and the four of them began sharing training tips and encouragement. Bruce sifted through all of it, essentially coaching himself in an effort to qualify for the Ironman. It took him five races in 1997, but finally he did it.

Bruce knew exactly what his six pre-Ironman days in Hawaii should be about getting acclimated to the time change and the weather, doing light workouts to stay sharp, watching and talking with other competitors, eating well, and, above everything else, resting. He didn’t want to fritter away energy sightseeing. Finally, on Wednesday, Tammy told him, “I’m going to see the volcano, with or without you.” He got the message and went with her.

On Friday, he stored his bicycle in the transition area, where he would retrieve it following the swim, and went to bed at 9 p.m. Far too keyed-up to sleep, he managed maybe an hour before rising at 4:30 a.m. Body-marking, the ritual in which a competitor’s number and age are inked on his skin, started at 5 a.m.

As the sun rose, Bruce drank some water, ate a few bites, took a last dump, and headed for Dig Me Beach, where the triathlon was to start. He was the first one there, and he had no desire to get caught in the opening crush. Thirty minutes before the start, he swam to a boat at the starting line and held onto the side.

The course for the swim is a long, thin rectangle. Competitors swim out more than a mile along a line of buoys, turn right for a short distance, then head back toward the shore.

At pre-race meetings, the ritual of the opening countdown was drilled into the participants’ heads. Flags would be waved with 10 and five minutes to go, a horn would sound at one minute, and a cannon would start the race. Anybody would have to be asleep to miss it. Wired as he was, Bruce wasn’t worried.

The swimmers were in the water, dog paddling, with the top professionals 10 yards in front of the hoi polloi. Surfers kept watch at the starting line. Officials waved an orange flag. Five minutes later, they waved a yellow one. The horn sounded. And everybody took off. Fifteen hundred athletes who were supposed to be waiting for a cannon were instead splashing and flailing, and Bruce, who was still hanging onto his perch, knew it wasn’t time yet.

“Geez! Now what do I do?” he thought. “If I leave now, I’ll get caught in the crush. If I don’t, I may get left behind.” He held his perch for a long five seconds, then 10, 15, 20. Finally, at 30 seconds, he decided mob rule had won out, and it was time to act. “OK,” he said. “I’m going.”

He found himself in the middle of the swimmers, “surrounded, swimming no, dog paddling thinking, ‘This is not the way I wanted to start the triathlon.’ ” There was no way to break out of the jam. Finally, the surfers formed a barricade and stopped the charge. The swimmers returned to some semblance of calm, and Bruce took up his position again.

When the cannon finally went off, the roiling started again. Bruce moved up quickly from the far left, slipping in toward the front of the pack. He bided his time, passing other swimmers when he could, drafting in their wakes when he couldn’t. He knew swimming was his strong suit, and he pressed his advantage. By the time he hit the first turn he had the top pros in sight. As he turned for the long swim toward the beach, there were just five swimmers in front of him. He tried to pass, but they boxed him in. “Well, if you want to pull me through the water,” he thought, “I’ll go ahead and draft for awhile.” Finally, they were swimming in two columns, three on each side. Bruce was in the middle of the outside column, drafting, his hands at the ankles of Wolfgang Dittrich, a fiercely competitive 35-year-old who had been a member of the East German Olympic swim team but who had been beaten out of the water twice before in the Ironman.

With 200 meters to go, Bruce decided he’d waited long enough. He moved quickly to the left and sprinted past. That created two problems for Dittrich. First, it looked as if he was going to be beaten out of the water for a third time but this time by a newcomer he didn’t even know. What’s more, if the first person out of the water is a pro, he gets a $1,500 bonus. Dittrich could see that reward slipping away as well. And so, as Bruce was about to reach the shore, he felt the German grab his ankle, trying to pull him back.

Bruce escaped and left the water first, in 49:31, costing Dittrich his $1,500. As the two moved toward the transition area and their bicycles, the German elbowed his way past. Still, for all eternity, the taped coverage of the 1997 Ironman features NBC sportscaster Al Trautwig saying, “Bruce Gennari of Nashville, Tenn., is first out of the water. Wolfgang Dittrich, right behind.”

“It wasn’t my 15 minutes of fame,” says Bruce, “but it was 15 seconds.”

He was in no hurry to reach his bike. “I knew my specialty was over and the real suffering was about to begin,” he says. “I made sure I drank something and put on some sunblock. I knew I had 140 miles in front of me.”

They would be very hot miles. “It was like taking a bike ride in a microwave,” Bruce says. The swim had taken a lot out of him, and the hills were more than he had bargained for. Bruce hadn’t driven the course ahead of time, he says, because he “wanted it to be a surprise.” It was.

He found himself “huffing and puffing, wondering whether this thing was ever going to end.” His problems were compounded because he hadn’t forced himself to eat or drink more as he biked. Halfway through the course, near the turnaround at Hawi, he was cramping.

“They say that if you don’t have to go to the bathroom while you’re on the bike, you’re not drinking enough,” he says, “and I didn’t have to.” (Given the heat of the day, urinating would have been simple: Just lift up off the seat while going downhill and let fly. It would dry in a flash.) The power bars he carried were dry and unappetizing, and he couldn’t get them down. “I think that was my downfall,” he says.

The weather made things worse. This was the second-hottest Ironman ever, and the second windiest, with 30-mile-an-hour winds gusting to twice that speed. Both the men’s and women’s winners would be half-an-hour off the course records.

As the cyclists approach Kailua-Kona, they learn what they’re made of. “At around Mile 80, you start to do some serious soul-searching,” Bruce says. “You start the inventory: How are we feeling?

“ ‘Feet? They seem to be holding up. Ankles? They’re OK. Calves? Well, we’ve got a little problem with the calves.’ Your mind starts to wander, and you just want to get off the bike. About then I was asking, ‘What did I get myself into?’ ”

As bad as he felt, Bruce hadn’t done badly on the bike. The cheering crowds on the palm-lined residential streets of the last few miles had revived his spirits, but he was still cramping badly. He had averaged more than 20 miles per hour, completing the 112 miles in five hours and 40 minutes. He was still among the top 400 competitors. Bruce spent seven minutes in the transition area having his legs massaged by volunteers. Then the marathon began. He had just spent five hours hunched over the handlebars, his thighs screaming. Now he was shifting the torture to his calves and quads. The transition, he says, qualified as “a whole new world of pain.”

Bruce knew a decent marathon might let him finish near the 10-hour mark he hoped for, but he quickly realized that wasn’t to be. He had never run a marathon; in fact had never run farther than 15 miles at one time, and he was already on the verge of exhaustion. His socks and shoes were soaked with sweat. By Mile 4 he could feel them squishing with every step, and he was beginning to blister.

“It was so hot I couldn’t believe it,” he says, “and I still didn’t feel like drinking. The one thing I looked forward to at every aid station was grabbing ice water and dumping it on my hat. At least I could keep my head cool. It was probably the one thing that kept getting me from mile to mile.”

At Mile 8, starting up a long hill, he remembers his legs seizing up, “like rocks.” He walked for a few moments, trying to stretch his calves, and decided he would have to alternate walking and running for the next 18 miles “anything to get to the finish line.” He was walking when he passed Tammy. She had never seen Bruce walk in any event before; she knew he was in trouble.

Past the point of normal endurance, he walked, ran, and hobbled. Three hours into the marathon, an hour after Thomas Hellriegel had crossed the finish line to win, Bruce still had a full 10 miles to go. He kept moving. Three-and-a-half hours. Four. Four-and-a-half. Finally, weighing 12 pounds less than he’d weighed at the starting line, he made the final right turn onto Alii Drive. Many of the fans lining the street held out their hands to touch the athletes. “I started high-fiving as many people as I could,” he says.

Bruce shuffled through the finish line 11 hours and 16 minutes after he’d started. That time would have won the first Ironman, a 15-man 1978 event that grew out of a beer-fueled argument over whether runners, cyclists, or swimmers were the fittest. In 1997, it placed him 632nd. For Bruce, it was a call to action.

If Bruce needed added training impetus, it wasn’t long in coming. Inside Triathlete magazine singled him out as being “passed by more people than anyone else in the race,” noting that “the 31-year-old administrator, doing his first Ironman, led everyone out of the water in 49:31, but finished 632nd in 11:16:8.” The article angered him, but Bruce can still quote it verbatim. He typed it into his PC and printed it out in big bold letters on a sheet of paper that he attached to his bathroom mirror. “Everytime I take a shower,” he says, “I read it.”

Bruce hooked up with a coach, Troy Jacobson. A Baltimore-based triathlete, Jacobson finished 25th in 1997 in Hawaii and has a solid coaching record. Troy faxes or e-mails Bruce a weekly schedule. It usually looks something like this:

Tuesday 3-mi. swim, 12-15-mile bike,

6-mile run;

Wednesday 50-mi. bike, 6-mi. run;

Thursday 3-mi. swim, 65-mile bike;

Friday 15-mile bike, 9-mile run;

Saturday 3-mile swim, 41-mile bike,

16-mile run;

Sunday 95-mile bike, 6-mile run;

Monday off.

Bruce trains with a heart-rate monitor, tracking his pulse rather than his time-per-mile. He is thrilled with the results. This year at the Gulf Coast Half Ironman (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, 13.1 mile run) in Panama City, Fla., he finished in 4:03, chopping 23 minutes from his time. Last year it took five races for him to qualify for the Ironman. This year he did it on the first.

Bruce’s ferociously competitive nature never lets up. Never. It was Jacobson who insisted that he take a day off every week. Bruce recently ran a track workout in dress shoes when he discovered he had forgotten his racing flats. His friends often have to restrain him when he encounters other cyclists or joggers while training, fearing he might turn the meeting into a flat-out race. He admits to the weakness. “When I run up on somebody,” he says, “I smell blood in the water.”

This year’s lone disappointment came at the U.S. Age Group Triathlon Championships in June. He had a chance to qualify for a U.S. team that will compete at the World Triathlon Championships in Switzerland, but a wrong turn at an unmarked intersection cost him that chance. “It was like my heart had been ripped out of my chest,” Bruce says. “All that training, all that preparation, all that time I had spent getting ready, and the $500 I spent on travel, eating and the hotel....”

He apologized to Tammy for wasting the money. She is supportive; she accompanies him to almost every event. (That’s a big help, especially when he’s too sore to drive home.) Still, her sacrifices make him wince.

“She tells me it doesn’t bother her,” Bruce says, “but this Friday I’ve already planned a 100-mile bike ride, which will take five to six hours. She’s going to be doing whatever she does, but without me. That’s not what a marriage is about. You’re supposed to be spending it with your wife, not with eight to 10 guys, swimming and sweating with them. And it’s not just from the standpoint of me not being there with her as much as I should, but also from the financial standpoint. The money I pump into running shoes, travel, and bicycles I bought a bike this year, which cost $3,000. She’s really good about everything. She’s already earned her sainthood.”

Bruce wants to break 10 hours in the Ironman this year, and he has no plans to ease into the bike and run segments. “I’d love to get a bigger lead in the swim, get on my bike first, and have the camera on me leading the bike race, even if it’s only for the first two miles.” He also wants to compete at next year’s World Championships in Germany and is hoping to attract corporate sponsorship. As he prepares, he checks stats in magazines and on the Internet, handicapping racers, looking for vulnerability as he works his way up in the national rankings. (He was 11th in his age group last year.)

“So many people say doing the Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon and crossing the finish line is a spiritual experience,” Bruce says. “It’s not spiritual to me. It’s about the challenge. A lot of people say, ‘You’re crazy,’ but last year when I was crossing the finish line, wanting to pass out, I didn’t get what they get. I thought, ‘Man, that was slow. I want to do it again.’ ”

Bruce Gennari is sounding crazed again. His urge to finish first is unshakable. It haunts him.

“I don’t care if we’re playing badminton,” he says. “I want to kick your butt.”

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