Maybe you don't need someone to sum up the difference between racing in Hawaii and racing in New Jersey, but John Korff will give you his take. "Most races are 140.6 miles," Korff explains. "And it's two miles of someplace and 138 of no place. But we've got 140 miles of someplace."
The notion of a triathlon that spans 140 miles might not sound beautiful to most people, but for a select, hardy group, it is nirvana – even on a hot August day where the run and ride flow over the hilly, sun-burned streets of the Palisades Parkway and across the span of the George Washington Bridge with a cooling dip in the Hudson River.
What Korff, the organizer of the race, means is that New Jersey and New York will co-host the first Ironman U.S. Championship. It will encompass a 2.4-mile swim in the Hudson River, a 112-mile bike ride along the Palisades Parkway in Bergen and Rockland counties, and a 26.2-mile run from Fort Lee, across the George Washington Bridge and into Riverside Park. It is the sort of trip that most folks just riding in a car might need a cup of coffee to make it through.
But when the available slots for the race opened up, it wasn't hard to find 3,000 strangely driven people willing to jump in.
"I was talking to the people from Ironman," Korff recalls, "and they said, 'We think it will take seven hours to fill up.' I said, 'I think it'll be instant and just take 10 minutes to process all the entries.' They said, 'That never happens.' I said, 'You've never been to New York.' Lo and behold, it took nine minutes and we were full."
While most of the race will take place in New Jersey, it still finishes in New York, includes the Hudson River and shares some of the allure of the New York City Marathon. It is not the prestigious Kona course in Hawaii, and maybe it's not even Lake Placid. But there is something.
"You're on the Palisades," Jim Megin, who plans on running the race, says. "It's a pretty highway, but no Lake Placid. There it's gorgeous. But then I went and did the run on the Hudson, and it's the best thing possible, just beautiful. I started thinking I'll be going across the George Washington Bridge when the city and the bridge are lit up. The crowd is bigger. I think the finish is going to be so cool."
That Megin can think of the finish – the final steps of the 140.6-mile course – is inspiring. Actually, that he can take the first steps at all is pretty inspirational, too.
Megin was planning on running his first Ironman Triathlon in Lake Placid, but injury intervened.
"I was attempting to do one for my 50th birthday," Megin says, having penciled in the July 26, 2010 race as his goal. "I was doing some backyard landscaping and took my hips out with a back hoe. I crushed my hips, one socket and the other ball. I had one hip replaced, one rebuilt and I chipped the sciatic nerve with the dislocation. It's called drop foot. I got some of it back, but it's a numb foot. I can't pick it up. Walking is harder to do than running."
So he will run. He will swim. He will ride. And he will do all that at 52 years old, just two years removed from his devastating injury. He's not alone either. While every single entrant faces a daunting task, unlikely tales are scattered throughout. War veterans. Old folks. Young kids. Single mothers. Injured athletes.
This race is an equalizer. There is really no skill to practice other than honing a will beyond the scope of most human understanding.
"It's truly remarkable," says Corey Bronstein of Englewood, who is running his first ironman triathlon. "Even though I've run many marathons, I never realized how much time you have to commit to this. I'm working out 14 to 16 hours a week, up at 4:30 every single day including the weekends, and not just when it's beautiful out, but in the winter, too.
"It's challenging," he says. "There are a lot of sacrifices. It's definitely stressed my family life. I'm in the beverage business and I've stopped drinking alcohol. I watch my diet. I'm always sore. It's mentally and physically challenging."
Bronstein pauses for a moment then quietly adds, "Personalities like mine, it's borderline OCD. It's almost like a quest. You have to be careful it doesn't overtake your life. I have a full-time job with a lot of employees. I have a family. You have to be careful not to jump into the rathole."
That hole is filled with countless hours of work, a dedication to a craft – perhaps a goal more than a craft. It is the 4:30 a.m. walk out the door into the dark and cold, never questioning exactly why you would put your body and soul through that sort of torment.
There is no absolute common denominator. Megin said he was never an athlete. He was the last kid picked in games, and it wasn't until he began running recently that he found something he enjoyed. Bronstein was the captain of his high school soccer team and has run almost 30 marathons.
Tom Begg, the co-founder of the Glen Rock Triathlon Club, will run the race – along with possibly five other family members. His 17-year-old daughter, Caitlin, who started a website (youngtri.com) to provide a forum for young triathletes, is training for the event, hoping to join her father, his two brothers, a cousin and her father's cousin from Australia.
While some entrants are eyeing a personal best or hoping to compete for a top time, Begg says that even with his deep involvement, he is in it for the event, not the time.
"People don't believe it, but me and [GRTC co-founder] Jamie [Fisher], we put in six, seven hours a week and that's it," Begg says. "There is just life getting in the way. Most people do train 20 hours. For Jamie and me, it's, 'What's the bare minimum you can do and still complete one?' We try to put that balance in. But then again, I'm finishing toward the end."
There is an end – a finish time for the finish line. The race begins at 7 a.m., and packs up at midnight. Racers must hit checkpoints throughout to keep on pace, or they are pulled from the course.
"The crowd gets really good after 16 hours," Megin says. "You finish in 13 to 16 hours, and there is nobody there but family. But at the end it's quite the show. One of these ladies I'm training with wants to do well. I'm like, finish at 16:59 and what will they call me? An ironman."
Corey Bronstein • Englewood
The U.S. Championship will be Bronstein's first ironman. He has completed more than 30 marathons, as well as ultra and mountain-range races – but that was 17 years ago.
Chris Lee • Teaneck
Not only is Lee an ironman, but one who cares, participating in charity events like the Northern NJ Walk Now for Autism Speaks. A special needs teacher in Paramus, Lee is poised to compete in his third ironman after learning how to swim only four years ago.
George Samala • Ramsey
Samala says his wife, Amy, and his two daughters, Rachel and Lindsey, give him the support and strength to make his ironman dreams come true.
Roy Lamendola • Oradell
At 74, Lamendola is the oldest ironman in this month's race. This is his third ironman and he has completed 40 triathalons.
Larry Grogin • Franklin Lakes
A chiropractor, Grogin has been an ironman for more than 20 years. Grogin also ran the 2012 Boston Marathon, where he raised money for the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for seriously ill children.
Meredith Bennett • Ridgewood
When she's not co-executive producing The Colbert Report, Bennett is a spirited competitor. She finished her first ironman at Lake Placid in 2011, well below the 17-hour time limit, and has completed 17 marathons and 25 triathlons.
Jim Megin • Oakland
Megin was training for his first ironman for his 50th birthday until a mishap with a backhoe in his backyard. Two years later, the father of three is back to complete his goal.