Ironman Maryland electrifies Cambridge

CAMBRIDGE – If you were anywhere near the Great Marsh boat launch parking lot, about two minutes before the start, at 6:50 a.m. on Saturday, you could literally feel it. 1800 racers shoulder to shoulder in the lightening dawn, surrounded by their spouses, friends and family, ready to head into the water and start a long, long day, and suddenly this electric crackle goes through the air as all the emotions of the crowd peak at once. This blast of fear and excitement sizzles through the multitude and it’s enough to make your hair stand on end, if it wasn’t glued down by a rubber swim cap. IRONMAN is about to start, and life isn’t going to be the same once this day is over.

The Ironman competitors that filled Great Marsh and tested themselves on the swim, bike and run event, came from 48 states and 17 countries to be in Cambridge last weekend. It was the first ever Ironman Maryland, and all indications are that it went off well.

“I think this is an awesome occasion!” shouted Cambridge Mayor Victoria Jackson-Stanley, “This is Ironman Maryland, in Cambridge! Not Baltimore—no disrespect—but this was a fabulous day in a fabulous city, and everyone I’ve spoken to from the athletes to the lady from Willards, Maryland, have all said it’s been an awesome experience for them and they’re coming back. And we look forward in Cambridge to having Ironman Maryland back here next year!”

On a beautifully sunny day, the competitors poured into the Choptank River to start the first stage of the Ironman, a 2.5 mile swim east of Great Marsh Park. Once finished with the swim, the athletes ran out of the water and onto their bicycles for a 112 mile pedal that took them nearly to Hoopers Island and back, twice. Tough as those two challenges may have been, everyone agrees that the killer is always the final run—a 26.2 mile full marathon on the streets of Cambridge, with the turnaround at Poplar and Gay Streets downtown.

And though the winners of the Ironman would cross that turnaround just a little before 4:00 that afternoon, the rest would have until nearly midnight to find their way across the finish line, and still be considered an Ironman finisher.

We all read the stories ahead of time—77 year old Ironman competitor Kurt Kahl, blind Paralympic champion John Morgan, extreme weight loss competitors, Ironman soldiers—but if you spend any time in this crowd you find that everyone has a story.

We talked to Will Hathaway, 60 years old and competing in his second Ironman competition of the year. “I did okay there (in Texas), hopefully I’ll do better today,” he told us. “That’s what I’m looking for. I should come out of the water in an hour and two minutes, or three minutes, so I should be in good position. I have a good bike; it’s the run that separates the men from the boys. That’s the hardest part, the run.”
He joined everyone else in praising Cambridge as the event location. “Cambridge is a beautiful town, absolutely beautiful. It’s been an amazing stay, the people are nice.” We checked Will’s time on the web site afterwards, and he did well. He finished seventh in the Men’s 0-64 division, 465th overall.

We also spent some time with Michael, husband of competitor Catherine Jadot, who filled us in on some of the technology being used in the racing—special sensors built into the bicycles that track your effort against your heart rate, and let you know how low your “fuel” is getting—and the value of some of the specialized triathlon bikes on the course—up to $15,000 for a 14-pound bewilderingly high-tech bicycle. He is a championship kite-boarder himself, and they are both scientists working on preserving and restoring Caribbean marine ecosystems. Catherine, a native of Belgium, wound up finishing fourth in the Female 35-39 division, and 177th overall.

Our favorite story, though, was that of Mateo Mercur, of Santa Barbara, California, competing in his first Ironman. We caught up with him at the finish a little after 4:00, when he crossed the line and used our reporter for a leaning post, jubilant with his finish. “It was awesome!” he said. “It was so hard! The course was perfect, the weather was perfect, the support was amazing. My girlfriend is from Towson, MD, and we live together in Santa Barbara. I’ve been her coach for nine years, and we have a long future ahead of us. She’s going to be here in a few minutes—I was hoping we would finish together but I didn’t want to quit running!”

Mateo’s girlfriend, Lauren Capone, was also competing in her first-ever Ironman, and she was just about to cross the finish line as the first female finisher, winning her division (Female 25-29) and finishing 19th overall. Mateo finished 15th overall and third in his division, and when Lauren came across the line they held each other in a trembling, sweaty embrace, mute testimony to exactly what Ironman takes from you, and then what Ironman gives back in return. I did this, you can almost hear them thinking; I can do anything.

There were doubtless 1800 different but similar stories on Saturday, but the day did belong to Matthew Bach of Summit, NJ, who roared across the finish line in only 8 hours, 51 minutes and 19 seconds, testimony to the blisteringly fast pace in each of the three disciplines that day.

Indeed, Bill Bishop of Chicago, IL, originally set the pace by emerging from the swim in 50 minutes and 05 seconds, nearly ten minutes faster than the projected best time, and a full five minutes ahead of the second swim finisher. Bishop also set the fastest time over the bike ride, but that killing pace was his undoing, as his energy unraveled and he couldn’t hold the lead in the final marathon.

Nathan Rickman (M35-39, Fairfax, VA) moved ahead of Bishop at about the ten mile point of the marathon, and held on for second place at 8:56:21.  Rafael Chieza Fortes Garcia (M30-34) from Brazil came up through the field to take third with 9:07:35. Bishop wound up finishing second in his division behind Rickman, and eighth overall.

Capone was the first female finisher at 9:26:02, after setting the best female times in the run. Robyn Hardage of Ottowa, Ont., Canada, followed her across the finish in 9:35:28, and Ann Hammer of Somerville, MA, took third female overall at 9:58:24.

Though the winners had all come through between four and five o’clock, the Ironman was far from over. Bicyclists were still out on the course until the 5:30 p.m. cutoff, and the runners would have until midnight to complete their 26 miles.

Helping Mayor Jackson-Stanley hold the ribbon at the finish was Senate Delegate Addie Eckhart, who was also thrilled by the events of the day. “It’s been an incredible day!” she said, “Not only did we have perfect weather for this, but it seems like it’s been a very fast course. The first person came in just under nine hours, and I think that’s incredible for a 2.5 mile swim, a 114 mile bike ride and then 26.2 miles of running. That’s awesome! And we are thrilled to have it here in Cambridge!”

“If we could change anything we’ll change the tide,” the Mayor added. “We had a high tide today, but that’s something we just can’t control!”

A slight amount of high-tide street flooding did nothing to dampen the spirits of the crowd, who enjoyed the fun of Cambridge’s Summer Sendoff celebration and cheered the finishers for long into the night. It was one heckuva day, and one we’ll look forward to repeating next year.

Paul Clipper is the editor of the Dorchester Banner. He can be reached at pclipper@newszap.com.

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