Triathletes visit city, race for pride

Submitted photo/Tom Hutchinson
Matt Buechler and girlfriend Laura came from Colorado to complete the course.

CAMBRIDGE — Last week, the atmosphere throughout Dorchester County should have been electric as thousands of Ironman athletes and their support crews would have descended upon the City of Cambridge to compete in IRONMAN Maryland. Bars and restaurants should have been overflowing with cheering patrons and merchants should have had brisk sales of Maryland merchandise.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the event. But that did not stop a few determined athletes from traveling to Cambridge to race individually last Saturday with the support of a few fans.

On Saturday night, while driving through town, I noticed a few people running in the dark along the streets of Cambridge. As a former Ironman Maryland athlete, I often drive down these roads and remember my day crossing that finish line at Long Wharf in 2017.
I immediately realized what they were doing, and it hit me. This was supposed to be “that epic weekend” in Cambridge. They were actually racing and in the last hours of their own version of the race.
Typically, the last few hours of the race are the most exciting as the final athletes are crossing the finish line after nearly 17 hours of endurance racing to hear the magical words, “You Are An Ironman!”
My heart skipped a few beats and I couldn’t resist. I raced home, grabbed some extra leftover Ironman medals Gerry Boyle gave me from my year of racing along with my megaphone I used at last year’s race to cheer athletes. I quickly drove back to find them and to cheer them on. I wanted to give them a taste of the Cambridge Ironman spirit and mostly, I wanted to hear their journey story.

The first athlete I encountered was Matt Buechler from Denver, Colorado. Matt was originally from Bel Air, so he set his sights on completing his first Ironman event in Maryland.
Matt was supported by his girlfriend, Laura, along with three other friends. When Matt finished around 10 p.m., I announced him. “Matt Buechler, You are an Ironman!”
I then greeted him by medaling him with that 2017 IRONMAN Maryland medal I went home to get. The smile on Matt’s face when he finished was priceless. Completely exhausted, but smiling and on top of the world, his team whisked him away to get some food and much needed rest.

Soon after Matt finished, another group of supporters arrived at Long Wharf to cheer on Josh and Tessa Hartmann from Pierre, South Dakota, a husband-and-wife team who crossed the finish line together around 10:45 p.m. Both were first-time Ironman athletes who turn 30 next month.
Competing in Ironman was one of their life goals, but pilot training for Josh and grad school for Tessa got in the way. Last October, they decided to begin training so they could compete before their upcoming milestone birthday.

With only one extra 2017 IRONMAN Maryland medal and a spare Ironman relay medal from another race, I medaled them as they came forward and crossed the imaginary finish line. They did it together side by side. I proudly announced, “Josh and Tessa Hartman, You are an Ironman!” from my megaphone.
As the clock ticked closer to midnight, which is the official time that all athletes must finish the race, a new group of supporters arrived to cheer on Jeff Hays from Warwick, New York. At 11:45 p.m., I had the honor of announcing “Jeff Hays, You Are An Ironman!” Determination and under the clock!
Curious about Jeff’s journey I spoke with his wife, June. She wanted to share his very inspirational story. This was Jeff’s fifth Ironman race.
He completed all five races while fighting non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and undergoing treatment. When Jeff started his Ironman journey, he was 70 pounds overweight. His friend Marc Zeepvat, who also raced on Saturday and finished before 7 p.m. in 11 hours and 54 minutes, inspired Jeff after Marc completed Ironman Lake Placid in 2009.
Marc was back at the finish line like a class act. He was showered, clean, and dressed to greet his friend. Jeff completed his first Ironman race is 2013 at Lake Placid.
According to June, he took on the goal of completing an Ironman event to help him focus on achieving a healthy and positive lifestyle. While both Jeff and Marc were disappointed that the event this year was canceled, they never wavered from traveling to Cambridge to compete with the support of their friends and family.

According to the Ironman Facebook page, there were other athletes who came to Dorchester County to race despite the cancellation and others who completed a virtual race at a different location. All of the athletes I met said that the swim was the most challenging part as the strong winds created very rough seas.
Most likely, the swim would have been shortened or canceled if the actual event took place that day. This determination adds even more amazement to their stories.
I give these athletes and all the others who completed their own version of IRONMAN Maryland 2020 a lot of credit and respect for completing this journey absent of all of the fanfare and the exciting atmosphere that Cambridge and Ironman create around this event.

These athletes did the training. They completed the distance of 140.2 miles. They finished before midnight and they earned to right to be called an Ironman!
This is the inspiration that backs the Ironman philosophy and testament that “Anything is Possible” even amid a global pandemic. Congratulations again to all of the athletes and thank you for choosing Cambridge. I hope to see you return next year.