Mostly Triumphs and a Tragedy at Ironman

Workers rushed to an ambulance

UPDATE:  The man who died in the Ironman was identified as 46-year-old Mark Wezka of Lancaster, N.Y. The Jefferson County coroner said a preliminary autopsy showed the death was caused by drowning complicated by underlying cardiac disease. He was in the water only 8 minutes when he needed help.

The biggest event in town yesterday was the big Ford Ironman, in which competitors swam 2.4 miles in the Ohio River, rode bikes 112 miles out to Prospect, and ran a full 26.2 mile marathon around downtown. More than 2,500 athletes competed, and most finished.  I was standing along the river at the jump-in point next to Tumbleweed, getting a close-up look at these brave souls as they got ready to start a journey that would take the best of them 12 hours.

I noticed a group of six people peering through trees in front of the U of L Rowing complex. They were watching a rescue, as medics performed CPR on someone on the far bank. It wasn’t 50 yards into the race. A boat from the rowing complex negotiated its way across the water and loaded the man on board.

Workers began clearing a path to a waiting ambulance right past us, on the sidewalk right through the last remaining athletes waiting in line to get to the start. And what we saw was frightening. The man on the stretcher was not moving, and his skin was blue. A doctor, standing near us, said it didn’t look good. The ambulance didn’t turn on its sirens. The man was dead.

It’s hard to imagine doing the training for an Ironman, and then having a heart attack and being gone just after the start. Ironman officials still haven’t identified the man.

It was a harrowing start to the day, but most of the others in the field weren’t aware of the tragedy. No one has died in the Ironman in the five years it’s been held here, but it’s not unusual. Two people died of heart attacks in the recent New York City triathlon, and 14 died during triathlons between 2006 and 2008.

John Boel at the finish

John Boel, the former WLKY newsman who finished in a personal record 11 hours, 50 minutes, said this after the race: “How terrible. People die in triathlons all the time in the swim. All distances. Not just Ironmans. And it’s always like this, early on right after they get in the water. I’ve had a couple of episodes where my body went into shock at the start, but it was colder water than today.”

Boel’s own story yesterday was heartwarming. After losing his job and going into rehab for alcoholism, Boel lost 45 pounds and trained better than ever for his fifth Ironman, the first he’s done sober.  He sent along this message about his race.

“I will never have a better race for the rest of my life. That’s 3 hours faster than last year and a half hour faster than I’ve ever done before. Everything went according to plan, except for having to stop three times with mechanical problems on the bike. And even though I’ve completed 5 Ironmans, this is only the second time I didn’t end up needing medical attention. Amazing what happens when you pretty much change everything in your life.”

Congratulations to John.

It’s too bad none of the local TV stations or newspapers made note of Boel’s accomplishment. In fact, I did a rare thing and picked up a Sunday C-J, and couldn’t believe there was not even a mention of the Ironman in the newspaper. That’s hard to explain, unless the paper is so short-staffed it can’t cover an event with 2,500 entrants, mostly from out-of-town. A better explanation may be that the race didn’t spend any money on advertising in the C-J, which did assign a single reporter to Sunday’s event.