Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Blue Mountain National Park: Australia Day Three

Three Sisters at Blue Mountain National Park

5:20 in the morning is early. I don't understand how my TV friends can do the morning shift. When I hear that alarm clock go off when it's pitch black, I get angrier than Lewis Black at the RNC. The Blue Mountain National Park is a two-hour train ride northwest of Sydney. For all intents and purposes, the view in this mountain range is nothing spectacular. It pales in comparison to the Rockies or even the Appalachians. The tallest part of the mountain is just short of 4,000-feet. In comparison, Jackson Hole, WY, is around 10,450-feet. Even some of the locals downplay the significance or impressiveness of the Blues.

Someone call John Lithgow

Its signature spot is the Three Sisters, a group of three pointy formations right next to one another. It looks like a poor man's version of Bryce Canyon. It's a fantastic sight to see, but nothing quite as grand as the mountains we have in the U.S. Speaking of grand, there's a Grand Canyon in the park, but to compare the Aussie version to Arizona would be like comparing Joseph Conrad's writing to mine. Honestly, did Col. Kurtz's creator have a blog? That big-word-using bastard. What a tool.

This will never get old.
Oh yeah. So I hate mornings. Took an early train out, it was relaxing to see some of the Australian countryside via locomotive/subway. Got to this adventure outfitter called High N Wild in the Katoomba area of the park. Depending on the weather, we were going to rappel, or abseil, down several cliff faces, then head into the Empress Canyon, jumping and navigating through narrow canyon walls, sliding down rocks, and abseiling down a waterfall. This is what I had fully intended to do, but it had been raining, and the canyon quickly fills with water making it too dangerous for excursions. While making my reservation the day before, I asked the manager the likelihood of canyoning, otherwise I might try skydiving one of the beaches. Homey told me we looked about 90% a go, then added skydiving is awesome, but you can do that anywhere and there's only a handful of places in the world where you can go canyoning. I doubt this is true, but it was persuasive enough for me.

I'm getting rope burn here.
The weather started off great, and we began our rappels with a dinky "cliff" the size of a McDonald's jungle gym. This was mainly to develop the proper technique. Then we moved onto a real cliff that involved about a 10-foot ledge, followed by a 30-50-foot drop-off. These heights are not precise and merely TV reporter estimations ("...looks like the length of half a basketball court. Bob, back to you."). On this rappel, I didn't hold the rope far enough below my butt and ended up getting rope burn right below my waist. Since my adrenaline was pumping, I didn't even notice the several-inch burn until we were walking to the next cliff.

Mid-air post-battery fiasco
The last rappel, which was anywhere from 120-200 feet, was legit. I tried to take a picture on the way down, but my stupid camera battery lid popped open! So as I dangled in the air, I tried to put the battery back into the camera with my free hand. I'm sure the guide was wondering what the heck was going on down there. Amazingly, nothing plummeted to its doom. After this mishap, I tried to shoot some video, but apparently did the rookie double tap. Didn't record anything. That's why if you checked out that video I cut, all you see is rope (attached again below).

After a quick lunch of ham and Australian avocado sandwiches (their avocados spread more easily than our Cali ones), we trekked to the bottom of the Empress Canyon and changed into wetsuits and helmets. The wetsuits smelled like Sex Panther, more on this later. The river water was cold yet refreshing. We walked along a creek through the canyons, riding down several natural water slides, and jumping down multiple rocks into shallow pools of fresh water. It was an incredible sensation, and I recommend it to anyone who gets the chance.

Can you smell the wetsuit?
Camera appears to have water damage

Seriously, can you smell those suits?

As we maneuvered our way through the canyon, we ultimately reached our 99-foot waterfall. I started abseiling down the right of the waterfall, which was super slippery, and lost my footing a couple times. At the halfway point, there's a small ledge to reset yourself, then you abseil down the face of the waterfall. It's blinding, rearranged my contact, and just pummeled me. It's a little unnerving because you can't see anything but suddenly feel the cliff right next to you. You're absolutely clueless as to where you are. The key is to keep your butt nice and low and have you legs practically even with your waist, but it's tough when the waterfall is slapping you in the face like a random French guy challenging you to a duel. When you reach the bottom of the falls, you pull yourself along another rope Sly Stallone "Cliffhanger" rescue-style. Ultimately, this waterfall abseil was one of the most invigorating and memorable moments of my entire trip.

View from top of waterfall

This is not me
Nor this

Afterwards, there was a nice 10-foot rock jump, which I did about four times. When I see rocks and water, I feel like I'm 12 and just have the insatiable urge to jump. The climb back out of the canyon was more strenuous than I would've liked. The path and stairs are practically 90 degrees.

I'm doing Shooter McGavin here
When we got back to the outfitter headquarters, there was a nice cooler of Tooheys waiting for us. A flavorful light beer that was one of my favorite Aussie beers. When I returned the wetsuit, the guide just told me to hang it on a clothesline. I don't know if any of those have been washed in the last year. My board shorts, which I wore underneath the suit, smelled like death, and I had to wrap it up in like three hotel laundry bags. It was actually a scent I was unable to remove until I returned to California and one that would frequently perturb my sister's senses as it hung in the hotel bathrooms. Smelly suits were the only negatives of the excursion. The rest was exquisitely high and wild.

After the canyoning, I walked with an English backpacker to the Three Sisters and grabbed a meat pie and pint of Magners Light at an Irish pub called Harp & Fiddle. This English chap was a fine gentleman, recently laid off so he decided to travel, and I kept asking him to give me some UK slang. The only thing I remember is "pucker," which means "great." The problem is "pucker" in other slang means "anus." Sadly, this is a term I doubt I will use.

Does that chalk pint taste pucker... or like pucker?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Walkabout: Australia Day Two

The train! The train!
Southern California needs more efficient public transportation. Most other major metropolitan areas have great trains, subways, buses, rickshaws, not us! Sometimes I feel like Bob Hoskins in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?"mocking Judge Doom and his "lame brain freeway idea." That stinking freeway has made everything in Socal so far apart that sometimes we just have to crash into each other to feel something. (I don't agree with this statement. I just stole it from the movie "Crash," which I liked but is widely criticized as one of the worst movies to ever win a Best Picture Oscar.) I digress. After eating a sausage roll for breakfast at the wonderfully titled Pie Face, I took the train and bus to the world famous Bondi Beach. By the way, the sauce packets in Australia are ingenius. They aren't squeeze packets, nor dipping containers, but a miraculous combination that allows you to squeeze and drizzle an appropriate amount of sauce onto your sustenance without getting your hands dirty. More brilliant than Guinness.


I've not heard of this ordinance.
The weather was consistently overcast, accompanied with a most unpleasant chilly breeze, which rendered the ocean too cold for swimming or snorkeling. My sister and I did the famous Bondi-Coogee beach walk. A gorgeous 3-4-mile walk along five of the region's finest beaches: Bondi, Tamarama, Bronte, Clovelly, and Coogee. I thought many of them resembled California beaches like Monterrey, Santa Monica, and Ocean Beach; even the architecture was similar. The water, however, was brighter and more colorful, both greener and bluer than Cali. 
That's my sister.
Bondi Beach. We both look like we're in high school.

The walk isn't what I'd call a gentle stroll. The coastal trail rises and falls like Mitt Romney's approval. (Oh snap, political reference! Edgy!) Several in-shape locals jogged the trail, and if I wasn't with my sister, in Reefs, or basically myself, I would've been interested in doing the same. There are enticing lap pools next to many of the beaches, as well as tide pools for wading. The lap pools provide a calmer swim than the ocean, and include some of the greatest views. Speaking of views, Sydney beaches are pretty much topless. So they've got that going for them. Which is nice.

The pool water was originally blue. Stupid pee-ers.
Gordon's Bay. There's an underwater nature trail here.

Bronte Beach

After finishing the walk, my sister and I killed some time in Coogee. For me, that involved tasting some genuine Aussie vegemite! A ordered a vegemite sandwich at a deli, but he said the kitchen was closed. I told him I'm a dumb American tourist and just want to try it, so his nice co-worker gave me me a spoonful of the sticky icky. It's an incredibly salty, gelatinous, brown paste. It's a taste I have not acquired.
You call that a spoon?
It was at least an hour before the restaurant we wanted to eat at opened, so my sister decided to get a Thai massage. As I sat in the waiting room at this place, back and feet aching, I decided to get one myself, with some foot reflexology, whatever that is. This was my first professional massage. My shoulders were a little sunburned, so when the 4'10 Thai lady started going to town, it was definitely more pain than pleasure. Early on, she adjusted my back ever-so slightly, and a firecracker-like sound popped off. She stopped briefly, probably thinking she paralyzed me, and in a state of bliss I told her that's all the norm for my jacked up spine. It's rather deceptive how strong these tiny Asian masseuses are. They look normal, then they touch you and it feels like a Hulk smash. 
Small biceps. Herculean hands.
One thing I couldn't help notice, when you're getting a massage, your face is in this hole cushioned by towels which covers your eyes but opens your mouth. As you lie there face down with your mouth open, you're predisposed to drooling! I swear, gravitationally, it's practically impossible not to drool in this position!! After the first fifteen minutes or so, I started slurping up whatever potential drool I might have out of paranoia. I didn't want this woman to find a giant puddle of saliva underneath the massage bed after we finished. I can't be the only one this has happened to. Hello? Anyone?? Bueller?
So much meat. That's what she said!! OHHHH!!!

The massage ended happily with a couple cups of delicious hot tea with sugar and milk. Then my sister and I headed to a Brazillian BBQ named Churrasco. It was all delicious, and reminded me of my jaunt to Brazil an entire year ago(!), and of course, I ate too much and felt like exploding. Despite being massively full off filet mignons, sirloins, chicken, and about 90 servings of grilled pineapple (it was the only thing remotely sweet to counter the barrage of saltiness), I ordered another Aussie beer, a Coopers Pale Ale upon recommendation from the bartender. It was a poor choice. I'm sure he had a laugh after I left.

Next up: abseiling and canyoning waterfalls. Here's a preview:

Olympic something in Hyde Park
This was a heck of an ab workout.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Didgeridooing It

"I had the shot. There was no danger. So I took it."
Taken when all electronics were supposed to be off.
Happy plane didn't explode as byproduct.
"You took it. And broke a major rule of engagement."

Lt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell's defense for firing on another F-14 during a training exercise seemed to be the exact sentiment I felt before absconding to Australia late February. I found myself with some extra time off during the usual no-fly zone sweeps period; so I e-mailed my sister, a quasi-professional world traveler, listed about 10 countries I was interested in visiting, and asked if she knew of any websites for last-minute deals. As it were, the world traveler tells me she's going to practically half the list I provided (which included Australia and Thailand), and if I end up going to Australia, I wouldn't have to pay any lodging.

Done! I didn't (couldn't, shouldn't, whatever) want to take too much time off, so I scheduled a quick 9-day trip (two nights spent on a plane) to Sydney for 4-and-a-half days, then to Cairns (and the Great Barrier Reef) for another two days. The cost of the plane ticket was a couple hundred dollars more than I wanted to pay, but over the course of a week I spent debating this trip, I psyched myself up too much and I knew if I didn't book, I'd regret it. Stupid carpe diem attitude!! It's costly when you've got a travel epidemic. 

Fancy, huh?

I flew Virgin Australia (and earned Delta SkyMiles) and it's one of the best airlines I've ever flown. Hip neon colors, roomy seating, incredible on-demand entertainment selection. Unfortunately, I wasted much of the 15-hr flight watching the unfit-for-public-viewing "Cowboys and Aliens" and "Transformers 3." The other bummer was they asked me where I'd like to sit, and I told them window towards the front of the plane. At the check-in counter, the woman told me I'm in luck and there's a seat in the second row in coach. Score. Little did I know, that entire front row is for parents with babies, including changing stations. Damn you, Scuba Steve!!! Eight hours of the flight I felt like I was in the customer service section of Babies-R-Us. #NotReadyToBeADaddy

I got into Sydney around 7:30am, took the light rail to my sister's hotel, the ParkRoyal near Darling Harbour, and after a quick shower, we headed through Hyde Park (which looks like Central Park to me, but don't most big parks tend to look similar?) to the NSW (New South Wales - I kept having this urge to call it North Southwest) Gallery where there was an extensive Picasso exhibit on loan from Paris. For the life of me, I don't understand what I'm looking at with Picassos. Don't get me wrong, I'm crazy impressed and his wide range of artistic endeavors is genius, but when it comes to interpreting some of his surrealistic paintings of women, I can make out boobs and that's about it. And what's with his infatuation with minotaurs? He would've loved "Role Models."
Figures Au Bord De La Mer
After perusing the museum, my sister headed off to work, while I walked along the gorgeous Sydney Harbor. There's a famous lookout point called Mrs. Macquarie's Chair, which was carved out of a rock. It overlooks the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. As I walked along the trails, I quickly noticed everyone stays on the left side of the road as opposed to the right. Cuckoo!! The bridge and Opera House are in a neighborhood called Circular Quay. 
MacQuarie's Chair... without the chair!

The Opera House is pretty sweet; I was hoping to catch a show of Carrot Top there, but apparently he's not on the schedule there for the next couple millenia. There are some Aboriginal Australians playing didgeridoos on the street in tourist spots in this area. I wanted to take a picture but felt it might be uncool. Plus, I'd seen these guys in "Crocodile Dundee."

That guy was tall
Not to be confused w/Bridge to Terabithia
As I passed through a historic part of town called The Rocks on the way to the bridge, I ran into a guy wearing a KTLA hat. We bonded over our LA and TV connections; then he grabbed my bum and I shanked him. (This did not happen.) After walking the bridge, I headed towards the Sydney Aquarium, which I figured could be one of the world's best. If you ever do this, be sure to buy tickets online because it's 50% off. The aquarium is in Darling Harbour, which looks like its 20 miles away according to city maps, but really just 2-3 miles. I challenge anyone to find a Sydney map that's drawn to scale. Impossible. 

People looking at shark
Unnecessary movies
The aquarium had some good stuff: platypussies (is that not correct?), penguins, long-necked turtles, various sharks, sting rays, and a strange DVD section in the souvenir shop with oceanic classics "Ghostbusters" and "When Harry Met Sally." Honestly, has anyone purchased a non-sea-related movie at an aquarium gift shop??? Who does that? "Hey honey, I loved the penguin exhibit. Now let's buy 'Black Hawk Down'!"

100-year egg
Xiao long bao
I took my sister out to a famous Chinese dumping restaurant that night, Din Tai Fun. I guess there's 5 or 6 in the world. They have excellent xiao long bao. I also got some century old egg, apparently not quite as old as the thousand-year-old egg my family normally calls these dark-colored eggs. The eggs may have lead, so they're not particularly healthy, but served on top of cold tofu it's quite refreshing; and an excellent complement to the dumplings and my Cascade Premium Light, an Aussie lager that tastes like butt.

Not real bird

Not in Whistler
We capped off the night by walking along the Darling Harbour, a nice spot that's been revamped to bring in tourists, but quiet considering it was a Monday night. 

Hyde Park - masculine statue
Sydney Botanical Gardens
Tiramisu puppy. Made from genuine puppy

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Kona’d or Cary Chow: Worst Ironman Ever

This was day one of the shoot

Last April I returned to TV hosting for the first time since “Fresh TV” (for those who don’t know – it’s only the greatest travel-entertainment-reality-cable access show of all time). I was a co-host for a TV pilot called “Immersed,” which was a cross of “Dhani Tackles the Globe” with “Pros vs. Joes.” Essentially three co-hosts/adventurers try to fully immerse themselves in the life of an action sports athlete for a week – and created by Dennis Joyce Entertainment, which executive produced an upcoming documentary called “Plimpton!” that follows the incredible life of writer George Plimpton. He’s the psychiatrist that Good Will Hunting calls "gay." He’s also a man that others call a real life Forrest Gump; he even tackled Sirhan Sirhan after Sirhan shot RFK. 

Check out the website: http://plimptonmovie.com/

The pilot was filmed in Kona, HI, where the hosts would follow and train with world champion Ironman Chris Lieto for three days. We stayed at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows, an exotic resort that included world class athletic facilities, including top 50 golf course rated by Golf Magazine; tennis courts where Michael Chang played; and Playboy Mansion-esque grotto which serves as some sort of outrageously luxurious spa treatment.

Hard at work
This shoot was an exercise in awesomeness and I will most likely come off sounding like a real douche if I continue on. So call me a douche! I wrote a story about my experience and pitched it to Traithlete Magazine, ESPN.com, and Grantland, but the douche factor was too overwhelming. That’s why it’s appearing here on the blog. It’s a long-form piece that clocks in at a Simmons-esque 4000 words, so I’ll be impressed if anyone actually finishes - a cookie to anyone who does! Presenting….


“Just throw up.”

That was the advice the sleek man with the shaved head gleefully gave me as I hunched over my knees and contemplated what a terrible place Hawaii can be.

“I… can’t,” I mustered, seemingly minutes between words.

“You’ll feel better. Just do it. Come on.”

The man continued, grinning ear-to-ear like the Cheshire Cat; devious blue eyes hidden by a pair of customized Oakley Jawbones. The man could hardly contain himself. We’ve barely run (and I use the term loosely) two miles, and my legs had the consistency of sashimi while my heart pumped like Jason Statham’s in “Crank.”

This is training with three-time Ironman champion Chris Lieto.

The Plimpton Effect

A month earlier, I received a call to train with Ironman Chris Lieto for several days near his home in Kona, HI. I would be one of four hosts for a TV show pilot. Essentially, I will immerse myself into the life of one of America’s best triathletes; follow his routine, observe what makes him tick and discover the demands of the sport. It would be a new age George Plimptonian maneuver.

A rare break from our crack binges
Lieto is at the top of his sport.  In addition to three Ironman wins, the 39-year-old has 16 top-level triathlon victories, a U.S. Ironman championship, and several top-10 finishes at the World Championships in Hawaii. He very likely would’ve taken last year’s title if not for being hampered by a stomach illness. Despite being under the weather, he still finished 10th. He’s a former college water polo player who got into the sport at 25, an age when most Ironmen begin their peak. Lieto, a former fashion model, is now the model image of a triathlete.

Here’s the breakdown: fly to the Big Island to meet with Lieto at the Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows, follow him around and try to keep up with him as best as possible as he bikes, runs, and swims around the resort in preparation for the Ironman World Championships. Seems innocent enough – except for the fact that I’m atrocious at all endurance sports.

I’m 30, stand 5’9, and weigh a relatively fit 165 pounds. I fancy myself as athletic, yet frequent visits to the chiropractor would argue otherwise. My swimming technique involves improper breathing, useless strokes, and voluminous imbibing of liquid. The last time I ran more than a mile was as a high school freshman. My bicycle is a women’s cruiser with a basket. I wish I made that up. Not even on Nintendo am I on the cusp of swimming 2.4 miles, cycling 112 miles, and running 26.2 miles – the distances in the Ironman World Championship. The closest I’ve been to an Ironman is Red Box; yet here I was, ready to go toe-to-toe with the best in the sport? Walter Mondale had a better shot of beating Reagan.

Aloha: As in Goodbye

View from hotel
As I set foot in the airy, ceiling-less Kona Airport, I’m taken to the lovely Mauna Lani Bay Hotel and Bungalows; an upscale resort that caters specifically to athletes, and even more specifically – triathletes. It rests directly on the beach – two beaches actually, so open water swimming is less than a stone’s throw away. The property features a multi-lane 25-meter lap pool with an instructor who’s finished multiple Ironmans; tennis court that looks straight from Flushing Meadows; and two world class golf resorts that “Golf Magazine” has cited among North America’s best. That’s not even mentioning the full-scale outdoor spa center complete with what appears to be the grotto from the Playboy Mansion. The resort’s media relations director, Bree Dalwitz, says in her inviting Australian accent that a soothing water massage is done in this cavernous inlet. I bet.

Despite these and numerous other amenities, it’s arguably the roads that are perhaps best suited for triathlon training. Long paved roads weave throughout the entire property like spilled spaghetti. The non-linear terrain helps train for uphill battles and downhill breakaways. Smoldering lava rocks assist heat acclimation. And of course, access to Kona’s main highway is a quick ride or run away. Some might say it’s perfect for cycling and running. I say it’s daunting.

Looking the Part

My first introduction to Ironman training involves putting on a pair of Speedo-esque trunks known as “jammers.” They’re the exceptionally tight racing trunks that allow for minimal interference in the water – and minimal interpretation for the imagination. For some reason, my jammers are white in the rear and once wet -- become somewhat transparent. Why on earth would you make a Speedo see-thru? Don’t get me wrong, I can think of reasons, but it doesn’t seem to help with performance. Perhaps the fact I’m dwelling on my new swim trunks and not focusing on swimming will affect my future performance? Nah.

Later Donatello ate pizza and fought Shredder
In the water, the Speedos do make a difference. While board shorts weigh you down, these new fangled crotch huggers allow freedom of movement and glide in water. If Walter Iooss Jr. took one of his classic close-up action photos, you’d probably be able to see the liquid roll off the body like oil and water. 

Next it’s time to get fitted for a road bike at Cycle Station, a performance bike shop run by Oliver and Julia Kiel. Oliver has short brown hair and a thick German accent that makes him sound like Dirk Nowitzki. He’s a courteous guy, but when he talks to you, there’s a sense that he’s got something better to do. Like train. Oliver is probably 95% more fit than any of his customers and seems to have the motor of a Volkswagen. He’s completed the Ultraman, which involves swimming 6.2-miles, cycling 261.4-miles, and running 52.4-miles in three days.  That’s 320 miles combined, roughly the distance from Washington DC to Ontario. Dude be fit.

Oliver instructs me to change into my cycling bib. These look less like bike shorts and more like Borat’s fluorescent green mankini. Below the waist, the overall-style shorts provide significant butt padding; above, it prepares you to Greco-Roman wrestle Alexander Karelin. Its snug design minimizes wind resistance and makes you look as uncool as possible.

So close to stealing this
Oliver fits me for a black-and-red Trek Madone 3 Series, an ultra light carbon-framed road bike (valued around $2100). For some reason, the bike conjured images of a black widow spider. As I first sit on this Ferrari of road bikes, I could practically hear it sighing in disappointment. The seat, or saddle, feels made of marble. It’s hard on the bum and my Rulon Gardner outfit immediately provides a solid return on the investment. The road bike puts you high in the air as you hunch over like Quasimodo to reach the handles. I doubt this posture is pediatrician recommended, but it apparently helps you go fast.
I’m wearing cycling shoes that require you to click onto the pedals. Attaching the shoe to pedal helps maximize speed and saves energy. Cyclists get power on the up and downstrokes. When the foot rises, so does the pedal, saving valuable joules when you’re working on mile 100 – or for me – three. The trick, however, is getting in-and-out of these snapping contraptions without toppling over. It requires a quick thrust of the foot away from the bike – a maneuver I never mastered, but didn’t have to because I planned on using normal pedals when riding with Lieto.

My reasoning to bypass cycling cleats, other than to avoid broken wrists, which would’ve occurred while bracing for inevitable falls, was to help with my transition speed between the swim and cycling portions of the Ironman. While swimming, your bike, shoes, socks, water, and whatever else you need await you on a nice towel. When you emerge from the water, you run through the sand, wash your feet, put on your shoes, and cycle off as fast as possible. 

During my transition practice, I could sense valuable seconds wasting away as I struggled to put my socks around my moist feet. So ultimately, I ditched my socks and put on my pre-tied running shoes. It helped with my transition speed. It also helped Dr. Scholl’s stock as I would undoubtedly have to buy some sort of foot odor spray after cycling.

Meeting Chris

As transition practice wrapped around 8 in the morning, Chris Lieto, his wife Karis, and their adorable 3-year-old daughter arrived at the Mauna Lani. They came bearing a large stroller filled to the brim with water and supplies. Lieto, draped in casual K-Swiss gear, isn’t a physically imposing force like say LeBron James or Peyton Manning, but the slightest glance and you can tell he’s an athlete. He’s as aerodynamic as a human can get. If LeBron James is a Lamborghini, Chris Lieto is a Ducati. He stands at 6-feet and is 160 pounds of lean, cut muscle. His body fat is in the negatives. His head is shaved to maximize performance. So are his legs and arms. Speed is in the subtleties. To win an Ironman, it not only takes extreme fitness, but also anatomical assistance. His fingernails seem trimmed to the maximum distance, but Lieto says some competitors remove them completely.

The workout itinerary includes a morning bike ride of 4.2-miles, a quick meal, followed by a 4.2-mile run. This is just a small excerpt from Lieto’s normal training, but for videography and production purposes – this is what we’ll do together. I am certainly cognizant that those numbers don’t sound daunting, but because they are so modest, it will undoubtedly make my struggles all the more humiliating. Make no mistake about it – I’m worried. I’m not quite George Clooney before his last stand against demon vampires in “From Dusk ‘til Dawn,” but I am concerned.

Saddling Up

A production crew crams into a white Dodge minivan, leaving the trunk open to shoot unobscured video. Lieto hops on the saddle to his Trek bite and immediately flies along the roadside lava rock. His effortless pedaling resembles pistons firing in an engine. Biking is Lieto’s strongest triathlon event. He’s widely considered the strongest cyclist in the field. In fact, Lance Armstrong even called him out to race.

“I found out about it on Twitter,” said Lieto of the seven-time Tour de France winner’s challenge. Armstrong tweeted he wanted to race Lieto as they trained separately in Kona early 2010. In what became known as the “Twitter Time Trial,” Armstrong beat Lieto by a mere 15 seconds in a 14-mile sprint.

Lieto is like 27 miles behind me. Riiight....
In the beginning of my ride with the guy who barely lost to Captain Livestrong, everything felt great. The adjustment to the harsh saddle and the crouching tiger posture was easy. Concern of falling over on the narrow road bike subsided since there were no harsh acute turns on our route. That being said, I could still feel the strain on my legs as I cycled through even the slightest elevation change. My thighs burned. I tried to compensate by changing gears, but I could never remember which direction were the higher gears (for downhill riding), and which were the lower (for uphill). I cluelessly switched gears like a monkey handed a remote control, and this constantly resulted in excess joule exertion. As Lieto rode further ahead of me, I regretted forgoing the clip-in cycling shoes. The momentum of being attached to the pedal not only saves energy but propels you further faster, and I needed any advantage I could.
As we briefly ride side-by-side, Lieto tells me about the places he’s traveled to because of the sport. India, Africa, Mexico – he’s certainly seen his share of Sky Mall covers. But his trip to Mexico was perhaps the most poignant. That’s when he realized the depths of poverty firsthand, and juxtaposed that image with the all-inclusive resort he was staying at. He remembers clearly the images of impoverished young children sitting in trees and families living in cardboard boxes. It was an area of desperation and need.

That led him to begin “More Than Sport,” a non-profit organization devoted to helping children and communities around the world. According to its website, the organization has raised more than $100-thousand in supplies, education, health care and other needs in the last year. A man of deep faith, Lieto has enlisted other athletes to join More Than Sport’s cause of compassion.

Lieto pulls well ahead as we race back to the resort and I notice his legs. They are so sinewy his veins protrude like the sides of a 4th grader’s plaster of Paris volcano. In fact, they are so healthy they actually look unhealthy – almost fragile. His calves are rocks and his thighs are straight equine. Even when he coasts, Lieto looks to win.

After the ride, my legs are a bit jelly-like, but I’m satisfied with my performance. I know Lieto was operating on cruise control while I was going all out, but the fact I was able to remotely keep up was pleasing. My goals aren’t that lofty. Lieto heads off to grab another bite to eat, and the television hosts take turns cycling for the cameras. Altogether, we bike around 8.4 miles. About 15 minutes after the crew finishes individual cycling shots, it’s time to start running.

It Depends on Your Definition of “Slow”

The running route is the same as the cycling. I know for a fact I will not be able to keep up for long. The fact my legs feel like udon is not an excuse, but it is convenient to note. Once again, we’ll chase the camera crew in a minivan. Apprarently “worry” is painted on my face, because Lieto leans to me and says, “We’ll go real slow.”

Thanks. But it won’t matter.

Lieto starts off at a super slow pace. His K-Swiss sneaks seem like they’re shuffling along the road. He’s a notch above speed-walking at this point.

This is the only pic of us together. 5 seconds later. I'm out!
Not me. His walk is my jog. Within a quarter mile, I’ve already significantly dropped off his pace. I’m sweating like Kris Humphries before proposing to Kim Kardashian and am barely registering in his rear view. By the ¾-mile mark, he’s a blip in the distance. I estimate my pace to be around an 8-minute mile. Considering I never run to just run, I have no real basis of comparison. If I were on a treadmill, it would feel like I’m going about level 5.5.

My heart is pumping hard. I’m trying to breath with discipline. Inhale through the nose. Exhale through the mouth. Some experts say you want to breathe with a 3-to-2 ratio. Meaning, you inhale on the left, right, left foot; then exhale on the right and left steps. This supposedly helps you get more oxygen to the muscles, while clearing the body of carbon dioxide. Regardless, the method is lost on me as I breathe like a Labrador in the Sahara. The front of my gray shirt sports a massive parabola of sweat that reaches below my navel.

By the time I reach the 1.75-mile point, I’m pretty sure Lieto has run to California. The Ironman, camera crew, co-hosts – all are long gone. I’m by myself “running” alongside the lava rocks. I take solace in the fact I don’t have a side ache, my legs haven’t cramped up, and I’m still going.

Eventually, the van returns and the producers tell me to stop. I didn’t reach my 2.1-mile finish point and wanted to keep going, but the film crew wants to capture different shots of each host running individually. The momentary break helps rejuvenate, but rejuvenation doesn’t mean reincarnation. I still can’t run fast or long and I’m quickly struggling again. I stop. Breathe heavily. Hunch over.
Lieto sees this from afar and decides I need some extra motivation. He runs to me, in high spirits, puts his hand over me, concerned for my well-being. Then smiles. Wide.

“Just throw up.”

I can’t do it. Even though I seemed to have reached the end of my running point for the day, I don’t have anything in the esophageal go-position. The thought of vomiting certainly doesn’t seem like it will make me feel better, especially since it would have to be self-induced - which Lieto insists I do. He’s playing with me now. When I tell him I have no intention of doing that, Lieto smiles, “It’ll be good for the camera.”

Seeing as how his goading will not work, Lieto runs off. Leaving me all by myself again. This time to walk.

This would've been a preferred mode of transportation
The crew finishes getting all the shots they need and offer rides back to the resort. Lieto says he knows a short cut and starts running back. All the hosts follow, including myself, albeit reluctantly.
Soon enough they all run out of my vantage point again. But I can’t help but smile. That might be hyperbole because I’m too exhausted to lift the sides of my mouth – but I’m content. Sure I’m legions behind everyone else. If this were the 1994 Oscar race between “The Shawshank Redemption,” “Forrest Gump,” and “Pulp Fiction” – I would be “Cabin Boy.” Yet I’m still jogging at this point. In my mind, that’s all that matters.

Straight Talk

It’s about 6:30pm by the time we return to the Mauna Lani. We decide to eat dinner at the Ocean Grill, the resorts’ casual beachfront restaurant. It’s a low-key evening with Lieto – no cameras, just company.
Lieto orders an array of appetizers including tuna tartare. He’s quite the diet guru, which isn’t a surprise considering he’s constantly eating to compensate for his tremendous calorie burning. In fact, Lieto founded Base Performance, a nutritional supplement company for endurance athletes. Lieto says nutrition is vital to the success of a triathlete. A strong nutritional base helps the body train, recover, and adapt.  He doesn’t cheat his body. As I order a tantalizing, and masculine, tropical cocktail complete with pineapple chunk, cherry, but sans umbrella, he won’t even slip with a Michelob Ultra. Those commercials are full of shit.

As his fresh mahi mahi tacos arrive, Lieto has let a bit of his guard down, talking about growing up in Jersey and moving to California. At the beginning of the production, Lieto, like most professional athletes or entertainers, is careful as to what he admits and reveals. But in this dimly lit, relaxed setting with waves crashing behind us, he lets in. He tells us he’s a very religious man, which contributed to starting More Than Sport. He opens up about the difficulty of balancing training with family. He says the long hours and travel take its toll on the family; and he’s actually regretted not being more available in the past. But recently, he’s shifted his priorities and reaffirmed family as the most important part of his life. It’s all a balance.

Mauna Lani's backyard
He also admits he’s frustrated with television coverage of the sport, especially the main event and how the show has been condensed, glossed over, and dramatically packaged for the most casual viewer. Lieto distinctly resents Ironman commentator Al Trautwig’s on-air remark that Lieto would have to “wait ‘til next year” – a perceived affront to a man who’s dedicated his life to achieving a goal.

Lieto says his only goal left in the sport is to win the Kona World Championship. Realistically, he only foresees a few more years in the sport. While he’s on top of his game now, Lieto knows everything can change as quickly as his time trials.

Open Water

At 6am, Lieto is ready for an open water swim from Nanuku Inlet, thru Makaiwa Bay, to Beach Club Beach, roughly a distance of around 1600 feet. The third host of this production, Wes Dening, will swim alongside Lieto as best as he can. Dening is an outgoing Australian TV host and producer who used to swim competitively as a teenager, including against Aussie swimming superstar and Olympian Ian Thorpe, or the “Thorpedo”. Felsch, the other co-host, will kayak next to the swimmers as cameraman Brendan Love shoots video with a GoPro, one of those tiny mountable cameras that are used prevalently in sports videography. Lieto plans on swimming this distance to and fro several times; Dening, a round-trip. Me? I’m walking.

Lieto glides in the water like a greased up porpoise. It’s the sport he’s had to work hardest on to improve, and each effortless stroke proves how much that practice, time, and effort has paid off. There’s hardly any splash with each kick and stroke; and each controlled breathe is an exercise in discipline. Impressively, Dening is not far behind him and neither is winded by the time they reach the shore.
The swimming shoot requires each host to swim to and from a catamaran that’s anchored around 200 yards off shore. Being the poor swimmer that I am, this part of the triathlon gives me the most anxiety. Instead of my jammers, I’m wearing board shorts. I dive into the water, which is obligingly calm, and try to go for as long as I can. At what seems the 150-yard mark, I switch from freestyle to backstroke. 20 more yards and I’ve stopped swimming and start treading water. The crew continues to shoot from the kayak. In my head, I feel I can make it to the boat, but there would be zero chance I can swim back to shore. I make the call. The towel is thrown.

I turn around and head back in. After swimming for what might be around 30-yards or so, I’m completely gassed. I’m breathing heavily but no breath is satisfying enough. I grab the back of the kayak as the crew rows me back in. I ride to around 20 yards from shore then laboriously swim the remaining distance. Maybe 20 feet away from the beach, I can stand. The ground is rigid and full of uneven rocks, but to me it feels like heaven. I can’t wait to stand and walk. Once I make it to the beach, I can’t wait to lie and sleep. 

Maybe 15 minutes later we shoot some more swimming scenes. It’s brief and not nearly as painful. After the cameras wrap, Lieto and Wes swim back to the resort, while Lindsey and I kayak. The training is over. The Ironman experience is complete.

Born vs. Bred

Later that day we would shoot some interviews reliving our experience – or for me – the charade. Going into the week, I had this perception towards the Ironman – it’s a sport where athletes are bred, not born. To succeed in basketball, football, etc., there’s a genetic makeup involved. An average Joe, with all the practice in the world, cannot become an NBA superstar. There are physical limitations: height, vertical, speed. However, an Ironman consists of basic exercises: swimming, cycling and running. If you have the mental and physical discipline, finishing an Ironman can be achieved through hours of devotion (not finishing first, but finishing).

Realizing one sucks at all sports is disheartening
Training with an Ironman, I feel that statement is only half-true. Surely it can be accomplished, but it takes a certain personality and mental make-up – and not everyone has it. Chris Lieto does. It’s less personal drive than instinct. When a friend ran over Lieto’s foot with a car and threatened his ability to walk – let alone do a triathlon – Lieto pushed himself through the pain and eventually became an Ironman champion. It was something he knew he had to do. Lieto has molded his mind in such a way that his threshold for pain is like few others. Heck, it’s nothing short of David Blaine if you ask me. The mental mastery it takes to be a top-flight Ironman competitor is just as impressive and rare as Andy Roddick’s 155-mph serve or a Wayne Rooney bicycle kick.

Over the course of the week, Lieto told me several times, “Anyone can do a triathlon. It’s just a matter of how long it takes to finish.” Looking back, I question if that’s truly accurate. What I do know, is that it sure helps with a kayak.