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Testing Their Mettle

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Multi-Ironman Anthony “Tony” Parks strides alone
during the marathon part of the Maryland Ironman.

Photo courtesy FinisherPix

Local athletes gear up for Springfield Ironman

By Debbie Gardner

      With a 1.2-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride and a 13-mile run, the Springfield 70.3 Ironman on June 11 isn’t as grueling as some of the longer, more taxing triathlons that carry that renown moniker. But with an open water component in the Connecticut River, a bike route through the mountains of Granville and a course that follows streets in and around Springfield, it’s a challenge that’s enticed numerous local athletes to sign up and don a bib.

      Prime sought out a handful of these would-be competitors – all over the age of 40 – to ask them about their training and their motivation to test their mettle in this close-to-home challenge.

“I want to hear … ‘You’re an Ironman!’”

      “I’ve been wanting to do an Ironman since I saw one,”51-year-old Scott Chretien of Westfield told Prime, explaining how he was inspired by a YouTube video of the iconic triathlons. “It just bit me, and I had to step up and do something … it’s all about the challenge … to do something so incredible. It made me want to do it.”

      Chretien is no stranger to athletic challenges. “I’ve done a few half-marathons, marathons, many 5K and 10Ks and a few sprint triathlons,” he shared. But this will be the biggest test of his athletic prowess so far. “The interesting thing, I was thinking about the Lake Placid [New York] one in the fall [of 2022], and the money was a little much, and around November here comes the Springfield Ironman,” Chretien said. “It was almost like a godsend. Here’s something you can afford and it’s right in your area and it’s the first one… how can you not do it?”

      Chretien said he signed up for the  70.3 Springfield Ironman on Nov. 19, the very first day it was open. “I missed it by 12 hours – I thought it was 12 p.m. but it was 12 a.m. I was trying to be the first person,” he said.

      In preparation for the challenge Chretien said he bumped up his normal training routine – “bike rides and runs and gym workouts” after a vacation break in December, finding an online trainer who works with a site called TrainingPeaks to help him with the tougher parts of his prep. “I was reluctant to do a trainer, but I knew my weakest point was the swim … I’m horrible with the breathing part,” he confided. Chretien said he signed up for a “30-day boot camp for the swim and when that was done, they asked me if I wanted help with the other parts. The structure seemed to be helping – I’m not big on structure,” he said.

      The day Prime spoke to Chretien in early May, he was hoping the afternoon would warm up so he could get in an open water swim, which was on his training for the day. “It’s pretty much all on [my trainer], what she feels I need to concentrate on,” he said. “I’ve been following her trainings. I wait until the night before to look at it. I try to concentrate on each day and not think about the next day to stay focused on the one or two disciplines a day. Today I’m supposed to do a 2,000-meter open water swim and then a two-hour run, which is basically a half-marathon.”

      Because of his work schedule, 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. as a pressman, Chretien said it’s hard to hook up with some of the running and cycling groups that are also training for the Springfield Ironman, so he mostly trains alone.

      As far as his goals for his first-ever Ironman, Chretien said “I’d like to say I have a time in mind, but I have nothing to judge it by. My goal is just to finish as fast as I can, to push everything. It’s a long race and you will have your ups and downs.

      “Honestly it’s the accomplishment,” Chretien explained. “It’s all about me trying to be focused and get the best out of myself. I just want the challenge, I want to see how far I can actually push myself … at my age, I want to see what I can do.

      “I want to hear… Chretien, you are an Ironman!” he shared.

Her next challenge

      “It’s a year of fitness and I was looking for a little bit bigger challenge,” 55-year-old Liza Manzi of Holyoke told Prime about her decision to sign up for the Springfield  70.3 Ironman. “This is closer to home, and I thought it was the best opportunity to try an Ironman … it’s only a half Ironman, but that’s still good!”

      Her “year of fitness” started last summer, when she tacked the Tri for Jimmy “which is a sprint triathlon, a shorter race that is an introduction to triathlons,” Manzi explained. “When I finished that I was kind of looking for my next challenge.” That was a longer run, the St. Patrick’s Road Race in Holyoke this past March. She got bitten by the Ironman bug, she said, through RunYourHealth, a running club she joined in spring 2021, after dropping 90 pounds though a weight management program at Holyoke Hospital in 2020.

      “I was morbidly obese,” said the middle school teacher about her pre-weight loss self. “A colleague got me involved [with RunYourHealth] and convinced me to start running, so I started running. Convinced me to buy a bike, so I started riding, so all of this started last year,” Manzi said.

      She added a group of athletes within RunYourHealth “all did Lake Placid [Ironman] last year; their excitement got me going. They had so much fun doing a full [Ironman] that I thought, ‘Let me try a half and see how it goes.’”

      Manzi said members of RunYourHealth, along with the nutritionist at Holyoke Hospital’s weight management and other weight management staff who assisted her with “some mental health aspects,” have been helping her train for Springfield’s triathlon.

      “Everyone is reaching out to help me through this, it’s kind of neat,” she said. “I’ve got my times all planned out, and if I stick to my training plan, I should be able to do it, unless I have technical difficulties or cramping or something like that.”

      Like Chretien, Manzi is using an online training program, this one called TriDoc, to track her workouts. She does some of the training on her own, and some with groups.  “I started in right after soccer season, in November, because I coach JV and at the varsity level as well,” she said.

      She’s been doing her swimming at the Holyoke Y, though she took an open water clinic in April. “That was in a pool, but the person who did it said he’s going to do some things at Lake Congomond and hopefully, I can meet up with him again,” Manzi said. The bike, she noted, will probably be the hardest leg of the triathlon for her. “It’s the longest leg, and some of the roads, I hope are going to get fixed. I’m hearing some areas are going to be interesting; I don’t want to get a flat … I’ve been trying to get some decent rides in with hills, so I’m prepared.” The day we spoke she was ramping up her training schedule, planning a “three-hour ride and a 20-minute run,” that Saturday.

      Asked about her goal for this first-time effort, Manzi shared she was looking to finish in “nine hours and 11 minutes – I’d like to come in around that time.”  But her biggest goal is to see what she can do.

      “I just want to kind-of prove to myself that I can do this, considering two years ago I couldn’t walk a mile,” Manzi said. “I want to see how far I can get; I’m just proving to myself that I can do a lot more than I was ever capable of.”

For the fun of it

      “I started off at 4 o’clock this morning with a workout. After work I did another strength training and then a run,” 48-year-old cardiologist and Westfield resident Dr. Nitin Bhatnagar told Prime about his ramped-up training in anticipation of the June 11 Ironman 70.3 in Springfield.

      This won’t be Bhatnagar’s first Ironman. He’s already taken on two of the triathlons, the Lake Placid one in New York last year, and the Timberman in New Hampshire. But he wasn’t always this active.

      “I’ve not been an athlete my whole life,” Bhatnagar shared. “It was part of my midlife crisis at 40, when I decided to get healthy. I changed my nutrition and joined CrossFit.  I fell in love with CrossFit and became a CrossFit coach.

      But “in the grand scheme of things, I never had an intention of swimming or biking or running, I was a very poor runner when I was younger,” Bhatnagar added.

      The spark: a post he saw online in 2021, that read, “A Journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step.”

      “I saw that and realized I’d been saying ‘one day’ for so many things in my life, for so many people and things and I took a deep breath and decided yes, in February 2021 [that I] was going to be going for Lake Placid [Ironman] in 2022,” Bhatnagar said.

      It was a big commitment. “I did not know how to swim, and I did not know how to [bike]ride efficiently, or how to run efficiently – I could run a mile and I’d be sore,” Bhatnagar said. Over the next year and a half, he learned how to swim, to bike and to run.

      “I did one lap in the pool and was exhausted, I was amazed people could do laps,” Bhatnagar said of his early swim training. But he slowly built up his stamina,  two laps, four laps, six laps, 10 laps until “one day I did 170 laps unbroken in two hours and thought, ‘I have a shot at doing an Ironman.’”

      He used the same approach with biking – eventually signing up for the Ride to Remember – and to running. A father of two , his weekends became consumed with training – “my wife completely supported me in this crazy endeavor” – and he said he had friends who helped him train. By August 2021 he was ready to test his mettle. ”I did my first sprint triathlon, then I did an Olympic [triathlon],” Bhatnagar said. He was hooked.

      For the Springfield half-Ironman, Bhatnagar said he’s been training “six days a week. I have two sessions of training every day, it’s usually biking or swimming or running or strength training. I also stretch for a minimum half hour every day and do yoga three days a week.”

      His training has inspired his children to be more active, he said; his daughter often rides her bike along during part of his runs, and his son has done some short races with him.

      Bhatnager’s  goal for the Springfield Ironman is the same as his previous triathlons. “I want to be able to finish and feel strong, not feeling ‘Oh my god, I feel like a dishrag,’” Bhatnagar said. “The last one I did in New Hampshire, I told myself ‘I am completely having fun, I don’t care if it’s pouring rain or if there are cars in the way’ and I did it in a decent time.”

      Bhatnagar said he finds competing in an Ironman “is not just a physical journey, but also tests the mental limits, the emotional limits and the spiritual limits.” In essence he said, it’s all about perseverance and consistency. “I’m doing this to have fun and I’m inspired … I have no desire to podium. If I do it and I’m still doing it at 85 and there’s no one left around, I’ll podium.

      “I love it whether I cross the finish line,” Bhatnagar continued. “I’m loving tying my shoes before I start a training run, and I’m having fun.”

He’s a true Ironman

      Anthony “Tony” Parks had just returned from an Ironman in Texas when Prime caught up with the 57-year-old engineer from Southampton. It was his 13th full Ironman. He’s also competed in “16 or 17” half-Ironman events, like the upcoming Springfield 70.3 over the years.

      “I’m probably one of those obsessive people, it could be a bad trait,” Parks joked about his passion for athletics. “I was a very good rock climber, a mountaineer, I raced in school, as a teen I did cycle cross. I didn’t swim much.”

      Parks said he “ became interested in triathlons because I did a lot of trail running – like Mt. Tom and the USAC Mountain Goat series [at Mt. Washington]. A friend gave me a dare – ‘If I do Mt. Washington with you, I dare you to do Lake Placid with me.’ I went from zero to Ironman in one year.”

      Parks said he now does one full Ironman and “three to four halfs” every year. “It’s a lot of training and preparation,” Parks said. “You’ve got to put in the base work, to get a good level in [running] it can take three to four years.”

      Signing up for the Springfield Ironman 70.3 was an easy choice, Parks said. “It was on my doorstep, and I said, ‘why not?’” He noted the group he trains with, Cyclonauts Multisport out of Agawam, had many members who felt the same way. “It will be huge really, a lot of people in yellow and black, the Cyclonaut men, the women in pink and black. It’s very easy to spot.”

      Besides his own training regime, Parks also helps other athletes prepare for triathlon events. “I have I guy I was coaching who hasn’t done something for a couple of years who wants to do Western Mass [Ironman],” Parks said. With about five weeks to the event at the time, Parks compared this kind of prep to “couch to 5K,” saying he told the client, “I can’t promise you a great finish, but I can promise you a finish.”

      Helping other athletes prepare for these intense competitions is “part of the fun of it,” Parks added.     

      As far as his own finish for the Springfield event, Parks said, “I’d like to be top five for my age group. I did it for all my halfs, I did two seconds, a third and a fourth last year.” He thinks “under five hours” is achievable. “It’s a downriver swim … Instead of 33 minutes it’s a spot faster,” Parks explained.  “The bike is doable in under two hours 40 minutes – that’s three hours 12, and I’ve got to do the run in one hour 41 [minutes] and that will put me about 4.5 hours, and I know I can do it in that time.”

Doing her part

      Laurie Addoms is competing in her first Ironman in Springfield. At least she’s competing in the bike part.

      “I’m the cyclist on the relay,” the 60-year-old Addoms explained to Prime as she was driving home from her job as an air traffic controller. “There are three on the team, a guy named Aaron and a girl named Christine.” When we spoke Addoms hadn’t met her team partners in person yet.

      Addoms met her Ironman partners though a website set up by the running store and training group 4Run3 of East Longmeadow. “That’s how we found each other,” Addoms said. “We might get together to do some training, but we haven’t as of yet.”

      Addoms is no stranger to triathlons, however. “I’ve done some sprints [triathlons], I’ve done some duathlons and some Olympic distances, but this will be my first Ironman,” she shared. She started participating in tris in 2003 or 2004. “I was already swimming and biking a lot and I had a boyfriend who was swimming and biking. His brother was doing a triathlon, and the next year he was doing another triathlon and I said, ‘We can do that, we’re already swimming and biking, we just have to add running,’ and he said yes, and we ended up liking it.”

      She wasn’t a runner at that point. “My first race was a triathlon; most people do a 5K or 10 K – I did it backwards,.” said Addoms, who is also a member of the Pioneer Valley Women’s Running Club. “I did a lot of running events [after], it’s a lot less equipment and easier than a tri.”

      Her training for her part in the Springfield Ironman isn’t much different than training for the other triathlons she’s participated in, Addoms said. “Basically, when I train for a long-distance bike ride what I really do is increase my distance slowly, slowly, slowly until I’m almost getting to the end.  I will get comfortable doing 50 miles, and then I’ll add the 56 miles that day [of the event],” Addoms explained.

      Her goal for the Springfield event : to “have fun and meet people,” she said.

      “A lot of relay teams have a time [goal]. When we met [virtually] we made it a conditional – I said ‘I’m 60 and you have to accept me as your cyclist’– they said they didn’t have a time goal they just wanted to put a team together.

                “It’s really nice,” Addoms continued, talking about being in the Ironman as a relay team. “You get to participate, and you get to be a spectator at the same time. It’s nice to be both of those.”