When he was 16, Lars Hartling decided he would finish an Ironman triathlon.
Two weeks ago, at age 18, he did it.
But the journey was far from easy.
Inspired by his uncle, who completed an Ironman in 2005, the Whitehorse youth set about training himself for the grueling endurance race any way he could.
“I solo’d the Kluane to Chilkat bike relay, before that I did the Yu-Kan-Tri, then the Victoria Marathon — I knew I could do the endurance stuff without too many issues,” said Hartling on Monday at his Valleyview home.
Endurance is one thing. The Ironman is something else.
It starts with a four-kilometre swim, switches to bikes for a 180-kilometre ride and finishes with a full 42-kilometre marathon.
He realized early in his training that he needed help focusing his energies, so he contacted running coach Don White in January 2006 for advice.
Hartling was greeted with skepticism.
By all accounts he was far too young to be running that race.
“When he first approached me, I told him he really shouldn’t be doing it,” said White, adding that muscles and ligaments aren’t fully developed at that age, and pushing too hard in an Ironman-type race could cripple a young athlete. (Hence the 18-year-old minimum age for Ironman races.)
“It’s the impact on a growing body, something you might not feel until you’re 50 or 60.”
Like Ahab chasing the whale, Hartling told White he was determined, he would continue his training with or without him.
White decided to stay on as a sobering influence on Hartling.
With a year and half to prepare for his first North American Ironman, (the Arizona Ironman, in Tempe) Hartling committed to a serious training schedule — triple helping of swimming with the Glacier Bears, cycling with Team Yukon and running with White.
“I told him he wouldn’t have much of a life — with all the training, and homework, and time spent just being tired,” said White.
During the winter, White and Hartling spent countless hours spinning on stationary bikes.
“We’d watch a couple movies on the bikes, then go out for a two-hour snowshoe,” said Hartling.
Complications arose: a plantar’s wart on Hartling’s foot forced him to run on the outside of his foot — surgery interrupted training, but his knees were already affected.
Hartling credits two half-Ironman races he finished in 2006 (The first in Hawaii, and the second in Ottawa) with giving him invaluable experience to meet his goal, as well as giving him shorter-term goals to work towards.
“I knew I was better for having done those half races,” he said. “You learn a lot about your body on those long rides. I think that’s why people stick with it, running, or cycling — you get in a zone. You, the bike and the road … it’s very pure.”
April 15, Tempe, Arizona
Race day had finally arrived. Hartling was the youngest of 2000 competitors in the water for the swim start.
“It was just like on TV, with helicopters flying around, filming.”
He knew swimming was his weakest discipline in the triathlon, but felt pretty good about a 1:18 time over the four kilometres.
Switching to bikes, his strongest discipline, Hartling ran into a serious headwind. He estimates it nearly added an hour to his total time, and messed with his strategy as well.
He dropped nearly 200 spots in the bike leg and he usually makes gains in this portion of the race.
“This was the first time people passed me on the bike, it was a little demoralizing,” he said.
White was cheering from the sidelines along with Hartling’s dad, something he found rather stressful to endure.
“It’s traumatic to be a spectator at that event, you’d see him for a second, then he’d be gone for hours … you have no idea what’s going on,” said White.
The running portion of the race consisted of three laps, which had both positive and negative effects on racers.
“It’s always tough to repeat, to go around again and again,” said Hartling. “But I always knew where I was, and where the finish was, and if I had enough juice to make it.”
With his mind “numb,” and unable to convert miles to kilometres, Hartling relied on his knowledge of the course and pushed hard right to the finish.
“I must have passed 50 people on the way in, I felt great at the end of it.”
He added that he was more lucid at the end of the Ironman than he was after any of his previous races.
But his recollection is not crystal clear: “I remember the announcer saying, ‘Only an 18-year old could do that,’ after I got my finish banner and starting jumping around with it.”
Hartling finished in 13 hours 42 minutes, 47th out of 83 in his male 18-24 division. The fastest time was eight hours 21 minutes, and the oldest competitor to finish was 78.
“I was pretty happy with it, considering I was the only 18 year old,” said Hartling, adding that triathletes start peaking in their late 20s to 30s.
After pounding back some of the magic recovery drinks (Pepsi, then chocolate milk), Hartling headed back to his hotel.
The next day he went for a swim, just to keep loose.
Now in Whitehorse, Hartling is recovering and finishing up high school at Porter Creek.
He says he’s “taking it easy,” but that just means training once a day instead of twice, and two days off a week instead of one.
He said it will take months to recover fully.
He’s hoping to undertake a half-Ironman in late July (against White’s advice, again) and repeat the Ottawa half, and the Victoria Marathon.
But he admits he’s got a lot of other things on his plate.
“Ironman … I just wanted to do it once, and I’ve done it,” he said. “Now I want to do something else. Carpe diem, that’s what it’s all about.”