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Ironmen for life
Four locals conquered Ironman Florida
Flowery Branch’s Mike Crawford, front, and Robert Cornett, back, from Flowery Branch, approach the finish line during the Ironman Florida on Nov. 6 in Panama City Beach, Fla. - photo by For The Times

Dack Johnson couldn’t sleep the night before taking part in the Ironman Florida on Nov. 6. The analysis in his head of what was to come was almost too much to handle.

For Johnson, a contractor from Flowery Branch, the anticipation was at a fever pitch for the event after more than a year of training for this 140.6-mile endurance race in Panama City, Fla.

What was it all going to be like to be part of a field including some of the world’s most well-conditioned athletes together for a 2.4-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico, a 112-mile bicycle ride and finish off with a full 26.2-mile marathon to the finish line where screaming fans 10-deep cheering on the participants?

“I was completely revved up the night before thinking about the race,” said Johnson, 42. “The mental aspect for doing an Ironman is so huge.”

Johnson, along with his friends Robert Cornett, David Morgan and Mike Crawford — all from Hall County — all completed their first full Ironman together on that chilly day. This group became particularly close with the extensive training leading up to race day and the commitment each of their families made to allow for so much time conditioning.

However, in the end, all the blood, sweat and tears were worth it all in their own estimation.

“The training involved is so intense and feels like nothing else,” said Crawford, 37.

At the end of the race, the public address announcer acknowledges each finisher by calling out their name as they cross the line and says, ‘Congratulations, you are an Ironman.’”

The Ironman is the mother of all endurance races. However, with so many variables involved in training, the goals preparing for this race from the beginning of training to crossing the finish line have less to do with sports than one’s personal life.

“The first goal is to stay married,” said Morgan of Flowery Branch. “The second goal is to stay employed.

“Then the third goal is to pick a time you’d like to finish the race.”

The race itself was a tremendous success for these four men. They all finished under 13 hours, and Johnson was the fastest in the group with a blistering time of 10 hours, 54 minutes, while Morgan came in at 12:45.

Cornett and Crawford crossed the finish line together at 11:52. However, most important for these guys is that their personal lives are still tact after making a training commitment of about 20 hours per week.

“The race was amazing,” said Cornett, a physical therapist. “And we all have the same wife as when we started training, and all of us kept our jobs.”

The only setback during the race came when Cornett lost the crank arm on his bicycle around mile 60 and was forced to ride with one leg for three miles before reaching a mechanic on the side of the highway.

However, even that couldn’t dampen the spirit of training for a race the length most people couldn’t even imagine. For Cornett, a 1995 North Hall High graduate, the biggest rush came at the end with the screaming fans and ‘party atmosphere’ with the outsiders cheering on the competitors.

“The support was amazing,” Cornett said. “You just have chill bumps that last 1/2 mile of the run and feel like your feet aren’t even hitting the ground.”

The main things it takes to prepare for competing in an Ironman is time, an understanding family and training partners to keep you motivated. The average training session for these four men was 2 1/2 to 3 hours a day, whether it be running, swimming, bicycling or a combination.

It was an especially big time commitment for these four men since they are all married with children, and have a professional life too.

“The family has to completely buy in for it to work,” said Morgan, who works for Liberty Mutual. “It all comes down to logistics with the amount of time involved.”

The training for a race that has a cutoff time of 17 hours and starts at 7 a.m., is all put in well before race day. It’s hard work by any standards, and that’s why so few try such a rigourous event. Part of a typical weekend training session for Crawford was a two-mile swim on Friday, a 100-mile bicycle ride on Saturday and a 15-17 mile run on Sunday.

With a busy schedule, part of an Ironman’s life is getting up well before the crack of dawn to get in training before heading to work. A flexible work schedule is also a plus with long days training during the work week.

“You have to be a Type-A personality, driven, ambitious type of person to get involved in doing an Ironman,” said Cornett, who spent two seasons playing in the Toronto Blue Jays organization after college. “The meat of it is the training and relationships you build with those out there with you.

“It’s a kind of competitive high that I haven’t experienced since playing baseball in college.”

“The friendships we’ve formed and our bonds created suffering through training together are what we’ll remember most,” Johnson said.

There’s no single training schedule that one has to fulfill to be ready for an Ironman. For example, Morgan and Johnson would regularly tackle a 127-mile bicycle ride on the Silver Comet Trail from the starting point in Smyrna to Piedmont, Ala.
“You definitely miss some sleep preparing for an Ironman,” Crawford said.

For an Ironman athlete, its of the utmost importance not to overtrain for one aspect of the triathlon at the risk of being under prepared for another.

They said that Gainesville’s Fit2Tri and Swim Atlanta were great resources to have all the knowledge they needed — ranging from nutritional advice, what to carry on race day and training schedules.

Crawford even allowed his 8-year old son, Carmichael, to get involved with his training by joining in on a six-mile run at one point and then again on an 18-mile bicycle ride.

During the Florida Ironman, the most physically dangerous part of the race is when the race begins with the swim.

First of all, there’s what they call the ‘washing machine effect’ with 2,500 athletes all taking to the water at the same time in tight quarters, which can result in black eyes, bruises and other unintended contact between swimmers.

Then, they also have to deal with aquatic life, especially a high quantity of stingrays, which were easily visible during this race and can be very dangerous to humans.

All topics related to the Ironman were covered for these guys in meeting with Ken Robinson and Ginny Crumley, both from Gainesville, who have completed multiple Ironman competitions, including the Ironman Florida in 2010. Now that Crawford and Co. have their first full Ironman under their belt, they’re thinking about which race will be next. It’s a competitive itch that once found doesn’t go away easily.

“Now that I’ve completed my first Ironman, I’ve found out that it’s not as hard as you might think — it’s attainable,” Crawford said.

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