Canada's John Wragg is lining up for his 137th IRONMAN in Nice tomorrow. (Photo of Wragg and his wife, Elizabeth Model by Kevin Mackinnon.)
You know how many miles 137 IRONMAN races involve? 19,262.2. For those in the metric world, that’s 30,973.62 km. And that’s just the racing. Can you imagine how many miles John Wragg has covered in training for all of these events?
I’ve written lots about John Wragg in the past here in my Ironmanlife column. Modest to the extreme, the guy has quietly done his thing for almost 25 years, steadily racking up IRONMAN after IRONMAN finish.
“I firmly believe he must have been a cowboy in an earlier life,” Almuth Zwilling, wrote to me earlier this week after she helped a German television crew do a story on Wragg. “He always reminds me of a lonely rider.”
Wragg discovered the sport in 1986, when he joined a Toronto-based training group. He did his first IRONMAN in Auckland, New Zealand in 1988. That summer, he made a bet with a training buddy that he’d do all five Ironmans offered in the world that year: New Zealand, Penticton, Hawaii, Germany, and Japan. By the time he reached Hawaii, he was completely “blown out. In horrible shape,” he remembers. “I have a lot of personal worsts … and that first trip to Hawaii in ’88 is definitely one of them.”
Five km from the finish line, Wragg was pushing 15 hours. The medical truck hovered next to him. He remembers seeing a pair of Oakley sunglasses on the ground and wanting to pick them up, but thinking that if he bent over at that moment, he’d fall down and stay down. “It was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other,” he says.
Stories like this one, trips to the very reaches of his limits, along with milestones and personal bests, are what make the sport so exciting, Wragg says. They’re what have kept him coming back for more. He remembers one of his definite high points. In Germany in 1993, he broke 10 hours: “I ran 9:56. It felt so good to do that.” In his travels with Ironman he’s met a ton of interesting people – elite athletes, age groupers, spectators and race organizers. Once, he met one of the world’s oldest Ironman finishers, Bill Bell. “You’ve got to admire people finishing an Ironman at that age,” Wragg says. “To still be involved in something that strenuous. We have no idea what it’s like to grind it out like that.”
Wragg is now retired, but during the bulk of those Ironman finishes he somehow managed to juggle work as a teacher with both the training required to be an Ironman competitor and all the travel to Ironman races around the world.
A few years ago Wragg got hit by a car while out training on his bike. A broken hip would normally sideline most people for upwards of a year. A few months later he finished Ironman Canada. The hip, though, remains a problem, so these days he power walks more than he runs the marathon. That doesn’t seem to slow him down a whole lot – already this year he’s been in New Zealand, Brazil, Regensburg and of course, here. I’m guessing there might be one or two I’ve missed along the way. I’ll next see both he and his wife, Elizabeth (who has completed 32 Ironmans, I believe, but again I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve missed a few!) in New York and then in Mont-Tremblant.
Good luck tomorrow, Mr. Lonely Rider. Not that you’ll need it. After 136, how hard can one more be?
The incredible Mike Walsh
I got this note yesterday from five-time Ironman finisher (including the Ironman World Championship in 2007) Ronald L. Laughlin, Jr.:
Mike Walsh is 70 years young and I met him at the Oregon City Swimming pool last winter. He was training for Ironman Couer d'Alene and I was training for Ironman Texas. We formed a friendship as we would chat between long swim sets. This was going to be Mike's second Ironman. (I think he finished Canada at the age of 65.) Here is an email I received on Tuesday June 18 from his daughter Katie. I should add that Mikes nickname is Crick.
Good Afternoon Sports Fans. I got a call from Erin this morning. Crick had open heart surgery..... bad valve........ birth defect.. He is in ICU, but the doctor says surgery went well. He now has the heart valve from a cow, and is on a ventilator. He was training for Ironman #2 in Idaho, and went in for an annual physical and bad valve picked up on the EKG. The doctor wondered how he had the strength to train for ANYTHING, let-alone an Ironman. He was scheduled for surgery, and he got a call from Mt. Hood Rescue. A hiker was lost. So, of course, Crick got his gear, saddled up and headed out for Mt. Hood. After the second phone call from the cardiologist, he finally gave way and came back down. He went into surgery Monday (June 18). Carleen and Erin went to see him today, Crick was still on breathing machine, wires and tubes galore. Too much for Erin, she went down for the count right there in the hallway. She had to be hauled off in a wheel chair.
Hi Ron. I hope all is well with you and the family. Dad got out of surgery yesterday and had the breathing tube removed last night. He is now out of ICU and will likely be at the hospital for the next three days. He is at St. Vincent’s (Portland Oregon). I’m not sure if you know his history, but he had stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma seven years ago and has been dealing with keeping that out of his system. In the meantime he also had breast cancer and has been free of that. His appointment last week was one of his regular oncologist visits to make sure he is still cancer free. We’re all feeling incredibly fortunate that he is okay and that this was caught when it was. The doctor said that had they not caught it, Ironman would have likely killed him. Thank you for being such an inspiration to him – he thinks very highly of you."
Mike, and men and women like him are the heart and soul of Ironman. I am certain that if he plays his cards right he will be back in the game looking for another Ironman finish. He is super fit and has given so much to the community through is volunteer service with Mt. Hood Rescue.
Heart and soul of Ironman? You think? So, too, are you, Ron. Thanks for sharing this. Based on just this short note, I’m guessing you’re right and we’ll see Mike at an Ironman again soon. All of us at IRONMAN wish him a speedy recovery.
Good luck Stuart Dorland!
I’ve known Stuart for years – he’s another Canadian and, like the other two athletes I’ve profiled so far, is a great guy. He did his first triathlon right here in Nice, 20 years ago and has remained involved in the sport ever since – he’s put on more than 100 races as a race director.
In 1992 he rode with Paula Newby-Fraser and met Mike Pigg and Mark Allen. Stuart returned to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his entry into the sport this year, and is raising money for the LIVESTRONG Foundation through his efforts. He’d obviously love it if Lance was racing this weekend, but my bet is that won’t stop him from celebrating 20 years in the sport in style.
Bonne chance, Stuart!
You can reach Kevin Mackinnon at email@example.com