Desperately clinging to a buoy in the choppy waters of Lake Michigan on a July day in 2015, Jim Loui was faced with a choice.
Swim on, or admit defeat.
No one would have faulted him for calling it quits. It was Loui’s very first attempt at completing a Half Ironman race. He’d returned to shore once already, virtually guaranteeing his time—should he finish—wouldn’t be fast enough to avoid a DNF. The waves off Racine’s lakefront were frigid and rough.
He clung there, searching for an answer, as his wife, Jennifer, and throngs of others watched from the beach.
A woman bobbing next to Loui—likely herself pondering whether or not to continue—finally asked him if he wanted to get out of the water.
His response came softly at first: “No.”
He watched other triathletes swim by, and Loui thought back to his training: weeks of swimming behind Jennifer’s kayak while he overcame his fear of open water and months spent biking or running—all managed while working a full-time trucking job.
His response came stronger then.
“The first time saying no was kinda like a quiver, but the more I said it, the more I believed it,” Loui recalled during an interview last Tuesday.
The then-40-year-old Janesville man battled past his fears, gritting through a 1.2-mile swim. He learned hours later he had beaten the swim cutoff by less than three minutes. Loui finished the Racine Half Ironman in just under seven hours and would complete his first full Ironman—a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run—a year later in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Now consider this: Loui didn’t know how to swim less than two years prior to Racine.
Late in 2013, Jennifer had her sights set on completing a triathlon, and her husband joined her. But it wasn’t easy. Jim took swimming lessons and made incremental progress.
“(I was) completely frustrated watching all these people just zoom, zoom, zoom back and forth,” he said. “Eventually you get to that first length and then after that comes, when you don’t have to stop in the middle of the pool ... you start building, like, ‘How many laps can I do without stopping?’”
That single-minded determination powers each member of the so-called Fierce Endurance Tribe, a group of triathletes—mostly clustered in Janesville—that bonded through their shared enthusiasm for, arguably, the most grueling individual sport humanity has devised.
It takes a certain type of person to commit to the Ironman lifestyle. The training, several Tribe members said when I met them last Tuesday, is like adding another full-time job.
So where does the motivation come from?
“Each other,” several said while seated around a booth at O’Riley & Conway’s Irish Pub in Janesville.
Having a community of like-minded athletes for support can make all the difference in an individual sport like triathlon.
And a Type-A personality doesn’t hurt.
“(It’s) a lot of self-motivated people,” David Licary, 49, said. “Everyone has a purpose I guess, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be for somebody else. Maybe it’s just for you.”
Ironman training can be daunting for newcomers, but that’s also part of the draw. It’s ideal for athletes, like Licary, who want to challenge themselves.
“In 2009 ... my first triathlon was a quarter-mile swim, a 12-mile bike, and a 1-mile run. I got done with that and thought I was badass,” Licary said with a laugh. “And now, that’s not even a workout.
“We have our Fierce community, where we do things not only socially, but athletically, together. If you commit to a healthy lifestyle this is one outlet.”
The group’s newest member, 31-year-old Jonna Bier, is planning on attempting her first full Ironman next year.
“It’s the most mental sport,” she said. “When your body wants to quit, your mind has to keep pushing you. It is mental 150 percent.
Speaking about her fellow Tribe members, she added, “They gave me the confidence. Without them training me, I wouldn’t be doing my first Ironman.”
The Fierce Endurance Tribe coordinates its training schedule through Facebook, and the group has traveled across the country to compete in Ironman events. Fourteen members completed the Madison Ironman in September, with plans already in motion to compete in several races next year.
“To be able to come across the finish line or to see your teammate out there on that run, or see them on that bike, you know they’re out there with you,” said Rene Kaepp, 52. “Even if we’re not together across the finish line, we’re together at the end.”
In the end, that’s what matters most.
Bryan Wegter is a sports reporter/page designer at The Gazette. Email him at email@example.com