Area athletes in Idaho today for gruelling competition

Take a look at your watch about 9 a.m. today.
At that moment, five men from Northeast Mississippi will be in a mass start at the Ironman Triathlon in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, surging forward to jump in the choppy water for a 2.4-mile swim.
At 2 p.m., look again. They’re on bicycles, maybe still on the first loop of a 112-mile ride. It may be raining.
Then, about 6 p.m., look again. If all is going well, they’re still out there – running a full marathon, 26.2 miles.
Time for the 10 p.m. news? All five should be finished, one way or another.
The five guys from this area will be in a field of 2,200 triathletes tackling a scenic but challenging course, testing themselves both physically and mentally.
The five:
* Mark Bresee, 35, a physical therapist in Sherman.
* Clay Curtis. 35, a Tupelo fireman who lives in Plantersville.
* Johnny Miles, 48, a ob/gyn in Tupelo.
* Gene Pierce, 43, a Lane Furniture manufacturing manager from Amory.
* Mark Shepherd, 49, a Saltillo endocrinologist.
They’ll be joined in the field by two former area residents, athletic trainer Jay Gibson, who now works with the Marines in South Carolina, and banker Roger Weldon, who has moved to Shreveport, La.
“We just all had been wanting to do this and it turned out to be the perfect year for all of us to make the time,” Miles said. “It’s great to have some people you can train with as you prepare.”
Curtis has won three of the last four King of the Hill triathlons, held each August in Tombigbee State Park. That event is plenty grueling – a half-mile swim, 22-mile bike race and a four-mile run – but can be completed in less than two hours.
Two hours into the competition today, the guys will just be getting warmed up.
“It’s just so dadgummed long,” Pierce said with a laugh. “The mental part is the biggest challenge once you get started. You start to question why you’re doing it at all. You have to stay focused, one step at a time, and gobble up the distance in little pieces.”
All five began their training for the event in January, some days working together and other days alone. Bresee ran a marathon in December before starting his Ironman-specific training.
“My longest day of training was eight hours,” said Curtis. “When you’re out there exercising that long, you learn a lot about yourself, what you can eat to keep your energy up and what your body can tolerate.”
Shepherd has completed six Ironmans, Bresee two, Curtis and Pierce one each. This will be Miles’ first attempt at the distance, although he’s been competing at shorter distances since 1990.
“It’s the pinnacle,” Miles said last week. “It’s all about endurance, and you have to learn to control yourself. When you train, you focus on staying within yourself and then you go out and do the same on race day. Being my first race at this distance, I’m just focused on finishing.”
Generally, they all expect to finish within a window of 11 to 13 hours.
“But you have to take each race as it comes,” Shepherd said. “You can’t bank on past success to carry the day.”
All five, accompanied in most cases by their families, have been in Idaho since Thursday – a nine-hour marathon of travel in itself.
Several of the guys, including Bresee, were eager to get a look at particular parts of the course before race day. “It’s advantageous to know what’s out there,” he said.
But Curtis wasn’t concerned. “I used to get caught up in that,” he said. “Now, as long as I know that parts of the course are going to be hilly, like the area near my house where I train, then I’m going to be fine.”
All five seemed to a agree on the basic philosophy of tackling the course.
The swim: “You just have to get through the swim,” Bresee said, and others agreed. “The people I know who have done this say take it easy,” said Miles. Added Curtis. “In the water with 2,000 people, your heart wants to race but you have to find your zone.”
The bike course: “You have to get settled in on the bike, get leveled out,” Bresee said. “It’s all about setting up the run – the marathon is hard enough. You can’t let yourself get drained on the bike.” Said Shepherd: “You just hope you don’t have any equipment issues, like having to stop to fix a flat.”
The run: “Having to run a marathon after the swimming and cycling … there’s always a little doubt in your mind,” Miles said. Pierce has another issue: “I’m already second-guessing myself about which shoes to wear.”
And all agreed that getting proper nutrition during the race – when an athlete might burn off 10,000 calories – is the key to ultimate success.
“You can only store up so much muscle glycogen for 3, maybe 3 1/2 hours of fuel,” Shepherd said. “You have to find a way to get about 300 calories and 18 to 24 ounces of fluid every hour. You have to have a plan.”
That’s a big part of the training routine all five have observed since January. “The race is not a time for experimentation,” Bresee said. “We all have it pretty much dialed in at this point.”
As yet, there’s always the unknown – like today’s forecast at the race site, which called for morning winds that could whip up waves on Lake Coeur d’Alene and the potential for afternoon thunderstorms.
“Every race has its own set of challenges,” said Shepherd. “The only things we can control is that we have prepared ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally. There will always be issues we can’t control – other athletes, the spectators, the weather.”
Said Curtis: “I’m just going into it looking like it’s a really long day of training – and today, there will be people along the way giving me water.”

John Pitts/NEMS Daily Journal

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