Stephen Lawniczak is a life-long runner. After completing his ninth marathon in the Twin Cities last fall, his wife Mollie suggested that it might be time to shake up his running routine a bit and try something new.
“I look back on that conversation and don’t think an Ironman is what Mollie had in mind,” says the typically soft-spoken Stephen with a laugh. “But after she rolled her eyes, she’s been my biggest source of support.”
“Ironman” is not a distinction that is easily achieved. An Ironman Triathlon is one of a series of long-distance triathlon races organized by the World Triathlon Corporation consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a marathon 26.2-mile run—raced in that order and without a break—140.6 miles in totalß. It is widely considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events
in the world.
Most Ironman events have a strict time limit of 17 hours to complete the race. The race typically starts at 7:00 a.m.; the mandatory swim cut off is 9:20 a.m., the mandatory bike cut off time is 5:30 p.m., and the mandatory marathon cut off is midnight. Any participant who manages to complete the triathlon within these timings becomes an Ironman.
The training for an Ironman requires almost the same commitment as any full-time job, so it’s surprising that Stephen—currently an attorney with AbbVie and a father of two small children—would willingly volunteer for such an all-consuming challenge.
“Maybe it was turning 40 this year—I’m not quite sure. But, the timing seemed right and I wanted to see if I could really do this. I’m also doing this to raise money for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation as part of their Team Challenge events,” he says.
Although, Stephen was a runner, swimming and bicycling were relatively new to him. “Seven months ago when I started all of this, I went out and bought a bike and hired a trainer who has helped me learn how to swim and find my way through this training process. Taking proper nutrition for an event like this has been a whole new thing to learn in and of itself,” he says.
When training for a triathlon, most athletes find themselves working out in two areas at least six days a week. So, these days, Stephen typically wakes up sometime between 4:30 a.m. and 5 a.m. and will swim and bike or bike and run—all before leaving for work, before anyone in his family has a chance to miss him.
“Pain is a great motivator,” says Stephen humbly, admitting that there are mornings when sleeping in sounds like a much better way to start his day. “I don’t want to be in pain on race day. The only way to keep that from happening is to put in the training now. If I short-change the process today, it’s impossible to think that I’ll have a successful race in September. I’m too far in now not to see this all the way through.”
Chattanooga, the backdrop for Stephen’s race, lures athletes with its dramatic scenery and low-key southern charm. Stephen expects a fast, rolling course where weather will be a factor. “I’m not sure what I was thinking. September in Tennessee could be hot and humid. I’m just hoping for the best.”
When asked if his children, five-year-old Alex and eight-year-old Megan, have any idea what it means to be an Ironman, he’s guessing it’s unlikely. “They know that I’m exercising a lot and that I get up really early, but to them—one mile seems just about as long as 100 miles. But they’re really supportive in their own ways. This winter, when I’d be biking in the garage, Alex would come out and just chat and hang out with me. It would make the time go a lot faster.”
Right now, it’s tough for Stephen to think past September 27, what it will mean to him to achieve this goal, and what could come next. “One day at a time, but it’s been a great experience so far.”
-By Ann Marie Scheidler // Photography by Robin Subar