There will be a race within the race Saturday morning when some of the world’s fittest athletes splash into the Pacific Ocean for the Ironman World Championship.
While the overall winners will earn celebrity status in triathlon circles, a bit farther back in the pack, a battle for military bragging rights will unfold.
Each branch of the U.S. military gets a male and female entry in the world championships staged each October in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The tradition isn’t just a tip of the cap to military, but it’s a celebration of the 140.6-mile race’s roots. Ironman was born from an idea proposed by a naval officer 35 years ago.
“It’s an honor just to have the opportunity to represent the Army,” said Joint Base Lewis-McChord Maj. Eric Reid, who helped the Army win the team category in 2008 and keeps his trophy displayed in his home office. “It was my goal to earn that honor again this year.”
He applied to be the official representative and started training for the grueling triathlon, which includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.
So when the invitation came, Reid didn’t hesitate.
He turned it down.
Reid already had qualified on his own by finishing sixth in the 40-to-44 age group at Ironman Coeur d’Alene in June. Accepting the Army spot, in essence, would be taking two slots, Reid said.
“Obviously, I can’t use two slots,” Reid said. “Somebody else should have the opportunity.”
That somebody else will be Sgt. First Class Josh Horsager, a 35-year-old stationed at Fort Benning, Ga. The world championships will be Horsager’s first Ironman-distance triathlon, but he did finish 49th in his age group at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship last month in Las Vegas.
“I talked to Eric, and he really wanted to see more Army representation, and I think he might have even recommended me,” said Horsager, who met Reid at the 2013 Armed Forces Triathlon Championship in California. “It’s pretty awesome that he would do something like that and that I got to slide in there.”
Horsager said qualifying for Kona was a dream he thought would take another year or more to achieve.
Spots at Kona are reserved for the fastest 2 percent at qualifying races held around the world. For most, making it to Hawaii isn’t realistic.
In fact, Reid didn’t think getting there by qualifying would be feasible for him this year. A calf injury and deployment to Afghanistan had made it impossible for him to train properly in 2011 and 2012.
But at Coeur d’Alene on June 23, Reid surprised himself by finishing in 9 hours, 48 minutes, 54 seconds — sixth fastest among the 341 finishers in his age group and 55th out of the entire 2,275-person field.
Reid hopes to get closer to 91/2 hours in Kona.
Reid, who has been stationed at JBLM for a year, credits his time in the Army for keeping him in great shape and helping him discover his talent as he took an unconventional route to Kona.
“Being in the military, fitness is a way of life,” Reid said. “I was out of shape so I made a New Year’s resolution (in 2006) to get back in shape.”
When he walked into a bike shop and saw a sleek triathlon bike, he was smitten.
“I didn’t even really know what it was, but I said, ‘I want that,’ ” Reid said.
He bought it, and by June 2006, he entered his first triathlon.
“I really thought I would win,” he said. “Then I almost drowned during the swim.”
At one point during the race, he was pretty sure he’d never do another triathlon, but by the time he finished, he’d found his sport.
He joined a training group and over the next year discovered he was built for long-distance races. After a second short triathlon, Reid took a huge leap for his third race. He entered Ironman New Zealand in 2007.
“I wouldn’t recommend that,” Reid said, “but I just felt like I did better at longer distances.”
Reid finished his first Ironman in less than 11 hours and enjoyed the race. He has run seven Ironmans since.
His training partners told him getting to Kona typically takes five years. But Reid earned a spot in 2008 as the Army representative. In 2010, he qualified again after finishing seventh in his age group at Coeur d’Alene.
In 2008, his wife, Mandy, traveled to Hawaii to cheer him on, and in 2010, they brought along their new daughter. This year, the family is staying home while Reid competes.
But Reid will have company in Hawaii.
Horsager hopes to meet up with Reid before the race.
“I don’t think there is any pressure to finish before him,” Horsager said of taking Reid’s spot as the official Army representative. “I hope we both have phenomenal races.”