Found on Ironman.com and written by Kevin Mackinnon
It was supposed to be Thomas Stark’s 50th birthday present to himself. Just over a year ago Stark was flipping pancakes in his kitchen in Washington, D.C. when his girlfriend, Joanne Hopkins, got word that there would be a new IRONMAN race in Lake Tahoe. A full-distance finisher herself, she and a few friends were texting back and forth, trying to decide if they should enter the new race.
“I’ll do that,” Stark yelled across the room, getting a laugh from Hopkins, who was fully aware that he couldn’t swim.
Stark entered the race and promptly signed himself up for a triathlon swim course at his local YMCA. A few weeks later he entered an open-water swim race, completing the 500 m event just a few seconds ahead of the final finisher – an eight-year-old named Simone.
Over the next year Stark worked really hard on his swim technique. Last August he entered the two-mile event at the same open-water swim race, this time finishing with ease. He was ready to become an IRONMAN.
A month later he got into the chilly waters of Lake Tahoe and loved every minute of the swim, despite the tough conditions.
“I loved everything about it,” he says. “The fog, the crowd, the people, the snow, I was smiling while I was swimming. I didn’t want it to be over.”
The cold conditions, though, would come back to haunt him. As so many did on race day, Stark struggled to warm up during the bike. He barely made the cut off, then started the run. Well, sort of. He was so cold he had to walk the first few miles.
Then, along the way, he stopped at one of the aid stations and began to sweat, which cooled him down even more once he started moving again. When he got to an aid station manned by a bunch of students from UC Davis, his teeth were chattering so much he could barely talk. Realizing he was in trouble, he decided to quit.
“The decision was rational, but the hard part was taking off that timing chip and handing it away,” he remembers.
Later that night he returned to the finish line bundled in so many clothes he could barely move to watch Hopkins finish. The next morning the two were having a cup of coffee when she asked him what he wanted to do that day – they weren’t leaving until Tuesday.
“I want to finish the race,” he said. “I’ve still got 15 miles to do.”
Stark got his running gear back on and headed out to the course.
“As I continued on my run, I met a couple with their children down on the Truckee River trail,” Stark wrote in an e-mail. “It turned out they were both finishers from the day before and were pretty shocked I still had my race bib on and was running the final miles by myself the next day.”
As he ran towards the finish line Stark was shocked to see more than a dozen people at the line waiting for him. Corey and Patrick, the couple who he had seen on the course, had beelined back to Squaw Valley and rounded up a bunch of their friends to greet Stark across the line.
“As I rounded the final turn into the village, I could hear applause, cow bells and cheers from a dozen people with signs who came out to cheer me home to the finish. One of the guys even put his finisher’s medal on my neck for the photos. It was such an act of generosity and acceptance that I am still in awe.”
While he didn’t make it to the line last month, Stark says he wouldn’t change a thing. He’s now made some amazing new friends and learned that there’s much more to IRONMAN than getting across the line.
“I learned that IRONMAN is not a life-list box to check,” he says. “It is a life changer. You can’t do it and not have your life changed.
Thomas Stark has some unfinished business to take care of, which he’s pretty sure he’ll be taking on next year in Tahoe.