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They are Ironmen

Two local athletes will compete in the Oct. 19 Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii.

Two local athletes will compete in the Oct. 19 Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii.

October 10, 2002|by ANDREW MASON

andrewm@herald-mail.com

"If you build it, they will come."

While Kevin Costner got the tip from a magical cornfield in the 1989 baseball film "Field of Dreams," U.S. Navy Commander John Collins magically dreamt it up in 1978 to settle an argument. The debate was something like, "Who's more physically fit - swimmers, runners or bicyclists?"

Collins' brainstorm resulted in the first Ironman triathlon in Hawaii that same year, drawing athletes from all three sports to put their endurance to the test with a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon run - respectively and consecutively.

Now, nearly 25 years later, what began as a seemingly incomprehensible superhuman race with 15 competitors has exploded into an endorphin junkie's right of passage. There are now 20 Ironman events annually worldwide, which together draw roughly 50,000 competitors. But, the granddaddy of them all - the Ironman Triathlon World Championships - is still on the "Island of Dreams."

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"I put a lot of pressure on myself to get to Hawaii," said Dan Knepper, 21, of Chambersburg. "It's been all Hawaii."

Knepper, who's completed the last three Ironman Canadas, will be one of 1,500 competitors on the starting line for the world finals in Hawaii on Oct. 19. He made the elite cut for the first time by placing second in the 24-and-under age group in British Columbia in August in 9 hours, 56 minutes (nearly two hours faster than the very first Ironman champion).

"All I thought about all summer was train, train, train and go fast in Canada," said Knepper, who spent the summer in Boulder, Colo., specifically to train.

"Getting to Hawaii's been my main focus," said 38-year old Kevin Herbert, a 1982 North Hagerstown High School graduate, who now lives in Newport Beach, Calif. "That's all I've been training for the past year."

Herbert, who has two Ironmans under his belt with a personal best of 10:14, will also be in the mix in Hawaii for the first time next Saturday. He earned the berth in June by taking eighth in the 35-39 age group at Ironman Utah.

"Go the distance."

While Costner got the message from an other-worldly voice, Collins' brand of athletes don't seem to need such outside encouragement.

Knepper and Herbert are self-driven machines, each logging up to 30 hours of training weekly - or about 300 miles of road and water.

Both got their starts with running.

"I came up the running ranks, but didn't start until after college," said Herbert. "I started with marathons and 10Ks and then I wanted to try something different. The marathon is an endurance event, so I wanted to see what other kind of endurance events I could take on."

Actually, Herbert - who placed third at the 1999 Tucson (Ariz.) Marathon with a blazing personal best of 2:27 - got his sports start in the mat ranks. He was an all-state wrestler both his junior and senior years at North and continued his wrestling career at American University, where he graduated in 1986.

"Wrestling," Herbert said, "started my fitness addiction."

Knepper, a 1998 Chambersburg Area Senior High School and May '02 Penn State University grad, has been an addict since his days on the Trojans cross country and track squads. He's since run the Boston and Philadelphia marathons.

But it's racing a marathon after a long day of swimming and pedaling that these guys focus on now. That's the make-or-break of it.

A 3:24 marathon clocking in his debut Ironman put Knepper just a few places shy of a world championships berth in 2000. Last year in Canada, he had a spot locked before fading with a 6-hour marathon. In August, Knepper had an age-group title seemingly secured, before getting passed in the very last mile of his 3:30 run.

"Two years ago, I missed Hawaii by five minutes," said Knepper. "Last year, I should have been there, but the run was bad. ... This year, when that guy passed me with a mile to go, I was like, 'No.'"

But he made the cut, and that's all that really mattered.

While the men's overall champ next weekend should finish in just over eight hours, Knepper and Herbert don't plan to be too far back. Knepper's goal is to break 10 hours again in the humid Hawaiian conditions, which he said should place him in the top five of his age group.

Herbert, who's aiming for a 3:10 run, seems to think an age-group crown is in reach.

"I'd like to place at the top of the age group. I think 9:30 usually wins it and I think I can do that," he said. "But it's going to be tough. We don't have much humidity here and the winds are supposed to be pretty tough."

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