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To compete in his first Ironman triathlon, Nicolas Jafarieh had surgery on both knees. And then he learned to swim. Sean Ward, a diabetic, faced soaring blood sugar levels and muscle cramping during the bike portion of an Ironman race. Instead of giving up, he walked nearly all of the last 26 miles. David Goch had never even run a marathon before his first Ironman. By the time he finished the race, he says, he was starting to have paranoid fantasies that the finish line had been moved. Why are three Washington, D.C., lawyers — people better known for mental gymnastics — willing to undertake the Ironman, a race that demands a 2.4-mile swim in open waters, a 112-mile bike ride, and then a full marathon? This ultimate triathlon inspires a dedication and discipline that goes well beyond typical sports passion. Any race that can last as long as 17 hours — true jocks finish it in less than 10 — is, by definition, a sport that draws out the true believers. It’s also a sport that tends to attract the same kind of workaholic who thrives in Washington’s legal community. The upside: Ironman competitors describe a feeling of accomplishment far beyond that produced by other athletic feats. At 140.6 miles, Ironman is the big challenge. YOU CAN CRAWL Although the Ironman competition has been around for nearly three decades, its popularity has picked up in recent years despite, or maybe because of, its grueling nature. Today there are roughly 20 Ironman competitions held around the world each year, from New Zealand to Madison, Wis., many of them drawing a spandex-clad crowd of up to 1,500 athletes. Even among Ironmans, there is an �ber-Ironman. Held every October, the Hawaii Ironman is so competitive that most participants gain entrance only by winning one of the top spots in their age category in some other Ironman held earlier in the year. Another way to get to Hawaii is to try for one of the 200 slots (150 for U.S. citizens, and 50 for the rest of the world) available by lottery. Last year, 4,000 hopefuls vied for those spots. And a lucky few enter through the CEO Challenge, which pits CEOs and presidents of companies against each other. The winner is crowned “The Fittest CEO in North America.” Here’s what’s facing the 1,500 who make it to Hawaii. For the marathon: “No form of locomotion other than running, walking or crawling is allowed,” says the contest’s Web site. For the swimming: “Please trim your fingernails and toenails prior to the start of the race to avoid injury to other contestants.” That’s because in the crowded waters, swimmers force their way over, under, and around other swimmers, kicking them in the head as they pass. SLIGHTLY OBSESSED Obviously, Ironman contests appeal to a certain kind of personality. These are folks with an almost superhuman degree of discipline, a fierce competitive spirit, and a certain amount of what many triathletes admit is basic selfishness. Very few of the Ironman-racing lawyers seem to have spouses or children. If you talk to an Ironman competitor for more than a few minutes, you’ll hear the word “obsessive.” Training for an Ironman can take 20 hours a week, sometimes more. “Most people have three things in their lives: work, friends and family, and training for the Ironman,” says Beverly Li, 26, a Justice Department lawyer. But really preparing for an Ironman may force you to pare down that short list, she adds. Temporarily, at least, Li has chosen work and the Ironman. Linda Rahal, president of Bethesda, Md.-based Trow & Rahal, says training becomes “almost addictive.” She has been an athlete all her life. “I had done 500-mile bike rides. I had done marathons,” she says. But then she asked herself, what’s the next thing? Like Jafarieh, she wasn’t even discouraged by the fact that she couldn’t swim — she just signed herself up for swimming lessons. Rahal, 42, did Hawaii last year, qualifying through the CEO Challenge. It “was amazing,” she says, “and a culmination of a year of focus.” Around Washington, Ironman attracts every type of lawyer: corporate attorneys, government counsel, and small-firm practitioners. They all squeeze in practice time when they have a free moment. “What do you do at night?” muses David Goch, who is a partner at D.C.’s Webster, Chamberlain & Bean. “I never saw �Seinfeld’ in its initial run, I never saw �ER,’ I never saw �Survivor.’ “ Robert Falk, counsel in the D.C. office of Powell Goldstein, says that someone told him, “Kiss your friends goodbye,” but added that he would make new ones. There is a community of people who train for Ironman, many of them members of the D.C. Triathlon Club. “You spend a lot of time with these people, in moments where they’re very high on endorphins, so you think they’re the greatest people on earth,” laughs Jafarieh, 30, an associate in the D.C. office of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. For Falk, 42, doing an Ironman was really about aging. “Here I am, a guy in my 40s,” he says. “It’s an ugly way to have a midlife crisis. I should have gotten a red sports car and started dating a twentysomething.” Goch, 39, was lured into an Ironman when he saw his brother Mark, a dentist, complete a race in Florida. He remembers watching the finish of that race with tears running down his face. He thought, “I want to know what it feels like to be on that side.” And then there’s the sheer challenge of a sport that makes other endurance contests look like child’s play. Li says she particularly loved the idea of a race that pushed her past her own limits. But what if one’s legal career — deadlines, depositions, filings, trials — suddenly demands attention? Training doesn’t stop. Falk remembers when he was assigned an “intense” due diligence project just two weeks before he was to compete in a half-Ironman (a mere 70.3 miles). Two days before the race he was up until 3 a.m. But he still competed. Heather Van Slooten, 33, now a federal government lawyer, was holed up in Prague for three weeks in an arbitration when she worked for White & Case. But she kept training, mostly in the hotel gym, watching hours of incomprehensible Czech TV while she spun on an exercise bike. Jafarieh found himself in a similar bind while preparing for trial. Training was “my way of staying sane,” he says. “When you’re working on a huge trial it’s so easy to fall into the pattern of working late, eating carryout, and going home to sleep.” Training reminded him that there were other things in his life. HE RUNS ON INSULIN Some people push themselves beyond what is ordinary even for Ironman. Sean Ward, a lawyer with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at age 30, as he was training for his first Ironman. Before then, Ward would knock off five or six shorter triathlons a year. Then he suddenly lost about 30 pounds in three weeks and needed to sleep most of the time. His family doctor ran into him at a Christmas party and insisted he get checked out. Finding out that he was insulin-dependent “set me back a few months,” Ward admits. “But I just sort of made it a point to do the things I had done before I got diagnosed.” For instance, all Ironman athletes have to watch their nutrition during a race, figuring out how many calories they need; what their stomachs can take; whether to consume food in liquid, solid, or gel form, etc. There’s a whole industry based on the drinks and gels that endurance athletes suck down during races. (And vomiting at some point in the race is almost a rite of passage.) For diabetics, though, the balance of nutrition, energy, and blood glucose levels must be monitored much more closely. Today, Ward has completed five Ironman races. He takes care of his extra needs in an almost matter-of-fact style, wearing a T-shirt that says “Sugarboy” on the front and “I Run on Insulin” on the back. But his system hasn’t always worked seamlessly. Six hours of biking into the 2004 Ironman in Wisconsin (dubbed “IM Moo”), Ward realized his muscles were cramping and his skin was covered with salt. When he tested his blood glucose, he was over 500 milligrams per deciliter. Normally, nondiabetics have blood sugar levels of about 100. “Well, I gave myself a shot of insulin and decided to head out for the marathon,” Ward wrote nonchalantly in one of the race reports he e-mails to friends and family. He ended up walking almost all of it. As Ward sees it, the lesson was simply to test his blood sugar level more frequently during the race. In the Florida Ironman last year he tested it 16 times. Even so, he actually stopped and took a short nap in the middle of the marathon, threw up after that, and got medical personnel to put him on an IV right after the race because he had lost so much weight during it. And yet after pushing his body for 140 miles, Ward wrote in his race report, in words that seem to sum up the views of all his Ironman brethren, “I am glad I went down for this race.”
Debra Bruno can be contacted at dbruno@alm.com.

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