THE 1>2>3 TOUGHEST
THINK DENNIS RODMAN IS WILD AND JEROME BETTIS IS TOUGH? YOU NEED TO GET OUT MORE
Those wiry, little men crawling across the finish at the triathlon in Hawaii? Wimps, one and all. They may swim 2.4 miles in open water. They may bike 112 and run a full marathon. They may even call themselves Ironmen, but they are not. Double those distances, add a pair of cow horns and now we're talking superhero. We're talking Cowman.
The 54-year-old 6'3" cowboy who grew up to be Cowman (born Kenneth Shirk) not only has raced in the 100-mile Western States Endurance Runs, finished Ironmans in New Zealand and Canada, and hammered his Way through the 300-plus-mile painfests called Ultraman Triathlons every year for the past 14. He has done all of this and more with a pair of wild woolly horns atop his head. Long ago, before he became the bovine king of the Ultraman set, Cowman was just a construction worker in Lake Tahoe, a casual, once-a-month marathoner and rebel who wanted to celebrate America's Bicentennial his way. He was headed to buy fireworks when he spotted the horns in a mountaineering shop. "I was going to paint my body red, white and blue at high noon and carry an American flag through town naked," he says. "I wanted to show the worldI was free, I was brave, I had balls. The horns just happened." As did his free-and-easy run through town.
And multi-sport mega-endurance feats? Those too just happened. A few days after running the 1979 Honolulu marathon, Cowman overheard talk of some crazy race and thought he'd give it a go. It was only the second Ironman triathlon, and Cowman had no swimming or bike training. He didn't even have a bike; he borrowed one from a lifeguard and wrapped the handlebar basket with tinfoil to cut down on drag. On an impulse, he sported the horns in the run. He didn't win, but hewas hooked-on the horns and the high.
In his third Ironman, he wore the seven-pound horns the whole race. During the swim, he did the breaststroke. "The fur gets heavy," he explains. He has been hassled by and disqualified from the Ironman, and still he persists to the finish, official or not. (Ultraman organizers are more lax about the rack.)
Cowman takes training seriously-a typical week includes 40 miles on foot, four or five in water and 200 on bike. He limits his diet to protein- rich meals. He's equally serious about the horns, which represent the American bison, the American Indian and the joy of free will. "I wear them for all oppressed people throughout the world," he says, "people who are chained and locked up." And for athletes everywhere compelled to race across hundreds and hundreds of miles.
John Stamstad jumped on his bike the first Wednesday in March and rode 320 miles up and over the great Alaska Mountain Range. Pulling a 30-pound trailer full of gear over rock and snow, he cranked his pedals for 65 hours, because he was competing in the Iditasport Extreme. "There's no safe lead," he says now. "I was never sure of winning until I was close to the finish line."
Ultimate margin of victory: 13 hours.
Stamstad, also known as Staminaman, dropped out of college in 1987 and, with a whim and a buddy, rode his bike from Madison, Wis., to Ft. Collins, Colo., cycling at least 100 miles a day for eight days. The next year, he embarked on his competitive career with Bicycle Across Missouri, a 550-mile test. He finished third.
He's stayed in the saddle ever since, competing in 24-hour off-road races in Colorado, Toronto and Maine; century rides through the Rocky Mountains; and the Iditabike, a mere 160 miles over the Alaskan tundra. Through it all, the 5'9'', 135-pound (some say scrawny), 32-year-old Stamstad has dominated-except for the time he raced across Australia. There he got into a fight with the race organizer, who promptly disqualified him. Stamstad raced the 3,000-mile course anyway- for the hell of it. "Any race is only as hard as you make it," Staminaman says. Some understatement. He's the cyclist who, in 1994, went head over handlebars in the first hour of the 24 Hours of Canaan, a relay in West Virginia. The crash left him with a compressed vertebra in his neck. He rode anyway. His team came in second. Two years later, he did the whole 24-hour, four-man race by himself. "I guess I take my solo races to the extreme," he says. "You are forced to depend on yourself and no one else. You have to get through certain crises. Getting to that point is really empowering."
He needs a crisis to feel empowered? Stamstad has won nearly every race he has entered. Exercise physiologists have declared his lung capacity superhuman- more efficient than that of elite marathoners. He trains up to 30 hours a week, mostly biking, with a little running and stair-running on the side. His careful diet consists of cheeseburgers, doughnuts and Mountain Dew.
Is it empowerment he needs, or is it a fix?
"I'm simply addicted to challenges," he says.
Maybe someone will stage a round-the-world bike race to give this guy a thrill.
Dick Opsahl had finally arrived. A flight from New York to London, another to Katmandu and a third to Tumlingtar, a remote town in eastern Nepal. Three weeks of November trekking with a convoy of racers, cooks, guides and porters hauling running shoes, kerosene and food up narrow footpaths. A full medical evaluation and a final night spent burrowed deep in thermal underwear and layers of fleece, Gore-Tex and goose down, all inside a tent in a swirling snowstorm. All that, and Opsahl had arrived-17,600 feet into thin air, at the starting line for the Everest Marathon.
"I didn't get struck down like I'd been hit by lightning or anything," Opsahl says about catching his first glimpse of the famous peak nearly 12,000 feet overhead. "The problem was to know which one was Everest."
To a lesser man, the problem might have been the marathon itself, half of which goes over ice and snow, around trail-blocking yaks and before an audience of bemused Sherpas. Or it might have been keeping frozen feet from slipping off rope bridges and maintaining purchase on a rockstrewn path that dropped three miles downmountain at a sharp 11-degree descent (Airplanes descend at three degrees). The problem could have been the headache and nausea of altitude sickness or any of the discomforts of running in thin air.
But for Opsahl, a sturdy retired engineer and diabetic who recently celebrated his 66th birthday with a 20-mile jog in his hometown of Huntington, N.Y., the problem was one of his ribs. He broke it at mile 12 when he slipped on a nasty patch of ice. "There was nothing you could really do," Opsahl says. He had posted the required $5,000 bond to pay for a potential rescue, and signed the requisite waiver saying if he died on route, his body would remain where it fell. But a broken rib was no reason to call in a chopper or to lie down and die. So he kept on running-just not as fast.
Opsahl is no minor marathoner, even though he started relatively late in life. Rehab for a back injury at 40 required regular walking and that led to running, which led to half and full marathons. Now he runs 75 miles a week, and races 30 times a year. He has done 150 marathons in seven different countries. Once, in Russia, he ran 10 in 10 days-that's 262 miles-in the Golden Circle Supermarathon.
So when a little busted bone slowed his pace high atop Mount Everest, he just kept on going until he finished (66th out of about 80). After all, from there it was all downhill.