Triathlons offer new challenge for the man who played 'Rudy'

Sean Astin, kneeling, paid homage to one of his most famous film roles after finishing the Cranberry Trifest recently in Lakeville, Mass. Courtesy Sean Astin

In the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Sean Astin played Samwise Gamgee, the faithful companion of Frodo Baggins.

Sam helped Frodo overcome countless challenges (over three very long movies) in his quest to destroy the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom in Mordor. Without Sam by his side, Frodo would have been a hapless Hobbit.

Astin also portrayed Rudy Ruettiger, whose story of overcoming tremendous odds to play football for Notre Dame was chronicled in "Rudy."

So, Astin is familiar with underdog roles. But in his latest quest, it's no acting gig.

On the morning of Oct. 10, the 44-year-old actor, husband and father of three daughters will charge into the waters of Kailua Bay for the start of the Ironman World Championship triathlon on the big island of Hawaii. He'll have to complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run in under 16 hours, 50 minutes in order to hear the public address announcer say, "Sean Astin, you are an Ironman!"

Though he's been a runner most of his life -- he did cross country in high school and has completed 10 marathons, including Boston this year -- Astin never has attempted a full Ironman, let alone the course at Kona, which can eat up even experienced triathletes with its searing temperatures and high winds.

"This is a big slice of meat that he has taken a bite of, and it's a lot to chew on," says Matt Dixon, a veteran triathlete who is Astin's coach.

Just a few months ago, Astin wasn't much of a swimmer or a cyclist, but since late May he's been on a crash course in both. He's completed a half-Ironman and followed a strict training regimen and diet.

Dixon, who says he would have given Astin "potentially less than a 50 percent shot at being successful" when they first met, now has "a high degree" of confidence Astin will succeed. He's been impressed by Astin's work ethic and progress.

Astin isn't taking anything for granted. He gets chills just thinking about completing a race that could test the limits of any wizard, elf or humble Hobbit.

"Lord of the Rings is about the nature of good and evil," says Astin. "And the character Samwise Gamgee is pure good, so he was equal to that task. It was hard. He almost died. Frodo got there and they destroyed the ring. But by comparison, I think that was easy compared to what I'm going to try to do."

Astin laughs, but he's serious. This is real.

"I never want anyone to think that I don't get how special it is to be able to participate in this," he says.

"This is a tall order"

Astin's trip to Kona comes courtesy of Dave McGillivray, the race director of the Boston Marathon. The two hit it off when they met in January at Walt Disney World, where Astin was doing the Dopey Challenge (a 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon on consecutive days). They served on a panel together sharing inspirational stories with runners.

That's when McGillivray invited Astin to run Boston in April. Astin ran the race, choosing to be a part of Team MR8 that honored Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy killed in the marathon bombing of 2013. Astin raised $26,000 for the Martin W. Richard Charitable Foundation while finishing in 4:49 on a cold, rainy day. He was moved to tears upon finishing the race and meeting Martin's family.

Meanwhile, McGillivray -- who had been impressed by his new friend's willingness to raise money for charity and inspire others -- submitted Astin's name to the Ironman World Championship for consideration as a special participant this year. The race has long invited celebrities such as chef Gordon Ramsey, former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward and Olympic speedskater Apolo Ohno to take part for charity (and for the attention they bring, too). They are given additional slots, above the number allotted to qualifiers and lottery winners. Race officials believed Astin would be a good fit because of his history of charity work, including his Run3rd campaign in which he's encouraged people to run for causes.

Competing in an Ironman was a challenge Astin had never sought. He had often watched the race on TV and marveled at what the athletes could do, but it wasn't on his to-do list, until McGillivray put it there for him.

"My entire year changed because I got a letter from Ironman inviting me to be an ambassador for the Ironman Kona," says Astin. "I pulled that piece of paper out of that envelope and opened it up, and it's like I was getting into college."

Astin says Ironman promised to donate $25,000 to a charity of his choice for participating. (It will go to Run3rd, to help fund after-school running programs.) He couldn't say no. He remembers telling his family that day, "I have to do this. I'm meant to do this. I'm supposed to be doing this."

With his running experience and the fact he completed a 100-mile bike ride the year before, Astin's initial reaction to doing the Kona race was, "OK, I can do that." That didn't last.

"It wasn't until I got three or four weeks into it where I was like, 'Oh, my God,'" he recalls, laughing. "This is a tall order."

Getting coached

Astin asked for help and received it from Dixon, who specializes in training athletes for endurance sports through his purplepatch fitness. Suddenly, Astin was getting advice from Dixon, swimming coach Gerry Rodrigues and cycling coach Paul Buick.

By Dixon's recollection, Astin needed it, especially in the water and on the bike.

"Literally, he couldn't swim more than a couple of laps without pausing at the side of the pool and hanging on," Dixon says. He says Astin also needed to lose weight.

Three months later, Astin says he's down more than 15 pounds and has become strong on the bike and in the water. He went to Hawaii to train on the bike and learned to "be relentless" on the pedals while also eating and drinking every 15 minutes. He's been diligent about work in the pool and open water, too.

"I'm putting in the hours," he said. "Miles and miles of swimming. I'm getting better. My arms, my back. I just look like a different person. I look like a guy who swims all the time now. What am I going to do, stop? There's no stopping."

When he recently flew to Savannah, Georgia to work on Adam Sandler's latest movie, Astin shipped his bike and went on long rides in the mornings. After work, he'd run. When he flew into Kansas City for a convention appearance, he immediately took a 35-minute cab ride to a 50-meter pool.

"I did an hour and 15 minutes in their pool and then I came back," he says. "You can run anywhere. My point is, it's been really hard but it just has to happen."

Dixon wanted Astin to get a feel for what he was up against by entering a half-Ironman, the Vineman 70.3 on July 12 in Sonoma County, California.

"No. 1, I wanted him to be successful, and No. 2, I wanted it to elicit a little bit of fear of twice the distance, essentially," he says. "I think it accomplished both."

Astin finished in 7:25:19 and came out of it with exactly what his coach wanted, a combination of confidence ("I was really, really proud of myself") and a sense that he had a lot of work to do.

Two portions of the race still make him laugh: the swim and the bike-run transition.

"The first three strokes, all of a sudden my chest seized up," he says. "I felt like I was drowning ... not drowning, but I felt like I was hyperventilating. I rolled over on my back. I tried to get a couple of strokes in. I was like, 'Oh my God, I'm not going to get 10 feet.'"

But he regained his composure, got into a rhythm and completed the course on the Russian River, swimming the second half faster than the first.

The transition, meanwhile, took 15 minutes, 29 seconds.

"Everyone's like, 'Did you go out for a burger? What did you do,'" he says.

He misplaced his shoes, his equipment bag got kicked under something else and he couldn't find it, he had to desperately find a bathroom and then he just got a bit goofy. As he started off on the run, for instance, he noticed he was still wearing one cycling glove. Instead of throwing it to the ground, he turned around and went all the way back to put it away.

Even then, he recalls thinking, "Is this really a good use of my time?"

Astin says all the training has driven home the point that Ironman is as much a mental test as it is a physical test. He can't flinch.

"Gerry, the swim coach, said there's two wolves," says Astin. "There's the positive wolf and the negative wolf. The one that grows is the one you feed. If you hear the negative wolf in your ear, you have three seconds -- that's it, three seconds -- to start feeding the positive wolf. If you can't start feeding the positive wolf in three seconds, you're in trouble."

"Are you like Rudy?"

Astin has long battled his weight, saying it "fluctuates wildly." But he's far fitter now as the Ironman approaches, than he was in New Zealand for a year and a half filming "Rings." In fact, his contract for the movies forbid him to run. Hobbits were supposed to be chunky, especially Sam, and so he was.

"I had to prove to them that I could very quickly get fat and I would stay fat," he says.

Once he started running again, he dropped 40 pounds and got down to 160.

But at the start of this program, he needed to drop weight again, as well as get fit, learn new techniques and avoid injury.

Early on, Dixon tried to stress to Astin the commitment it would take to complete the race at Kona. He says he told him it would take a commitment similar to taking on the most demanding movie role of his career.

"I think that rang a bell with him," says Dixon. "He's done nothing but a super job."

In the weeks since, he's continued to follow his coaches' programs and get more fit. Recently, he and McGillivray completed a triathlon together, the Cranberry Trifest, in which he finished with a time of 3:15:06 for the .9-mile swim, 26.2-mile bike ride and 6.2-mile run.

Race organizers were clearly impressed:

For now, the former Hobbit is counting down the days to Kona.

"People always ask me, are you like Rudy, are you like Samwise Gamgee, and do you have that determination and that grit and fortitude and passion with what you're doing?" he says.

"And I'm like, well, we'll see. I hope so. I think so."