‘I’ll be there for you’: Friends conquer first Ironman together

Dwain Hebda

Dwain Hebda is a writer, editor and journalist living in Little Rock. The president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, he’s covered a wide range of subject matter over the course of his 40 years of professional writing that includes magazines, newspapers and books. When he’s not bringing the tales of Arkansas and her people to the page, Hebda and his wife spend their energy on their four grown children and three lovely dogs.
Dwain Hebda
Moments before the race – Rory (from left), Jonathan, Sarah and Reese.

Ironman – the most-recognized and arguably the toughest name in distance sports – is bred to chew up athletes and spit them out. 

Born in Hawaii in 1978 and now raced in locations worldwide, the triathlon requires competitors to cover a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and run a marathon – 26.2 miles – all in the same day. To cross the finish line, an act which brings with it the announcement of the racer’s name followed by the phrase, “You are an Ironman,” is for many, the pinnacle of an athlete’s life.

In Conway, five friends decided to wrestle the demon and came back smiling. The group, comprised of Patrick Henry, Rory Thompson, Jonathan Burgin and the husband-wife duo of Reese and Sarah Langley, were already close, but now have a shared experience deeper than anything, except their faith and their love for one another.

CrossFit brought the five together, but it’s unclear who exactly came up with the idea to make the substantial leap from working out in a garage to tackling a race that’s claimed nearly 40 lives – an average of almost one per year since its inception. 

“I think it was a little bit of a joint thing,” said Bergin, pastor at Summit Church in Conway. Then he paused. “It honestly probably came from me.”

Whoever was the lynchpin, it didn’t take much for all five to sign on to the Ironman Chattanooga in August. Henry, a pastor at Second Baptist Church, had an Ironman under his belt and hearing his name announced over the finish line still rang in his ears.

“The long endurance races, there’s quite a rush that comes with it,” he said. “No. 1, it takes tremendous dedication. It takes a lot of time and training and I love that. It’s just incredible when you think about covering 140.6 miles in one day.”

Under Henry’s tutelage, the group began training a year in advance. All were in good shape, but nowhere near what it would take to reach their goal. 

“We’ve done CrossFit which is very opposite of any triathlon-type training,” said Sarah Langley, who works for the Christian youth ministry K-Life. “We did a ton of running; we did a marathon in Nashville in April. After the marathon training in April, we got serious about swimming and biking.”

“From April to September, we trained pretty hard for the Ironman. Really just doing CrossFit and swimming a ton. Once it got warmer, we were on the bike all the time. We were on the bike two or three times a week.”

Thompson, 42, owner of U Storage, was down for a challenge, but faced a mental hurdle regarding swimming, a block made worse by the thought of the roiling bucket of bodies and kicking legs that you find in most Ironman swims. He not only leaned on the group but hired a swimming coach to help get him prepared.

“I’ve always looked at the Ironman and I didn’t know if I’d want to do it  because I’m a terrible swimmer,” he said. “The other two triathlons I’ve tried, nearly halfway through the swim I’m hyperventilating, wondering do I need to get help,  do I need to stop? That really prevented me from even considering something like this.”

The group stayed faithful to their training and one another. They were entering the home stretch countdown to the race when Henry suffered an accident on the bike during a training ride. 

“I was on an 80-mile ride by myself. It was a Friday,” he said. “I was about 25 miles into an 80-mile ride, and I turned off the Mayflower highway onto Rocky Gap Road. That is the last thing I remember.” 

“I woke up to someone asking me what the code was to my phone so they could call my wife. At that point, I was told just to remain calm and stay still, the ambulance was on the way.”

There was no evidence Henry had been hit by a passing vehicle; his best guess is a blowout or some other malfunction sent him headlong into the pavement and a broken clavicle, four fractured ribs, a partially collapsed lung, a concussion, plus a lot of road rash. His quest for a second Ironman was over a mere three weeks before it began. 

“It was devastating,” he said. “You put a lot of work, a lot of money, effort, energy, time away from family,  just a lot of everything into this event and to hear that you aren’t going to be able to do it is, obviously, devastating.”

“But I have four very close friends who had put just as much time and energy into it as I had. I remembered doing my first Ironman and what it meant to me to have my wife there to encourage me. I made it my mission to spend time with them, giving as much advice leading up to the race as I could.”

Reese is more direct in detailing Henry’s impact on the group.

“Patrick was the guy that motivated us to do this race,” he said. “We could not have done it the day of the race without him. He was literally the backbone of our team. He just took care of us. He was like, you need to eat this, you need to do this, y’all need to go to bed.”

All distance athletes know there comes a time when the mental side of a race weighs much heavier than the physical demands. Self-doubt and fatigue beyond what most people ever experience combine with the physical discomfort to create what runners know as the wall. 

“I never hit a direct wall. I know Reese did and I was with Jonathan when he hit his,” Sarah said. “The run was by far the worst part for me just because it is last and it’s just daunting and you’re like come on, I’m ready for this to be done.”

Fate had one more surprise in store for the four competitors on this journey, and that was to find one another – Jonathan with Sarah and Reese with Rory – at key moments in the race, allowing them to finish together. It was a godsend to have someone at their side to play cheerleader or to cheer for. Henry, who made the trip as their coach, was there to greet them all. 

“The finish line was unbelievable. I mean, you have every single emotion going through your body at one time,” Reese said. “There’s a time in the race where you’re thinking I can’t do this. You’re just taking one step. That’s all you can think about; I just have to take my next step, I just have to take one more step.” 

Being people of deep faith, all five friends draw parallels between Ironman and their spiritual lives. Now that it’s over, they’ve used the experience to lift others and have been gratified that so many have used them as an inspiration to take on their own challenges.

“I put a verse on my arm the day of the race. It was Philippians 4:10-12 and it talks about being content with or without food. Christ will strengthen you,” Thompson said. “It’s just a good reminder of that day. It’s a good reminder that you can’t always get everything your way every day. Even though things stack against you, just keep moving, keep grinding,  keep going.”

The group is already planning its next adventure – a half Ironman next June in Wisconsin – for which they expect to have several other church members join them. All five are now equipped to lead others to their goal, both on the course and off, a theme Bergin preaches with new clarity.

“Everybody needs somebody to walk with them through life,” he said. “We’re all headed somewhere and for us, the finish line is Christ. If I don’t keep my eyes on the finish line in Ironman, even in the 4 a.m. training sessions, two-a-days, 12 months of just really hard work, I’ll never make it. Having them with me and me with them was so cool because at the end of it all we crossed the finish line together.”

“There’s times where you need somebody in your life to encourage you and then there’s times you need somebody in your life to carry you. We were that for each other.”