The Wave 3 News Anchor knows how a lifetime of bad habits could have taken him a new way.
Story by Steve Kaufman | Photos by Danny Alexander
The Super Bowl game isn’t always super. And the World Series winner doesn’t exactly reign over the entire world.
But the Ironman competition is always “iron” and one of those times when the name seems to fit the event as snugly as a pair of biking gloves (or swimming trunks or running shoes). It’s a feat of iron, to finish let alone to win, the cruel invention of some mad scientist who thought swimming, then biking, then running – all back to back, on the same day – would be fun.
Fun? Only if you think it’s fun to jump into the Ohio River at around 8 in the morning and swim 2.4 miles, half of that against the current. And then, with barely a pit stop to change into something dry, hop on your bike and pedal 112 miles out Route 42 into hilly Oldham and Henry counties, with a loop through La Grange, and back. And then – nope, not finished – get off your bike and start running a full 26-mile marathon from downtown Louisville to Iroquois Park and back, and then do it again.
And yet, thousands of competitors jump in that water every year for the prospect of perhaps losing their breakfast or passing out somewhere along the way.
John Boel, the long-time Louisville TV newsman who co-anchors WAVE 3 News Sunrise, is one of those. He’s competed in the last 10 Louisville competitions, and, he says, proudly, he’s only “balked” twice – the sport’s term for not finishing.
Boel also has competed in events in Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, and a national triathlon in Florida where he came in second in his division with the second-best time in the nation. He has won a few of these in his age and/or weight group, including a peculiarly named, decidedly unheroic-sounding Clydesdale Trophy in the Ohio Ironman in 1998 and 1999.
“Most Ironmen are organized by age groups,” Boel said. “For some reason, Ohio chose to organize by weight classes. The 200-and-up weight class, my weight class, was called the Clydesdales. The first time, I refused the trophy. Who wants to have a Clydesdale trophy on your mantel?”
But he ultimately did take the Clydesdale trophies home because to a true competitor, a win is always a win. And, Boel says, “There’s nothing about me that isn’t competitive.” (He has since tossed the Clydesdale trophies out. “I don’t want to be a Clydesdale anymore,” he said. “You want to be able to brag, and it’s hard to brag about that.”)
Various generations of athletes have been inspired by the successes of Jim Thorpe and Jesse Owen, Roger Bannister and Wilma Rudolph, Bruce Jenner and Carl Lewis. What valiant athletic performance inspired John Boel? Interestingly, it was a losing one.
“I was in my dorm in college watching Ironman on Wide World of Sports,” he recalled.
It was the 1982 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, which is remembered today as “the Julie Moss Ironman.”
Talk about the agony of defeat. Moss was the leading woman by far and only feet from the finish line when she began stumbling and falling. She scrambled back to her feet only to have her legs buckle again and finally resorted to crawling on her hands and knees.
As she struggled, Kathleen McCartney came from way back to pass her at the last moment. The Ironman organization calls it “the most famous finish in Ironman history.” The Los Angeles Times said Moss’s “crawl to glory helped popularize the sport of Ironman.”
It worked for Boel.
“It was so compelling, I was transfixed,” he recalled. “I said I had to try that.”
Boel had always been an athlete and ran track in high school, “so I knew how to run.” During his first job out of school, on a TV station in Rockford, Ill., he borrowed his sports director’s bike and began trying long-distance biking. And he’d also been a state finalist swimmer, so he figured swimming would be the easiest of the three disciplines to master.
“I thought swimming would all come back to me, but it was the hardest to get back,” he said. “I couldn’t breathe right; my technique was bad. I was all messed up. Years of partying in college, I’m sure that took its toll.”
Over the next 20 years, as he made his way to Louisville, he worked to improve his fundamentals. Swimming finally came when he made a New Year’s resolution to go to the Mary Meagher pool three times a week and swim for an hour. Within two weeks, it had come together.
Boel made his way through various local triathlons until Louisville got its own Ironman competition in 2007. “I decided to concentrate on that,” he said. “I’ve entered every one since.”
He’s finished all but two. “Initially, the Louisville Ironman was on the last Sunday of August,” he said. “In other words – hot!” (The event has since been moved to October.)
It was 96 degrees in August 2008. “By the running segment, I was dizzy and felt like passing out,” he recalled. “I got into the first 13 miles of the run, but I was throwing up. I figured I’d get to the end of 13 miles and go right into the med unit. But before I could do that, I blacked out and collapsed, right in front of Ollie’s Trolley (in downtown Louisville).”
He was awakened by paramedics, given oxygen and taken to Baptist East Hospital.
“I guess it was my Julie Moss moment,” he said ruefully. “My wife made me swear on tape from my hospital bed that I would never try another one.”
But he did. Again and again.
But, Boel balked once more in 2014. “Same thing (as 2008) – the heat,” he said. “This time I knew the warning signs: passing out, throwing up, got to the point where I couldn’t even walk. I quit about eight miles into the run and just went home.”
But finishing the October 2016 Louisville Ironman will forever grant Boel his “iron man” status.
He does a Louisville Ironman preview every year for WAVE 3. His subject this fall was Barry Stokes, a certified triathlon coach in his 60s who bikes 400 miles every weekend, coaching groups of bikers as they ride together. That particular weekend, four weeks before the event itself, Boel went out with Stokes’ group.
They were in Utica, south of Owensboro, when “a meter reader in a white pickup truck backed out onto the road. We all had to jump on the brakes. I clipped Barry’s rear tire in front of me and vaulted over the handlebars.”
Broken shoulder. Broken collarbone. Broken Ironman plans?
“The doctor said there was no way I could do the race,” said Boel. “But I Googled ‘Ironman broken collarbone’ and there were lots of different stories – some went ahead and competed. I decided to go ahead.”
The obvious impediment was swimming two and a half miles with a broken collarbone. But surprisingly, using a kind of modified sidestroke, rolling on his side and depending on his good arm to propel him, he lost only three minutes off his previous year’s time.
Nonetheless, it hurt to swim. It hurt even more to bike, hunched over the handlebars, jarred by the road, slowed by a few stops to flex his arm and try to relieve the pain.
Still, Boel was just another half-hour slower than last year, going into the run.
“But when I got in the run, I completely imploded,” he said. “I ran a six-hour marathon.Woeful!” (Normally, when he’s at his best, he runs the 26-mile course in four and a half hours.)
But he finished, even if his overall time of 14 hours, 46 minutes was nearly three hours slower than his goal of making or breaking 12 hours, a kind of benchmark in Ironman. He’s done that only once, in 2011, with a personal best of 11 hours, 50 minutes.
Of course, there was a reason for that personal best that year. And it’s not one Boel is proud of. He got two DUIs in a two-year span in 2010 and was fired from his job at WLKY.
“I went to rehab at the Hazelden Betty Ford Clinic in Minnesota,” he said. “When I came back, I was unemployed for a year, basically all of 2011.”
He had no job and lots of free time, so he wrote a book, On the News, In the News, “a memoir slash recovery book about some of the personal, inspirational stories I’d covered as a reporter and then, when the tables were turned, when I was in the news and the subject of scrutiny, going through all the kinds of things I’d reported on.”
As he has said, his life is pretty literally “an open book.”
So, he wrote. And he trained for Ironman. Non-stop. Eight hours a day, like the pros do.
That year, he recorded a time of 11 hours, 50 minutes. He has since recorded times of 12:16, but has never again beaten 12.
“WAVE hired me at the end of 2011, working 3 a.m. to noon, which pretty much destroyed every facet of my life,” he said. “I had no nightlife, I was constantly tired, my circadian clock was off kilter, so trying to train for Ironman was really hard. Employment messed up my performances.”
He paused to make sure I knew he was being facetious. “I’d rather be employed and go slowly in the Ironman than be unemployed and go really fast,” he emphasized. “And I’d much rather be clean and sober.”
He said Ironman provided an outlet when he tried to change his life. “When you’re in recovery, they tell you, ‘One of the things you have to change is everything!’ You have to change your playground and your playmates, get away from all the triggers.”
A great outlet for him is working out, going out on a bike or in the water or on a run. “That, plus clean living, was an awesome alternative to my old habits. It really helped my recovery.”
The peculiar thing for him is that even as “my wheels were coming off in the 2000s, I was still able to post fast-enough times. Some people turn to Ironman as a way to stay clean, but I was competing even though my lifestyle habits were not good.
“Once I got clean, though, I also got much better. I don’t bog down at particular spots in the race anymore.”
Now, he said, he’s battling other obstacles, like a schedule that requires him to be up at 2 a.m., in the studio at 3, on the air at 4:30. “I’ve always been an early morning/hunting-fishing guy, but when you’re driving to work past open bars, that’s really early!”
He drives home at noon, tired enough to grab a nap. Then he gets up and starts his workout.
He’s realistic enough to know that at age 54 he can still compete effectively against himself and his own previous times. But the competition from the other, younger athletes can be dispiriting.
“It can really suck to be heading out on the marathon – the final leg of the competition – eight or nine hours into your day. Your legs are gone. And you see some chiseled 30-year-old running his final lap, heading to the finish line while you still have to do the whole route twice.”
The winners usually complete the course in just over nine hours. But he’s no longer worried about them. “Essentially, it’s all about how you’re doing versus last year or other past performances,” he said. “It’s not where you finish. Mostly, you’re competing against yourself.”
And competing for your life, as he learned in rehab.
“They told us at Hazelden: One-third of us will stay clean for the rest of our lives, one-third will return to treatment, and one-third will die of their disease.
“I thought they were talking about cirrhosis of the liver. But they meant suicide. And now I believe that one-third estimation is actually low.”
So how do you beat such a horrible, chronic, progressive, untreated disease?
“One way to succeed is from the way you feel,” Boel said. “When you’re not drinking eight beers after a workout, not waking up with hangovers, you feel better, you want to get thinner and eat better, get in shape and run faster, bike faster, swim faster – and it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
When he looks back on his life, “I had to be one of the most over-achieving alcoholics in the world,” Boel said. “I was doing the Ironman every year, advancing in my profession, winning Emmy awards, working around the clock, a good family man, while still drinking crazily. I’m glad that insanity has stopped. A lifestyle like that requires a good amount of discipline, but it was a crazy way to live my life.”
THE BOEL GAME
The biggest obstacle to John Boel’s Ironman training regimen is his schedule. As a WAVE 3 News Sunrise anchor, his workday ends at around 7 in the morning.
When he gets home, after “lunch” and a nap, he gets on his bike – or on his stationary bike during the winter. “I do hours and hours inside every morning,” he said. “I need to know I can ride for 80 or 100 miles, so that once the weather gets better, especially as Ironman gets closer, I can go outside and do my long rides.”
He lives in Middletown, so he bikes over to Brownsboro Road and eventually over to 42, where he picks up the Ironman course out to Oldham County.
In addition to his stationary bike, he has a treadmill and elliptical machine at home. But he tries to do most of his running outside, simulating the old mini-marathon route from downtown to Iroquois Park and back, a 13-mile jaunt that he does twice. He gives up swimming for the winter, “because I know I can pick it up in the spring.” He has a small in-ground pool at home and an ingenious way of swim training.
“A few years ago, I bought this little bungee cord with a couple of snap-on things at Leslie’s Pool Supply. You wrap the cord around one of the pool ladders, and snap the two bracelets around your ankles, and it holds you in place in your own little pool. It’s like a treadmill for swimming, you swim in place pulling against yourself, like resistance training.”
He swims either a half-hour or a full hour. “In Going Long, the bible on Ironman distance training by Joel Friel, the first thing the writer says is, ‘No longer think of workouts in terms of number of miles or number of laps. It’s only about time.’ ”
Diet is more problematic for Boel, again due to his schedule. He said a good day for him would be: “Get out of here at 7 a.m. and get a salad from Thornton’s or a plain oatmeal from McDonald’s. Have a sandwich at noon, nap for a half hour, then get up and work out. I try not to eat very much before bedtime, which is 6:30 or 7 because I have to get up at 2 a.m.”
Since a doctor told him heart disease runs in his family, he tries to watch what he eats: salads all the time, chicken instead of red meat (“I don’t care for fish”), cottage cheese.
“I look at the label on everything, looking for low-saturated fat and calories,” he said. “I don’t care about salt – not yet, anyway.”
Sometimes, he brings in a nutrition bar in the morning, something to eat while he goes over his script before going on the air.
But, he said, the Sunrise crew is “desperate, we’re like starving Cambodians. If you put food in front of us, it’s gone. We recently gobbled down a whole crate of White Castles and caramel corn that somebody brought in, even though we knew exactly how it would make us feel.”
And therein lies why Ironman is so important to Boel. “It provides that accountability, that governor on my life that tells me, ‘You can’t do that now, it’s only six months until Ironman.”