LACONIA — The path that someone takes to get to the starting line of an IRONMAN 70.3 race likely includes an astronomical amount of steps, pedals and swimming strokes. At what point does someone stop being a hopeful, and emerge a triathlete? It can come at an unexpected time, and for unpredictable reasons.
For Antonio Coates, 39, it came when he was listening to music while training, and a verse rang in his ears: “I just needed time alone with my own thoughts/Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault/My childlike creativity, purity and honesty/Is honestly being crowded by these grown thoughts.”
The song is Kanye West’s “Power,” and was one of the more profound examples of how music helped Coates in preparation for this Sunday’s IRONMAN 70.3 Timberman, taking place in Laconia and through surrounding towns.
“I just continued to let things go,” Coates said, describing how he has focused on creating an “iron mindset” as well as a trained body.
Melissa Aupperle, 50, used her age for years to explain why she couldn’t do certain things. It was after she completed a 50-mile bike ride, she said, that she realized that her limitations were all self-imposed.
“As an adult, we are so wrapped up in what we are afraid of,” Aupperle said. She shed those grown-up limitations on that first long ride. “It was reminiscent of being a child,” she said. “I was brought back to that feeling that you could do anything.”
Here come the rookies
Coates and Aupperle represent the inaugural class of The Laconia Daily Sun’s Rookie Academy. It’s not a new idea — the Laconia Citizen, which folded in 2018, used to run a similar program when the Timberman was based out of Ellacoya State Park in Gilford. After IRONMAN revived the event in 2021, the newspaper decided in turn to revive the rookie tradition.
The idea of the program is one of excuses: if the biggest material hurdles were removed, could an unprepared local resident train to complete an IRONMAN 70.3 event, which includes a 1.2-mile swim in Lake Opechee, a 56-mile bike ride through Meredith, Laconia, Belmont and Loudon, and a 13.1-mile run, finishing in the heart of Laconia’s downtown?
MC Cycle and Sports provided each with a bicycle worthy of the course. Bootlegger’s agreed to give each a pair of running shoes. Fit Focus provided access to strength training, and The Wellness Complex the use of their pool. IRONMAN waived the entry fees, and Colin Cook, of Peak Triathlon Coaching, guided them through the training. All that was left for the rookies to do was hours and hours of work.
That training hasn’t just prepared them for a triathlon; it has changed how they see themselves.
Aupperle said it has also changed the way she sees others.
“Your eyes become broadened,” she said. “There are so many people in this area who are running, there are so many people who are cycling, and you can tell they are training.” People, who she would have before seen as just out on a trail, now transmit an energy of focus and intent, she said.
She sees those people, as well as others around her who also are training, as reasons for her to to continue pushing herself.
“A lot of times I see people who are more senior to me, and they’re out there doing it consistently,” Aupperle said. She also takes note of people who are giving their full effort, despite the fact that they might be carrying more body weight than she does. “To me that’s inspiring. It’s easy to want to quit, when you see people who are struggling even more than you are struggling, it’s motivating to keep going. I know that I have the ability and the capability to do it, so I should.”
It’s her entire being, not just her body, that seems more capable, she said. She sees people older than her still putting in the serious miles, and she sees herself keeping up with 20-year-olds during group workouts.
“It provides a lot of mental strength,” she said about the triathlon training. “It’s something that I never thought I could do. We are in charge of our own bodies and minds. It will strengthen me to do things I didn’t think I could do ... You can always change your body with exercise and diet, and that has been fun.”
The triathlon training, for Coates, has been part of a journey of faith, one he believes is part of a path laid out for him to travel.
Coates said he realized, well after beginning his triathlon training, that the seed was planted decades ago, when he was a boy in his Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home. A memory, once forgotten, flashed to mind recently of him sitting on the couch, a blanket pulled over his legs, as he watched athletes cross the finish line at the IRONMAN Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
Now Coates has the chance to cross an IRONMAN finish line for himself, and said the experience has given him a greater religious resolve.
To find success in training, Coates said he has learned to focus on the individual moment he finds himself in, whether it’s training, recovery or rest.
“How I try to think of it is to put 100% into each thing,” he said. “Master the stages, level up, and help other people out.”
By committing to expanding his own capabilities, he said he has attracted the attention of others, who have recognized him from previous newspaper articles. At first, he wasn’t comfortable with the recognition, he said.
“But I couldn’t ignore the light in their eyes. Their whole countenance changed” when they recognized him, he said. He sees that light as a reflection of what he calls “God’s purpose.”
“Even through all my mistakes and my mess, he’s saying, ‘That’s my son! I want to show him off,’” Coates said. “I’m humbling myself to him, and he’s exalting me.”
Coates’ mindset toward training, and toward life, has changed through the experience, he said. It’s impossible to train for a 70.3-mile triathlon all at once, so he has learned to focus on giving his all to the moment in which he finds himself. If he does that, he has faith that he will gain strength necessary for the next challenge.
There will be “peaks and valleys,” ahead as in behind, he said, but, “If you have something that you believe in, step into it.”
Two of hundreds
The race organizer for the Timberman, Katie Svenson, is also operations manager for IRONMAN’s Northeast Region. She said that of the roughly 1,400 athletes expected for the race on Sept. 18, 476 are attempting a 70.3-mile triathlon for their first time.
For some of those first-timers, this will be a “bucket list” goal, she said, and they’ll check it off and that will be that. Most of them, though, will get hooked by the experience, and by Tuesday or Wednesday of next week will be wondering how soon they can sign up for another one.
“It’s fun to have the pros and the elites at races, but it’s really fun when we can get people involved, find a new love and a new passion. That’s really exciting for us and the community,” she said.
Can’t wait until next year’s Timberman?
“There is room for more athletes, we are accepting onsite registrations,” Svenson said. “We are still accepting people if they want to sign up.”