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Iron man: Tinker colonel bikes, swims, runs his way to fitness

Finishing in a little over 14 hours, Colonel Thayer shaved an hour and 10 minutes off his previous race time. The Tinker colonel was one of more than 2,000 athletes participating in the annual event (Courtesy photo)

Finishing in a little over 14 hours, Colonel Thayer shaved an hour and 10 minutes off his previous race time. The Tinker colonel was one of more than 2,000 athletes participating in the annual event (Courtesy photo)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- He hit the ground hard. Lying on his side, he felt the trickle of liquid.

"At first I thought it was blood," said Col. Jerry Thayer. "But it was from the bottle on the handlebars."

Waving off help, Colonel Thayer remounted his bike and, before the adrenaline subsided, had passed a number of riders. Scraped and bruised but with nothing broken and another 62 miles to ride, he was determined to finish the race. "You know you're going to finish no matter how long it takes," he says.

The senior individual mobilization augmentee to the 72nd Air Base Wing commander at Tinker, Colonel Thayer is no Lance Armstrong, but he's no couch potato either. He's a triathlete, that rare breed who participate in the grueling day-long events that combine swimming, biking and running. A full "Ironman" triathlon combines a 2.4-mile swim with a 112-mile bike ride followed by a 26.2-mile marathon. Not for the faint-hearted. Or those short-of-breath, which is what Colonel Thayer was one afternoon after clearing brush from his yard. His obvious unfitness prompted him to revisit his youth.

"I ran in high school, cross country and track," he said. "I didn't get back into running until I was 38 and I discovered I was 20 pounds heavier than I am now. That helped me to get back in shape."

Normally running solo, his friend started running with him. He initially had trouble finishing his first mile. "But he was really motivated," he said. "And he kept building up until I was trying to keep up with him."

Then his friend found a new motivation.

"Steve wanted to run a marathon," Colonel Thayer said. "I always wanted to, but I never thought I was in good enough shape. So, with Steve's encouragement, I ran my first marathon at 50 and I've run 17 since then. I'm 55 now."

But that was only the beginning. His running buddy prompted Colonel Thayer to consider doing a triathlon -- an Ironman triathlon.

Triathlons were developed in the late 1970s as a way to settle the argument over which type of athlete is the fittest -- the biker, the swimmer or the runner. One of the modern long-distance triathlon's founders, a Navy SEAL, said the winner should be called the Ironman. Since then, the name has become synonymous with triathlons around the world. There are 18 official Ironman triathlons around the world. None of them are easy.

This year, he participated in the Coeur d'Alene Ironman, a challenging race with strong winds and hilly terrain. The race begins in the morning with the swim. Colonel Thayer says this part of the race can be difficult not only for the challenge of swimming several miles in choppy, open water, but by being in close proximity to other swimmers. He earned a black eye during one triathlon from another athlete's elbow.

The choppy water also makes it difficult to get clean breaths. "You gulp a lot of water and air," he said.

His calf muscles and an injured hamstring also began cramping. Despite that, he finished with a creditable 1 hour 27 minute time.

From the water, the athletes transition to the bicycle. These, too, can be hazardous. Falling off a bike might mean scrapes, bruises or broken bones.

"The first 40 miles of the bike ride was rough for me as I had a very upset stomach from drinking so much lake water," he said. "I couldn't drink my carbo drink or even eat any gels, so I started to get low on energy."

A bathroom break solved his stomach troubles. But nearing the 50-mile mark, he hit a pothole and tumbled, scrapping off generous amounts of skin from his elbow to his ankle. Two other riders falling from bikes broke their collarbones, but managed to finish.

"They deserve to be called Ironmen," Colonel Thayer said.

As if that weren't enough, the triathletes finish with a full-length marathon. "It sounds funny, but when you finally get off the bike, you say to yourself, 'Thank God, only a marathon to go!'"

For Colonel Thayer, his injured hamstring muscle began to knot up.

"I ran less than a mile and it started really to hurt," he said.

But, with the support of family and friends that had come to see him compete, Colonel Thayer finished. He even managed to shave an hour and 10 minutes off his previous race time, finishing in 14 hours, 34 minutes and 42 seconds.

"And I've signed up for next year," he said. "When you're in it, you think never again. But the next day, you're ready to go."

His friend Steve has even talked him into another race, this one a 50-mile event through a Grizzly Bear migration route in Montana. Shouldn't be any trouble for an Ironman.