17,000 Calories to Victory

When former NFL hit man Darryl Haley lumbered into the Ironman, he knew that he would become the biggest thing triathlon has ever seen.

John Tayman

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Maybe it’s best to start with the T-shirts, thousands and thousands of them, therma-printed with the Ironman logo and a cartoon triathlete rendered as a tiny stick figure variously swimming and riding and running across every bony chest in sight during the three lively days of the Hawaii Ironman weekend. On the fourth day, the day of rest, official navy blue “finisher” T-shirts are everywhere, swamping the touristy harbor village of Kona and the quaint little

Keahole-Kona International Airport and later the narrow concourses and the baggage claim and the shuttle buses at Honolulu International Airport, hundreds of wiry triathletes crowing silently with their torsos, billboarding their feat. More navy blue Ironman shirts dot the aisles on the DC-10 bound for the mainland; they pepper the crowds at LAX and then pop up in Dallas during a layover for a connecting flight. Amazingly, annoyingly, one of the damn things even saunters past me in my hometown airport, its wearer showing a large rictus of a smile.

You have the white T-shirts for all the spectators. You have the baby blue T-shirts for the volunteers, and red T-shirts for the construction crews, and forest green T-shirts for the media, and light green T-shirts for the medics. To participate in the Ironman in any capacity requires a T-shirt, color-coded by task but available in only one size–which is usually no problem, because triathletes come in only one size: whippet-thin medium. Long lines of wispy athletes are shuffling just now through the lobby of the King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel, occupied with the pre-race event called the Ironman Expo. Aswim in a noisy bazaar of fitness commerce, the racers surge up against the promotional tables of Wigwam athletic socks and Saucony running apparel and many others. But the most popular attraction in the lobby is one of their own, Darryl Haley, an affable 35-year-old second-year Ironman. Darryl is a very unlikely triathlete: a black man standing six-foot-five and tipping the scales at 300 pounds–literally twice as big as the average Ironman. As if by gravity, he has attracted a ring of fellow racers. They orbit him, their eager white faces swirling three deep, and reach out to cuff his shoulder or touch an arm. He hugs a couple of them, moves a few feet, hugs a few more. His race and size and the crush of admirers are not the only reasons Darryl sticks out in the crowd. Alone among the hundreds of people in the lobby, he’s not wearing an Ironman T-shirt and flimsy jogging shorts. There isn’t a T-shirt that would have fit him. Even if there were, he probably would have stuck with what he’s worn all weekend: nicely pleated and pressed dress shorts, a pressed polo shirt, leather loafers, and a natty straw hat.

I’ve been hanging out with Darryl for a few days, and everywhere he’s gone, he’s been mobbed. Still, the scene in the lobby is overwhelming. Every few moments a new body rushes up. A sock manufacturer’s rep pushes a case of ankle-highs into his hands: “Darryl! Darryl! Here, take some of these.” A staffer from a triathlon magazine shoves some copies for Darryl to autograph, which she’ll then pass out as promos: “Darryl! Sign some issues for us, will you?” Here comes a stunningly white sales rep: “Yo, my man Darryl! You’ll bop by our booth, won’t you?” Darryl smiles and wades deeper into the crowd. A pack of six triathletes, three midwestern men and their shadowing wives, sights Darryl, and they shout their greetings and then snatch at him like he’s some long-lost relative.

“You’re racing again this year aren’t you Darryl?”

“We’ve been looking for you all over. Hey, have you lost weight?”

“I heard you moved to Kona to train full time.”

“What bike are you riding this year, Darryl?”

“We’ll wait for you again at the finish. Like last year.”

Darryl throws a huge arm around the shoulders of one of the men and visits with the group, chuckling at their stories, catching up. A full head taller than any of them, he bends down to their height and nods and smiles and casually reciprocates their ceaseless tactility. He’s genuinely thrilled to see them. But his wife is arriving soon from Maryland, where she and their four-year-old son are living until Darryl gets settled enough in Kona for them to join him. The bachelor condo he rents needs some serious tidying if it is going to pass a wifely inspection, so Darryl pulls himself free of the group, which waves a collective and blusterous good-bye.

Q: Darryl, who were those people?

A: You know, I have absolutely no idea. But they sure seemed glad to see me, huh?

To travel 40 yards across the Expo takes Darryl two hours, mostly because of the gauntlet of clinging athletes and sponsors he has to run. He’s invited to race (all expenses paid) in triathlons in Australia and Japan. Well-wishers bestow on him a pricey computerized heart-rate monitor, energy bars, Speedo swim trunks. He’s acquired a half-dozen T-shirts, including a few Ironman shirts–too small. I get an official Ironman shirt just because I’m with Darryl. At the first Hawaii Ironman, 20 races ago, the 15 contestants had to provide their own blank T-shirts, which were silk-screened with the Ironman name, but only if they finished. Now the Hawaii Ironman is a multimillion-dollar business with ten lucrative licensed tie-ins and a two-hour-long coproduced Saturday afternoon special on NBC that is consistently the network’s highest-rated sports event after football. Some 25,000 spectators watch the race in person; 5,000 volunteers work it; 300 people tackle security. In 1995, 1,441 people started the race; 1,328 finished it. And Darryl, the star attraction at the Expo and at the sign-in and at the Carbo Loading party–everywhere, really, where there are triathletes or companies trying to make money off them–chugged across the finish line only minutes before the 17-hour cutoff time. He finished in 1,323d place, five people from dead last.

The King Kamehameha Kona Beach Hotel is the site of most of the weekend’s activities, and I’ve been spending a lot of time here watching Darryl and the other Ironmen go about their race prep routines. A moldering hint of the middle 1970s distinguishes the hotel, which relies heavily on the questionable charms of budget-priced wood paneling. The location is nice, though; the starting line is a snip of white sand beach a few feet from the hotel, and the finish line is a short walk from its front door. Inside the hotel, rooms are banked for race check-in and other critical business, like the sale of Ironman key chains and Ironman mug holders and Ironman digital watches. Outside, palms are strung with fluttering banners touting Timex and NBC and Reebok. The crumbling seawall edging the harbor has additional banners hung from it. Saturday morning, before the 7 a.m. start, a peeved announcer pleads for the spectators sitting on the wall to please not dangle their feet in front of the signs. “We want to make sure those sponsors get as many hits as possible on television,” he explains.

Even the triathletes have absorbed the heady spirit of enterprise, and they wear logo-festooned clothing and imprint their bodies with temporary tattoos shilling products like Kestrel bikes and Mrs. T’s Pierogies, lending them the air of fiscally ambitious punks. One company, PowerBar, goes so far as to pay a cash bounty to any athlete who wears a PowerBar T-shirt and gets the brand name on television or in a magazine. On one level, the race and the racers are just a handy canvas upon which to project product, and Darryl–the largest man ever to race the Ironman–is the biggest and choicest canvas of all. He’s also perhaps the choosiest. For several days he’s been haggling with a marketing guy from Boll‰ sunglasses, which hopes he’ll pose for their catalog and wear a pair of their wraparounds in the race.

“I’d be happy to,” Darryl finally tells the man. “But your people haven’t got back to me with a firm offer. I like your product, but I need something more than some free glasses in return. I’m trying to make a living here. Plus I have Oakley after me.” The Boll‰ rep says yes, yes, yes, by all means, and then hustles off to call his supervisor.

Darryl has a shiny oval of a face, and he smiles all the time and is unusually courtly. Before he became a triathlete, the Los Angeles native spent seven years as an offensive lineman in the National Football League, after being drafted out of the University of Utah in 1982. He played mostly for the New England Patriots and was good enough to be named NFL Player of the Week once, and the Patriots were good enough in Darryl’s playing days that during the 1985-1986 season they made it to Super Bowl XX, which they lost very badly to the Chicago Bears. That was the championship for which the Bears cut a music video, and Bears quarterback Jim McMahon launched a plummy career in commercials by creating hype over which logo headband he’d wear in the game. Darryl, more than most of the triathletes around, knows a little something about marketing and buzz. While in the NFL he negotiated his own contracts and, in his spare time, founded a profitable fitness consulting business. Although he entered his first triathlon just to compete, he realized pretty quickly that he might make something more of the sport.

This week Darryl’s been planting several story lines with the Ironman crowd, the cleverest being his refusal to divulge the brand of bike he’ll ride in the race. Over the last few days dozens of people have asked after his mystery bike. Past winner Mark Allen cornered Darryl and grilled him about it. Paula Newby-Fraser, who won an amazing eighth Ironman this year, interrogated him too. The murmurs rebounded to the bike reps, who began imploring Darryl to please, please, stop by and talk a little business.

Q: Darryl, is there anything unusual about your bike?

A: Nah, it’s just my old Cannondale. But I noticed that when I wouldn’t tell people about the bike, that only made them want to know all the more. So I figured, what the heck, I’ll make them wait and see if it works for me.

Last year Darryl was able to compete here for the first time, thanks to a special exemption granted by the World Triathlon Corporation, the Florida-based company that stages the Hawaii Ironman. The race is triathlon’s premier event and is credited with launching the sport, which now boasts 750,000 participants worldwide. Athletes normally have to qualify in another race or gain entry through a lottery system to race in Hawaii. Darryl tried the lottery, and when he lost out, the powers behind the race signed him up anyway. “We don’t make any secret of the fact that from time to time, whether for sponsorship purposes or public relations purposes, we give someone permission to run the race,” is how Rob Perry, the Ironman’s advertising and public relations director, explained it to me. The fact is, Darryl was about as qualified as many of the racers. Since seeing his first triathlon on television in 1993 he’d entered and completed triathlons in St. Croix and Chicago, notched ten additional long-distance courses, and attended Newby-Fraser’s triathlon camp in Boulder. She told him he would succeed in the Ironman as long as he raced at his own pace, which is pretty good advice to give a 300-pound man.

Darryl shows up for the race at 5:30 in the morning, and the starting area is already teeming. Racers wander around, looking slightly stunned with anticipation. Some fiddle with their bikes, which are arranged in endless rows and being protected from the spectators by wildly zealous security guards. A few racers investigate Darryl’s Cannondale–it’s obviously Darryl’s, because the saddle towers about five inches above all the rest. Other racers wait in line at the outdoor toilets or slather grease on one another for the swim or just stretch silently. Darryl has occupied his pre-race time greeting people, hugging people, and talking through his race. Charm precedes him like an avalanche of warm fine sand, smothering everyone in its path. He’s wearing Oakley sunglasses against the brightening sun. “Oakley won,” he says. “Boll‰ kept stalling, and I’m done negotiating. I’m not in the mood to negotiate today.” Darryl arrived wearing his dress shorts and polo shirt and straw hat, and when he begins a slow peel down to his black Speedo a hush settles on the immediate crowd, which stares at this dark tower looming over a sea of diminutive white forms.

“Get some of Darryl! Get some of Darryl!” A field director is shouting at an NBC cameraman, ordering him to shoot footage of Darryl as he lowers himself into the ocean for the 2.4-mile first leg. Even in the water Darryl chats up his startled neighbors, stopping to give one a quick hug before the gun report launches the race. Water roils with furious arms and legs, and Darryl moves smoothly and quickly out into the harbor and then goes missing in the crowd.

Since barely finishing last year’s race, Darryl has devoted himself to the idiosyncratic realities of triathlon training. Rising daily at 4:30, he swims, lifts weights, runs, and then rides a bike 20 miles to a Four Seasons Resort outside Kona, where he teaches wealthy vacationers how to be fit. In the evening he rides back home. The swimming portion of the race has always made Darryl particularly anxious. Before he became a triathlete his relationship with water was at best dysfunctional. One of the goals he set for himself this Ironman was to shave up to 20 minutes off last year’s swimming time of 2:14–a very substantial improvement.

Sure enough, Darryl pops out of the water about two hours later and does a little celebratory jig. Before the race, I talked with race physician Bob Laird about Darryl, and he remarked that Darryl’s size actually helps him in the swim, since he tends to be more buoyant than a lot of the skinnier competitors. He also mentioned that when the medical staff first heard Darryl was coming to race, their main concern was whether the cots would hold him if something went wrong. So far, everything’s fine with Darryl. In just a few minutes he’s changed clothing, and now he huffs past on his bike. Even though 90 percent of the field is already well into the 112-mile bike course–and the leaders are about a fourth of the way done with it–Darryl looks encouraged.

The bike portion of the Ironman runs along the Queen Kaahumanu Highway and is remarkable mostly for the stilled ripples of black lava that the road bisects. By 10 a.m. the temperature in these lunar fields is above 100 degrees. Sun-poached volunteers work the many rest stations, passing out water and Gu energy gel and Exceed replenishing drink to the racers as they struggle by. In years past Gatorade was the drink being offered, but the World Triathlon Corporation is thinking about bringing out its own drink next year and didn’t want to promote any serious competitors, so this year they distributed the less-popular Exceed to the athletes. Volunteers have been told to use the name as often as possible. Every few seconds one of them shouts “Exceed! Exceed!” at the passing cyclists, which I imagine must annoy them. But when Darryl chugs by they shout “Darryl! Darryl!” instead, and he shoots them a shaka hand wave.

What mostly makes Darryl appealing to the Ironman is his winning personality and his value as a human-interest story. For the last few years the WTC has been working to, as its marketing executive says, “grow the word Ironman as a recognizable name brand.” The best tool it has for doing this is the annual Ironman broadcast. With a strong mass-market identity the WTC can hatch profitable partnerships, like the one with Timex that produces the Ironman line of sports watches. (Timex sells two million watches a year, and the WTC reportedly gets 50 cents per watch.) Reebok now has an Ironman shoe and Huffy recently introduced its Ironman bike, with part of the profits from each kicking back to the WTC. The company embraces anything that might help shed the common perception that the Ironman is the domain of a bunch of obsessive fitness kooks and promotes the notion that it is a simple celebration of Everyman’s indomitable spirit. Darryl, a scary-bright preacher’s son from Compton who played pro ball and was big and slow-looking–well, here was a stereotype-busting Everyman.

When Darryl signed up for last year’s race the WTC quickly paired him off with an NBC producer, who got to work scripting a long and uplifting profile of Darryl for the Ironman broadcast. It ran with lengthy segments on the oldest competitor and the youngest competitor and various handicapped Ironmen. Mark Allen, who won the race, got hardly any profile coverage at all.

As I followed Darryl around for the days leading up to the race, he continued to be a wonder. Not only did he play Boll‰ off of Oakley, but he’d worked deals with several other companies, including a cellular phone outfit that gave him a free cell phone that he used every few minutes to work even more business deals. Darryl recently moved to Kona full-time to work at the Four Seasons Resort spa. His job description is personal trainer and nutritionist, but he is also a jumbo-size sales tool. The hat he wore all weekend was stitched with the word “Hualalai,” which is the name of the spa. Hualalai promotes the fact that it has an Ironman and a former NFL pro on staff, and Darryl promotes Hualalai. The surprise is that Darryl makes such cross-promotion and salesmanship seem effortless and correct. Worldwide, there are about 150 professional triathletes, but Darryl is probably the sport’s first true pro.

On the afternoon of the Expo Darryl drove out to the airport to retrieve his wife, Shiba, their young son, Rene, and Darryl’s friend Phil, a jazz saxophonist who will undergo a conversion during the weekend and decide that he too wants to be a 300-pound triathlete. Shiba is beautiful and petite and enjoys a finely attuned sense of the ridiculous that presents itself at the most inflating times. Later in the day we visited a local Baptist elementary school, where Darryl had been asked to award a plaque to the student who showed the most Haleyesque desire and persistence. Phil, Shiba, and Rene sat in the back pew of a church sanctuary, which doubled as the school auditorium. “We are here today for the presentation of the Darryl Haley Award,” a teacher solemnly announced to the roomful of children. “The Darryl Haley Award,” Shiba stage-whispered. “Lord help us.”

But it was a touching moment, the plaque handed to a tiny girl with a cleft palate who burst into tears onstage. Darryl and Shiba fussed over her until she dried up, and then Darryl passed out Hualalai caps and a sack of little gifts he’d brought for the children.

Q: Darryl, why did you leave football?

A: See, on a football field you can be all these things that you can’t be walking down the street in normal society. You have to be a total lunatic, an assassin, a maniac, a hit man. You can be aggressive, you can be tenacious. I could do things to you on a football field that I couldn’t think about doing while walking down the street–and get away with it. There’s a level of competitive aggression you enter, this little zone, this bubble, and you perform there with skill and grace and tactics and precision to make it all work. You take ten other guys and orchestrate this plan of attack to the inch and it’s all about dominance and destruction. It’s controlled violence. When the game is over, you have taken a guy who is the best at his position and you have totally broken him. And one day I realized I wasn’t able to do that anymore.

The Ironman goes well for Darryl until the turnaround at Hawii, near the midpoint of the bike leg. The temperature has continued to rise, and when I catch up with Darryl again he’s not smiling anymore. As he passes, I can see that the muscles in his ample upper arms are spasming uncontrollably. Bike-racing 112 miles when you are Darryl-size is not easy, and not just because of the exertion involved. The simple physics of the feat are daunting. To remain aerodynamic, Darryl has to squeeze his massive thighs so close to the bike frame that by mile 45 he’s rubbed two large holes into his spandex shorts. Cutting down on wind resistance also requires Darryl to curl his bulk into the bike, and this compresses his chest and drops his oxygen intake. And Darryl must move 330 pounds–which is what he and his bike and his water and some energy bars weigh–into a 15-mile-per-hour headwind. At various times he must pedal this mass from sea level to 600 feet. Last year, event physicians estimate, he burned more than 17,000 calories during the race, replenishing them with homemade egg-and-bean burritos and 25 bottles of Gatorade, which he gulped down along the way.

Unlike Darryl, the best triathletes zip along with daunting and colorless efficiency; the Belgian Luc Van Lierde, who was crossing the overall finish line with a winning time of eight hours and four minutes as Darryl was still tackling the second half of the bike leg, mowed down the competition while consuming just a few bananas and energy bars with his fluids. In a fit of misguided emulation, Darryl has also gone nutritious this year, sticking with Gu energy gel and fruit and energy bars. He’s probably not taking in enough fuel.

Q: Darryl, do you think that potential sponsors will lose interest in you if you don’t finish the race?

A: Frankly, I think they’ll want me even more, because this year my goal is not just to finish the race, but to compete. You take the average triathlete and they say, ‘Well, this guy finished again, but so what?’ This year they’ll look at me and say, ‘Hey, he really went for it! He raced it.’ I think they might appreciate that.

As he labors to beat last year’s time in the bike leg, Darryl’s body begins shifting resources to his overtaxed muscles and is unable to cope with his extreme fluid loss. Race day has remained scaldingly hot. His blood volume starts to decrease; adjusting, his body wants to trim the blood flow to his engorged muscles, but it overrides that instinct and forces instead a reduction of blood to his stomach, which begins to cramp. A vicious circle is developing. Since his stomach can’t process fluids efficiently, his blood distribution decreases and the large muscles in his legs are not refreshed as effectively as they should be. This causes metabolic products such as lactic acid to begin building in his thighs, which start to cramp as well. Also contributing to the cramping is the awkward way he must position his huge bulk on a tiny bike seat. Several times in the first 20 miles after the turnaround, Darryl shudders to a stop, gets off his bike, and massages and works his legs. To keep the Ironman both manageable and safe, cutoff times have been established, and all racers must reach the bike finish line within ten and a half hours after the race begins or they are not allowed to continue. Last year he nicked in under this time by only four minutes. If he can’t overcome the cramps and make up lost time, the margin this year will be even narrower.

Say he does make it. That he skips one water station and blows through on his bike, opening the slim window he’ll use to clear the bike cutoff. Then he’ll head back onto the course, jogging a few yards, walking a few. The pace will alternate until, by the 15th hour of the race, he’ll abandon jogging altogether and simply walk for two hours, pushing himself up hills and stumbling down their far side. The crowds lining the course will start chanting “Darryl, Darryl,” as they did last year, and Shiba will be waiting at the finish, not knowing where her husband is until he can be seen cresting the top of Ali’i Drive and loping clumsily toward her, and she’ll dissolve into tears and begin leaping up and down as he reaches her and she vanishes within his hug, and the whole scene will be caught in dramatic slow motion by NBC and replayed with some gauzy New Age score behind it. At the chaos of the finish loudspeakers will blare out pop songs and an announcer will shout out the triathletes’ names and their hometowns and a snippet of personal story, like the finisher is a veterinarian, perhaps.

After ducking behind the pylons and into the showers, Darryl will emerge, still damp and walking carefully. He’ll move to the sodium-lighted finish area and begin hugging racers as they cross the line, draping first a pair of meaty arms and then a lei of palm fronds around their necks. “Hey!” the announcer will shout. “There’s the big man, Darryl Haley, the Ironman, helping bring our runners home! Congratulations Darryl!” Darryl will smile humbly and thank the announcer and then, responding to their endless calls, wave again and again to the crowd.

Q: Honestly Darryl, what’s the very highest you can ever hope to finish in a triathlon?

A: Top ten. That’s a fact. I look at what I do at twice the size of any competitor and I look at the times they’re doing. They can’t get any faster. But if I work and work, I can get faster. So I’m not stopping until I hit top ten.

Q: You have to say that, and perhaps even believe that, to help motivate yourself. But it really isn’t possible, is it?

A: It is possible. Mentally and physically I’m going to make it happen. Look at it this way: I’ve got nowhere to go but up.

Say he doesn’t make it. That the few extra minutes that trickled away as he was shaking off cramps put him just moments past the bike cutoff time, and that when he climbs the last small hill and bursts into the carpeted bike transition area the large digital race clock has ticked a few ticks too many, and none of the spectators will look Darryl full in the eye. Then he’ll stagger over to an official and gasp out, “Did I make it?” When the truth hits, his eyes will fill and tears will flow down his face, mixing with salty-white trickles of sweat. He’ll be joined by other athletes who hug him consolingly under the glare of the NBC cameras, and then the inevitable reporters will creep up and ask what happened, and Darryl will explain the cramps and the lactic buildup and then, polished at this from his days in the NFL, make a gracious exit.

He’ll shower, alone in the tent, the other racers long since moved on. Standing under the full spray, his eyes closed and mouth open, he’ll ready his speeches, forming an edited version of his emotions in phrases so perfectly couched that they could be the work of a speechwriter and internalized enough that for the remaining days I’m with him the quotations will never change, not even by a word, no matter what audience he is facing. In the quiet murk of the tent Darryl will dress slowly, and when he finally emerges he’ll have a humble smile for the gathered crowd. “Sometimes you just have to go for it,” he’ll tell a camera. “And I’m happy I did. This is only going to help with everything.”

On the final night of the Ironman weekend is the awards ceremony, for which everyone dresses in coats and ties and slinky gowns; after several days of seeing them wearing next to nothing, the formal wear conspires to make them look faintly ridiculous, like a chihuahua wearing long pants. A JumboTron video screen shows bits of the race just past and more from races in previous years. Darryl and his family have been seated with the professionals and the VIPs, at a table next to Allen and Newby-Fraser and Scott Tinley and Mike Pigg–the marquee names of the triathlon world. Although triathlon is now pretty big business, the money being doled out to athletes is still relatively minor. About the only people making a comfortable living from just their racing–an income, say, in the low six figures–are the handful of racers sitting near Darryl. As a moneymaker, Darryl is already nipping at some of his neighbor’s heels. “If anyone can become a cottage industry from participating in the Ironman, Darryl can,” Rob Perry, the advertising director, explained when I asked him about Darryl’s prospects. “He’s very personable, very smart, the companies love him–everyone loves him. There’s no reason why, simply by participating in this race, that five years from now Darryl can’t be the best-known Ironman in the world. Which he can then use to move into fitness consulting or nutrition programs or infomercials. If anyone has that type of potential, Darryl does.”

Q: Darryl, do you think you’ve gotten this far mostly because of the way you look?

A: Yeah, that’s probably true. But I’ve been given certain abilities to use as a platform to promote the sport, to deflate stereotypes, to sow some cross-cultural education. So yes, I attract attention because I’m black, where all the other triathletes are white, and I’m big, where all the other triathletes are small. But what I choose to do with this attention, the good I can bring from it–well, that’s a different story.

At one point in the evening Darryl is brought onstage to thunderous applause–the audience recognizing his effort–and the video-projection clip backdropping the stage shows him pedaling away on the course, waving to the camera. Shiba sits at the table, smiling bemusedly. When this is all over she and Rene will head back to Maryland, where she manages gospel singers and bands. Once offstage, Darryl works the room, plopping himself down at a table of triathletes from Japan. He nods uncertainly as they speak Japanese and broken English, and sits there getting pawed. By the time he leaves the group, he’s secured a freebie plane ticket to Tokyo, a starting slot in the Ironman Japan, and several places to stay.

Maybe it really doesn’t matter when Darryl finished the Ironman, or whether he finished at all. The sponsors who are currently working with him, and those who hope to work with him in the future, wish to do so not because he’s succeeding, but simply because he’s participating. When I asked an Ironman marketer about this, he suggested that Darryl’s appeal is likely to grow regardless of his performance: “Usually if an athlete doesn’t win or do well, the coverage drops and the sponsorship drops. In Darryl’s case, he has more staying power. He attracts attention, and sponsors like that attention. If he struggles, it only makes him more human and identifiable to a larger number of people. In many ways, he’s the future of triathloning.” Darryl himself declined to acknowledge this line of reasoning before the race began. He felt a real pressure to succeed and had never not finished any of the 12 races he’s entered.

Out on the bike course, while he was a little more than a mile from the finish, Darryl felt certain that he could make it–that he had to make it. There were so many people not to disappoint. Shiba was waiting for him at the marathon’s finish line, as were Rene and Phil. During the week, dozens of people had approached Darryl to wish him luck and explain that they came all this way solely because they wanted to see him compete. NBC had been filming him. And I was here, too. “I’m very aware of the value that being in Outside will bring to me,” he told me shortly after we met. “I want to do well.”

Darryl had about two minutes left. He could see the bike finish area. The cramps had returned, but if he could ignore them and just make it across the line in time, he’d have a moment to get a quick rub and take some soup before he began the 26.2-mile marathon, which he could complete by managing a fast walk. He was closing quickly and the crowd was screaming and Darryl hunched over his bike and pedaled. It was going to be very close. He began tallying the two minutes he lost when he stopped to use the bathroom, the extra minute he spent adjusting his shoes. He looked up briefly at the course and gauged his sprint and put his head down, and he was pedaling hard enough that you could hear him grunting and the components of the overburdened bike creaking and the large crowd yelling for him to hurry, you can make it–sure he can, he’s almost there–and Darryl was thinking that he might not make it, but maybe if he pushed he just might; and through it all–and this was probably a symptom of pain or exhaustion, surely not joy–he was smiling again.

promo logo