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Former Steeler Ward swallowing his pride at Ironman race

| Saturday, June 15, 2013, 10:00 p.m.

Hines Ward has an image in his head in which he's running and he's being passed both by women older than he is and boys nearly half his age.

He hates it.

Ward wins Super Bowls, MVP trophies, even dance competitions. He's used to being the best. In the world of Ironman triathlon, however, winning isn't an option. By the time October gets here and Ward reaches the starting line of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, he'll have been training for nearly a year. He'll have lost track long ago of the hours spent in the pool, on the bike and on the road and the endless miles logged. He'll have given it everything he has, because he is Hines Ward. He's used to winning. He's used to being the best.

This time he won't win. It's as simple as that. Just finishing the race will have to be reward enough.

“The realization is having never done it before, I can't go in thinking I'm going to go out and win the Ironman,” Ward said. “That's the battle I have. … I have to know what my body's capable of doing and I have to run my pace. I can't run a pace that's someone else's or I won't make it at the end.”

Understanding that is one obstacle Ward has faced during the process that began in November, but it isn't the only one.

Ward, who had never done any of the three disciplines of an endurance triathlon individually let alone put them together prior to beginning training with eight-time Ironman champion Paula Newby-Fraser, is a rookie all over again. It is a completely different type of athletic endeavor than anything he's ever done before, requiring different training, nutrition and recovery time.

The fast-twitch muscles that allowed him to explode on the football field won't help him in Hawaii. In order to complete the race, he'll have to swim 2.4 miles in the Pacific Ocean, then bike 112 miles through lava fields where hot, heavy winds can feel like a blast furnace. Once that's over and the heat and humidity of a Kona afternoon really set in, he'll run 26.2 miles.

In Pittsburgh, the distance would be roughly the equivalent of swimming from Point State Park to the Liberty Bridge and back again, jumping on a bike and riding halfway between Altoona and State College and then running a marathon.

“All in all I'm glad I'm doing it but some days when I'm training I ask myself why am I doing it,” Ward said. “It is tough. It is by far the toughest thing. But I never danced before (going on Dancing with the Stars) and I went through it and persevered and found a way to come out on top.”

Ward has been training about three hours a day six days a week. If he averages 150 miles biking, swimming and running per week, he'll cover about 2,400 miles over the next 16 weeks.

Something new every week

Ward, who retired from football in 2011, was asked to train for the race as part of the ‘REFUEL got chocolate milk?' campaign, which is an official beverage partner of Ironman.

When he went on his first one-mile run, he said, he was gassed. He had never ridden a bike using the clip-in pedals that are standard equipment for any racer, and it took practice before he stopped tipping over. In the pool, he had to learn the proper strokes and form before he could begin really putting in the hours required for training.

“I think he thought it might be a bit of a challenge, but he had no idea how hard it was going to be,” Newby-Fraser said. “If he went to the pool and swam a mile and got through it once he thought he would be set. Or when he'd been training in the pool for two months and went to an event and struggled because it was his first time in open water with a mass swim and it didn't go at all like it did in the pool he said, ‘I did all that training, all that time in the pool.' And you have to get a hold of him and say, ‘You haven't actually spent all that much time in the pool. You've been doing it for two months. These people have been doing it 20 years.'

“That's where it's tough for him because he's so used to doing something and being good at it. This is so, so different that every day, every week, something new is dawning on him.”

That's difficult for someone who's as much of a perfectionist and as intensely competitive as Ward. Newby-Fraser recalled a track workout in San Diego in which she showed Ward the correct pace running quarter-miles and half-miles, then sent Ward home to Atlanta with a workout plan that detailed what time he needed to go per lap.

“He completely blew it,” she said. “He went way too fast because of his natural short speed. He called me and it was like talking him off the ledge for half an hour. He gets incredibly frustrated. He melts down with frustration just because he wants to be good at it and wants to perform. He's having to balance the reality of where he is with where he wants to be. When things don't go exactly right he gets so mad.”

Ward is also aware that not everyone is happy about him competing in Kona. A small number of celebrities are issued passes each year by race officials, but everyone else must earn a slot at a qualifying event, be an Ironman finisher and win a spot via lottery or win a slot through the race's charity auction. Newby-Fraser said the naysayers make up just a small fraction of Ironman enthusiasts, but knows that Ward is still sensitive to the criticism.

Irwin's Chad Holderbaum is a four-time finisher at Kona and, having just turned professional this year, will face an even greater challenge in qualifying for the 2013 race and knows there are those who don't like anyone who's brand new to triathlon getting a free pass.

“There aren't that many, but I'm sure it rubs some folks the wrong way knowing what it takes to train and qualify for the event,” he said. “However, I see it as an opportunity for the sport to grow and I welcome the fact that the media is paying attention to Hines racing Ironman. In the end, the journey to Kona is special for all regardless of whether you qualify, win the lottery or get a pass.”

No time like the present

Ward competed in his first sprint distance triathlon in San Diego in March, and Newby-Fraser would not let him wear his watch. That didn't go over well, but the strategy worked brilliantly.

“We had a little argument over that because he very much wants to know where he is, but this was an education on how hard he can push himself,” she said. “He'd been averaging 18 mph on the bike and he averaged almost 21 in the race. In the run, he didn't walk a step and he'd been averaging 9-minute miles but in the race it was 8:30. He exceeded everything he'd done in training and he likes to quantify everything through training. I said just let the spirit take over, and I think he was thrilled that he was able to push himself further.”

The exception was the swim. It was Ward's first time in open water and he went off course, his goggles fogged and Newby-Fraser said he was furious about it for three or four days afterward.

“He learned that he had a lot to learn, but he also learned that when he's put on the spot in a race — game time — there's a lot more there than he thinks,” she said. “He came in under his goal time and I think he was really happy with that.”

Ward completed an Olympic distance race in April, then finished a half-Ironman last week. He's lost 30 pounds since he started training, and dropping to 195 pounds has helped his speed. He's come in under his goal time in every race, although he won't disclose his target for Ironman.

“I love challenges, and this will by far be my toughest challenge,” Ward said. “It's just me versus myself on the course. You have to continue to push through the pain and hopefully after 140 miles I can cross the finish line and what great satisfaction it will be to hear, ‘Hines Ward, you're an Ironman.' When that day comes, if I can cross that finish line, that will probably be one of my greatest accomplishments throughout my life.”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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