An Ironman Who’s Not Yet a Man

America’s Tri For Health™ on Labor Day

Nov 10, 2008

It’s a drizzly, gray dawn on Maryland’s Eastern Shore as 291 bold souls in wetsuits and goggles wade into Hambrook Bay for a grueling test of stamina that will stretch past nightfall.

But it’s easy to pick out 14-year-old Hunter Lussi. He’s the one with braces. He’s also the one sporting a zebra-striped swim cap so his parents can monitor his progress — and his safety — amid so many flailing limbs in the choppy, open water.

The ChesapeakeMan Ultra Triathlon, held each September in Cambridge, Md., starts with a 2.4-mile swim, segues into a 112-mile bicycle sprint and is capped by a full-blown marathon. That’s 140.6 miles in all, contested over a morning, afternoon and night that might otherwise be spent watching a child’s soccer game, mowing the lawn, catching a movie and sitting down to three square meals.

This year, it was Lussi, a Georgetown Prep freshman from Kensington, who was first out of the water, winning the swim in less than 56 minutes despite a nasty jellyfish sting on his neck. Roughly 13 hours later, he loped across the finish at the local high-school football stadium, where a dwindling group of friends and relatives waited to cheer their loved ones home.

“And now — at 14 years young — Hunter Lussi!” brayed race director Bob Vigorito, who greeted each finisher over a loudspeaker.

So-called “ultra-distance” triathlons like the ChesapeakeMan, which replicate the distance of the trademarked “Ironman” events, are considered the ultimate challenge by many devotees of the sport. But there is broad disagreement about whether they’re suitable for youngsters.

The elements of triathlon — swimming, biking and running — are terrific exercises for kids, according to Dr. Mininder Kocher, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School. Broader participation, he adds, could go a long way toward countering the epidemic of childhood obesity.

But the chief concern about youngsters doing extreme distances — or training intensely in any sport that pounds the body, such as gymnastics — is the potential damage to the growing skeleton, which is made up of what’s known as “growth plates.”

Any sign of pain, swelling of the joints or limping should raise red flags, said Kocher, who also is a member of the Youth Sports Safety Initiative Committee of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

If caught early, overuse injuries heal in kids. If addressed too late, they can do long term damage — even stunt normal growth.

That’s largely why the sport’s international governing body, the International Triathlon Union, limits participation in ultra-distance events to those 18 and older. As a result, the ITU doesn’t acknowledge Lussi’s achievement in the ChesapeakeMan. In fact, after learning that Lussi had been allowed to compete in last year’s race at age 13, the ITU lodged a protest with USA Triathlon (USAT), which sanctioned the event, likening the decision to “child abuse.”

Vigorito dismisses the charge as “absurd and ridiculous.”

“Obviously he’s a genetically gifted and genetically unique individual,” Vigorito said of Lussi. “More importantly, he has parental support in great measure.”

Joe Rogers, Lussi’s swim coach for the past four years, also sees no danger for his student.

“If you can do, do it!” said Rogers, a coach with Georgetown Prep’s swim team. “I know they’ve got a lot of silly rules out there trying to inhibit all these young kids from getting involved. But if you’ve got somebody like Hunter, who wants to do it — and my God, does he want to do it! — why stop him?”

Still, three-time Olympic triathlete Hunter Kemper says he couldn’t imagine doing an Ironman-length event at 14. In fact, he has never raced the distance.

“What this kid is doing is amazing; It’s very, very unique,” said Kemper, 32. “But for sure I wouldn’t recommend it. You hate to think you’ll get parents around the country saying, ‘I gotta get my kid out there!’ ” USA Triathlon defended the decision to let Lussi compete after documenting his swimming prowess and the safety precautions taken. (Craig Lussi, Hunter’s father, raced alongside him and arranged for a physician to stand by.) But the organization discourages youngsters from entering full-length triathlons, promoting instead sharply scaled-down events tailored to the temperament and physiology of boys and girls from age 7 up — races that last no more than an hour.

“There are many problems, in my opinion, with a 14-year-old doing a long distance like that,” says Linda Cleveland of the USAT, who works with triathlon coaches. “He’s still growing. Is he going to burn out in two years? While it’s great he can do all the distances, we’d love to see him do safe distances for him now and do triathlons for the rest of his life.”

Hunter Lussi tried a kid’s triathlon when he was 6. It consisted of a 500-yard swim, a 10-mile bike and a 2.5-mile run. And it didn’t hold his interest long.

At 7, he set his sights higher after watching his parents compete in their first Ironman, at Lake Placid, N.Y. As Craig and Jeannette Lussi neared the finish, Hunter ran onto the course and grabbed their hands so they could cross the line as a family.

“From that day, that’s what I wanted to do,” Hunter Lussi recalled. “I wanted to become the youngest Ironman finisher.”

Today, with his cherubic face and adolescent frame, the 14-year-old still stands out in a field of triathletes. There’s simply no mistaking that he’s a boy competing in an adult’s world. That, he says, is a rush all its own.

“The expressions I get when people ask, ‘Are you really 13?’ ‘Are you really 14?’ make me laugh,” he says. “It’s cool.”

Lussi shaved 1 hour 46 minutes off his finishing time this year (13 hours, 41 minutes, compared to 15:27 minutes in 2007). He hopes to trim more in 2009. But after meeting Michael Phelps’s longtime coach Bob Bowman last month, Lussi’s aspirations have grown even higher.

“London is the goal,” Lussi said, referring to the 2012 Olympics. He hopes to qualify for either the triathlon or the long-distance, open-water swim. And he has started working out a few days each week alongside Bowman’s proteges, including 2008 Olympian Katie Hoff, in Baltimore.

According to Bowman, Lussi has the stroke of a classic long-distance swimmer, with high elbows, good tempo and minimal kicking, which also helps him as a triathlete, sparing legs for the rigors of the bike and run.

Like Rogers, Bowman sees no reason to bar Lussi or any uncommonly gifted youngster from long-distance triathlons.

“I kind of feel like young people are suited to endurance-type activities,” Bowman said. “Clearly the danger is that you push them to the point that they are overly fatigued and get injured. But as long as the program is sensible and thought out, they can pretty much do anything they have their mind set to.”

For too many American youngsters, exercise is an all-or-nothing proposition. At one extreme, children get far too little exercise, and studies show that such inactivity contributes to chronic health problems later in life. At the other extreme are children who specialize in a given sport too early and train to an excess, leading to burnout and overuse injuries.

New federal guidelines issued in October called on all Americans to exercise more to combat the risk of heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes. Children and adolescents, the guidelines advised, need at least one hour of exercise each day, with vigorous activity to strengthen muscle and bones at least three days a week. Skateboarding was cited as an example of moderate exercise; biking and soccer, intense exercises.

The ranks of triathletes have grown steadily since the sport was added to the Olympics at the 2000 Sydney Games. In the past two years alone, membership in USA Triathlon jumped nearly 40 percent, to 113,000. Pop diva Jennifer Lopez recently did her first triathlon. Washington Mayor Adrian M. Fenty is a triathlete, as is President-elect Barack Obama’s chief-of-staff Rahm Emanuel.

According to Bob Seebohar, a dietician with the U.S Olympic Committee, anyone can do a triathlon with proper training, which means progressing at a measured pace from shorter distances to long. Not only do triathlons promote physical activity, he argues, but they also promote discipline.

“The biggest thing is the accomplishment of setting the goal and crossing the finish line,” said Seebohar, who also competes in Ironman events. “It’s the biggest adrenaline rush that exists, at least in my mind. It’s such a positive thing when you cross that finish line — a sense of accomplishment, or pushing the body further and further.”

In Hunter Lussi’s case, the progression to ultra-distance triathlons happened fast. He did his first Olympic-distance triathlon at 10. At 12 he did a 70.3-mile triathlon, commonly known as a “half-Ironman,” and learned a valuable lesson about pacing himself while battling three-foot waves and withering heat and humidity.

“I was still a kid,” Lussi recalled, “and I thought about getting out. But my dad said, ‘You can do this! You’re trained for this!’ But it was brutal.”

At 14, he said he’s far wiser about managing race day.

Still, Kocher, the Harvard orthopedic surgeon, believes it’s “a little out there in terms of the Bell Curve” for a 14-year-old to try a 140.6-mile triathlon.

Craig and Jeannette Lussi don’t debate the point, arguing that Hunter represents the extremity of the Bell Curve — a 14-year-old with uncommon athleticism, rare drive and an adult’s discipline.

He loved swimming from the moment he was plopped into water. He played soccer as a child. He’s crazy about racecars and his bulldog, Mojo. And his favorite subjects are math and history.

It was while researching an eighth-grade history paper about John F. Kennedy’s fitness initiatives as president that Lussi got an idea. Maybe it was time for a new presidential initiative to inspire Americans to exercise more, he decided. So he put his vision down on paper, writing a letter to President George W. Bush urging him to create a national triathlon, to be known as “the President’s Triathlon,” that would consist of a 500-yard swim, 10-mile bike and 2.5-mile run/walk each Labor Day.

“It wouldn’t be based on time, or getting first or last,” Lussi explained. “Just participating.” Families would take part together — as many as a million people on the same day in cities around the country.

Lussi also pitched his idea in letters to presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain, challenging them to give American families “the gift of fitness” for Labor Day.

“Kids feel like adults, and adults feel like kids when they exercise together,” Lussi wrote the candidates. “And when the kids beat the adults at a sport or race, the issues of growing up with parents always bugging kids seem to disappear. The issues get replaced with the fun of getting tired together.”

He hasn’t gotten a response, but remains hopeful.

“We need another Kennedy,” he declared.

On the morning of this year’s ChesapeakeMan, the Lussis are out in force. Craig, 47, is competing alongside Hunter for safety’s sake, as he did last year, even though he can’t keep up with his son’s pace anymore. But if Hunter gets in trouble on the course, his dad won’t be far behind to lend whatever is needed, whether encouragement, a spare bike part or an extra PowerBar.

Jeannette, 45, who has completed five Ironmans, is monitoring the swim from the bank. Siblings Tyler, 13, and Morgan, 12, carry a hand-lettered sign urging their brother on.

From the outset, Hunter set a goal of winning the swim. Before the start he and his father survey the crowd until they identify the racer who won it in 2007. He becomes Hunter’s target, and the teen keeps him in sight, drafting behind the front pack, until making his push for the lead as they near the final turns.

“This kid is 14! You heard me. He’s just 14!” Vigorito announces as Hunter pops out of the water first and scampers into a tent to change into his biking gear.

He’s not nearly as strong on the bike or run, so he downshifts the pace. Winning isn’t the goal from this point on; finishing smart — which means staying hydrated and replenishing his nutrients — is.

After Hunter takes off on his bike, Jeannette, Tyler and Morgan head to their Chevy SUV. They’ll creep along the route to check on his progress a few times during the 112-mile slog through the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuges, which is populated by egrets, deer, snakes and an occasional bald eagle.

A few miles into the course, the SUV pulls alongside Hunter, who’s crouched over his handlebars and pedaling hard.

“I got stung so bad!” Hunter yells into the passenger side window at his mom, his neck red and raw from the brush with the jellyfish.

“Focus!” his mom yells back. “Eat! You’ve been on it an hour. Start eating now! Be careful! Focus! Focus!”

The family drives off as Taylor waves and shouts, “See ya!”

But apart from waving and cajoling, there’s only so much Hunter’s family can do for him. So Jeannette takes the children for a swim and lunch while Hunter presses on.

It’s 2 p.m. and raining hard when the first wave of triathletes wheel into the high school parking lot, having cycled 112 miles — roughly the distance from Washington to Richmond.

Vigorito has the speakers blaring to keep spirits up, with Bruce Springsteen wailing, “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive ...” Some of the racers look broken indeed, as if permanently stuck in their aerodynamic crouch as they dismount their bikes, shoulders stooped, and hobble into a tent to slip into running gear. A marathon awaits.

Hunter’s in about an hour later, greeted once again by Vigorito, who announces his name and improbable age.

“That kid’s 14 years old?” one guy says to a buddy as they look on from a grassy patch under a tree. “What were you doing at 14?”

“That’s amazing!” gushes his friend.

“That’s sick!” says another, offering highest praise.

Hunter Lussi just keeps going, putting one rain-soaked sneaker in front of the other.

Nearly six hours later, he crosses the finish line. There are no fist-pumping histrionics. Nor does he stagger or gasp for air. Hunter Lussi just smiles — big enough to flash those braces and a well-earned sense of satisfaction.

“You have to get your mind around the distance,” he says when asked what was the hardest part of the day. “But no matter what, you just know, I can do this. I can do this!”

Credit: Washington Post Staff Writer