Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward became the first NFL player to complete the Kona Ironman Triathlon 10 days ago. The two-time Super Bowl winner finished the Super Bowl of triathlons in 13 hours, 8 minutes and 15 seconds.
Ward was the 1,680th athlete to cross the Kona finish line after a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon. The former "Dancing With The Stars" winner trained for nearly eight months with triathlon legend Paula Newby after he retired following the 2011 season.
The NBC "Sunday Night Football" analyst talked with NFL Evolution contributing editor Bill Bradley on Wednesday about the decision to try the endurance sport, what he remembers about competing at Kona and if he'll compete in future triathlons.
How is your body feeling after completing the Kona Ironman Triathlon almost two weeks ago?
I'm still a little sore. I'm back to running. I just ran six miles yesterday. It was the first time that I ran since the triathlon. I worked the Notre Dame (versus USC game) last Saturday (for NBC) and got on the elliptical machine that morning. That was really the first time that I actually did any (exercise since Kona), but it took me a while to recover. There's no question about that.
What was it that made you try endurance sports and when did you make that decision to compete in Kona?
My agent ... presented an opportunity from "Got Chocolate Milk," which I already represented. I've done a milk mustache ad before. The opportunity presented itself for me to participate in the Ironman World Championships out in Kona with their help. At the time I was probably naïve and stupid, really not knowing what goes into an Ironman and becoming an endurance athlete. I think so many people out there don't know what it takes to do a triathlon. It's a grueling sport and it definitely earned my respect going into it. I was kind of dumb-founded by really not knowing how long a 2.4 mile swim and how long a 112-mile bike ride would take. I kind of knew about a marathon, but to do it all in one day is grueling. Now, having done it and finished the Ironman in Kona, I just get a newfound respect for all of the triathletes out there because I know what they're going through.
There are shorter lengths of triathlons -- sprint, Olympic and half Ironman. Did you participate in any of those while training for Kona?
I did one of each. I really just started training in February, so it was less than eight months. I did a sprint triathlon in San Diego in early March. I did an Olympic down in St. Petersburg, Fla. And then I did a half Ironman in Kansas during the summer. I did one of everything to get kind of a simulation of what Kona was going to be like. Even while I was in Kona, it was still overwhelming. Luckily for me, I got a celebrity exemption to get in (Kona). ... But to be around all of the pros from every age group, it was overwhelming. But at the same time it was great to be on the course with some of the greatest endurance athletes from all over the world.
You are a well-known former NFL player walking into their sport. As someone with a celebrity exemption, how were you received by other triathletes?
It was very welcoming. The endurance world is where everybody is so encouraging. I sat on a pro panel and everyone was excited by the coverage. They thought the media attention that I brought to their sport only helps their sport. You get some bad seeds out there, people saying, "Well, you didn't qualify." To those people saying those things, I say if they were given the opportunity to compete in Kona, I'm sure they're not going to turn down the opportunity and say, "No, I need to qualify." It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. I tried to make the most of it. I tried to share the whole experience. Myself and (famous chef) Gordon Ramsay, we were the two celebrity exemptions and we made the most of it. I ended up finishing in over 13 hours and he finished in around 14 hours. It was great. I think the exposure to Kona by us being there was great for ourselves and for the sport. I'm happy to partake in it. For me, I'm branded. I got a tattoo that says "Kona 2013," so that's going to be something I'm going to cherish for the rest of my life.
Did you beat your goal for completing the course?
I really didn't set any goals. For me, I didn't want to finish in the last hour, but to cross Kona in 13 hours and eight minutes and only have trained less than eight months, all of the feedback I've been getting is that it was remarkable. I'm happy. For me, I just wanted to finish, but not only to finish, but to finish as best as I possibly could. I probably felt like I could have gotten a little faster, but I wasn't willing to use the restroom on myself. I've still got a little dignity.
Some people say the toughest part of the triathlon is the transition from swim to bike while others say it's the long run at the end. What was the toughest part for you?
It was the run at the end, no question. I actually got out of the open water in about an hour and 20 minutes. That was the fastest time I've ever done. For me to come out of that in 1:20 in my first mad start, that was great. All of the other triathlons, the swimming portion was in waves of people. ... I actually flew out on the first part of the bike ride. I got out to the halfway point (in the bike ride) in about two hours and 30 minutes. It was the headwind coming back that was grueling. I'm pedaling as hard as I possibly can and not going anywhere. I think that that just took a toll on my legs, where I started cramping and just getting fatigued. When I got off the bike and then made the transition to the run, I asked myself, "How the hell am I going to run a marathon?" To me, that made the run the hardest part. The transition from the bike to the run, that is.
Not a lot of football fans know about the "mad start" in the swimming portion of major triathlons events. That's where all competitors start swimming as soon as the horn sounds at once. Can you describe what the "mad start" was like at Kona?
It was all-out chaos. I went out there (in the water) and I was treading water for 20 minutes and hanging on a little buoy. I didn't really know how to deal with that. And then, when you hear that cannon go off, everybody goes in that mad start. For me, it was a lot different than the half and the sprint and the Olympic triathlons I was in because in those events people start in groups. In Kona, everybody was going in the water right away. I really didn't have to worry about spotting (water markers); I just followed feet. I put my head down and really didn't have to look up because I figured all of these great athletes trained for Kona, so they knew which way to go. It was actually fun. I enjoyed it. My coach told me, "I want you to get out there in the middle of all those people at the mad start and just go for it." That's just part of the whole experience. I got beat up by two females. I elbowed a female. I elbowed a dude. I got grabbed. I felt in my comfort zone out there, like I was back on the gridiron. A lot of stuff goes on under water out there at the start.
Looking back, anything you would do differently in your training or during the Ironman event?
I wish I understood the nutrition aspect of it. I was sure that I was going to finish, it's just that I wish I was better with the nutrition side of it, dealing with the heat and the humidity. It takes a lot out of your body to withstand the long grueling test. For me, that was the difficult part of it. I didn't have a problem on the swim transition to the bike and the bike transition to the run. I executed everything, but when I got to the run I was so tired and so confused going into the headwind, that I kind of got off-track with the nutrition aspect on the marathon. That's just something comes (with) reps. This was my first full Ironman. I was trying to assimilate what I had done in the half (Ironman). But the difference from the half, is the full Ironman you've still got 13 more miles in the run part. And then I wasn't dealing with the same conditions that I was in Kansas that I had to deal with in Hawaii. By the time I got to (running) at mile 18 or 20, I almost bonked out. I took a shot of Coca-Cola and drank a whole bottle of Gatorade. I thought I was going to go into a full-body cramp. But somehow I made it. I had a conversation with God for the last six miles. I was just great. It was great opportunity to see the fans and the volunteers. At the aid stations, I saw fans waving "Terrible Towels" everywhere. For me, it was pretty cool to see them encouraging me to make it to the end.
After the race, you said Kona was the end of your triathlon career. Now that you have had some time to think about it, how do you feel about competing in another triathlon?
I don't know. I'm sitting here now that it's over reflecting on it, but I don't know. A full Ironman is pretty grueling. Maybe a sprint or an Olympic or a half (Ironman), but I don't know that I would do another full just in the sense that once you've done Kona, it's hard to do another full anywhere else. That's like the world championships, the Super Bowl of triathlons. For me, maybe an Olympic is short enough, but maybe a half Ironman. We'll see. I'm sure Paula is itching for me to give her a call so I can just go right back into it. But I'm going to let my body heal a little bit. I've been busy since I've retired. I'm just going to sit back and enjoy and reflect on some of the great accomplishments thus far that I have accumulated.
What lessons did you take away from competing in an Ironman triathlon?
For people out there who are on the verge of wanting to do it, always questioning of whether do it, I'm a living testament that it can happen. I'm someone who had never ran over a mile and in less than eight months finished in Kona. Hopefully that inspires people to get out there and do it. No one in the NFL world would ever comprehend or understand what it takes. All of the feedback I got from players was, "Why? Why would you do it?" But when I finished, it was like, "Awe, man, kudos to you because you're a better man than me because I wouldn't want to do that." It was great. I love challenges and I've done a lot of different things -- "Dancing With The Stars," Ironman, cooking shows -- so I'm just happy. You only live once. You go through all of the accolades and accomplishments I've endured over my lifetime and it's a blessing for me. Who knows what the next day will bring for me.