Peter Reid: “You take the joy as you can.”
Please enjoy Chapter 13 from the book 17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Mueller with Timothy Carlson. From the moment the starting gun is fired on Kona’s sandy beach at the Ironman® World Championship, triathletes have 17 hours to cross the finish line. It’s a feat marking the ultimate achievement in the sport. 17 Hours to Glory is one of only a few books to commemorate this dramatic quest. Seventeen compelling chapters tell stories that allow readers to experience the competition first hand, revealing tremendous athleticism, unbelievable capacity for suffering, and true strength of character.
For a tall, muscular Canadian who looks more like a beach volleyball pro than the skinny whippets who occupy most professional triathlon podiums, Peter Reid has had moments of remarkable fragility. While the hardworking, iron-willed competitor saw himself making up for average talents with an unrelenting work ethic that made him the best bet to win Ironman Hawaii from 1998 to 2005, Reid often found his toughest opponent was his own body.
For Reid, Ironman Hawaii was a challenge he loved and first met by learning from old-school, high-mileage, hard workers such as Thomas Hellriegel of Germany. But as the work and hard-headed focus took its toll, Reid learned from other masters such as Mark Allen, who taught Reid to combine physical science with a respect for the mystical spirit of the island. It was on this inner journey that Reid won personal victories perhaps even more important than even his 3 Ironman Hawaii wins and 10 Ironman victories overall.
Born May 27, 1969, in Montreal, Reid enjoyed downhill skiing and cycling through his high school years in Ottawa and his college years at Bishop University in Montreal, where he studied political science. When Reid started to obsess about cycling, his parents forced him to rearrange his priorities. “Fortunately, my grades started to suffer, and my parents pressured me to focus on schooling,” said Reid. “I am definitely a one-track person. I have to either be in school or out.” In 1989 a friend talked him into trying a local triathlon. “I had a racing bike, but I didn’t know how to swim,” he recalled. “I suffered through it, and I loved it, and I was moved by the atmosphere, how friendly it all was. I liked that all my races were about competing with myself. The cycling team was oriented to work for other people or have others work for you. But in triathlon you showed up and did three events yourself.”
When Reid graduated with his degree in political science, he announced that he wanted to pursue triathlon full time. “My parents weren’t too sure about triathlon,” said Reid. “When I graduated from university I wanted to see how far I could go in the sport, but my dad never really accepted that. He’s proud of me now, but I never forgot those days. He told me, ‘When are you going to get a real job? Why are you chasing this dream?’” Those words fueled his rise.
From the beginning Reid streamlined his quest by shutting out almost all human distractions, a habit that stayed with him throughout his career. “The whole time I raced, the only thing I had time for was triathlon,” said Reid. “In a little bit of off-season, I might do some other things. I was never as talented as other athletes, so I never did anything else of significance because it was all about triathlon. I did not want anything else to interfere with training. Talk to all my friends and they will tell you: Once the season started, I would just disappear. I could not go and hang with my buddies. I could not go to school. I saved all my energy for triathlon.”
In those early years Reid doubted himself. “I thought maybe I don’t have it in me,” he told one interviewer. But after he moved west to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1994 and started to train under the direction of Roch Frey, a fellow Canadian who was coaching his wife Heather Fuhr to great success, things really started to click. In 1996 Reid won the classic Wildflower half-Ironman, finished 3rd behind Simon Lessing and Luc Van Lierde at the Nice long-course, and took 4th at Ironman Hawaii. He thought, Hey, I can really do something in this sport.
But reaching this plateau was just a start. Two crucial encounters at this time helped propel him to the most rarefied air in triathlon. In the summer of 1996 Reid traveled to Germany to race the Ironman and spent weeks training with the legendary 700-miles-aweek supercyclist Thomas Hellriegel. “Thomas showed me what it took to race and win,” said Reid.
The second encounter occurred at Ironman Hawaii, where Reid hit the wall hard about 80 miles into the bike and was tempted to quit. “In 1997 I had not completely figured out Hawaii,” said Reid. “That year I had a really bad bike and went through this dark zone about 120 kilometers into the 180-kilometer bike. Then I got mentally and psychologically tired, like hitting the wall in a marathon—only more emotional. When I got to this point I wanted to drop out of the race. Luckily, that was exactly where my coach Roch Frey stood and said, ‘No! You gotta keep going!’ Getting through that moment eventually became part of my understanding of the Hawaii Ironman.”
Reid finished 4th and took his experiences into 1998. That summer he visited rising American star Tim DeBoom in Boulder, Colorado, and passed on the lessons he had learned while training with Hellriegel. “Training with Peter brought it to another level,” said DeBoom. “It opened my eyes to the amount of work and degree of focus necessary to win Hawaii.”
That year in Kona Reid outraced the three Germans who had placed 1-2-3 the year before as well as Luc Van Lierde, the 1996 sensation who set a still-standing Ironman Hawaii course record. With winds gusting to 40 mph, Reid rode a crafty split, staying with Hellriegel and outpacing Van Lierde, who was still recovering from a stress fracture and a pulled groin suffered that spring. Then Reid uncorked the first of his Kona-winning runs, a 2:47:31 marathon that held Van Lierde at bay and put the Canadian 7:37 ahead at the line.
Winning Hawaii for the first time took away the insecurity and settled some old emotional scores with his father. “It was a dream I’d had for a long time, to win the most important race in the sport, and I proved to myself I could do it,” said Reid. “It was also about proving a lot of people wrong—girlfriends, my dad—who kept telling me to quit, right in the beginning.”
One person who came to have absolute faith in Reid was his new girlfriend, fellow Canadian triathlete Lori Bowden. If ever a couple proved the truism that opposites attract. . . . On the surface both were Ironman triathletes at the top of their sport. Magazines tagged them “the world’s fittest couple.” But at her core Bowden was an outgoing, sunny person who did triathlons for fun and loved to socialize. In many ways Bowden was as happy with her early amateur finishes a hundred or more places back in the pack as when she stood atop the podium at the greatest races on the planet. But Peter the Great was seriously ambitious, with an unwavering focus on success once he was locked into his preparations for Hawaii. The epitome of his serious race face came on the run at Kona in 1999. After Van Lierde had powered away in the early miles of the run, Reid came up on his friend DeBoom, and they ran together for a while. Running up the hill at Palani, DeBoom started making a few casual jokes, as if they were training on the Switzerland Trail back in Boulder. With a trace of exasperation, Reid told his friend to shut up.
“Tim, this is the Ironman!” said Reid.
“I never said another word after that,” said DeBoom. “I took it as a lesson that my focus wasn’t what it should have been.”
In 1999 Reid pulled a gluteus muscle that threw out his back a few weeks after setting the third-fastest time in Ironman history while winning Austria. Just as Van Lierde had been hampered by injury from giving his best performance at Kona the year before, this time around Reid had to surrender to the Belgian and finished 2nd. Revealing a deeply felt sense of sportsmanship, Reid lamented the injuries for both men and yearned for a day in which all the best men had their best race on the same day. “One day, if I were feeling as good as I did in Austria, it would be great to find out what a rivalry this could be,” said Reid. “I think I could make a move on the bike, and Luc would have to come back to me on the run, and I would be stronger there, too, so we would push each other like Mark and Dave did in ’89. Whoever won that one, it would be the best race.”
Sadly, that vision never came to pass, as Van Lierde ran into a string of injuries that never allowed the Belgian to unlock all his vast potential again. Reid also grew aware of his athletic mortality, the unpredictable inevitability of the day he would lose the gift he had been given and worked so hard to nurture. “Before this race I had a talk with Pauli Kiuru, who told me near the end of his career his training times just kept getting better and better, but his race times in Hawaii kept getting slower,” Reid said. “When my back went out, I went down to Santa Barbara to treat it, and it just didn’t get better. I decided to go home to Victoria and just trust in fate. But you never know if a training ride or a race or a season might be your last. So you take the joy as you can.”
During his disappointing finish in 1999, Reid took great joy in watching Bowden (by then his wife) as she achieved her breakthrough win and record-setting 2:59:16 run. As they passed one another on the Queen K Highway, Reid shouted, “Be strong! Be strong! Be strong!” at Bowden so loudly that she could only smile in return. Reid and Bowden had a finishing-order symmetry in Kona that was almost eerie. For three years they finished 1-2, 2-1, 1-2. As they exchanged finishing places for the first time that year in Hawaii, Reid vowed to step slightly aside at public appearances so that Bowden would be introduced as “the reigning Hawaiian Ironman champion” and he as “a former winner.”
By 2000 Reid was fully back on his game at Kona, but the constant effort over the previous five years presented him with a past-due bill at the finish. A few months earlier he had doubted if .lined him for much of the year, and he’d pulled out of Ironman California and Ironman Austria. Feeling he needed one Ironman finish to bolster his confidence for Kona, he scored a solid 8:29:49 win at Ironman Canada in late August. The result was good, but the timing set him up for a shorter-than-ideal taper for the one race that really counts.
After finishing a remarkable stretch in which he’d won two or three Ironman events a year for several years, Reid hit the burnout wall head-on at Kona after successfully holding off a furious charge by DeBoom in the final miles of the run. “That was the hardest race I ever did,” said Reid. “All the years of training caught up with me. And I was matched with someone who could push me over the edge. I was fading to the end of the marathon and started to fall apart. Plus I had just done Ironman Canada six weeks before. I was racing a guy who was fresh, and he was running me down. So I was really suffering the last few miles to get to the finish line.”
Reid said he had anticipated that moment. “It’s been a nightmare of mine to cross this finish line and pass out, and it almost happened,” said Reid. “I was hurting so bad those last 2 miles.”
In 2001 Reid was once again well positioned to win Ironman Hawaii. In 2nd place at the start of the marathon, he recalled, “I was starting to hurt and I was like, I can’t do this again. I can’t make myself hurt that much. So I just stopped.” As he clutched his leg with a grimace and halted near Lava Java on Ali’i Drive just three miles into the run, Reid showed the other side of the coin from the triumphant exultation of his wins in 1998 and 2000.
Five months later the slide accelerated. He dropped out of the 2002 Ironman Australia and said he was contemplating retiring. His doctor convinced him that there was something more serious than burnout at work. “My doctor kinda thought I had cancer because there was some weird stuff going on with my blood tests,” Reid said. “He told me, ‘Peter, triathlon doesn’t exist for you now. Trying to figure out what the hell’s wrong with you now is your number-one priority. You’re going to stop training, and we’re going to figure this out.’
“That,” said Reid, “really scared me.”
Forced to take some extended time off, Reid started simply hanging out and riding his motorcycle. Just a sliver away from premature retirement at 33, Reid ate his way to 188 pounds by July 1. Seven weeks after the doctor’s pronouncement, he started feeling better and began working out again. Not to race, he told himself, but to start dropping the 25 pounds he had packed on.
Buoyed by his progress, Reid got a clear mind and a healthy hematocrit. Tests revealed no cancer just in time for Reid to hone his body to a greyhound-thin 163 pounds and embark on a six-week training binge for Kona.
In many ways 2002 found Reid at his most magnificent.
The 2002 edition of Ironman Hawaii was a weird-weather day that began under soggy gray clouds that drizzled on the swim, then welcomed the cyclists with a torrential downpour that left the bravest of them wary and conservative in go-fast temperatures.
DeBoom, Reid, and the 2001 Ironman Hawaii runner-up, New Zealander Cameron Brown, had coolly ceded an 8-minute deficit on the bike to the year’s freshman sensation, Chris McCormack; French newcomer Francois Chabaud; and three old German überbiker pals, Jürgen Zäck, Normann Stadler, and Thomas Hellriegel. “When we saw them at the bike turnaround at Hawi, they were grimacing,” said Reid. “I said to myself, ‘They’re going way too hard, too early.’ I believed the race would come back to us.”
Sure enough, once on the run, DeBoom, Reid, and Brown started erasing that deficit with implacable momentum. First Zäck halted with antibiotic-induced diarrhea. Then Stadler started the Kona Shuffle, and 1997 Olympic distance world champion McCormack, the focus of intense debut hype, was felled by cramps after 10 miles.
DeBoom, Reid, and Brown started the run together in 7th, 8th, and 9th, befitting a trio who believed, as Reid did, “that this race is always won on the marathon.”
Reid made a move at mile 5, evoking a painful memory in DeBoom. “Peter put in a surge, and I was like, Aw, I’m not ready for this,” said DeBoom. “After the morning rain you could see the steam rising from the road on Ali’i Drive like a sauna, and the heat just hurt.”
“It was so humid, it was gross, disgusting,” said Reid.
“I tried to avoid what happened in 2000 [when Reid made an early push to stake out a 2-minute lead] and went with him,” said DeBoom. “Then I made a move, and I got a gap.” Still, the effort came at a high price.
Reid was aware of the irony. “I led Tim and Cam out of transition, and when they came up on me, the pace seemed really fast,” said Reid. “At first I thought, I’m really hurting. Then Tim was feeling really good and went. Basically it was Ironman 2000, only the roles were reversed.”
As DeBoom escaped Reid’s gravitational pull, Reid licked his chops. “It was payback time,” said Reid. “I was going to make him hurt like he’d made me hurt toward the end of the run.”
By 1 p.m. the two premier runners in the field had whittled away all the stubborn cyclists, and DeBoom had wrested the lead from Hellriegel, the 1997 champion, at mile 14 of the marathon, just before entering the cauldron of Natural Energy Lab Road.
As Reid pulled into the Energy Lab turnaround at mile 17, DeBoom got his first look at Reid in 13 miles. “He was smiling, and I thought, Uh-oh!” said DeBoom. DeBoom’s hard-fought 2-minute margin had shrunk to 1:50 entering the Lab, then 1:30 at the turnaround, and 1:15 with 10 km to go.
But Reid lost his drive at the Energy Lab and crossed the line 3:10 behind his old friend. Unlike the relentlessly perfectionist Reid of a year before, whose body had broken down before his relentless will, Reid was smiling and easy on himself. “After what I went through, I’m so proud of myself for getting to the line,” he said. “Once you quit, it can get to be a habit. Today I felt the joy I felt in ’98, the joy I felt when I got into the sport.”
The next year, 2003, Reid had forgettable results at Wildflower, Utah, and Ironman Germany. At the same time, his five-year marriage to Lori Bowden started to unravel. “We had an amazing marriage for four years and then we just kind of fell apart,” Reid told Inside Triathlon. Things got rocky in 2002, but they reconciled. In 2003, said Reid, “It just wasn’t clicking anymore. We wanted different things. I used to get tunnel vision for the Hawaii Ironman.
Lori just got fed up with it, and she had a right to be. She is a people person, and I’m a bit of a loner.”
At Allen’s suggestion, Reid went to Kona to make peace with the island, rented a cabin 6,000 feet up Mauna Kea, and went into Kona daily to work out. He grew mentally strong, but there was one more moment of doubt. The day before the race, things looked bleak. He was flat on his back in his room, shades drawn, wracked with the flu. “I spent the day in bed and trusted my immune system would rebound. But on Saturday I found myself throwing up on the bike.”
When Reid, DeBoom, and Cameron Brown got off the bike, they stood 8th, 9th, and 10th. Then, just as they had started the run in 2002, they surged, passing Thomas Hellriegel, Cam Widoff, Jürgen Zäck, Chris McCormack, Luke Bell, and Faris Al-Sultan. When Reid came up on Rutger Beke, the Belgian looked at his watch. “I had just run a 6:04 mile, and he went by me as if I wasn’t there,” Beke recalled.
DeBoom and Reid eyed one another, and then the Canadian pulled away. “I was worried that I had thrown up so much on the bike,” said Reid. “But it totally paid off on the run. My stomach was perfect in the marathon.”
By mile 9 Reid was a minute up on DeBoom, who gathered himself for another assault on the Canadian. But by mile 12 DeBoom had dropped 2:45 behind Reid; an unfortunate attack of kidney stones felt like a knife in the gut. DeBoom pulled out. Reid said he was worried when he heard DeBoom had quit but honestly felt relieved that his nemesis was no longer stalking him.
Still, he had broken that tie with DeBoom and Van Lierde at two Hawaii wins apiece. Now Reid joined Dave Scott and Mark Allen as the only men to win Ironman Hawaii more than twice.
Ironically, this was the first time that Reid and Bowden won Hawaii on the same day. Two days after the race, they split up for good.
In 2004 Peter Reid’s father, Ted, died. “My dad was proud of me at the end,” said Reid. “Finally my father and I grew a little closer.
He wrote me this letter a few years ago and did say how proud he was and how wrong he had been. Which affected my racing a little bit. I had always been trying to prove him wrong. All of a sudden, I get this note about how proud he was. I think I lost a little fire then. My dad never came to any of my Ironman races. But when he passed away, it was a lot better between us.”
In the 2004 championship, Normann Stadler destroyed the old paradigm in which Ironman Hawaii was always won on the run. On a nasty, windy day, the latest in a line of German überbikers blasted out to a bike that was 23 minutes 40 seconds faster than Reid’s. After Reid countered with a race-best 2:46:10 run, he was still 11 minutes behind Stadler. He finished 2nd, a bit less than 2 minutes ahead of third-place Faris Al-Sultan.
The next year would prove just as tough. In May 2005 Reid was hit with an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infection, a superbug that left him “feeling like death with migraine headaches and cold sweats,” bedridden, and unable to train for seven weeks. Reid’s agent wasn’t worried; he’d seen it happen many times before. “Peter is a human backhoe,” said Murphy Reinschreiber. “He digs himself into the deepest holes and climbs out.”
“No one today knows how to arrive at the starting line in Kona more ready to win than Peter,” said retired 1994 Ironman champion and IronmanLive.com commentator Greg Welch.
There seem to be two types of Ironman competitors. Some see the race as a simple scientific equation in which heat, wind, and humidity must be overcome. Others see the spiritual side of the island as a crucial component. “I definitely saw . . . the spiritual value of the island,” said Reid. “It definitely became a part of my race. I am not as spiritual as Mark Allen. I have gone to two shamanism seminars with Mark. I enjoyed going to them, but I am not totally into it. I think I understand it, and I enjoy being around shamans, and through that I understood that Hawaii is more than just the distance.”
Reid thought the feeling was important. “For sure, to win that race more than once, you have to understand it,” he said. “I think you can win Hawaii once without reflecting on its profound nature. But if you just go through the motions there, I don’t think you can win it again without really getting it.”
Reid was holding second place late in the run when Cameron Brown of New Zealand came up on him just 2 miles from the finish. For Reid, this was a moment of another kind of truth. “I was in 2nd place most of the marathon,” said Reid. “When it was time to attack, I just didn’t do it. When I was passed by Cam with less than a mile to go, it did not bug me a whole lot. When I crossed the finish line, I thought This is not the way I race Ironman Hawaii!”
That way, said Reid, was “attack, attack, attack!”
“Right then, I started to realize the end was pretty close,” said Reid. “For me, it was not just doing the Hawaiian Ironman. It was about having the ultimate performance. And I took that commitment very seriously.”
The intoxication of athletic fame almost always leaves even the brightest stars staying too long at the fair. Leading this long, sad parade are Muhammad Ali, Willie Mays, and Michael Jordan. The list of great athletes who quit at their absolute peak is extremely brief. Football star Jim Brown retired as the greatest running back ever at age 29. Heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano retired undefeated after 49 fights. Mark Allen quit at age 37, not long after his sixth straight Ironman Hawaii victory.
And on May 20, 2006, three-time Ironman world champion Peter Reid, a week short of his thirty-seventh birthday and two years shy of his own career projections, joined the rare, happy few.
“My goal last year was to race Hawaii in 2006 and finish my career with Ironman Canada in 2007,” he said. “But as I started to train that year, I definitely noticed the drive was just not there anymore. I was just going through the motions.”
When he saw this missing aggression, Reid tried to adapt. “I took it very easy over the winter,” he said. “I hoped to win Hawaii one more time. But I had trouble getting out the door. I had trouble doing workouts.”
Reid said the decision was final. “I never thought of myself as extremely talented,” he said. “I worked very, very hard and never had any issue with doing the hard work. I thought they all have more talent, but I can work harder than the others with talent. But all of a sudden I lost that work ethic and drive. Without it I felt I could not truly compete. I decided not to go to Hawaii and just go through the motions.”
When he retired, Reid took on the things that he had put on hold. His first desire was to go to Kona and work as an aid-station volunteer at the Natural Energy Lab. He moved from civilized Victoria to a more rugged outpost for winter sports in Squamish, British Columbia. He took up stage-race road cycling and planned to take on the Western States 100 trail race. And, recalling the triathlon experience in 1989 that had led him away from a half-formed plan to attend flight school after graduation from college, Reid took up an offer from a friend to become a working bush pilot in the Yukon.
Even though many observers saw that Reid looked fitter than ever and hoped he would get the itch that Dave Scott scratched when he turned 40, Reid instead followed Mark Allen’s example and dispelled all rumors that he would take another crack at Kona in 2009. He was retired from the sport and at peace with his decision.
Thank you for reading this chapter from the book 17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Mueller with Timothy Carlson. From the moment the starting gun is fired on Kona’s sandy beach at the Ironman® World Championship, triathletes have 17 hours to cross the finish line. It’s a feat marking the ultimate achievement in the sport. 17 Hours to Glory is one of only a few books to commemorate this dramatic quest. Seventeen compelling chapters tell stories that allow readers to experience the competition first hand, revealing tremendous athleticism, unbelievable capacity for suffering, and true strength of character.