For Hines Ward, it all started with a milk mustache. The two-time Super Bowl champion and “Dancing with the Stars” winner took on the greatest challenge of his life Saturday — the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. The journey began when he joined the Got Chocolate Milk Become One team last year to prepare to race an Ironman, an athletic feat that encompasses a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.
Ward agreed without really having any idea what he was getting into.
He’d never run more than a mile at a time, wasn’t much of a swimmer and fell over the first time he tried to clip into the pedals on his new Trek racing bike. But that didn’t deter him. With coaching from eight-time Ironman champ Paula Newby-Fraser, he persevered, ultimately joining some 2,000 other athletes on the starting line on the Big Island of Hawaii.
“I’m excited and overwhelmed,” he said before the race. “These are the fittest people in the world. This is just me being naïve. I didn’t know what being an endurance athlete was. It was just my quest to push myself.”
Ward got his first taste of the sport in June when he competed in Ironman Kansas 70.3, a half-Ironman distance. He completed it in 5:53, under his goal time of six hours.
“Now it’s about doubling that,” he said. “I think I can get to the halfway point, but after that I’m entering new territory. But I like a challenge and I’ve been working my tail off since February.”
He felt ready after the months of training and advice from Newby-Fraser and the other professional athletes on the Refuel: Got Chocolate Milk team. “I know when to dial it back and I know when to push it,” he said. “I know I can’t get caught up with the time. In football, it’s all about time, but here it’s about pacing yourself. It’s not about me racing [other people,] but finding a way to stay with them.”
Ward also didn’t duck the criticism he has received from other triathletes resentful of him for getting a spot in the sport’s ultimate race. Athletes must qualify to earn the right to race in Hawaii by coming out on top at other qualifying races or being a 12-time Ironman veteran.
“The critics are saying I didn’t qualify so I don’t belong here,” Ward said. “But I’m not taking a spot from anybody else. And to my critics, I say, ‘Don’t hate me, I’m living the dream.’ Don’t knock me, they came to me and I wasn’t going to turn down the opportunity of a lifetime.”
During his preparation for the race, Ward lost close to 40 pounds and transformed his body. “I’m in the best shape of my life. I feel good and have so much energy.”
Although much smaller than his playing weight, Ward is still an anomaly in triathlon. “I look tiny now next to most football players, but most of the people here are so lean.”
And the training has been humbling. “I was running in a race in Tampa and a 72-year-old woman flew by me. I was crushed. I almost blew a gasket. But Paula told me, ‘Check your ego at the door.’”
He joked that triathlon is much harder than “Dancing with the Stars.” “I have no partner to lean on and nobody can call in and vote me to the next round.”
Turning more serious, what scared him the most going into the race was not crossing the finish line. “My biggest fear is failure. That’s what motivates me.”
Apparently that was enough, Ward crossed the finish line in 13:08:15.