When Dale Tweedy entered his first triathlon 20 years ago, he dropped out in the first leg after swimming just 100 yards. Fatigued, he headed to the nearest shoreline and disqualified himself from the race.
He would never quit again. The Lake Norman shopping center developer went on to finish his next 70 triathlons.
“Now when I think about 500 yards, it's like my warm-up,” he said. His regular weekly workout these days consists of swimming 8,000 yards, biking 175 miles and running 25 miles.
In October, the former Army paratrooper faces the world's most prestigious endurance test: the Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii. Tweedy, 45, has been selected to compete in the race, which includes a 2.4-mile swim in the Pacific Ocean, a 112-mile bike ride over black lava fields and a 26.2-mile run on the same path. What makes the Ironman so tough are conditions that often include 90-degree heat and 60-mph wind gusts.
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Tweedy applied for the Ironman in 2007 after he'd been doing triathlons for about seven years. In races alone, he's biked the equivalent of riding from Charlotte to Denver, Colo., running from Charlotte to Daytona Beach, Fla., and swimming from Charlotte to Mooresville and back. That's not counting his training, which would be far more.
Still, he wasn't picked for the Ironman on his first try. Selections for the 200 amateur racers are based on a lottery system, so luck is essential.
When Tweedy was chosen this year, the successful businessman immediately turned to the serious business of preparing himself for the grueling test.
Training like an Ironman
On a weekday afternoon in midsummer, Tweedy has the pool to himself. It's lunchtime at the Birkdale Fitness Center in Huntersville, the perfect opportunity for him to work in the hourlong swim he does a few times a week. He glides through the water like a pro, and demonstrates the components of the American crawl he has worked so hard to hone.
He keeps his head down (for greater buoyancy), his feet are close together with his toes pointed, and his elbows cut in and out of the water at a perfect angle.
Tweedy has struggled most with the swim part of triathlons. He remembers feeling intimidated by the aggressive crowd at his first races. “I've had kicks, punches, goggles broken at the start of swimming,” he said.
At one race in Salisbury, he recalls the moment organizers announced they were trimming the swim to 300 meters from 700 meters. “Everyone started cheering,” he said. “Everyone is scared of the open-water swim.”
Tweedy quickly learned some survival tricks in the water. He finds the toes of someone in front him who is a little bit faster, and focuses on those the whole time. That person “breaks the waves” for him, propelling him along, which he figures saves about 30 percent of his energy. He also learned that in the lake and ocean you lift your head up every seven or eight strokes to spot the next buoy.
He also monitors who's ahead of him in the run, to stay competitive. The age of competitors is written on their calves, so he watches them to make sure people his own age or older don't get ahead. “In races, the only thing I'm thinking about is who's in front of me, and who's behind me,” he said.
Tweedy became serious about competing in triathlons in 1990, two years after he dropped out of his first race. He needed a focus for his gym workouts, he says, and triathlons' demanding structure appealed to him. “It gives you an excuse to get out of bed in the morning,” he said.
These days, Tweedy rises at 5:30 a.m. to run or bike, usually for a couple of hours.
On the weekends, he intensifies his workout: On Saturday, he'll ride 50 miles on his bike, doubling the distance on Sunday. When he gets back home, he'll jump into Lake Norman. His home fronts on the water.
Sometimes he goes for a group bike ride, but often he trains alone. The solitude can be tough, but it's hard for him to find partners for his intense workouts. To pass the time in the water, he listens to a waterproof MP3 player – Jane's Addiction and Nine Inch Nails keep him going.
But on the road, he mostly goes it alone – until his 10-year old son Tanner joins him for his cool-downs.
Winning streak in the family
Tanner has been doing kids' triathlons since he was 6. He didn't know what a triathlon was until his dad signed him up for one. Tanner has won every race he's been in. His mom, Jill, says both he and his brother Chase have been blessed with their father's graceful running stride. She had recognized Tweedy's gazelle-like gait when they started dating at Appalachian State University.
She also got to know Tweedy's competitive nature. Tweedy wouldn't let her win at tennis during their courtship. Marriage didn't change that. “Even if we are playing Ping-Pong, he has to win,” she said, smiling. “He has more drive than about 10 people.”
Tweedy also has stamina. At one race, he crashed on his bike when his clip-on shoe came off, sending him forward. He barely flinched, Jill recalls. “He didn't miss a beat. You could see his hip was torn up,” she said.
Jill says their kids are learning discipline and commitment from their dad's dedication to triathlons. The Tweedy home could be a movie set for the American dream: The three-car garage has several bikes, from speed bikes to mountain bikes; life vests for the family's water expeditions, and a shiny black Mercedes.
Competitive and disciplined
Tweedy is a founding partner of the commercial real estate company Centdev, which specializes in building shopping centers. The people at work describe him as competitive and self-confident; his qualification for the Ironman came as little surprise to them. Because of Tweedy, two colleagues now compete in triathlons.
But they say Tweedy talks very little about the upcoming race at the office – he is entirely focused on his job, which currently includes managing the construction of several shopping centers throughout the Southeast.
Tweedy says he learned discipline as a paratrooper for four years in the Army, where he served in Central America. But it also runs in the family: His father is a retired policeman and his grandparents met in the Navy. Relatives fought in the Civil War and are buried in the cemetery that is part of the property of Tweedy's parents' Virginia home, where the Tweedy family settled 250 years ago.
Hanging on the wall is a jersey autographed by Lance Armstrong, his hero. In another corner of the room is Tweedy's acceptance letter from the Ironman, along with an official Ironman cap.
“I'm not wearing it until I've earned it,” he said.
And after that?
“There's nothing better than a big old thing of fries and a big hamburger.”