8 Champaign officers stay fit the Ironman way

CHAMPAIGN — Adding up the distance that eight Champaign police officers have covered in Ironman triathlons alone comes to 2,249.6 miles.

That's 16 completed competitions that, put together, would reach from the police department on University Avenue to just beyond Vancouver, British Columbia.

And those are just their Ironman miles. They don't include the countless 5K's, 10K's, half-marathons, marathons and mini-triathlons over the years.

So what motivates someone to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run 26.2 miles, all in 17 hours or under?

"It was a weak moment in the Wal-Mart parking lot," said Dave Griffet, laughing. "I told them I didn't know how to swim."

Griffet, 45, was one of five officers who competed Nov. 5 in the Ironman Triathlon in Panama City, Fla. It was his first. Griffet is a sergeant on patrol who will soon be moving into investigations.

Joining him in Florida for their first-ever Ironman competitions were Dale Rawdin, 50, and Nate Rath, 36, both detectives. Also competing were Jim Rein, 47, and Dennis Baltzell, 41, both sergeants who were doing their second Ironman each. Rein is also a detective, and Baltzell is in patrol.

Rooting them on were Robb Morris, 44; Mark Strzesak, 53; and Joe Gallo, 43, all detectives. While they didn't compete in this month's event, they have all been to Panama City before.

Gallo, the supervising lieutenant in investigations, has four Ironman competitions to his credit. Strzesak has three and Morris one.

"When I saw a nun do it at 75 or 76 — she did Kona — I thought, 'I want to do one for my 50th,' which I was 13 days shy of," said Strzesak, who is the oldest of the over-achieving Team Iron Cop members, a name they gave themselves a few years ago. And he started a serious fitness routine 10 years ago.

Their reasons for competing vary.

"It's not about racing others. You're racing yourself," said Gallo, who has been a runner since high school.

"It's a good way to maintain a high level of fitness and challenge yourself all the time," said Rein, who joked that he's still waiting for the endorphin rush that's supposed to make training all worth it.

"My dad had his first heart attack at 47. I started running and just watched these guys and drank the Kool-Aid," said Rawdin.

Morris, a lifelong runner, also saw his father have two heart attacks at 46 and had an uncle die at 46 due to poor lifestyle choices.

"As I got older, going from competitive athletics, I thought there's another thing to be concerned about that's more important," Morris said of his health. He also has two teenage sons.

"I just wanted to be able to eat whatever I want," cracked Strzesak, a grandfather of two.

If any of them are concerned about middle-age spread, it doesn't show — the fat, that is.

Since they have to commit to an Ironman race a year in advance, that means they have to train daily. And with a $630 entry fee, the cost of getting to the race locale, the price of running shoes, lightweight bicycles, swim gear, overnight accommodations and food, it's not physically or fiscally prudent to roll over and go back to sleep.

"If you're not training for something, it's easier to avoid or neglect workouts. When you know you have to do a full Ironman, there's fear in that," Gallo said.

"They gave us a program that said the average age is 37, and the average income is $140,000," Rawdin said. "We brought that average down."

But it's how they choose to spend their discretionary income.

"It's no different than a guy buying a bass boat or skiing. It just happens to be a hobby with a healthy lifestyle attached to it," Rawdin said.

The officers followed the same basic 30-week training program as outlined in Don Fink's book for Ironman competitors called "Be Iron Fit."

Baltzell said while the Ironman preparation may sound like torture, he prefers it to marathon training.

"The training (for a marathon) is too monotonous. With this, you don't get as bored. It keeps you healthier when you're swimming, running and biking," he said.

"The bicycling complements your runs and takes the strain off the legs," Rawdin added.

None of the eight were particularly good swimmers when they decided to take on the Ironman. They hooked up with a few other law enforcement officers in town and took swimming lessons. They're grateful to Charlie and Dorothy Zahnd, who let them swim in their pond in Bondville.

Griffet laughed at his own naivete about the swimming portion of the competition. He thought he heard one of his more experienced colleagues advise him to swim in whatever garb he planned to wear for the biking segment.

"I'm wearing a bike shirt and trunks. It's my first attempt at swimming without a wet suit and a life preserver. The pockets on the back of the shirt are filling with water, and I'm struggling," he said, able to laugh now at the memory.

While running alone isn't so bad, they all agree that support is critical on the long bike rides.

"To ride for five hours on a Saturday by yourself is miserable. It's hard to do without company. In any type of training ... some type of support is critical."

Having co-workers in the next cubicle who are going through the same regimen is "definitely a plus," Strzesak said. "To be able to go out with younger guys, I know I'm not going to be able to keep up with them, but that's what keeps me motivated."

The common bond of fitness also translates to a happier detective section.

"You're a happier person because you're not internalizing the day-to-day stuff that you go through either personally or professionally," Morris said. "The workouts help burn a lot of the stress off."

"It is a bit contagious," said Gallo, who is regarded by co-workers as a calm, reasonable, controlled supervisor. "We don't need to eat our own."

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gftst wrote on November 26, 2011 at 11:11 am

Glad to see an article about CPD written in a positive way for once....

areader wrote on November 26, 2011 at 6:11 pm

Interesting article . . . congrats to these gentlemen for all their hard work and determination!  Best wishes to all of you!  You're great role models!