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Guy Adami Wall Street Warrior Takes on the Ironman Triathlon

Guy Adami has experienced the thrill of trading millions of dollars in precious metals in a matter of seconds on Wall Street in the 1990s, and analyzing the financial crisis each afternoon as a panelist on the live CNBC program “Fast Money.”

Guy Adami
CNBC
Guy Adami

But he says none of those experiences compare with the rush he felt on a sun-dappled Sunday morning in late May in Red Bank, N.J., when he crossed the finish line of his first triathlon. It was at a so-called sprint distance — a half-mile swim, followed by a 13-mile bike ride and then a 3.2-mile run — which Mr. Adami, 48, completed in just under two hours, finishing 116th in a field of 160.

Just signing up for that race was no small accomplishment for Mr. Adami, who, not six months earlier, had been leading the sedentary existence of a trader and carrying a flabby 235 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. But as a volunteer placed a medal around his neck, Mr. Adami had little time to celebrate. A far more daunting challenge loomed: on Aug. 11, he will join nearly 3,000 other weekend warriors as they seek to endure, and complete, the first Ironman-distance triathlon to be staged in the New York metropolitan region.

To put the magnitude of that 140.6-mile race in perspective, consider this. It will begin at 7 a.m. with a 2.4-mile swim in the Hudson River — the open-water equivalent of about 170 lengths in a 25-yard swimming pool, or nearly five times the distance Mr. Adami completed in that New Jersey sprint.

Those participants who manage to complete that swim in 2 hours 20 minutes or less will move on to the bicycle portion — 112 miles in two loops along the deceptively hilly Palisades Interstate Parkway, or the rough equivalent of pedaling from Manhattan to Hartford.

Riders who finish the bike ride before 5:30 p.m. — or 10 ½ hours after their odyssey begins — will embark on a 26.2-mile marathon, which will begin in Palisades Interstate Park on the New Jersey side of the Hudson and continue for several loops before concluding with a brisk run (or perhaps a staggering walk, which the rules permit) across the George Washington Bridge and into Riverside Park on the West Side of Manhattan.

Participants will have until midnight — 17 hours after their journey begins — to cross the finish line, or face disqualification. If they manage to prevail, they will hear Mike Reilly, the Vin Scully of the Ironman world, who has called more than 100 such races around the world, announce their name and hometown, followed by four precious words: “YOU are an Ironman!” (Women hear the same thing.)

“People say it’s one of the best moments of your life,” Mr. Adami said, “and I’m hoping to experience it.”

Full-distance Ironman races — all modeled on the original Ironman race in Hawaii, in which 15 men competed in 1978 — have become a franchise of sorts over the past two decades.

More than 140,000 people will compete in an Ironman-branded race this year, including international competitions and races known as “Ironman 70.3,” at half the full distance. The number of participants has nearly doubled in the past six years, according to the Ironman organization, the World Triathlon Corporation, which was bought from its previous owner, a Florida eye doctor, in 2008 by Providence Equity Partners, a firm that manages more than $20 billion. (The purchase price was not disclosed.)

The New York-area race, officially known as the Ironman U.S. Championship, will be one of 11 such races in the United States this year. The competition’s debut in the nation’s biggest media market is akin to a musical’s opening on Broadway after carefully honing its act on the road. The American cities that Ironman typically plays each year include much smaller sites, like Lake Placid, N.Y.; Tempe, Ariz.; Louisville, Ky.; Panama City, Fla., and St. George, Utah.

Little wonder, then, that when it was announced, all 3,000 spots sold out in less than 10 minutes, more than a year before the starter’s cannon would sound. Each entrant paid a fee of at least $895, nonrefundable.

Why would a seemingly reasonable man like Mr. Adami want to spend the better part of six months training, and then as many as 17 continuous hours swimming, biking and running, all in a race so grueling that it has killed at least five participants in the past decade?

While no two people race for precisely the same reasons, Mr. Adami shares many of the characteristics of his fellow would-be Ironmen, nearly half of whom are women.

He is, for example, squarely in the age spectrum for a midlife crisis — or, at the least, a midlife challenge. Most men and women who embark on an Ironman for the first time are in their 30s or 40s. Like many would-be Ironmen, Mr. Adami once considered himself an athlete — in the mid-1970s, he played tight end and wide receiver on a state high school championship football team in Croton, N.Y. — only to watch his level of physical fitness recede and the waistband on his suit pants steadily tighten.

A veteran of Wall Street, he is also fiercely competitive. “Our industry attracts people that are always looking for challenges, and who always embrace risk,” said Mr. Adami, whose off-camera job is as a managing director of Option Monster, an electronic brokerage firm. “So much of being a trader is learning to deal with a level of suffering. Positions don’t always go the right away. You have to endure a different kind of pain.”

He is also, admittedly, a little crazy, an armchair diagnosis that almost any Ironman aspirant who is being honest will acknowledge.

“The most interesting people I’ve ever met are people who society would deem a wee bit off,” he said. “I’m sure I get lumped into that category.”

"EVERY STEP OF THE WAY WAS A CHALLENGE."

While some people have dreamed for years of doing an Ironman, Mr. Adami said he had never given the race much thought. For him, the seed was planted when John Korff, the founder of the New York-New Jersey Ironman, appeared last summer on “Fast Money” to talk about the August race and the excitement it was generating among those working on Wall Street.

Mr. Korff, an ultradistance runner who has raced up the 86 flights of the Empire State Building in less than 13 minutes and who founded the New York City Triathlon — an Olympic-distance race — in 2001, said he had been closely tracking Ironman’s explosion in popularity. (The Olympic distance is about one-quarter of an Ironman’s.)

He said it took him seven years to persuade the Ironman organization to bring its race to a city as big — and as complicated and expensive — as New York. He then had to wrangle the consent of a crazy-quilt of municipalities and agencies along the race’s route, which is one reason it is being staged on a Saturday in August, when car traffic, if not the air temperature, is at a minimum.

“My own Ironman has been seven years,” said Mr. Korff, who has never tried a triathlon at the 140.6-mile Ironman distance. “Every step of the way was a challenge. Every challenge had subchallenges.”

Because of the costs involved, the entry fee here was nearly double that in any other American race. Not surprisingly, Mr. Korff estimates, perhaps one of every three of the participants in the coming race work on Wall Street or in related businesses.

Two days after Mr. Korff was on his program, Mr. Adami attended a meeting of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of New Jersey, whose board he had joined several months earlier at the request of a friend, John Hyland, the managing partner of a financial services firm in Morristown.

Mr. Adami knew that Mr. Hyland had done eight Ironman races since 2000, the most recent in Hawaii in 2008. Not long after that race, Mr. Hyland was given a diagnosis of a rare form of leukemia. He has been in remission for two years.

As Mr. Adami sat in his board meeting, Mr. Hyland at the table, he asked for the floor.

“For what it’s worth, I just met the guys putting together the Ironman in New York City,” he said. “I bet they would furnish us with a few slots for Team in Training.” Team in Training is the arm of the national Leukemia and Lymphoma Society that has raised over $1.2 billion for cancer research, specifically through endurance events.

At many Ironman races, as many as 10 percent of the entry slots are set aside for participants who are raising money for charity. They pay a higher entry fee, which at Ironman NY/NJ was $1,500.

Ironman triathletes raised over $50 million for charity through a matching gift program from 2000 to 2010. But that figure accounts for only the roughly 2 percent of participants who registered their efforts officially. Many others have done so quietly, often on behalf of a friend or family member with an illness.

At Mr. Adami’s request, Mr. Korff awarded the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of New Jersey 10 slots.

Mr. Adami made clear that he had no intention of doing the race himself, especially since his exercise at the time consisted mostly of walking from his parking space to the front door of the CNBC studios in Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

“I was not doing any cardio work whatsoever,” he said. “The gym? At best periodically. My wife works. I work. We have three kids we chase around.”

But then the leukemia society began to prod Mr. Adami not just to assemble a team, but also to compete himself. The sweetener? Mr. Hyland said that he would set forth a training plan for Mr. Adami, and race alongside him, his first Ironman since his cancer diagnosis. Also on their team: a highly decorated member of the Navy SEALs, a professional lacrosse player and the president of a commercial vacuuming service.

By early fall, the group’s roster was set, as was its fund-raising target: $500,000 for blood-cancer research.

Now all Mr. Adami had to do was to get in Ironman shape.

"LEFT, RIGHT, REPEAT"

The path to every Ironman begins with an initial stroke, pedal or stride, each then laid atop the other many thousands of times. “Left, right, repeat,” as Bryan Reece, a financial services manager and three-time Ironman finisher from Dallas, likes to say.

And so it was that in early 2012, Mr. Adami began training in earnest. He started modestly, alternately swimming, biking or running on consecutive days, following a regimen fed to him by Mr. Hyland in daily phone calls and e-mails.

At least at the outset, that might entail a simple 15-minute jog on a treadmill or a 45-minute indoor ride on a road bicycle he had borrowed from Mr. Hyland, its frame immobilized in a stationary trainer. Mr. Adami would move the gears up and down, to simulate hills and flats.

While the cycling and running came relatively naturally to Mr. Adami, the swimming most certainly did not. For that training, he hired a coach, who helped him work on his endurance and his form in sessions several times a week in the pool at Drew University.

“I needed to get longer, if that makes sense, to slow it down and take fewer strokes,” he said.

“So much of the swim comes down to being able to relax in the water,” he added. “I don’t have panic attacks — but I am anxious.”

By mid-May, Mr. Adami was swimming 72 lengths comfortably — about a mile — in a little over an hour. A month later, he had shaved at least 15 minutes off that time. At that pace, he would probably meet the Ironman cutoff of 2 hours 20 minutes on the 2.4-mile swim.

But an endurance swim in the Hudson River is far more perilous than leisurely laps in a university pool, where Mr. Adami is unlikely to be inadvertently punched, kicked or pushed under by the arms and legs that will be swirling around him at New York-New Jersey Ironman.

He has made similarly steady progress on the bike, which he has been riding in and around Morristown for nearly 50 miles on Sunday mornings, at an Ironman-worthy 16 miles an hour. At that rate, he would cover the 112-mile Ironman bike ride in seven hours, though he will be allowed as many as eight or more hours, depending on when he finishes the swim.

Several times a week, Mr. Adami has been running as many as 12 miles at a stretch, at a pace of about nine minutes a mile. Even allowing for the substantial amount of walking he plans to do on the Ironman marathon, he would seem to be in striking distance of finishing it, considering that he will have at least 6 ½ hours for the marathon, allowing him an average pace of about 15 minutes each mile.

“It’s a daily process,” said Mr. Hyland, 45. “He is thinking of it every day, Aug. 11, and what he has to do today.”

Led by Mr. Hyland and Mr. Adami, the Iron team is also closing in on its fund-raising goal. By June 20, its members had collectively raised more than $332,000 in donations, according to its Web site, Iron-team.com, including almost $65,000 at a cocktail party in Morristown in early June where Mr. Adami was the master of ceremonies.

Mr. Adami, meanwhile, has watched his waistline shrink to a 32 from a 38 over the past few months as his weight has dropped from 235 to 197, about what it was in high school.

“I am having trouble keeping my suit pants on,” he confessed.

But Mr. Adami has still covered only about half the Ironman distance in a single pool session. He also has to build up his distance on the bike, to rides of about 100 miles by the end of July. He faces similar challenges increasing his run to the roughly 20 miles called for in Mr. Hyland’s training plan, 6 miles shy of a marathon.

Every would-be Ironman knows to expect the unexpected in the weeks leading up to a race, usually in the form of a torn ligament or a blown tire on a training ride that might result in a scrape across the pavement. It is not unusual for as many as 20 percent of those who signed up for a competition to miss race day, whether as a result of injury or a middle-of-the-night realization of the magnitude of the task at hand.

Mr. Adami had his big scare on June 13, when he suddenly experienced excruciating back pain, which required a nighttime trip to the emergency room. The cause was kidney stones, which threatened to interrupt his training at a moment when he could little afford it.

By June 21, Mr. Adami was soldiering through the occasional stabs of pain, unwilling to veer from his steadily escalating training. He said that his doctors were unsure whether his exercise regimen had helped cause his condition, but that a failure to drink enough fluids might have contributed.

And yet, as he has been from the outset of his Ironman pursuit, Mr. Adami was undaunted.

“I have the utmost respect for this race, but I expect to finish,” he said. “I’m not going to not finish.”

And then, momentarily setting aside the rat-a-tat bravado familiar to his viewers on CNBC, he allowed: “But I am terrified.”

Jacques Steinberg is the author of “You Are an Ironman: How Six Weekend Warriors Chased Their Dream of Finishing the World’s Toughest Triathlon.”

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