For nearly three years, Bruce Berger has carried with him a standard white index card, nearly mangled to death. Written in black ink it states, “I will qualify for Kona in 2012.” It used to say 2011, but Berger had to take a black marker to the date, the product of two failed tries, persistence and resolve. There’s a hole roughly the diameter of a pencil at the top. The card has been folded into submission and bears several noticeable stains.
To Berger, that ugly, battered index card is beautiful.
Kona is a reference to the Kona District of the Big Island of Hawaii, site of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship. On Oct. 13, 2012, Berger will be one of roughly 1,800 participants in one of the most grueling, elite competitions in the world. He owes a lot of it to that index card.
A star middle distance runner for VCU in the mid-90s, Berger, 40, earned All-America honors at the 1996 NCAA Track & Field Championships. After college, he says he managed to stay in decent shape, but didn’t race much. There was the occasional 5K or marathon, but just enough to satisfy his competitive twinge.
Three years ago, bearing down on his late 30s, Berger decided to strike back against the clock. After years of running 5K races at sub-15-minute pace, the thought of running in the 16-minute range and just winning an age group wasn’t enough anymore. He didn’t want to measure himself against other 30-somethings. He compared his results to the younger version of himself. So, Berger, along with friends and former VCU teammates Duncan Sheils and Alan Pietruszkiewicz, decided to begin training for triathlons.
“As you get older, you lose the ability to race at a certain level,” Berger explains. “Mentally, I still have a desire to compete and challenge myself. We thought it would be good to try a different sport where speed wasn’t as big of an issue.”
He embraced the challenge.
“It was really fun to reinvent myself in this sport,” he said. “I don’t have a history that I’m fighting in this. Everything is new and the standards that I’m creating are new. I’m realizing a lot of really good results without the context of having to compete against myself from when I was 25.”
After some initial success, Berger turned his attention to the Ironman World Championship. Comprised of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a full 26.2-mile marathon, it is a brutal test of endurance and will. Even for the best triathletes on Earth, it takes more than eight hours to complete.
Resolute, Berger assembled a training plan with Kona in mind. He also sought motivation in a book he’d read, “Write it Down, Make it Happen,” by Henriette Anne Klauser. The book operates under the simple, but underutilized premise that establishing goals and writing them down improves the likelihood of achieving them. It’s the idea that when your goal stares back at you from time to time, it holds you accountable.
It wouldn’t be easy. A married father of two boys, Henry, 7, and Wilson, 4, Berger is a sales manager at MedImmune, LLC, a biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md. Between work and family, Berger admits it was difficult to squeeze in those five-hour bike rides on Saturdays or the double training sessions on Thursdays. If Berger had to travel for work, he would often strap his bike to his car and train in whatever outpost he found himself.
“I’ve probably stripped through all of my marital capital,” Berger says, only half joking.
Despite his commitment to Kona, Berger failed to qualify twice in 2011. Typically, only 2-3 entrants in each age group at a qualifying race will earn a bid. The rest are left to wonder what happened. For Berger, it was primarily his swimming. Already an outstanding runner, his skills translated naturally to the bike. But swimming was a different animal. Highly technical, swimming punishes wasted motion. Berger’s lack of experience in the water was sinking his dream.
“Three years ago, I couldn’t swim three lengths without grabbing the wall,” Berger says.
But like a tiny Tony Robbins on his shoulder, that index card in his pocket helped nudge him in the right direction. Berger trained hard in the pool this winter, which included a swimming class called, “Finding Freestyle”.
His work paid off. On June 10, Berger returned to the Eagleman Half Ironman in Cambridge, Md., where he had finished seventh in his age group a year earlier. This time, he would be successful. Berger cut 10 minutes off of his time in the 1.2-mile swim alone and finished 15-minutes ahead of his overall pace from 2011 in 4:12.48. That earned him third in his age group and a coveted trip to Kona.
“I was just so thrilled that I’m going to Kona and I’m going to be able to put my feet in the sand,” he said. “All the morning workouts, the disruption to my family…all those things that were sacrifices weren’t all for naught. Had it not happened I might have had to put it down for a while. I can’t sustain this balancing act and be a good father and husband.”
Sheils, who, by the way, will run the Boston Marathon with Berger and Pietruszkiewicz in April, tried to put his friend’s accomplishment in perspective.
“There were 17 guys that are considered pros in that race, and Bruce would’ve gotten 11th among those guys. You have to be at pro level to qualify for Kona at the half [ironman],” Sheils said. “It’s really noteworthy that the fact that he’s doing it with two kids, a wife and a full-time job. He’s getting up at 4 a.m. to do two-and-a-half-hour bike rides.”
Berger says he hopes to finish Kona in the nine hour and 30-minute range. When he does, his wife of nine years, Lucy, will be waiting for him. So too will his ticket to Kona, that weathered index card.
“I plan to bring it to Hawaii and let it serve as a reminder of all the hard work that was required to get there,” Berger said. “I do hope to share the value of chasing big things and the merits of writing them down with my sons one day. I think the index card will have more value in that capacity.”