When David Zadareky was urged by a potential girlfriend to compete in the Ironman challenge, he accepted without fully understanding the undertaking. What followed — nearly dying in the waters off Dewey Beach, crashing his bike in the mountains and pushing himself to the limit in Austria — proved his perseverance, but he qualified for the competition, and finally married the woman of his dreams.
It's the stuff movies are made of, but Zadareky got a lot more out of Ironman than he thought. Being in the Ironman competition "makes you believe anything is possible," he said.
The race combines a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile running competition, all in succession. Zadareky, a native of Springfield, didn't even know how to swim at first, but went through the training nonetheless. At the time, he was out of shape and falling in love.
"After college, I couldn't run to the mailbox and back," Zadareky said. "I'm in the wild and crazy category."
His girlfriend at the time, Sherri, was involved in triathlons, where she met people and stayed in shape. She felt David could benefit from it as well, and she could get to know him better. She could tell he agreed to compete "to woo me," she said.
Now the two are married and also a workout pair, spending time together while they train.
Zadareky got a boost in confidence and self-esteem from the whole experience, not to mention shedding 35 pounds and developing a healthier lifestyle. "It's a burning desire to test yourself," he said.
A turning point in his life occurred on a bike, 28 miles away from the finish line at Lake Placid, N.Y. after a fellow Ironman competitor went down, causing Zadareky to crash and damaging his bike. After the fellow racer was picked up by the emergency crew, he carried his bike to the nearest rest station, sat down, bloodied and beaten, and felt sorry for himself. The rest stop just happened to be run by a local trucking family who supported the race for years, and turned the rest station into a party with barbecue, beer and music.
One of the family members came over, sat next to Zadareky and put an arm around him, and went on to explain the meaning of the race — reminiscent of Ma Joad's famous speech in "The Grapes of Wrath."
"A sense of calm came over me," Zadareky said. "My attitude changed." He grabbed the pieces of his bike and headed off in the rain for the finish line, four hours late.
After traveling 8 hours from her home in Baltimore to see the competition, Sherri waited at the finish line. His reaction after the wreck was an important factor for her as well. Instead of complaining and whining, he couldn't wait to do it again.
"You could see his character from that," said Sherri Zadareky. She is a registered dietitian that grew up in Baltimore and relocated to the Northern Virginia a few years ago. Although she is currently employed in pharmaceutical sales, her dietitian training comes in handy on the Ironman circuit. She makes sure they both eat more carbohydrates and nutrients while they are training.
David Zadareky recommends the Ironman competition for anyone. "You will be changed, not from the race, but from everything you had to do to prepare for the race," he said.
Zadareky, a 1988 graduate of Lee High School, owes it all to Charlie Thompson, his basketball coach, who "made me believe in proper preparation." Thompson's influence stayed with Zadareky through the years.
THE IRONMAN competition dates back to Feb. 18, 1978 when a group of Navy Seals pondered the question: who were the fittest athletes in the world? Their commander, John Collins, combined all three activities in a contest. Today it's a world wide competition at 18 locations involving 22,000 athletes.
Locally, the Zadarekys are part of the TriCATS, a group of triathalon veterans, some of whom compete in Ironman competitions as well. A majority of the 240 TriCAT members are from Northern Virginia, according to Chas Ryan, TriCAT president, and only a certain percentage of them compete in the Ironman competition. "Competing in the Ironman is a big deal, it's a kind of a rite of passage," said Ryan.
Now both the Zadarekys enter Ironman competitions as time allows. Both competed in an Ironman race in Austria last year. Over 100,000 were watching the all-day race in Austria, and the scene at the finish line around midnight was "so emotionally powerful to be there at the midnight hour," Zadareky said. With all the cheering as he crossed the finish line, "you feel like you're at the Super Bowl."
The couple's feat in Austria was recognized among fellow TriCATS. "It was quite an adventure they did," Ryan said.
Now the Zadarekys are training for an upcoming Ironman competition in Arizona, where the money pledged to support them will go to the Habitat for Humanity program.