by Lt. Cmdr. Don Cross

Lt. Cmdr. Don Cross, Strategic Weapons Officer, Commander, Submarine Squadron 20 (CSS-20), was the first submarine Sailor to officially represent the Submarine Force in the world-famous Ford Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. This year’s Iron Man, held Oct. 10, included six sponsored Navy Athletes from various Navy communities, including a SEAL, Civil Engineering Officer, Meteorologist, Naval Flight Officer, Surface Warfare Officer, and Lt. Cmdr. Cross — our Submariner! The Iron Man Triathlon consists of a 2.4 mile ocean swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26.2 mile marathon run over volcanic rock-covered terrain in tropical island heat.

I am Lieutenant Commander Don Cross, and I competed alongside 1,800 of the world’s top athletes, crossing the finish line on Alii drive after 12 hours and 54 minutes of continuous racing in extreme heat and high winds during the 31st Ford Ironman World Championship.

As I crossed the finish line, I held the Navy flag high over my head and felt an intense amount of pride and honor in representing the Navy and Submarine Force in which I serve. I travelled to Kona to represent the Navy and demonstrate that a submariner can train and overcome challenges to achieve significant goals, and I completed the mission successfully.

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Lt. Cmdr. Don Cross, a submarine officer from Merritt Island, Fla., carries the Navy flag across the finish line of the 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Blachly

My training and preparation were key factors in allowing me to complete the competition without ever hitting the wall or feeling like quitting. I enjoy testing my limits, and I trained hard — approximately 18 to 20 hours a week — for Iron Man in Kona. It’s a huge challenge, and not just physically. By the end, around mile 23, your legs are done, and you want to slow down. Your body is just shutting down, and it’s a challenge to get nutrition into your body. Then it becomes about determination and the mental ability to keep moving. You have to improvise and adapt to overcome challenges in the field. You may get kicked in the face, or get a flat tire, or your goggles may leak, but you just have to continue on the best you can.

I finished the open-ocean swim in one hour and 13 minutes and transitioned quickly to the 112-mile bicycle race. The swim went very well for me. Other than getting a punch in the eye and a kick to the throat that almost knocked my teeth out, I felt great during the swim and enjoyed watching the sun rise.

The most challenging part of the triathlon was the bike portion. I wanted to push harder on the bike, but the headwinds during the climb up to Hawi really tapped my energy level and prevented me from pushing my heart rate above zone. Then, at mile 80, the crosswind shifted into another headwind and made for a mentally tough push for the final 32 miles. The hills — mountains to a Floridian — and winds were the toughest I’ve ever biked.

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(Top Left) Map indicating the course of the 2.4-mile swim that is the first leg of the Ford Ironman World Championship.

(Top Right) Map indicating the course of the 112-mile bike that is the second leg of the 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship.

(Bottom Left) Map indicating the course of the 26.2-mile run that is the third leg of the 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship.

Maps by matkindesign.com, courtesy of Ford Ironman World Championship

I had a good marathon run, conquering the lava fields at the energy lab in four and a half hours. I trained in Southern Georgia heat, so although the lava fields were scorching, I felt comfortable during the run. I kept up my hydration and nutrition regime, and that training discipline kept me from getting sick during the marathon. The last eight miles are usually the toughest for me, with mental and physical fatigue setting in, but my family, friends and shipmates kept me motivated during those critical miles.

At various mile markers throughout the race, I would experience people who motivated me in many different ways to keep running. To see a double amputee biking with mechanical legs, to run alongside an Army Ranger, to see the USS Paul Hamilton (DDG-60) Sailors in uniform, and to know that my own contingent of supporters was following me through all 140.6 miles of the race, cheering me on, motivated me right up to the finish.

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Lt. Cmdr. Cross rides in the 112-mile bike race, the second stage of the 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship. Photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher Blachly

Despite the rough ocean swim, the windy bike, and the long, hot run, I never thought about quitting. Kona is the toughest triathlon in the world, and there is no guarantee of finishing. The challenge of finishing in the face of unknown course conditions was what fueled my desire to compete in a triathlon of this magnitude.

It was a truly humbling experience to compete in a field of the world’s top tri-athletes; yet at the same time I was extremely proud to stand there in uniform and represent the finest Navy in the world. Even though you train and prepare, you just don’t know if you’ll be able to dig deep enough to overcome the challenges at Kona and push past mental and physical limits to cross the finish line. This is what separates this race from other triathlons: the challenge.

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Lt. Cmdr. Cross trains for the 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship. U.S. Navy photo

I have two teenage boys, and my training and participation in Iron Man took time away from them. I think that’s one of the reasons I was chosen to compete. I juggle so many things at once: father, full time graduate student, Navy career and my training schedule. Each day is a challenge to ensure that I meet all of my responsibilities and obligations and still allow time to train for the Ironman. During the days prior to the race, I was still attending college class on line and tracking my boys’ progress during their local swim meet.

Now that I’m back from Hawaii, I’ve had time to reflect upon the triathlon and the lessons I’ve learned. I learned what my limits are and that I could push past them to achieve a new, much higher goal. More importantly, I learned that this triathlon is truly a team sport, and I couldn’t have completed it without the unfailing support of the family, friends and shipmates who have enriched my life. Next for me is the Walt Disney Marathon in January, and I’m now training to run a personal record in that race.

There was a lot of extra pressure for this competition in Hawaii. Before Kona, completing a triathlon was just me out there for fun, but this time people were counting on me to represent them. This was my chance to go to Kona, to compete in the Iron Man, and to represent the Navy and the Submarine Force — it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me!

Lt. Cmdr. Don Cross finished 207th in his age division at the 2009 Ford Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.