It is like being labeled the world's most scrupulous personal-injury lawyer: The very title seems to be at odds with itself. Yet Darryl Haley, the world's largest triathlete, is proud of his distinction.
Why would a man who had spent almost eight years in the NFL, a man whose athletic credentials and toughness are beyond question, subject himself to these three-pronged ordeals—and to being whipped by the whippet-sized athletes who dominate the sport of triathlon? First of all, the 6'5", 300-pound former offensive tackle isn't competing against anyone else. "My race is inside myself," says Haley. Second, there is a part of Haley that is sustained, he says, by every so often "looking into that dark place you don't want to look into."
At 9:45 a.m., on Aug. 18, that dark place was the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay. Squeezed into an impossibly large wet suit, Haley had just begun the first leg of the 24 Hour Fitness Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon: a choppy, chilly 1.5-mile swim from "the Rock" to San Francisco's Aquatic Park. This bracing dip would be followed by a one-mile transition run (to help competitors warm up), then an 18-mile bike leg through the Presidio and an eight-mile coastal run that would take triathletes through the nude section of Baker Beach. ("Definitely a highlight," Haley would say of a lovely natural brunette sunbathing at the five-mile mark.)
The start of a triathlon swim leg is typically as tidy and organized as a salmon run: People swim over one another, goggles are kicked off, buckets of water are swallowed. The world's largest triathlete, however, tends to be spared these indignities. As he began stroking toward Aquatic Park, his fellow triathletes gave him a wide berth. They had their reasons. "If you kick me," says Haley, "I might feel it, I might not. If I kick you, your race is over."
His race was over a cool 2� hours after Mike Pigg's. To win his fourth Escape From Alcatraz, Pigg finished in 2:10:21. Sue Latshaw, who coped with the sand on Baker Beach by imagining she was running in snowshoes (she hails from Boulder, Colo.), was the first woman across the line, in 2:23:03. Haley—smiling, high-fiving spectators and grooving to the beat of I'm a Big Dog, played in his honor by a local band called the Beer Dawgs—plodded home in 4:42:45.
Fast? No. Remarkable? Yes. A useful comparison: Greg Welch and Mark Allen, who won the 1994 and '95 Ironman triathlons, respectively, weigh a combined 289 pounds—11 pounds shy of the world's largest triathlete. "This guy is defying physics just to get around the course," says pro triathlete Eric Harr, who tips the scales at 170 pounds.
While Haley's times are pedestrian, the argument can be made that he is a better triathlete than Allen would be an offensive tackle. Whereas Haley finished last October's Ironman in Hawaii—a 2.4-mile ocean swim followed by a 112-mile bike ride capped by a marathon—it is extremely unlikely that the 6-foot, 157-pound Allen could finish a kick-out block on, say, Bruce Smith.
Of course, by the end of Haley's career—he played four seasons with the New England Patriots, one with the Cleveland Browns and one with the Green Bay Packers—he was having trouble with that kick-out block. In 1989 he retired from football and founded Club 100, a fitness company based in Mitchellville, Md., that implements wellness programs for individuals and corporations around the country. But the sports Haley took up in retirement, racquetball and golf, left him with an adrenaline deficit.
Friends talked him into trying a duathalon: a 15-mile bike ride book-ended by 1,5-mile runs. "A half mile into the first run, I was ready to pass out," Haley says. "I finished, but I was hurting real bad. I didn't like that and I thought, I've found out what's going to fill my void."
He quickly became bored with duathalons. After catching the 1993 Ironman on TV, he decided triathlons were more his cup of tea. But could he swim? "If you had a pool party," he says, "I could make it from one end to the other. But that was about it."