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Having finished the Vegas half-marathon at a leisurely pace—let's just say Nikki Reed beat me handily and leave it at that—Babbitt and I were back at the hotel bar replacing some fluids and turning surprisingly few heads for a couple of guys in Elvis garb. Babbitt's 2002 induction into the Ironman Hall of Fame was more for his triathlon evangelism than for his performance in the 1980 Ironman, which was nonetheless memorable.
He and Overend had bought bikes at a police auction. "Mine had been in a house fire," Babbitt remembers, "so it was a little charred." It had solid rubber tires, a raccoon seat cover and panniers, in which Babbitt intended to store camping gear. (He'd been under the mistaken impression that the Ironman was a two-day event.) The Pacific was churned by storms, so race organizers moved the swim to Oahu's protected Ala Moana Channel, which was only four feet deep in certain places—a godsend for John Huckaby, a weak swimmer who walked most of that 2.4-mile leg and remains, as Babbitt says, "the only guy in the history of the race to get blisters on his feet during the swim."
To allay boredom on the bike leg, Babbitt taped a radio to the handlebars. Lunch was a Big Mac, large fries and a Coke, followed by a snow cone. Babbitt also availed himself of the Hawaiian sweet bread stuffed into his jersey pockets. At a medical tent during the marathon, he was weighed; athletes who lost too large a percentage of their body weight were pulled from the race. After Babbitt stepped off the scale, one volunteer said, "Wait a minute, this guy's gained four pounds."
Babbitt finished without fanfare. After he stepped over a chalk line in Kapiolani Park in the dark, a solitary official asked him, "Are you in the race?" Babbitt said yes and was told simply, "You're done."
In fact he was just starting. Three years later he quit his job as a preschool-to-eighth-grade P.E. teacher and went into publishing. No one, arguably, has done more to grow the sport of triathlon. The first issue of Competitor came out in 1987. You can hear Babbitt's voice clearly in his writing: He's passionate about the sport but also able to poke fun at it, acknowledging the general silliness of "grown men running through neighborhoods in Speedos."
Babbitt chronicled the rise of a triathlon prodigy from Texas named Lance Armstrong. Babbitt was a cofounder of the REI Muddy Buddy series and the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which has raised more than $40 million for specialized prosthethics and wheelchairs for people with physical disabilities. He serves as emcee and director of Muddy Buddy events while dressed in a green frog outfit. He was in the frog getup at a Chicago event eight or so years ago when he remarked to a mother-daughter team, "Hey, ladies, once you go green, you never go back."
Babbitt is the Zelig and Bill Veeck of endurance sports, beloved by thousands, so it was no surprise to see him exchanging affectionate greetings with Kendall Webb last Aug. 26. Both men were competing in the Surf Town Triathlon and Duathlon in Imperial Beach, Calif. Webb, a remarkably fit 80-year-old, finished first in his age group in the duathlon, took a few steps past the line, collapsed and died.
"Not a bad exit strategy, if you think about it," Babbitt said at the hotel bar in Vegas, gazing into his second pint with his pompadour pitched precariously forward, like a rodent contemplating a leap into the cocktail mix. "You won your age group, you're smiling, sweaty, happy, high-fiving people as you cross the line, then boom!"
We raised a glass to Kendall Webb and agreed that if his was the fate awaiting us, well, then, we were O.K. with that.