Saturday, June 04, 2016

Water, Water Everywhere

"That's the first time I ever saw a guy carry on kayak blades," I said. I was sitting on a plane waiting to take off when Phil stashed the pair of 2-foot long appendages over my head. He laughed. "They're actually oars for rowing," he explained. What about the pole part? I asked him. He told me he sawed them off, and tried to get them into his luggage, eventually just keeping a piece. As we settled into our seats, I asked the obvious question: Why? Turned out Phil had used them in a race. To row a boat. Across the Atlantic. As in ocean.

There are extreme sports and athletes, and then there are guys like Phil Theodore. In real life he has a business background. His firm, Ironhawk Advisory, is a strategic consulting firm that specializes in undervalued, distressed and turnaround situations. But he got the bug a long time ago, and his work allows him the flexibility to pursue his somewhat unusual hobby: beating his body into the ground.

Tall and fit, he's done marathons and Iron Man triathlons ("a dozen or so"), but those have gotten too popular and crowded. So he started in with ultrasports. He's done the North Face 50 Mile Trail Run, the Bandera 100K Trail Run and the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Trail Run. And he's done the Winter Spartan Death Race and the Summer Spartan Death Race. Twice. Those last two are events where the organizers say "Races have lasted over 70 hours. We provide no support. We don't tell you when it starts. We don't tell you when it ends. We don't tell you what it will entail. We want you to fail and encourage you to quit at any time." Fun, huh?

Of course, he tried the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix France, a footrace in the Alps where you run-walk for up to 40 hours straight (he made it through 26 hours). Sitting in a pub after with his buddies a guy came up to them. "So you think you guys are tough, huh?" he said. Phil said, "I was like, oh man, I don't want to fight this guy and wind up in a French jail." Turned out his tone was not confrontational, but rather informative. He told them about the Atlantic Challenge, a race to row from the Canary Islands to the West Indies, a distance of almost 3000 miles. Right up Phil's alley.

When he got home, while lying in bed one night with his wife, he punched up the web site for the event, and was hooked. He mentioned it to her as trial balloon. Her response? She took off her glasses and looked at him: "You do that, we're getting divorced." He'd heard that before, but at least knew where he was starting from. He reached out to his buddy Daley Ervin who agreed to be his partner. And with that, Phil wired $1000 as a down payment towards the $35,000 fee. A few days later, he came home to find his wife holding a thick envelope with the name of the race on it. "What the hell is this?" she demanded. But to Phil, it was like Christmas had come early.

They knew they would need money and sponsors. After all, the boat alone was $125,000, and they needed certifications and training. But as Phil conceded, ultrasports are very selfish. A lot goes into them, and the focus is on the individual. So he and Daley set up a foundation to broaden their reach. With nutrition and health being such an integral part of their world, they decided to focus on that: raising money for local food banks, and using their adventure as a jumping off point to teach kids about healthy eating. And so Team Beyond was born.

For two years they trained and raised money, visited schools and worked out the details. Finally, it was time. This past December, they flew to the starting point in the Canary Islands. There, from the harbor in San Sebastián de la Gomera, 26 teams of singles, pairs and fours would push off on December 20, 2015. Their goal was Nelson's Dockyard English Harbor in Antigua, on a journey that would be defined by two things: what the human body and psyche can endure, and what 3000 miles of ocean could throw at them.

Next week: the crossing.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves to meet people. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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