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"Go as hard as you possibly can for two minutes! Go! Go! Go!"
The spin-class instructor hollers instructions to the two dozen sweating bodies hunched over stationary bikes in a darkened room in the Flatiron Athletic Club. The darkness helps the industrial-strength floor fans keep the space slightly below sweltering, and also helps those working out to focus on their own internal drive, their bodies, their pain. As the instructor sprints around the room, moving from bike to bike and twisting the resistance levers tighter, a Bon Jovi power anthem booms from the sound system: I'm goin' dooown, in a blaze of glory!
Off to the side, a woman watches. At 51, she looks fit enough to participate, and she maintains a lifetime membership to the club — but she hasn't come here in over a year. The vibe is just too overwhelming these days, too extreme. After all, the Flatiron Athletic Club is the ever-pulsing heart of the ultra-athlete scene in Boulder, a town that churns out more Ironman and Olympic superstars than nearly anywhere else. Out back right now, swimmers are jammed six, seven, eight to a lane, like bumper-to-bumper cars on a New York City freeway, so that they can have their strokes picked apart by six-time Ironman champion Dave Scott, one of the most celebrated triathlon coaches in the world.
During a lull, the woman speaks up. "What are you here for?" she asks. But what she really wants to know is this: What is the lure of such pain and exertion? Why are ever more people flocking to ultra-athletics, with 1.2 million Americans participating in at least one triathlon in 2009? Why have some of these people become so obsessed that they're willing to risk their lives for it? So far this year, at least nine people have died in triathlons, including one in the Fort Collins triathlon in May.
"To get fit!" responds one student. "I like to get my ass kicked," says another.
"It saved my life," says a gray-haired man. Last spring, a bout of pneumococcal pneumonia sent him into a month-long coma. If he hadn't been so fit because of this spinning class, doctors told him, he might never have recovered.
"You should try it," one suggests.
At that, the spin instructor laughs. "You don't know who this is?" she asks her class. Among a handful, there's a glimmer of recognition.
"Are you Diane Israel?" a student asks. The Diane Israel who was one of the original pro triathletes, the Diane Israel who helped launch Boulder's tri-craze? Even at this gym, where it wouldn't be unusual to spot such Olympic hot shots as Matt Reed and Greg Bennett, or Ironman winners like Craig Alexander, Diane Israel's name turns heads.
Diane just smiles. To gear up for this visit to the gym, she got dressed as though she was going for a job interview. And she's been anxiously biting her nails as she's watched the cyclists pump away, since the scene brings up memories she'd rather not recall.
As Jon Bon Jovi sings, she doesn't tell the class that she, too, went down in a blaze of glory — and in many ways is still trying to find her way back.
Diane Israel's tanned, lean body is a patchwork of scars, marks of half a life devoted to pushing that body to extremes. Her knees are marbled from the impact of pounding the pavement for thousands upon thousands of miles. "My head is a little fucked up from all the concussions," she notes in her typically salty language. And her right arm is banged up where her elbow used to be, thanks to a tumble she took in a 400-mile bike race back in 1984. She had tried to keep going after the fall, but an orthopedic surgeon riding by noticed the bloody bone sticking out of her arm and demanded that she go to the hospital.
And then there are her feet, dried and cracked and misshapen, displaying a sort of damage that Diane hasn't seen except maybe on the beat-up soles of the Peruvian Indians with whom she once ran the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. She doesn't know what, exactly, caused the destruction — maybe a combination of bad genes, fungus gone haywire and endless hours in sweaty shoes. Not too long ago, she went to a doctor who uses lasers to treat foot problems. He looked at her gnarled toes and said there was nothing he could do.
The scar that started it all is a jagged half moon below her left wrist. As a young girl, she was fighting with her younger brother, Robert, when she accidentally put her fist through a window. When Diane was growing up in the affluent suburb of Scarsdale, New York, savage fights with her siblings were common; sometimes scissors were involved. One of the reasons was that Diane was jealous of Robert's natural speed. Their father, an ambitious, self-made man, hammered home just how important athleticism was when he first started taking eight-year-old Diane and six-year-old Rob to the local track and timing them with his stopwatch.