Dispatch: Chris Legh’s Final Kona Kick

After a career of ups and downs, Australia's Chris Legh will compete at the Ironman World Championship for the final time on Oct. 12.

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After a career of ups and downs, Australia’s Chris Legh will compete at the Ironman World Championship for the final time on Oct. 12.

In October 1996, Australia’s 23-year-old up and coming star Chris Legh may have been the youngest pro athlete to compete in the men’s field at the Ironman World Championships, his debut on the big island. On Oct. 12, now age 40, he’ll have the honor of being the oldest. This year’s event will serve as Legh’s final official appearance racing pro—and while his career has spanned more than two decades and boasts six Australian National Championship titles, two Ironman victories, more than 40 half-iron distance wins and two top 10 finishes in Kona, it’s a race he didn’t finish that serves as Legh’s legacy of true grit.

Legh and his high-school-sweetheart wife Sarah have been invested in the sport of triathlon nearly as long as they’ve been a couple. In fact, they’ll celebrate the 22nd anniversary of their first date on Oc. 16. They married four years later at the Melbourne Zoo—somehow a fitting start to the wild ride of a life they would create together, eventually joined by two cherished and cheeky little monkey-like daughters, Jamieson and Camryn. The young couple journeyed to the U.S. in 1996 in order for Legh to train and race, while Sarah worked as a nanny for Mark Allen and Julie Moss’ son Mats (now 21). They quickly made a home away from home in the States, and nowadays they split their time between Melbourne, Australia and Boulder, Colo., where they often play host to visiting athletes, repaying the generosity that was bestowed on them early in Legh’s career.

While Legh hails from a well-to-do Melbourne family, he certainly hasn’t received a silver spoon—a hard work ethic was instilled in him from an early age. His first experience with finance went something like this: When Legh was a teen, his family purchased several cows. He, too, wanted in on the investment, so he saved and saved and finally forked over the $100 fee for a single cow to his parents. But something went awry—one of the cows died, and the Leghs decided to resell the remaining herd. Young Chris asked for a refund, to which his father replied, “No way. It was your cow that died!”

Legh developed his business acumen along with his triathlon talent, leading to a number of long lasting sponsor relationships (Gatorade, Bolle, Profile, Newton and Louis Garneau to name a few) despite missing several seasons due to illness and injury. He earned a reputation amongst his peers as one of the hardest training pros on the circuit, a competitor who just wouldn’t quit. Yet even when sidelined from racing, Legh has never been one to sit idle. Once when recovering from surgery, he and Sarah chose to lay low in Europe to avoid the media spotlight. They were invited to use an old castle as accommodation, and it was there—amid the three-foot thick castle walls and ancient kitchen—that Legh became a self-taught gourmet cook. (Insider tip: Never decline a dinner invite from Chris Legh.) In the build-up to a big race you won’t find Legh clocking much couch time, either. During his “taper” for the 2013 Ironman Melbourne, Legh forewent putting his feet up and instead built a deck, crafted a fence made of 150-pound railway ties and dug 60 holes in which to plant trees at his family’s beach cottage.

With Legh’s steadfast drive, he seemed destined to reach the top of the pro ranks. And in 1997, during his second appearance in Kona, he was 50 yards from the finish and a secure fifth place—when he began to sway, vomit, collapse and crawl, and was ultimately carried off the course on a stretcher, having reached a life-threatening level of dehydration. The incident was captured on camera and later shown to the world via a now-famous Gatorade commercial (promoting the Gatorade Sports Science Institute and the study of proper sports nutrition). But the full extent of Legh’s suffering can be seen in the uncut video–an absolutely agonizing look at an athlete who has literally pushed himself to the brink of death. Legh received emergency surgery to remove nearly a third of his large intestine—a condition commonly known as “dead gut” wherein a portion of the organ fails due to lack of oxygen and blood flow.

Legh’s return to the sport was daunting, to say the least. “My first race back was the 1998 Australian Long Course Championships,” said Legh. “I remember clearly standing with my feet in the water thinking: I don’t know if I’m going to be able to finish this. I knew at that point my career could go one way or the other.” Fate was in his favor, however, and he went on to win by a wide margin. Next up was the race that Legh will forever remember as his favorite competitive experience—Ironman Australia, where he finished second to Peter Reid in a sprint finish just six months after his Hawaii meltdown. The pair battled side-by-side in silence for more than eight hours. “We split up at one point on the bike,” recalled Legh. “I got stung by a bee and got a penalty for taking my helmet off to get the stinger out of my head. Pete attacked and I had to chase back on. Then at the start of the run he gained about 100 meters on me, but I popped back up and from that point on it was cat and mouse the whole way. Our footsteps were the same, our breathing was the same—I think we were 14 minutes or so ahead of third place, so it became a bit of a game for us.” Although initially frustrated at missing the win in the final sprint, Legh was overwhelmed with appreciation for the fact that his career was intact, and that he was on par with the soon-to-be world champion (Reid went on to win Hawaii later that year).

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Legh’s competitive success continued and he racked up an enviable collection of victories and podium placings—until a second health disaster struck. This time it was a congenital heart defect, undetectable in his early years but aggravated by the strain of iron-distance racing. The condition, known as a patent foramen ovale (PFO), causes an overflow of fluid in the lungs, or pulmonary edema. In layperson’s terms this meant that around the five-hour mark of an Ironman, Legh would feel congestion in his lungs, begin coughing up blood and be forced to stop. By 2006 he could not ignore his body’s rebellion against the sustained effort—it seemed his second chance at a long-course career was over.

Fortunately for Legh, though, the half iron-distance was growing in popularity. He was able to race the shorter distance without incident, thus he shifted his focus to the Ironman 70.3. But his desire to race longer never died, and over time, after learning more about his condition and how to better listen to his body, Legh felt confident in attempting an Ironman comeback in his final pro season. If the heart/lung trouble started, he knew he would have to slow down or stop­—but it wouldn’t necessarily happen in every instance, and when controlled it would not be life-threatening. In March 2013 Legh toed the line in his hometown at Ironman Melbourne—and despite the concern of those close to him, executed an awesome and ailment-free race, finishing fifth. In June he lined up at Ironman Coeur D’Alene (a race he won in 2004); this time he felt his lungs begin to fill during the bike leg. He cruised the rest of the ride and the majority of the run until his lungs cleared, then picked up the pace to finish 11th. The result was enough to top off Legh’s KPR points and earn him a start in Kona.

But the build to the 2013 Ironman World Championship and Legh’s full-circle final career kick has been far from smooth. In September, the Legh family was forced to evacuate their home in Lyons, Colo. in the aftermath of the Boulder area flood. And Legh has struggled with ongoing injuries–back and hip pain that has plagued him over the past few years and that reinforces his readiness to step back from professional racing. I chatted with him over the phone last Sunday as he churned out a seven-mile walk on Ali’i Drive in Kona. That’s right, a walk—because he was in too much pain to run.

“I’ve done all the work,” said Legh, “But unfortunately every step I’ve taken with my intervals and long run stuff has hurt. I gave it a rest and today I went to run and got three steps in when I realized it wasn’t a good day to start running again! But I know I’ve got the work in, and I’ve still got two weeks to get things right. It’s not the ideal preparation, but I’m here for different reasons this time. I would love to go out with a great result, but it’s out of my control, so I’m just going to do the best I can.”

“Emotionally I love being here,” he continued. “In years gone by it’s been a bit of a roller coaster in terms of how much I’ve enjoyed it. It’s funny this year watching the top guys train and seeing the pressure they’re under—it’s not an enjoyable place to be for them. So I’m just enjoying everything about being here. I plan to race hard, obviously, but there’s no pressure and it does take that negativity off the race.”

And what of his wife’s thoughts on Legh’s ninth and final go in Kona? “His past health-related disasters are certainly forefront in my mind,” said Sarah, who is trained as a nurse. “But I know that he’s definitely wiser these days, so he won’t push through anything or be silly. And I’m super excited for him, because I know how excited and happy he is to be back here racing. He’s determined to get to the finish line with a huge smile on his face, so he’s OK with whatever happens out there—even if that means walking the marathon, in which case I’ll probably walk it with him! It’s been an incredible 20+ years, of which I would change absolutely nothing—both the highs and the lows.”

Whatever happens in Hawaii, it will doubtfully be the last time Legh steps up to a start line. “I’m sure I’ll be like most athletes that retire—wanting to keep racing and keep being active,” said Legh. “But after Kona I’ll no longer call this my profession.” He does hope to continue competing on the Xterra off-road circuit, and whatever other interesting race opportunities arise, but he’ll also enjoy some time traveling throughout the U.S. and Europe with his family—and for the first time in ages, without a bike. “In this sport you’re fortunate to travel the world, but you never really get to see it,” said Legh. “I know I’ll have to find a real job at some point, but Sarah and I want to enjoy what we have while we can, so we’ll probably take the year off to travel.”

But before Legh’s next adventure begins, he has 140.6 miles to swim, ride and run on Oct. 12. And although he’s had some setbacks, he’s still my wild card pick for the podium. When the pressure’s off and the passion’s on, that’s when those perfect days tend to happen—and I know that whatever “perfect” means now for Legh, I’m not alone in hoping he finds it this year in the lava fields.

More “Dispatch” columns from Holly Bennett.

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