By Todd Travis
2.4-mile swim – 112-mile bike ride – 26.22-mile run
These are the distances covered by Iron Man triathletes during a single race. It takes another level of mental and physical fortitude to be able to complete a race of this magnitude. If you ask Avon resident Bill Jankowski, he’ll tell you how it’s not only worth it to compete, but that it has enriched his life both physically and mentally.
At 6’5″ and 230 pounds, Bill will admit that he is not the ideal size for an Iron Man athlete, but that hasn’t stopped him from competing and succeeding at a high level. His build does fit the bill for his other passion, basketball. His size led him to begin playing basketball at an early age, but his heart for competition drew him into the Iron Man sport a little later on. At 64 years old, he has now successfully completed 14 Iron Man races, including his most recent world qualifying race in Kona, Hawaii, which his son was able to qualify for as well.
Growing up in Illinois, Jankowski took to basketball early, playing first at a large high school where he had to fight to make the team. A move further south brought him to a smaller high school where he ended up being the tallest player on his team. His love for the sport continued into his adult life as he played for a team at Lincoln Tech, a trade school he attended, and regularly joined recreational leagues until his knees couldn’t really withstand all the punishment that basketball brings.
His involvement in Iron Man competitions began in his 20’s with a moment that planted a seed in his mind and eventually inspired him to go the distance with these races.
“I remember seeing one of the first Iron Man’s that was on television where an athlete, Julie Moss, essentially crawled to the finish line. I think everyone around who saw that was just in awe. Of course, there were probably people too who thought it was just ridiculous and nuts, but it did intrigue me. Although at that time, I didn’t think I could ever do a feat like that- I would easily land on the moon before I did something like that,” Jankowski recalled.
After that iconic moment, Jankowski didn’t turn around and run an Iron Man the next day, but he did begin running and eventually signed up for his first race. The race was a 7.6 mile trail run- a far cry away from the distances of an Iron Man, but it was a start.
“After that first run, I was hooked. I signed up for a running club immediately and I started running year round. A nice benefit of running was that it helped my conditioning for basketball as well,” Jankowski mentioned.
As time went on, that seed that was planted by watching Julie Moss’s Iron Man finish continued to grow in Jankowski’s mind. After his running began to get stronger, he added bike riding to his training, and eventually signed up for a triathlon, even though he really had no experience swimming at that point. Overcoming that hurdle, the next step for Jankowski was trying a couple half Iron Man races, thinking he would have to wait until retirement before he had time to train for the full race.
Jankowski’s competitive grit led him to enter into his first Iron Man long before his retirement. After watching a race, he realized that he was probably already at the level he needed to be in order to compete in the full event. In 2007 he ran his first Iron Man race in Louisville and amazingly hit all his target goals almost dead on. He said he’s never had a race go that perfectly since then!
That first race was certainly a huge milestone for him, but so was his most recent race in Kona, Hawaii. To race in Kona, you need to qualify and be invited to join. The race was an unforgettable experience for Jankowski- not only did he enjoy the event itself, but he was enamored by the beauty of the island and the open water surrounding it. He was also proud to have his son Mitch, who has followed in his footsteps, qualify for this race as well.
The benefits that Jankowski has received through his active lifestyle are many.
“Running itself was huge. I would sometimes start my runs half-asleep since I always ran early mornings. I always felt that I could get my mind in a good space while I was running so the mental benefits have been wonderful. I also feel that it’s kept me in great physical shape over the years as well. One bonus perk is being able to eat just about all I want and still stay pretty fit, and I like to eat,” Jankowski laughed.
This year would have been Jankowski’s 15th Iron Man, but he had to defer it a year due to a death in the family. He plans to race at least one more Iron Man and possibly more depending on how his body can hold up. A lesson we can learn from Jankowski’s story: don’t underestimate yourself and follow the inspiration that strikes you, even if you think you’d sooner land on the moon.