When your wife greets you at the back door after work with, “Honey, guess what we’re going to do?,” the immediate reaction before something even more ominous comes out of her mouth is, “Darn, I left my phone in the car" and you pivot lickety-split back out the door.
But Steve Mendel stayed, and braced himself for what Kathi Mendel had to offer.
“We’re going to do a half-marathon,” she said.
Yep, that was ominous, alright.
“Honey,” Mendel said, “I won’t even run a mile, what makes you think I’m gonna run 13 miles?”
That was in 2010 when he was 56 years old.
Today, the 68-year old Mendel will compete in his sixth Ironman Texas. What started as a nice “honey do” has turned into a because-I-can endeavor for Mendel, an attorney in Houston.
Kathi challenged Steve. And then he challenged himself and watched himself turn into Ironman.
The race course starts and finishes in The Woodlands, the planned community north of Houston, which is 45 minutes from the Mendel home. It is a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile marathon. To prevent the ignominy of being hauled off the course by race marshals you better be fit enough to hit the timed benchmarks in the swim, then bike, then run.
“In the beginning it was just about finishing,” Mendel said.
In his first Texas Ironman in 2013, he finished at night, a moonlight sonata as it were, and squeezed in with eight minutes and one second to spare before the 17-hour deadline.
Now, depending on the competition that shows up today, Mendel wonders if he has made himself stout enough to actually win the 65-69 age group. A win means a slot in the prestigious Ironman in Kona, Hawaii.
What is remarkable about Mendel and The Ironman is that he just did it, you know, as in the swoosh commercial and Just Do It. He wanted to get fit and he didn’t scratch at being fit and kind-of, sort-of explore.
Mendel picked one of the most grinding and unsympathetic competitions on the planet and he got down with it. He didn’t have a playbook and he was still working full-time, but he decided this was how he was going to get more fit.
Mendel did his first Ironman Texas in 2013. His exercise had been riding the bike 10-15 miles on a weekend day. There was no apparent fitness gene driving him to do an Ironman and there was no Bucket List. Mendel was just a guy.
And, then, he wasn’t.
If you are just a guy, you don’t do this race.
“Now, if I think about biking 10 miles it’s like ‘Is it worth even getting on the bike’,” Mendel said, as if the distance is puny.
Ironman Texas is profound athleticism. I often wonder if these people would chew their arm off to win a leg of the race because it demands so much physical and mental focus and provokes the competitor in you.
But Ironman just doesn’t take, it gives. It’s fortifying. Eighteen days after Woodlands, Mendel will compete in the National Senior Games in Florida in the sprint triathlon. He is also signed up for five swimming events. The Ironman triggers a can-do in people.
Indeed, it seems he has built so much resilience through Ironman training that Mendel is willing to try and win several swimming events the same day as the NSG sprint triathlon.
“I’m going there hoping to medal,” he said of the NSG triathlon, which answered the question about pacing his exertion in Florida.
“Others might be going for a ride in the park. I want to win.”
Mendel is an attorney, after all, and he is a competitor in the court room. He does not under-estimate himself, which is another reason he conquered Ironman without that expressly “athletic” gene. And he is still working full-time.
This is what’s important for the rest of us about this side hustle:
Mendel did not have mad skills as a kid growing up in the Houston area. He could hit a baseball, but he was slow as tar, he said. He was a decent bowler, but a 200 average was out of reach. Mendel was not a track star, or football hero in football-crazy Texas, which makes his story even more uplifting.
Steve strips away our alibis. You can do this, too.
Of course, it’s not easy. The Ironman is an event you have to cultivate. When he decided he was going to just do it, Mendel approached a husband-wife fitness team for coaching. They asked Mendel how many Ironmans he had done.
“None,” he said.
There was stunned silence from the couple, which shows the reverence for the Ironman, which became a thing in 1978.
One of the first things Mendel had to learn was how to run after riding a bike. It was calamity at first.
“A friend of mine said ‘have you ever tried to run after you finish the bike’? And I was like ‘No, why would I do that’?,” Mendel said. But after a bike ride one day he thought he would run around the block.
“You would have thought I was the most spasmodic person on the planet,” Mendel said. “My legs just weren’t used to running after getting off of a bike and I just sort of stumbled down the street. It was like a third of a mile before I had a normal stride
“If you know anything about me, it was like, ‘Well, I got to do that again’. So the next week I did it again.”
Today, after a 112-mile bike ride, he will ask himself to run 26.2 miles with no time to stumble.
Something about a challenge motivates Mendel. When a colleague asked him to write a brief for a case that had hit a dead end in the courts and didn’t have much traction, Mendel took it on. The case had to do with a conflict between federal transportation law and a employee-employer handbook of rules and whether the handbook could supersede DOT regs.
If he wrote the brief, Mendel told the colleague, he wanted to be the one to argue it before the U.S. Supreme Court. Mendel wrote the brief, but SCOTUS declined to hear oral arguments for the case.
You take things on, not because you bow to St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, but because you believe in yourself. You don’t have to be an athlete to be competitive.
“I’m just a very competitive person. I mean, I practice law for a living,” Mendel said. “I’m just been pretty intense in the courtroom and have a competitive nature.”
The lesson is we don’t have to be competitive with the other guy. But we do need to sometimes be competitive with ourselves.
When a friend told Mendel she plateaued at six miles on her regular run and couldn’t go another step, she came to the right person for counsel. He asked her if she could go just another eighth of a mile. She said, yes, and went that eighth. Mendel encouraged her to do that six and an eighth for a couple of weeks, then try 6 and a quarter.
“You have to remember, I’m a guy that started out walking and running a half marathon,” he said. “And now there is no walking if I’m doing the half marathon. If that’s all I’m doing that day, I’ll run it from start to finish.”
So says the man who couldn’t run a mile, until a bright idea from his wife pushed him off his plateau.