By Gary Griffin
Sometimes things happen that are beyond even our wildest dreams. That has never stopped us from dreaming, and sometimes reaching for the seemingly impossible. I think that’s what the English poet Robert Browning was getting at when he wrote, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
Our 2004 GWTC Triathlete of the year has been reaching out for the seemingly impossible now for many years, and has continually amazed us with his accomplishments in the face of major adversity. And just when it seemed as if he had done all that he could possibly do in this sport of running and triathlon, when he had pulled the last rabbit out of the hat, he pulled of another miracle. This year, he grasped a little bit of that heaven that we are only supposed to reach for.
This individual has always been an athlete, it seems. Back in the early 60s he was a scrawny tight end over at Florida High School but showed his ability to dream at an early age when he walked on at Notre Dame and played for a couple of years under the legendary Ara Parsegian. When getting beat up by burly defensive lineman became too sedate for him, he took off the pads and joined the rugby team. In the early 70s he took up running and by the time I began going to GWTC events about 20 years ago, he was a fixture. Many were the days that I chased after him in 5, 10, and 15K races – never being able to catch up to that runner that was only known as “the guy in the bright orange shorts.” Several years later, fate threw us together and we became training partners – pushing one another on regular Wednesday night “Joanos Runs” – a long-standing 10 miler from retired Judge Jimmy Joanos’ house over on Seminole Dr, and regular Sunday morning long runs around Killearn and elsewhere. He never failed to blame his running partners for “pushing the pace,” but it was always him, that guy in those orange shorts, who was a step ahead of the rest of us. For longer than any of us will ever know, he ran in pain from an arthritic hip – never complaining – just running, grimacing, and surviving through adversity. Throughout the early 90s his condition worsened until the day of reckoning arrived and in May, 1995 he ran what he thought was his last race: the Crescent City 10K in New Orleans. He ran something like 42 minutes and beat me like a rented mule. Four days later he had the hip replaced and was told to give up any thoughts of running ever again.
But – “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for ….”
Now, the real story begins ….
His recovery from that operation probably set some sort of TMH record. He was walking, I think, within 2 days. And, he continued walking – for the next 2 years. He also began riding his bike – an old mountain bike that he pulled out of the closet and dusted off. We became regulars on the St Marks Trail on Thursday evenings and on the Miccosukee loop on Sundays – he on his clunker and me on a 25 year old Raleigh that Dana Stetson found at a N Monroe Street pawn shop for $25. Little did he know at that time that the road cyclists that sped by us would find him matching them stroke-for-stroke in a few short years. In May, 1997, two years after the surgery, he was walking one morning on St George Island and suddenly began running. Who knows where such things come from, but knowing this individual as I do, it was to be expected. Always defying the odds …
Now the story really takes off.
A year later, on a challenge and a whim, he entered his first triathlon, the Red Hills affair out at Maclay Gardens. He did that hilly loop on that old mountain bike and I can still see him as he made the turn off of Bannerman onto Thomasville Rd, grinning ear-to-ear, having the time of his life. That was June, 1998. He had a blast that day, he said, and a monster had been created. The next year he completed Gulf Coast, a half-Ironman in under 6 hours and then announced that he would be at the starting line at Clermont for the full Ironman a mere 4 months later. Somehow, those of us who knew him were not the least bit surprised. Over those next four months he whipped himself into amazing shape, running us into the ground, pounding Dana and Chuck Davis on the bike, and even occasionally getting wet in the pool. Until this time, the closest he ever got to the pool was an occasional venture into water running … One week before the Great Floridian Ironman he made a major, yet common mistake. While running hard at Pine Run he pulled a muscle and dropped out. A week’s rest brought little healing. Nonetheless, on October 23, 1999 – at the age of 55 and with an artificial hip, riding a bike borrowed from Dana Stetson, this amazing competitor completed the ironman over the nasty Clermont course in just over 13 hours – running through the pain, and finishing again with that ear-to-ear smile. It was a great accomplishment and a great moment. It would have made for a great ending. But now, as Paul Harvey says, “here’s the rest of the story …..”
After 1999, the hip pain returned with a vengeance. Every running step brought pain, and you knew it — not because he said so — but because he would occasionally let out a cry as the hip slipped out of the socket while jogging. He looked to be through. Another hip replacement seemed imminent and the running was doomed to stop. Yet, he would often bring up the disappointment that he felt as a result of his perceived “failure” at Clermont. He felt like he still had something to prove – that without the Pine Run injury he would have been much faster. My words of, “Look, you did an ironman with an artificial hip and were amazing” fell on deaf ears. There was still a heaven to reach for …. and I knew that he would have another date with the ironman. There was no logic behind such thought, but as I said, sometimes things happen beyond our wildest dreams and I had seen that look in his eyes too many times …
By the time 2004 arrived he had his own bike, and somehow seemed to be running without the pain that he had experienced the prior year. When I heard he had entered another ironman, the only surprise was that it would happen at Ironman Florida in Panama City and not back at Clermont. His season began in March with an age group victory at Red Hills. In the summer he hit the triathlon circuit, competing in the four part Emerald Coast Series in Panama City and the three part Beaches Fine Art Series in Jacksonville, while finding a spare weekend in May for the half ironman at Gulf Coast in Panama City, again finishing in less than 6 hours. July brought the Freedom Springs event in Marianna, where he finished 38th out of 166 competitors and won his age group. On consecutive Saturdays in August, he won his age group at the Hammerhead Olympic Distance Triathlon at Cape Blanding and at the Elephant Walk Tri at Sandestin, while doing 100 mile rides on the weekends he wasn’t competing. (Those rides sometimes were followed by 20+ mile runs the next day! Dana’s words were: “He’s killing me”.) I mentioned the Emerald Coast Series and the Beaches Fine Art Series. In those seven events, he won his age group 5 times and was second twice – one of those by only 4 seconds. Furthermore, in the two races that he took part in after turning 60, he was the Great Grandmasters Champion. The boy had a good summer ………. But, the best was yet to come.
On November 6, his date with the Ironman arrived. Surrounded by a multitude of encouraging friends and family, and over 2,000 participants, our triathlete of the year showed that another 5 years of aging and another 5 years of wear on his artificial hip were on of no consequence as he knocked a whopping two hours off of his 1999 ironman time and finished in 11 hours, 19 minutes – good enough for third place in his age group and only 101 seconds away from qualifying to be at Kona, Hawaii in 2005.
Whether this is the end of the story or merely the beginning of another chapter remains to be seen. Whatever the future holds, you can be assured that it will be faced with humility, grace, dignity, determination, perseverance, and all of those qualities that set this individual apart as a most-worthy recipient of this award.
Please join me in recognizing the GWTC 2004 Triathlete of the Year, the miracle man, the one and only George Palmer!