A year ago Hines Ward's idea of distance running was racing for a pass on a deep post. Swimming meant leisurely laps in his pool at home in Atlanta. Bicycling? The news had not reached him that there were shoes that clipped into the pedals. Ward had a cute cluelessness about triathlons that matched that baby face of his, the one that's as cherubic as ever even after a 14-year NFL career.
In search of a postfootball challenge, the former Steelers wideout was considering trying a marathon when he was asked to train for the Ironman World Championship as part of the "Got Chocolate Milk?" advertising campaign, which promotes the drink as a tool for workout recovery. All Ward, who retired after the 2011 season, really knew was that a triathlon was nothing like football, and that was enough: "When they told me you don't have to win to be successful, just finish, I said, 'Sign me up.' "
And so began Ward's endurance-athlete phase, the latest stage in what seems less like retirement and more like a premature bucket list. This follows his happy-hoofer period, during which he tangoed and cha-cha'd to the Dancing with the Stars title two years ago. That was nothing compared to the Ironman, the 140.6-mile slice of hell (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, 26.2-mile run) in which he will compete on Oct. 12 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Ward, 37, is quite capable of doing something steadily over a long period time, having caught all 1,000 passes of his career for Pittsburgh. But he has learned that a Steeler and an Ironman are made of different kinds of mettle.
As a receiver, it took a certain measure of courage, for instance, to venture across the middle with Ray Lewis waiting to dish out punishment. But Ward was more comfortable with that fear than the trepidation he feels before an open-water swim. "Sharks," he says. "I keep thinking Jaws might be out there. That's why I hate the swimming part the most. Nothing scarier than sharks."
Also, the pain. There is football pain—the intense but usually brief bone-rattle of a tackle—and then there is triathlon pain, the burning lungs and cramping muscles that worsen with every mile. "I don't think I ever had to run more than a mile or two at a time in all my years of football," Ward says. "I've gone through some tough football practices, but triathlon training is the hardest thing I've ever done."
His training—he works out an average of three hours a day, six days a week, and a typical day might include 5,000 meters of swimming followed by an 80-mile bike ride—has trimmed the weight on his 6-foot frame from 232 pounds to 196. As he slims down, his experience grows. Ward won't be a total neophyte when he gets to Kona, having completed three shorter triathlons in the last seven months, including the Ironman 70.3 in Lawrence, Kans., in June, which he finished in a respectable five hours, 53 minutes and 18 seconds.
Ward's coach, Paula Newby-Fraser, an eight-time Ironman world champion who's known as the Queen of Kona, has provided Ward with everything from technical instruction to kick-in-the-pants motivation. A longtime Chargers fan, she sometimes threatens to make him wear San Diego's powder-blue jersey if he doesn't meet the day's training goals. "He asked me once, 'What if it's cold and rainy the day of the race?' " she says. "I said, 'Are you kidding? I thought Steelers were tougher than that.' "
Ward is tougher than that, part of the reason Newby-Fraser expects him to complete the Ironman. "He's had several opportunities to melt down and let the frustration of all this hard work get to him," she says. "He just pushes through obstacles." That includes the complaints from some corners about celebrities like Ward getting exemptions to enter the race without having to qualify. "It's not like I'm taking away anyone's spot," Ward says, "and I hope I'm contributing by bringing more attention to the sport."
Those who object to his presence might be happy to know that Ward expects this to be a one-time-only Ironman appearance, whether he finishes or not. After that, it's on to the next challenge. What will that be? "I don't know yet," he says. "You got any ideas?"
"I've gone through some tough football practices," says Ward, "but triathlon training is the hardest thing I've ever done."
What should be the next activity on Hines Ward's bucket list?
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JOHN BURGESS FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (TAYLOR)
JEROD HARRIS/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES (WARD)