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North Vancouver man becomes first to race 7 Ironman triathlons on 7 continents

Connor Emeny faced extreme nausea, giant seals and hypothermia to set a new world record

Connor Emeny had to endure days of dry heaving on a sailboat, a bout of hypothermia and one of the most mind-numbing bike rides in history to finish his incredible feat of becoming the world’s first person to undergo an Ironman triathlon on all seven continents.

On Feb. 21, Emeny completed his nearly four-year journey after swimming 3.9 kilometres, biking 180 kilometres and running 42 kilometres on Deception Island in Antarctica.

The last leg caps off a sporting saga that began at the Ironman Tuapo in New Zealand (Oceania) on March 7, 2020, just days before COVID-19 was declared a global public health emergency. After restrictions began to lift in the second half of 2021, Emeny went on a tear, completing three Ironman events in three months, in the U.S. (North America), Spain (Europe) and South Africa (Africa). Then he raced in the Philippines (Asia) and Brazil in 2022 (South America).

Crossing the finish line in Brazil, Emeny set the Guinness World Record for the youngest person to race Ironman triathlons on six continents. He was 26 at the time.

Then his seven-continent mission stalled, but not because Emeny was injured or lacked motivation. Sorting out the logistics of reaching the world’s most remote major land mass proved to be his biggest obstacle yet.

When things finally did come together this January, it all happened fast.

“I had to take this crazy risk and put a deposit on a sailboat with money that I didn’t even have fully from funding or from partners or anything like that,” he said. “And I was like, I don’t even know how I’m going to come up with the rest of this to pay for the crew and everything.”

But Emeny made it happen. He started a fundraiser to get support from the community, took out a personal loan and landed a partnership with Baffin, a Canadian company that makes footwear and apparel for extreme weather.

Triathlete bikes 200-metre loop 900 times over 21 hours

After flying to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in South America, he boarded a 15-metre sailboat with a crew of seven for the 23-day journey.

“That’s just claustrophobic just thinking about it,” Emeny said.

Claustrophobia is just the tip of the iceberg. The voyage begins with a five-day sail across the Drake Passage, which is notorious for having some of the roughest seas on earth.

“Literally, the whole crew was just throwing up,” he said. “We didn’t eat for five days.”

Things progressed quickly when they arrived in the frigid waters of Antarctica. Emeny scouted the location he had in mind, the horseshoe-shaped Deception Island, which has a large, natural harbour. His Ironman started the next day.

First, the athlete had to swim 3.9 km in frigid -1 C water. At least he had some incentive, in the form of a giant seal following in pursuit. Luckily, the animal was more curious than aggressive. When he got out of the water, his teeth were frozen and his body hypothermic. The crew acted fast, putting his feet in warm water, while his brother put Emeny’s frozen hands on his bare skin.

“It was pretty freaky,” Emeny said.

Half an hour later, he had recovered enough to continue. Hopping on a fat-wheel bike, he started his 180 km ride, covering almost no ground at all, circling a 200-metre loop.

“I did it 900 times,” he said. “The swim was physical torture but the bike was mental torture…. it took 21 hours for the bike ride, which is insane.”

Getting off the bicycle, he continued the 200m loop of insanity for the first half of his run, before gradually circling closer to the shoreline. The increased elevation change probably added more physical challenge but helped with the mental grind.

The scenery was amazing, Emeny said. “It’s hard to describe – whales, penguins and icebergs that are 40 meters high – it’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.”

Lying flat on the rocky, black earth, holding his icy blue “Chasing Antarctica” flag, Emeny had done it. In 32 hours 42 minutes and 34 seconds, he achieved his mindboggling goal of racing an Ironman triathlon on every continent, a world’s first.

“It was pretty emotional,” he said. “It was four years in the making. A lot of people told me it was impossible. People were like, ‘There’s no way you can swim 3.9 km in ice water, no way you can bike in Antarctica.’

“Even your best friends are telling you’re crazy, but I didn’t care about those thoughts or let them get into my head because I knew what was possible,” Emeny said.

Accolades pour in from Ironman legends

The best part of it all was having his brother Alex, mother Darlene and best friend there to celebrate with him.

“I learned that wasn’t really about the journey or the destinations, it’s about the company and the people you get to share these incredible moments of your life with that really matter,” he said, adding that he intends for that angle to be a subject of an upcoming documentary, using the footage taken during his expedition.

When news got out that he’d succeeded, the props starting pouring in from endurance sport legends including Elizabeth Model, who holds the record for the most Ironman competitions by a woman (100) and John Wragg, who holds the overall competition record (260).

“This is not only an achievement of a lifetime, but an achievement celebrated by all of us fellow Canadians,” Model said in a statement. “Connor is a role model for our youth and shows us just how important mindset is – we can all achieve incredible things.”

Emeny said the athletes have served as huge inspiration for him. He was able to connect with them after he finished his first Ironman event.

“We got connected and they mentored me along this whole journey,” he said. “That was pretty special to have people you look up to believe in you.”

If you think the 27-year-old is slowing down anytime soon, you’re wrong. Emeny already has his sights set on another extreme feat, competing in what’s called the world’s toughest row. The 45-day journey sees competitors travel across the Pacific Ocean from California to Hawaii, on a three-to-four person team.

At this point, you might be wondering why he seeks out these seemingly absurd undertakings. The answer is two-fold, Emeny said.

With the myriad mental health challenges that spiked during the pandemic, Emeny said we need more dreamers in the world, who are willing to do whatever it takes to realize their dreams.

The other aspect is more personal. Emeny, who did his first Ironman with his two brothers, said his brother Ben going through personal struggles became a driving force for him.

“Going from being this specimen of a human being to waking up in the hospital next day, and not knowing what’s next, is a real motivator,” he said. “To just show up for my family and closest friends … to keep showing up for this challenge, as hard as it was each day, to give them hope that they can get out of hard times.”

nlaba@nsnews.com
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