Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Iron & sunshine: Tat Pack triathletes relentlessly cheerful, tough as nails

If Danniela Nichols can smile through two bouts with cancer, four Ironman triathlons and her struggles as a single mother, it's probably not a stretch for her to smile when Dave Herold inks a fresh tattoo on her ankle. Members of the Bluff Busters Triathlon Team got tattoos Saturday to celebrate the Ironman events they completed this year. Photo by Randy Erickson

.Triathlon runners have to treat their bodies as temples when they’re in training, especially those who compete in the Ironman triathlons — a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. For some area Ironman athletes, though, jazzing up the outside of the temple is all part of the fun.Saturday morning, three members of the Bluff Busters Triathlon Team were initiated into the Tat Pack, getting a tattoo as a permanent reminder of the completion of their first Ironman triathlons this year.The Tat Pack formed a year ago when the six charter members lined up in downtown La Crosse’s Mind Altering Tattoos to get their red “M-dots,” as they call the Ironman logo. Several of the original Tat Packers were back Saturday, either to get some fresh ink or lend moral support.While they waited to get inked by tattoo artists Jake Phillips and Dave Herold, they shared stories of how they came to be Ironman athletes, what it was like to compete in such an extreme event and how sometimes an Ironman can go horribly wrong. Danniela Nichols stood out from the pack because of her inability to stand still for too long, her infectious smile and laugh, her habit of calling people “Sunshine” and the two-inch scar on her neck.The scar is a reminder of her second battle with cancer — thyroid cancer. Just a few years after graduating from La Crosse Central High School (Class of 1992), she won her first bout with cancer — cervical cancer.The thyroid cancer surfaced in fall 2005, soon after she had completed the Wisconsin Ironman in Madison. Ever the optimist and fitness fanatic, she rode her bike from her home in Onalaska to the hospital in La Crosse when it came time for surgery. Although plenty of people told her she wouldn’t be well enough to finish an Ironman in 2006 — it takes a good nine months of training — she proved them wrong. That can-do approach — along with beating cancer and juggling her career as an independent physical trainer with her responsibilities as a single mother of two boys — got her noticed this year at the Ironman in Louisville, Ky. At every Ironman event a person is singled out for the Everyday Hero Award because of their inspirational story. At the Louisville event in August, Nichols was honored. Saturday at the tattoo parlor, Nichols added the words “Everyday Hero” under the Ironman logo tattooed last year on her ankle. Standing by as Nichols got her tattoo was Jenny Limberg. Back when they went to Holmen Middle School together, Nichols and Limberg were good friends. Limberg used to come to track meets to watch Nichols run, but Limberg was never a runner.Growing up, Limberg was “heavy” and she kept getting heavier. Two years ago, she weighed almost 300 pounds, a lot to carry on a frame that probably doesn’t top 5 feet.Limberg had gastric bypass surgery two years ago, lost close to 200 pounds (judging from her petite appearance now) and reconnected with her childhood friend, who is helping her train to compete in next fall’s Wisconsin Ironman.Before her gastric bypass, Limberg led a largely sedentary life. The most exercise she got was lifting food to her mouth, said Limberg, who lives in Holmen.She realized when she got the gastric bypass — which restricts the amount a person can eat by decreasing the size of the stomach — that the surgery alone was just a start, that she would have to get active.“It’s a tool to get you to where you need to be,” Limberg said of the surgery.And now she has the help of her friend to get her to where she wants to go next: the Ironman in Madison. As a Bluff Busters member, Limberg also will have encouragement from a lot of other people who are as committed as athletes come. “There’s definitely an organized religion, some people might call it,” said Tracy Happel of Onalaska. A charter member of the Tat Pack, Happel was back this year to add a date to her tattoo. Like Nichols, she competed in the Louisville Ironman.After years of running marathons, Happel has been doing triathlons for five years, starting with a sprint distance — a half-mile swim, 16-mile bike ride and a 5K run.One thing Happel has learned from competing in Ironman triathlons is you don’t have to be a young, streamlined movement machine to complete an Ironman.“You would be amazed at the different sizes of people competing,” Happel said. “It’s not about your body shape, it’s about your mind.”Bob Brimer turned 60 the day he ran his first triathlon — West Salem’s Got Energy Triathlon in June 2006. He was happy about the experience, but he had his eye on a bigger prize — running the Wisconsin Ironman this year.He kept up his training and lost 50 pounds in the course of 23 months. On Sept. 9, he began the 2.4-mile swim at 7 p.m. and completed the last leg of the event at about 11:30 p.m., just half an hour short of the 17-hour maximum.Brimer said he knows he could have done it faster, but he slowed his pace halfway through the bike ride and the run. He wanted time to soak up the experience, and he wanted to feel as good as he could at the end of the day, considering he’d covered 140.6 miles all told.And he did feel good, especially when he found about a half a dozen Bluff Busters members were waiting for him at the finish line to cheer him on.For Brimer, the Ironman experience has been great. “I just wanted to see if I could get my body off the couch. I was pretty sure I could do it,” he said. “I had a lot of fun and met great people. ... I’ve never met such a positive group of people.”And he got his first tattoo. Brimer’s tattoo on his right calf features the Ironman logo inside an outline of the state of Wisconsin.So far, 36 Bluff Busters members have completed an Ironman, out of a total membership of 112. That includes Slade Hendrikson of Holmen, who joined the Tat Pack this year after completing the Madison event, and Jeff Fleig of Onalaska, the former associate principal at Onalaska High School who has gotten so good at running an Ironman that he qualified for the world championship Ironman in Hawaii. So far, though, he has declined to join the Tat Pack. Next year, Larry Schmidt expects the number of Bluff Busters who have completed an Ironman to swell to 50 or more. The 54-year-old Sparta man has completed four Ironman events since turning 50, including last year’s world Ironman in Hawaii. His tattoo features the Ironman logo inside an orchid, signifying his completion of the Hawaii Ironman. Schmidt said the tattoo ritual is kind of a bonding experience, but by the time they’ve gone through the months of training and completed an Ironman event, everybody already is pretty close, having shared all that sweat and pain.“We bond so much after all that training. There’s a bonding that transcends the sport,” Schmidt said. “It’s more than just a race. It’s the journey to doing it.”
ON THE WEB: Read about Danniela Nichol’s Ironman experiences online at Learn more about the Bluff Busters Triathlon Team at