Will Turner: The Real Iron Man


 INSIDE PHOTOS by Chris Destefano      COVER PHOTO by Rebecca D’Angelo       

Will Turner is the Real Iron Man. No special effects, no suit of armor, no comic book fiction. Will is the genuine article. He now holds the world record for the number of Ironman Triathlons completed in a single calendar year, a record he surpassed a couple months ago. As of this writing he has finished 57 of these triathlons, which are considered the most arduous one-day athletic events in existence. You pit yourself against yourself by swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles in rapid succession, and within 16 hours. Will has woven these feats of endurance into the very fabric of our world by conducting them in some of the most transcendent landscapes in the country. He calls this journey 60@60, and out of it has emerged LiveYourBold. But the lessons he’s learned on this journey might not be what you expect. He did not feed his ego; he nurtured his soul.

by Charles McGuigan

Will Turner grew up on a farm in Doswell, Virginia, rolling fields that spilled down to the bluffs of the North Anna River, just a stone’s from another farm that would one day produce a champion of champions among equines—that noble horse and Triple Crown winner, Secretariat, a tri-athlete in his own right.  On the 130-acre Turner farm, Will’s dad kept horses and pigs and about 60 head of beef cattle, so there were chores galore for the young Will. Unlike his older brother, Will did not have the build to excel in football. He was tall and lank, downright skinny. Yet he did play youth football, and when the team would do laps before and after practice, Will noticed that he would always come in first. And a coach noticed this too, when Will was still in junior high. “You go out for track or cross country when you get to high school,” the coach told him. But that would never happen.

Before they had tryouts for the track team, while Will was still in junior high, he was out in the back field helping his father feed the cows. As his dad steered the tractor, Will balanced on a steel bar near the hitch to the trailer that was loaded down with bales of hay. He could smell the sweetness of hay, and as his father made the turn into the barnyard, the bar he stood on caught his right foot in a metal grip with the hitch.

“Dad,” Will yelled at the top of his lungs. “Dad, stop.”

His father turned the wheel to release the pressure, and as it eased off, Will could feel the bottom of his right foot split open like a ripe melon, and then a thick red heat surged in the muck boot that still housed his right foot.

Will’s father, working fast, moved his son to the flatbed of the trailer and laid him out, then removed the green boot, which was filled with blood. Will was rushed to the hospital where he received more than a hundred stitches, inside and outside of the wound. For the next two months Will would be on crutches. In the hospital, the doctor told Will that he would have to follow instructions to help his foot to mend—things like keeping it elevated. “The only other alternative, if it gets infected,” the doctor said, “is chopping it off, or putting maggots on it to eat the infection.”

“They wanted me to be in a wheelchair and I refused to go around in a wheelchair because I felt that I didn’t want the pity of my classmates,” Will Turner tells me. “But I got to be hell on wheels on crutches.”

This man sitting at the table across from me is lean as he was in his youth, though he’s fast approaching sixty. His hair is wispy, gray and blond, and his complexion ruddy. He is between triathlons, soon to embark for the West where he will do four or five of the final Ironmans before returning to Virginia where he will do the last one on the last day of the year, reaching an unprecedented 60 Ironmans in a single year, well-exceeding the current Guinness World Record of 44, held by a French athlete since 2014.

After high school, Will received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Virginia Tech, thinking that he might want to become a lawyer. But by the time he reached his senior year, he realized jurisprudence was not for him, so he earned his MBA, with a focus on marketing, from Virginia Commonwealth University.  After college he worked in sales with AETNA Life and Casualty, and then with Strategic Design Group.

Just after the new millennium dawned, Will struck out on his own with a training and development company called Dancing Elephants Achievement Group. Eight years ago he sold his interest in that company and started Refuse Ordinary.

Not long after he graduated college, Will joined a local gym, and did a fair amount of jogging, but nothing too strenuous. Then, in 1987, Will decided to do a half-marathon. It was disastrous.

“I was in my twenties, I was married at that point, and I thought well I can run a half-marathon,” says Will.

In preparation, he would jog up to eight or nine miles, but beyond that, he had no training, and no real understanding about the body’s fundamental needs when it is put through physical challenges. The day of that race was the hottest in Richmond Marathon history. When Will was not far from the finish line he passed a first aid station and was initially going to get a bottle of water, but as a twelve-year old jogger came up alongside him, about to overtake him, Will thought to himself, “I’m not going to let this kid pass me.” He ran past the pre-teen, crossed the Nickel Bridge and as he began running up the hill toward Forest Hill Avenue, spectators stopped him. He had been weaving and wobbling.

“The next thing I know I’m laying down on the ground and I’ve got paramedics around me going, ‘What’s wrong? What’s wrong?’” Will remembers. “In my moment of stupor, I’m like, ‘I think I twisted my ankle.’ And they’re checking my ankle and I say, ‘When I was falling down, I think I might have done the other one.’ And they’re checking both my ankles and they can’t find anything wrong with me, and I’m partially delirious at this point so I’m really believing what I’m telling them, but it’s not true at all.”

He was rushed to nearby Chippenham Hospital where they put him on IVs to rehydrate him.

Will backed off running for a time. He did a few 5Ks and 10Ks, and then in his mid-thirties tried a couple of short distance triathlons, biking twelve miles, running five kilometers—nothing particularly grueling.

At the end of 2001, one of Will’s closest friends, Beth, who had recently lost her husband, Tom, to brain cancer, asked him if he would want to run the Richmond Marathon with her so they could raise money for the Virginia Brain Tumor Fund in honor of her husband.

“I’d love to run it with you, but I’m not sure if I can,” Will told her.

At that point, Will was running with his golden retriever about two or three miles a day. He decided to try an eight-mile run with Beth. They paced themselves, stopped for water and electrolytes, and at the end of it, Will felt good. “Okay, I’m in,” he told Beth.

With no problems, Will completed his first marathon. He was 44 at the time, and he was hooked. The following year, he and Beth, and a few other friends successfully completed the Philadelphia Marathon. A year later, Will ran the Richmond Marathon again, though his understanding of what is necessary for endurance athletic events was still lacking. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says. “I was just kind of winging my way through these. But I was slowly understanding that I needed to figure out how to do it better. So I started being more serious about the training. I ended up having a couple more hospital visits over the years, learning how to hydrate properly, but I was getting better at it as I went along.”

Just before he turned fifty, Will decided he wanted a BHAG (big hair audacious goal) to go after. He was going to do his first Ironman.

As it happened, his good friend Beth had moved to New Zealand and started a new life there as a massage therapist and a body talk practitioner. New Zealand hosts one of the most renowned Ironman Triathlons in the world. So Will decided to do his first Ironman there, and his life was about to change for good and all.

While training for the triathlon stateside, Will came across a quote that would become something of a mantra for him in every facet of his life: “If your dream doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough.”

He mouths the words slowly, recalling the moment he first encountered them. “So I was sufficiently scared,” he says. “I mean I’d done a number of marathons, but I’d also ended up in the hospital a couple of times, so I wasn’t this great, proficient marathon runner.”

Will hired a coach, and began rigorous training with an almost religious zeal. He trained six days a week, one day off for recovery. He crossed-trained and learned the disciplines of tempo work and endurance work. “And you have different drills and paces based on your ability,” Will tells me. “So you might have an hour swim in the morning where you’ve got these drills and paces to do, and then, in the afternoon or whenever you can squeeze it into your day, you’ve got a six-mile tempo run.”

Will trained for the better part of a year in preparation for the New Zealand Ironman, and about a month before he was to leave, something ominous occurred.

It was in late January, and he was doing a brick workout, where two of the three components of a triathlon are done back-to-back. He had completed the bike component, and began a speed workout on a treadmill in an American Family Fitness Gym.

“I was basically doing half-mile or mile repeats, and then having a very short interval break, but I had to hold a certain fast pace while I was doing it,” Will says.

He was halfway through his third of seven sets, when he felt a sudden deep and sharp pain thrust through the lower calf of his right leg. It stopped him in his tracks. He quit the workout, and by the time he left the gym he was limping.

The next day Will saw a doctor, who had been recommended by his coach. The doctor discovered a partial tear in Will’s soleus, a powerful muscle in the back of the lower leg.

“I’ve got good news and bad news for you, Will,” the doctor told him. “The good news is that you’ll still be able to do the race. The bad news is that it’s going to impact you.” She paused and then continued: “It’s not going to impact you on the swim, it’s not going to impact you on the bike, but it’s going to impact you on the run. Specifically, when you’re going uphill, you’re pulling at the muscles you tore and that’s where you’re going to feel it the most.”

The course Will would run in New Zealand is very hilly, but in a few weeks he flew halfway around the world to compete in the triathlon. Days before the race, as he ran part of the course, as he made his way up a hill, his soleus began to ache. “So I knew it was still there, and I knew that it was probably going to rear its ugly head come race day,” says Will.

He returned to his motel room and talked with Beth. She was sitting on a couch, and suggested giving him a massage. But then she told him about a technique she had recently learned at a conference for body talk practitioners.

“I’ve never done this before,” Beth told him. “Do you want to be my guinea pig?”

“By all means,” Will responded. “I have nothing to lose. Let’s do this.”

She told him to lay down on the couch his arms by his side, his palms slightly cupped, facing downward. Beth told him to relax and close his eyes. And then she began asking him questions, but not vocally. She spoke to him telepathically, and though he could not hear her, his body could. She would gently tap his hands, and at time they would move and at other times they would remain completely still. Turns out this was how his body answered in the affirmative or the negative.

And then he heard Beth’s voice. “Will, I’m stuck and I want to do a little time out here,” she said. “I’ve gotten to the color red and I’m trying to be more specific with it and I’m just going down these alleys that are cutting me off. If I ask you to think of a color or a shade of red, is there anything that comes to mind?”

With little hesitation, Will responded, “Alizarim crimson.”  Will is also a painter and loves the depth and richness of this shade of red.

Beth told him to lay back down and to again shut his eyes, and she began the tapping once more.

A short while later, she told him she was finished.

“Essentially what the process told her was that I had torn my soleus,” Will tells me.  “And so your soleus is where you store relationship issues. And I had relationship issues at the time. That part of my body was storing it. And the color red came up because red is fire, red is where the pain was.”

And then she told him something very strange. “You have to heal yourself,” she said. “And it will happen a minute before the race.  Not a day before, not a couple hours before.”

The day of the race, as he was treading water in Lake Taupo on the North Island of New Zealand, just as a massive cannon fired, announcing the start of the triathlon, Will thought, “I’m not going to know what impact that had if any until eight or nine hours from now when I start running.”

When he began the marathon, there was no pain in his soleus, and after the race, Will would spend the next eight weeks in New Zealand, exploring both islands with his friend Beth.

“I spent all that time in New Zealand, and Beth and I did a lot of hiking and running on trails on the hillsides and mountains, and I never felt the pain in my soleus again in my life,” says Will.

Over the course of those two months in New Zealand, Will Turner began to change. The catalyst for these changes were the long philosophical talks he had with Beth, their relentless hikes and explorations, the spirit of the Maori culture, and the people of the two islands.

“I don’t think we paid for a hotel or motel the whole time we were there,” says Will. “We would stay with friends of Beth’s and friends of friends of Beth. New Zealand is such a welcoming culture.”

Since the time he was very young, Will had been something of an overachiever. “And I think one thing that came back with me from New Zealand was a focus on joy and balance and being much more mindful in my day-to-day existence,” he says. “Not being so hurried, slowing down and appreciating where I am, and what I’m doing, and what’s around me.”

While traveling through New Zealand, he began to examine why he had done the Ironman in the first place.

“I was going to get my Ironman tattoo when I was done,” says Will. “But after it was over, I realized I didn’t need a tattoo because that’s ego-driven. You want someone to see your tattoo so they say, ‘Oh you did an Iron Man?’ It would have been ego, if I had done that. That wasn’t what this was all about in the end. I thought it was when I started out. I had turned fifty. I wanted to prove that I was young enough and vital enough to do this challenge.”

He had a change of heart even before he began that first Ironman. His business partner who was minding the store in his absence, sent out an email to customers and friends to let them know what Will was doing. “I remember sitting in my motel room in New Zealand before the race and reading these comments from people supporting and sending love,” Will recalls. “And I just bawled like a baby. I had trained all through the winter in Richmond and it was very solitary. It’s you against the elements. And then when I had this outpouring of support, I realized that it wasn’t about me. It was about all these other people that were there to support me, allowing me to do what I could do. And being out there on the course and having the volunteers and the spectators just cheering you on. It was humbling. I get to do this because all these other people are helping me get there.”

That’s what he came to. An understanding that testing the physical limits of one’s body is not about the self. “You can do it to feed your ego,” Will says. “Or, you can do it nurture your soul.  You’ve got a clear choice there, and I’ve known plenty of people that do it to feed their ego. For me though what the journey does is nurture your soul, because it does humble you, and makes you realize that you are just this one small, little piece in this whole gigantic universe, and you‘ve got a part to play, but you’re nothing in the big scheme of things. And the race is just this little blip.”

When he returned to the States with his new-found wisdom, Will set his world in motion. “I was a changed man,” he says. “And pretty much everything in my life started changing. I put things in motion to change. I officially ended the relationship. It was the right thing to do, and it was all good. Shortly thereafter, I ended my relationship with my business partner so I went out on my own again and I got another partner who I was more aligned with me in some ways. I sold my house, and made some big shifts in my life.  All of those shifts came out of being in that space in New Zealand, and looking at things differently, and knowing that I wanted something different in my future. I felt like everything I had was good, but I didn’t want to settle for good. I wanted to take the risk and go for great. And if I didn’t make it, at least I knew I went for it. Which kind of set the stage for where I am now.”

A little over three years ago, when Will was contemplating six decades of life, he thought about doing six triathlons in a single year. “I thought that would be huge,” he says.

Until he ran into a triathlete friend of his. When he mentioned his idea, she mentioned a local triathlete who had turned sixty a couple of years ago and done the same thing.

“I went back to the drawing board,” Will says. “And at some point Sixty at Sixty just sounded good. I’ve got a marketing background so from a marketing standpoint Sixty at Sixty’s got a little cache there.  So I decided to do it three years ago.”

At that point it was just an idea. “I had a bunch of iron mans under my belt by then,” he says. “I had more flexibility with my job. And I had my Uber Sherpa partner Chris Destefano. But first, I really had to do some mental gymnastics to wrap my head around it.”

Will, a methodical man, decided to test himself and his endurance. “So two years ago, after I’d done the double triathlon, I had gotten involved in this ultra-endurance community, and realized there were a lot of other crazy people out there,” he says. “I thought let me do twenty in six months, and see how that goes. That was my test to see how my body would hold up.”

Will completed all twenty, well within that time frame. “I was doing one every couple weeks,” he says. “That gave me confidence that Sixty at Sixty is a possibility. Mentally I started wrapping my head around it really well.”

But there was still something missing. He considered using 60@60 to raise money for a charity. “It had to be about more than me just going out and doing a bunch of Ironmans,” says Will. “So I ended up starting what I call Live Your Bold. A lot of what I love to do with clients is get inside their heads and help them break through those limiting beliefs and barriers they have for themselves. I thought, why don’t I take that gift, and those skill sets, and that experience I have, and use that on this journey to help other people. Use it as a way to reach out to other groups, adults and adolescents. And so I’ve put together a Live Your Bold starter kit.”

When those two ideas—60@60 and Live Your Bold—merged, Will went without sleep for three nights running. He created workshops and presentations, and then began sharing starter kits. “That’s what keeps me going to this day,” he says.

So last January 6, Will did the first triathlon race of the year down in Naples, Florida, and he was off and running to complete his quest. The next day he would celebrate his sixtieth birthday.

Over the past eleven months, Will, and his partner and Uber Sherpa, Chris, have crisscrossed this country from east to west and north to south, and they did it all overland with a teardrop trailer pulled behind them. They settled into some of the most majestic places on Earth, land that is owned by the people, America’s National Parks.

“We were connecting with America, and visiting these remarkable places,” says Will. “The Grand Tetons are one of our favorites, but I loved Glacier National Park, Yosemite, Death Valley and Big Sur. We also did the Sonoma coast and Mendocino, as well as the central coast of California. We also did Telluride. And Acadia and Vermont, both during fall foliage. Went up to the Hamptons in Long Island. Have had several in North Carolina, one Maryland’s Eastern Shore.”

Through it all, Chris stuck close to Will, providing him with constant support on every single triathlon. What’s more, Chris is a phenomenal photographer, and has taken thousands of photos chronicling their odyssey.

“The requests have been fast and furious for a coffee table book just because of all the amazing photos Chris has taken,” says Will.  “And I’m going to write another book about the whole journey itself. There’re other things I want to do with that, but a book about the journey, and the coffee table book would be the first two things.”

And he and Chris have stories about this journey that could fill volumes.

Will is particularly gratified by some of the messages he has received on social media. “I get emails and messages from people almost every day who say that they’re inspired,” he says. “Oftentimes, they’ll tell me they are going to run their first five-K, or they just ran their first marathon, or they’re thinking about doing this because they heard about my journey.”

That journey has not been without its share of some formidable bumps.

“Telluride was kind of my nemesis in this,” Will says. He had completed his swim in a pool on the other side of Dallas Divide, and was about 70 miles into his bike ride, which would end in Telluride. Chris had gone ahead to scout out the area, and when he returned to Will, he said, “I’ve got really bad news for you. There’s smoke in Telluride from a wildfire near Durango.” Telluride sits at the base of a box canyon so all the smoke from that wildfire settled in, and to breath the air there would have been equivalent of smoking seventeen cigarettes in under ten minutes.  “And so we made a tough decision at that point to pull the plug and just stop it, which is what we did,” says Will. But early this fall, the pair returned to Telluride, and Will completed a triathlon there.

Then there was a time this past June in northwest Montana near the Canadian border where Will swam in water just this side of ice. “I had to swim in Lake Coocanusa which was the worst swim I had all year long because the water was so cold,” Will says. “I came out of the water, and Chris was there waiting for me, and I was just shaking and I could barely walk. I was on the verge of hypothermia. I kind of felt like I was walking like Frankenstein, all stiff, and my teeth were rattling.”

When he posted this on line, a number of people asked why he was wearing a sleeveless wetsuit. Will explained that he didn’t have the extra $750 to purchase one (he estimates that this past year has cost about $100,000).

“A few weeks later I get and email from a friend of mine from New Zealand,” says Will. “He happened to know the blueseventy wetsuit distributor in New Zealand. So he reaches out to his friend and says, ‘I’ve got this buddy who’s doing this thing in the States, and he doesn’t have a full wetsuit. Is there anything you can do to help him out?’”

Will would eventually talk with the blueseventy CEO in Seattle, who would present him with a wetsuit. “So from across the globe, people are going out of their way to help me to get a new wetsuit out of the generosity of their own heart and spirit,” Will says.

Will Turner speaks again about being humbled, and remembers a night run through Death Valley. “There’s definitely a spiritual component to all this,” says Will. “We talked earlier about all the politics and crazy news that’s going on this year. When I’m out there on my own, I’m in my own space. I don’t hear the news. I’m not on social media. I’m with nature, and a lot of times it’s just me and nature.  One of the first triathlons I did was out in Death Valley. I’m running on a road in Death Valley in the starlight, pitch dark at night, no city lights within a hundred miles. I could see the Milky Way, I could hear the coyotes howling in the distance, and I was on this road and all I heard above the coyotes was my own footsteps on the asphalt. And I was in awe of what I was in, in touch with the universe and everything else.”



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North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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