Alex Zanardi: Champion racer, handcyclist, and now, Ironman

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The inspiring tale of Alex Zanardi has had another chapter added to it.

The former CART champion and Formula One racer that lost his legs in 2001 – only to return to the track in touring cars and become a Paralympic gold medalist in handcycling – completed the Ironman World Championship triathlon last night in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Zanardi ranked 272nd out of 2,187 competitors that finished the competition, which begins with a 2.4-mile swim, continues with a 112-mile bicycle ride, and ends with a 26.2-mile marathon run.

With no legs, Zanardi utilized a wet vest for the swimming portion that allowed him to keep his body floating and in the right position. He finished the swim in 1 hour, eight minutes, 43 seconds.

Then came the biking portion, which he tackled with his self-developed handcycle and completed in six hours, seven minutes, and 51 seconds.

Lastly came the marathon. Zanardi used an Olympic wheelchair to travel that course in two hours, 24 minutes, and 50 seconds – adding up to an overall Ironman time of nine hours, 47 minutes, 14 seconds.

After crossing the finish line, Zanardi expressed his happiness on Twitter:

In a release from BMW (for whom Zanardi races for in touring cars), he said he would “treasure this day in my heart for the rest of my life.”

“I am very proud of my performance,” he added. “The last 300 meters were worth everything, they were worth being here for. I don’t know if everybody got cheered the same way, but when I passed down that narrow lane, I have never experienced anything like that. It was amazing.

“I was always close to crying. I am not an emotional guy for these types of things, but this was very special.”

As you’d figure with the Ironman, it wasn’t easy. Zanardi said he was knocked around a bit during the open water swim, and once he got to the handcycle, he had to deal with ever-shifting winds along a course he regarded as one that “goes forever, forever, and forever.”

“It is terrible,” Zanardi explained about the cycling portion. “In the marathon, you think ‘Okay, I am there. ‘Every kilometer, you look in your little computer and you say ‘Yes, one less, one less, one less’. But to go 180 kilometers with the handcycle and to count down the kilometers takes forever. I did not know what to do to keep my mind busy.”

The challenges continued for Zanardi on the Olympic wheelchair during the marathon.

“The running part, which I completed with the wheelchair, was not that bad considering the fact that I had to do it after such a long race with the handcycle,” he said. “I was having problems climbing Palani Road, because my sweat dropped on the rims and so I had no grip on the gloves and my hands were sliding. But I can be satisfied with my time.”

However, even though he’s proud of his efforts, Zanardi revealed that he would be lying if he said he wasn’t hoping to finish the triathlon in under nine hours.

We wouldn’t be surprised to report that he accomplished said goal following his next Ironman, whenever that may be.

But for now, Zanardi will go back to being a racer again. He’ll be competing in next week’s Blancpain Sprint Series event at Zolder in Belgium.