“It was a challenge, but one I knew I could handle because of the great team around me at UB&T.”
The sun was just starting to rise; the temperature was hovering around 50 degrees. Steve Eager was ready – as much as he could be – for the most physically challenging day of his life.
It was Sunday, September 7, 2014. The day Eager had been spent months training for – Ironman.
7 a.m. and the gun went off.
Donning a swim cap and wetsuit, Eager jumped into the waters of Lake Monona, with a couple thousand other men and women; one stroke after another – the day had begun.
Eager had 17 hours to cross the finish line and here those iconic words “You are an Ironman.”
Training with Purpose
Eager is the President & CEO of Union Bank & Trust Company (UB&T) headquartered in Evansville with locations in Oregon, Belleville, New Glarus and Brooklyn. The Eager family took ownership of the bank in 1916. The bank survived the Great Depression and then the national financial crisis in 2008. Today – UB&T is still strong and poised for the future with a leader who is a driver of adopting new technologies to be the best partner for the bank’s clients.
In 2014, Eager’s days became a lot more scripted. He had a bank to run and he wouldn’t let that slip while he trained. Training began for Eager seven months before the day he joined more than 2,900 others in a grueling 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and 26.2-mile run.
“It was a challenge, but one I knew I could handle because of the great team around me at UB&T,” said Eager.
At 52 years old, Eager has a competitive spirit and wanted to prove he could channel it into something as mentally and physically challenging as Ironman.
“I have done six JDRF [Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation] Ride to Cure bicycle events,” said Eager. “They are each 100 miles, so I knew I could do the 112-mile bike ride. What I didn’t know is if I could do the ride after swimming more than two miles and then run a marathon afterwards.”
With age comes an aging body. Eager shattered his femur in 1991 while cross-country skiing causing arthritis to set in. In the early 2000’s, Eager tore his meniscus while playing basketball. Those injuries left him skeptical about being able to run a marathon. That skepticism led Eager to train for the run portion of the race on an elliptical trainer.
“I did 95% of my running indoors, which is a bit unusual when training for a marathon,” said Eager. “Did that leave me wondering how I would do on race day? Absolutely. But, I didn’t want to give all I had in training that would leave me in worse shape for the actual race.”
He also had a strategy.
“I have been told that if you do well enough on the swim and bike you could walk the marathon and still finish before the cutoff,” Eager explained. “That was reassuring.”
There were good training days and bad training days over the thirty weeks of training. An Ironman-in-training puts in hours upon hours in preparing their body. Eager estimates he put in eighteen hours a week during his peak training regime. That’s six days of workouts a week – sometimes swimming in the morning before going into the bank, then running or biking in the evening after work.
At UB&T, his co-workers gave him the support he needed to take a little extra time to head to a nearby lake some mornings. His family, especially his wife Amy, knew she might not see her husband until after dark. His friends – some training for Ironman as well – were there when he needed a person in a kayak alongside him navigating the chilly, choppy waters on a brisk morning or pushing him to make the one last climb up Midtown Road on their second time through the bike course.
“Physically completing the race was on me,” said Eager. “Emotionally it was on my entire family, my friends and co-workers. I couldn’t have done this without them. I know it sounds cliché, but it’s the truth.”
That support was there throughout Eager’s training, but it was even more evident on race day. Friends, family and co-workers lined the swim start line. They spread out over the bike and run courses with signs and costumes as well as t-shirts and a banner that read, “We Believe in Steve.”
“Seeing everyone out there all day with me gave me a boost of energy,” Eager said with a smile. “The cheers and costumes take your mind off of the pain you might be feeling – for a little bit anyway.”
While the support helped push Eager through, it was still a feat he had to finish on his own.
“You do a lot of self-talk over those hours,” Eager said. “That’s why endurance events are as much physical as they are mental challenges.”
Two weeks before the race, Eager caught some sort of stomach bug; he lost ten pounds in just three days. That’s something you can’t plan for in your training spreadsheet. This type of weight loss likely played a role in Eager’s performance in the race, considering the importance of nutrition and muscle mass in endurance events like an Ironman. He could start eating normally a few days prior to race day and felt pretty much back to normal, but Eager couldn’t put back on all of the weight he lost.
“The swim went pretty well, but I could tell my stomach still wasn’t right,” Eager said. The last thirty miles on the bike was a low point for me. I didn’t feel well. My feet were on fire. I wasn’t using proper techniques, which added to the burn.”
At one point, Eager was going 45 miles per hour down a large hill called Timberlane. It’s a well-known hill in the area.
“I figured I wasn’t going to slow down now,” Eager stated. “I had a lot of road ahead of me so I had to take advantage of the downhill.”
When Eager got off the bike after 112 miles, he didn’t think he could run 26.2 miles. He changed into his tennis shoes and put one foot in front of the other.
“One step at time,” said Eager. “That’s all I could do.”
During the run, Eager saw people in worse shape then he was; people were getting sick on the side of the road. The sight makes you wonder – why put themselves through it?
“If you trained well enough and planned well enough, that shouldn’t happen to you,” Eager said. “Having said that, you just don’t know what could be thrown your way on race day.”
You Are an Ironman
The weather on that Sunday in September was great. It climbed into the upper 70’s. The sun was strong.
“I realized what it means to be out in the sun from sun up to sun down,” said Eager. “I have a new appreciation for people who work outside – like farmers. They have a tough job and I am grateful for what they endure to put food on our tables.”
Throughout the afternoon, the finish line swelled with spectators as they converged to see friends and family come in. 17 hours from the start – midnight was the time to beat.
Athletes continued to cross the finish line, as the sun set, with the Capitol building as the backdrop, however, not everyone got to feel the jubilation of rounding the corner of Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard to the sounds of hundreds of spectators cheering. Many athletes didn’t meet the cutoffs throughout the day, and some had to stop because of an injury or exhaustion.
It was now 11 p.m. and the crowd grew with excitement as the final hour began. It’s an hour marked with great stories of struggle and perseverance as athletes run, walk and at times, drag their tired bodies across the finish line.
As the clock ticked, word spread among family, friends and co-workers who had gathered at the finish line that Eager was just a couple miles away. It sounds close, but the last few miles can be mixed with pain accumulated throughout the day as well as knowing the end is near. Will you be able to continue on when the pain is so great and make it before midnight?
Under the dark sky, lit up with bright lights like a runway, Steve Eager turned that final corner toward the finish line.
“The level of energy was amazing,” Steve recalled. “I couldn’t believe all the people out there so late at night to cheer for us. While I do wish I would have been a little faster, it was pretty neat to experience the finish line at night.”
At 11:31 p.m., 16 hours and 31 minutes after stepping into the water, Steve Eager crossed the finish line and heard the words “You are an Ironman.”
“’Wow,” Eager said. “I did it. It was a lofty goal and I did it.
Indeed, he had finished one of the most difficult races a person can do. But the real question – one that many Ironmen get is – will you do it again?
“I can understand why people do it again to improve their time, but I am one and done,” exclaimed Eager. “I can check that off my bucket list!”
One thing for sure is September 7th proved what friends, family and co-workers all felt from the beginning and will continue to say – “We Believe in Steve.”