MATTOON -- A veteran of Ironman Challenge races, a large-scale test of endurance, Bob Zollmann, 47, of Mattoon normally knew what to expect as he approached the finish line.

In the past three races he participated in and completed, the excitement of merely surviving the challenge and making it to the end was what ran through his mind as he inched closer.

The Ironman Challenge race call for participants to swim 2.4 miles, bike 116 miles and run 26 miles all within a day, before midnight.

But on Sept. 25 at the Chatanooga, Tenn. Ironman Challenge race, Zollmann’s mind was wrapped around a question he had for Chris Myers, his girlfriend: Will you marry me?

“It helped push me,” Zollmann said. “This is what I planned on for the last two months. I need to make this happen.”

Bent down on one, right after he finished the race, he got the answer he was looking for: yes.

“I will probably never live long enough to surprise someone as much as I did (with the proposal),” he said.

Despite his previous outings, the roundabout journey to get to finish line was a not an easy one.

Zollmann and another local participant Dan Henry, 49, of Arcola just so happened to participate in one of the most challenging Ironman events ever recorded along with more than 2,700 contestants, Zollmann said.

Zollmann said the 39 percent of listed participants did not start or did not finish. According to the Ironman Challenge website, the event saw much slower times than expected from those that did finish.

“The last Ironman I did was in 2013, and I finished over two hours faster,” Zollmann noted.

On top of an additional 4 miles added to what should have been a 112-mile bike ride, high heat and humidity greeted the contestants with a heat index of 104 degrees, and an additional 4 miles added to the bike portion of race, the participants were greeted by temperatures reaching 97 degrees heat with a humidity around 80 percent along their day-long trek.

Zollmann said the heat was the real challenge throughout.

“This is brutal,” Zollmann recalls saying to Myers on the race trail.

While he had participated in various triathlons before, this was Henry’s first crack at the Ironman event, so the entire experience was very new.

“I didn't know any better,” Henry said. “It was on my bucket list.”

The effect the heat had on the two was visible and tangible, Henry said.

He said going along the trail, he noticed himself, as well as others, get delirious on the trail.

“I was truly blown away by all the people who were not making it, all of the ambulances, all of the mass carnage,” Henry said. “People were passing out. People were throwing up.”

Both depicted an emergency personnel-ridden landscape. Zollmann said you would see emergency personnel taking two to three people at a time on golf carts adding you would only see a fraction of these in better conditions.

However, Henry said it was very meaningful seeing a number of volunteers along the track willing to help out and cheer on the participants. Henry might not have made it to the finish in time if one volunteer hadn’t run with him and pushed him along.

“I had a lady pick me up with two miles left before I crossed the bridge coming back into town, and kinda drug me that last two miles to the finish,” he said. “I wouldn't have made it in time (otherwise). I didn't have the drive left to do it.”

Zollmann said, even around so many people with family and friends included, it is a lonely sport and seeing volunteers offer up time to racers is meaningful.

“You have no concept of how meaningful that is,” Zollmann said.

Both were able to make it and return home with medals of their victories over the event.

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Jarad Jarmon is a reporter for the JG-TC. He covers the city of Charleston, Eastern Illinois University, Mattoon schools and the Regional Office of Education.

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