Ironman competitor John Dermengian

In 2003, John Dermengian finished his first Ironman World Championship in Kona, widely considered the toughest test of athletic endurance in the world. The Big Island businessman competed just four years after being diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer; the resulting surgery left him without a large intestine, colon and rectum. Last year, Dermengian underwent a second surgery to remove part of his small intestine—a temporary setback for the 51-year-old, who will return for his second Ironman on Oct. 21.

photo: Robbyn Peck

Q: How did you go from just relearning everyday tasks after your surgery to competing in a race that requires you to swim 2.4 miles, bike 12 miles and run 26.2 miles within 17 hours?
I didn’t get into triathlons until after I had this radical surgery. I was a volunteer at the Ironman in 2001, and I was really inspired. The sport of triathlon is a metaphor for so many things in life—you’re out there problem solving, multitasking, thinking on your feet, finding out what you’re made of. A friend of mine carried the American flag over the finish line, and he told me, “You should think about doing this.” I was thinking, I can barely walk around the block. But there was a growing need inside of me, saying, look, I can either succumb to this, or I can take things by the horns.

Q: Didn’t people tell you you were crazy?
People probably thought I was crazy, but you have to understand the motivation when you’ve just about lost your life, and you’ve lost your dignity by having your guts taken out of you. You need to take something back. You don’t have control over what happens, and you’re grabbing for something you can control. One of the few times I could feel whole again was when I was out swimming, biking and running.

Q: When you started training, what kind of physical and nutritional considerations did you have to take?
I had to figure out a lot of things. I wear this thing with adhesive backing that’s slapped on my abdomen with a hole in it for a little piece of small intestine that comes out of me and puts effluent into this pouch. With my positions on the bike, I have to make sure I don’t bend over and pinch it off. When I swim, I don’t have as much buoyancy, because the colon is like an inner tube inside your body. My nutrition and hydration are completely different from everybody else’s. I can’t eat solid food, because it’s out of me in 20 minutes, so I can dehydrate much faster.

Q: How did your most recent surgery affect your return to Ironman this year?
This surgery left me more different than the first time. I have to learn to ride more upright, and when I swim, I feel the pain every time I make an extension stroke. It has slowed me down a bit, but I’m much better fitness-wise than I was three years ago.

Q: What do you consider the toughest part of the competition?
When you’ve run the first 10 miles, and you hit the Palani hot zone. Of the 140.6 miles, you are now 16 miles shy of finishing, and you have to dig way down. At that corner, there are thousands and thousands of spectators who are just pulling you up Palani hill. Once you’re on the top of that hill, there are fewer people, and it gets lonely. You realize it’s still a long way, and you’re tired and you’re just thinking, I have to get to the finish. You see people lying down on the ground in the dark, people walking like zombies. But the closer you get to the finish line, the more inspired you get.

Q: What is it like to finish?
A: As you make that final turn onto Ali‘i Drive, it’s a sea of people and noise. There’s a spectacular finish line, with a 50-foot jumbo screen where you can see yourself. Mike Reilly, the voice of Ironman, you can hear him saying, “You are an Ironman.” The crowd is all high-fives. Everybody grabs a piece of you. Everyone who finishes the race has accomplished something major. It says something about their discipline, their focus, the fact they’ve had to juggle their lives, families and jobs to do this race. I don’t think anybody walks out of this the same.