In 1983, fresh out of college, Dean Cosgrove thought he was fit.
"I was pretty big … pumping a lot of iron," he said. "I could bench 300 pounds, no problem."
Then one day, a friend offered a challenge. There was a new sport — swim, bike and run — all in one event. If Cosgrove was really the athlete he thought he was, he should have no problem completing this "triathlon."
So the 6-foot, 220-pound exercise physiologist dusted off his ancient 10-speed, picked out an old pair of Converse All-Stars and headed to the beach.
"It was a humiliating experience," he said. "I was the last guy out of the water and a 90-year-old lady passed me on the bike. I came away with a new appreciation for cardiovascular fitness."
Shortly after his first triathlon, Cosgrove heard about a new endurance event in Hawaii. Sports Illustrated and ABC's Wide World of Sports had both covered the swim, bike and run around the island of Oahu.
It all started in 1977, when U.S. Navy Cmdr. John Collins convinced a group of Navy SEALS to combine the Waikiki Rough Water swim, the Around Oahu Bike Race and the Honolulu Marathon into one event.
Collins declared that the winner of this race would be officially christened the "Ironman." Fifteen men participated in the inaugural event. Twelve finished.
"It sounded wild," said Cosgrove, now a 48-year-old from Tarpon Springs. "I knew that it was something that I just had to do."
Cosgrove started training, and gradually, over the years, he built up his mileage. In 1990, at age 30, he entered his first Ironman, finishing the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run in 14 hours and 44 minutes.
He hasn't missed one since.
Eyes on the prize
Cosgrove, who founded the Tarpon Springs Wellness Associates, never planned on setting the record for the consecutive Ironmans.
"It just sort of happened," he said. "I'm not a tri geek. I don't need all the latest gadgets. I just swim, bike and run because it helps me keep in shape."
In general, Cosgrove has gotten faster as he has gotten older. Several times over the years his time has suffered as a result of illness or bike trouble.
"The amazing thing is that I have been able to remain pretty much injury-free," he said. "That is no easy task."
Cosgrove's secret is a holistic approach to health and fitness. "It takes body, mind and spirit," he said. "All three need to be in synch."
He is careful not to overtrain.
"Everyone gets 168 hours a week," he said. "If you sleep seven hours a night and work 40 hours a week, that leaves 79 hours."
During peak season, the months leading up to the race, Cosgrove trains 12 to 18 hours a week. That includes 300 miles of biking, 30 to 40 miles of running and six to eight hours of swimming.
"I still do some strength training," he said. "I think that helps keep everything together."
Anyone can do it
Cosgrove laughs at the notion that he may soon become the Ironman's Ironman.
"People ask why I do triathlons and I tell them it is because I like being able to go play golf," he said. "You are better at everything when you are in shape."
He credits his family's support with helping him stay focused.
His 18-year-old daughter, Kailand, is the top-ranked triathlete for her age group in the United States. Daughter Erin, 20, is also an accomplished triathlete, having won her age group in the St. Anthony's Triathlon and San Francisco's Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon.
Cosgrove, who has a Ph.D. in health science and undergraduate degrees in nursing and neuromuscular therapy, believes that anybody can complete an Ironman distance triathlon with enough training and preparation.
"It is like building a house," he said. "If you have a good foundation, you will save yourself a lot of trouble down the road."