When Ironman World Championship triathlete surrenders, a Utah man with ALS walks him 13 miles to finish

“Finish it for us,” Utah’s Kyle Brown tells elite athlete from the Cayman Islands

St. George • Kyle Brown’s story of inspiration could have ended right there in the parking lot at Sand Hollow Reservoir.

Strewn with the skeletal frames of unclaimed bicycles and the crumpled bodies of thwarted triathletes, combined with the inescapable heat, the paved slab had become a desert of despondency. The white tent set on its perimeter, where Brown and his family had gone to mourn his own failed attempt at completing the Ironman World Championship triathlon, offered some shade but little relief.

Brown had set out Saturday morning to become just the second person with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, to finish the 140.6-mile race. It was the only unchecked item left on his bucket list and the St. George race would be his lone shot at it. Most people die within two to five years of being diagnosed with ALS. Brown, who first noticed symptoms in March 2021, doesn’t expect to live beyond the end of the year.

But his double-armed backstroke — which the Kaysville resident had resorted to because the lag in response time in his jaw could have led him to drown if he didn’t keep his face out of the water — wasn’t particularly efficient. Plus, his legs cramped from hours spent in the chilly water and the effort it took to complete the 2.4-mile slog.

So when Brown stumbled onto the boat ramp minutes before the official end of the swim, but almost an hour and a half after the 2-hour, 20-minute time cutoff for his age group, it wasn’t with a smile. By passing up innumerable opportunities to quit, he had proved his resolve. He’d also shown that people diagnosed with ALS can do more with the remainder of their lives than shop for caskets and tour burial plots.

But that wasn’t enough. He didn’t feel fulfilled.

“I want more,” he said that morning.

That night, he got his wish.

Patrick Harfield hits rock bottom

Patrick Harfield threw his tall, sinewy frame down on a shady patch of lawn midway through the 26.2-mile run, the final leg of the Ironman triathlon which twice looped athletes through the residential streets of St. George before ending downtown at Town Square. Harfield had hit his limit. Whatever nutrition he’d managed to take in throughout the race was violently working its way back out. And his body refused to allow anything back in, either.

The 45-year-old had flown more than eight hours — roughly equal to the amount of time he’d been racing before his collapse Saturday — from the Cayman Islands to compete in the Ironman World Championship. While it was his first championship, he was not one of the many athletes who benefitted when Ironman organizers opted this year to temporarily move their signature event to Utah from its 40-year home in Kona, Hawaii, to avoid another coronavirus-spurred cancellation. With more space to accommodate the racers who had been qualifying since 2019, and likely an eye toward making up the lost revenue from the scratched 2020 championship, they expanded the field by nearly a thousand to about 3,500 participants — several of whom received an invitation based on their loyalty and not the qualifying criteria.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Competitors rush into the water at in the Ironman World Championship triathlon in St. George on Saturday, May 7, 2022.

Harfield, however, had made it there on his own merits. The 2014 Cayman national champion claimed his spot in the 2020 Ironman World Championship (which was deferred to 2021 and held in St. George on Saturday) when he placed second in his age group and 12th overall at Ironman Louisville in Colorado in October 2019. Then last October, he finished second overall in the inaugural Ironman Waco in Texas, securing himself a spot in the 2022 world championships, which are expected to return to Kona this fall.

But while retching course-side Saturday, he looked nothing like the athlete that the Cayman Compass in a 2019 article had called “the fastest and fittest person in Grand Cayman.” He looked like a man who needed help.

Kyle Brown could give him some.

Harfield’s body happened to shut down just a few yards from the spot Brown and his family had picked to cheer on the racers, more than 80 of whom were teammates of Brown in the Salt Lake Tri Club. When Harfield didn’t immediately get up, Brown’s camp went to check on him. First, they offered him a drink. Then a dousing of water to cool him off. Then a motivational story to help him finish. He accepted just one of the three, and it wasn’t the story.

But Brown’s wife, Colleen, unraveled it anyway.

“She gets emotional and says, ‘This is my husband and he has ALS and he’s never done a full [Ironman] and he got pulled in the swim and he will never finish one,’” Brown recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, it was always my dream, but ….”

Brown trails off. Even with his speech slurred — one of the telltale effects of the neurodegenerative disease that causes muscle atrophy — it’s clear his emotions have trapped his words in his throat.

“Is there another one you can do?” Harfield asked.

“I said, ‘No, it’s going too fast,’” Brown said. “‘There’s no way I can do one down the road.’”

The story punctured something deep within the physically and emotionally spent Harfield, and he began to sob. His brother, he told Brown, suffers from seizures. They’ve gotten so bad, Harfield said, that his brother can no longer drive, or go anywhere or do anything.

Then, Brown surprised him. The thin man whose body is failing him, who during a “fast slide” over the span of a couple weeks in late March went from jogging to barely able to walk, offered to carry Harfield the rest of the way.

“I don’t know what came over me,” Brown, 52, said. “But I said, ‘You know what? Why don’t you finish it? I know you can’t run, but walk it. And I’ll walk it with you. Finish it because your brother, he can’t. And I can’t.

“Finish it for us.’”

Julie Jag/The Salt Lake Tribune Kyle Brown's family and friends, including his wife Colleen, center, and brother Trent, left, await the Kaysville triathlete's return to shore during the 2021 Ironman World Championships at Sand Hollow Reservoir near St. George on Saturday, May 7, 2022. Brown has Lou Gehrig's Disease and was hoping to become just the second person to complete an Ironman championship. His body didn't adjust well to the 65-degree water and he didn't finish before the 2 hour, 20 minute cutoff, but he didn't quit either. He finished the swim in 3:45:24.

On to the finish line

Harfield slowly pulled himself up off the ground. He questioned if Brown could make it that far, but upon getting the assurance that he was fit to try, the two set off down the road. It would take them three and a half hours to cover the remaining 13 miles.

Though his intention was to help Harfield, Brown found catharsis in the journey. His disappointment in his own truncated race faded into the concrete and the conversation. He also started to see the reverberations of his stoicism in the face of his illness. Occasionally someone would say they recognized him from a video Ironman had put out before he became the first person with ALS to finish a 70.3 World Championship in St. George last September. One club teammate later told Brown that the mere sight of him inspired the racer to change his mindset mid-race, from disappointed in his result to appreciative of his opportunity.

“For him to do that for me was unbelievable,” Brown said of Harfield. “But being able to walk those miles with him and get to know him and him get to know me, that was the biggest part, really.”

With a mile to go, the new friends parted ways. Brown didn’t want to get Harfield disqualified for accepting outside help, so he told him he’d see him at the finish. He’d be there, he said, when Harfield heard the words “You are an Ironman.”

What neither expected, however, was that Brown would be the first one to greet Harfield when he finally stepped through the finish line arc 12 hours, 54 minutes and 29 seconds after he started. Ironman organizers had been tipped off about what had transpired on the course. Moved by Brown’s selfless act, they allowed him to step in for a volunteer and take a finisher’s towel to Harfield.

Diana Bertsch, the senior vice president of world championship events for The Ironman Group, said in an email that Brown’s determination brought her to tears in September. On Saturday, it was his selflessness that moved her.

“Kyle continues to inspire, and his battle is nothing short of inspiring,” Bertsch wrote. “Kyle exemplifies everything it means to be an IRONMAN.”

Harfield gave Brown a bewildered look when he first saw him in the arena. Then, he wrapped him in a bear hug that lasted at least 10 seconds.

“I can’t believe what just happened,” he said.

“Thank you for doing that,” Brown said.

“No,” Harfield countered. “Thank you for doing that.”

Kyle Brown’s story could end right there in the Ironman finish area in St. George’s Town Square. But it won’t. From Harfield to his club teammates to his kids, long after he’s gone people will recall Brown’s determination to squeeze every last bit of life out of his failing body.

Brown may never complete a full Ironman, but no one can question his mettle.