Cecil Cheves wanted to make a statement of life on his 60th birthday.
He did — with an exclamation point.
Cheves, a Columbus attorney, ran 60 miles, biked 60 miles and swam 60 laps on a Lake Oliver course.
And he did it just under 26 hours, finishing about 9:30 p.m. Saturday in the waters behind his Green Island home.
“What a wonderful experience,” Cheves said.
Wonderful and wracked with self torture.
What made it so wonderful was not only the significant endurance feat, but the fact that about 40 of Cheves’ friends and family showed up to share a slice of the misery.
Some ran with him. Others biked. Others, including his 12-year-old grandson, Lucas Wolff, swam.
But, to whom was Cheves making this statement of life and fitness?
“Everybody,” he said. “There is so much joy we as human beings get out of physical exercise. But sharing it with others is part of the joy for me.”
Cheves, who turned 60 Wednesday, didn’t just wake up Friday morning and decide he was going to test the outer reaches of his 160-pound body. It took him 15 years and many hours of training to reach a point that caused some to wonder, including one of his three daughters, about his sanity.
Learning to run
Cheves had been a good basketball player at Columbus High and continued to play YMCA ball as an adult. But in August 1994, he found another release after he signed up for the Country’s Midnight Run.
“I had never run three miles in my life,” Cheves said. “I barely got through it. The next morning I was so sore I couldn’t even go to church.”
He only ran for about 30 minutes that night, but Cheves found something that appealed to him. In basketball, one competes against others. In running, the competition is internal.
Four years later, he was doing his first marathon — 26.2 miles. He has since done 40 in about 15 states with a personal best of 3 hours and 33 minutes. In 2006, Cheves ran a marathon a month for an entire year. It prompted his regular running group to name his Runner of the Year.
While he was running, Cheves was also cycling. He completed his first century — a 100-miler — in hilly Cartersville, Ga., in 2001.That day he discovered he was a long way from combining the two endurance sports. After the bike ride, which finished near a high school track, Cheves wanted to see how long he could run.
“I couldn’t even finish a lap,” he said.
But he kept training 20 to 25 hours a week.
After a few more marathons and long bike rides, he was ready for a bigger challenge. He found it in Ironman Triathlons. To finish an Ironman, someone must run 26.2 miles. bike 112 miles and swim 2.4 miles.
Cheves competed his first one in 2003 in Panama City Beach, Fla., after two years of serious training.
He has since completed eight Ironmans with a best time of 11 hours, 53 minutes in Panama City Beach five years ago.
“All of it is a personal inner challenge,” Cheves said. “But it has a lot of benefits. Aside from the obvious health benefits, it gives you self confidence. And it’s fun. You meet a lot of interesting people.”
All of that training led Cheves to last weekend, and his most significant athletic accomplishment.
One his running buddies, Reynold Counts started the wheels turning on the 60/60/60.
“He said, ‘why don’t we run a 60-miler on your 60th birthday,’” Cheves said. “At that point, I thought, ‘Why not see if I can do it?’”
Even though the longest run he had ever completed was about 30 miles, Cheves decided to add the biking and swimming to an already near impossible feat.
At the point he decided to do it, he didn’t want it to be all about him, so he contacted Honor Flight. It’s an organization that flies World War II veterans to Washington D.C. to see the World War II memorial. It’s planning to take a group of Columbus-area veterans next month, and Cheves used his adventure to raise money.
He expects to raise at least $10,000 for Honor Flight.
“There was enough buzz about what I was trying to do, I wanted to take the focus off me,” he said. “A few people pledged $1 a mile, but it was a soft sell. I just wanted to create the awareness, and people could contribute as they felt led.”
The adventure started Friday night at the National Infantry Museum, which served as the rest spot and changing station for Cheves.At 7:27 p.m. Cheves, and 27 other runners, left the museum for the first 13-mile loop on Fort Benning.
Most of the runners peeled away after a few miles.
But six of Cheves’ regular running buddies — Count, John Teeples, Mac Flowers, Keith Williams, Troy Espritu and Mike Chancey — committed for the long haul. All of them are ultra-marathoners and have done runs exceeding the 60 miles Cheves was trying to accomplish.
Teeples, 45, is one of the state’s top ultra-marathoners. He has run 240 miles across Georgia in four days and regularly competes in endurance events.
“It is more mental than physical,” he said of Cheves’ challenge.
The mental breaking point appeared to come about 57 miles into the run. Not far from Doughboy Stadium at Fort Benning, Cheves started to throw up. His stomach was rebelling against the 15-hour diet of Gatorade and sweet fruit.
Cheves had serious concerns.
“My first thought was, ‘if I can’t get this together, I won’t be able to physically do this,’” Cheves said.
Flowers watched as Cheves struggled to get it together.
“He’s in rough shape, hopefully he will rebound,” Flowers said.
Cheves somehow finished the run in 15 hours and 27 minutes, his friends encouraging him the final mile on the Chattahoochee Riverwalk back to the Infantry Museum with gallows humor and song.
Bringing it home
He took an hour to regroup before starting the bike ride. As he waited to send his grandfather off on the bike ride, 10-year-old Levi Wolff was asked what he thought.
“He’s trying to kill himself,” said Levi, whose grandfather already has the grandchildren doing mini triathlons.
As Cheves regrouped, his wife of nearly 40 years, Bettye, was close by.
“Watching my man,” she said. She was there the whole way with drink, food and support.
Cheves’ son-in-law, Luke Wolff, a Columbus physician, was watching closely as they readied for the bike ride.
“I am glad I will be around to keep an eye on him,” Wolff said. “I can let him know if I think he has pushed it past what he should.”Wolff, Brooks Yancey and Alan Rothschild joined Cheves on the bike as most of the runners went home.
As the noon warning siren was going off, the riders headed onto Fort Benning, where the ride would take Cheves around Lawson Army Airfield and along the drop zones on the Alabama side of the river.
It took 6 hours 24 minutes on the bike counting breaks.
At 7:30 Saturday night, more than 24 hours after he started, Cheves jumped into Lake Oliver for a 1.67-mile swim. He did it in an hour and 59 minutes.
His legs started to cramp, but he was swimming in shallow water than allowed him to walk it out.
It was then that Kim Freeman, who had done parts of the run, bike ride and swim, saw the toll it was taking.
“He would get though it, then he was smiling again,” Freeman said.
As he made the turn for his final lap in the waist-deep water, Cheves turned to Freeman and her fiancee Joey Mixon.
“He said as he prepared for this, the one thing he didn’t prepare for was the support from his friends,” she said.
Bettye jumped in the lake, fully clothed, and swam the last lap with her husband.
When it was over, family and friends, many of whom had done a little of the challenge with him, popped champagne and ate cake,The friends wanted to be there.
“All I can say about Cecil is he is truly, at the heart, one of the most inspiring people I have known,” Freeman said. “He was so humble. When it was over and we were having fellowship, the focus was never one him or ‘Look, see what I have done.’”
But it was Counts, nearly 12 hours earlier when Cheves was throwing up and the challenge looked lost, who summed up what everybody was thinking.
“When he turns 70,” Counts joked, “we are going to act like we don’t know him.”