It starts in the water: a choppy current and a mouthful of algae. Spinning arms and feet kicking him in the face below murky waters. He turns to breathe, but all he gets is a massive gulp of water. He looks up to the finish after 2.4 miles -- officials lining the shore to help pull him from the wake -- but it's really only the beginning.
Next is the bike: 112 miles of undulating hills, aching quads and a neck that feels like it might snap from the spine. His buttocks go from miserably sore to numb, and he starts to count down each mile. Finally, he turns the corner, with another finish in sight. He dismounts the bike, winds his way back to the transition area and exchanges his cycling gear for running shoes.
This time it's a marathon: 26.2 miles of running, step after step pounding against concrete. A searing pain pulses through his hamstrings, his calf muscles feel like they might explode and blisters bulge between his toes. He curses, summoning every ounce of grit he has left. And then he sees it. The real finish line.
Instantly, the misery subsides, overcome by an inexplicable power. Somehow he musters up a sprint, racing through the sidelines of cheering onlookers, streetlights illuminating the dark path. A voice comes over the loud speakers, "Hunter Temple, you are an Ironman."
And then it all makes sense. The hours of training, the sacrifice, the pain -- all of it. In this moment, Hunter Temple is invincible.
At 83 years old, Temple, a retired teacher and education administrator, is well-versed in triathlons. He's raced for Team USA at least five times, competed in a number of marathons, swum in events like the Alcatraz Sharkfest, a 1.5-mile open-water competition in San Francisco; qualified for and finished the Aquabike National Championship; and has finished "too many (triathlons) to count," including at least five 140.6-mile Ironman events.
Though some may think he is "too old" to compete, Temple argues competition is what keeps him young. "I'm a very competitive person," Temple said with a laugh. "What's with this '83 is old' business?"
Temple, who was just added in May to the Pomfret Athletic Hall of Fame (at his prep school alma mater in Connecticut), said there's nothing he hates more than people looking at the age written on his calf during a race and telling him that he's their hero, despite good intention.
"To be told 'you're my idol' as they pass you by … it gets to you," he said. "I hate it."
Temple's passion, or "obsession," as he admits, began after he confiscated a triathlon magazine from a student in the mid-80s at the Brentwood School in Los Angeles, where he served as head of the school for several years. Flipping through the pages, he figured "why not" try a triathlon.
Temple had already been running for several years as an incentive to quit smoking and said he never expected that the endurance sport would "become his life." "I haven't become that obsessed with it, have I?," he asked his wife Priscilla, nicknamed "Cilla."
"Oh no, never!" she responded.
"Are you being sarcastic?"
"Yes!" she exclaimed, and he erupted in laughter. In 1985, Temple competed in his first triathlon, an Olympic distance race in Monterey, California. A "newbie" to the sport, Temple, who moved to Santa Fe in 2001, had to borrow a wetsuit and rode a "really cheap bike," one with a broken spoke that he said he had to carry up and down every hill. By all measures, the race "wasn't fun," but something about it just felt right.
"I was hooked," he said, adding that he's probably raced two or three triathlons every year since. "Your body gets to go through three different experiences. … You can't do that in other sports."
For nearly 30 years, Temple's weekly schedule was packed with swim workouts, tempo runs, long Sunday bike rides and weightlifting routines -- all while juggling his marriage, raising three kids and working a full-time job.
Five years after his first triathlon, Temple completed his first full Ironman at the World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii, the sport's most prestigious event, in 12 hours, 49 minutes and 25 seconds. Because he hadn't qualified for the event, a prerequisite today, and was instead entered via a lottery, he said he worked extra hard to prepare.
"I didn't think I deserved to go, so I trained like crazy," he said, adding commitment is mostly mental. Pointing to his head, he said, "If you got it up here, that's all it takes."
This is true of life in general, said Temple.
In the last 20-plus years, he's had a knee replacement, was misdiagnosed with pancreatic cancer, broke his hip, dislocated his shoulder and ruptured an Achilles tendon. It was only a year and a half after his misdiagnoses with pancreatic cancer that he crashed his bike at mile 90 in Kona. For 22 miles, Temple continued to ride, not knowing he had broken his hip.
And after recovering from the injury, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
But hardships aren't what define him, he says, and the obstacles tested his endurance far beyond the sport.
"If it's something you enjoy doing, you find a way to keep doing it," he said.
Beyond triathlons, Temple said his family, specifically, marrying his wife, is his life's biggest accomplishment.
"I wouldn't be where I am without her. There's no doubt about it," he said of Cilla, who spends her days painting landscapes in their home in Santa Fe. "She's very special."
Cilla agrees. "We've been married 62 years," she said with a smile, adding they've been together since they were teens. "We're not sick of each other yet!"
Cilla credits her husband's passion for his longevity. "He's very strong. If he hadn't been doing this, I don't think he'd have weathered these health crises," she said. "You have to follow your passions, certainly when you get to be our age."
Now that Temple's starting to feel his age, he said he's ready to shift gears. For two years now, he's been focusing more on Aquabike competitions -- a biathlon, sans running -- and he says he might be done racing triathlons.
"At 83 it's hard to go running," he said, adding that he's been walking the running portion of triathlons for about three years now. "I'll walk three [miles], jog two."
Although he's fast enough in the water and on the bike to "still make cutoff times by walking," nowadays even walking 26.2 miles is "too much for my body."
And because he loves swimming the most, he's excited to spend most of his time in the water.
"I'm always the first one out of the water. You can tell by how many bikes are left on the rack," he laughed.
Temple's most recent triathlon was the Olympic-distance SuperSeal in California a few months ago. Since the race, Temple has been fighting off an ear infection and vertigo. He said the run "finished me."
"My next goal, assuming I can get over this dizzy business, is to go to Aquabike Nationals in Miami and then to qualify for Worlds in 2019, which is in Spain," he said, adding that he will be moved up an age group by that time.
To prepare, he trains in his "play room," using a Tour de France spin bike, an elliptical machine and an infinity pool. Like with any race, he's most looking forward to the morning of the race, rising at around 4 a.m., eating his prerace oatmeal and heading to the transition area by the light of his headlamp.
"I regret that I don't have the stamina that I used to have. I regret that I don't have the speed that I used to have," Temple said, adding that he admits to beating himself up. "But so is everybody else in my age group!"