In the summer of 1999, Father Dan Callahan, SA, signed up for the Ironman in Lake Placid.
It was the first time the village in the Adirondacks held the Ironman event – the triathlon that involves a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride around the region and 26.2-mile run through the community.
But before he set out on his journey, Father Dan suggested receiving sponsorship. Raising money for St. Joseph’s Addiction Treatment and Recovery Centers, he thought, would be a noble idea. Father Artie Johnson, SA, the head of St. Joseph’s at the time, then came up with a moniker.
“He said, ‘What are we going to do? Call you the ‘Iron Friar?’” Father Dan explained. “I said, well, there’s my handle. The name was born because of his sarcasm.”
Although formed in jest, the nickname has stuck with Father Dan ever since.
On Sunday, July 24, the 71-year-old “Iron Friar” will return to Lake Placid to compete in the Ironman – what he says will be his final Ironman event – capping off a long and storied career competing in the triathlon.
Father Dan has participated in several past Ironman events, not only in Lake Placid, but across North America. He recently took second in his age group in the Tupper Lake Tinman competition, in which he swam 1.2 miles, biked 56 miles and ran 13.1 miles.
Before participating this year, Father Dan sat down with Graymoor communications specialist A.J. Martelli, and chatted about how he got involved in the Ironman competition, how he intertwines faith into his races and how he’s gained status as a “minor celebrity” in the Lake Placid area.
Tell us about your first memories competing in the Ironman
My first Ironman was 25 years ago. And it was a race called the Esprit race, which was an Ironman distance run in Montreal. My sister and brother-in-law did the Ironman in 1992 in Hawaii and they gave me a ticket to be with them. The two of them finished arm-in-arm, together. I thought they were crazy. Anybody who would do that has to be out of their mind, I thought. But I said, “Yes, I’ll go and I’ll be there.” But when they finished, and all these other people were finishing, all of the sudden it became a human event and something I said, “Oh, my goodness. Isn’t this marvelous?”
I started doing half-Ironman around 1992 in California, I just did one off the cuff … I signed for the Ironman in 1999, the inaugural one in Lake Placid and I completed it, I did it.
I understand there’s a special Mass you celebrate the night before the event each year?
We started having a Mass at St. Agnes Church (in Lake Placid) for the Ironman contestants and their families the night before the race. There was also, in those days, a huge dinner the night before – it was a pasta-load, they called it. And there was a tent, it must have had between 8,000 and 10,000 people in it. And so, I did the opening prayer, the invocation. Because as an Atonement Friar, I can pray in a way that’s going to be open to all faith traditions, so I can be sensitive to that. Then we started doing that every year. So I used to do that invocation and I would do the Mass at St. Agnes for the Catholics. It just became a tradition. Every year I would do it and the Mass was so crowded. It was more crowded than their Easter and Christmas Masses, because the athletes were there in town, and of course, their families. A lot of people!
Celebrating the Mass is always wonderful because it’s a time to evangelize and use a very powerful and important moment for these people and for their families. To help them to see a parallel between the race and salvation.
So it’s very easy to connect faith with the Ironman competition?
Yes. St. Paul often used that. He talked about the runners in the race and the whole thing about ‘this cloud of witnesses,’ the saints in Heaven praying for us and waiting for us to cross the finish line into Heaven. And a triathlon is a time where you’re entering the water, as we enter the waters of baptism.
I always use it to help people see that life and prayer and salvation are all united. God became human in Jesus Christ so that our humanity can become like Christ, in whatever we do.
Do you ever find yourself praying while you’re swimming, or biking or running during the Ironman?
Always! As often as I possibly can. It gives you time and space to pray, because all you’re doing is swimming or biking or running. You’re not really in a dialogue or in the midst of problems with other people. You’re not problem solving or taking care of other people’s needs. You’re not celebrating a Mass. You’re doing exercise with a mind that is free to pray. So yes, it’s a great opportunity to pray always and never lose heart!
The media over the years has profiled your exploits as the Iron Friar. What’s that been like, to be in the spotlight in that way?
The funniest one, I think, was in 2001. The press got ahold of the fact that this Friar was running the Ironman. They had me in this pool of people, with all the elite racers. They’re going down the line and asking all these famous triathletes, “What’s your strategy for winning?” And they would say what their strategy was.
Finally, there I am. “Father Dan, what’s your strategy for winning?”
I said, “Well. I am a darn good swimmer. I get in the water, I come back. All the bikes are there. I get on my bike, I go out and I come back. All the bikes are there. These people never leave, it’s not fair!”
I don’t compete, I complete! That’s the strategy. The good thing about Ironman, in a very real way, it’s everybody’s own race. Triathletes tend to respect one another, not on a highly competitive level. Some of the elites might compete with another on a highly competitive basis, but for most, it’s a matter of trying to do the best you can that day. Some people complete and some don’t. Do as much as you can and be healthy! That’s the attitude.
And having competed for so many years, people know you pretty well?
With somebody like me, who is participating, it’s a real time to just walk with people. Those people will say, “Thank you so much, Father Dan, for that Mass last night. Your prayers and what you said is really getting me through this!”
In 2012, Mike Reilly, who is the voice of Ironman – he’s written a book and dedicated part of it to me, because I say the Mass every year. He said, “Hey, Father Dan, how are you doing?” Then there was Graham Fraser, who was the original CEO of Ironman, who used to live in Lake Placid. I think I baptized one of his kids. He said, “Hey Father Dan, how are you doing?”
Then there were all the elites who were there for the Hall of Fame that was being opened. My sister asked me, “How do you know all these people?” I said, “They know me!”
I’ve become a little bit of a local celebrity at Lake Placid. Everybody knows me in town.
What’s the expectation for this year?
I’m confident with the swim, I’m confident with the bike. The run I’ll do the best I can. I’m confident I’ll be able to finish. Whether or not I finish before midnight, I will see. By God’s grace, I hope to.
Support Father Dan
Father Dan is competing to raise funds for St. Christopher’s Inn, an addiction treatment center and a ministry of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.
Click here to donate!