Wednesday, March 14, 2007

DeSoto’s Ironman Legacy


Matthew Dale profiles pro triathlete and clothing designer Emilio DeSoto

Only unlike Al-Sultan, DeSoto went topless. More muscular than most triathletes, the Cuban-born DeSoto cut a striking image. He was one of the first to look futuristic, donning an aerodynamic helmet, with the latest shades protecting his eyes.

“I used to have some edgy haircuts,” DeSoto confessed. Flamboyant is the adjective often attached to his surname.

Long before Faris Al-Sultan turned heads with the look, Emilio DeSoto sported a racing Speedo,

“He was fit, he was good looking and he was fast,” said Bob Babbitt, co-publisher of Competitor Magazine. “And he looked good doing it.”

Today, DeSoto is 47. He has been racing since the early ’80s, etched a respectable professional career, mostly at the Olympic distance, and still lists his occupation as professional triathlete. He’s best known now as the founder of DeSoto Clothing, a triathlon-specific line he created in 1990.

As for the flamboyant tag, DeSoto scoffs. He married for the first time last September.

“Took me that long to find a woman who’d put up with me,” he said.

To celebrate his 40th birthday, DeSoto tossed his earrings into the ocean. Now he unwinds by restoring scooters and old cars. His current model under repair: a ’65 Volkswagen bug.

“I’m definitely not the attention-getting athlete I might have been in the past,” he said.

Raised in Northern California, DeSoto studied mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara, then headed to San Diego for dual purposes – to pursue an MBA and live in triathlon’s burgeoning Mecca. He developed into what he calls a “blue-collar” professional triathlete. His portfolio never rivaled Mark Allen’s or Scott Tinley’s, but he was talented enough to race across the globe, his passport being stamped in China, South Africa, Chile, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Europe.

While he didn’t pocket Allen’s appearance fees, race director’s often picked up his airfare. “Allen would be paid $5,000 to show up,” said DeSoto, who lives in San Diego’s tony beach-front La Jolla community. “A race director would pay my airfare, and I’d camp out in a tent. It was a great way to see the world.”

DeSoto has raced often at the 70.3 and Ironman distances. His last Ironman came in 2003 at Coeur d’Alene, and it was one of his most memorable events, not because of the number on the clock, but for the experience. His time that day: 14 hours, 5 minutes. Over 7 hours of that coming on the marathon.

Two days before the race, with temperatures in the 40s, DeSoto and friends shopped for cycling gloves and polypropylene tops. Come race day, temperatures soared into the 90s. After swimming 2.4 miles in 54 minutes, then riding 112 miles in 5:43, DeSoto set off for the run.

“My body just stopped absorbing fluids,” DeSoto said. “I was dehydrated.”

DeSoto said he fainted twice. The first time, at about eight miles, he said people rushed to his side, but he heard an official say, “If you assist that guy, he’ll be disqualified.”

Like a fallen boxer, DeSoto said he heard the official giving him a 10-count.

“I got up and started walking,” he said.

The second time, DeSoto strategically collapsed on a grassy knoll near a lake, cooling his head in the water.

“I had nothing to prove that day as far as how fast I can do an Ironman,” said DeSoto, who owns a 9:37 Ironman personal best. “I’d done that all my life.”

But DeSoto made the trip with friends, and he was determined to cross the finish line.

“I firmly believe character is built not by what we achieve but by what we overcome,” he said. “Quitting was not an option.”

Hanging with age groupers proved to be enlightening.

“At that point in the race, if somebody passes you, they spend time with you. If you pass them, you spend time with them,” he said. “It’s the magic a person never sees as a pro unless you experience that kind of a catastrophe.”

DeSoto said he will race another Ironman.

“Probably a number of them in the near future,” he said. “What dictates my ability (to race long distances) is the more successful we are (at DeSoto Clothing), the busier we are.”

DeSoto said his company did between $2 million and $2.25 million in sales in 2005. The company has 15 full-time employees. There are bigger tri-specific clothing companies, but DeSoto is content to keep the company at a size that enables him to live a balanced life. He teaches spinning, races regularly, surfs and likes to snowboard via helicopter in Canada.

“So many companies are hellbent on growth for numbers’ sake,” said respected coach and race director Paul Huddle. “Or for the sake of pleasing stockholders. That’s what you’re supposed to do in business. But Emilio seems to have what a lot of people would like to have, but it’s human nature not to have it. And that’s to arrive at a place where he says, ‘This is enough. It allows me to maintain my lifestyle. I’m big enough.’ ”

DeSoto long had an eye for fashion. As a 11-year-old kid he’d take jeans his mother bought, tear holes in them, bleach them and rub them with rusted metal to create the distressed look. He’d cut long-sleeve shirts into short sleeves. He’d remove buttons off jean, replacing them with multi-colored buttons.

His triathlon innovations include the two-piece wetsuit, vented arm sleeves for the bike that cool the rider and the transition backpack.

DeSoto still races frequently, predominantly at the Olympic distance and his times have not slowed significantly.

About DeSoto seemingly being ageless, Huddle said’ “It’s phenomenal. Downright amazing.”

The key to racing fast in middle-age, said DeSoto, is to not overtrain and include intervals in many of your workouts. One of his favorite track interval workouts: eight 200s, four 400s, two 800s and one 1,600. One of his favorite spinning workouts: three minutes hard, three minutes easy for an hour.

“If you start going on a long, slow run every day or a steady bike ride every day, after a while your body adapts to the stress and won’t change much,” he said.

For DeSoto, the blessing is that his vocation and avocation are intertwined. The scene for a recent meeting with a business associate: a 90-minute run.

“When I started, I knew I’d be involved in the sport for the rest of my life,” DeSoto said. “One thing I’ve never experienced (since then) is physical or mental burnout.”

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