For the better part of the past three decades, Van McCarty has spent a good portion of his free time living in a state of being comfortably uncomfortable.
It’s the life he chose as an extreme endurance athlete, constantly pushing the mental and physical boundaries that make competing in such a grueling sport possible.
The soft spoken 45-year-old San Luis Obispo resident is well known within the local running community. He has more than 100 distance races under his belt and has qualified for the Ironman World Championships five times.
You don’t have to look far for an example of what sets McCarty apart from the pack.
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On the last day of April, McCarty completed the Wildflower Long Course Triathlon at Lake San Antonio — a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run — in 4 hours, 48 minutes, 54 seconds, finishing first in his age group and 10th overall in a field of more than 500 participants.
The next morning, McCarty approached the starting line at the fifth annual SLO Marathon, an event he won during its inaugural year in 2012. McCarty ran his way to an unexpected third-place finish, completing the 26.2-mile course in 2:42:33, nearly a minute faster than the previous year.
“I didn’t even want to race the marathon,” said McCarty, who works as the Accounts Payable supervisor in the business office at Cal Poly. “Even that morning when I got to the start, I still felt horrible. My legs were just dead.”
Yet, there McCarty was, grinding through another race on the way to a better-than-expected time at his home course, relying on years and years of diverse training.
The father of two — Kate, 12, and Parker, 10 — focuses on myriad events throughout a given year, competing in Ironman competitions (more on that soon), marathons and trail ultras.
Samantha Pruitt, the founder and CEO of Race SLO, said McCarty is the first person to complete the triathlon-marathon double on consecutive days.
“He is not a leader-coach type, but a solo hardcore dedicated athlete year round,” Pruitt said. “… He regularly schools the young bucks, but in a nice way, and is an inspiration to athletes of all levels.”
Growing up in Fresno, McCarty enjoyed playing soccer and baseball as a kid and competed in tennis during high school. It wasn’t until he entered college at Fresno State that he was introduced to endurance sports, when a group of friends sparked his interest in racing road bikes.
McCarty moved with his wife, Lisa, who teaches kindergarten, to San Luis Obispo in 1996 and, feeling burned out on bike racing, he naturally started meeting people involved in the local triathlon scene. The idea of training for three events — swim, bike, run — was much more appealing.
“Running I just found so enjoyable,” McCarty said. “Just how simple it was and I found out I was pretty good at it and that got me excited to keep pushing, keep trying to get faster.”
McCarty estimates he completes about seven to 10 races per year, varying from the light-hearted half-marathons in Santa Barbara to the Ironman World Championships. According to the race results website Athlinks.com, McCarty has finished 113 races, covering 5,651 miles since his first entry in 2000.
When asked if that number sounds accurate, McCarty begins to rattle off his achievements: 14 Ironmans, 30 half-Ironmans, 12 marathons, 12 half-marathons, 20 trail races. There’s nothing routine about Ironman competitions, McCarty said, which are widely considered some of the most challenging one-day sporting events in the world.
Participants must complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run, in that order, within a 17-hour time limit.
McCarty set a personal-record in the event last November at the Ironman Arizona in Tempe, completing the course in 9:22:59. He won his age division to qualify for the Ironman World Championships for the fifth time, which will be held in October in Kona, Hawaii.
“When I first started doing triathlons, the Ironman had no appeal to me,” McCarty said.
“I told my wife there is no way I want to be out there for 10, 12, 14 hours. That just sounds miserable.”
McCarty finds motivation in knowing his times have remained roughly the same over the past six or seven years, and he doesn’t feel like he’s reached a physical plateau.
McCarty particularly enjoys the mental preparation that goes into endurance races, from maintaining a steady heart rate to identifying his strengths and weaknesses along the course.
“There’s a lot of strategy, not against competitors, but strategy of maximizing your energy output,” McCarty said. “What can you operate on? What’s going to get you from Point A to Point B?”
Over the next few months, McCarty has a handful of races mapped out leading up to his return trip to Hawaii.
He’ll compete in the Vineman Ironman in Santa Rosa in late July, the Santa Barbara triathlon in August and the Pier to Peak half-marathon back in Santa Barbara in September.
After the World Championships, McCarty will shift his focus back to trail running and take advantage of all San Luis Obispo County has to offer.
“This is a great place to run,” McCarty said. “Whether you want to run on the road or on the trails, you have all those choices that are right in your back yard.”
Ironman World Championships
When: Oct. 8
Where: Kailua-Kona, Hawaii
Participants: More than 2,000
Course: 2.4-mile swim; 112-mile bike ride; 26.2-mile run
Live coverage: Ironman.com