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School of Music professor Chris Knighten makes his way through the Ironman Triathlon held in Panama City Beach. (Photos courtesy of

Between the Beats: Knighten Completes Ironman

By Michael Crane

It was nearly midnight when Chris Knighten, director of the ECU Marching Pirates, crossed the last timing mat at Panama City Beach, Fla. To the crowd gathered, an announcer intoned: “Chris Knighten, you are an Ironman.”

“My first thought was that I needed to sit down and have some pizza,” the School of Music professor said.

The Ironman Triathlon was created as a means to answer a question of athleticism among Navy SEALS: Are runners, bikers, or swimmers the fittest? The race was born in 1978 when 15 servicemen combined a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike and a complete marathon (26.2 miles).

“They didn’t know if that distance was humanly possible,” said chemistry professor Bob Morrison, who has entered six Ironman competitions. With his “Ironfan” daughter, he frequently talks to civic groups about competing in the races. “It’s a life-changing experience. In the event itself you’re extended to your limits.”

Currently, there are 18 full-distance Ironman events worldwide, with more than 22,000 athletes expected to compete in 2005. Athletes have 17 hours to finish the races, which begin at 7 a.m.

“In the last 400 yards, all the tiredness goes away and it’s really a rush to run through that finishing chute,” Knighten said.

The professor of conducting traces his journey from the opening of the Student Recreational Center seven years ago. “I had never exercised before, so I started on the treadmill,” Knighten recounted. “After a few months I was feeling pretty good and tried to run around the track. I couldn’t do it.”

“I can’t believe that in a few short years he’s gone from someone who had never really run to someone who completes an Ironman,” said Anne Bogey, director of professional programs in the College of Business. “Especially considering his fall schedule.”

“The really amazing thing about Chris is that he did all this training by himself,” Bogey said. “That’s seven or eight hour bike rides by yourself. There is a really big group in town that works out together, but with his schedule, he did this alone.” While training for Ironman-Hawaii in 1995, Morrison biked with Bruce Flye, ECU director of campus space planning. “That was very helpful,” Morrison said. Last year he trained alone. “I think it makes you tougher mentally. You have to develop your focus.”

Knighten had competed in running and shorter triathlons in the last few years, and started training especially for the Ironman in January. For five months he worked on strength training and building an aerobic base.

“It’s a huge goal, obviously,” Knighten said. “I’ve learned so much and gained so much by getting involved. I saw the benefits of exercise, so I decided to jump in and do a full distance event.”

In May he switched to distance training, with nine exercise sessions per week, each addressing the three disciplines. One short session addressed technique; the others increased his stamina.

“Three weeks before the race you peak, you get to the point of diminishing returns, where you won’t gain fitness through exercise, you just make your body more tired.” Knighten tapered his schedule, working out as frequently, but over shorter distances.

Knighten said his diet changed significantly. “It was essentially the anti-Atkins diet, especially in the last few weeks of training with the distances.”

All 2,200 slots in the Ironman-Florida sold out within six hours last year. When Knighten nabbed his place, it was the beginning of a year of calculations and numbers. “It’s very calculated. You plan on the variables of training, the travel to get there, what you’ll wear, what will help you through the day.”

“A friend told me, there are two commitments regarding the Ironman. There’s the commitment that takes you through eight to ten months of training, and the commitment you make that morning of the race—that you’ll finish.

“All you have to do is make up your mind to do it, then start training,” Morrison said. “Then it forces you into a certain lifestyle.”

On the race date, Knighten woke at 4 a.m. He ate pancakes, bananas, Gatorade, water, and peanut butter, then went to the transition site by 5 a.m. to prepare for the event. “It’s weird to be up at that time of the day. Your gearbags are in place by Friday afternoon, your bike is at the site. Everything is done by dinner on Friday night so you can focus.”

At 7 a.m. Knighten crossed the first mat, his ankle-mounted timing chip recorded his first race step of the day. At the next crossing, he recorded a 1:20 hour swim, followed by a 6:55 hour bike, then a 7:20 hour run. “My goal was to finish by midnight. I thought it would take me 15.5 or 16 hours if all went really well. The swim went well, the biking went well, and until mile 18 in the run, I was on track to finish in 15 hours.”

Knighten had significant problems with blisters. The pads of his feet, corresponding to where his feet pressed against the pedals on his bike, were virtually missing. “I was walking a 25-minute mile in my last four miles,” he said. “My longest bike ride in training was 85 miles. That’s a significant leap to 112 miles in the race. That was part of the cause of it. When you have pain, you compensate, and the more you compensate, the more pain you add elsewhere.”

“There’s a Debussy quote, ‘music is the stuff between the beats,’” recounted Knighten. “The numbers were time markers—crossing the mats—but most of the music of the day were the events, the stuff in between. That’s where the real effort happens.”

Knighten said a triathlon is a metaphor. “For most of the age groupers (non-professional competitors), the challenge is getting there and preparing their body for it. For me that race was symbolic of things I’ve been getting through personally, where I dare to endure pain to get through these things emotionally and physically.”

“People say they get into triathlons to test their limits. When you really push yourself to find that limit, you don’t get there because the limit changes—you push it back. I’ve found that to be true in my life as a classical musician too. Training reminds me very often about the importance of the process of teaching, rather than just trying to hit the milestones.”

Knighten said higher education is often gauged by milestones—exams, projects, and recitals. “The real growth happens in between.”

When Knighten finished the race, he perused the board ranking the Ironman finishers. “I was amazed at how dissimilar the times were. The person who was really great at the swim wasn’t great at the run. All of the ranking came down to the totals of the times across the mats, but when I look back at the experience, I can’t remember crossing some of the mats. But when people look at the times on the web, they’re looking at just the one step—crossing the mat,” he said. “That’s a pretty insignificant moment in the context of the day.”

In the week since the race, Knighten reported he’d eaten a lot of ‘junk:’ pizza and pop tarts. “After the stiffness comes out this week, I’ll continue to exercise.”

Only one week after completing Ironman, Knighten presented a lecture and concert at the North Carolina Music Educator’s Conference (NCMEA) in Winston-Salem. After addressing one piece from each era of band history, Knighten conducted the ECU Symphonic Band in performance of examples by North Carolina composers or pieces commissioned by North Carolina Bands. That Knighten was invited to present at the conference is a tribute to his conducting and scholarship.

The Ironman-Florida event will be broadcast on the Outdoor Life Network on December 12.

This page originally appeared in the Dec. 9, 2005 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at