MADISON, Wis. - When Aaron Hunnel crosses the finish line at the Ironman Wisconsin Sept. 6, he will join many of the other competitors in completing his first Ironman triathlon.
What sets him apart is that he will complete the race after pulling and pushing a wheelchair-bound woman with cerebral palsy for the entire 140.6 miles.
Hunnel, a legal administrator and warrant officer in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, from Appleton, Wisconsin, and his Ironman partner, Adam Lofquist, will pull Katie Neuman, of Neenah, Wisconsin, in a raft tethered to their waists for the 2.4-mile swim. Then they'll hitch a trailer to their bicycles to complete the 112-mile bike portion, before pushing her through the 26.2-mile run.
The team will attempt to make the 17-hour cut-off on perhaps the hilliest Ironman course in the U.S. Hunnel and Lofquist are part of MyTeam Triumph, an athletic mentoring organization created for children, teens, adults and veterans with disabilities who would normally not be able to experience an endurance event like a triathlon.
Hunnel and Neuman have raced together before. They completed two half-Ironman races including one in Door County, Wisconsin, last year, and they've completed multiple marathons together as well. But this will be their first attempt at a full Ironman.
Hunnel, an Army veteran with more than 10 years of service to the Wisconsin Army National Guard, began training for the Ironman in January, but he only began training with Neuman in June. The cold winter's sub-zero temperatures prevented her from accompanying him on long-distance runs, and the training for the bike and swim events had to be done inside where it wasn't feasible to use a raft or trailer. Hunnel also had a six-week military course to attend in Virginia in May that cut into the training time.
Since June though, Hunnel and Neuman have met up three times a week, with Lofquist, who now lives in Minnesota, meeting them on weekends.
The prospect of completing his first Ironman, a goal he set for himself in 2011, is exhilarating to Hunnel, but Neuman is foremost in his mind.
"One thing that Katie likes to put emphasis on is how much freedom she gets from doing these races and how she's inside so much and she doesn't feel like she has the ability to go out and do the things that she wants to do," Hunnel said. "So getting out with MyTeam Triumph and waking up early for the races helps her feel free like there is nothing holding her back, like there are no challenges in her life."
Neuman, 22, explained what it's like to compete in an event like this.
"The feeling of all these people cheering for you during the races at any point in time," she said. "That's how I get out of my wheelchair sometimes is doing these races, so I get to feel some freedom and different things while I'm competing. And my disability really doesn't matter when I'm out there competing."
Hunnel and Neuman have built a special relationship and a close bond since Hunnel noticed her in 2012 at the YMCA where he worked as a personal trainer.
"She was working out on the tricep extension machine, and she was really getting after it and seemed like someone who just really had a lot of motivation and an optimism glowing inside of her," he recalled. "And she just inspired me."
The two have put in long hours together to get ready for the race, but that's been one of the most rewarding aspects of the experience for Neuman.
"It's been a lot of work and just staying committed to what we've been doing," She said. "But it's been a good journey along the way."
That journey has put things in perspective for Hunnel, who said Neuman has become an inspiration to him.
"I just love being a part of that and somebody who has so much optimism, which Katie does, despite being afflicted with cerebral palsy," he said. "It just really inspires me, and to see how much gratitude and see how thankful she is for what she has in her life, it challenges me to not only get outside my comfort zone, but just be thankful for the smaller things in my life."
As for completing an Ironman, Hunnel knows it will be a life accomplishment, and more importantly, he'll learn something about himself.
"I feel like that is a great way to learn about yourself and to grow as an individual, because I feel like when we struggle and go through challenges in our lives, it makes us better people," he said. "So this is a way to struggle and challenge my body, and as a result, I'm going to be a better person and more well-rounded because of it."
The Ironman Wisconsin course begins in Lake Monona for the swim event before transitioning to the bike portion, which takes riders 16 miles out of town before beginning two 40-mile loops in rural Dane County. The run takes competitors through downtown Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, past Camp Randall Stadium and along Lake Mendota.
The course presents a daunting challenge for any triathlete, which will only be compounded by pushing or pulling another person along for the ride.
"Doing it by yourself and trying to get up those hills is one thing, but when you're pulling somebody it makes it a lot tougher," Hunnel acknowledged. "It gets a lot more challenging just because of the weight of the trailer, just trying to pull it up. It's tough."
Ultimately though, the race is secondary to what comes of it.
"We're out there to spread the message that health and happiness doesn't have to be this exercise routine," Hunnel said. "It can be about building relationships and friendships and being authentically happy by being around people that support you."