By David Hale
Iron Max, as he is known in the world of Ironman Triathlon, is a staple at the world championship in Kona, Hawaii. He has missed the race only once since 1983.
For most triathletes, an experience like the Ironman is a life-changing event. Surviving a day – including a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and then finishing with a 26.2-mile marathon run – changes people. It gives a little bit of confidence that will never go away – no matter how tough things get in life, people know that they have survived something tougher.
That is most triathletes. For Max Burdick, a brisk 79-year-old, his life-changing event took place in Hawaii, but it had nothing to do with the Ironman.
As he fired an anti-aircraft gun at the endless cycle of Japanese planes descending on his ship in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Burdick said a little prayer.
“Lord, if you get me out of this alive, I promise to listen to you for the rest of my life,” he said to himself.
Burdick said he thinks he was lucky just to be in Pearl Harbor on that fateful day – he had just returned from Manila days before. All of the American ships that remained in Manila harbor were sunk, and the crews were marched off to prisoner of war camps.
Later in the war, he said he faced down two kamikaze fighters as they flew toward his ship loaded with dynamite. No lucky break there. As the top gunner in the fleet, Burdick said he had the job of bringing those planes down, which he did.
Three years after the promise made at Pearl Harbor, Burdick was introduced to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was baptized one year later, and has maintained a strong religious faith ever since.
He said it was his faith that turned him toward sports.
At 43, he went to a massage therapist for help with his right arm, which was hanging uselessly at his side. He was told to remember the words of his faith, and was directed by the therapist to read the 89th section of the Doctrine and Covenants every day for 21 days.
He said he began to run a mile a day for 11 years. Then, at 54, he said he decided he should probably try to go farther. A few months later he went much farther – running a marathon in just over four-and-a-half hours. By the time he was 60, Burdick had logged enough miles to have traveled around the world.
He said he managed to fit all running around a busy work schedule as the owner of an underground pipeline company, and as a father of four.
Then he said it was time to tackle something new. He added swimming and biking to his regime, and became an Ironman.
Burdick, from Holladay, Salt Lake County, celebrated his birthday this year anxiously waiting to see if he might have lucked out and gotten into the Ironman Triathlon World Championship through the lottery. If he did, it would have taken a lot of pressure off when he attended the first ever Ironman Utah last June, however, it was not to be.
While the other elder statesmen of the Ironman, Davey and the irrepressible Bill Bell are known for their impressive daily training schedules, Burdick takes a different approach. An avid sportsman, Burdick downhill skis, golfs and plays softball on a regular basis.
Burdick has logged 19 trips to the big island. He”s had a number there every year but one – in 1999 he didn”t qualify, but joined race director Sharron Accles at the finish line to welcome the likes of Dick and Ricky Hoyt across the finish line.
Greeting the Hoyts meant a lot to Burdick, he said. Ten years earlier, he had banged into the boat the Dick Hoyt towed through the swim course, and had spent much of the swim trailing the dedicated dad, who carries his disabled son Ricky, the full Ironman course.
In 1999, Burdick went to the first Ironman Florida event, where he finished in just under 17 hours. It was his last Ironman finish to date. He hasn”t been able to reach the finish line in Kona under the 17-hour cut off since 1992, but some would argue that his performance last year was every bit as impressive as an Ironman finish could have been, despite not finishing.
Fighting some of the strongest cross winds ever seen in Kona, Burdick struggled through the bike course in nine hours and 10 minutes – all that after spending just over two hours in the water. While men and women many years younger were calling it a day, Burdick went out and covered two-thirds of the marathon course, “just to prove to myself that I could do it,” he said.