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Mark Dickson, high-school math teacher, just found out he won the lottery. But instead of untold riches and a life of luxury, Dickson’s winning ticket brings the promise of several months of sweat, pain, and triple-tiered physical hell.

See, along with the teaching gig at James Madison High School in Vienna, Dickson is also a triathlete, a breed equal parts machismo and masochismo. And his winning ticket—for which he paid $245—earned the brainy and brawny Arlingtonian entry into triathletic heaven, the 1997 Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.

A U.S. Navy officer who was in ship shape and apparently lacking a pain threshold concocted the Ironman Triathlon in the late 1970s while stationed in Hawaii. He packaged three existing endurance events then held annually on the Big Island—a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race, and a standard 26-mile, 385-yard marathon run—into one. (Similar thinking from a more slothful soul probably led to the first bacon cheeseburger.)

At the Sydney Olympics in 2000, the triathlon will be an official event for the first time. But when the first official Ironman went off in February 1978, there were just 15 competitors, no media, and zero prize money. Today, thanks to extensive TV coverage and a purse worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Ironman is so prestigious that the field is limited to around 1,500 by taking only the most qualified triathletes and then adding a few dozen lucky dreamers who, like Dickson, filled out an entry form, paid the fee, and had their names drawn out of a hat. This fall, he’ll be one of around 50 part-time triathletes from across the U.S. who got into the Ironman via the lottery.

The 33-year-old Dickson, who played soccer while studying math at Yale and stayed in decent shape after college by lifting weights, caught the hyperfitness bug while watching some pals compete in and complete the Marine Corps Marathon here in 1992.

“I’d watched them prepare all summer for that race,

and had them turn me down many times when I asked

them to go out with me for a drink after work because

they were training. I didn’t like getting turned down, but

I admired them for it,” Dickson says. “And then on the day of the race, the sense of satisfaction they were getting out

of running was so evident in their faces when they crossed the finish line, and even after the race. I wanted to experience that.”

When Dickson confessed his desire to be a part of the endurance club, his friends gave him a training manual

and the inspiration to attain the necessarily ridiculous level of conditioning. In the Marine Corps race the following year, Dickson proved he’s neither Bill Rogers nor Riddick Bowe by finishing his first marathon somewhere around 9,000th place.

Whatever satisfaction Dickson got out of that durable deed must not have lasted a whole lot longer than the blood in his urine.

“I got bored by the idea of just running,” he says.

Triathlons are the only step up for bored marathoners. So Dickson took up swimming and biking for the first time since he was kid.

“I think putting a Speedo on for the first time might be the worst part of all this for me,” he chuckles.

Within a year of kicking off his cross-training kick, Dickson had entered and completed an Olympic-distance triathlon (comprised of a 1-mile swim, 25-mile bike race and a six-mile run). He then conquered a half Ironman, and last year finished his first Ironman-distance event in Florida.

His time in that maiden voyage was over 16 hours, nowhere near sparkling enough to earn Dickson an invitation to come to Hawaii for the fall extravaganza. In fact, the world’s toughest triathlon is generally won in just over eight hours.

Nevertheless, Dickson decided to go ahead and chase every triathlete’s fantasy of competing in the granddaddy of ’em all. He bought into the Ironman lotto.

The first week of May, organizers paid a surprise visit to Dickson at school (à la Publishers’ Clearinghouse) to tell him he’d won. It was a bittersweet bit of news.

“I was happy for myself, because the Ironman is really something I want to try, and I wasn’t at all sure I’d ever get the chance,” Dickson says. “But I felt bad for my friends, because none of them have gotten to do it, even though they’ve been entering the Ironman lottery every year for years and they’re a whole lot better than I am at triathlons.”

At a strapping 5-foot-10, 165 pounds, Dickson looks to be in fabulous shape for a thirtysomething math teacher, but when he gets to Hawaii nobody is going to be asking him if he knows pi to the nth place. Dickson stepped up his training to two hours a day, every day, immediately after getting the good word about the Ironman.

When school lets out in two weeks, Dickson’s regimen will hit an even higher gear. His wife, a rocket scientist by profession, only recently took up marathoning, which makes her as empathetic a mate as a triathlete could want. To ensure that he doesn’t have to pull a Rosie Ruiz come race time, Dickson plans on spending his entire summer break preparing for the main event.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” he says. “Biking is by far my weakest event, but I’m not a good runner, and I’m worse at swimming. I’m not in this to win by any means. I can’t even relate to what the guys who finish in the top half go through. I just want to finish before they kick me off the course, and even that’s going to be tough.”

And when he does hit the finish line in Kona, Dickson promises, he won’t begin looking for other, even more ridiculous pastimes to tax his body.

“Believe me, they’re out there if I were looking,” he says. “But I won’t be entering any double-distance triathlons or double marathons. The Ironman is it for me, and this is probably my only shot. After this, my goals will be much more modest.”

And what, exactly, is a modest goal for a triathlete?

“Oh, maybe my wife and I will start a family,” he laughs.—Dave McKenna