“Beauty and the Beasts”
Swimmer Billy Badger, biker Cobbs Nixon and runner Yvonne Davis
photo by steve bracci
It all started with a debate, some lighthearted sparring over athleticism, mental toughness and true grit. Competitors in the 1977 Oahu Perimeter Relay in Hawaii argued whether runners or swimmers were in better shape. Then U.S. Navy Commander John Collins, a prominent, longtime supporter of triathlons and other types of organized athletic events, joined in the spat, contending that the cyclists maintain the unmatched athletic prowess. And so, to “settle” the debate, the first Ironman triathlon was held in 1978.
But members of a local Ironman relay team are having a much different debate—if you can even call it that. For these spirited three, it’s more of a celebration of life that they’re sharing, a conversation of passion. It’s not about whose event is more herculean; rather, it’s about which sport is more personally fulfilling, which one will allow them to best contribute to the team and, to be candid, which one is easiest on their respective joints. “We’re not there [at the ESi Ironman 70.3 Augusta Triathlon] to win, partially because of our ages. Each of us represents a different generation,” says the team’s 62-year-old swimmer, Billy Badger, president of Howard Lumber Company. He is supported by First Bank vice president, runner Yvonne Davis, 51, and vice president of Blanchard and Calhoun Insurance Agency, cyclist Cobbs Nixon, 71, who was the impetus behind the formation of the team, which has participated in the Augusta Ironman every year.
Four years ago, when it was announced that Augusta would be hosting its first half-Ironman, Nixon immediately approached a close friend and fellow endorphin-high enthusiast. “I’ve known Billy Badger all my life. He takes to the water like a fish! Simultaneously we agreed, ‘Let’s do it,’” says Nixon. “I have an artificial hip, so I can’t run. But I love cycling—it’s the best drug-free high on the planet. We shopped around and found our young Venus—Yvonne Davis—and decided to come up with the team name Beauty and the Beasts.”
“She’s our youth and our beauty,” chimes Badger. “Cobbs ain’t gonna win any prizes for beauty, nor am I.”
With a running career that started on the school track team, Davis perfectly completes the threesome as the competitor responsible for the half-marathon leg of the Augusta Ironman. She became interested in long distance running in her 20s and 30s and, by the time she was in her mid-40s, she had several 10Ks and half-marathons under her feet. Davis used to be concerned about her pace and her time, but now she says she has discovered a more powerful sense of fulfillment from taking “selfless” strides, that is, running for something greater than her personal race against the clock. She is more attuned to events that benefit a cause or non-profit organization and has participated in races solely for the purpose of supporting and running alongside her daughter, who has heart issues. And of course, there are Nixon and Badger, who she just can’t let down.
After the finish, it’s on to the Common for the “best” beer and pizza ever.
“You want to do well for your team. One year [at the Augusta Ironman] it was really hot. I didn’t want to quit because I didn’t want to be the reason for us not getting a finishing medal,” says Davis. “Billy and Cobbs—they really inspire me. When I whine, I tell myself that if Cobbs can bike 56 miles, then I can run. I’m proud to be on their team.”
There’s no denying, however, that members of a relay can still have individual goals. “All that stuff—records and times—is in the Ironman archives. Cobbs worries about all that more than the rest of us,” jests Badger. Worries might be a strong word, but the fact is that Nixon is very much aware of the numbers attached to his performance.
“[My time was] 3:08 the first year, 3:22 the second year, 3:20 last year and 3:19 this year . I beat last year by three seconds—I beat the son of a gun! One year older and still improving,” says Nixon, who enjoys having a goal to work toward and tapping into the discipline required to reach it. “On race day they put your age on the back of your left leg. That’s a special moment for me. I like to see the expression on their faces when I tell them I’m 71.”
To train for the Augusta Ironman, Nixon chooses a diet that includes a lot of pasta, fruits, vegetables and overall healthy meals that are low in sodium. Six weeks prior to the day of the event, he’ll attend a spin class twice a week and log 100 miles per week outside at Fort Gordon, which is hillier than the Ironman course and Nixon’s favorite place to prepare. And the months prior to that six-week mark? Thirty-mile circuit training. “The Ironman is always in the back of your mind,” he says. “You start thinking about aches and pains that are beginning to make themselves known, hoping they won’t start screaming too loud. You’ll get used to hearing little voices in your joints.”
Although it’s sometimes argued that swimming is the easiest on the joints, Badger’s training comes with its own set of challenges. Stroking against the Savannah River’s currents is no cardiovascular cake walk and it’s one of the ways Badger trains for the Ironman, even though the official course is downstream. “I can’t ride 50 and 60 miles on a bike, but I love outdoor swimming. I swim four to five times a week during the months prior,” says Badger, who, like Davis and Nixon, participates in several organized events a year for his sport.
But it’s the Ironman that seems to loom most prominently on each team member’s schedule, in part because the atmosphere on the morning of is especially energized, with athletes from all over the country and the world flexing their muscles right here in Augusta. “It’s contagious being around people who have the same goals, outlook and aspirations to live a healthy life,” says Nixon. “Oh, the excitement of being among all those athletes! The amount of effort the three of us put into this relay individually is no comparison to what one person does [for the whole Ironman]. The relay people can hardly hold a candle to the individual athletes.”
At registration, the relayers receive a Velcro strip embedded with a computer chip that communicates with sensors placed along the route, and then the swimmer relayers join the other triathletes at the Savannah River for the start. “When Billy comes out of the water—Billy is very fast by the way—he runs to the transition area where all the bikes are lined up. I’m waiting there by my bike. Yvonne removes the Velcro strip from Billy’s ankle, puts it on my ankle and then I go bike 56 miles,” explains Nixon. After he finishes, he dismounts and runs back to the transition area to meet his team so Badger can take the strip off Nixon and place it on Yvonne, who starts her 13.1 mile run. “Then we [Badger and Nixon] catch our breath and walk up to the Common, where we enjoy one of the best beers you’ll ever have in your life and all the pizza you can eat and wait for Yvonne to finish. It is euphoric,” Nixon exclaims.
“People ask all three of us, ‘How do you do it?’ You have to start somewhere, even if it’s just running a 10th of a mile,” says Davis. “It’s not a race to get there; it’s a race to finish.”
And finishing is what team Beauty and the Beasts delivers every year. With pride, passion, an unquenchable zeal for life and a tenacity of mind, body and spirit, each member has the unique opportunity to achieve what cannot be taken away from them while fueling a camaraderie immeasurable by any scale. Now this is something that is not up for debate.