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Dispatch: Brotherly Bonds – The Brookners’ Story

  • By Holly Bennett
  • Published Nov 1, 2012

“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that will feature pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com.

In 1989, 34-year-old film director Howard Brookner died of AIDS. His passing was doubly tragic, as Brookner had just fulfilled his lifelong dream of directing a Hollywood feature film – Bloodhounds of Broadway, starring such notable talent as Madonna, Randy Quaid and Matt Dillon – yet his illness prevented him from seeing the project through to completion. The silver lining in this tragedy would surround Brookner’s surviving brothers – older brother Andrew, an ophthalmologist in New York City, and younger brother Steve, an attorney in Miami – who would connect a decade later to honor their lost sibling, and in turn find themselves launched into an ardent exploration of endurance sports. It was a journey that would lead them, together, all the way to the start line of the 2012 Ironman World Championship.

“After Howard died we were both in a funk for 10 years. Steve was having all sorts of problems in Florida and I was having all sorts of problems in New York, but we never really talked about it. There was just this depressing veil that descended on the whole family and we never dealt with it collectively,” explained Andy. “But I had heard about this Boston to New York AIDS Ride, so Steve and I decided to do it together to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Howard’s passing. It ended up being this cathartic experience for both of us where we were able to release a lot of the pent up emotions that we had.”

The ride didn’t exactly go as planned – Hurricane Floyd slammed the Northeast, and the first two days were spent seeking shelter rather than cycling.

“They put us in the Hartford Civic Center, which turned out to be an incredible experience,” said Andy. “We spent the night in this little room with a gay couple from Chicago, these two women, and the four of us just hit it off. That night, Steve and I bonded. Because even though we’re brothers, Howard was between us. There are six and a half years between Steve and myself, so I was close to Howard but not that close to Steve. He was only 11 when I left the house to go to college, so I hadn’t really seen him that much during his whole adolescence. And the same thing with Steve – he had a closer relationship to Howard because they were only three years apart. But I realized that although Howard was gone, I did have another brother and I didn’t really know anything that had been going on with him. That night we discovered that we’d both been suffering on our own for years, not really talking about it or finding out what was happening with the other brother.”

The next day the weather cleared enough to allow the cyclists to ride.

“People were cheering for us and I was just crying. Tears were pouring down my face and I realized that I’d been holding it all in for all those years. Things are different now, but when the epidemic first hit there was this sense of shame and isolation. It was something you didn’t talk about,” said Andy.

“There were literally thousands of cyclists and thousands of volunteers, and every one of them was there for the same reason,” recounted Steve. “Some way, somehow AIDS had touched their lives. And then we arrived in New York to this massive hero’s welcome. I mean in New York if you have an AIDS event you get an awful lot of people. It was just huge – tens of thousands of people, and each cyclist had raised several thousand dollars.”

Transformed by the impact of the event, the Brookner brothers committed to continuing their participation in endurance sporting events in order to stay connected,  stay fit, have fun and honor Howard’s memory.

In October, 2000, the brothers met to run the Chicago Marathon. Steve had participated in two previous marathons in the 80′s, but Chicago would be Andrew’s first, despite having been a recreational runner for most of his adult life. The night before the race, Steve casually asked his older brother what he thought his finish time might be. Andy shrugged off the question saying simply, “I don’t know.” Subsequently, Steve learned that the Chicago Marathon was to be Andy’s first organized race of any kind at any distance. Despite Steve’s surprise and concern, the brothers completed the marathon side-by-side under the four hour mark. They united again in 2001 to run the New York City Marathon where they ran stride-for-stride, finishing together in under 3:45. Andy, then 50, was invited to train and race with the Greater New York Racing Team and famed coach and author Bob Glover.

Steve was the first to try triathlon, finishing his debut Ironman in Coeur d’Alene in 2005. After a great deal of arm-twisting, he prevailed upon Andy to join him to race the 2007 Vineman Half Ironman. As they lived in different cities, the brothers trained separately but spoke often about training methods and techniques. Therefore Steve was again taken aback by Andy’s naiveté the day before the race, when it was discovered he had never seen nor used a Co2 cartridge and inflator. Following a last minute trip to the race expo to purchase the proper equipment, Andy asked Steve, “Is there anything else you didn’t tell me about this sport?”

Both brothers did successfully complete the race, and afterward an overheated Andy sat with his feet in a bucket of cold water, eating watermelon.

“I remember saying, “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life!’” he recalled. “Then ten minutes later I was thinking: Well, what about this Ironman thing?

“It was literally 10 minutes later!” laughed Steve. “We ended up doing Wisconsin the next year.”

The brothers were now firmly hooked on triathlon and continued racing whenever possible, logging multiple Ironman finishes and steadily improving their multisport skills. In 2010, Steve qualified for Kona for the first time at Ironman Louisville. That same year, both brothers qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater, Florida. As they had done in their earlier marathons, they crossed the line in tandem in Clearwater and decided they wanted to finish together one day in Kona. In 2011, Andy qualified for Kona for his first time at Ironman U.K. in Bolton, yet Steve did not qualify that year. The brothers hatched a plan to return to Bolton in 2012 and win their respective age groups, and with Andrew (61 and racing in the 60-64 age group) finishing in 11:48:26 and Steve (54 and racing in the 55-59 age group) finishing in 11:59:53, their scheme was a success.

I met the Brookner brothers in October 2012 during race week in Kona, and I was curious as to their strategy for reaching Ali’i Drive in unison.

“I’m hoping that we finish together,” said Andy, who under normal circumstances trains and races a bit slower than his younger brother. “I’m not going to slow down though! If we finish together it’s because Steve is ahead of me and decides to run with me. Last year my goal was to be top 10 in my age group and I finished 12th. This year my goal is even a little higher – I’d like to be top 10, maybe even top five. So if I’m ahead of him, I’m not slowing down.”

Not surprisingly, the Brookners have a story about the year they finished as a team in Clearwater.

“My swim wave was before Andy’s and my bike split was faster, so I got to T2 first and decided to wait for him,” said Steve. “So my official T2 time turned out to be 17 minutes. At the awards ceremony, the MC gave out the booby prizes and he called me up for the slowest T2 time. Innocently enough I just wanted to run with my brother, but he called me out in front of the whole crowd. It was a lot of fun!”

It’s obvious that, although ranked among the top in the world in their age groups, the brothers hardly subscribe to sibling rivalry.

“Steve’s faster and he’s younger, so if I can just get close to him, then I’m happy,” said Andy. “I don’t really expect to beat him. It was a total shock to me in Bolton – but Steve had GI issues and a flat tire. It’s just a friendly competition that I use to motivate me. I just try to get close to him!”

“I also have an advantage – I do this professionally,” explained Steve, who became so enamored with the multisport lifestyle that he became a Spinning instructor and USAT certified triathlon coach, forming Miami Multisport Training, Inc., which he now operates full-time. “This is all I do. I don’t practice law anymore. So it’s a little easier for me. Andy’s actually got to work his training in around life.”

Still, Andy manages to squeeze 20 hours of weekly workouts around his ophthalmology practice. “It is a little all-consuming to compete at this level,” he admits. “Fortunately my wife gets up at about 4:30 a.m., so if I get up with her that’s an hour and a half or two hours right there. The real challenge is pushing myself to go to the pool at nine ‘o clock at night. I rarely ever get a lunch break – with morning appointments running late it’s usually just 15 minutes to scarf something down. I work a long day, but when I do push myself to swim at night I feel so much better afterward.”

Steve is equally driven, yet his own training easily overlaps his professional time.

“My alarm is set for 4:00 a.m. every single day. It doesn’t matter what happens the night before, that’s when I get up. I’m always meeting athletes or doing something – swimming or going for an early run. I’ll teach eight Spinning classes a week, then I’ll meet my athletes at the track – but that’s also my track workout and my time on the bike. You know, when you’re a lawyer and you decide to leave that and go into triathlon, you really can’t be a mediocre triathlete. You really can’t rationalize giving up all that without working to become one of the best in the world. So my motivation was clear. I needed to get to Clearwater (now Vegas) and I needed to get to Kona. Or everyone would always ask, ‘What was he thinking!’ But in this case, the ends justify the means because I’ve had some success and I’ve been able to develop a professional practice in triathlon.”

On Oct. 13, Steve and Andy Brookner swam together for 2.4 miles in Kailua Bay, drafting off one another’s feet and exiting the swim close enough to pose for a photo as a pair. And while they leap-frogged the bike for much of the day, they both struggled in the relentless winds, burning more time and calories than they had anticipated. Steve was also cursed with a broken bearing in his bike’s bottom bracket, thus ultimately falling behind his brother.

“When I hit transition, my calories were gone and it took me 35 minutes to get to and out of the first water station on the run,” he said. “I was ready to walk off the course and DNF when my wife Jill and sister-in-law Marie threatened to walk the whole marathon with me. That got me running. At mile 19 I bonked a second time, and from there I jogged and walked to the finish line as my energy came and went. So it took me 13 hours [13:01:55], but I got to the finish.”

Andy, whose final time was 12:21:07, knew that his podium dream was dashed and looked for Steve to join him.

“I was hoping that he would catch up with me, but I didn’t see him until well after the Ali’i Drive turnaround at about mile eight, which meant that I was about six miles ahead,” said Andy. “That’s almost an hour, so I just carried on. I was happy to just finish respectably, even though I was way off my original time goals. I suffered a lot and promised myself to take next year off, but if Steve makes it back to Kona I’ll probably try to join him and try again to finish together with a better time.”

And while the Kona race did not pan out as either brother had hoped, it did not at all dampen their enthusiasm for the sport or diminish the reasons they return again and again to triathlon start lines. (In fact, Steve will race Ironman Cozumel on November 25th, aiming to qualify for Kona 2013.)

“Steve and I also watched our father’s demise,” said Andy. “He died a little less than a year ago from Alzheimer’s, and to see an intelligent vibrant person go downhill from that disease was devastating. I’m a physician. I’m very conscientious about my own health and we’re both vegetarians. And who knows what could happen – I could drop dead tomorrow. But from everything I know and have read and experienced, vigorous exercise is the best way to keep things going. It’s the best way to ward off a whole list of diseases. So as my father lost his memory and as I realized that this intense exercise seemed to be sharpening my own memory, it has been a major motivating factor. At 61, I remember things that I haven’t thought about for 20 or 30 years. I think there’s something to this intense exercise and I’m going to keep it up! Because I don’t want to end up like my brother and I don’t want to end up like my father. We’re all going to die sometime, but I feel that intense exercise and a healthy lifestyle – which Ironman makes absolutely necessary – is the best way to at least postpone or stall that eventuality.”

Andy also believes his surgical skills are improving, rather than decreasing, at an age when many of his peers retire, and he credits this to triathlon.

“I do cataract surgery primarily, and a lot of guys used to stop when they were 60. You have to have really good hands and really good concentration. You can’t shake at all. And I find that I’m getting better and better every year! I’ve seen my abilities – both professionally and athletically – increase with this lifestyle. It’s a little insane, but it keeps you really sharp. I feel my mental concentration increasing over the years. I mean someday it’s going to stop, but it seems to be helping! Triathlon is very much of the moment. Things are going to happen you’ve never had happen before and you’re going to have to think on the fly. That relates to my experience as a surgeon as well. What makes you a good surgeon isn’t how you handle the normal, it’s what you do when the unexpected happens and how creative you are. How you come up with something, because you’ve had to handle something really unusual. In triathlon, you know that something weird is going to happen. You’re going to have to come up with something.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what Howard Brookner might think of his brothers’ tribute to him – a one-time charity ride that has evolved into an all-encompassing commitment to the triathlon lifestyle.

“He’d probably think that we’re crazy!” exclaimed Andy. “Howard would think that this was really strange and crazy.”

“While he would have enjoyed it,” said Steve, “Howard had a certain irreverence at times. And so the things he might have said may have belied what he was really feeling inside.”

“But I think he’d be happy about the Boston to New York AIDS Ride,” added Andy. “I think he would definitely be happy that we did that in his name.”

“Here’s the thing,” continued Steve. “There’s a great line that Emma-Kate Lidbury once said. When I first met her, she was a pro from the U.K. looking for a homestay in Miami. I offered our house and we became fast friends. And one day we were riding over this bridge called the Rickenbacker Causeway Bridge. It’s the most beautiful bridge out to Key Biscayne. When you’re riding out, on the left-hand side you see cruise ships and the port of Miami and all that. And as we’re going over, Emma-Kate says, ‘Look where triathlon has taken us this time.’ To us, that’s what it’s all about. It gives you the opportunity to enjoy a life well-lived. Look, we’re sitting here in Kona, Andy and I and our wives. Look where it’s taken us now.”

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