PLAINVILLE — Training for a marathon is difficult enough with the preparation for 26-plus miles of pounding the pavement, running up and down hills.
“But this is marathon-training Bizarro World,” former King Philip Regional High School Warrior and UMass-Lowell River Hawk John Berdos said of his preparation for the Icosathlon in Finland later this month.
Berdos, the “pride of Plainville,” is the lone American entered into the international field that will be competing in a “double decathlon” of some 20 track-and-field events over a two-day span.
“It’s testing my limits, it definitely is,” said Berdos, a 2015 graduate of KP High.
The Icosathlon is set for Aug. 24-25 in Helsinki, Finland.
“I made a decision probably a year, 13 months ago that I was going to do it,” Berdos said. “So I competed all indoor season in the heptathlon and getting back into the multi’s (multiple events), and this spring was the decathlon and this summer it’s been doubling up times 10, trying to get everything in.
“Trying to have range from the shorter sprints to the distance events, plus all the throwing and jumping — it’s a lot!”
The icosathlon, also called the “double decathlon,” consists of 20 track-and-field events over two days. On each day of the competition, in accordance with the International Association for Ultra Multi-Events, there is a one-hour to 90-minute pause for individuals to recoup physically.
The first day of competition includes the 100 meter sprint, the 400, 800 and 5,000 meter runs, 200 meter hurdles, long jump, shot put, hammer throw and high jump, along with a 3,000 meter steeplechase.
On the second day of the standard icosathlon there are 110 and 400 meter hurdles, a 200 meter sprint, 1,500, 3,000 and 10,000 meter runs, discus throw, pole vault, javelin throw and triple jump competitions.
“There probably won’t be more than 30 people in it,” Berdos chuckled. “There aren’t that many crazy people who would try to do something like this.”
Each event is scored according to the decathlon scoring tables or, for non-decathlon events, the IAAF points tables. At the conclusion of each icosathlon, the competitor with the highest point total is declared the winner.
The event is overseen by the International Association for Ultra Multievents. The men’s world record for the standard icosathlon is 14,571 points, held by Joseph Detmer of the United States.
In 1981, Finland started the preparation the first IAAF World Athletics Championships in 1983. This challenge gave the Finnish decathlete Risto Karasmaa the idea of organizing an even greater challenge — combining all track and field events in one competition.
In September 1981, the first icosathlon for men was held in Helsinki. Nine athletes entered the competition but only five were able to finish the extreme challenge.
The first winner was the Finnish athlete Aro Kari, scoring 9,557 points. Female competitors soon followed. In 1983, Terttu Rissanen finished the first women’s tetra-decathlon, achieving 6,954 points.
Competitions continued to be organized annually in Finland, with the 10th held in 1990 in Espoo. It was officially recognized as the first World Championships.
Originally an annual competition, the World Championships became biennial, held on odd years, with European Championships held on even years. There is no time frame for the two-day competition, which will begin at 8 a.m. and likely conclude about 6 p.m. each day. There are no trials or qualifying heats and there is a six-jump limit on all jumps (pole vault, high jump).
“I found out about this during my freshman year in college,” Berdos said. “I knew that this meet was the real thing. I knew that I would do it at some point — they usually host it in the Netherlands, Estonia, Finland. Once I decided that I was going to do it, I registered really quickly in January.”
On yearly basis three or four double multi-events are organized in Finland, Great Britain, Estonia or the United States, the last stateside event being in 2010 in Lynchburg, Va.
The men’s world record was set in 2010 in Lynchburg by Detmer (14,571), erasing a record set in 2002 (14,185) by another American, Kip Janvrin.
An enormous challenge
The double decathlon is an enormous challenge physically and mentally. Experience in “multi events” will have to be matched with technique and stamina. The athletes who possess the greatest power to last a few events, or event the first day, and to recover will have the best chance to win.
The athletes, representing some two dozen nations, compete to reward themselves with personal best or national records.
“Most of them are from Europe and maybe one guy from Canada,” Berdos said of the field.
The entry fee is $118 (95 euros).
With his passport in hand, Berdos has to also ship all of his equipment — the weights, the javelin, the pole vault — to Finland.
“Yeah, I mean I’m just not packing two suitcases,” Berdos said of the logistics. “I’ve talked to the airline and with large sports equipment, my pole bag, I’ll have 13- to 14-foot poles going over there with me. I’ll throw the javelin in there with the poles. One of my checked bags has a 50-pound limit so that will have a 16-pound shot put, a hammer, a couple of discus.
“That’s my plan, at least. I didn’t have a passport until January, so I made sure that I got that. That’s when I got the ball rolling.
“I can check that all in straight through the airline. I made sure that when I booked the flight that I would be able to do that.”
The alternative would be arranging for shipping all of the equipment through an international freight expediter.
The 22-year-old, 6-foot-2, 180-pound Berdos was a three-time All Hockomock League selection in both indoor and outdoor track. His inclination for multi events began by taking second place in the 2015 MIAA Pentathlon.
“You look at the decathlon and the guys who score the most points are going to be your fast, power guys — that’s where the points are,” Berdos said. “If you look at the double decathlon, 12 of the events are running and there are a lot of miles. So you have to be able to run. For me, whatever the distance event is has always been a strength for me.
“Being a distance-oriented, multi-event guy definitely helps.
“I figured I’d be able to use that and with being flexible, able to high jump and get around some hurdles — that I should be able to get through most of it. The 10K is pretty daunting at the end. Most of the guys finish the meet but there are always a few that bow out.”
At KP, Berdos generally ran the 400 and 400 hurdles and with relay teams competed in both the high and long jumps. “That was my wheelhouse,” he said.
Berdos has served as a volunteer assistant coach to KP head coach Scott Kramer. And when the Warrior workouts were concluded, Berdos would initiate his own training routine.
Berdos has logged some laudatory times in running events — 100 (11.76), 200 (24.00), 300 (38.17), 400 (52.95), 500 (1:10.44), 600 (1:28.29), 800 (2:06), 1,000 (2:48), 1,500 (4:36), 3,000-meter steeplechase (11:04) and 5-kilometer (17:39).
Last April, he captured second place in the men’s open decathlon at the University of Albany.
“I had some good events, some events that I could have done better in, but I put myself in position to come close to winning it with the 1,500 (meters) at the end,” Berdos said.
Berdos has logged personal distances in the jumps — high jump (6-3 1/2), long jump (20-1 3/4) and triple jump (40-1 1/2). In the hurdles, he has personal bests of 17.12 in the 110 hurdles and 57.87 in the 400 hurdles. He has launched the javelin 153 feet, 8 inches, put the shot 35-1 and discus 101-3, while clearing 11-3 3/4 in the pole vault.
An engineering major at UMass Lowell and now working for National Grid out of Waltham, Berdos did not represent the River Hawks in track competition this past academic year. Instead, he ran “unattached” as an independent in “open” sections of indoor and outdoor meets.
For three seasons with the UMass Lowell track program, Berdos generally ran the hurdles.
He said being released from the team after his junior year “was a little hard to take.”
“I’ve been bouncing around indoors — at Reggie Lewis, at BU, at URI, the Wheaton College multi-event (winning the Heptathlon in January),” he said. “Outdoors, I did three ‘open’ meets — Southern New Hampshire, Tufts and Fitchburg State — before I went up to Albany.
“They don’t have many open decathlons. But, you can enter as many events as you want, so I was doing five events a meet. So I was throwing the javelin, checking in for hurdles, high jumping, throwing the discus, coming back for the 400.
“At Southern New Hampshire, I did six events in a matter of three hours. That was crazy, but that was pretty much similar to what I’ll be doing in Finland.
“I have only so many bullets left in the chamber with all of this training, I’ve been ramping up the training. As much as I’m training and working out, my Sundays are like six hours — you’ve got to eat a lot. I’m eating my fruits and vegetables; a lot of pasta and meat go into that too.”
His typical weekly schedule consists of taking Monday off and doing a “high volume” distance workout on Tuesday, typically on the track at KP’s Macktaz Field and with one or two field events.
On Wednesday, Berdos will run six miles and get a field event in, mostly with Elgar, his distance running guru and running companion. On Thursday, he’ll do sprinting workouts, some hurdles and again mix in a field event.
On Friday, it’s high hurdle work, a lot of 110 hurdles and a field event. On Saturday, it’s a down day. He’ll run over five miles, mix in a field event. And Sunday is his long run day, nine or 10 miles.
Berdos works for three-plus hours with former Bishop Hendricken High (Warwick, R.I.) throwing great Matt Ellis, who runs the Elite Throws Coaching at Cranston West High School.
Berdos trains with KP High cross country and track coach Chris Elgar, the former Seekonk High running great, at King Philip usually in the late afternoon each Tuesday and Thursday.
And he heads to the Patriot Pole Vault Club in Westboro to work with coach Doug Lang.
“I’ve been doing most of the throws for the decathlon,” Berdos said of adding to his running, jumping and hurdling base since his days at KP High. “Pole vault took a little bit of time. I was a decent decathlete pole vaulter. I’m serviceable for what I need.
“The hammer throw is probably my toughest one to pick up now, the spinning, the steps. The hammer is hard, too. That’s completely foreign to me. I’ve done a steeplechase before — the event stinks, but I’ve done it before, I’m familiar with it.”
Berdos feels fortunate that in adding some unusual and rather unorthodox throwing events to his regimen he has not suffered any arm, elbow or wrist injuries.
“The arm has been fine. I’ve been lucky, I’ve been able to stay healthy for the most part. A few pulled muscles here and there and I took a week off (to attend a week-long, work-related seminar in New York). I was wearing down a bit.
“You monitor yourself — you decide when you need some time off, you hold yourself accountable. If you need time, you take time.
“When I was at KP, I never thought about this. I figured, like the next guy that I would do a decathlon in college for four years and move on with my life. I plan on doing a triathlon and work up to an Iron Man after this.
“It will be a full work day, on the track or in the field. I did not plan on going to Europe to compete in a marathon Bizarro World.”