Completing an Ironman is an admirable goal. But for Karim Mella, the race was simply a part of the training for his ultimate aspiration: climbing Mount Everest.
Mella started climbing mountains in 1980 at 11 years old, trekking his way to the top of Pico Duarte, the tallest mountain in his home country of the Dominican Republic. “This adventure was the beginning of a lifelong passion for the mountains and all that surrounds them,” he said. Two years later, after reading a book about a British expedition to Mount Everest, he told his mother he would one day summit that peak, too.
For years, he climbed other mountains, like Pico Bolivar, Kilimanjaro, and Denali, to gain experience. He also attended the Dominican Republic Naval Academy and did his first tri. “My first race was in 1987, and it was the first triathlon in the Dominican Republic,” he said.
A few years later, after graduating serving, and immigrating to the United States, he joined the US Army. He raced his first long-course event at the Great Floridian Triathlon, which he ultimately completed nine times (in addition to other races) leading up to 2011. He decided that year to race Ironman Florida.
Then, he got his big chance.
“Finally, after all this time, the opportunity to climb the Big ‘E’ arrived,” he said. The only problem? He was assigned to a military base in Tampa, Florida, a city with an elevation of 48 feet and few hills—so Mella got creative.
“My main training for Everest was my Ironman training,” he said. “I added stair climbing to my training, and I got permission from the administration of the tallest building in downtown Tampa to go up and down a couple times a week.” The caveat was that he had to finish by 5 am
And it worked. The swim training provided him with the lung capacity for high altitude and the upper body strength he’d need when using ropes on the steep slopes. Biking developed the main muscle groups he’d use for mountaineering, and running improved his overall endurance.
But the discipline and mental strength from Ironman training was even more important, he said, and skills like time management, following a training schedule, traveling to events, figuring out logistics, and expecting the unexpected are all a part of both triathlon and mountaineering. “You can be as prepared as one can be, but the mountains can always bring the unexpected, just like it can happen on Ironman race day.”
Receiving a prostate cancer diagnosis during the expedition was certainly unexpected, too. But, on May 21, 2011, at 5:25 am, after two months in the Himalayas, many weeks of acclimatization, and countless bots of sickness, Mella became the first Dominican to reach the summit.
It was better than he’d hoped. “For 30 years I dreamed about summiting Everest,” he said, “but actually staying on the ‘Top of the World,’ carrying the Dominican flag for the first time in history, made the moment indescribable…I had thousands of feelings rushing through my body and didn’t even feel the -40 F temperature.”
But Mella wasn’t prepared to rest on the laurels. He returned home, had surgery in October 2011, and, in August 2012, completed Ironman New York, followed by Ironman Florida to celebrate his one-year anniversary of the race—and to prove that anything is possible.
He kept racing triathlon, but then the mountains came calling again—and once again, he answered. “Six years after my first successful expedition to Mount Everest, on May 22, 2017, I stood on top of the highest mountain of the world once again,” he said. “My dream had become a reality twice.”
Mella insists that many of our dreams can be achieved with discipline, hard work, and dedication. “Just like that 22nd mile of the run during an Ironman race, the secret is to keep moving, putting one foot in front of the other and your mind will do the rest. My dream took me 30 years, but I never took my eyes off the prize.”