Leigh Chivers doesn’t even look at the menu at Melbourne’s elegant Bistro Thierry to know what he’s ordering for the table of friends on a November weeknight: Snails, steak frites and crepes Suzette. There’s champagne, there’s soufflé – and there’s Leigh wearing orienteering sports sandals.
Weeks earlier, during the nine hours and 25 minutes he took to finish the iconic Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii, Leigh lost three toenails during the 42-kilometre run leg. The sandals are his best footwear option while he heals.
“The nails came off about 12 kilometres into the run,” says Leigh, 35, who finished in 330th place out of about 2500 entrants.
“I knew within the first three kilometres I could put ice down my top, which meant wet shoes, or I could cook and keep my shoes dry. I made the decision early on to go for the ice option.
“I knew I was going to get a few blisters and whatever else.”
The French dinner is to celebrate the Melbourne engineer’s achievement at one of the world’s toughest endurance events – a four kilometre swim, 180 kilometre bike ride and a full marathon – in the Hawaiian heat.
Bistro Thierry was his late wife Sara Chivers’ favourite restaurant, and the dishes ordered by Leigh are a homage to her.
When marketing executive Sara was in a Melbourne hospice last year – she died of brain cancer in January at age 34 – a French chef was hired to cook her favourite dishes in her sunlit room.
“We still had happy moments,” Leigh said.
Sara also still had plenty to say. She wrote a letter to her boys that made global headlines, and one of her last requests was that her husband tackle the Kona event in her memory.
On October 13, Leigh – whose youngest son Alfie, 2, also died of a rare brain tumour in June – toed the line.
Given an honorary spot and named a race ambassador by Ironman in the US, Leigh and his Kona experience are shown in a new NBC documentary, which premiered in New York on Monday evening (US time).
“Leigh has every right to be proud of what he has achieved under remarkable pressure and extremely challenging circumstances,” Noel McMahon, Ironman’s Oceania media manager, told The New Daily.
“His time, finishing place and overall performance would be the envy of the vast majority of competitors. It was truly remarkable on so many levels.”
Leigh turned down an invitation to be at the documentary’s premiere because of the fresh challenge he’s set himself – to build a new normality with son Hugh, 4.
“I’m sort of craving just rebuilding my every day a bit more,” he told The New Daily.
“The Hawaii experience was so amazing and perfect and is captured in the documentary. There’s plenty for me to do at home. I don’t feel the need to push for anything more.
“There’s nothing more to say, just to be.”
Sara was a triathlon competitor herself, and “Kona was their dream as a family,” her close friend Mia Greves, who helped bring Leigh’s story to the attention of Ironman, told The New Daily.
“I’m a little less heartbroken knowing I could do something to honour her and Alfie. In a different life, Sara, Hugh and Alfie would have all been cheering for Leigh as he crossed the finish line.
“At least Hugh can look at this documentary when he’s older knowing how his mum and her friends helped make this all happen.”
On a Thursday morning, Leigh is working from home after dropping Hugh at childcare. “I’ve done some tax, there’s washing on the line, some I need to fold and some cleaning to do,” he said.
“The day-to-day things with Hugh are what I’m concentrating on.
“With the Sara and Alfie journey, I dealt with it trying to look to the next thing I had to do and could do. Now I don’t mind the idea of spending a little bit of time not latching on to the next thing, just letting whatever comes next happen.
“There’s some time at the beach we didn’t get to do. Hugh and I might do that this summer. I think feeling normal is what will make me happy.”
Still on a high from Kona, Leigh “felt glorious” for most of the nearly 10-hour event: “There’s been a couple of days in my life where I thought everything just went perfectly. One was my wedding day, and the other was that race.”
Leigh admitted there were “definitely” super challenging moments.
“I felt so much gratitude. I just kept telling myself how lucky I was to be out there, with Sara and Alfie in mind that they couldn’t be.”
While competing is “where you can be fully and wholly yourself”, his late wife and son were on his mind during the race.
“I think I had some thoughts in the swim where it went really smoothly and I felt I had a protective ring around me, but that seemed ridiculous,” he said.
“Then in the ride I had a feeling of satisfaction they were watching from somewhere but the flip side is I also got quite sad I couldn’t share it with them. Especially Sara. I feel she would have got a big kick out of it.”
About five kilometres into the run, Simon Johnson, a four-time Kona finisher and Chivers’ friend of 15 years through running and triathlon clubs, was passed by Leigh.
“He ran by looking a million bucks,” Johnson told The New Daily.
“Sometimes when you have people go past you, you know you’ll see them later, it’s such a long day. But I knew I wasn’t going to see Leigh again.
“He was motivated by more than a normal person can get motivated by. He is incredibly strong willed, a truly impressive athlete with a great engine on him.”
Near the finish, Leigh put on a gold ‘Alfie’ superhero cape and Hugh was passed over a barrier for a quick kiss. Then Leigh pumped a fist and looked to the sky.
“That was just sending Alfie and Sara a signal, blowing them a kiss. It felt pretty natural, and just seemed like the right place to look,” he said.
“I was probably smiling and laughing and thinking, ‘I am in a world of pain right now and this is the greatest thing ever’.
“It blows my mind to think of the happiness and sadness you can have in a single moment.”