To most of us, running a marathon is a daunting challenge. But for a growing group of adventurous souls like Ruben Barajas, a 36-year-old director of a Los Angeles-area nonprofit organization, the challenge of Ironman triathlons–a 2.4-mile swim in open water, followed by a 112- mile bike ride and finishing with a 26.2-mile run–is the ultimate challenge. Barajas describes the great pain and extreme joy of triathlon competition.
How did you get into Ironman triathlons?
My start was a bit by accident. I've been a competitive swimmer since the age of eight. I had, however, avoided running like the plague, but in 1988, I started to run, mostly as a bonding lunchtime activity at the police department I worked for at the time. To my surprise, I discovered that I wasn't all that bad or slow a runner. I decided to enter a 5K run, which turned out to be a 10K run. I thought I was going to die. I don't think I had ever run that far in one stretch before, but I survived and quickly got hooked.
After three 10Ks, I got bored with the running and saw an ad for a local mini-triathlon —a 200-yard swim, a 10-kilometer bike ride and a 3-kilometer run. The challenge excited me, because I figured I could swim without any problem and was already starting to get the run "thing" down. The only issue was finding a bike to ride. So I borrowed a 10-speed bike from a friend and, as they say, the rest is history.
How long does it take to finish an Ironman race?
The world's top professionals can complete an Ironman in eight hours. The time limit allowed in an Ironman event is 17 hours. My times have ranged from 10 hours to 11.5 hours. My best time is 10:02:24, which I posted at the Florida Ironman in November 1999.
What's the hardest part for you?
Definitely the run. By the time you dismount the bike after six-plus hours of racing, your body is feeling the fatigue. If you're not mentally and physically ready to run the marathon, you're in big trouble. The worst part is the transition your legs have to make from the bike and on to the run.
And the best part?
The feeling of fluidity as I slice through the open water in a rhythm with the swells along with 1,500 other athletes. The high I feel on the bike when I'm pushing a big gear smoothly and seem to be flying through a gorgeous stretch of road in the country or along a picturesque coastline. The approach into the finish area. The screaming, cheering and encouragement of family, friends and perfect strangers who for one moment share a special connection. The sound of my name announced as I approach and ultimately cross the finish line. My wife hugging me at the finish line.
What type of training is required?
How much time do we have? No really—if I had to boil it down the answer would be time, efficiency and lots of hard work.
How long does it take to recover?
It takes two weeks to recover from muscle soreness, while a full recovery takes at least a month under ideal circumstances (ie, no serious muscle cramps, gastrointestinal trauma or dehydration).
Had you run marathons before?
Before doing a full Ironman, I had run several marathons—the Los Angeles Marathon once and the Catalina Island Marathon three separate times.
Why did you decide on the Ironman?
The Ironman is the mother of all triathlons. And the Kona, Hawaii Ironman is the Holy Grail of races. When I started racing triathlons I can remember dreaming of the possibility of racing on the lava fields of Kona, so my goal became to race in Kona.
Is there a typical Ironman participant?
That's the beautiful thing about this sport. There is no one type of athlete. Anyone with a decent amount of athletic ability, tenacious determination and discipline is capable of training and racing in an Ironman event. You will find that many of the athletes are 'A'-type personalities who are driven, perhaps even a little obsessed, at everything they do. In fact, a certain degree of obsession is required to make it through the training sessions required to be ready for the event. Triathletes are also generally very adventurous people who are attracted to competition and self-fulfillment through accomplishments.
Do you have a sponsor or do you run for a particular company or non-profit?
I don't have a sponsor but am always open to the possibility. I've qualified to compete in the Ironman World Championship Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii on October 14, 2000, and I'm hoping to interest sponsors.
As the executive director of The Scott Newman Center, founded by Paul Newman and his family in 1980 following the death of his 28-year-old son Scott from a drug overdose, I feel that there is a relationship between a healthy body and a healthy spirit and would like to interest sponsors in that aspect of the race. In 1998, I raised approximately $4,000 when I raced in the Kona event. I hope to raise at least $10,000 this year.
Where do you train?
Living in southern California, I can train outdoors most of the year, riding the roads around L.A.'s coastal communities, swimming both in a pool and in open ocean water (when the water's not freezing), and running along the beach and trails. Occasionally, when the weather gets nasty, or I'm crunched for time, I train at a health club on a treadmill . I also teach spinning/indoor cycling at a few local clubs; it helps keep me in shape, is fun, and allows me a chance to share my enthusiasm for fitness.
Anything else about your experiences with Ironman races that you'd like to share?
The Ironman is a truly special event. It's a family event that inspires a healthy and active lifestyle. The people I have met through my involvement in this sport have been friendly, generous and interesting. I encourage anyone that has a competitive spirit and a spark of interest in the sport of triathlon—even if they never aspire to complete an Ironman—to sign-up for a local triathlon, get in shape, join a masters swim team, start riding and get outside and run. It's all about doing, not simply thinking about it.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.