Interview With an Ironman

IMAGE 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.

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