My Ironman journey | Inquirer Sports

My Ironman journey

Dazed from the 3.8-kilometer swim, the hardest in my life, I took another punishment in the form of a wind-buffeted 180 km bike ride before tackling the final 42.195 km run leg into the hills of Penghu, Taiwan, in the gathering dusk.

One Sunday last month, God showed me what hell was like. Churning in the tempestuous waters of the Taiwan Strait, pedaling under the merciless sun over the rythmic succession of hills while swaying in gale-force winds, and finally running into the dark, dark night in the hills, I was tempted to sell my soul to the devil.

Probably because I had never prayed so hard in my life for my deliverance, God stayed with me every inch of the way—a total of 226 kilometers of the toughest Ironman triathlon race in this part of the world. The experience, I later learned, still haunts a number of finishers in their nightmares.


When I went to Taiwan in pursuit of the quixotic dream that I’ve nurtured for over 35 years, I didn’t know I had to literally battle the windmills and the diabolical minds that plotted the courses. Ironman Taiwan was meant to be a walk in the park for first-time Ironman triathletes, even for seniors like me. At least that was what everyone thought. Boy, were we wrong. Nature was unforgiving.


In my twenties, I had dreamt about doing an Ironman, but that dream faded with the passing of time. By the time I became a triathlete in 2010, that dream was dead. But inspiration came from a most unlikely source. As a triathlete, my teammate, Boogie Roca, is a good swimmer and not much else. Squat and stocky, he was built more like a heavyweight weightlifter than a triathlete. Very few believed he could finish the race when he joined the 2014 Ironman Melbourne Asia Pacific championship. But our coach, Jojo ‘‘Jomac’’ Macalintal, made Boogie believe he could do it and gave him a two-word pep talk he would never forget: “Be excited.”

When Boogie shuffled across the finish line less than 90 seconds before cutoff, he showed me that I could do it, too; he breathed new life into my Ironman dream.

And so I trained and signed up for last month’s Ironman Taiwan in Penghu, an archipelago southwest of Taipei. I didn’t care much for the history of the place when I stood before daybreak on Shihli Beach for the start of my quest, secure in the knowledge that the hardest part of my Ironman journey was behind me.

A day earlier, I thought my race would be over even before it could start. Prerace glitches included my bike being held by Customs in Taipei because they found a gas canister in my bike case. It was taken off the plane and sent to Penghu by boat, arriving only a couple of hours before bike check-in deadline. To make things worse, the DI2 electronic gear shifter wouldn’t work and it took an hour and a half to fix it. It was among the many curve balls thrown my way that memorable weekend.

Dazed from the 3.8-kilometer swim, the hardest in my life, I took another punishment in the form of a wind-buffeted 180 km bike ride before tackling the final 42.195 km run leg into the hills of Penghu, Taiwan, in the gathering dusk.

The 3.8 km open-water swim consisted of two laps around a 1.9 km loop. The first loop was uneventful. In the crowded first few hundred meters, slow swimmers like me were like food in the middle of a feeding frenzy. But I turned the first lap in about 50 minutes, my fastest half-Ironman swim split ever, and was on target for a 1:50 swim time. As I made the turn on the beach, I gave the thumbs-up sign to my videographer-son Martin , with whom I have had a few marathon and triathlon adventures and misadventures.


If my first swim loop was a dream, the second one was a nightmare. The current picked up and started tormenting the slower swimmers. Before long, I started swimming in a virtual treadmill, vigorously stroking but getting nowhere. I felt like a salmon laboring upstream to find a place to die. Every stroke was a struggle. Many times, the current slammed me against the ropes and I had trouble keeping my head above the water. It was at this point that I feared for my life. I didn’t want my Ironman dream dead in the water. I would rather die in a heroic sprint to the finish—that would have made for a more dramatic and cinematic stuff for Martin, who was documenting my whole Ironman experience.  After what seemed like eternity, I made it back to shore in a little over two hours, two minutes worse than my worst-case scenario.

Dazed from the longest and hardest swim in my life, I headed for 180 km of more punishment. It was the bike course—over four islands and three bridges connecting them—that inflicted so much pain on the triathletes. The temperature hovered around the 40s (Celsius) and humidity was in the 90s—conditions which would have required major marathons to cancel the race. But this was no ordinary race and nature had no mercy for those who defied its warnings.

The heat, humidity and the hills combined for a hellish ride. Going into the first bridge, I marveled at the windmills beside it. Awe turned into panic as a strong gust of wind nearly swept my bike off the road. It dawned on me why there were windmills in the area—it was very, very windy out there. In three loops around the rolling 40 km stretch, I was to cross the three bridges a total of 18 times.
I made my first stop at the special-needs table at the 40 km mark and I discovered two things: I had lost my GPS-fitted Garmin sports watch; and my latex aerosol tire inflator, which I carried under my saddle, had leaked from the canister and I approached the water station with quick-drying latex foam all over my groin. I got a lot of weird looks from the volunteers.

Without my Garmin, I relied heavily on my cyclometer to tell me the time, speed, average speed and distance covered. In another stupid moment, I pressed the gadget too long and the reading was reset to zero. At that point, I was pedaling without knowing how far I was to the end of the bike leg, like a pilot flying a plane without a working altimeter. The only thing left to do was to give everything I had in the next hour and a half. After eight hours on the saddle, baking under the merciless sun, I barely made the bike cutoff.

Into the setting sun I walked the first few hundred meters of the marathon as planned. Twilight was falling when I settled into my intended pace. Into the night and into the hills I ran, walked, ran and walked. I was guided only by the pylons marking the route and the shafts of light from the few cars that strayed nearby. ‘‘Jiayou!’’ I could hear the motorists and volunteers cheering us. Literally, it meant ‘‘keep going.’’

Dazed from the 3.8-kilometer swim, the hardest in my life, I took another punishment in the form of a wind-buffeted 180 km bike ride before tackling the final 42.195 km run leg into the hills of Penghu, Taiwan, in the gathering dusk.

‘‘Mang Jun!’’ In the dark, I could hear the greetings of some of the many Filipino triathletes who were still running, among them television weatherman Kim Atienza, restaurateur Raymund Magdaluyo and rock star Reujen Lista. ‘‘Wag kang susuko (Don’t give up)!’’ Manny Mondero yelled.

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Most of the volunteers had gone home when the finish line came into view. The sinister minds that plotted this diabolical course had a final booby-trap for everyone—a steep run down the steps of the stadium entrance. I almost fell in my excitement, but I managed to stay upright as I steeled myself for a most dramatic finish-line moment up ahead. I had long dreamt of this moment: A Philippine flag in one hand, arms raised in triumph and a final release of emotions under the finish-line arch.

But there was no such moment for me. A Chinese triathlete ahead of me had savored his own moment and lingered too long at the finish line. I crossed the line under his shadow, consoled only by the booming voice of Ironman announcer Whit Raymond: “Artemio Engracia, you are an Ironman!”

Still, it was a humbling moment. I had called myself an Ironman five years ago—prematurely, some purists and Ironman finishers jealous of their achievement had insisted. But you don’t have to finish the full distance to become an Ironman. There should be no doubt that an Ironman is one who goes beyond the limits of body and mind, who shows an unbreakable spirit, willingness to sacrifice and adherence to the discipline, whether he finishes a full Ironman or not. Anyone who gives everything he has in the pursuit of his dream, no matter the risks that lie beyond his physical and mental limits, is an Ironman.

In the end, you can take away my Garmin, you can take away my bike, you can take away my moment at the finish line and you can even strip me of my clothes. What remains is still an Ironman. That you can never take away from me.

TAGS: IRONMAN, Taiwan, Triathlon

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