Are you the type of athlete that likes to train hard and play hard? Then you might just want to consider being an Ironman.

Each year, The Ironman Foundation, Inc., a not–for–profit organization, hosts a triathlon for men and women who love pushing their bodies to the limit. The Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas triathlon takes place each year at The Woodlands, which is just north of Houston, Texas.

“The course begins with a 2.4–mile swim in Lake Woodlands. Next is a 112–mile bike course that takes participants west through the scenic, rolling farmland of east Texas. The day ends with a 26.2–mile run course entirely within The Woodlands that concludes with a spectacular finish on Market Street,” states IronmanTexas.com, the official website of the Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas.

The triathlon begins at 7am with a 2 1/2–mile swim in Lake Woodlands, which begins at Northshore Park and finishes at Town Green Park. The triathletes have only two hours and twenty minutes to complete the event, and only those who complete the swim within the allotted time are permitted to continue in the race.

Once out of the water, the athletes begin the mostly flat bike portion of the race, 112 beautiful miles, which must be completed by 5:30pm. Not only does the course take the triathletes through scenic farmlands, it also takes them through the Sam Houston National Forest, one of four national forests in Texas. Once again, only athletes who finish within the allotted time will be able to continue.

The third and final portion of the race is a flat 26.2 mile run, which takes place entirely within The Woodlands. Athletes who have not started their 3rd and final lap by 10pm will not be allowed to continue the race, and all triathletes must finish the run by midnight.

Throughout the course, Ironman provides its athletes with sports drinks, water, power bars, fruit and defizzed cola to help keep them hydrated and nourished throughout the grueling event. During such a physically demanding activity, it is incredibly important to keep the body in peak performance condition.

If 17 hours of proving your athleticism is not on your list of important things to do, you are not left out of the excitement. There are many volunteer positions that need to be filled. In fact, Memorial Herman Ironman Texas relies on more than 3,000 volunteers to pull off this exciting event.

Although the 2011 Ironman Texas has already occurred, registration for the 2012 Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas, which takes place on May 19, has already begun. The registration fee is $1250, half of which is donated to the Ironman Foundation and the other half is to cover the costs of the event itself. The Ironman Foundation donates $625 per registrant to charities in the community that sponsors the event to help provide more recreational opportunities for children. To register for the 2012 Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas triathlon, go to ironmantexas.com.

Juan Carlos Zapata, age 25, was born in Chicago, but spent much of his youth here in the Valley. After being away for some years, he again calls McAllen home. Throughout his life, he has participated in most every sport and thoroughly enjoys doing so. Ironman Texas was Zapata’s second experience with Ironman, Ironman Louisville being his first, and he’s planning on Ironman Brazil 2012 being his third.

Zapata trained for 8 months at an average of 25 hours a week for Ironman Texas. He trained in 4 week blocks, building for three weeks and taking off one week to recover. His training volume and intensity changed as he progressed.

Although it may seem that the actual Ironman Texas event is more challenging than the training, Zapata explains why it is the other way around. “While the Ironman is hard, the training for the Ironman is almost equally challenging. Juggling work and training can be a real challenge. Things at work come up that will derail your training plans, and you have to be flexible enough to train whenever you have time… Of course, there is also the other challenge of battling laziness. After so many weeks of hard training, you sometimes get the feeling of not wanting to do anything that day. On those days, the hardest part is just starting. It is important to remember your goals and if you want them bad enough, they keep you motivated and disciplined. There are so many distractions in life that can keep you from training. It is important to stay focused.”

It is always exciting to know the results of a competition such as this, and surely each athlete wants to know how he did compared to everyone else. However, there is more to finishing than where one ranks. “I think finishing is different for everyone, but the one thing that is common among all finishers is that you see the world through different eyes, better eyes.” “A fellow Ironman once told me I was going to get hooked because the feeling of finishing is life changing. He said once finishing…he knew that there was nothing he could not do.”

“Ironman is as much a physical challenge as it is a mental challenge. As your physical and mental capacities are being exhausted and broken down, your emotions flare and grow stronger with every thought of quitting you dismiss.”

Tom Torkelson, founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools, is originally from Toledo, Ohio. He moved to the RGV in 1997 to teach and has been here ever since. At age 36, this is Tom’s second Ironman competition, in which he decided to compete to remind him of the challenges that students at IDEA Public Schools face each day.

To prepare himself for the triathlon, Torkelson followed a training plan from the book IronFit, and because of his rigorous work schedule, he did all of his training between 4am–6am. “I did much better this time around. I’m six years older, I now have two children, but I was nearly two hours faster. The focus and discipline for this year’s Ironman was very special, and I credit my wife and children with helping me achieve that,” says Torkelson, who began training 7 months prior to the race. He also gives credit to 22–year–old Sergio Garza: “This kid really pushed me every workout. I have a big ego, and I was determined not to let him crush me too badly in the workouts.”

As much as Torkelson prepared his body, it was his equipment that gave out. “Ten miles into the run, the heat from the pavement melted the sole right off my shoe. My shoe literally disintegrated. I didn’t panic: I looked for help—I saw a young man working one of the waterstops who was about my size and asked him if I could have his shoes. He gave them to me right on the spot—I ran the last 16 miles in someone else’s shoes.”

Torkelson’s time was better than ever. “I was in 500th place out of the swim, then I moved up to 300th place after the bike. When I crossed the finish at the end of the run, I was in 166th place or the top 7% of the field—not bad for an amateur. In 10 hours and 56 minutes I had the honor of being the top finisher from the RGV. I would say that the run was the leg in which I ranked the highest, but it was also the most mentally and physically demanding as it came in the last four hours of a ten hour race.

“To me, Ironman helps me achieve great things. It keeps my energy high, my mind sharp, and I find some of my most creative ideas come during a six–hour bike ride or long run.”

Salvador Moreno is a 37–year–old Commodities Operations Risk Manager for Azteca Milling, who started running in 2003 for health reasons and continues to make running an integral part of his life. “Many people don’t like to exercise because it’s hard work, especially if you’re overweight, but it’s such a necessary part of life,” he says.

Since 2007 Moreno has completed 5 Half Ironmans in California and Texas, and in 2009 he competed in his first full Ironman in Cozumel. He says that he is drawn to competitions like Ironman by the mere challenge of completing such difficult events and by the opportunity to improve his previous times.

Training for Ironman “requires a great amount of discipline and careful planning, especially for someone like me with a full time job and a family,” says Moreno. “Most of my workouts are early in the morning, and it is very tough to get up at that time to train day after day. You cannot miss too many workouts because every week is a build on the previous week, and every week is preparation for the next one. It’s like building a skyscraper: you have to start with a strong base and keep building up from there.”

Moreno’s training, which sometimes consumed up to 17 hours a week, and coaching from Mike Plumb, a friend from California, paid off. He finished in 11hrs 35 min, 56th place in the Male 35–39 division out of almost 400 participants and inside the top 20% of his age group. He lost over 8 lbs. during the race and burned over 10,000 calories!

“I had a great race and an incredible experience doing Ironman Texas. I love the challenge and pushing myself to the absolute limits just to see how far I can take it and then go a little bit further. But it’s not only about the race itself. A big part of why we do this is to stay active and live the healthy lifestyle. The journey is the reward. Finishing the race is just a celebration of all the hard work and sacrifice that it takes to prepare for something like this.”

At the 2010 McAllen Marathon, Moreno qualified for the 2012 Boston Marathon, which will be his focus for next year, but he does plan to compete in Ironman Canada or France in 2013.

Sergio Garza, a personal trainer and student, is a Valley native from Donna, Texas. Watching the December Ironman Hawaii championships on TV since the age of 13 is what has been inspiring Garza to become an Ironman. “There was something about the drama, the pain, the excitement and the glory that drove me to pursue the Ironman. I just didn’t think it would come so early in my life.”

Garza began training for Ironman 2011 back in November. For seven months, he began each day with 1 1/2 to 3 hours of cycling, used his lunch hour to fit in a swim workout and lived at the gym from 4pm until 9pm. He even used his one hour of recreation to run. On the weekends he biked anywhere from 20 to 110 miles and ran between 5 and 20 miles each day. “I just tried to make the plan work as well as possible with my lifestyle and motivation. I figure if you can’t enjoy your plan and have fun with your training, there really is not any point in starting the journey,” says Garza.

After the bike portion of the triathlon, Garza ran into one of his training partners, Tom Torkelson, who suggested they run the final event together. “But the way I was feeling, I could not imagine running a 4–hour marathon. I ran on my own, jogging at just over 11–minute miles. It sounds slow, but after swimming 2.4 mile and biking 112 miles, it was fast enough for me. I became severely dehydrated and began to feel cold at mile 16.” At mile 18, Garza’s body stopped producing sweat, so he stopped at the nearest medical station and told them his symptoms. They suggested that he could be suffering a heat stroke, in which case they would take him out of the race for his own safety. “With only 8 miles to go, a DNF (did not finish) was nowhere on my ‘wanted list.’ I got up, told the EMT I was feeling much better and ran off, with extreme cramping, a trembling lip and a body on the verge of shutdown. Eyes closed, breathing as rhythmic as possible and a voice in my head telling me, ‘Just a few more miles of agony.’”

Exiting the swim Garza ranked 545th. He did so well in the bike event that he worked his way down to 368th. Despite the dehydration and possible heat stroke, Garza managed to finish 433rd in overall rankings and 12th overall out of his age group of more than 50 competitors, with a total time of 12 hours and 50 minutes.

The race itself was painful and can only be remembered as “a very painful and soul searching day that pushes you to the deepest points of your mental limits, all to be forgotten in those final 100 meters, when you find thousands of spectators cheering you on, congratulating you and waiting for a high five…Crossing that finish line is a joy like no other: months of training, all those miles, all that agony, all that sacrifice… all worth it when you hear those words… ‘Sergio Garza, 21 from Donna Texas…YOU, are an IRONMAN!’”

By Lora Incardona