PANAMA CITY, Florida –
On a cool November morning, Raul Garcia stood on the beach, swim goggles in hand, nervous with anticipation as he waited to enter the water and start the biggest race of his life.
The Defense Logistics Agency Energy Customer Account Specialist hoped he’d done enough to prepare for the grueling Ironman Florida triathlon amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Between having to train alone with limited access to a pool and facilities, deploying with the DLA Energy Americas Task Force to help hurricane victims, and helping my 2nd grader with her online learning, I had to think outside the box and do what I could,” Garcia said.
Garcia’s goal for his first Ironman was simple -- to complete the 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and 26.2-mile run before the 17-hour cut off. His perseverance paid off, finishing in 14 hours and 13 minutes.
While his training for the race started 18 months ago, his journey to becoming an Ironman began five years ago.
“When I moved to Houston with DLA Energy in 2015, I was overweight, physically and mentally unhealthy and knew something needed to be done,” Garcia said.
Starting with a 5K fun run, Garcia worked his way up to longer distances, including a 26-mile marathon before a friend mentioned an Ironman.
“I had absolutely no clue what ‘Ironman’ even meant,” Garcia said. “I remember thinking, I don’t even know how to swim properly nor do I have a bike. This was definitely outside of my comfort zone.”
He took on the challenge, training to swim and bike long distances. Since March, Garcia had to find ways to continue his training despite pandemic shutdowns and concerns for public safety. His anticipation grew as the race date approached, unsure if COVID-19 restrictions would force officials to cancel the race.
“This was actually the first full Ironman event held since the pandemic started,” Garcia said. “I was both nervous and curious how the Ironman Triathlon organization was going to hold an event during these perilous times.”
Organizers instituted health and safety measures to ensure participants, staff and spectators would be sufficiently protected from potential COVID-19 transmission. Masks were mandatory for racers right up until they got into the ocean for the swim, Garcia said. While masks weren’t required while biking or running, they were required during the transitions from the swim to the bike and from the bike to the run.
“The start of the race was very well organized and there was tape on the street marked every 6 feet so participants knew were to stand in order to keep their social distance,” Garcia said.
Another precaution the race officials took was to not allow spectators.
“These type of events draw huge crowds full of family and friends,” he said. “Unfortunately they could not be as involved as they normally would be this year.”
It was tough not having his family by his side to cheer him on, but that only made him try harder, he said. “I wanted to be a leader for my family and show them anything is possible, even during these challenging times.”
“Hopefully I inspire somebody to get up, get active and to take care of their physical and mental health,” he added.
Garcia’s triathlon accomplishment sets the bar for his future competitions and personal goals. He’s already lost 50 pounds and said he isn’t trying to be the best, just push himself to be even 1% better.