Endurance sports are an area where the human spirit faces its toughest tests. These tests come in both physical and mental aspects. Athletes often embark on these journeys with dreams of conquering personal goals. Oftentimes they find themselves confronting unexpected obstacles. John Barker’s story showcases the resilience and determination needed to navigate such challenges. John’s Ironman Kona pursuit was winding, and challenging but he would ultimately reach that finish line.
Getting Started: A Naive Beginning
John’s initiation into endurance sports was far from conventional. In the 90’s a friend of his was participating in lots of cycling and triathlon events. As an active guy who mostly hit the gym but also did the occasional run, John was experiencing a little FOMO. “Hey Buddy, I’d be up for doing the run leg of a relay with you in one of your Tris,” John said. “Done. We’re signed up,” came the reply.
As the date neared, it occurred to John that he wasn’t exactly sure what he’d signed up for. “It’s an Ironman, you’re doing the marathon,” was the reply. With less than two months to go and having never run more than 10 miles in his life, John swallowed his fear and vowed to meet the challenge. A sprained ankle 10 days out and temperatures over 100 degrees on race day provided additional obstacles, but John gritted it out and was the only relay runner to complete the race. John was exhausted, but hooked! This marked the beginning of a journey that would define his athletic pursuits.
A Struggle with the Marathon: Learning About Consistency
John’s first 5 marathons all ended the same, with him walking, cursing, and vowing never to do another one again. After number 5 and a little reflection a lightbulb went off. “Maybe I should train consistently for a whole year, instead of taking it easy for nine months and then trying to get in marathon shape in the next three,” John thought. That work culminating in an impressive 3:09 finish at the St. Louis Marathon. John’s next goal was a sub 3 hr marathon. However, fate intervened when an old back injury (degenerative disc disease – from a ski accident?) flared up and made running impossible without surgery – at least according to his orthopedic surgeon. Wary of back surgery, John shifted to cycling to remain active and maintain his sanity.
Navigating Injuries: The Shift to Cycling And A Return To Running
John’s love for cycling, rooted in childhood memories of traversing the neighborhood on his bike, became a salvation over the next decade as back pain continued to rule out running. While initially hesitant about cycling as a primary sport, John found that it kept him in both good shape and good mental health. Indeed he started to realize that cycling, particularly long rides, helped him manage stress from work and often opened his mind to creative solutions to tricky problems.
Unfortunately, even this outlet was threatened when John avulsed his pelvis and found himself unable to run or bike. Concerned, but determined, John sought out the help of a great sports PT and then religiously followed the recommended routine. In a fortuitous turn, the routine not only helped heal the pelvis injury, it also eliminated the back pain he had been experiencing every day for nearly a decade – without surgery! Running was now back on the table and so, too, was the quiet goal that always sat at the back of his mind – to do a triathlon.John’s tenacity in the face of injury showcased the power of perseverance.
Balancing Act: Family, Work, and Training
Freed from back pain, John joined a few guys from his ‘dads’ group and did his first triathlon in 2014 and placed 2nd out of 50+ participants in his age group. John loved everything about it – the pre race anxiety, the comradery, the suffering, the war stories – oh, the war stories! He vowed to do more. But, like most people, John faced the tricky balance of family, work, and training. With the demands of managing a growing company and a vow to put his kids and wife first, John’s only option for training was to be as efficient as possible. This meant early morning workouts and efficient scheduling like biking home from kid’s sporting events or running while the kids cycled alongside him. This focus on family and work first and training third became the cornerstone of his training regimen.
Dreaming Big: The Kona Quest
After completing several sprint, Olympic, and 70.3 triathlons and vowing to never to do a full Ironman, John made the “mistake” of watching the live feed of the Ironman World Championships in Kona in 2017. Experiencing massive FOMO, John thought, “I have to do that race.” But, knowing that it’s almost impossible to qualify for Kona, he decided to hire a coach, Jim Vance, a fellow San Diegan who also coached Olympian Ben Kanute. In their first call, Jim asked, “Do you have any other goals” making it clear that Kona was a pipe dream. Undeterred, John said, “I know it’s a long shot, but that’s the goal.”
Their first target was Ironman Arizona in 2018. While John got close, 8th place out of 300+, it wasn’t meant to be. Undeterred, John looked to try again. Knowing that doing two Ironman distance events in the same year was going to be incredibly difficult from a physical and time management standpoint, John looked for other options to qualify for Kona and learned that the 70.3 Hawaii race offered Ironman World Championship slots.. Training for a 70.3 and an Ironman in the same year was possible. Combining that with his love of Hawaii, the decision was easy.
Kona Qualification: Against All Odds
With a so-so swim, a bike leg more challenging than expected, John began to resign himself to another near miss on the Kona goal. Even so, his competitive nature kept telling him to “push himself” during the scorching hot run. After spending an hour or so recovering from his efforts, alone, and certain that he’d fallen short of his goal, John finally asked a fellow competitor if he could look up John’s placing. 4th place! An hour later and with a little luck with roll-downs John had his Kona spot. The unexpected triumph added a new chapter to John’s story, illustrating that sometimes, the most significant victories arise from the most challenging races.
Kona: The Culmination of a Dream
The Ironman World Championships in Kona fulfilled John’s dream, blending the allure of Hawaii with the iconic race. The pre-race atmosphere, a blend of excitement and intimidation, set the stage for an unforgettable experience. However, the Ironman Kona pursuit was not without its share of setbacks, including a bout of over-exuberance during training that resulted in dead bike legs leading into the race.
Overcoming Setbacks: Kona and Beyond
The reality of Kona’s brutal conditions hit hard during the run. Despite the conditions, John’s determination pushed him to finish strong. “One foot in front of the other” was the mantra handed down by his coach and he followed that mantra. The post-race rollercoaster of emotions, from letdown to elation, encapsulated the essence of triathlon. John’s story is not just about conquering Kona; it’s a testament to resilience, adaptability, and the unwavering pursuit of dreams.
While having raced in Kona, John feels there is more to accomplish. He aspires to race in Kona again, but not just finish. Next time John wants to race and let the chips fall where they may. .
After a promising and PB performance at the 2022 70.3 World Championships, John thought 2023 would be the year. But, Ironman moved the World Championships for men to Nice, France, and injury once again reared its head for John. Initially registered for Ironman Texas, he had to withdraw because of a condition called osteitis pubis. Throughout 2023 he battled the injury and the deep disappointment of being sidelined.
Now, John has sold his business and retired. His children are out of the house. For the first time in a long time he has all the time in the world to train. What he doesn’t have is 100% health. While the down days sometimes get to him, he remains focused on getting better and is determined to make it back to the starting line and a finish line, in Kona.
Triumph Beyond the Finish Line
John Barker’s journey in triathlon reflects the essence of the human spirit’s triumph over adversity. From a novice runner in an Ironman relay to a Kona qualifier, John’s story is an inspiration. His commitment to balancing family, work, and training showcases that with determination, setbacks can be stepping stones to greater achievements. For John his Ironman Kona pursuit resulted in accomplishment but also continued desire. He wants more than to just finish, he wants to flourish. John’s story resonates with those navigating their own paths in the world of endurance sports. He has proven that there are opportunities for success despite the setbacks they face.