IRONMAN 70.3: Raising funds to break the stigma of addiction
On Sunday 2 June, Roberto Ferreira and Julia Clucas set out to do the seemingly impossible: the Standard Bank IRONMAN 70.3, held in Durban, South Africa. For most people, the idea of taking on the IRONMAN event would be extremely daunting. The IRONMAN first began in 1978 in Hawaii when a naval officer and his wife issued a challenge that combined the three toughest races on the island into one. They did this to find out who the strongest athletes were: swimmers, bikers or runners. As a result, in February, 1978, the first IRONMAN challenge took place in Hawaii. What was not expected was the call from ordinary members of the public to be able to partake in the IRONMAN challenge. This lead to the IRONMAN 70.3 being created as a way of bridging the gap between normal triathlon distances and that of the full IRONMAN. The IRONMAN 70.3 includes a 1.9km swim, 90.1km bike and a 21.1km run. Since its beginning, the IRONMAN has symbolised the courage and ambition of people who want to achieve the impossible. For Julia and Roberto, this is exactly what the Standard Bank IRONMAN 70.3 proved to be. The Recovery Foundation’s very own Iron Man and Steel Magnolia completed the IRONMAN South Africa 2019 in order to push their limits and to showcase that it is possible for people to achieve impossible things, to recover from addiction, and live a healthy lifestyle.
Preparation for the IRONMAN 70.3 event began long before race day on 2 June. Roberto and Julia had quite some way to go before entering the start pens on the day of the event. Although these two people entered into the event as a team and under the banner of the same cause, they each had a personal journey with unique challenges to face. This article seeks to unpack each of their stories and show you, the reader, the extraordinary lengths they went to in order to achieve their goal of raising funds to help people who are struggling with chemical dependency to find recovery.
The Steel Magnolia – Julia Clucas
Julia was brought up in a fit and active family and has been a sporty individual since childhood. This had a huge influence on Julia’s value system as she believes it is incredibly important to live a healthy lifestyle because this filters down into other aspects of life. Julia upholds the idea that having a fit body leads to a fit mind. Julia’s love of sport and a fit lifestyle extends into her social life. She loves hanging out with people, the outdoors, hiking and going away to interesting places.
Julia’s choice to take on the IRONMAN 70.3 event was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Her uncle had competed in the event in 2018. She thought, “If a 50-year-old man can do it, then I don’t have an excuse!” The only thing Julia was concerned about on making her decision was the run and the swim, as at the time, she was rehabilitating an iliotibial band (ITB) injury and had never really been a swimmer.
After making her decision, it seemed only natural for Julia to compete while representing The Recovery Foundation. Her reason for doing so was personal and inspirational in nature:
“I support the cause of The Recovery Foundation. I’ve had people close to me suffer from addiction. I think the IRONMAN event will help the cause because so many people see IRONMAN as something that is unattainable to the average person and I think that by competing in the event, it shows those people that it is attainable if you just set your mind to it. Also, that people can recover and that you can change your mindset through sport.
“It’s a good cause to support. I think people have a big misunderstanding about addiction and are quick to judge people with addiction. I think The Recovery Foundation supports the right angle of addiction in helping addicts to create a new life and by showing through example. The fact that The Recovery Foundation leads by example is really important for me. Any money donated to The Recovery Foundation goes to the right cause. Some charities misuse funds they get and I feel that’s not the case with The Recovery Foundation. I feel they are really passionate about their own cause and support it.
“I thought it was really cool to compete under their name and I think that it provides support for the cause. It provides inspiration for people who think certain obstacles are unachievable and I think it gives some people hope to see other people doing these events. It gives them hope that they can overcome challenges in their own lives,” explains Julia.
Following the decision came what is probably one of the most difficult parts of preparing for an event of this intensity: the training. Julia describes the training as hectic, and explains the highlights and lowlights of the physical preparation.
“There were a lot of times where I wanted to give up and I had a few breakdowns. The thing I found the most enjoyable was the multi-discipline nature of the training. I used to do mainly cycling. I enjoyed introducing the other disciplines. Although, with the other disciplines, you have to increase your training load, which for me was quite difficult. Obviously, a lot of structure had to go into it and sometimes it was difficult to stick to that structure. I also got injured, which threw a spanner in the works, so then I was also trying to rehabilitate the ITB injury during training. Luckily, that also worked out. Although, I think I could have improved my running if I hadn’t had the injury. I think it went well given the circumstances,” says Julia.
One of the greatest tests for the Steel Magnolia was the mental challenge. She battled mentally to keep going, especially with regards to her running because she has never really been a runner.
“Running hurts my body, as I’m sure most people would agree. Doing the longer runs was really hard. I’d never done a 21km, so the IRONMAN 70.3 was my first 21km distance. This was really daunting because I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know if I could do it or not and I had some doubts, but I think that was my greatest challenge, getting my mind around the fact that I had to run the distance and I had to train for it or it wouldn’t happen,” asserts Julia.
Although there were a few times that Julia wanted to give up, she managed to get through those tough times thanks to a strong support structure. Her team mate, Roberto, and the people in her family, lent her their strength during those mental struggles – they kept her going. Julia also kept her focus on the end goal. She continuously reminded herself that she needed to put in the work in order to achieve the final result.
Another challenge that Julia faced was that of time management. Training for three disciplines is strenuous and time consuming. Julia is grateful that she is at university, which means her schedule is quite relaxed most of the time. There were a few weeks towards the end of the preparation for IRONMAN where she had to work at a school. This made it difficult to balance her training and her work. She had to sacrifice some sleep and some studying to train, but luckily, it did not have a detrimental effect.
One of the greatest personal victories for this Steel Magnolia was achieving things she didn’t think possible. Julia thought herself a terrible swimmer, but after the training she realised she was not a poor swimmer at all. Other triumphs included those times where she thought she was going to give up and didn’t.
“On Sunday 2 June, when I actually finished the event, I think that was the biggest thing for me because it was my goal achieved. When you’ve never done it before, you don’t know what to expect, anything could happen,” says Julia.
On the day of the IRONMAN 70.3, the energy and atmosphere of excitement was intense. The weather conditions were fantastic for racing and the support from the crowd was unbelievable. All the competitors were supportive and encouraging towards one another. Before the start of the race, everyone stood together and sang the National Anthem, creating a wonderful sense of unity and nationalism. Music was pumping and Julia felt amped and ready to take on the IRONMAN challenge. Although she had felt nervous a few days before, when she was in the start pens, she felt more excited than nervous. It’s what Julia had been working towards for so long and it was finally all coming together in that moment.
Once the race begun, Julia implemented her mental strategy to help take her through the race.
“For me, in any race, I break it up into parts. In the swim, I wasn’t thinking about the cycle or the run. I was focusing on the swim, trying to keep calm and not go too fast because you also have to remember you still have the rest of the event to go. It felt surreal to me, like this thing you’ve been working towards for so long and now it is happening. The run mentally was quite tough. I was so sore I didn’t know how I would finish. I was tired as the day went on, but I felt fitter than I had expected,” describes Julia.
The Steel Magnolia’s goal was to finish the IRONMAN 70.3 and raise funds for The Recovery Foundation. Julia achieved this and more! Julia finished the event in under seven hours, achieving a time of 6hrs 45min. She placed 23rd out of 41 in her age group and 417th out of 695 in her gender group. Overall, she placed 1858th out of 2604. She raised R1 700 for The Recovery Foundation. Julia was ecstatic about her performance and the effort she put in.
“I didn’t want to focus on time. I just did my best. The swim…it was the first time I had swum in the sea so I had literally didn’t have expectations for that. I was trying not to think about sharks and stuff. The cycle went really well. I had to remind myself to not push so hard because cycling is my discipline so I didn’t want to push so hard and then not be able to finish the run later. I felt really happy. When I was finishing the race, it was so cool. I can’t even explain to you how elated I felt. I just felt so satisfied. It’s a goal I’ve been working towards and now I can tick it off my bucket list!
“My glory moment was running down the red carpet to the finish line at the end of the IRONMAN 70.3 event. I realised I could actually finish this thing,” recounts Julia.
When asked what message she would like to give the readers of this article, Julia had this to say:
“People should keep going! Just focus on the end goal. Don’t think about how hard it is now because there were a lot of times where I wanted to give up because I was thinking about now and not the end goal. If you want to get to the end goal, you just need to put in the hours.”
The Iron Man – Roberto Ferreira
Athletes have to make use of every inner resource they have when competing in an event like the IRONMAN 70.3. The experience is not just physical, it challenges the athletes on a mental and emotional level too. Before being interviewed for this article, Roberto put forward a disclaimer about his experience, which suggests that the IRONMAN event is definitely not for the faint of heart.
“I will be speaking from the heart throughout the interview and probably be raw in some parts. Some stuff might come across as negative or sour, but it is the truth about my experience. I’ve felt very emotional since the end of the race until now. I’m like a mixed bag of emotions. There is pride, anger, happiness, sadness, numbness, hurt, disappointment, and victory – just to name a few. I apologise upfront if I say anything that makes people feel awkward or uncomfortable. My intention is solely to speak my truth,” states Roberto.
Roberto’s journey with sport, similar to Julia, started in childhood. He has been involved in sport as long as he can remember. He was not brought up in an especially sporty family, but since Grade 1, loved getting involved in sports like soccer, skateboarding and running around. The sports did slow down when Roberto started his drug-taking career but he still played whenever he could, even when he was high or drunk. Roberto found recovery from drug addiction seven years ago. When he first came clean, he was asked by colleagues if he would be interested in a cycling event. He had ridden before but had never cycled in a competitive event. He agreed to it without really knowing what he was getting into and what it would mean for him. Entering into this cycling event brought Roberto back into sports in recovery.
Roberto enjoys taking part in sports for fun. Following the IRONMAN event, he’ll be taking part in running on a more serious level. This will be the first time Roberto will be doing any sports code at a serious level. In addition, he likes going to theatres, watching movies, reading books and articles, eating and cooking. For Roberto, fitness is important because it keeps him healthy both physically and mentally. Sports assist him with stress management and help him to connect with other healthy people. This Iron Man loves committing to a challenge, trying new experiences, and working towards his goals. Although, competing in a triathlon was not Roberto’s idea of a goal at the beginning!
“Honestly, not once in my life did I think I would partake in a triathlon. I did think vaguely that one day I might do a triathlon but it wasn’t really a goal or a bucket list thing. Julia said she wanted to do an IRONMAN so I just said ok, I’ll do it,” explains Roberto.
Although the idea to do the IRONMAN event was quite spontaneous, after some thought, Roberto really warmed up to the idea. He was excited to try something he has never done before. As time went by and the training started, he became more enthusiastic about heading to Durban and going through the experience with other people. Roberto prefers connecting with people through experiences instead of doing it on his own.
“I prefer doing things like this with people because I’ve done a lot of things, especially in my drug addiction, by myself. I was quite lonely. But, I only realised what I was getting into properly on 28 April this year when I did my first triathlon. It was a much shorter distance than the IRONMAN. That’s when I recognised that the IRONMAN wouldn’t be as easy as I initially thought,” says Roberto.
Roberto is not only a fitness enthusiast, he is also the founder of The Recovery Foundation. Roberto used the IRONMAN event as a platform to showcase that it is possible for people to achieve impossible things, to recover from addiction, and to live a healthy lifestyle. His goal was to raise money so someone else could get the chance to recover from his or her own afflictions. By completing this event as an individual who has personally found recovery, he aspires to give hope to others.
In the lead-up to the IRONMAN event, Roberto experienced an incredibly personal journey in terms of training. He had to reach out to others who are skilled in specific sports codes like swimming. He conducted research by reading plenty of articles on the topic. Then, he had to design a training plan.
“Regarding triathlon training, I’ve winged it to the best of my ability. I made a decision on a training plan and stuck to it 90% of the time. My idea was to enjoy the training, which is the largest part of the experience and then to go to Durban and just enjoy the coast, the vibe, the people and the food. I did feel despondent at times. I did feel upset with others at times. I did feel that things weren’t going my way or in line with my goal for the event at times but I reframed those goals. I was too far into it to stop or pull out. I didn’t let anything get in the way, such as equipment not working or outside negative talk,” recounts Roberto.
Going in, this Iron Man’s mentality was that he was going to finish no matter what. Even if he had to crawl to complete it. Even if he went over the cut-off time, he would carry on because his goal was to finish and nothing would get in the way of that, except maybe a shark, but luckily, that was not the case!
The sacrifices made were substantial. A lot of money goes into getting ready for an event like this. Financial costs include expenses such as the entry, the equipment, the training, and the nutrition. His social life had to take a back seat so Roberto could focus on this new priority in his life. A lot of time goes into the training. Roberto had to perform a balancing act so he could find the time to rest, to spend time with family, to work, and to study.
Along with the sacrifices, there were also obstacles. One of these barriers is the loneliness one can feel while training, even when surrounded by other athletes. Roberto relates some of his difficulties while training:
“On the long training session, when I was out there alone and my body was tired from a lot of training and I thought: ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I going through all this pain and this draining challenge?’ You are out there in these situations alone regardless of if others are around you. You get to spend time with yourself and learn so much about yourself through the conversations you have with yourself during these times. There was anger, doubt, even confidence at times, like I’m going to cane this thing! And sometimes, there was crying in-between. There were a lot of times, especially on the bigger things that I did, where I kind of just had some tears in my eyes, like after 18km of running. It hurt and it was painful.”
But the difficulties led to learning and growth. Some of Roberto’s greatest lessons came from his training. He learned to be flexible and change plans as needed. He learned to rest when his body and mind needed it, and to listen to others, and realise that sometimes his own thinking can lead him into trouble. This Iron Man has always had a never-give-up attitude that was reinforced through this experience. He discovered that he really is a fighter and that he will not let anything get in the way of his goals.
Roberto and Julia shared the same goal of finishing the IRONMAN event. Roberto aimed to raise R10 000 for the IRONMAN 70.3. The Recovery Foundation uses the money to help people find recovery.
“We continuously help people find recovery and carry on bankrolling the help we give to the people that are coming in. We help with placements. And, if there’s people placed already, it helps us to continue to help those people.
“It goes beyond primary treatment. Sometimes, even if they’re out of treatment, it might be about paying for them to join The Recovery Foundation cycle club or lending them a bicycle so they can use it to live a healthy lifestyle. When they’re back on their feet, they buy the bicycle and then we use that money to buy another one for another person. We get creative like that. We help them build a new way of life by removing the blockages. For instance, they might never know they like cycling because they don’t have the money to buy a bicycle when they’re in early recovery. We take away that financial obstacle. Here’s the bicycle, use it. If they decide they’re over it, they give the bike back. If they want to buy it, then they’ve found a healthy thing to do that adds to a healthy recovery lifestyle. The same applies to running,” explains Roberto.
On the day of the event, Roberto was bowled over by the enthusiasm and support of the crowd. The energy of the supporters and the athletes was really powerful. He had never experienced that level of passion before. He expresses such deep appreciation for the anonymous people that gave him support especially during the race! The vibe and unseen energy helped spur on the competitors. The crowd would shout their names even when they did not know them personally! They went above and beyond.
The event itself was filled with ups and downs for Roberto. This Iron Man had to use every internal resource he could muster to complete this event. The event day began with nerves as Roberto walked across the beach towards the start pens for the swim. But when he was in the pens, the nerves disappeared. It was game time. Roberto was ready to go!
“I’ve thought about the event and how I felt a lot since it ended. I was feeling really good and in good spirits during the swim. Better than I expected. It was my first sea swim event. The weather conditions and my performance in the swim were great. I couldn’t ask for anything more. The first transition, which is changing into cycling gear after the swim, went really well. No hitches, no glitches and I remembered all the rules. There are quite a lot of rules that you need to remember. But I seemed to be fine on that.
“The cycle went way better than I planned or hoped. So by this time, I was really feeling positive and ecstatic, maybe in hindsight a bit overconfident! The second transition, which is from the bike to the run went really well too, no issues and I was happy with that. The run started off well, my body was feeling it early on but I was still in good spirits. However, when I reached the 5km mark on the run, I think the expression is, I hit the wall. The body was aching badly. My mind started suffering. I was really hurting all the way to the end of that run. So I had 16km still to run in these conditions. This was the hardest 21km run I’ve ever done. I was thinking crazy things during the run. I was getting angry about things I hadn’t even thought about in years. I must say, in a weird way, getting angry like that, kept me pushing until the end. I had an “I’ll show those people” kind-of attitude.
“I also dug deep and said there’s absolutely no way I’ll not finish this race. I’ve spent too much time, blood, sweat and tears on this thing and I will not give up. Even if I literally had to crawl, which I was actually prepared to do and at one point, I actually thought that was what I was going to do because my body was really feeling it. When I finished, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t sad. I was just done – like a feeling of numbness. I couldn’t speak much. You know, I was just over it and tired and I didn’t get the ecstatic feeling that the other people seem to have gotten. I needed to just sit down and get a cold drink. I needed to let my mind settle,” recounts Roberto.
Tapping into his emotional strength during the race may have exhausted Roberto emotionally, physically and mentally, but it helped him through to the end. Looking back now, Roberto is happy about his performance, except for his running experience.
“I’m super proud of myself for completing the event and for all the preparation that went into it. There were a lot of times when I was prepping and completing the race where I was simply by myself. All the lengths in the pool, all the times in the dam, all the times riding the bike, indoors or outdoors, all the hard yards pounding the pavements on the runs, even with the people around me, I had to do it by myself. I mean, no one was going to do the run for me,” says Roberto.
Since completing the event, Roberto has had a flood of phone calls and messages congratulating him on his endeavour. He appreciates all the well wishes he received, especially the one he received from his mother, after the event.
“My mother sent me a message while I was sitting at a restaurant after someone bought me lunch. And all she said was she is very proud of me – “I’m very proud of you, Roberto” – and that made me cry a little because it really hit home. I’m actually feeling a bit emotional about it right now because she sent that,” shares Roberto.
The Iron Man’s goal was to finish the IRONMAN 70.3 and raise R10 000 for The Recovery Foundation. Roberto finished the event in under seven hours, achieving a time of 6hrs 44min. He placed 249th out of 325 in his age group and 1413rd out of 1883 in his gender group. Overall, he placed 1837th out of 2604. Roberto raised R9 300, which altogether with Julia’s fundraising, raised R11 000 for The Recovery Foundation, meaning they managed to raise more than their initial goal! A big thanks goes out to iMed Distributors, who sponsored Roberto’s tri-suit for the IRONMAN event.
In addition to the Iron Man and Steel Magnolia’s incredible feat, The Recovery Foundation also celebrated another occasion in June as it turned two years old! For Roberto, this is a great victory.
“People are becoming more aware of The Recovery Foundation. We are helping people. It’s not just a dream anymore, it’s happening. For me personally, it’s helped me more than I thought it would. It’s moving to know that it’s been helping people and that it’s actually been helping me as well,” says Roberto.
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