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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

My Ironman Journey - 1 Year After

The 3rd of July is special for me.

Exactly one year ago, I finally completed a full Ironman race after several very painful attempts. I paid an extremely dear price for this quest. Maybe much more than I thought I ever would and willing to do. Most other people within my calibre in this sport can easily hurdle this challenge. But for some cosmic, metaphysical, psychedelic, inexplicable reason, the Universe gave me a much harder time. That just means mine was truly a freak passage to becoming among the extremely rare set of people who can be called Ironman.

Sharing this article I wrote which was published by Total Fitness Magazine (June 2012 Issue) and the Philippine Star. Sorry that it's a bit long -

Iron Obsession, Iron Will

By Gregory H. Banzon

My story started four years ago at the finish line of Ironman Malaysia 2008 in Langkawi – a full distance Ironman that involved a 3.8km open sea swim, a 180km bike race and 42km run – all within a 17-hour cut off. I trained almost 20 weeks for that race, which took me 17 hours and six minutes to complete. Yes, I missed the cut off by a painful six minutes! They gave me the finisher’s medal, but I was unable to earn the distinction of being called Ironman. Thus began an obsession that would take me four years to conquer.

Finisher Medal
For the uninitiated, the full Ironman is probably the most gruelling endurance sport there is. It starts with a 3.8km swim, which is like swimming the length of EDSA from the Buendia intersection to Roxas Blvd, within a 2:15 hour period. Immediately after that, one has to mount a bike and ride for 180km. This is like biking from the Mall of Asia to the foot of Baguio in La Union. The cut off for this part of the race is about eight hours. If one does not make it to the cut off, he will be pulled out of the course and the day ends for him. Finally, after the tough swim and long bike ride, one caps the race with a full 42km marathon. This is equivalent to running from La Union and head back to Pampangga.  In the Philippines, the only official Ironman race is a 70.3 miler and is sometimes called a half Ironman.

It is an extremely painful and exhausting endeavour for sure, but that’s what makes it appealing. It is the challenge of pushing yourself to the extreme limits of physical, and often times, even psychological capacity.  Once you cross the finish line, the announcer calls out your name and shouts “You are an Ironman!” To hardcore triathletes, this is the ultimate confirmation that one is indeed a member of the rare breed of people who have completed the distance.

In Langkawi, I was totally devastated to I learn that I just missed the cut off by a mere six minutes. This meant I had to carve out another 20 weeks of my life to train for another Ironman and go through the same agonizing experience to lay claim to the distinction of having conquered this extreme challenge.

Other Failed Attempts

Days after Ironman Malaysia, I was already online searching for the next best and affordable Ironman race available. I eventually signed up for Ironman West Australia 2009, and started to both train and save up for the trip to Perth. Unfortunately, after training for over 12 months almost 18 hours a week, my race in Australia ended up in yet another failure. I had a good swim and was already 148km into the bike when I lost control and crashed to the ground unconscious. Though I insisted that I was okay to continue, the race marshals decided it was too risky to let me keep racing because of possible contusions. I literally bawled like a little boy when they took away my bike, loaded it on a pick up truck, and officially declared me DNF (Did Not Finish).

Actual ride in Ironman Australia. This was somewhere around km 110. I crashed at km 148.

I was immediately brought to a medical facility for a check-up and was discharged the same day. It was painful to see all the athletes cross the finish line triumphantly while I was on the sidelines nursing a bruised head and an even more banged up ego.

Brothers in our Ironman Quest - Coach George, myself and
Drew Arellano in Perth Australia.
No sooner than I was at the Singapore airport from a connecting flight from Australia, I was already back online registering for the closest Ironman race available. I figured that I should race immediately so that all the training I just put in for Australia would not go to waste. I would just have to sustain my fitness level and march on to the next Ironman race. Interestingly, it was once again Ironman Malaysia – 2010! A return bout with the course where I had missed the cut off by just 6 minutes!

This time around, I poured everything into the training. I practiced 20 hours a week through Christmas, New Year, and all other weeks and holidays to prepare for a rematch with the course that broke my heart but not my spirit.

Feeling good on race day, I poured it on the swim and came out feeling fresh. I remember telling myself, “Put everything into it as this is the last time you’ll ever swim this distance”. I hammered the bike but was a bit more cautious, lest I face a repeat of the Australian debacle.

I used to be fat!
However, I forgot to hydrate properly and manage my nutrition, and started to suffer the symptoms of hyponatremia (or excessive loss of sodium in the body). This condition is said to stress out vital organs such as the kidneys, the liver and makes one’s brain cells swell. By the time I was on the run leg of the race, I was already feeling dizzy. The brain swelling made me disoriented and I suffered extreme nausea – I threw up a total of nine times on the race course! Then, with only less than 14km left in the run, I ended up in the medical tent half alive where I threw up another 3 times. Once again, the race marshals deemed it best that I not continue and was brought to the Langkawi Hospital via ambulance where I was given two IV’s and an overnight stay in the emergency room.

A Fresh Challenge

By this time, the score was: Ironman, 3 – Greg Banzon, 0. I kept a lookout for interesting and affordable  Ironman races and the next one I found was Ironman China 2011. This was slated for June and my training went on full gear as early as December 2010. I woke up at 4am daily for the next 6 months to prepare, training as much as 21 hours a week.

Unfortunately, three weeks before the race, the organizers had to cancel due to problems in obtaining government permits. There were supposed to be at least 30 Filipino athletes participating and all of us were devastated. However, the multinational company that owns and organizes Ironman events, World Triathlon Corporation, gave us complimentary registration to Ironman Korea 2011, which was just a month away. Almost everyone took advantage of this opportunity.

I only had to extend preparation for another month. The training I needed to prepare for all the Ironman races I’ve joined in the past had made me miss a lot of important occasions with family and friends already. “What’s one more month”, I said to myself. The obsessive amount of time and discipline I had to put in to train would put a serious strain on my family relationships. Despite this, I decided to keep my head in the game and go for Ironman Korea 2011 in Jeju Island.

Final Attempt at Glory

This was now my fourth attempt at Ironman Immortality. I have been a prisoner of my obsession for over 4 years. This prison compelled me to wake up at 4am almost daily to either swim, bike or run. Weekends was spent in hard labor biking at least 120 to 180 km along Daan Hari or to Tagaytay and doing long runs. The diet in this prison was Spartan. I had dropped 20 pounds since Langkawi.

Hahahah...siningit talaga itong picture....relevant naman....

"Faith is easy to come by when you know the outcome, but the true test of faith is when you don’t know what will happen”. No one knows for sure how one will fare in an Ironman race before they start. Not even the pros. I was living proof that despite doing all the necessary training, anything can still go wrong during an actual Ironman race especially because of the distance. However, my faith carried me through the training and gave me the strength to once again take on the ultimate challenge. On July 3rd 2011, I was finally at the start line of Ironman Korea. I reported early for body marking; my race number is stamped on my arms and legs to allow easy identification especially in the water. I went to my bike (which I had racked in the previous afternoon), gave it a final check, then nervously walked to the beach. It was a foggy morning and visibility in the freezing sea was no more than 30 meters forward. Sighting was clearly going to be difficult. There wasn’t a single soul at the starting line that was not nervous. I felt a big lump on my throat, daunted by the task of completing the Ironman distance, a total of 227km of swimming, biking and running. I knew I was going to be in for a very brutal day.

The Swim Start
Then, as the start gun went off, an explosive energy was unleashed. Over a thousand brave and determined triathletes attacked the freezing and foggy sea in black wet suits like seals chased by sharks. It’s called the “washing machine start” when everyone jostled for a good swim lane to complete the long 3.8 km course. One would get kicked, elbowed, grabbed at, and crawled over for a good portion of the swim. We were at such close quarters that I could smell the breath of the swimmers beside me. My arms and legs were cramping from the continuous swimming motion that took nearly 1.5 hours to complete. But I felt strong coming out of the water and ran fast to my bike at Transition 1.

The bike course in Korea was unforgiving. Nearly 80k out of the 180k was hilly with some long stretches of climbs. It literally zapped the energy out of me, and my legs became heavy as lead. I must have messed up my nutrition as I started feeling nauseous nearing the 90k marker. I glanced behind me and, seeing there was nobody directly at my back, let out a major high velocity stream of vomit while moving at 30kph. It was so painful I decided to regulate my nutrition out of fear of throwing up more during the race. That took its toll on me though. By kilometer 130 on the bike, hypoglycaemia started to kick in because I stopped eating. I was depleted of most of my body sugar and was literally getting really sleepy on the bike. Luckily, I caught up with another Pinoy triathlete, Erick Olonan, who agreed to ride alongside me to Transition 2 to make sure I didn’t fall asleep while biking.

Finally, I was on the run leg of the Ironman – 2 x 21km loops with yet again an inordinately high proportion of hills. I think the race organizers put in so much hills on the run course so that the race earns a reputation of being a really tough Ironman challenge. Like being whacked by frat initiation paddles, my legs were aching intensely from the long bike ride. This was made worse by the constant pounding of my feet against the ground across this long distance. Despite this, I kept running, propelled only by my will and the desperate need to finish an Ironman race, once and for all.

While clawing through pain and hypoglycaemia, I started to get uncontrollably sleepy. It got so bad that I had to sit by a tree along the run course and take a nap. My team mate from Century Tuna Tri Hard, Ivan Fojas, and multi Ironman finisher, Andrew Chinalpan, saw me asleep and woke me up. I was probably sleeping for about five minutes. They helped me get back in the race by pacing me. Ivan was particularly gracious as he even doubled back an additional 2k just to help me find my pace. However, by that time, fatigue, poor nutrition, and the onset of hyponatremia made me vomit again. Everything and anything I ate or drank came back out a few minutes later – I vomited a total of six times during the run! But unlike my disappointing pull out from Ironman Malaysia, I was able to push myself to continue running. The presence of many Pinoy triathletes on the race who kept encouraging me to go on also helped me pull through. Most importantly, my coach, SEA Games Silver Medalist George Vilog, was patient enough to keep me company throughout the run course just by being there at key aid stations. He had finished the Ironman Korea 70.3 earlier in the day and had qualified for the World Championships in Las Vegas. Also helpful were the guys from Tri Clark/Yellow Cab who egged me on whenever we saw each other on the run course. Most notable of whom was my good buddy, Art Ifurung.

With 6km left in the run, I started getting tunnel vision and felt I was going to pass out. To prevent another defeat, I decided to step up the pace and push harder to the finish. Because of the punishing hills, lack of nutrition and a combination of hypoglycaemia and hyponatremia, I started to doubt whether I would make it. To keep going, I relied on positive mental pictures of people who inspire me and all the work and sacrifice I had given in training.

Ang mamatay ng dahil sa 'yo?
Before I knew it, I saw the arc at the finish line and heard the festive music that blared at every Ironman finish line. My past three misses had built up some interest in my story, so that many of the Pinoys present in Jeju were waiting along the finish line for me despite the late hour. Soon, I was running along the red carpet. At this point, one of the Pinoys in the crowd handed me the Philippine flag. A few meters further, I finally crossed the finish line and heard the announcer shout “Gregory Banzon, IRONMAN!” Suddenly, I was unable to control my emotions. I placed my head in my hands and started crying. I couldn’t shout for joy. I could hardly talk. I was numb. I had given it my all, I gave it everything. Total time: 15 hours, 46 minutes. Well within the 17 hour cut off.  Some minutes later, I was rushed to the medical tent for IV therapy and there, more throwing up followed. Three more times to be exact.
Ironman at last.

But it didn’t matter.

Finally, after four years and on my 4th and final attempt, I am an Ironman. At last.


  1. Wow, what a story. I have heard about your story through the triathlon grapevine, but nothing beats the power of a personal account.

    Happy anniversary, Mr. IRONMAN!

  2. You are an IRONMAN when you decided to join one and you are more than that when you persisted on finishing one. Welcome to the Club, Ironman Greg Banzon.

    1. Ironman Andrew! Not without your help, pre. Thanks again!

  3. Congratulations Greg !
    very inspiring !
    Patrick Concepcion

    1. Thanks Pat....looking forward to Condura 2013!

  4. Amazing story, one that I share and understand, because I stand in the very same shoes as you did, as you laid your life on the line, spent innumerable hours, immeasurable finances and resources into training to become an IronMan. I've attempted the IronMan once, in Regensburg, Germany, last year, and failed. I'm working on my next IM, and I've to admit, am often fighting the demon of 'can't do', which relentlessly make my road to Iron-hood an uphill and challenging one. I've written my account of my painful and disastrous day in Regensburg in Aug last year for your reading pleasure, if you've time.

    Congrats on a dream accomplished, Greg. You set the bar for many to follow. Keep up the good work, and keep tri-ing! ;)

    1. Hi Angeline - don't let go of your dream. It can be done. It's a matter of putting in the time without going crazy/over board. I'm sure you will make it in your second attempt!

  5. I just saw this bro Greg!

    I will never forget and get tired of sharing your story bud.

    Ultimate story of patience, perseverance, and never giving up.

    1. Thanks Carlo! The story of the pinaka-matigas na ulong Pinoy triathlete...hahahahahaha.

  6. Idol Greg...

    Just come accross this very inspiring article, I'm Thingking of doning another Full in 2013...

    GREG! You are an IRONMAN!!!

    =don primero=

    1. Hi Don! Attack. It shouldn't be as hard as my journey...just had a string of bad luck. Yours will surely be a huge success.

  7. Wow! Amazing and inspiring! For the 'uninitiated', you've gotta be crazy enough to go through those Spartan-like challenges. =)
    It really is plain and simple - PERSEVERANCE...LOTS of it. You've got it, IRONMAN GREG!

  8. brother you have my salute(s). are you planning to return for another Langkawi Ironman next year ? :)

    1. Hi Miss Jewelz - yes, I plan on a return bout with the touch Langkawi Ironman course!

  9. Hello Greg, are you doing the Langkawi this year?

  10. HIII sir G!!!

    your story is amazing! i cant stop laughing at the same time.. i was very entertained :)
    congratulations finally IRONMAN !

    very inspiring story indeed.. im on my way for a trilife.
    right now, im learning how to swim properly.
    and in 9days ill do my second marathon here in Cebu (CCM2016). Hoping for this year will be my triathlon year and in 2017 will be my IronMan 70.3 :)


    -shanne mandapat (@ashting) ig