Father O’Connor takes the Ironman challenge

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use_for_ironman_p_9Q. You recently competed in an Ironman competition in Florida. Can you describe the competition?

A.  The Ironman Triathlon came into existence in Hawaii in 1977, which happens to be the year I was born. That year, an argument arose among a group of athletes over who was more fit — swimmers, cyclists or runners. To settle the debate, they decided to combine three existing races: a 2.4-mile open water swim, a 112-mile bike ride around the island and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon. “Whoever finishes first, we’ll call the ‘Ironman.’”
The first Ironman finisher completed the course in 11 hours, 46 minutes, 58 seconds. Thirty-four years later, the 140.6-mile races are now held around the world, and on Nov. 5, I finished Ironman Florida in 12 hours, 50 minutes, 5 seconds. 

Q. Why did you compete? What made you decide to do it?

A.  I love competition and pushing myself to new limits. I was drawn to the challenge presented by the Ironman because it stands as the iconic endurance race.

Q. How did you prepare for the physical challenge? Did you change your diet or routine?

A. Over the years, I slowly put the pieces together. As a seminarian, I ran the Mountain Goat and the Baltimore Marathon. When Pope John Paul II came to Canada for World Youth Day in 2002, Father Michael Galuppi and I rode our bicycles to Toronto, averaging 75 miles per day along the Erie Canal. In 2010, I completed the inaugural Syracuse Half-Ironman. As I crossed the finish line at the Inner Harbor last year, I made up my mind to go for the full distance. In July, I began to a follow a very specific training guide, which called for ten to fifteen hours of weekly activity, to prepare for the Ironman. This required changes to every dimension of my life. 

Q. Did you prepare mentally or spiritually as well?

A. Each of us faces “endurance events” in life. Marriage, kids, college, careers and illness are all enormous undertakings — some we choose to take on and others are laid on us. I learned many spiritual lessons in preparing for the Ironman. Here are a few:
Humility paves the way for accomplishment. I had to admit that I didn’t know what I was doing. I sought out help and put all my trust in a training guide written by someone I had never met. 
Starting requires self-confidence.  This is not in opposition to the first lesson. St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, taught that true humility is the truth of who you are before God — your strengths  included. Not only will a healthy self-confidence get you started, it will keep you going when the going gets tough. 
Just do what is required of you today. I was very intimidated by the enormity of both the training regimen and the race. So that I wouldn’t be overwhelmed, I made a note above my training calendar that read, “What must I do today?” This focus made a huge goal seem possible. 
The sacrifices are worth it, and easier when you imagine the finish.  In a world obsessed with immediate gratification, this is a tough one to believe in. Ironman training demanded changes to almost all aspects of my life — diet, sleep, work, recreation, relationships. When the sacrifices seemed too much, and I was tempted to settle for what was comfortable or easy, I would imagine the finish line, when the announcer calls out, “You are an Ironman.” That gave me the motivation to sacrifice a little more. 
Stick with it when you least feel like it. I found that the workouts I dreaded most, or seemed to be getting nothing out of, were breakthrough workouts. When you don’t feel like praying, don’t skip the time or cut it short, the Holy Spirit is just waiting to break through at the end of your effort.

Q. What thoughts went through your mind as you were participating?

A. Just before the Ironman, I heard a great talk about enduring the tough moments of the day. The speaker warned that at some point, the body would protest about the effort being requested. Your body will argue that it is time to stop, and the argument will be convincing. The mind has got to be ready with an even more convincing rebuttal.
To be ready for that, I assigned each of the 26 miles of the marathon to a seminarian, discerner or family member. I promised them that I would pray a decade of the rosary for them as I ran. This helped in two ways. First, it forced me to keep taking in nutrition early in the race when I didn’t feel like it. I would say to myself, “Ken will need this at mile 14.” Then, when I reached those miles (hours later), not only were the calories there, but so was the reason to keep going. I think that the sacrifices we make for one another and the prayers we offer up are not just for the other. They give us a reason to keep going. 

Q. Does competing in athletic events parallel your priesthood in some way?

A.  Absolutely. When I entered seminary, I had to put my trust in a formation process put together by strangers. At ordination, I promised to serve for the rest of my life, and I have no idea what that will look like in a few years when we have fewer priests to do more work. The enormity of that can be overwhelming and even tempt me away from my prayers and responsibilities of the day. When I refocus on the question, “What must I do today?” the quiet confidence of the Holy Spirit returns. 

Q. Would you do it all over again?

A. Before the race, I said that this was a one time event, but I felt so good after greeting my family at the finish line, I said that I wanted to do it again. Maybe it was just the euphoria of finishing my first Ironman, but I stand by my words.  I will draw upon the lessons I learned this year, and learn new ones along the 140.6-mile way.

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