Goodfellow officers conquer 'Ironman'

Left to right, Capt. Neal Jones, 17th Medical Group,  Lt. Col. Michael Hulin, 17th Contracting Squadron commander, Capt. Eric Johnson, 17 MDG, pose with their Ford Ironman Arizona finisher medals, Dec. 7. The event was held in Tempe, Ariz. This was the first time they participated in the event. ( U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Anne Gathua)

Left to right, Capt. Neal Jones, 17th Medical Group, Lt. Col. Michael Hulin, 17th Contracting Squadron commander, Capt. Eric Johnson, 17 MDG, pose with their Ford Ironman Arizona finisher medals, Dec. 7. The event was held in Tempe, Ariz. This was the first time they participated in the event. ( U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Anne Gathua)

GOODFELLOW AFB, Texas -- "This is it. It's over."

A year's worth of sweat, sacrifice, progress and precious time away from family now lay in a sprawling tangle of road-rashed arms and legs, and bicycle spokes. For Capt. Eric Johnson, his dream of completing an Ironman competition lay in this heap, caused by an accidental collision of bicycles with another competitor.

For a moment, Capt. Johnson, assigned to the 17th Medical Group, thought this crash was the end of the road for him in the Sixth Annual Ford Ironman Arizona competition, held Nov. 22 in Tempe, Ariz.

Or was it?

"After collecting myself, I got up, evaluated myself and my bike and realized that I still had a chance to finish," Capt. Johnson said. "I had road rash on my left arm and leg. My bike was tweaked, but OK," he added.

With a volunteer's help, Capt. Johnson was able to get his bicycle working again.

"Once I was back on the bike, nothing else mattered to me except finishing the race," said Capt. Johnson. "Despite my pain or my time, I told myself I was going to finish, I was supposed to finish and this attitude stayed with me through the rest of the race."

That attitude, as well as a year of solid training and teamwork helped propel Capt. Johnson and two other Goodfellow officers to complete the Ironman competition.

Lt. Col. Michael Hulin, 17th Contracting Squadron commander and Capt. Neal Jones, 17 MDG also braved and finished the challenge that included a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run in succession.

The three men were among the more than 2,500 athletes who had 17 hours to complete the event, which began at 7 a.m. and ended at midnight.

Both Capt. Jones and Johnson trained together for the event. About a year ago, they started slowly and built on every exercise over the year. Their training included 60 to 100-mile bike rides, long- and short-runs and swimming all scheduled throughout the week.

About a year ago, Capt. Jones, who said he participated in the event as a challenge to himself, said he and Capt. Johnson laughed out loud about the prospect of completing a race of this magnitude.

Capt. Johnson said he was a weak swimmer growing up and always had a desire to conquer that fear.

"I sunk like a rock and created a lot of turbulence in the water," Capt. Johnson. "When I started swimming in the McGarr pool last June, I could hardly finish 25 meters. I was out of breath, swallowed way too much water, and would hang on to the side."

The captain said he slowly got better with practice and some coaching. He and Capt. Jones started with shorter and easier races and eventually trained for the Ironman distance.

"If anyone would have told me that I could swim 2.4 miles a year ago, I would not have believed them," he said.

Eventually, the duo's endurance improved and they participated in several events to prepare them for the Arizona competition.

"We competed in five shorter triathlons throughout the year leading up to the Ironman event," said Capt. Jones.

Lt. Col. Hulin also trained for a full year and said participating in the event was a lifelong dream.

"As a child I was always amazed at the mental and physical ability of the athletes who complete the Ironman course," said Lt. Col. Hulin. "I wanted to test my limits and always wondered if I could do it."

Coming from a strong marathon running background, he said he spent more time preparing for the biking and swimming portions of the race.

"I used a specific training program that balanced the three different disciplines, which made sure I got optimum benefits out of my training each week," Lt. Col. Hulin said.

For all three, the hardest part of training was balancing training sessions with work and family responsibilities.

Though the hardest part of the race for Capt. Jones was the run, he had a game plan that helped keep him focused, which helped him finish the event.

For Lt. Col. Hulin, the hardest part of the race was the first phase of the swim.

"This was a challenge since there were over 2,500 people all trying to get a good open spot to swim a steady stroke without being kicked or punched," said Lt. Col. Hulin. "The water was murky, so you really couldn't see if you were going to hit someone or they were going to hit you until it actually happened."

Though finding time to train was hard and took time away from family, Capt. Jones said what he felt after completing the race cannot be described to anyone who hasn't done it.

"For me it was 14 hours of agony and 20 minutes of pure joy," he said.

Lt. Col. Hulin, who said he plans to run the Disney World marathon in January, said he felt great during the entire race.

"My nutrition and hydration were spot on," he said. "I thought I would get tired during the marathon and would have to start walking, but it never happened. I believe I got lucky and never got sick, injured or fatigued. It was a perfect day for me with my family cheering me on and I was happy to finish in such great shape. My next goal is to qualify for the Boston Marathon"

Capt. Johnson said he was pumped up when he finished the race. His family made posters and signs, and they encouraged him all the way.

"I loved seeing them," said Capt. Johnson. "My 3-year-old would give me a high five and scream, 'Go Daddy!' in his squeaky voice. How could I not finish with that support?

"I still get choked up thinking about them," the captain continued. "I'm still riding the waves from this event. I'm not sure if I will do it again but it has changed me. I put the 'Ironman Finisher' sticker on my Jeep bumper and I'm very proud of it," he added.

Capt. Jones said a quote from a training book sums his thoughts on the Ironman experience.

"Confidence and poise comes with proper preparation. It is earned with training. It is not given. Even for those with gifted athleticism, one will still have to train effectively to perform well."

"We all trained ridiculously hard to complete the Ironman, and I am proud of Lt. Col. Hulin and Capt. Johnson because I know what it took to cross that finish line," he added.

Capt. Johnson said he is grateful to God for giving him the ability and health to compete, grateful to his adoring wife for her support, and grateful to Capt. Jones, his training partner.

"Without him, I would not have done this," said Capt. Johnson. "Those 5:30 a.m. runs, bicycle rides, and crazy 43-degree swims in the river will not be forgotten."