Texas Ironman is the local buzz

Completing an Ironman used to be the ultimate test of a person’s sporting will and endurance, reserved for only the most hardy pros. It still is. 

Negotiating a 2.4-mile open water swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride and rounded off with a 26-mile marathon is no picnic. 

The pros complete in around eight hours, amateurs are glad to avoid the cut-off time of double that and merely finish. 

An intrepid group of Cayman residents will be taking on the Texas Ironman on May 16 hoping that the months of preparation, sacrifice and pain is all worthwhile. 

It’s at the Woodlands, 27 miles north of Houston, close to two major airports, numerous parks, a bustling downtown and a luxurious resort for athletes and their families. At least when all the hard work is done, they can soak aching limbs in comfort. 

Jon Roney discussed it with Chris Smith and Jon Herrick and decided it would be a fun one to do and train for together, although things have not gone to plan due to injuries to Smith and Herrick moving to New York. 

Jens Pankalla and his girlfriend Helki Weber have also entered. Jody McFarland is another local training for Texas Ironman, her first. 

For Roney, Texas Ironman is convenient for Cayman residents for access and also because it is relatively flat and hot “and I’d heard the Texan support is incredible!” 

“It’s also a place I’ve never been so I can’t wait to go,” said Roney who has always enjoyed swimming and running and has competed in both disciplines in Cayman since 2002. 

“Because of my swim I’ve always been relatively competitive in the Stroke and Stride series having won my age group a couple of times and also got on the podium in the overall standings.” 

Roney’s first triathlon was in 2011 and “a disaster” although he does not go into details. The following year he did another one just to set the record straight and that was when he realized he had a passion for it. 

He has now completed five half Iron distance races and around 10 Olympic triathlons. He has also completed the Race Across the West 860-mile bike race, ran the Cayman marathon last year and completed the local 10k and 5k sea swims. 

“This, however, will be my first full Ironman so for the first time I have a proper training plan and have recruited a professional coaching team of Guilherme Campos (a professional Ironman veteran) and Johan Heath (former local triathlon icon). 

“In other words, I’m taking the challenge seriously for once.” 

Roney hopes to finish his hardest ever single-day endurance event and in the process learn more about himself, “make new friends and as crazy as it may sound have a fun day.” 

McFarland learned about the Texas Ironman from Justine Plenkiewicz when she competed last year with a bunch of other Cayman locals. 

McFarland’s family spent a year in Texas after Hurricane Ivan hit in 2004 and she knew it would make a great place for her Ironman debut. 

“It has really nice, wide roads, warm weather and beautiful scenery,” said McFarland. “After I signed up, I heard that Jon Roney, Helki and Jens were also going to train for it, and I thought that would make it more fun.” 

McFarland’s first triathlon, back in 2002, was just something to do with her husband Bill and his friends from work. 

“I was so slow, I had to do it again just to see if I could complete it without walking. I thought since I am a runner, the run would be easy. After the bike though, I was so surprised how difficult it was to run. So the next race, I researched how to train, and that was what got me interested in the marathon, because I wanted a faster triathlon time.” 

McFarland lives next to marathon master Derek Haines and he is always pushing her to get a faster time at the distance. While training for the marathon, some friends suggested she should try the Ironman. 

The idea sounded crazy to her at first and she told her kids she would never do it. 

Then she started wondering if it was possible. Training became a big experiment. “Now, I just want to see if I can complete it with as little walking as possible before the cut off time.” 

McFarland said she is always surprised by how much her body can get used to if she trains correctly. “The exercise feels like meditation to me and I love being outside, so it’s pretty easy. 

“People are always going on about injuries, but I have been so surprised at how my body has adapted to the extra distance. 

“As long as I listen to the signals, do the research on prevention, and just be patient when I need to rest, hopefully, I can stay healthy long enough to make it to the finish line.” 

Smith said that having a group from Cayman entering the same race would mean they could train together and encourage and support each other along the way. 

Six-hour training rides are a whole lot easier with someone else along for the ride, he reasoned. 

“It hopefully also means that I bore my wife slightly less with talk about negative splits, zone two training and skin suits.” 

Smith has always been a keen runner. The Great North Run in Newcastle is the largest half marathon in Europe and is staged near to where he grew up in the UK. He has run it many times. 

“I’ve done the London Marathon a couple of times and the Lisbon Marathon once. 

“I think triathlons are a fairly natural progression from running as they bring some variety to your training, even though I hate swimming.” 

Smith did the London Triathlon’s Olympic distance about 10 years ago and has taken part in the local triathlons, half marathons and other running events since arriving here four years ago.He did his first – and only – full Ironman in the UK two years ago. 

He admits to being competitive and loves testing himself with other age group athletes, particularly those from Cayman. 

“I hope I’m also sending a good message to my kids about what you can achieve if you’re prepared to work for it. I’d much rather my kids were running around outside than sitting indoors on the iPad.” 

Smith is inspired by the typical Ironman entrants and also by someone else incredibly unique who will never finish on the winner’s podium but is nevertheless a champ in her own right.  

“The Ironman motto is ‘Anything is Possible’,” Smith said. “There is an 84-year-old nun (Sister Madonna Buder) who competes in Ironman competitions. If she can do it, anyone can!” 

Weber did not plan to take on Texas Ironman with the others initially. “I didn’t know of any other Caymanian that has done a full Ironman so I thought it would be nice representing my birth place and Jens always wanted to complete an Ironman.” 

They looked at many races and Texas seemed best for first timers. 

“A few hours before pushing the sign-up button Jon Roney had posted that he had signed up for this event,” Weber said. 

“I was so excited that one of our racing buddies was going, so that was it, we dove right in. 

“Jon then mentioned that Chris, Jody and Jon Herrick were also in! It wasn’t until a day later that I realized a few others from here had completed that same Ironman just a week before and they were raving about how great it was.” 

This is a big leap for Weber and Pankalla as they are triathlon novices. They only started in 2013 and road runs two years previously. They have done only three triathlons in total, their first being Tri This Tri, the sprint distance event, followed by the Olympic just a few months later and two months after that the Mercuryman Half Ironman. 

Weber said, “Now we will attempt the granddaddy of all tris, a full Ironman. We also have competed in four marathons, two 50K (31-mile) ultras and a handful of 5ks.” Their third 50k is the Off The Beaten Track on Sunday.  

She said that they want to take part in an Ironman
for the huge challenge. 

“Most importantly, we are looking for a life-changing experience and to meet amazing people from all walks of life,” she said. 

“Our next goal is a 50-mile ultra marathon, hopefully in October and then a 100-mile ultra next year.” Pankalla said. 

“The body is incredible and we want to see what it’s capable of. We want to learn to see less ‘outer limits’ and more ‘the sky’s the limit’. Who knows what else we can accomplish?” 


Jody McFarland saw triathlon as an extension of running.

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