Ben Fuqua didn’t travel for eight days in Hawaii for the beachcombing or the sightseeing.
Instead, the Highland Park Middle School teacher spent 9.5 hours grinding through one of the most physically demanding races on Earth, then took several days to recover.
But the October trip was an unqualified success. Fuqua finished the Ironman World Championships, the annual competition in Kailua-Kona that annually tests the endurance of the top athletes on the planet.
“It’s starting to sink in now,” Fuqua said. “For the first week, your body is hurting, so thinking about the accomplishment wasn’t as prevalent.”
The Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride, and a 26.2-mile run (equivalent to a marathon), in succession. Fuqua’s time of 9 hours, 30 minutes, 5 seconds was 31st overall in the men’s 30-34 age group, and sixth among Americans.
“I wanted to hit certain goals for myself during the race. I was pleased with how I did,” he said. “It makes it easier for me to gear down a little bit. If I never did Kona again, I would have no regrets.”
After growing up in an athletic family in California, Fuqua’s first triathlon experience came from an effort to get back in shape during college. He bought a $400 bike on Craigslist and signed up for a sprint triathlon with some friends.
“I loved it. I was horrible because I was out of shape, but it was cool,” Fuqua said. “I admired the people who were really good at it.”
From there, he entered more races, improved his time, and found an eventual comfort zone in Ironman 70.3 races, which are half of the full Ironman distance. His first half was in Austin in 2010, and his first full Ironman race came the following year in Utah.
“It was a really slow progression. I really liked the sport. I eventually got really good at it,” he said. “It fuels the competitive side of me, which is really strong.”
Fuqua ran in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in 2014 in Canada and in 2015 in Austria. But it wasn’t until last fall that he thought about trying for Kona, alongside Olympic gold medalists and in front of a national television audience.
“I always kind of wondered if I went after qualifying — could I do it?” Fuqua said. “I was thinking that now was the time.”
Entry into Kona is by qualification only, with a certain number of slots in each age group. Fuqua qualified in May at the Ironman Texas triathlon in The Woodlands.
Getting to that point required a tireless regimen of training and nutrition — all while continuing his duties in the classroom and as the girls athletic coordinator at HPMS. On most weekdays, he would wake up at 4:45 a.m. for an hour of exercise, then train again after school. Weekends would include more sessions in the mornings.
“I have to be extremely disciplined with my time. Every hour is accounted for,” Fuqua said. “I try to eat really healthy on Monday through Friday, but I try to be more relaxed on the weekends.”
While that helps prepare for the physical demands of an Ironman, mental toughness is just as important. During a triathlon, Fuqua tries to compartmentalize his focus — dividing the race into segmented goals, such as reaching the next aid station or checkpoint.
HPMS principal Laurie Hitzelberger said it’s been easy to support Fuqua’s efforts, which are meaningful for more than just individual achievement.
“He’s a wonderful role model for our kids — setting goals and putting the hard work in to achieve them,” Hitzelberger said. “We’re looking at life lessons here.”