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“5 Questions” is an occasional feature in which we ask five questions of Downey business and community leaders. This week’s participant is Art Hernandez, a real estate agent and Ironman athlete. Interview conducted by Eric Pierce
1.) You weren’t always a super-healthy person. What was your lifestyle like before you got healthy?
Not even close to being healthy; the most activity I would have was motorcycle riding in the desert. It was a big accomplishment for me to hold on to the bike for 1 or 2 hours with the bike doing all the work.
Pizza was my greatest sin. I loved it to death and even now just talking about it my mouth is watering.
I always considered that I could conquer the world and tried to do so: wake boarding, paintball, motorcycle riding, but I never had any fitness to fall back on and most of the time I ended up just getting hurt. I thought I could do everything and tried to do it as well.
Camping and boating occupied the first 17 years of my marriage to my beautiful wife, Lilian, so most days out on the water and around the campfire were an exercise in consumption. All the ladies at camp would compete for best dessert several times a day. That lifestyle pretty much carried on to everyday life – sitting down at 8 p.m. in front of the TV with two of my signature gourmet peanut butter and jelly sandwiches was always a happy ending to any stressful day.
2.) What inspired you to make a change?
During a hiking trip where I thought I could climb anything I was quickly reminded that I was in no condition to be performing at that level and limped away with a broken ankle. I continued to work and limp for several hours a day but 45 days later I was having difficulty doing open houses; I would talk to visitors and after about 5-8 minutes of standing, I would excuse myself and pull up a chair in front of them and sit down. It started with my ankle swelling, then the other, and after three weeks I was going home early with my legs completely swollen from the knee down.
The inspiration to change never came to me like you would have thought it would. I never had great ambitions to perform incredible athletic feats. I always knew I could lose the weight but the years and the decades rolled by and I never did anything about it.
My son and I would play video games together and he has always been my best friend but on Father’s Day of 2011 he handed me a car with the note, “Dad, we’re going to get you into shape”. He took me out and it was a struggle to bike around the block, and several rides those days left me laid out on the lawn. But I noticed that my leg spinning would bring down the swelling in my legs. I have always introduced my son as my first coach.
3.) Tell us about your first triathlon. When was it and what was it like?
I had been introduced to Ironman through an attorney friend and knew to what ends he trained to accomplish such goals, but I never saw myself doing one. I was busy cycling and having fun with a new lease on life, I never knew what I had been missing my whole life. It felt like I was caged and now I could see the world.
A fellow real estate agent from my office called me out on Facebook saying, “I’m committed to being in the best shape of my life by mid 2012. I’m signing up for this Olympic triathlon, anyone that wants to step up and begin training contact me.” I liked the idea and began training right away. Of all the people that were up for it, at the end of the day no one showed up at race day.
Of the 2-3,000 participants, I counted four racers that started without a wet-suit. I started in the back corner of my wave, because I did not want to be in the mix when it started. I had heard of elbows and kicks to the face and wanted no part of it. Before I got to the first buoy I felt something at my feet then on top of me, then another, and before I knew it, I was run over by the next wave of starters and some 15 minutes later the wave after that. On the last turn I could see the beach in the distance and the only thing that kept me motivated was the thought that I would soon be together with my bicycle.
I got out of the water and going into Transition 1, I changed into my cycling gear. Whereas the pros complete the transition in about 35 seconds, it took me over 8 minutes.
I felt like I was free to get into my specialty, the bike was my sport and I proceeded by passing as many people as I could. On the way back into town I remember telling myself to slow down, I needed to come in rested, but as I approached there were spectators everywhere and all of them cheering me on, which in turn made me go faster.
Transition 2, and another complete change of clothes, kiss the wife and my son, and off to run! One step, two step, and I was thinking to myself, “OK, there is something wrong here.” My legs didn’t work the way they were supposed to. I must have passed at least 300 people on the bike but I think 500 passed me on the run. At the 3-mile loop I was so tempted to call it a day and just say I was done but I kept going. At mile 5, my daughter passed me up who was doing the smaller event. As she passed me by she’s chatting away with a lady and all I hear is, “Oh yeah, that’s my dad.”
The last two blocks were as true as people told me. All pain is gone, all sense of despair is gone, and the only feeling is a sense of accomplishment. You would think I came in first place as I waved to the crowds and my family.
When I finished, my son came up to me and said, “Wow Dad, top 25 percent overall.” I handed him my Ironman medal and thanked him, telling him he was the reason I did it.
4.) What is your fitness routine like?
One year prior to Ironman, we took fitness to a whole new level. I was blessed to do all my training with two very close friends who were also first timers: Marcos Hernandez, principal at Tweedy Elementary, and Carlos Romero, a payroll manager for Benefitmall. It really helped that we were close to the same fitness level (I wish). We had a schedule and in the final 5 months leading up to the event, we were training 10 times a week with most days having double training sessions.
Every Friday was an open water swim in Long Beach with technique swim during the week. Saturdays were our long runs, 12-23 miles, but overall we were averaging about 22-24 hours of intense training per week, swim about 5 miles a week, bike around 200 miles a week and averaging about 35 miles of running a week. We would do marathons and smaller triathlons as part of our training schedules. I used to remember that we were always tired, never would we start a training session fresh, and we never had a problem sleeping.
I don’t think I could have kept up that kind of intensity without my friends and family’s support. Starting from not much and to pick it up to that much intensity was a little overwhelming.
5.) Any tips for people who want to get healthy?
Exercise is hard work. It requires a lot of motivation and how can you be motivated about working and sweating and pain? It was and has always been fun for me, it has fulfilled my necessity to be competitive and we are very social creatures – I can go out and do a run or ride on my own but I do this because it’s enjoyable. Even the pain is enjoyable now, because you know that you went out there and pushed as hard as you could.
Start out doing enough to get you to like it, and don’t compare yourself to the guy that cycles 50 miles and get intimidated by it. We all have a story and yours isn’t written yet.
Find a partner that is going to support you, push you when you’re having a bad day and you do the same. There is a whole world out there that I never knew existed, that I am still discovering. To run a marathon, swim around an island, bike to San Diego and back? What is your story going to be? To be young again? To be around for your children?
Published: May 1, 2014 – Volume 13 – Issue 03