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Ironman Berth Comes as a Surprise : Triathlon: Foothill High teacher Steve Rochford qualified for the prestigious event. Now he has to get ready for it.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Steve Rochford might as well be Clark Kent when he stands in front of his students at Foothill High.

Behind the facade of teaching business classes, Rochford is a man of steel . . . er, iron.

Surprising even himself, Rochford qualified for the Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Hawaii in October.

From among the 20,000 or so athletes who annually try to qualify for one of the most prestigious titles in sport, Rochford emerged from Mike and Rob’s Most Excellent Triathlon Aug. 14 in Ventura as an Ironman qualifier.

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It caught him off guard--way off guard.

“That’s why I was surprised,” Rochford said. “I knew I would never win my division--not this early (in my career).”

Rochford, a history buff, said he ran his first triathlon June 6, 1993--in memory of Robert Kennedy, who had died 25 years earlier.

“I used to watch the Ironman on TV and thought it would be so incredible to do something like that, but I never thought it would be something for me until I started doing some 5 and 10Ks just for the fun of it,” Rochford said. “I knew how incredibly grueling it was. Last year when I did my first triathlon, I decided I wanted to work toward that. If I just finished (the Ironman), I’d be the happiest person on earth, even if I finished dead last.”

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Though he didn’t win his age division--providing automatic entry into the Ironman--Rochford met the qualifying standards and was one of four at-large lottery winners from the Rob and Mike, which was half the distance of the Ironman.

So Rochford won the right to face a 2.4-mile ocean swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. In all, it’s 140.6 miles of hell in paradise to be completed within 17 hours. If not, you’re disqualified.

The swim is no problem. The run is no problem. It’s the bike ride he fears.

“The biking was so much more difficult than I anticipated (in the Rob and Mike),” Rochford said. “Cardiovascularly, I wasn’t that tired, but my legs and hips started breaking down, and that was only half of what the Ironman is, so now I know what the pain is going to be like. And if you’re not off the bike in 10 1/2 hours, they disqualify you.”

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He finished the Mike and Rob triathlon in 5 hours 59 minutes 42 seconds.

Rochford was on the bike about 3 1/2 hours in Ventura--his target is eight hours for the Ironman, in which he will face headwinds up to 35 m.p.h. and a dozen hills of 6% grade--or more--that last a half mile to a mile.

His target time is 15 hours.

Rochford actually predicted in March that he would be an Ironman competitor. Three sophomore students were looking at a collage of triathlon items that Rochford had put on a wall in his classroom, and the students asked their teacher what it was all about. And they asked if Rochford would compete in the sport’s most prestigious event.

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“I don’t think I can do it this year,” he told them, setting the stage for a promise, “but I’m going to do it before you graduate.”

Rochford thought he was a couple of years away. It was closer to a couple of months. He and his wife, Nycole, had budgeted a trip to Kansas to see his father at Thanksgiving a week before the Rob and Mike, not realizing--or even remotely anticipating--that they would need that money to make the Ironman trip. The airline tickets to Kansas, of course, were non-refundable.

“It was really unexpected,” Rochford said. “Now we’re just trying to throw things together. Financially, we didn’t plan on it.”

“I used to play basketball (at Ocean View High) and wasn’t that good, but I’m disciplined enough to run and swim and bike and work hard and get better. But in basketball, I could work hard and I still stunk. This is something I can do and be good at at the same time.”

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The Ironman competitor usually trains seven months and swims, on average, seven miles per week during training, rides 232 miles and runs 48. Rochford will train two months and average seven miles swimming, 140 on the bike and run 48.

“I watch people on TV cross the finish line,” Rochford said, “and they seem so happy and relieved, and it seems like you reach the pinnacle of athletic achievement, and I want to say that I crossed the finish line of the Ironman.”

He’s hoping an iron will is enough to get him there.


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