Accomplishing your goals: An Airman’s journey to becoming an Ironman

The Ironman endurance triathlon dates back to 1978 and is specifically designed to challenge endurance athletes with an ultimate single-day event.

The race consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run, and requires what some would say is an incredible amount of training and preparation.

On Nov. 21, 2021, Col. Luke Casper, 56th Fighter Wing vice commander at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., along with his friend, Maj. Miguel Fernandez, Air Force Academy admission liaison officer, put their training to the test and completed Ironman Arizona in the college town of Tempe, just outside of Phoenix.

In early Spring 2021, Casper began an intense training regimen to prepare for the Ironman. In addition to being a challenging race, Casper stated it takes countless hours of preparation, perseverance, and resilience, and that there are several elements that tie into achieving a goal.

“I think the training was harder than the race itself just because it’s so mentally challenging,” said Casper. “The training is the same week in, week out. It just builds on itself. You know you’re waking up early to get it done, biking for hours on Saturday, and then running a ton on Sunday, which was my program week-to-week. I generally [trained] just about an hour each day during the work week in the initial part until the last few months, and then it became an hour and a half in the morning.”

Casper added he was able to stay focused on the training and that having a plan, establishing a routine, and staying committed were some of the key elements to seeing his plan through.

“I always wanted to do a full Ironman triathlon,” said Casper. “I’ve done three half Ironman [races] before, but being able to fully complete an Ironman was my ultimate goal. After about two months into my training I was recommended to a coach who really helped me with designing some of my training programs. This consisted of an analysis on how I was doing and would mold the [training] for the next week.”

Casper found that having a coach gave him the support needed to overcome challenges during his training; but having a wingman was just as important.

During his training, Casper reached out to Fernandez, a longtime friend since his days at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Casper soon discovered he and Fernandez were completing similar training programs and decided to compete in Ironman Arizona together. Although separated by hundreds of miles, preventing them from training as a team, they didn’t allow it to become a barrier.

“Although [Miguel] lives in Washington, he happened to be doing a similar type of training event as me,” said Casper. “He was getting ready to do Ironman Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, but unfortunately he wrecked his bike and was injured, so he wasn’t able to compete in that race and was able to push it into Arizona. Being accountable to [him] was motivating as far as making sure I was meeting my gates and to be able to race with him the entire time.”

Setting goals and seeing the plan through was critical to Casper’s and Fernandez’s progression throughout their training.

“If you break the training down into tasks and into building blocks, and you just kind of go day- to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, they just build on each other and before you know it, you’re riding 100 miles and you’re like, I didn’t know I could ever do this,” said Fernandez.

During the bike race, Fernandez faced a significant challenge when his nutrition fell from his bike after hitting a bump, losing it for good. This would affect his performance as he neared the end of the race.

Fernandez says that sometimes the final push to completing a goal not only comes from a desire to finish for yourself, but to also finish for others who have supported you along the way. While the overall goal might be defined in the beginning, the real reward is often realized once you pass the finish line.

“I wanted to mention that I struggled from [mile] 17 to 22 and then from mile 22 to 26 I felt decent and I finished, but Luke was waiting for me at the finish line,” said Fernandez. “He stayed there and waited for me to finish. And I just remember he was waiting there and he gave me the biggest bear hug ever and his face was pure joy and exhilaration. But it wasn’t for himself, he was happy to see me cross. That says a lot about the bonds that we form in the military, as brothers in arms and I thought that was really cool.”

Casper emphasized that when setting out to accomplish a goal, it’s important to see it through to the end.

“You can do anything you put your mind to [considering] that you have to have some level of physical capability, but you can build into that,” said Casper. “I truly believe that the way our Airmen come in, smarter and better at some of the things we were as young adults, that they can accomplish much more than we ever could. They just need to set a goal for themselves, have a method by which way to achieve it, and then don’t stop.”

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