Sean Barnes focused on putting one foot in front of the other to cross the finish line at the Ironman 70.3 Boise on Saturday at Julia Davis Park, having no idea who he just passed.
Not until the P.A. announcer read a message aloud did Barnes, 42, realize his father with terminal leukemia made the trek from Arizona to surprise him and sat under a tent a few feet in front of the finish line.
But then Barnes had to navigate his way out of the finish chute, needing two minutes to reach his father and complete the surprise to a roar in the crowd.
“You have a lot of time to think,” Barnes said of the long walk. “It’s kind of emotional. I just couldn’t believe it. You’re tired. You’re kind of already in a haze. It was surreal seeing him there.”
Barnes said he didn’t see his father, Gary W. Barnes, much growing up. His parents divorced and his father traveled the world as an officer in the Marines. Barnes estimates Saturday marked the second time he’s seen his father since the seventh grade.
The first came on Mother’s Day in Arizona after Barnes learned his father opted to quit chemotherapy. The elder Barnes stopped treatment in March and then notified his children of his condition.
Sean Barnes had already signed up for the Boise Ironman race last fall but decided to dedicate to the race to his father. He contemplated writing “dad” on his jersey or his body, then received his bib number three days before the race — 414.
The numbers correspond to the letters in the alphabet to spell out “dad.” “D” is the fourth letter, “a” the first and “d” the fourth.
Gary Barnes kept his trip to Boise a secret all the way up until Saturday. He arrived in Boise on Friday then planned to surprise his son Saturday night before upgrading to a finish-line surprise.
“I reckoned I’d come up and surprise him,” Gary Barnes, 72, said. “I might not have many more opportunities to see him. This might be the last.”
The elder Barnes left an impressive athletic resume behind for his son. Gary Barnes played fullback at Northern Arizona University before becoming an officer in the Marines, where he trained soldiers from all branches of the military at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center. His athleticism even earned him a spot on NBC Sports World’s first “Survival of the Fittest” program.
“For him to come here with all these fit people, he probably feels a little sheepish sitting over there,” Barnes said, noting his father need an oxygen tube but has improved since stopping chemotherapy. “But I’m glad somebody said something because they wouldn’t realize that guy is as tough as he is.”
Barnes weaved through the tables in the VIP tent to find his father. He posed for pictures while unsuccessfully fighting back tears and chatted with his father for a couple minutes despite an exhausting race that included a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
He said his father tried to flatter him, which drew a chuckle.
“He just said, ‘I love you,’ and tried to make me feel good for this,” Barnes said. “I’m just like, ‘I bet if he wasn’t sick, he’d kick my ass.’”
BOISE RESIDENT CROSSES FIRST
Dan Stephens, 51, was the first one to break the tape of the end of the 70.3-mile race in Julia Davis Park. But with a staggered start time, he can only claim to be the champion of his 50-54 age group.
That didn’t dampen his enthusiasm though as he crossed the line to a victor’s welcome, grabbed a water bottle and started spraying fans and volunteers.
“It was awesome,” he said. “I mean, I’m 51 years old and got to finish first. That will never happen to me again. I’ve got my kids and my wife here, and a bunch of friends. It makes it even more satisfying.”
The father of three and workman’s compensation claims officer finished in 4 hours, 29 minutes and 19 seconds to finish 12th overall and win his age group for the fifth time in seven tries in Boise.
Without a pro division this year, the race staggered its start times by age groups. The race started with the oldest age groups first and the youngest groups and relays last. But no one caught Stephens before he crossed the finish line.
The eighth edition of the Ironman 70.3 Boise didn’t recognize official overall champions, only age group winners.
But Jesse Moore of Sacramento, Calif., turned in the fastest male time at 4:15:57 in the field of 995 competitors, 44 seconds ahead of Ritch Viola of Tiburon, Calif.
Skye Murphy of Salt Lake City recorded the fastest female time at 4:42:05.
RACHEL’S RELAY FINISHES FIRST
The Rachel’s Relay teams formed to honor injured triathlete Rachel Corey won the men’s relay division and finished sixth in the women’s division.
The relay teams started as a raffle to raise money for the medical costs of Rachel Corey, a Treasure Valley triathlete who was hit by a car in September while training for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The four winners of the raffle earned a spot on one of the two relay teams anchored by professional triathletes Guy Crawford and Kate Bevilaqua.
Corey set up camp near the finish line Saturday at Julia Davis park to cheer on her team and the rest of the competitors.
“It’s just amazing to me and it’s very powerful because I’ve never felt like I’ve been alone in this battle,” Corey said about the relay teams, which raised nearly $5,000. “I feel like I have other people fighting for me. So that gives me to motivation to keep going hard.”
Corey, 33, continues to rehab and has graduated to a walker and forearm walking canes. But she said her goal is to complete another triathlon.
“It would prove to myself that I cannot let something like that slow me down,” Corey said. “Through all of this, I’ve found strength I didn’t even know I had. I think when this is all over, I’ll just feel unstoppable. That’s my hope anyway.”
Donations for Corey’s medical costs have been reopened since the end of the raffle. You can donate at tinyurl.com/pp4x6dl.