CEDAR PARK, Texas — Growing up in rural Ohio in the 1970s and ’80s without a lot of opportunity or resources to pursue athletics, Jay Horton always loved sports. He was the skinny kid who, like many in that area, played baseball in the spring and summer and basketball in the fall and winter. Tennis and golf were sports that were out of reach to a kid whose parents couldn’t afford the extra expense of coaches and lessons.
Like most American kids, Horton loved his bike, and he’d fly around town and up and down neighborhood streets jumping curbs and pulling friends on skateboards. His first job to earn money was as a paperboy, a job made even more luring because he could pedal his bike from block to block and then run and put the papers just under the door on each customer’s porch.
And it was in his small hometown of Brookville, just outside of Dayton, on a rainy Saturday afternoon that teenaged Horton found himself mesmerized watching ABC’s Wide World of Sports. On that very day, back in 1987, ABC was broadcasting a feature story on the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon, an event in a sport he’d never heard of, but something that struck a chord with Horton, and something he never forgot.
High school turned into college at local Wright State University. After graduation, Horton headed to Colorado to pursue a master’s degree in exercise physiology at Colorado State University. At that time, Colorado was a mecca for triathlon training — an idyllic setting for running and biking with the advantage of altitude training all set against the majestic backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
While in Colorado, Horton struck up a friendship with a fellow student who had been a former professional triathlete. And, once again, his interest in the Ironman was ignited. Then in his mid-20s, Horton decided to enter his first triathlon. The biking and running would be a natural progression but … swimming? The triathlon includes a 1,500-yard swim, just shy of a mile, and Horton wasn’t a swimmer. In fact, he’d never even been able to swim across the pool and back without stopping.
So he set out to teach himself how to swim. In the beginning, he’d just make it across the pool and have to stop and rest. Then it was across and back before resting. In that era, participants in any type of triathlon didn’t sign up online. En route to the post office, to mail his application and entry fee, Horton stopped at the pool and told himself if he could jump in and swim 1,500 yards without stopping — regardless of the time it took — he’d dry off and head to the post office to mail his entry. And a very slow and exhausting 1,500 yards later, Horton did exactly that, officially entering his first Olympic-distance triathlon in 1995 in Boulder, Colo.
As is typical in this sport, most don’t just wake up one day and decide to enter an Ironman competition. Athletes usually begin with a small local race and after they realize they’re able to actually complete it, the goal next time is to do it faster. Then the goal becomes an Olympic-distance triathlon. And then comes the goal of entering and completing the coveted Ironman — the gold crown and ultimate achievement of many triathletes.
And that was the path taken by Horton. Today, 75 triathlons, a dozen half Ironman and six full Ironman races later, the 49-year-old is still competing and has participated in events all over the country and in the Caribbean.
A humble man, Horton will be the first to acknowledge that although he’s a good biker, he’s still just an average runner and probably a below average swimmer, and finishes just about every race smack dab in the middle of the heap.
By day, Horton is a certified financial planner for JP Morgan Chase in Cedar Park, Texas, just north of sunny Austin, where winters are mild and the scorching Texas heat is offset by relatively low humidity — an athlete’s paradise. He’s married and met his wife, Erica, on a bicycle where they were both training with a local biking club for their next triathlons.
“The Ironman isn’t just a race,” Horton explained. “It’s not just a day, not just an event, but it becomes a lifestyle. There are usually a couple of dozen top professionals competing to finish first, but most people, myself included, are competing against themselves.”
The life of an Ironman participant is based around training, and it’s clear that it does become a lifestyle — athletically, recreationally and socially. Each Ironman competition requires at least six months of serious training before the event. For Horton, and now his wife, that translates to an absolute minimum of 20 hours a week, in the heat of Central Texas summers or in the bite of the winter Texas winds. Rain or shine. And it’s no cheap hobby. Each event carries with it a hefty entry fee upwards of $700 or more, plus associated travel expenses to the events which are hosted throughout the United States and other parts of the world.
Most, like Horton, don’t do it for the trophies, or the awards or the recognition. As with many sports, the actual Ironman events are simply the culmination of months and years of training. And like many aspects of life, it’s not just the destination, but truly the journey that really matters.
“For me, there’s really nothing more gratifying,” Horton said. “I start the race with the top athletes in the world and actually get to watch them in action as I’m competing. They often finish four or five hours ahead of me. Then, when I finish in the middle of the pack — which is usually 12 or 13 hours after starting — I go take a shower and have dinner. Then a group of us will typically head back to the finish line and cheer on those who are bringing up the tail end.
“I’m very blessed to be able to — often tearfully — cheer on the absolute most determined and courageous people I’ve ever seen. Military veterans with one leg, 70-year-olds who are 50 pounds overweight but have already lost 100 pounds, the grandmother who crosses the finish line and collapses into the waiting arms of her grandkids. It’s truly amazing to share in the raw emotion and sheer joy of a shared sense of accomplishment.”
And that shared sense of accomplishment in a true community and family of people are what keeps Jay Horton pedaling through the Texas Hill Country on a bike, racing through the water and pounding the pavement nearly every day as he prepares for yet another Ironman competition.