Rob Buren’s journey to Kona this year was a little different than most others. In 2008 his love of endurance sport sparked an interest in completing a triathlon one day, but he had no idea how one fateful day in October that year would change that goal — and the course of his life — forever.
Buren lives in Oakville, Ont. with his wife and two daughters, with whom he shares a love of sports and being active.
“My wife and I decided to train for our first half-marathon in 2008,” he says. “We worked towards it all year and soon I started to regain an interest in road cycling and had visions of completing a triathlon the next year.”
At the time, Buren was an avid mountain-biker and spent many a weekend morning out with friends on the beautiful trails just north of his hometown. On October 5th, he and a friend set out for a morning ride. They came across a fallen tree in the forest where someone had set up a little ramp to make a jump. Always up for a challenge, Buren decided to attempt it, telling his friend Eric, “worst case, I might need your help getting out of the forest,” in case a poor fall resulted in some damage to his bike.
“As I approached the end of the jump I decided to do a bunny hop off of it — after all, this had worked for me in the past,” Buren explains. “This time my bike started tipping forward in the air and I landed on my front wheel. Rather than throwing the bike away and putting my hands down to stop me, I hang onto the bars of the bike, waiting for my back tire to hit the ground so that I could ride away. Instead, I tipped forward, and with a loud thud, my head plowed into the ground.”
Buren immediately knew something was wrong when he couldn’t sit up because he couldn’t feel his legs.
“I tried to move my feet and while my brain felt like it was sending the right signals, nothing happened,” he recalls.
Eric contacted the paramedics and Buren was rushed to the hospital. He was later told by doctors he was lucky to be alive, but the worst had already been confirmed — he had suffered complete paralysis of the lower half his body, meaning he would be in a wheelchair for life as a paraplegic.
Despite this new challenge, Buren’s interest in triathlon never died.
“Right away, I set about trying to figure out how I would continue life as the active, sporty guy my wife married. I didn’t want to be stuck on the couch. I didn’t want to waste any time rebuilding myself and getting fitter and stronger.”
Lucky for Buren, there has never been a shortage of people in his life eager to help him achieve his goals. His support team starts with his family but has extended through a network of fellow triathletes and sporty friends who have been with him every step of the way.
After his accident, Buren got himself fitted for a racing chair and soon consulted some coaches to help him set up a plan to race as well as he could given his new mobility challenges.
“I did my first Olympic tri in Wasaga in 2010,” Buren says. “That feeling I got during the race was incredible. I thought, ‘wow, I can do this. I love the thrill of being out here.'” He wanted more.
Racing as a paraplegic means Buren has two helpers get him into the water, and he has taught himself how to swim entirely with him arms. He then gets into his hand-cycle bike for the ride and then his racing wheelchair for the run.
Buren began taking on longer distance races and decided to go after the ultimate challenge: qualifying for Kona.
“Ironman doesn’t make it easy for us,” he laughs. “There are four hand-cycling spots for athletes at Kona each year and three races at which to qualify for them.”
On his first try at it, Buren travelled to Ironman Luxemburg but narrowly missed earning a spot. A year a later, he finally qualified at Ironman Texas which brought him to the Big Island last weekend. He is the first Canadian paraplegic qualify for and complete the Ironman World Championship.
“I put my head down and worked towards this for two years,” Buren says. “To get there was the ultimate dream come true. Training was a real challenge, I had to put in a lot of solo sessions and actually racing out there on Saturday… It was definitely the toughest race of my life.”
Buren endured the challenges of the Big Island — including a bad sunburn after being in the sun for hours on end — to cross the finish line in 13:30:26 on Saturday, earning himself second place in his division.
“Crossing that finish line was a feeling like none other,” he says. “Coming into the finish chute the crowds went insane and I high-fived everyone I could without coming to a stop. Climbing the platform I heard my name, stopped to pump the sky a few times — after all this I wanted a good finish picture –was told that ‘I was an Ironman’, and rolled down into the finish area. I did it. Holy shit.”
Constantly looking to further challenge himself, Buren isn’t stopping now that he’s accomplished his goal of racing at the most iconic event in the triathlon world. While he plans to take a well-deserved break and enjoy all that Hawaii has to offer this week for a post-race vacation with the family, we’ll no doubt see this inspirational Canadian athlete pushing himself faster and farther on the race course next season.
You can follow Rob on his blog Rock the Chair.