Ironman scientist races to the front of the pack

Pelayo Fernandez, a Long Marine Laboratory researcher visiting from Spain, says he 'can't live' without tough competitions. 'This is a way of feeling at home.'

Pelayo Fernandez put in a great showing at the Ironman competition in Santa Cruz on September 11. (Contributed photo.)

Niels Bohr played football. Edwin Hubble was known for his prowess with the shot-put. Enrico Fermi was fearsome on the tennis court.

To this list of scientists who were also accomplished athletes, we can add Pelayo Menendez Fernandez, a graduate student from Spain who has spent this summer working as a researcher at UC Santa Cruz’s Long Marine Laboratory while making his mark as an Ironman triathlete.

While in the midst of researching threatened mangrove forests, the Ph.D. candidate pursued his passion for triathlons—and put in such a strong performance at the Ironman race in Santa Cruz, Sept, 11, that he has qualified, and registered for, the Ironman 70.3 World Championship, scheduled for Chattanooga, Tenn., next September.

The competition began with a splash of well-chilled ocean water. First he slipped on a wetsuit and charged into the Pacific. The suit gave him some buoyancy and protected him from the 58-degree water. Fernandez swam around the wharf, slipped out of the water, took off the wetsuit, got on a bike at the Boardwalk amusement park, and pedaled out to Pescadero and back on Highway 1.

At that point he took to his feet and ran along West Cliff Drive and into Wilder Ranch State Park, picking up the pace, making up time lost in the ocean. “I am not a very strong swimmer,” he said.

Out of 40 sponsored professional competitors, Fernandez ranked 19th overall, which means he bested over half the professional athletes competing in the race. 

Pelayo ranked No. 1 in his age group, and had the overall fastest amateur time across all competitors. 

“Pelayo not only proved to be an outstanding athlete in this grueling race, but he also represented Santa Cruz extremely well,” said Maria Choy, administrative specialist for UCSC’s Ocean Health division. “It makes me wish I had him compete wearing a UCSC Long Marine Lab cap!”

Fernandez lives in scenic, drizzly Santander, Spain, where he is studying coastal engineering at the Environmental Hydraulics Institute of Cantabria.

In Santa Cruz, he has been working in collaboration with Mike Beck and Borja G. Reguero of the Nature Conservancy. Fernandez studies coral reefs and mangroves, focusing on their role as buffers against waves that threaten the shorelines of Mexico, the Philippines, and the southeastern coast of the United States. More than a third of the world’s mangroves are now gone due to firewood overharvesting and clear-cutting, Climate change has also taken a toll on the forests and the coral reefs.

Using a framework developed with the World Bank, Fernandez is studying the link between risk reductions and the preservation of these threatened ecosystems.

His work requires stamina and concentration, with an unbreakable focus on long-term goals, much like an Ironman race. But Fernandez, 26, finds that an all-consuming race, and the organization and preparations beforehand, serve as a reset button for him, allowing him to go further in his scientific explorations. Apparently, he is not the only researcher who sees this link; it was Borja G. Reguero of the Nature Conservancy who urged Fernandez to compete in the local Ironman.

The Santa Cruz race was his second half Ironman this year – and ever – but Fernandez has also competed in more than 20 races this year, including the Duathlon World Championships in Spain, in which he ranked third in the 25-to-29 year old category.

When asked about the relationship between his life as a scientist and researcher and his life as an athlete, Fernandez said, “the relationship is that there is no relation.” In other words, the separateness of these realms make them complementary.

He thinks of “science” and “athletics” as lives unto themselves.  “Both lives are completely different,’’ he said. “I don’t usually mix them. But sports help me clean my head during the day, and forget any worries that I have in the work. It is a way of forgetting the researcher’s life for just a couple of hours a day, and then going back to work. They are different worlds … I can’t live without either one of them.”

Ironman competitions and research projects require strategy, a steady pace, and a long view of outcomes.  “When I compete, I don’t usually start very fast,” he said.

Even when he’s training, “I try to think about the previous day, to organize everything. This is also the way I am in my research.”

His Santa Cruz triathlon was his second competition this year; previously he competed in Spain, where he was first overall in his age group.  Asked if he has ever run into the dreaded “wall,” or experienced that dreadful phenomenon known as the “bonk,” when an athlete feels as if he’s drawn his last droplet of energy,  Fernandez said no.

“In the Ironman I didn’t feel that because I was eating during the whole (competition.) I was hydrated and well fed. If you don’t irrigate properly, if you don’t eat enough, after a couple of miles, you will feel really bad.”

These competitions are his way of connecting with a community, no matter where he is studying in the world.

“This is a way of feeling at home,” he said.

Soon, Fernandez will return to rainy Santander, but he hopes to come back and continue his studies at UCSC next year if possible. Now he has a great excuse to be back in the states: the World Championships a year from now.

Within two hours of learning his qualifying time in the Sept. 11 Ironman, he had to plunk down $400, right on the spot, to sign up for the World’s. He was happy to pay the fee.

 “I am just an amateur,” he said. "In other words, I do sports because I love it. This is not my income. I don’t get money from this. This is my philosophy. If I do this for fun, everything I get from it will be welcome.”