Darren on bike

28 Oct Samoa’s Champion Ironman – ‘Believe you can do more, and you will.’

Eleven years ago, Darren Young weighed 140kilos. His stress levels were high, he suffered from regular migraines, and he was always tired. He drank six large bottles of Coke a day to keep him fuelled for the demands of running his own construction and steel fabrication company in Samoa. His preferred mode of down-time was to relax in front of the TV – with ice cream, several big bags of chips, and more bottles of Coke. Darren had once been a star athlete, breaking records in high school athletics and representing Samoa in the World Cross Country championships in NZ. But by age 35, he had become ‘too busy’ with his responsibilities as a provider for his growing family and he had long ago given up on his love for running.

Then a friend’s casual invite to “come for a run bro” got Darren started back in running. It was a slow, hard slog – especially when carrying so much extra body weight – but Darren persisted and within two years, he had found his running #vibe again. In 2007, Darren was the oldest athlete on Team Samoa at the South Pacific Games, competing in the half-marathon. He holds the local record for half-marathon and no other Samoan has beaten his time in the Bluesky Independence Marathon.

Team Samoa at the 2014 Taupo Ironman in nz Photographer Seti Afoa

Today, Darren is Samoa’s champion triathlete and he’s sitting on a plane bound for Austin Texas where he will compete in his third Half-Ironman for this year. Six weeks ago he did the Santa Cruz Half-Ironman in 5hrs and 28min. A month before that he won the Samoa Warrior Race for the second year in a row – a gruelling 2km swim, a 90km bike and a 21km run in the blistering heat. In December, Darren will compete in two more Half-Ironman races, this time back-to-back events in Taupo and then Rotorua in New Zealand. His aim is to do five Half-Ironman races this year. In 2017? Five full Ironman events spread out through Australia, NZ and the USA.

What’s it like doing events in different places? “It’s exciting. A great experience. You learn new things on each different course, about the sport and about yourself and how you react to different challenges. You have to prepare mentally for every possible situation. Will the ocean be rough? Freezing temperatures? Will the terrain be mountainous?” The Santa Cruz event had them swimming in water classified as California’s most polluted. Signs on the beach warned people not to touch the water. “I wasn’t prepared for that. I never imagined I would swim in sewage, past sea lions and otters. The water was so cold I couldn’t feel my body. There will always be a new thing that you haven’t prepped for.” He returned home to Samoa from that event with painful ear infections – a nasty souvenir from the dirty ocean.

One step at a time a few years ago and now

What drives this Samoan Ironman? He said, “I love the challenge of pushing myself to the limit, into the unknown of what my mind and body are capable of achieving.” In 2014, Darren did his first full Ironman in New Zealand. It took 13hrs and 20min. Can pushing your body to the limit for that long really be “fun”? We asked Darren if he actually enjoyed doing triathlons? He replied, that while the actual activity was painful, he did enjoy the people you meet through triathlon. “The crowd that do triathlon have can-do attitudes. No matter how difficult or tough the situations, they have a positive mindset that yes, they can do it. I like being around people like that. You learn from them. You get inspired by them. I’ve made good friends through this sport.”

The health benefits for Darren are obvious. He’s lost more than 45 kilos, got a perfect 10 from his doctor at his last check-up, and now migraines are rare. But it’s more than physical health. There’s a mental strength and focus that comes with being an Ironman as well. “You have to be consistent in this sport, you have to train every day and work at it and be disciplined. This helps me a lot in my work. When I set my goals on the job, I aim high and apply the same discipline like I do with my training. I’m able to take on projects that I wouldn’t have believed were possible before.”

We aren’t always very encouraging of adults who make healthy changes. When Darren first started back at running and entering races, there were many who told him he was ‘too old’ to start. When he started losing weight, they said he must be “ma’i”. Now that he’s a regular competitor in triathlons here and abroad, many tell him, it’s because he’s ‘a natural’ and that they could never try doing anything similar.

Darren explained, “People who say that don’t see how hard I train. I wake up at 4am to go bike because it’s the safest time for a bike on the roads here in Samoa. Safe from cars, but not from dogs! Or from drunks. On Saturdays we bike to Mulifanua and back. Last Saturday a van full of drunk guys followed us, swearing and trying to run us off the road. Another time, people threw beer bottles at us. Other days, we have to fight off packs of dogs. It’s not easy. After work, I swim at the Aquatic Centre and then I run. I believe that we are our choices. I used to think I was too busy to exercise and it showed. Now I choose to make time and that’s why I’m able to enjoy my sport. I’m not special. Anybody can do it.”

Darren’s advice to others who want to make fitness a part of their life? “Be consistent. It’s not how hard you train, its about making it a part of your life everyday. Even if you can only walk or run for ten minutes, that’s a starting point and what’s important is that you do that ten minutes EVERY DAY. If you keep at it, and don’t give up, then you will be amazed at what your body can do. I never imagined my body could swim 2km. Or bike this far. I started with small steps and kept going forward. Many times I see people start out by doing something big. Like they haven’t done any exercise for years – and then they suddenly go hike up Mt Vaea. Or they go to the gym and push themselves to do a whole hour of cardio. Then, they’re so tired or even injured and never go back again. That’s the wrong way to start.”

Final words from this Ironman before he does the Austin Half-Ironman? “I believe that we set our own limits. If we tell ourselves we can’t do something – then we won’t. If we listen to the limits other people try to put on us – then we will never go further. Believe you can do more, push harder, go further – and you will.”

Darren and his daughter run together in the Samoa perimeter relay


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