OCEANSIDE — It’s not enough that Rob Hilton has completed multiple combat deployments with the Marine Corps in Iraq and Afghanistan. While doing so he maintained his training regimen as a long-distance runner, racing around the base at night, round and round in circles. Within 24 hours of stepping on U.S. soil last August, he picked up where he left off and continued to train for the grueling Ford Ironman Championship in Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 8.
Hilton isn’t new to triathlons. He began competing as a student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in 2003.
“I was really dedicated but the second-place curse was going on,” he remembers. “I couldn’t crack the first-place code.”
His plan was to wait until getting out of the military before realizing his goal of competing in the Ironman in Kona. That changed in the fall of 2009 when Charlie Cartwright of Frederick, Md., a friend he introduced to triathlons, was killed in combat. Hilton suffered a second blow when his best friend, Chris Antonik of Crystal Lake, Ill., died on the battlefield last July.
“After watching Charlie and Chris pass away, it became clear to me that maybe I had put off goals that I wanted to achieve in life,” he said. “It was like a calling that woke me up. I thought, ‘Hey, if you want to do these things in life, stop putting them off and do it now.’”
The second thing that changed was hiring two top coaches. Sergio Borges’ approach to the running segment of the triathlon was about developing muscular endurance, rather than long-distance endurance.
His advice soon paid off.
“Prior to three weeks ago, my best time on the Olympic distance triathlon was 2 hours 15 minutes,” Hilton said. “After working with Sergio it’s down to 1:56.”
He also hired coach Will Scandalis who works with him through the master swim program at Pure Fitness in Carlsbad.
“Will is amazing,” he said. “He’s a former triathlete himself.”
As of today, Hilton has placed first in his class for each race he’s competed in this year: the Carlsbad Marathon, the Desert Triathlon and the Bulldog Bike Race on Camp Pendleton.
To qualify for the Ironman Championship in October, Hilton will compete in the Rohto Ironman 70.3 California in Oceanside on April 2 and another Rohto Ironman 70.3 in Orlando on May 15.
He’ll then travel to Europe to compete in the (full) Ironman France in Nice on June 26.
In the midst of training he found time last October to participate in the Ride for Semper Fi, a 430-bike race from Scottsdale, Ariz., to San Diego that raises money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund.
“When I came back with the remains of my friend in July I heard about the Ride for Semper Fi,” Hilton explained. “These are just normal people. Some had never rode 100 miles before. It touched me that people would take time out of their life to do this. I thought that if these guys are doing this, then I can certainly run the Ironman.”
John Greenway is the founder of the Ride for Semper Fi.
“Rob brought a whole new level to us,” he said. “He brings a very personal side that most people don’t see. He brings that ability to see what it’s like to be a Marine, and go to battle for their country, and what it’s like to lose your best friend. He gives everybody a much better understanding of what they give up so that we can all have this incredible life.”
In working hard to achieve his goal, Hilton says he’s no different from anyone else.
“A lot of people look and say, ‘I wish I could’ or ‘I should have,’” he said. “If you wish you could, you should. Is there anything more important in your life? A lot of people never find out what they are capable of.”
For Hilton, there is nothing more important in his life than to be healthy.
“People ask what drives me to do this,” he said. “Because I can. Anyone can. I honestly believe that anyone can do this — it’s all in your head.”