As he celebrates 34 years as a priest and about to turn 64 years old, Father Tom Baker still finds himself running.
And biking. And swimming.
Baker, the pastor at St. Rita Church in Sierra Madre, is a longtime triathlete who recently competed in the Ironman 70.3 event in Salem, Oregon on July 23. The 70.3-mile event uses half of the distances of an Ironman event for each of the disciplines: 56 miles on the bicycle, 13.1 miles running and a 1.2-mile swim down the Willamette River.
He finished 22nd in his age group (6 hours and 19 minutes overall) and he swam his fastest-ever time in the swim portion of the event. Not that any of that matters to him.
“I don’t really pay much attention to that part,” he said.
For Baker, he trains and competes for other reasons.
“Triathlons became a way to relieve stress, focus on other things at the parish, and just keep healthy,” said Baker, whose brother and niece also competed over the weekend.
At the Oregon event, he started cramping during the bike ride, which meant both that portion and the run to conclude the event was a little grueling, both physically and mentally.
“Sometimes it’s just a big mental game,” Baker said. “You get to a certain point and your body just wants to walk. I’ve done enough to know I could do it. I just have to keep trying to move forward.”
During those physical challenges where it’s difficult to stay focused mentally, Baker has a secret strategy: He prays.
When he was cramping in Oregon, he prayed four mysteries of the rosary, while other times he has recited favorite pieces of Scripture. Or, as he’s in discomfort, he’ll pray for others who are truly suffering.
“I know people that are going through cancer treatment or endured some abuse,” Baker said. “So I think of those situations or parents who've lost children and I lift them up in prayer while I’m suffering a little.”
Baker started doing triathlons while he was at St. John’s Seminary before being ordained in 1989. When that happened, he was predictably busy, but still found time to ride, bike and swim when he could.
When he became a pastor, he felt he needed an outlet to relieve his stress, so he began competing in Ironmans and other triathlons again. He’s now done more than 100 triathlons in his life — including 15 Ironmans — which has taken him all over the country.
One of his favorites was in Hawaii because participants have to qualify for the competition and it is notoriously difficult to earn a spot. When Baker finally was accepted to participate, he marinated in the experience.
“It was just very surreal because you’re racing with the top triathletes in the world and you’re swimming over coral, it’s just beautiful,” Baker said. “When I was on the run, there was a beautiful sunset. So I just stopped. I wasn’t going for speed, I was just trying to savor the journey.”
Baker has no plans to slow down any time soon. He tries to do three to four triathlons a year and has two more events upcoming this year: June Lake in August and Malibu in September.
“That one’s local and that’s usually where I ride on my days off,” Baker said of the Malibu competition. “Sort of my home court advantage.”
And as he’s done many times before, he’ll continue to use his triathlon career to help him connect to parishioners and others, allowing a conversation to start from something normal and progress to topics more spiritual and faith-based.
“That’s been the greatest part of this, relating it to the faith journey,” Baker said. “Sometimes I’ll talk about hydration. If you’re not hydrated right, your body won’t function right. And if you’re not spiritually hydrated right, your spirit will not function right, either.
“I’ll bring my bike to Mass and talk about aerodynamics and how you might cut through the wind. If you’re doing things right in your faith life, you can help cut through the wind as well or cut through the difficulties of life.”