Three days before he turns 53, Father Thomas Baker is getting the birthday gift of his dreams.On Oct. 13, the pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Lancaster will compete at the “Super Bowl” of triathlons: the nationally-televised Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, taking place Oct. 13. He will be among 1,800 Ironman triathletes participating in the grueling competition consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race and a 26.2-mile (marathon) run, all in succession.He can hardly wait.Priest/triathlete Father Baker didn’t envision ever being an Ironman contestant when he started competing at age 26 in triathlons while a seminarian at St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. The former football/basketball/baseball player at St. Pius X High School in Downey just wanted to exercise the knee that he had injured playing football with his fellow seminarians.He successfully completed three short distance triathlons before being ordained in 1989, but didn’t compete in the sport again until ten years later when he was a pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe (Rosehill) in El Sereno and decided to enter a longer distance Olympic triathlon (31.1 miles or longer). He performed well in 1999, completing the triathlon in about three hours. “It felt good,” said Father Baker, who found that training for upcoming triathlons was a good stress release from the demands of being a pastor. He next set his training sights toward competing in a Half-Ironman in La Jolla, a fundraiser for the Challenged Athletes Foundation where more than 100 challenged athletes participate alongside 550 able-bodied triathletes, celebrities and pros.“This really changed my whole outlook on triathlons and life,” said Father Baker. “The challenged athletes were an inspiration. If they can stretch themselves [with their disabilities], I can stretch myself [with] a marathon.”He admitted he was worried about running that event, having had two knee surgeries during his seminary days. But in 2000, he ran his first marathon in L.A. and has since completed about ten L.A. marathons as an archdiocesan “Run for Vocations” participant.“The first 15 miles of a marathon are pretty fun,” said the priest. “The last part is a discipline and that’s really what an Ironman is too.”Father Baker has participated in 12 Ironman competitions in a number of U.S. cities, including Malibu, Coeur d’Alene (Idaho), Louisville and Lake Placid, N.Y. His best time ever was 11 hours 11 minutes at Lake Placid after taking a four-month sabbatical in 2004 to train in Santa Inés while living at San Lorenzo Seminary. He skipped competing in an Ironman in ’05 in favor of smaller distance triathlons because it was his first year as pastor of Sacred Heart. The parish had started an ambitious capital campaign for a new church requiring his attention.“But then, in talking with individuals such as my spiritual director and the capital campaign director, they said, ‘Do the long distance one; it will make you a better person,’” said Father Baker. In his recent Ironman contests, he was closing in on the top three wining times in his age category, though he is at a disadvantage against competitors with more time to train.Previously, triathletes had to finish in the top three in their age groups in a major event in order to qualify for Hawaii or get chosen in a lottery for one of 200 slots. Every year for a decade, Father Baker was one of thousands of hopefuls trying the Ironman lottery, only to be disappointed.This year, however, Ironman officials changed the lottery, allocating 100 regular slots and 100 “legacy” category slots for those who have completed 12 Ironman triathlons and fulfilled other requirements. Father Baker’s record of a dozen Ironmans put him in the legacy special drawing, and his name was selected in mid-April. As far as he is aware, no Catholic priests have ever competed in the Hawaiian Ironman World Championship, now in its 35th year. Although this year’s roster of competitors shows a triathlete priest from Canada participating in the 60s age category, Father Baker could potentially be the first Catholic priest ever to cross that finish line.“I’m just on a whole different level training-wise because it’s Hawaii,” he smiled. “This is something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time. That it happened, I still am just surprised by it and pinching myself like, ‘Is it real?’”He practices whenever he can, each week swimming 5-7 miles, biking 150-250 miles and running 30-40 miles. He will keep up this pace until the third week of September, after which he will gradually taper down approximately 25 percent each week until the event so his body will recover enough for the Ironman.His qualification for the Hawaiian Ironman has generated a lot of excitement in the parish, which is sponsoring a Hawaiian luau dinner triathlon fundraiser Sept. 8 that also benefits Sacred Heart’s capital campaign and the Challenged Athletes Foundation) at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Lancaster. Father Baker notes that the Lancaster Knights of Columbus are “big-time” supporters of his triathlon endeavors. They gifted him on his birthday with his Trek carbon fiber triathlon bike (colored red in honor of Sacred Heart), helped him with transportation costs to events and provided jerseys for him to wear imprinted with the Knights’ logo. Parishioners have also been inspired by Father Baker’s example to start physical fitness programs of their own. Parish clergy and clerical staff have stepped up their exercise efforts, and one parishioner has even signed up for an Ironman in Arizona later this year.“To me, there’s so much connection between the body and the spirit — so many similarities about discipline and fortitude that I use in homilies and reflections,” said Father Baker. “Right now, I’m talking a lot about training and wanting to give up when you’re doing a long training day but just pushing through, and that’s discipline, that’s fortitude. And you can use the analogy in the spiritual life, and it’s very helpful. “If you can do it in your physical life, then when things get difficult in your social life, your emotional life, your spiritual life, you will have the fortitude to be able to withstand it. That’s really what I’ve learned by this journey the most.”He credits his inspiration to his faith and a few favorite Scripture passages, including Romans 12:1 (“Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice”) and his “mantra” from Philippians 4:13 (“I have the strength for everything through [Christ] who empowers me”). “After a few hours on the bike (during the six-hour Ironman bike ride sandwiched between the swim and the marathon), you’re starting to need something,” confided Father Baker. “Sometimes I’ll pray the rosary, sometimes I’ll use a mantra, sometimes I’ll just be anticipating the next 10-mile marker.” He is encouraged by seeing parishioners and family members during a triathlon. His parents, Deacon Chuck and Marge Baker who minister at St. Linus Church in Norwalk, have come to each of his Ironmans, and, along with some Sacred Heart parishioners, will travel to Hawaii to cheer on their favorite triathlete.“It’s helpful to see someone you know on the course,” said Father Baker. “It just gives you an added little boost.” He hopes to “break 13 hours” on Hawaii’s Ironman course. “If I could break 12, I would be ecstatic,” he added.“Of all the races, this one is the Super Bowl. Anyone I’ve ever met, when hearing I do Ironman, asks me, ‘Have you ever been to Hawaii?’ and I could never say ‘yes.’ Now, I will be able to say ‘yes.’”Sacred Heart Church’s “Fun and Fundraiser” Hawaiian Luau Dinner Sept. 8, 6-10 p.m., at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Lancaster will benefit Father Baker’s Ironman expenses, the Sacred Heart capital campaign fund and the Challenged Athletes Foundation. Tickets are $35. Information: (661) 942-7122. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2012/0824/sfironman/{/gallery}