From Russia with motivation: a triathlete’s journey to Ironman 70.3 World Championship

Grigoriy Bakalin of Russia runs on a highway near Rancho Mirage, Calif., May 2021. | Photo courtesy of Grigoriy Bakalin via Instagram, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Although COVID-19-related restrictions have limited the field of competitors for the upcoming Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St. George on Sept. 18, one of the event’s most physically distant entrants is still planning to make it to the race.

Grigoriy Bakalin goes on a training run near Red Square, Moscow, Russia, Jan. 1, 2021 | Photo courtesy of Grigoriy Bakalin via Instagram, St. George News

Grigoriy Bakalin, a 39-year-old banker from Moscow, Russia, recently told St. George News that he is still planning to make the 6,000-mile trip (each way) to Utah. He said he doesn’t anticipate any issues, having already traveled to the USA twice this year. In April, he, his wife Lera and their two young children went on a family vacation to California. Although he was unable to enter the St. George Ironman 70.3 event held in May (no slots were available), Bakalin successfully completed June’s Steelhead Ironman 70.3 event in Michigan.

Bakalin is a relative newcomer to the triathlon scene, having started just three years ago. He said he watched a field of athletes complete an Ironman event in 2017 and decided, “I want to be one of those guys.”

Originally from the Republic of Moldova, Bakalin moved to Russia shortly after graduating from university at age 22. He was active in boxing as a youth, starting at age 11 and participating until his early 20s, after which he shifted to other sports and activities. But he said as he reached his mid-30s, he felt himself gradually getting out of shape, his weight eventually hitting close to 200 pounds.

“Unfortunately, my weight reached 90 kg and it was a shock for me,” Bakalin told St. George News via email. “I tried to do something like more sports, cut my food preferences, etc. but nothing helped me to lose the weight.”

Grigoriy Bakalin of Russia trains on bicycle, date and location not specified. | Photo courtesy of Grigoriy Bakalin via Instagram, St. George News

Bakalin said he then made a “life-changing” decision to start running competitively, having seen some previous success in high school and college – particularly in short-distance races.

Almost immediately, his weight started to drop, he said, adding that running also improved his heart rate and made his heart stronger. 

Bakalin, who avoids eating any type of meat, said he worked his way up from short distances to running 30 minutes at a time, three to four times per week.

“From week to week, I increased the length of training,” he said. “After several months, I could run for one hour, and made a goal to run 10 km as my first official start.”

Eventually, Bakalin began competing in marathons around Europe. In 2019, he posted a time of 3 hours, 10 minutes in Amsterdam, which helped him qualify for the Chicago Marathon, his first major marathon.

Meanwhile, Bakalin decided to try expanding into triathlon events, making the commitment in early 2018 to start on his journey toward competing in his first full Ironman event.

Grigoriy Bakalin of Russia holds up medal he earned for finishing the Steelhead Ironman 70.3 in Michigan in June 2021 | Photo courtesy of Grigoriy Bakalin via Instagram, St. George News

His main problem, he said, was that he lacked experience and proficiency in two of the three legs of a triathlon.

“I had only one discipline – running – where I was a little bit successful,” he said. “I couldn’t swim at all. And the last time I tried the bike was several years ago and it was an off-road bike. Of course, I did not still have the bike.”

Undaunted, Bakalin said he decided to start training with a swim coach, while using a stationary exercise bike to help him with his bicycle training. In the meantime, he stepped up his running game, including finishing a 100-km race that year in just over 11 hours.

“Cycling and running I managed by myself without any coaches,” he added.

Then, in November of 2018, after several months of intensive training, Bakalin was able to complete his first full Ironman in Florida, finishing the race in a time of 11:31:30.

“After I finished, I understood that triathlon will be a part of my life, and I am with it for a very long time,” he recalled.

The following year, in September of 2019, he completed his second full Ironman event. He cut more than an hour off his Floriday time, finishing the race in Italy in 10:25:47. He also completed two 70.3-mile Ironman races that same year, one in Finland and one in Poland.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in the cancellation or postponement of nearly every Ironman event worldwide, with most races being deferred to the following year.

Grigoriy Bakalin of Russia competes in the Steelhead Ironman 70.3 in Michigan in June 2021 | Photo courtesy of Grigoriy Bakalin via Instagram, St. George News

Bakalin said he continued his training in hopes of being able to compete again, and was able to do so in June at the Michigan race. The swim portion of that event was canceled due to bad weather, but Bakalin was able to complete the two remaining sections in a total time of 4:09:02 (2:21 for the bike portion and 1:45 for the run, with the remainder being transition time).

“Amazing bike but not-so-good run, due to several mistakes from my side,” Bakalin commented, adding that he finished 18th among the 165 finishers in the men’s 35-39 age group. That also earned him a qualifying spot in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St. George.

Bakalin said he’s looking forward to competing on St. George’s course, which he calls “a strong challenge” due to the elevation changes on both the bicycle and running courses. 

 “The racecourse looks, honestly speaking, not simple, especially on running,” he said, adding, “And of course, the weather conditions could be warm (25-28 C, or 77-82 F).”

Still, Bakalin says he’s up for the challenge, having faced much more extreme race temperatures before: he finished the Lake Baikal Ice Marathon in Siberia earlier this year, running 26.2 miles in subzero temperatures across the giant lake’s frozen surface in late February.


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A post shared by Grigory Bakalin (@ironbakalin)

Pictures from that event, along with most of his other races, can be found on Grigoriy Bakalin’s Instagram account ironbakalin

Bakalin says he expects to arrive in Utah on Sept. 16 and leave on Sept. 19. Despite that short stay, he says he hopes to meet up with some American friends who are fellow racers for lunch and possible pre-race training. After the race is over, he plans to do a bit of sightseeing before driving back to Los Angeles to catch his long flight home.

“I hope I will find the power to explore the sights,” he said.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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