Zero to hero

Zero to hero

A three-day triathlon covering 515km is enough to make even the most accomplished athletes weak at the knees. But not a grain and sheep farmer with just six years of running under his belt. 

We caught up with 49-year-old Fat Farmers Ambassador Luke Barlow to hear the extraordinary story of how he smashed Ultraman Australia 2022 in between farming 2,500 hectares in Moama, New South Wales. 

It’s never too late 

Luke, a third-generation farmer, took up running in his mid-forties, with no inkling of what he’d achieve within a few short years. “When people hear my story, they think I must have some enormous history of athletic performances, but I don’t. I only started my fitness journey in 2016. Growing up, I was pretty rubbish at sport, then I started farming, and it didn’t leave any room for recreational activities.” 

Like many Australian farmers, the Millennium Drought (1997–2009) had put his farm and family under enormous pressure. “I was looking for something outside of thinking about what could go wrong on the farm. I’d hated running all my life, but I needed to do something to keep fit, so I worked my way up to five-kilometres. I’d just chuck my runners on before or after work, two or three times a week, and it became a habit. It completely changed my mental state — decisions were clearer and everything fell into place,” Luke says. 

Curious about triathlons after seeing his wife Kate complete several, Luke borrowed a bike from a neighbour and started training with a local tri-club, where he met his coach Jason Shields, who was working in the horticulture industry. 

“The training at the tri-club was so removed from my day-to-day life. As a farmer, it’s quite easy to become isolated, so to be able to come together every Wednesday at the club was life-changing. Everyone was so encouraging, and I loved hearing their stories about what they’d achieved. My mind started thinking, ‘why can’t I do that?’” 

It was around this time that Luke came across Fat Farmers on social media. “Even though they were in South Australia, I joined because they were spreading such a great message to farmers. I asked if I could wear one of their singlets to training nights and events to help spread the positive message, and it became a real talking point,” Luke says.

Within six months, Luke completed the first of seven half Ironman events that he and Kate did together. “The swimming was next level, and putting it all together with the run after the bike, my first triathlon … that was horrendous!” Luke laughs. 

While he had his sights set on a full Iron Man, the timing clashed with the cropping season, making it impossible unless he went overseas. And when Jason suggested he aim for the Ultraman Triathlon in Noosa in 2022, Luke thought it was a pipe dream. 

“I wanted to do something epic, but this was the biggest triathlon in the southern hemisphere, and when I looked at the race numbers (they only accept 50 entries per race), it seemed incredibly impossible! You need qualifications from previous races to participate and I wasn’t even sure I could finish it, but COVID meant there weren’t any qualifying races held. 

“Jason told me, this was my chance and that he’d get me over the finish line. No one had ever shown that sort of confidence in anything I’d done in my life, and it felt a bit selfish to gear everything around it, but I knew if I could get the farming side sorted, do the crops a bit earlier, then I’d be able to take the time off. 

“There were so many reasons not to do it, but once I’d made up my mind, I had no option than to give it a crack. I’m also lucky I’ve got a really good worker who’s been with us for 16 years, and a very supportive family, which allowed me to get into the enormous training schedule that got up to 28 hours per week for months.” 

An even bigger picture

Luke was also motivated to give back to the community and began fundraising while training for the big event. “I’d initially been hesitant to share my fitness activities on social media, but after joining Fat Farmers, I found a way to blend fitness and the social aspect with farming. I started posting on Twitter and Facebook, hoping to inspire others to change their lives, and it became an impactful way to raise money. I’d previously raised $10,000 for Beyond Blue while training for the Melbourne Marathon; I participate in swims for motor neurone disease each year; and this year, we had a run and swim in the Murray on Good Friday for the Royal Children’s Hospital Good Friday Appeal. For me, it’s just another training set, but to get other community members to participate and donate is really amazing.” 

With the ‘Do it for Dolly’ campaign coinciding with the Ultraman Triathlon, Luke started raising money to help prevent teenage suicide, raising a staggering $15,000 through private donations and community support. 

The big dance 

The event arrived and conditions at the Ultra-Triathlon added to the enormity of the challenge, which involved a 12-hour cut-off time to complete a total of 515km of swimming, bike riding and running across three days of heavy rain, flooded footpaths and gutters. 

“All I can say is that my naivety served me well!” Luke laughs. “There are no hills where I live, so that was a whole other level of challenge. I couldn’t have done it without my family there, cheering me on, and my support crew, four mates from the tri-club, who all knew what would be required and they were fantastic! I got to the point where my brain had vacated. Apart from the forward motion, I couldn’t think, and their comradery, encouragement, instruction to eat this, drink that, turn this way or that, is what got me through. Fifty people started, 37 finished, and I ended up in 15th position overall.” 

While humble about his achievements, it’s not lost on Luke that his mind-blowing journey has changed his life. “Looking back at it, it’s been a short journey, but I’ve achieved a lot and I wouldn’t have done it any other way. It’s just taught me to make the most out of life.” 

The road ahead 

Last year, Fat Farmers asked Luke to become an ambassador and help keep spreading positivity in rural communities across the border. “I was really taken back and proud that they asked me to keep encouraging others.” In addition, his sister, a qualified personal trainer, has kicked off the first interstate Fat Farmers group in New South Wales. 

So, what’s next on the cards? “My goal now is just to keep fit. There were a lot of things that my family missed out on while I was training and until the boys are a bit older, I won’t be trying another Ultra. But, once they’re more established … I guess we’ll see what’s ahead.” 

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