Wall of Wind researcher competes in largest ironman triathlon


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Wall of Wind research scientist Roy Liu-Marques rides his bike in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii to prepare for the Ironman World Championships, which was held Oct. 8.

Some of Roy Liu-Marques’s friends call him crazy. He wears that with a badge of honor. He says you have to be a little crazy to be a triathlete. But you have to be even crazier to compete in a full ironman triathlon.

Liu-Marques, a researcher at FIU’s Wall of Wind, participated in the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on Oct. 8 – competing against more than 2,000 triathletes from around the globe in the sport’s most iconic event.

“To race among the best athletes in the sport on one of the most challenging courses, it’s a humbling experience and an honor just to be toeing the start line with them,” Liu-Marques said after the race. “It was definitely worth all the work, effort and money invested to come here.”

The race combines three of the toughest endurance races in the state – the 2.4-mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim; 112 miles of the Around-O’ahu Bike Race; and the 26.2-mile Honolulu Marathon – into a full ironman event that represents the ultimate test of an athlete’s body and mind.

For Liu-Marques, 36, just the opportunity to be there was accomplishment enough. Whereas some of the competitors had more than a year to train for the competition, he had just six weeks to prepare after qualifying at another full ironman triathlon in Idaho.

“The hardest challenge was to get there. I just wanted to go and enjoy the experience and do the best that I can,” Liu-Marques said.

He accomplished his goal of finishing the 140.6-mile race in under 10 hours, clocking in at nine hours, 50 minutes and seven seconds, good for 80th place in the male 35-39 age division and 345th overall. It was just the third full ironman traithlon Liu-Marques had ever competed in and completed.

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Lui-Marques has been a research scientist at the Wall of Wind facility since graduating from FIU with a master’s in civil engineering in 2008.

GONE WITH THE WIND

In addition to his love for triathlons, Liu-Marques has always been fascinated by natural disasters and phenomenon.

As an undergrad at the University of Costa Rica, some of his studies were focused on earthquake engineering, which designs and analyzes structures with the goal of making them more resistant to earthquakes.

Liu-Marques moved to Miami in 2005 to pursue a master’s degree in civil engineering at FIU. That same year, two hurricanes – Wilma and Katrina – rolled through South Florida.

According to the National Hurricane Center, the damage caused by Wilma – which made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane – was estimated at $16.8 billion in South Florida and resulted in five deaths across the state.

After passing through Florida as a weak hurricane, Katrina struck southeastern Louisiana as a Category 5 storm and became the costliest U.S. hurricane on record.

“I never experienced hurricanes in Costa Rica. Sometimes the storms would get close, but we never had a direct hit,” Liu-Marques says. “I was able to learn a lot more about these storms after that.”

At around the same time, experts from FIU’s wind engineering team were assembling the first prototype for the Wall of Wind – a two-fan mobile unit that could generate 120 mph winds and simulate horizontal rain.

Liu-Marques learned about at the Wall of Wind from a professor who was working on the project and went on to write his master’s thesis conducting research related to the Wall of Wind.

After graduating in 2008 with his master’s degree, he decided to stay on as a research scientist at the Wall of Wind and the International Hurricane Research Center at FIU. At the facility – located at the Engineering Center, home to the College of Engineering and Computing – he helps recreate wind and water hurricane characteristics to test the resilience of low-rise structures and manages the commercial testing services the facility offers.

Today, the 12-fan Wall of Wind is the only research facility in the world capable of simulating a Category 5 hurricane and has taken a prominent national role developing innovative damage mitigation products and techniques, something Liu-Marques is particularly proud of.

“It’s very rewarding to see the work we are doing here prevent the loss of life and property and have a very positive outcome,” Liu-Marques said. “It’s motivating to see how the project has grown and how the university has grown since I was a student. It’s great to be a part of it.”

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The Ironman World Championship began at approximately 6:55 a.m. on Oct. 8 with a 2.4-mile swim in Kailua Bay.

NEVER QUIT

Liu-Marques finds the time to balance his career as a research scientist at the Wall of Wind with his passion for triathlons, which began to take root not long after he arrived in Miami.

His days typically begin at 4:30 a.m. and will start with a two- or three-hour bike ride or run and a big breakfast before heading in to work at the Wall of Wind facility at the Engineering Center.

After work, he prepares for a second daily workout – a swim or run. He has recently added a yoga classes to his regiment, which he attends once a week in Coconut Grove.

By 10:30 p.m., he’ll be in bed and ready to do it all over again the following day.

Although wind engineering research and training for triathlons may not seem to have much in common on the surface, the two are inextricably linked for Liu-Marques.

“Both are part of my life and there isn’t a disconnect between them,” he says. “I take what I learn from one and apply it to the other. Triathlons have taught me to learn how to set goals, how to face those challenges and overcome those challenges. It helps me clear my mind and stay healthy, physically and mentally. That helps in all aspects of life.”

Competing in triathlons and other similar races has taught him another important lesson.

Earlier this year, Liu-Marques signed up for a 200-mile bike race in Kansas (Dirty Kanza 200) when five miles into it, the rear derailleur – a device that allows a bike to change gears by pushing it’s chain from one cog to another – broke and threatened to keep him from finishing. Short on time and options, he decided to cut the chain shorter and ride the rest of the race on a single gear.

It took him approximately 15 hours to complete the ride, far from his best time, but the experience revealed something about how he approaches sport and life.

“Even if I cross the finish line last, I will never quit,” Liu-Marques said.