Iron Woman

Colleen Capper runs, swims, and bikes toward a better, longer life and finds plenty of role models in the triathlon community.

 

After the 2.4-mile rough-ocean swim at the 2010 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, sweat rolls down my face as I pedal my bike through the searing 100-degree lava fields. The legendary island winds rage harder than any time in the previous decade, making it feel like I am battling through a wall of heat and air. As I near the end of the climb at Hawi, the halfway point of the 112-mile course, my stomach churns with anxiety and my hands grip the aero bars of my bike. I fear that on the speedy descent down from Hawi, the force of the wind will cause me to crash, as it has other athletes in years past. I debate whether I should drop out of the race, as it feels impossible for me to safely make the descent. Then, my mind turns to 80-year-old Lew Hollander and 75-year-old Harriet Anderson, also racing the event that day. I imagine that if I drop out, I will attend the awards banquet the next day, and they will be up on the stage in their finisher’s shirts and I will be sitting there with no finisher’s shirt, ashamed that they were able to make the descent and I was not. I fight back my tears of extreme fear, and pedal down the descent as the gusting side winds blast in earnest. I happen to glance over to the other side of the road, and there is Harriet in her silver aero helmet, steadily climbing her way up to Hawi. Seeing Harriet inspires me to keep going, and I not only complete the race, but also run my way through the 26.2-mile marathon that caps the event, finishing as the fifth fastest woman in my age group in the world.

Finding My Stride

Though I grew up with three older brothers and played many backyard basketball and baseball games, in those pre-Title IX days, I did not play competitive sports. On top of failing the Presidential fitness test in elementary school, I tried out for the track team in high school, attempting the one-mile event, and dropped out because I ran so slowly. As a young woman in my early 20s, I weighed about 50 pounds more than I do now. A long line of obesity and heart disease runs through my family. With my mom’s encouragement, I started jogging in my senior year of high school to manage my weight. Fast forward to 2004, when I decided to enter my first Ironman at Ironman Wisconsin. I had already completed more than two dozen marathons and was looking for a new challenge.

I feel excited about training and racing triathlons because of the challenge and variety of training for three sports compared to only running. In doing so, I have overcome a severe deep-water phobia. Training and racing events in new places also provides an excuse to enjoy the outdoors as much as possible. Western Dane County and Madison offer some of the most beautiful, challenging, and safe biking and running in the world. I never tire of seeing the slow turn of the seasons across the woods and fields from the saddle of my bike or running through the Arboretum. Because my mom died at age 50 of leukemia and my dad died at age 69 of emphysema, training and racing triathlon helps me appreciate each day just being able to breathe freely and to be alive. Combined with recovery practices like massage, stretching, and good nutrition, I love waking up and feeling fit, strong, happy, and full of energy.

In 2012, I completed my 14th Ironman distance race, and I was ranked second in the world at the Ironman distance for women ages 50-54. I have qualified for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii five times, and in addition to my fifth-place finish in 2010, I placed in the top ten in my age group two other times. I am a three-time Ironman champion, winning my age group at Ironman Canada; St. George, Utah; and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. At age 53, I continue to set personal records at all distances for triathlon and for running. I am able to run the marathon portion of the Ironman (after the swim and bike) nearly one hour faster than my first marathon 30 years ago.

Finding Inspiration

Training for and racing long-distance triathlons, I have gained a new peer group to inspire me to live my life differently—individuals who are in my age group extending all the way up to athletes in their late 70s and 80s who complete the Ironman distance. With my mom’s early death, I have sought role models, especially women, for what it means to add years to one’s life and live those years differently than expected. Thus, I attend the award ceremonies at every event I complete to be inspired by these athletes who completed all the training and then the same event in what are oftentimes far more challenging conditions than what I faced. These women are my daily positive role models and include Harriet Anderson, age 78 (who incidentally races in a sports bra displaying her killer abs!); my friend Karen Bivens, 69; and Cherie Gruenfeld, age 69, who continues to set world and course records.

For the past five years, my entire race season has focused on qualifying for the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. To qualify, an athlete must place in the top of his/her age group at one of 28 Ironman events held across the world. Usually, only 50 qualifying slots are available at each race, and are allocated on a percentage basis for each age group based on the number of athletes competing in that age group. My age group usually receives just one or two qualifying slots per race. That means that to guarantee I qualify, I must strive to actually win my age group, which averages about 75 other women. I have practiced mindfulness meditation for many years, and I view race day as a day of meditation—a full day with no outside distractions of e-mail, social media, or other obligations, and focusing within, moment by moment, as I ride the inevitable emotional highs and lows of racing.

Finding Purpose

I like to race for at least four reasons. First, from a technical side, I view racing as similar to a test of my fitness after “studying” very hard in training. I enjoy seeing how all the different training workouts and recovery and nutrition add up to produce a particular outcome on race day. Second, I love competing against the other athletes, including the women in my age group. I am inspired by and in awe of women who are defying the aging odds, and show up to races fit, looking fabulous, and full of competitive fire. When I race, I feel badass and meet other women who are also badass. Third, racing is a wonderful way to meet new people and to experience beautiful places in the world. In the middle of a quite challenging race, to look around and notice the beautiful scenery and surroundings fills me with gratitude. Fourth, I like the mental and physical challenge of long-distance triathlon itself. I race shorter-distance triathlons as well, but enjoy the longer distance best, because the longer the distance, the more variables come into play to get to the finish line at all, and then to the finish as fast as possible.

Even though participation in triathlon has increased 78.8 percent since 2008, with 1.7 million individuals participating in at least one triathlon in 2012 according to the United States Association for Triathlon, the LGBT presence in triathlon is nearly silent. Through rumor or speculation that a few professional triathletes may be LGBT or a few highly visible coaches of professional triathletes may be LGBT, no professional triathletes are officially “out.” Though triathlon is one sport included in the Gay Games, and the running community includes national organized running groups for LGBTQI individuals (e.g., Frontrunners) no such organized group exists in triathlon at the local or national level. At the same time, as a lesbian triathlete, my experience of the triathlon community locally, at races and training events, and in online forums has been welcoming and inclusive. For several years I raced Ironman as a benefit for the Gay-Straight Alliance for Safe Schools in Madison.

Going forward, I will continue to coach individuals through my company, Data-Based Training and Racing, LLC. Coaching individuals from beginners to elites, my company is unique in that I limit the number of athletes I coach to about ten to ensure each receives maximum personal attention to reach her/his goals. I plan to continue training and racing triathlon for the rest of my life, eager to try new events around the world, competing at the highest levels, meeting new people, and having fun.

Though I enjoy long-distance triathlon, a variety of distances exist for all abilities, and all can be fun. I think most of us set the bar much too low for ourselves for physical activity, especially as we get older. I concur with 83-year-old Ironman Lew Hollander, who advises to “go anaerobic every day,” which in simple terms means to breathe hard in exercise every day. I also advise all of us to find positive role models for how to live life differently than expected when adding years. Let’s get out and move, breathe hard, enjoy nature, and be badasses!