Turning 50 is a milestone for most, some greet it philosophically others with dread, but very, very few decide to compete in an Ironman triathlon.
In Susan Benzer’s case, her first Ironman triathlon was a deal she brokered with herself five years earlier and one she couldn’t break.
“I’ve always been interested in endurance sports,” said Benzer. “I wrote a goal in my journal in 2007 – ‘Ironman at 50’.”
The Rossland physician trained hard all year and finished second in the womens’ 50-54-age category at the Subaru Ironman last month, qualifying her for the World Ironman Triathlon Championship in Kona, Hawaii Oct. 13.
“That was a dream goal, but I had no idea that I would do that with my first Ironman, so I was very excited . . . but to finish second in my age category was a surprise.”
Benzer began training in earnest last October retaining veteran triathlete and High Altitude Triathlon Club president Seth Bitting as her coach.
“From a coaching perspective she is pretty much an ideal athlete, very highly motivated and willing to follow instruction to a tee, which is great to work with someone that is that focused and motivated,” said Bitting, a colleague of Benzer’s.
She had entered shorter-distance triathlons with daughter and elite cross-country ski racer Rebecca Reid, before committing to the Ironman and countless hours of both physical and mental preparation.
“I trained in the heat, and I trained in the cold, and I trained in the rain, so I was prepared for anything,” Benzer explained.
She joined close to 3,000 triathletes in Okanagan Lake for the four-kilometre swim, coming out of the water in 13th spot with a time of 1 hour, 10 minutes and 59 seconds, before turning in a scorching bike ride.
“On the bike you’re really in packs the whole time and just moving. I had power goals I set with my coach as to what I was to do, just really holding back on the bike.”
One of the triathletes mantras is “bike to run” to save energy for the upcoming marathon.
Incredibly, Benzer’s “easy” ride turned out to be the fastest bike in her group as she finished the 180-kilometres in 5:41:30.
“I got my nutrition in, and was really lucky with nutrition and hydration, but the real race starts with the marathon.”
A 26-mile marathon is a daunting prospect for any mere mortal, but even more so after a long swim and arduous bike ride.
“I have never run over three hours in my life, so I had no idea how that part of it would go, but just trusting my coach, with knowing that the training was good and I had done everything I possibly could to prepare.”
After seven kilometers a minor crisis developed. Benzer was not achieving her pacing goals so she stopped looking at her watch and just kept her legs moving.
“I said, ‘I’m just going to do the best I can in the moment’ and decided I was just happy to finish Ironman, that Kona and everything was just out the window, because I just wasn’t running as fast as I had planned to run.”
The strategy helped Benzer relax. She finished the race strong holding off the third place finisher, and coming in with the seventh best time of 4:17:09, good enough for second spot in her category at 11:18:17.
“I’m surprised everything went as smoothly as it did on the day,” said Bitting. “Because an event like that, even if someone is physically in perfect condition there’s a million things that can go wrong . . . All of the physical parameters said that she had the potential to have a great performance, but for it to actually play out is a great thing to see.”
While some might think the Ironman a peculiar form of torture, as doctors, Bitting and Benzer take keen interest in pushing the body to explore both its physical and psychological limits.
“It’s absolutely fascinating,” said Benzer. “The whole training process really is a science and it works. I have learnt so, so much with this journey.”
Fruitvale’s Carol Corbett who qualified in the Arizona triathlon last year will join Benzer in Kona next month, while Bitting is peparing for the Xterra Ironman triathlon at the end of October.
“The journey was just amazing. I was happy with the journey without the race, and to have the race is icing on the cake definitely,” added Benzer.