You might wonder how Susan Haag has time to party after learning she’s the first woman ever to finish 100 iron-distance triathlons.
For her, it’s easy. She makes every event a celebration. She invites triathletes to join her for a “party at the back.”
The good times aren’t limited to her iron-distance events, which stand at 111 and counting. She’s done a total of more than 400 triathlons when sprints, Olympic and half-iron distances are added to the total.
Haag, 52, of Jacksonville, Florida, will stop to chat with volunteers, pet a dog or pick up a lucky penny in memory of her late father, who often did the same. She dances with volunteers. She encourages, cajoles and offers advice to help athletes make it to the finish line. Once there, she’s been known to step into high heels to strut the last few yards.
“I sometimes think I’m hilarious,” said Haag, a member of the USA Triathlon Board of Directors. “I look for other people to cheer up so I don’t have to cheer myself up. IRONMAN is a long freaking day. I know what it’s like to be in the pain cave, and when I see people suffering, I like to joke. You’ve got to find the joy.”
A lawyer by profession, Haag first issued her party summons while lining up near the end of a rolling start at IRONMAN Maryland. On a whim, she called out, “Party at the back.” The response was immediate. She quickly realized her tension-breaker resonated with newcomers to the iron distance and slower athletes nearby.
Since then, her moveable party has become a tradition. She was delighted when she saw a picture someone shared on social media with “Party at the back” shaved in her mullet.
With her experience, there’s no one in the sport who understands better how big the payoff is when an athlete endures to the end.
“I know how exciting it is to finish — the enjoyment, the exultation, the sense of accomplishment, all that good stuff,” Haag said. “It helps a lot of people with self-esteem. … It gives people a way to feel good about their place in the world.”
Haag’s introduction to triathlon came in 1990 when she saw an advertisement at her health club announcing a sprint. Once was all it took.
“The excitement of having all three sports really spoke to me,” she said.
The distance soon stretched from sprint to Olympic to a half iron at the Great Floridian. She was all in when friends asked her to go to Brazil for her first IRONMAN. Her nutrition plan included Red Bull and McDonald’s. Her fanny pack held a disposable camera so she could take pictures of other triathletes, spectators and volunteers along the course.
“It was such a joyous day,” she said. “To me it was such an adventure.”
She signed up for two more that year, three more the next year and four the year after that. When her father died in 2012, 10 years after her first IRONMAN, she dealt with grief by logging 33 triathlons. An amazing 18 at the iron distance were among them, including her 50th race at 140.6 miles. She describes herself as “out of control” after that. She reached the century mark for the iron distance just four years later.
Haag doesn’t limit her endurance efforts to one sport. She’s been known to complete an IRONMAN on Saturday and pace friends through a marathon on Sunday. She does ultra-marathons and long-distance bike rides as well.
It’s no wonder Haag was chosen as one of the first 44 triathletes chosen as USA Triathlon Ambassadors. Their mission is to share their love of triathlon with potential converts.
Her message is simple. Triathlon is not an elite sport, and you don’t have to do it perfectly. She doesn’t hesitate to put people at ease by telling stories about the mistakes she’s made. Once, she realized too late her companions on a bike course were doing the half distance when she was supposed to be doing the full. She took the wrong turn with the crowd at the split and earned a DNF.
Another time, she entertained the crowd and a nearby sportscaster live on the air at the IRONMAN World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, when she dropped the chain on a borrowed bike right out of T1. She finished that race. But she has logged DNFs in others due to flat tires.
“I can fix it but it will take me a day and a half,” Haag said.
Haag admits to having a special connection with women in the sport and the ones thinking about joining.
“Women have novel issues that men don’t necessarily have,” Haag said. “They don’t want to be last. Fine, I will be last. If she is curious, if there is a fire to fuel, we fan those flames and get her out of the door.”
Once they do a triathlon, Haag knows the sport and the people they will meet will seal the deal.
“It’s the companionship. They want you to succeed. Again, it’s the ‘Party at the back.’ It’s just a fantastic atmosphere. People having a blast, that’s what triathlon means to me.”
Learn more about Susan Haag's triathlon journey and training philosophies here.Scott Richardson is a USA Triathlon Level I and U.S. Masters Swimming Level 2 Certified Coach and founder of Beyond Normal Fitness, Normal, Illinois.