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50 Ultra-Distance Triathlons for Her 50th Birthday

By Bob Bergland | Feb. 27, 2018, 3:30 p.m. (ET)

Deb Battaglia

At minus 5 degrees, it was one of the coldest days of the year. Just past the winter solstice, it was also one of the shortest days of the year, with darkness greeting her at both the beginning and the end of her day’s quest. It was also the last day of the year, the last day to finish the incredible goal she had started on Jan. 1.

Just a few months past her 50th birthday, Deb Battaglia woke at 5 a.m. and climbed on her bike trainer in the quiet boyhood house of her husband in Conneaut, Ohio.  The odometer clicked off the miles — 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60, 70.

She got off the bike, about 40 miles shy of her end goal, and drove to the pool, which was only open from 10 a.m. until noon on this New Year’s Eve day. Seventy minutes and 2.4 miles later, she dried off, got back in the car, went to a gym and ran on a treadmill for 90 minutes before it, too, closed. On to the next gym, where she was able to get a day pass to get on another treadmill and finish the most mind-numbing of marathons, avoiding the cold temps and three feet of snow on the ground outside. Then, back to the house, where her in-laws’ children had hung balloons and signs of encouragement. Her husband and his family left for a party, and she climbed back on the bike, bookending her day by finishing the last of the 112 miles.

It was done.

Fifty ultra-distance triathlons in one year.

Battaglia came into 2017 thinking she needed to do something unique, something inspiring, something crazy to mark her 50th year on the planet. A veteran of a 2001 IRONMAN and 43 more 140.6-mile triathlons from 2007-2016, she hit upon the perfect goal: Do 50 ultra-distance triathlons, all under the 17-hour cutoff, in 2017.

“I figured, that means just one per week,” she says. “I can do that. And so I just started.”

The journey begins

She began her quest quietly — no proclamations to her extended family, no Facebook post announcing her goal.

“I thought, Maybe you can’t, so let’s just start and see what happens. I started out with just one. I didn’t tell anyone except a couple close friends and my husband and my mom.”

Her journey almost ended five triathlons in, after medial ligament knee pain nearly forced her to quit. She found a local chiropractor who recommended some exercises that helped. The pain persisted but was never enough to make her stop.

So, she continued, spending many of those early winter months doing her 140.6 miles on the trainer, on the treadmill and in the pool. Because of the limitations of open pool hours, she would often need to mix up the traditional order of disciplines.

“I had to modify things,” she says. “The pool wasn’t always open early, so I didn’t always go swim, then bike and then run.”

A balancing act

In addition to the challenge of having to change the order and complete so many miles indoors in her home in central Pennsylvania, she also had to juggle a challenging work schedule. An ER doctor, Battaglia flies out to California to work about 10 days a month, making it difficult to train and impossible to complete a triathlon on those days and the travel days. So, she had to plan her days out carefully.

Five of those dates were races, including IRONMAN Santa Rosa in California, IRONMAN Louisville and the ultra-distance Michigan Titanium. She also competed in the Anvil triathlon in Virginia and the Redman in Oklahoma, where she was the top finisher with a time of 11:27, in spite of facing 30 mph headwinds on the bike.  The owner of a 10:36 PR, she says the actual moving time of all of her triathlons ranged between that 11:27 and 13:30, although her total time was sometimes a bit more with extended transitions that included things like running errands, helping her husband with small projects around the house, driving to/from the pool and occasionally taking a half-hour nap. Still, her total times never came close to the 17-hour IRONMAN cutoff time, she says.

She also competed in 17 sprint triathlons along the way last year, winning some of the smaller races.

The early years

Remarkably, “Iron Deb” was never an outstanding athlete in high school. She participated in track, softball, gymnastics and summer swimming, but never stood out.

“I was never really great in anything,” she says. “I warmed the bench a lot in basketball. I just showed up and worked really hard.”

In college at Penn State, she was on a club-level synchronized swimming team. But, her real motivation to work out more came when she started to put on the Freshman Fifteen and came home to her family.

“My impetus to start fitness was when I went home at Thanksgiving and my grandmother said, ‘My you’re getting fat.’”

Though she exercised regularly in college and took up mountain biking in graduate school, she didn’t enter her first race, an XTERRA triathlon, until she was 30. The 2001 IRONMAN came right after finishing med school, but the cold waters and improper nutrition led to a rough race, and at the time she had no desire for a repeat of that experience.

“I remember thinking at the time, I’m never going to do another one,” she laughs.

Yeah, right.

Ramping up

Battaglia tried another IRONMAN triathlon in 2007 while working as a professor at the University of Utah and has averaged four to five full-distance races per year since then. In 2012, HITS started a triathlon series in which people who completed five 140.6 races got their entry fees waived for the remaining races in the series, and the notoriously thrifty Battaglia signed up for all of them and added a few more to boot, finishing 14 that year. Along the way, in May of 2012, she met her husband, Chuck Kreger, at one of the races. They were married seven months later, in December. Four years later, at the end of 2016, she was 49 and had 44 140.6-mile races under her belt. The dreaded 5-0 loomed large the next year.

Celebrating 50

“Last fall I was thinking, how am I going to celebrate 50?” she says. “I can’t let this go by without doing something unique.

In spite of reaching that 50th birthday in late October — doing her 41st IRONMAN the day afterward — she can’t quite grasp hitting the half-century age mark.

“I can’t even wrap my mind around 50,” Battaglia says. “I certainly don’t act 50. I don’t feel 50. I don’t even know how to deal with that number.”

Chuck, who has been a race director and has 15 140.6-mile races to his credit, doesn’t see her slowing down anytime soon.

“My initial thought when she told me about her goal was that it didn’t surprise me one bit,” he says. “What attracted me to Deb was her enthusiasm, and this was just a carryover of that.”

Her supportive husband began by doing segments of the long triathlons with his wife, but he readily admits he does not have his wife’s tenacity.

“I started out with doing half-IRONMANs with her, but once I got to 14 or 15, then they slowly dwindled as my enthusiasm died off along the way,” he says. “But she kept at it. She wasn’t going to quit.”

Her mom, Jo Battaglia, also did some training with her daughter, doing some laps at the pool with her. She had her own way of celebrating a landmark year as well.

“I was turning 80,” Jo says.  “Deb said we had to do something special to commemorate our birthdays, and after she decided on her 50 IRONMANs, she said, ‘OK, now we have to settle on something for you.’ So, every week when I went swimming I would do 80 laps.”

While her daughter finished her 50th ultra-distance triathlon on New Year’s Eve day in Ohio, back in Pennsylvania Jo showed solidarity by making sure to go out for a trot during the time she knew Deb was going to be running.

Deb Battaglia

And, what happens at 60?

So, what does Deb have planned for her own future decade markers? She had a lot of time to think about that while on the treadmill, trainer and roads this past year.

“My tentative plan is that at 60 I would do 60 half-IRONMANs, and at 70 I would do 70 Olympic-distance triathlons, and at 80 I would do 80 sprint triathlons.”

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