How Triathlon Changed My Life

By Gloria Sthay | June 20, 2018, 9:46 p.m. (ET)

I evolved into an athlete very slowly. Fitness and sports were not a priority in my family when I was a child, although I always admired runners. Several times I was determined to start running, failing after a few weeks. I grew up believing I wasn’t made of the same stuff as the real athletes. This is the true story of how I—an out-of-shape young mom with three preschoolers—became an accomplished triathlete.

Because I was somewhat overwhelmed with motherhood, I decided to give running a try.  Knowing I was too out of shape to run for 20 minutes, I decided to mix walking and running.  Running was very painful at first but I stayed with it consistently three times per week and within a few months I could run for 30 minutes.  Running soon became an integral part of my routine.

A few years later, my excitement for running was waning. I noticed a newspaper ad for a 6.7 mile Thanksgiving race not far from where I lived. I summoned my courage and paid the entry fee, although I had never run that far before. Amazingly, I overcame fear and finished successfully. A competitive spirit was born in me that day. I set up a training program. My race times improved steadily over the next few years and then I discovered triathlons.

Watching the Ironman World Championships on TV in the early 1980’s inspired me greatly. I was amazed that anyone could have the determination of Julie Moss, who dragged herself across the finish line in the Ironman World Championship. Still, I wistfully thought Ironman racing was only for world class athletes. Soon after watching that race, I discovered short distance triathlons. I immediately added swimming and biking to my training. In 1984 I completed my first triathlon—the challenging Olympic distance Hagg Lake triathlon in Oregon. I raced on a borrowed bike but finished surprisingly well. Triathlon then became my new passion.

Later, I met a friend and fellow athlete who was training for Ironman Canada. Inwardly I expected him to fail, since he was only an average athlete. However, he did finish, and finished impressively. I was amazed to realize that an ordinary person could indeed aspire to successful Ironman racing. Through his mentoring I became an Ironman in 1988 by finishing Ironman Canada.

That day I realized I had become an accomplished endurance athlete. Endurance racing had changed my borders.  Ironman racing became ongoing for me until 2004. During those years I successfully completed seven full Ironman races, including the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii twice.

I had conquered challenges that I never believed were possible. The inner qualities I learned as an endurance athlete instilled in me a new confidence. Personal discipline, perseverance and success strategy now defined my life. I began to understand parallels from racing that applied to other areas of life as well.  I adopted a passage from the Bible that was particularly relevant to me as an athlete: Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down . . .and let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus . . . .

I began writing and unofficially coaching friends and aspiring athletes. I realized I had a lot to offer anyone who needed to find personal discipline, training advice, confidence and a sense of balance between work, family and endurance training.

 Based on my personal experience, I authored a book, Winning the Race of Life. In the book, life parallels are drawn from my endurance racing experiences. Racing had taught me much about life qualities and spiritual values, and I wanted to share this with others.

I have enjoyed opportunities to coach new triathletes and inspire others by speaking at retreats, mom’s groups and youth groups.

A few years ago a 50+ fitness group was born. These seniors were courageously endeavoring to change the paradigm of a sedentary life. Several group members could barely walk for 20 minutes, but by summer’s end, most had committed to staying active for the rest of their lives.

 I began a personal website and started writing a weekly blog focused toward people age 50+, providing fitness encouragement and training tips.

I have buckets full of finisher medals and trophies that mean next to nothing, but the way endurance racing has changed my life means everything to me. I’ve lived through amazing experiences I never thought were possible and will never forget. Confidence and courage are a part of my everyday life. I’ve met dozens of friends who mentored me, and I’ve met dozens more who I have been able to encourage. In a sense, it’s my circle of life, demonstrating for me again how humans are dependent on each other and how teamwork gives all of us more satisfaction in every area of living a healthy, active life. That’s the meaningful trophy. 

The USA Triathlon Ambassadors provide resources, advice and inspiration to aspiring athletes in their local communities, using their collective stories and experiences to grow multisport participation nationwide. Meet the ambassadors here.