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Triathlon is like your first crush. At first, it’s all you think about. You are enamored, smitten, and swept away in the rush of endorphins. But then, over time, things change.
Sometimes you simply “fall out of love.” Other times, life happens – you get a new job, have a child, get injured, and the next thing you know, it’s been years since you rode a bike. But it’s always there in your mind – even though things change, there’s always something about that first crush that gives you butterflies. You start to wonder: What if I gave it another go?
Here are the stories of five athletes who have fallen in love with triathlon again after taking some time away from the sport. Some burned themselves out or sustained injury. Others moved away, had children, or worked through some health issues.
In this case, absence does make the heart grow fonder, because each of these athletes has returned to the sport they love with a renewed sense of appreciation, joy, and passion.
In October 2014, six weeks before Ironman Arizona, Brad Ellis lined up at the start line of a cross country meet just to “have some fun” on a course he had run years ago when he was in high school. Feeling fitter and faster than ever before, he stood on the start line and jokingly turned to his friend and said, “I just don’t want to get hurt.” Famous last words: Ellis shredded his ankle with multiple ruptured and partially torn ligaments.
It was three painful years before he was able to race a short-course triathlon again and four before he hobbled through another Ironman, including Arizona in 2018 to close that long-awaited loop.
Sure, he was racing, but he was really just going through the motions. “It’s not so much that I fell out of love as I almost gave up on it because I couldn’t do it.” Keeping it at arm’s length was a self-protection technique. When a few months of not being able to run stretched into years with compromised function, it really did break my heart.” Triathlon, it seemed, was giving Brad the old “it’s not you, it’s me” excuse.
Ironically, it was COVID and the Ironman VR series that rekindled the magic. In fact, he was one of only a handful that did all 34 70.3 virtual races, earning a spot to 70.3 Worlds. It was then when everything clicked. Perhaps, he reasoned, it’s not the sport, but the people that surround it and he connected with the virtual racing community and the team he joined, Purple Patch Fitness.
“These communities helped me gain a lot of confidence even as I entered into a new age group. I decided it was time to risk going all in again,” says Ellis. “To my joy and happiness, triathlon took me back!”
While he’s still searching for the right combination of health and fitness to maximize his potential, he’s super grateful he’s found a balance that includes deep connection and appreciation. In fact, he knocked out three more big races this year, including Ironman 70.3 Worlds and another trip back to Arizona.
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Ten months ago, after completing a New Year’s 5K, Suellen Adams got a side stitch that wouldn’t go away, an odd experience for this veteran runner and triathlete. After several trips to Urgent Care and the ER, Suellen was finally admitted into the hospital for testing.
That “side stitch” turned out to be inoperable cholangiocarcinoma, a liver/bile duct cancer. So far this year she’s gone through multiple months of chemotherapy, many hospitalizations, and in February, they discovered an arterial blood clot in her lower leg that required emergency surgery.
After the blood clot, she couldn’t walk across the room. With help from her physical therapist and her tri coach, she worked up to walking a mile, aided by a cane. Her first workout on Training Peaks was “walk 10 minutes.” She slept the rest of the afternoon after that effort. Adams has never been fast, but this was a woman who had done every distance from 5k to marathon. Her mantra became “the mile is my marathon,” and she kept at it.
Through all of this shock and chaos, Suellen still wanted to keep training for something, anything. She needed to have a goal, so she returned to the sport she loves the most – triathlon. In between more rounds of chemo and another hospital stay for dangerously low blood platelets, she swam, biked, and walked when she was allowed. Her wife, Glenda, was with her for every single workout as her doctor wouldn’t let her exercise alone.
In August, Suellen completed a mini-sprint tri race in Illinois – a 100 meter pool swim, five mile bike, and one mile run. It may have only been 6.06 miles, but the accomplishment was as grand as finishing 140.6 miles.
How can a 90 minute race feel like an Ironman? When your body just doesn’t do what you used to take for granted, when it’s a race you aren’t sure your body will let you finish, and when it’s a goal you’ve been focusing on for months of training for just one day of pride, yes, it feels like an Ironman.
Once again, Glenda was by her side for the entire event and so, so proud.
“She is playing the hand she was dealt, setting goals, having fun, and achieving big things. She isn’t going quietly.” Unfortunately, “There is currently no cure or remission for cholangio,” says Glenda. “All we can do is try to arrest its growth and hope to shrink it.”
Suellen Adams is now receiving care from hospice nurses and she and Glenda still get outside together as much as they can. If you hit a dark place, have physical or mental setbacks, or just have trouble getting up to do something you know you need to do, just keep moving forward. Even if that means occasionally stopping to regroup and recover, keep going to the finish. That’s what Suellen and Glenda vow to do – together.
Triathlon is in Doreen Redenius’s blood. How could it not be? Her father raced triathlons competitively in the 1990’s and has been to Kona ten times. He’s retired from the sport now, but his passion for triathlon left an indelible mark on his daughter. In 2008, Doreen and her husband followed in her dad’s swim-bike-run footsteps.
“I loved the challenge, community, and feeling fit,” she says. “The combination of training and racing all three sports is just such a great accomplishment.” It wasn’t without its costs, and after 10 years of training and racing hard at all distances, she was feeling burned out and in need of something different.
But when Doreen became pregnant with son, Finn, in 2020, she found herself back in the pool – this time, for different reasons.
“Who knew?!” she laughs. “I didn’t learn proper freestyle technique until I was 28, but being able to swim definitely helped me stay fit, healthy, and sane during pregnancy.” She also credits the multisport lifestyle as a key ingredient of her healthy pregnancy in her late 30s. In the medical world, women are considered “high risk” pregnancy after 35, but she never felt any of that pressure. “ I saw it as another challenge,” she says. “Yes, I had to adapt and change things a bit, but it was a welcome change that I very much embraced.”
It was no surprise, then, that Doreen would return to the sport, albeit with a completely different outlook and mindset. She started with a couple of running races because she wanted to take her time and do what felt right for her body, but has since hopped back into a few sprint distance local triathlons. “I love the community and these local races are so fun and important to support.” Another bonus of local races? Finn gets to be on the sidelines to watch his Mom in action.
“Kids are always watching,” she says. “I love having Finn at the race. It’s important to our family that he grows up with a healthy appreciation of sports and fitness.”
Well, if Doreen is a reflection of her father’s passion for triathlon, then Finn will no doubt be swimming, biking, and running with the best of them in just a few short years.
In late 2013, Andrew Theron left his home in South Africa and moved to the beaches of San Diego.
Theron had rowed crew in University and dabbled in triathlon when he was living in Johannesburg, but it was mainly a social endeavor with friends and colleagues. They were all training for a 70.3 event, so he decided to do some of the training with them. The love of multisport planted its roots in those training sessions.
Moving to the States, as one can imagine, brought with it a slew of lifestyle changes, and triathlon, not surprisingly, ended up on the backburner. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to train and race, but much of it was simply realizing that many of the popular races were already sold out!
His first races in the States ended up being Austin 70.3 and the New York Marathon in 2014 and he readily admits his training was all wrong. “I did every run super hard,” and needless to say, he suffered serious glute and hip issues injuries that plague him to this day.
Racing and associated travel was expensive, he was chronically injured, he had no real community, and his time management skills were out of balance, so Theron took a pause from racing to settle himself and adjust his priorities.
In 2017, Theron moved to San Francisco and finally found what he was looking for – a robust multisport community, beautiful training grounds, and a great coach.
He registered for Oceanside 70.3 in 2018 and, for the first time in years, put together a race he was extremely proud of, shaving almost 30 minutes off of his half marathon time! Those multisport roots that were planted back in South Africa finally started to sprout.
These days, Theron and his wife now live in Bend, Oregon where they completely embrace the myriad training opportunities and immediate access to nature. He’s also gone from simply completing his races to competing at a high-level in the amateur ranks. At Ironman California this year, he placed sixth in his age group and earned a spot at the 2023 Ironman World Championship race.
“I love the competitive side of the sport,” he says. “It’s one of the few sports where you can compete on any level and witness the progression of athletes within the amateur ranks.”
His ultimate game changer? Finding the right coach. That’s his advice for anyone who wants to improve or break out of a frustrating cycle of injury or mediocre performances. “A good coach will help you do better and enjoy the sport so much more.”
Triathletes don’t like to be separated from their sport, so imagine the frustration when you’re told to “limit your activities” by a doctor while awaiting follow-up health tests. This is what happened to longtime triathlete, Elle Shelley.
“I lost my mojo in early 2020 when I got a health scare and couldn’t do anything for months because I needed some follow up tests.” Well, because of COVID and the healthcare lockdown, those follow-up tests kept getting delayed, and her fitness restrictions continued indefinitely.
Instead of focusing on fitness activities she could do, Shelley threw herself a huge “pandemic pity party,” sat on the couch, lost all of her fitness, and gained 60 pounds. “I was generally a sad, hot mess,” she admits. “I knew that I would be starting from less -than-scratch and was too bummed to get myself restarted. I wanted the fun and joy that I felt when I started back in 2007.”
So what made her fall in love with triathlon again? It was the “Swim, Bike, Run, Fun” social posts and events hosted by Austin race director Camille Baptiste. “Her joy was infectious and her attitude was just what I needed to start reengaging with the local triathlon community.”
Elle’s first official race back was the USAT Aquathlon Nationals in Irving in May, 2022 and she cried tears of joy at packet pickup. “I was a bit overjoyed and emotional. I missed our Tri community more than I realized.”
The good news? Her health scare is a ‘good to go’ result with yearly monitoring and she’s already signed up for five races next year at the Multisport Nationals and doing the swim/run parts of a relay for Ironman Texas 70.3 early April.
“I have a long way to go, but our fabulous community of triathlon gals (and guys) has put a smile back on my face.”