Forty-two-year-old mom of five Amy McGrath will compete in the Ironman World Championship for the ninth time in October.
“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that features pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com.
Age grouper Amy McGrath is deserving of an award – not for anything triathlon related, but for the fact that she’s a mother to five children (ages 7, 9, 11, 13 and 14), all of whom she home schools. But delve into McGrath’s triathlon record, and you’ll also laud her significant sporting success. She’s earned 19 Ironman finishes and October 2012 will mark her ninth time racing Kona’s World Championship. The 42-year-old, who lives outside of San Antonio, qualified for this year’s race with a 9:56:18 personal best at Ironman Texas (where, incidentally, she finished 10th overall, pro women included). It’s tough to imagine anyone tackling all that’s on McGrath’s plate without being in critical type-A overload. But here’s the thing: McGrath is as laid back and balanced as can be. I had the pleasure of chatting with this easy-going wonder woman, and am honored to share some insights into her active family life and her advice for other busy age-group athletes:
Triathlete.com: Since you home school your five children, I’m assuming you’re not a mom who has much free time during the week. How do you fit in your training?
AM: I’ve always home schooled them. It’s definitely challenging but worth it. But I’m never alone! I just get up early. It’s definitely easier now that they’re a little older. I have a 14-year-old – he’s going on 15 – so I have a babysitter. And now that the kids are older they sleep in and they can get up and get their own breakfast, so I do my long rides outside. My husband and I get up early, put lights on our bikes and have wheels down at 6:00 a.m. We just try to stay fairly close to home and carry our cell phones. When the kids were little, for my long rides I’d get a babysitter. Or I would put them all to bed at eight-o’-clock at night and then go out to the garage to train. But I definitely use the treadmill and I ride the bike trainer a lot. We also bought a used Endless Pool on eBay about nine years ago. After my fourth baby was born I had a taken a little time off triathlon. We lived too far out of town – the nearest pool was an hour drive and there was no way I could leave the kids to go swim for that long. So the only way I was going to get back into triathlon was to get an Endless Pool. We found one on eBay and I do all my swimming in there. I don’t ever drive to a pool.
Triathlete.com: About how many hours do you train during your peak weeks?
AM: Now I would say about 15. But when the kids were younger I did plenty of Ironmans on 10 hours a week. That was all the time and energy I had. Now I’m always busy – I’m always in the car driving them somewhere – but it’s not as physically demanding. I’m not always holding a baby or carrying somebody. Plus they pretty much sleep all night, so I can sleep all night. When they were little all I had the time and energy for was about 10 hours, but I’d go do an Ironman. I figured I could either do it like that or not do it at all. And I decided I’d rather do it.
Triathlete.com: Does your husband also race?
AM: He’s into cycling. But he’s watched every one of my Ironmans. He’s actually done two. He wanted us to do one together, so we both signed up for Ironman Wisconsin one year, and then we ended up having a baby. So I didn’t do it, but he did! Then he still wanted us to do one together. I said maybe it would be easier if we raced one at a time so that one of us could watch the kids, but we did do Coeur d’Alene together. And he decided that was enough. He did really well – I think he did 11:30 – but he decided that to go any faster he’d have to train. He’s happy racing his bike!
Triathlete.com: What are some of the things your kids say about your racing habit? Are they inspired by you? Do they also race triathlons or do other sports?
AM: My oldest is really into mountain biking and he just started getting into road racing. And all the kids have done some triathlons. They enjoy it. We don’t make them train or anything, they just race to have fun. They’re really supportive. I told my kids I think this Hawaii might be my last Kona, and they said, “Mom, you can’t do that! You’ll get fat!” They don’t really like watching though – they’d rather stay with my parents and go fishing during the race!
They all have such different personalities; some are more competitive than others. My husband and I are pretty laid back as far as pushing kids in sports because we’ve seen so many parents overdo it and we’ve seen so many kids burn out. But the lifestyle we have here in America, we just don’t get enough exercise. We drive everywhere. We live pretty sedentary lives. So we try to encourage them to make exercise a way of life, whether they want to compete or not. If they don’t want to compete we don’t push it. But we will say, “You’re going on a family bike ride with us.” But it’s not anything we have to force – they like to ride. We don’t push it real hard because we’ve seen it backfire. I’d really rather them continue throughout their lives to just exercise and enjoy it, than to be National Champion at age 10 and burn out.
Triathlete.com: Often, people voice frustration at not having enough time to fit in the training they feel they need to accomplish their athletic goals. Or, alternately, they train, but to the detriment of other areas of their lives. You seem to have a pretty firm grasp on everything! What advice would you give people trying to find a better balance?
AM: You definitely have to keep your priorities. Family is first, and you have to keep your job. And I think as far as doing well in sports, it’s not about doing huge 100-mile bike rides and three-hour runs. I don’t think you have to do that. I really think to improve the most important thing is just to be consistent. If you have five hours a week, train five hours a week. If it’s seven hours a week, train for seven hours. You just have to do it day after day and week after week, month after month. You don’t have to do monster training weeks. Don’t feel like you have to go on a 100-mile bike ride every Saturday. If you can be consistent with whatever time you can carve out, you can really make improvements and get better than you ever thought you could.
In terms of balance I think it’s important to be creative. Figure out what you can do to keep your family first. For us, when the kids were young, rather than me going out on a long ride with my friends, or rather than my husband and I going out to eat, we’d spend our money on a babysitter so he and I could ride together. That’s our thing, a bike ride. That’s our time together to be together and talk.
Another thing is to always train while the kids are sleeping! Get on the trainer during naptime. You don’t have to sacrifice your family or your job. I also try to do the opposite of what most people do – I try to schedule light training on Saturdays and Sundays. Because on the weekends we always have family activities – events, Father’s Day, birthdays. So I try to schedule my longer training early in the morning during the week. That’s one thing I’ve been able to do, but obviously it doesn’t work for everybody. But you just need to brainstorm. It can be done.