Faces in the Pack: This Doctor Surprised Herself to Earn A Kona Spot

When this doctor crossed her 12th Ironman finish line, she got a huge surprise—and learned a valuable lesson.

When this doctor crossed her 12th Ironman finish line, she got a huge surprise—and learned a valuable lesson.

It was 11 p.m. in Cozumel, and 60-year-old Pamela Coleman was ready to throw in the towel. It had been a rough day at the 2016 Ironman Cozumel, with an unusual shifting current during the swim and strong crosswinds on the bike and run.

“It was so grueling out there,” Coleman says. “My quads were screaming!”

Still, she gritted her teeth and continued on. If she finished, she’d qualify for Ironman’s Legacy Program, a system awarding athletes with 12 or more Ironman finishes a spot at the Ironman World Championship. Coleman, who took up triathlon in 2005 as a way to stay healthy in the face of her family’s history of high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke, had tried to qualify the traditional way—17 times. Among those 17 Ironman starts were the soaring highs of PRs and laughter, and gut-wrenching lows, including 5 DNFs.

Still, Coleman kept coming back for more. “I love finishing with the back-of-the-packers, each one pulling the other one forward, one step closer to hearing the magic phrase, ‘You are an Ironman!’” Coleman says. “But more than anything, I take the good with the bad. Being alone, bonking, feeling pain and misery—it’s all part of the experience. I embrace the race, no matter what.”

That mentality got Coleman through the final miles of Cozumel. She was alone and hurting—Coleman didn’t tell her training buddies she was doing the race because she wanted to surprise them with the news that she’d earned her Legacy slot. When she crossed the line with an overall time of 16:35:54, she raised her tired arms in victory, knowing she could now enter the Legacy program.

The next morning, exhausted and sore, Coleman packed her bags to return to her home in Washington, D.C., where she works as the interim chief of urology at Howard University Hospital. There would be no rest for her. She was used to that. “My job is a rewarding yet always-on-call position,” says Coleman. “My patients and the medical students I teach always come before training, and I often have had to find ways to reschedule key workouts to put their needs first.”

While getting ready to depart, her phone buzzed with a text message from her sister, one of the few who knew she was in Cozumel: “You got first in your age group. You qualified for Kona!”

“Say what?!” Coleman laughs. “I hadn’t even looked up the results. I just wanted to finish, and assumed I didn’t have even a remote chance of qualifying for Kona.”

When the announcer called Coleman’s name at the awards dinner that night, she jumped up and ran to the top podium spot, post-race soreness be damned. Blowing kisses to the crowd, Coleman smiled broadly at the realization that a decade’s worth of experience in triathlon—the good and the bad—had brought her to this moment.

“This whole experience has taught me that DNF does not mean failure,” says Coleman. “It just means you have more to learn. To me, DNQ—did not quit—is more important.”