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Full Circle: Kathleen McCartney And Julie Moss Return To Kona

Kathleen McCartney and Julie Moss have been inexorably linked since fate first drew them to the lava fields in 1982.

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Triathlon is widely considered an individual sport. But Kathleen McCartney and Julie Moss, the champion and runner-up at the February 1982 edition of the Ironman World Championship, have been inexorably linked since fate first drew them to the lava fields.

Julie Moss is credited with “putting Ironman on the map” during her virgin run at the distance. That’s endurance-sports-speak for spectacularly bonking, soiling one’s britches and being reduced to a “baby giraffe” style walk in front of a worldwide television audience, thus highlighting the race’s grueling swim, bike and run requirements. No one was more surprised than Moss herself—a 23-year-old undergraduate student participating in Kona in order to complete her thesis—that she led the women’s race right up until her well-documented meltdown. And as she hit the wall within yards of the finish, it was Kathleen McCartney, a first-year triathlete tagged early on as a Kona favorite, who cruised past in the dark, unaware of her crumpled competitor and equally astonished to claim the Ironman win.

On Oct. 13, 2012, 30 years after their history-making debut on the Big Island, Moss and McCartney will again stand on the start line in Kona. In 1982 they were strangers and oddly matched rivals; now they are close friends and training partners. Triathlete’s Holly Bennett sat down with these inspirational women to reflect on their 1982 race, hear how their fated friendship eventually formed and learn how they’re approaching Kona 2012.

Triathlete: Do you remember what you said to each other after the 1982 race?

Kathleen: I don’t remember seeing Julie after the race. I was swept away. I think Julie was rushed to the medical tent. It wasn’t until I actually watched it on Wide World of Sports that I fully comprehended what happened.

Julie: We didn’t cross paths until the awards ceremony. Word had gotten out that something had happened—there was no live coverage back then. I remember when we were up on stage, there was this energy in the room when they called my name. It was kind of crazy. It was undue applause for second place, when first place had yet to come up.

Triathlete: Julie, have you ever felt guilty for getting so much attention for the race, despite not winning? Not to mention, who won the men’s race that year?

Julie: It was Scott Tinley!

Kathleen: They definitely don’t remember who won the women’s race, I’ll put it that way!

Julie: Kathleen’s name is on the trophy, and I think that’s a pretty fair trade. That’s an exclusive club to be in. You can’t get invited in—you have to earn it. But I have empathized with the fact that she had this amazing accomplishment, yet she also had this other part to deal with. There are times I’ve looked back and thought, That was as close as I ever got to winning that race, and it didn’t happen. So maybe there’s a tinge of disappointment. But it was Kathleen’s game. I also thought, She got it. That’s got to feel good.

Triathlete: Kathleen, if you had been aware of what was happening and had seen Julie, do you think you might have stopped?

Kathleen: I have often asked myself, What would I have done had I seen her? My heart tells me that I would have stopped and made sure she was OK. But on the other hand, there were plenty of people there to take care of her. And it was Ironman. Quite honestly, I would have bolted for that finish line! And then I would have come back five seconds later to check on her.

Julie: I think there’s a natural instinct to win. I love that I can go back and watch our race, and I can see Kathleen’s unbridled joy and excitement. That was something that got lost. It’s pretty cool to see you have your moment. I think it played out the way it was supposed to.

Triathlete: From that moment, you were bonded together. Neither of your race days would have been quite as spectacular without the dynamic of the other. Yet it took some time for you to become friends. When did your relationship develop?

Julie: It started this year. And it was immediate. Our life circumstances have brought us together in a way that is very close. In 2003 we both also went back for the 25th anniversary celebration of the race, and there was a feeling then that it was sort of waiting for us, but it didn’t really happen until the plan for this year’s race came about.

Kathleen: I remember being excited when I heard that Julie was moving back to San Diego [where both women now live]. I thought, Wow, this will finally be the time in our lives that we can really get to know each other. When we got together I felt an instant bond. I thought about going back and doing the race this year and I immediately thought, I hope Julie will be there, because that will bring it full circle. She trained with me on my kickoff day. She was still not committed to racing at that point, but it was a special day.

Julie: Kathleen had the greatest idea to start her program. We swam, biked and ran the same number of minutes as miles in an Ironman. That was about all I could manage!

Kathleen: It was the most training I’d done in all three sports since 2003! Of course now we’ve gotten further down the road and we’re both feeling fit and strong. And so many people are helping make this journey easier for us. We’ve received phenomenal support from the triathlon community. We have Cannondale, K-Swiss, Tyr, Nytro, TriBike Transport and others sponsoring us. We’re both single moms trying to stretch a dollar here and there. We were riding our old bikes from 2003. We were wearing vintage cycling stuff. So it’s been really exciting to get our first tri bikes and technological equipment.

Julie: We’re in the modern era now!

Triathlete: It’s a bit of a cliché, yet it’s true: Once you’ve done an Ironman, you feel as though you can do anything, handle any adversity. In the 30 years since your first race in Kona, how has Ironman empowered each of you to handle life’s curveballs?

Kathleen: That day changed my life. It changed who I am forever in a good way. I feel like nothing is too hard. I can never be too tired. I would never say no to a challenge. And I’ve passed that onto my kids. It’s a way of life and a source of strength. I have taken pride that even in years where I wasn’t Ironman fit, when I hadn’t been on my bike in a decade, I’ve felt that if someone told me that I had to go do an Ironman tomorrow and finish in 17 hours, I could do it. It’s part of who I am, part of my character.

Julie: I feel the same way, although I was a little too young at 23 to appreciate the idea that the ceiling or the limits had been uncapped. I felt like anything was possible at 23 anyway—otherwise I wouldn’t have taken part in that race! But it set the bar pretty high. In the past 10 years though, I’ve had moments where I forgot that I had that to go to. I felt like I was becoming the victim rather than the heroine of my own life. I did a lot of hard personal work to get through that, and now I’m ready to embrace this physical challenge again. It’s a jumping-off point. The idea that every day you’re challenging yourself is empowering. My son’s in college, my nest is empty and I could easily focus on what isn’t there, but instead I’m focusing on this new commitment.

Kathleen: Also for me, there was a tough period in my life recently, undergoing a tragic divorce. I needed a personal goal, and Ironman was my source. It was my strength. I made the commitment to this year’s race shortly after learning that my world was turning upside down, because I knew I needed to dig deep. I needed a goal that would bring out all the qualities that I rely on to get through tough times.

Julie: I wanted to support Kathleen in her personal situation through supporting this goal. What really surprised me is that once I embraced doing the race also, all the benefits of stepping off into that strength were there for me too. I didn’t know that was going to be waiting for me. I committed to be a buddy, but once I took it on, it became my personal journey.

Triathlete: Are you putting pressure on yourselves to achieve certain goals? How do you feel you’ll benefit from your age and experience going into the race?

Kathleen: This is all about the Ironman experience. I’m training very hard and I’m going to race as hard as I can, but there’s no pressure. I’m not going to win. But I’d like to beat you, Julie! [Laughing]

Julie: I don’t feel pressure, but I don’t want to underestimate this experience. I need to keep open to the fact that I might actually get in pretty good shape!

Kathleen: I don’t feel 53. I feel like I’m still 22! And the number of times we’ve experienced Kona collectively—this will be 12 for Julie and eight for me—in all types of conditions, I think will help. And there’s such a factor of joy, knowing that I have the ability to show up at the starting line, appreciating the moment and the opportunity to race. It’s going to be an incredible experience. It is at any age, but particularly now.

Julie: I’m afraid that gets lost for a lot of people who chase this dream. It’s their dream—they’ve qualified, they’re finally in Kona—yet the energy isn’t as joyful as one might hope. There’s an anxiousness, almost an undercurrent of fear about what might happen. That’s not something I plan on packing in my bag. I do think the experience of managing those valleys that you get into in a long race is invaluable. The body is one element, but it’s equally body, mind and spirit. Staying positive goes into the spiritual realm. Being smart about managing yourself throughout the day is intellectual. And the body’s well-trained by the time you get there. Ironically, the time we set 30 years ago—the overall winning time from 1982—would not win our 50–54 age group now! That’s such a proud statement for how far the race has come. And it means there’s no pressure on us!

Lessons From 1982

You never know what might happen, so always go your hardest, no matter what. “I think I’m pretty tough. If I’m redlining and suffering, I know my competitors are suffering too. So dig deep, then dig a little deeper and don’t give up. You never know what’s going to happen. It’s been proven so many times in Ironman.” – Kathleen McCartney

Never give up on yourself. “I was bereft of any ideas and motivation as to how to get up off the ground when my legs wouldn’t work. I gave this big sigh, thinking, Can I really give up? In that moment, the resounding word in my head and in my heart was, No! Find a way. No! So I figured out how to do the ‘baby giraffe.’ It was humiliating. It wasn’t how I pictured finishing the race. But I finished.” – Julie Moss

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