Next summer Mercer Island resident Debby Fry Wilson will celebrate 10 years of doing Ironman triathlons.
For the last four years, the Island mom has raced in an Ironman each year, taking on a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile run.
Though Wilson didn’t start out as an endurance athlete, she says the races and training are ways that she’s found balance in her life — time for herself, outside of all the other demands that a working mom faces.
“Honestly, I was not a high school athlete,” she said. A longtime golfer and skier, she joined a local YMCA with her husband after getting married, and the pair decided to give a club-sponsored sprint triathlon a try.
“We were hooked,” she said. “It was only probably a half-mile swim and something like a 12-mile bike and a three-mile run — although I’d never run three miles in my life — so I said to myself, I know I can swim and ride a bike. Over a series of years, my husband and I went around and did sprint and Olympic distance triathlons, but that’s when I started running and it took a long time for me to get running legs, which I think it does for most people. A few years later, I kind of got it in my head that I wanted to run a marathon and I ran my first marathon. I was 29.”
After her first successful marathon and years of considering and thinking about the Ironman, she finally took the plunge in 2004.
“Back then, in the early ’90s, the Ironman was very obscure,” explained Wilson. “It was not a big sport, and still very nascent. I just had it in my head that I always wanted to do that. So I spent a lot of time running, but I didn’t do my first Ironman until 2004. I spent a lot of years trying to figure out how to do one and thinking about it a lot, talking to people about it a lot.”
Wilson’s first major hurdle was her lack of swimming experience. She could solidly swim the breaststroke, but committing to an Ironman meant focusing on getting the freestyle stroke down.
“I ended up taking swimming lessons and took them for quite a few years; I’m still a bad swimmer, but I can do the freestyle,” she said.
Her first Ironman was the Vineman race in Sonoma, Calif., where she told herself that it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, and completing the race was her only goal. But the bug caught her again in 2008, and she registered for Ironman Wisconsin.
“I decided not to do it, and then a month before [the race] I woke up one morning and said, you know, I think I’m going to go,” she said. After that race, she set her sights on Ironman Canada, an event that a lot of local athletes do, largely because of its location.
“I always wanted to do Ironman Canada because everyone else around here does it,” she said of the 2009 race. “In 2010, we were actually moving to the Island and I was signed up to do Ironman Florida, but had to pull out. In 2011, I did Ironman Canada and then last year, I wanted to see Wisconsin, so I did that.”
Wilson said she has learned a lot since the first race, when the unknown both helped and hindered the local athlete. Not knowing what to expect was overwhelming, but also pushed her father than expected. This year’s race, held in Whistler, was different than previous Ironman Canada events, which have been held in Penticton, B.C.
“Every course is different, and it was a big unknown with the new course, and there was a lot of scuttlebutt about the bike course and being very, very hilly. It was very hilly,” she said. The new location, in the shadow of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, also created a more intense atmosphere.
“That was a very different feel than coming into Whistler. You walk into the Village and there are the Olympic rings,” she said. “It definitely went from having this more community, not so intense feeling, to you’re in Whistler. There was definitely an intensity and energy that was more amped up. There were a lot of big athletes with their fancy gears, and I’m just this mom from Mercer Island with her seven-year-old road bike. The energy was definitely more intense.”
Another big change, unlike the usual cutoffs, is that this year organizers added three bike cutoffs on a bike course that looped three times, showing the riders who was ahead and behind of them.
“On the other course, it’s one giant loop so you never see the other people, but this one you could see the front runners and the people behind you,” said Wilson. “But with the additional cutoff, the behind part kept getting shorter and shorter. So then I was getting worried that I was going to get tapped on the shoulder. There was some stress in that. My first mental hurdle that I overcame was, ‘OK you’re staying on the course until someone tells you, you can’t be on here anymore.’ The second part was, I said to myself, you know what, be proud that you made the Ironman swim and be proud that you’re going to finish the Ironman bike and don’t worry about anything else. So I finally almost got a moment of peace with myself, but there is always a moment when the doubt creeps in.”
Unlike a lot of people training for races, Wilson goes into preparing for her next event with a different mindset.
“What I do, I do it a little differently than most people,” she said. “A lot of people, especially now that it’s such a popular thing they coalesce around different triathlon club, and they have a pretty established training program. I have a different approach. My approach is that it had to be fun. I don’t ever want it to be like this monkey on my shoulder. My only rule of thumb is that I bike, swim or run once a day, and usually just one of those, not all of them.” Wilson credits her shift in training to why she’s continued to go back to races over the last nine years.
“I think part of the reason I’ve been able to do it so long — I don’t wear a watch, I just try to enjoy the moment and just enjoy being out there. When I run it’s to be in a happy zone, not because I’m trying to push it,” she said. “To me it’s a way of being balanced. Some people do yoga, but for me, this is that way of keeping everything in balance. Also just making it a peaceful, happy experience, as compared to, ‘oh, my gosh,’ I have get these miles done. I try not to do that. I think that doesn’t make me faster, but it’s been able to help me last longer.”
Though she always swears her last race is her last one, Wilson has already signed up to go back to where it all began, doing the Vineman race next year, her 10th as a triathlete. But even if the next race does become her final, she’s had the chance to mingle with top-level athletes and people who provide the perspective she needs.
“When you show up it’s super humbling — it’s beyond comprehension that all these folks do this and they are that gifted of athletes,” said Wilson. “The Northwest has some amazing athletes, and a lot of them, who are super dedicated.”