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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 27, 2009

Woman of flesh and blood puts her heart and soul into becoming an Ironman

By Anne Hayden

All athletes test their mettle in an Ironman triathlon, but for some, the rigors include overcoming personal hurdles, as well as course challenges.

Kelly Sullivan is one of those athletes. The Voorheesville biology teacher ran, swam, and biked to complete the Lake Placid Ironman this summer, despite severe asthma and despite an auto-immune arthritis that affects her spine — ankylosing spondolitis.

She was inspired by Matthew Long.

“People were worried I wouldn’t be able to do it because of my medical conditions,” Sullivan said. “But I knew if he could do it, I could do it.”

She did, crossing the Lake Placid finish line on July 26 to the cheers of her family, friends, and the words she had waited six years to hear: “Kelly Sullivan, you are an Ironman!”

Long finished, too. At 43, he completed his second Ironman. He had taken four years to come back from a devastating accident. A New York City firefighter and avid triathlete, Long was riding his bike in the city when he was hit by a 20-ton bus. He suffered a fractured left foot, right shoulder, right hip, and left tibia, a crushed pelvis, perforated abdominal walls, and a torn rectum; he lost gallons of blood. Doctors gave him a five percent chance of surviving.

After five months spent in the hospital, Long was stable enough to go home, but he had to learn how to walk again, and doctors warned him it could take up to two years for him to walk without assistance — if he could do it at all. At a press conference shortly after his release, he told the audience that he would do another Ironman someday.

In December 2007, after two years of rehabilitation and 40 surgeries, Long traded in his crutches for a cane, and registered for the NYC Marathon, in the fall of 2008. Over the next 11 months, he worked with trainers to teach himself how to run and swim again. He finished the marathon in November in 7 hours and 21 minutes.

Arduous training

Sullivan herself spent six years gearing up for this summer’s Lake Placid triathlon.

In order to earn the exalted Ironman status, a person must swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles, and run a marathon —or 26.2 miles. They must do it all back to back, and they have only 17 hours in which to complete the competition.

Many finishers sport a special tattoo that Ironmen can get — it’s an unwritten rule that a non-finisher shall not receive the “M-dot” tattoo. The design features a boxy letter M with a dot over the middle, so that it is an I and M combined; IM stands for Ironman.

For Sullivan, who has a background as a high school runner, periodic college runner, and a 5K racer after college, the decision to switch to triathlons involved some challenges. She had no experience with cycling, and swimming lessons were a distant childhood memory. Mix those factors with the asthma and arthritis, and, when Sullivan started her training, she had a long way to go.

Balancing teaching with the intense training was difficult, Sullivan said. In the summer of 2003, she competed in her first sprint triathlon, and finished four triathlons that season, all sprint or Olympic distances, which are a great deal shorter than an Ironman.

Sullivan’s husband, Joe, a middle-school teacher in Cohoes, decided to take on the Ironman challenge as well. He learned to swim for the very first time four years ago, specifically so he could do triathlons.

“I remember thinking that 12 miles on the bike was a lot when I started — 112 was unimaginable!” said Sullivan.

Although it was hard to integrate teaching and training, Sullivan said she did long swims at the Guilderland YMCA after school, getting home as late as 8 p.m. She did most of her really long swims and runs on the weekends. She and her husband trained at the same time, but separately, because he was much faster, Sullivan said.

Before she tried the full distance, Sullivan did a half Ironman, the Tinman, in Tupper Lake last summer — 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run. She did the half Ironman again this past summer, just weeks before the real deal in Lake Placid. After that experience, she was both anxious and excited for the full.

“It was hard to fathom, because most other triathlon distances had stepping stones, but this would be doubling the distance. It was a big leap. Who can cover 140.6 miles in one day?” asked Sullivan.

After school ended for the year, she had two weeks of bulk training before the competition on July 26, although, according to Sullivan, the true experience began on Thursday the 24th.

Ironman virgins

“The whole town was full of athletes, and everyone was buzzing. I just looked around and couldn’t believe I was there,” she said.

On Friday night, at a banquet where Long was celebrated as the everyday athlete, a motivational video ended with a message to the competitors, telling them, “You WILL be an Ironman!” The oldest and youngest participants were introduced — 18 and 72, respectively. Sullivan and her husband, along with many others, were asked to stand to be recognized as Ironman “virgins.”

Race day dawned, and Sullivan was up bright and early at 4 a.m., so nervous she could hardly choke down her breakfast. She said she was in tears several times before the swim started, a combination of nerves and disbelief. But, once the canon went off to signify the start, Sullivan was calm.

“I found myself to be completely calm, and just couldn’t believe that after all of these years of watching and volunteering, I was actually a part of this race,” she said.

During the swim portion, it became apparent that Matt Long was not the only inspirational athlete that day. A middle-aged man, local to the Adirondacks, had completed several Ironman races in the past, but had suffered a stroke within the last year. With limited use of his left arm and leg, he was determined to see what type of performance he could give in 2009.

He was the last person to finish the swim. He missed the time cut-off of 2 hours and 20 minutes, by 18 minutes, but the crowd of cheering fans did not leave the shore of Mirror Lake. They waited, and started clapping and whistling when he was 700 yards out. Someone started chanting his name, and the audience carried the cheer. As he made his way closer to the beach, it was apparent that he was swimming using only one arm. When he made his way out of the water, noticeably limping, the crowd went wild.

He did not make the time cut-off, and he was not able to continue on to the bike leg, but he did more than doctors thought he could do, and more than what many healthy people are capable of. Many wept along the shore of the lake as he thanked his family and supporters.

Despite some bike troubles, including an irritatingly squeaky pedal and a chain that fell off, Sullivan said there were smiles all around during that particular leg. The run was difficult.

“I wasn’t feeling great, but the thought that I was going to be an Ironman was overwhelmingly powerful enough to keep me smiling and going,” said Sullivan. At one point, she got to run next to Long.

“I was actually walking at the time,” said Sullivan. “He is a faster swimmer and biker, but a slower runner because of his injuries. He told me he didn’t like that I was walking faster than he could run,” she said, adding that he was joking with her and kept a smile on his face during the exchange.

Like a rock star

 Another thing that kept her going was seeing her husband enter the finishing oval — since the run course was out-and-back, she passed by just as he raised his arms and crossed the mat, in just over 13 hours.

More than three hours after that, Sullivan finished the race at 11:24 pm. She had been on the move for 16 hour, 24 minutes, and 8 seconds.

“I entered the finishing straight and was overwhelmed by how amazing it was. It was like you were a rock star!” said Sullivan.

She and her family were in the finish line area when Matt Long came across the finish mat at 11:58 p.m., just two minutes before the midnight cut-off.

“It was like a party at the finish line,” she said.

Though it took Sullivan weeks to recover and get back into an exercise routine, and she is just now testing out her body, she said the Ironman is something she will certainly do again. In fact, she and her husband are both already registered for Lake Placid 2010.

Of the whole experience, she said, “It was more than anything you would ever expect it to be. It exceeded all of my expectations.”

As a new school year begins, so does another year of intense and exhaustive training for Sullivan, as she embarks on another quest to see how far she can push her limits.

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