Triathlete juggles home, sport Mother finds balance despite full schedule

November 09, 1997|By Carolyn Melago | Carolyn Melago,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Carting her children to school, hustling from errand to errand and juggling household chores are Barbara Sullivan's daily duties. Pain is just her hobby.

As an amateur triathlete, the 41-year-old mother of two from Columbia pushes her body to exhaustion through a rigid regimen of swimming, running and cycling.

Competing in a sport whose participants often brag they train full time, she squeezes in workouts between her 8-year-old daughter's soccer practices, 5-year-old son's day care and other family commitments. But the balancing act has paid off.

Sullivan won her 40-to-44 age group in the National Age Group Triathlon Championships in Columbia this summer, and followed that up with a fifth-place finish in her age group during last month's Ironman Triathlon World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, the most prestigious triathlon on the calendar.

"This year was by far my best," says Sullivan, who is a whir of energy in her sleeveless T-shirt, bright purple running shorts and dazzling white sneakers -- one of the three or four pairs she wears out every year.

Though she's in the masters -- over-40 -- age group, Sullivan is as peppy and upbeat as a high school track star.

Her outdoor training has bronzed her freckled skin and sun-streaked her curly blond hair. The exercise, she says, keeps her looking and feeling young.

"It's fun to have someone say, 'You're 41?' "

As a youth in New Jersey, Sullivan always loved sports but preferred the pool to the track.

"As a swimmer, you don't like runners. You think runners are fools," she says. "Then I became one."

That was about 12 years ago, when her husband, Patrick, persuaded her to abandon her prejudices and give running a shot.

After exhausting practices, Sullivan competed in Olympic-distance triathlons -- usually a 40-kilometer bike race, 1.5-kilometer swim and 10-kilometer run. She describes her first few triathlons as "disasters."

Low tides and choppy water tormented Sullivan and the other athletes during her first triathlon about eight years ago in Seaside, N.J.

"We were literally running through the waves," she remembers.

Sullivan wasn't familiar with the second triathlon course she ran and just followed the runner in front of her. Unfortunately, he was also lost. "He and I went on a really nice course," she says with a laugh, "but it was the wrong one."

'Hooked' on workouts

Despite these flubs, Sullivan "got hooked," and tough training became a priority.

Her schedule during the May-to-October season is methodic and tiring.

She runs and cycles three or four days a week, with one long run of about four hours every Saturday and one long bike ride of 70 to 100 miles every Sunday. She swims 3,000 yards five days a week, and Fridays she practices all three sports in shorter increments.

At the start of her career, she couldn't imagine completing the ultimate triathlon -- the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26-mile run of the Ironman.

"I always thought some year I'd love to do the Ironman," she says. "But I thought, 'How on earth can they bike 112 miles, then run a marathon?' "

In 1991, she found out.

She has competed in two Ironman triathlons since then -- in 1994 and last month.

The October race was the toughest not only for Sullivan, but for most of the other runners, too. The winning time of 8 hours and 33 minutes was the slowest in 10 years, Sullivan says, partly because of troublesome winds and waves, and oppressive heat.

"I'm proudest of the Ironman. I met the challenge, whatever it dealt me," she says.

Her start was good. During the swim and bike race through the charred hills in Kailua-Kona, Sullivan felt fine. But she was eager to end the cycling and tackle the marathon.

'You just dig deep'

"I was so happy to get off that bike," she says. "You don't think about how long you have to run. You just think, 'I'm off the bike.' When I first started running, I thought, 'Oh, this feels great!' "

It didn't last long. She noticed her waistband felt tight and her stomach seemed bloated and achy.

What she didn't know then was that she hadn't consumed enough salt and no longer was absorbing water. Around the 20th mile, she vomited.

Somehow she kept running. "You just dig deep. You train so hard and go through so much pain," she says. "I knew I was coherent. I kept saying, 'You are Barbara Sullivan, your children are Megan and Pat. I'm OK. I'm going to finish.' "

She kept pushing as she neared the finish and knew she had made it when she entered the downtown and could see the zealous spectators.

"I thought, 'I'm there. There are people, and they're cheering me on,' " she says. "It's unbelievable when the people are cheering. You just can't help but to run."

A short celebration

Sullivan is surprised by how thrilled she looks in the glossy color photo of her crossing the finish line. Her arms are raised in triumph as crowds watch on, with her time, 11 hours and 47 minutes, posted on the digital clock above her.

But the celebration was quickly over.

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