Updated: Jun 1
Article written By Stephanie Booth
MARY HOUBOLT SWEARS SHE'S A POOR SWIMMER AND A MEDIOCRE RUNNER. BUT AFTER SURVIVING CANCER, SHE KNEW SHE HAD THE INNER STRENGTH TO COMPLETE A TRIATHLON.
In the winter of 1989, when Mary Houbolt was 32, she found a lump in her breast. Tests revealed it was malignant and the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes. Mary’s chances of survival were bleak.
Hearing that diagnosis, she remembers, was “life-shattering.”
“It wasn’t just fear about losing my own life,” the software engineer says, “but leaving the lives of my children and husband in the lurch.” Against the odds, Mary’s breast cancer went into full remission after aggressive treatment. But she never forgot just how close she’d come to dying.
In 2010, the year Mary was to turn 60, she decided to do something “monumental” to celebrate surviving cancer. The idea she settled on: competing in an Ironman triathlon. She had no expectation to win the famously grueling endurance race that combines a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run. But she was still alive, so why not try?
The cycling leg didn’t intimidate Mary; she was already hooked on biking outside. But she wasn’t so confident about the other parts of the race. She hadn't done any swimming except for lessons as a child, and although she’d been running for stress-relief for years—including during her cancer treatment—“I’m a mediocre runner,” she admits. “It bothers my hips and knees.” Still, what Mary felt she lacked in physical skill, she made up for with determination. “I’m a Type A person and very driven,” she says.
As she began training, Mary was surprised by how much she enjoyed the seven-day-a-week commitment to exercise. She relished spending time outside and paying close attention to the food she ate and how it affected her performance. On days when she struggled through drills, she says, “I reminded myself how fortunate I was to still be around to try.”
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After 14 months of training, Mary was ready for the Ironman Lake Placid. It began with a mass swim that threw her off her game early. “I was kicked and knocked and punched in the water," she says. "It was like being in a washing machine.”
Next came biking, followed by the marathon. Struggling and exhausted, Mary’s intention was simply to finish. Instead, she ended up winning her age group. Two months later, she headed to the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii.
“I was not prepared mentally,” Mary remembers. “There I was, up against the best athletes in the world.” Still, despite the humidity, high temperatures, and an open sea swim she describes as “terrifying,” Mary came in third.
One triathlon is enough for most people. Mary had a different take. “I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll keep trying,’” she says.
In the past seven years, Mary has competed in nine Ironman competitions and more than 20 other triathlons. She’s also raced across the country as part of a four-woman team for Race Across America (RAAM), one of the most respected and longest-running ultra-endurance bicycling events in the world. During it, racers must cycle 3,000 miles across 12 states traversing roughly 170,000 vertical feet. Despite high wind gusts, temperatures that reached 120 degrees, and riding on the sides of highways—sometimes in the dead of night—Mary and her team finished in seven days and 11 hours, setting a record for women between the ages of 60 and 69.
The number of hours Mary spends preparing for the next triathlon can be overwhelming, she admits. Social invitations and house chores are often sacrificed to give her enough time to train. (She jokingly calls her neglected front lawn a “triathlon yard.”) Mary’s also had to contend with a variety of physical injuries, most recently a fractured pelvis. But the benefits far outweigh any pain and inconvenience.
“I get so much personal satisfaction from competing against myself,” she says.
Her family seems to agree: Mary’s younger daughter, Whitney, now also competes in Ironman races, and Tucker, her husband of 36 years, is doing his first one this year. Mary’s older daughter, Lia, is also active, though she prefers hula hooping and slacklining to triathlons.
Mary just turned 67, but she won't be slowing down anytime soon. “I will not grow old gracefully," she says. "I don’t want to just sit on the couch.” Each time she competes, “I feel lucky to be alive. I think, ‘Life is great. I’m really glad I was able to keep mine.’”
The article "This Woman Completed Her First Ironman Competition At 60 After Beating Cancer" originally appeared on Prevention.
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