by Christopher Cudworth
Sisters Sue Astra and Julie Dunn enjoy a post-race smile.
Even more than the individual sports of cycling, running or swimming, triathlon is a sport of the early hours. The distances covered and the time it takes to cover them require an early enough start to accommodate all sorts of logistical needs.
It’s particularly true at a race like the Spirit of Racine 70.3 Ironman Triathlon. With more than 2500 competitors checking in and lining up on race day, the logistics are not just minutiae.
The swim alone requires massive setup for more than a dozen waves of age-group competitors
Sue downing a shot block before the swim.
launching into the water. It all takes time. It all takes patience.
A triathlon starts early and involves a lot of hurry up and wait. There’s a lot of nervous energy. A lot of intense talk.
The sun rose to a glassy Lake Michigan surface that covered a 61-degree body of water waiting to chill the bodies of competitors even through Neoprene wetsuits. But that does not stop a triathlete. Of course it doesn’t.
Some do stare at the cold, 61 degree water as if it has betrayed them somehow. After all it is July. It is supposed to be a warmer lake. At least there is less chop than the previous year when the waves reached heights of 2 feet and sloshed all over the races of competitors in the swim.
The swim training is evident in Sue’s back and shoulders.
Everyone drank lake water on the north-south swim course last year, especially those who breathed primarily on the left side. This year’s swim was placid by comparison.
The gun goes off
When a set of sisters in the same 45-49 age group plunged in to begin their 6-hour journey, the wake left by their strokes was clear and well-defined. A great way to start the day.
Emerging 34 minutes later, Julie Dunn (the younger of two Schaefen sisters) and Sue Astra (Big Sis) came out smiling. The water was “crisp” some said, while others called it “refreshing.” The neoprene caps on their heads came off easily and the westsuit strippers gave a tug at the heels. Sue’s suit came flying off. Julie’s was a bit more difficult. “I have
Julie mounts her bike at 7:45 in the morning for a 56 mile journey on rough Wisconsin side roads.
these big calves,” she laughed after the race. “They couldn’t get the suit off over my legs.”
Then came the transition. Julie teetered on the bike a bit, then piled on up the hill leading out of Transition 1. Sue came along just two minutes later.
Both women had been competitive swimmers as kids. Then life came along, and marriage, and kids. Julie the cheerleader was always the energetic one. Social and engaging.
Sue was a bit more the focused type, keen on drum corps and studies that led to a career in architecture and project management. Julie now works in HR.
As their kids grew there were difficulties in their marriages that led to divorce. The sisters found
Sue lines up to mount the bike.
each other again through the sport of triathlon. Each signed up to swim, ride and run with Experience Triathlon, a team based in suburban Chicago. Their coach Joe LoPresto himself had emerged from a career with IBM to take a risk and build a triathlon club that has grown exponentially with the sport. There are elite athletes and people just learning to swim, ride and run in the club. Joe and his partner Susie Cerra love them all.
The foundation of friends discovered through the sport and the Experience Triathlon team became an important support network as each sister lived with the changes each embraced on their own. Like most triathletes, they started with Sprints, evolved to Olympic and finally tackled the Half Ironman distance. As they reached their late 40s the lure of an Ironman still awaits.
Thousands of bikes await competitors in the transition area.
One can see the training in the legs of the women as they respectively mount their bikes. Julie is the shorter sister, strong and compact. Sue is tall and lean with a 34″ inseam.
Sue is the stronger cyclist. Julie is slightly faster in the swim. Both love running but not the second loop of a half-marathon in a Half Ironman. “My feet hurt!” Julie lamented at the finish. “My stomach was giving me fits,” Sue groaned for minutes after the race.
13.1 miles is a long way to run after a mile of swimming and 56 miles of biking under 3 hours. Sue starts the run.
Both sisters wound up prostrate on the ground for a few minutes after six hours of competition. They both finished right around the six-hour mark.
“My frickin’ feet,” Julie cursed, looking down at her toes for a moment. Last fall she ran the Chicago Marathon. It was her ankle that hurt then. But she finished that even too.
Sue Astra walked off the effort while gingerly munching a Subway sandwich while downing a cut-rate can of soda. “They went with the cheap stuff,” she laughed.
With finisher medals hanging around their necks, the pain and suffering slowly begins to ebb away. “What should we do next?” Julie laughs from her
The sun had risen over a glassy, cold lake. It later warmed to more than 80 degrees outside.
position flat on her back.
“Ooohff,” says Sue. “Let’s get over this one first.”
At the team tent Sue gets a big hug from Coach Joe LoPresto. They have known each other more than 5 years. He’s seen her through countless races. A few months before the Racine race when injuries were nagging and her lower back was seized with sciatica, she called Coach Joe to wonder aloud if it was all worth it.
He sagely told her that she needed to take some pressure off herself. “You can do this,” he ultimately assured her. “Be thankful you have the talents you do. Stop worrying. Be present with in what you’re doing.”
The scene at most triathlons includes plenty of colorful, stylish spectators and support crews.
That advice calmed her. And as if by magic, the back tension began to disappear. Could the two be related? There’s evidence that tension and back pain go together.
There was also the motivation that came with knowing that her sister was going to be doing the Racine 70.3, and it would not do to let her sister down.
So with a winter of solid 10-mile runs under her tri-belt, and a burgeoning recovery from rotator cuff surgery the previous year (due to a bike crash) Sue Astra slowly began to feel ready to take on the challenge.
In the hotel room on the morning of the race, sister
A crew of more than 30 Lifeguards receives pre-race instructions.
Julie has an earworm in her head. “I don’t know who sings it,” she laughs. “It goes like this though….”Girl-freeeeiinnnd!”
Over and over the refrain pops up in her head. Sister Sue just chuckles under her breath. She knows her sister well enough to know that she’s getting herself ready for what’s ahead. It’s still dark outside. The lake 12 miles east of the hotel is still 60 degrees, colder than the air outside.
But the early dawn does not daunt them.
At home after the race Sue takes the prescribed ice bath to soothe legs sore from 70+ miles of effort.
They can feel what’s coming and know they love the feeling of being athletes on their own terms. Swim to salvation. Cycle to dreams. Run to completion. Feed yourself. It’s all part of being alive. Of being a triathlete. Of making sense of this world even when the event you’re doing doesn’t make all that much sense.
Then have a laugh. Share a hug. Bust a smile. It’s all good. It’s all very, very good.