The Job of Being a Triathlete

Thank goodness for Facebook or else I would have never known that my high school friend, Armella Sammons (now Schroder), was competing in triathlons.

Then I thought, What the hell? Armie–as we fondly called her–was a Lancette with me throughout high school. The heaviest objects her and me ever held above our heads were pom-poms. So, when I started seeing posts from her through Facebook about her competitions, images of her rock hard physique, and guns-a-blazing, I was awestruck.

I did a few triathlons when I was in my late thirties and got hooked on running while training for them. The odd thing was I really hated running before. I always knew how to swim thanks to my seven summers of swimming two miles every morning at the butt-crack of dawn. The bicycling was just a hobby. At the time I signed up for my first tri, I didn’t even own a bike. I bought a road bike on eBay for a pretty decent price, and then had to learn how to properly ride a bike for a triathlon. No more, “Look at me, ma! no hands!”


So, when I saw Armie’s post about her competing in a half Ironman competition, I thought, Shit. This is serious business. I need to ask her some questions about how she got so obsessed with the sport.

Or, is it sports? Swimming, running and bicycling… I’ll let you figure it out.

IMG_4432Below is my email interview with Armella Schroder. She is a triathlete, an Ironman competitor, Mother to three, loving wife (well, hopefully loving and not wanting to stab him to death), a Rocket Scientist at Orbital Sciences, Halloween aficionado, and an inspiration to women everywhere about getting into shape and finding a passion in your life you didn’t even knew existed until you tried.

  1. I’ve known you since high school, Armie. The only physical activity that I recall you did was being involved with Lancettes, our award-winning pom squad. With that being said, how did you get involved in triathlons?

Great question, Nancy, because I still can’t figure out what possessed me to try this crazy sport! But I did, and I was instantly hooked.

One of my favorite definitions…

Triathlete, (trī-ăth’lēt) n. A person who doesn’t understand that one sport is hard enough.

On a serious note, back in 2010, I was seriously overweight and with that, obviously out of shape. A flight of stairs left me winded. I was also under a lot of stress with my Mom being recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, work in crisis mode, and a husband who was unemployed for many months. I think my wake-up call was the night I had such bad chest pains I thought I was having a heart attack. In hindsight, I should have gone to the hospital but my youngest was heading to camp the next day for four weeks;  I didn’t want to miss her send-off!

I saw a cardiologist the following week. He considered me heart healthy and said my feeling of having a heart attack was probably due to stress. So with that information, and the shape I was in physically, I knew I had to do something different with my lifestyle; eating way my stress undoubtedly wasn’t working. I am an early riser by nature (4:30-5:00 a.m. with no alarm clock), so I took advantage of this by plugging in my earphones and going for a brisk 2-3 mile walk every day; walking to the music and enjoying the great outdoors.  Oddly enough, it reduced my stress levels and I started to feel better physically. I started dropping pounds without changing what I ate.  I thought if I could just control my portion sizes, the possibility of me losing more weight became reality.

I walked my way down about 60 pounds in six months, but still had a long way to go! That’s when a friend suggested I try running a little.

At first, this didn’t go so well.

The first 100 yards I ever ran was a complete disappointment. I thought, there’s no way I can do this! It was freaking hard and excruciating! But she encouraged me to just run down hills and walk everything else. I’m stubborn; I forced myself to conquer this hatred for running by bustling myself downhill only at first, extending the length a little more each time. Soon, I completed my first mile without stopping! I still remember clearly how that felt! It was disbelief and then exhilaration. Once I  hit that one mile marker, the running literally took off. I wasn’t going to be winning any foot races, but I was moving and that’s what mattered.

I ran into a co-worker some time later and he suggested I try a sprint level triathlon (400m swim, 12 mile bike, 5k run). He suggested a specific race and really pushed me into signing up. Before I had a chance to think about it, I pushed the submit button on the application and immediately panicked about what I had done!

With six months to train, I started by getting on my bike a couple of days a week and riding  nine miles to work. With four months left on the clock, I got in the pool for the first time in years and swam one lap. This is when I truly found out how hard this sport is! I was never a swimmer, and it showed in that first lap. I could barely make one length across a 25 meter pool, yet I had to swim 16 of these? I knew at that moment I was in trouble, so I enlisted the help of my best friend who swam on a swim team in high school and asked for her help. By the end of four months, I was able to swim 400 meters without stopping, and in June of 2011, I officially became a triathlete; finishing my first sprint in 1:31:10! I have done that same sprint every year since. It holds a special place in my heart.

  1. How do you manage to train long hours while working a full-time job? Give us an example of your weekly training.

It’s tough to find time in any person’s schedule to train for endurance sports, but since I am an early riser, I used that to my advantage. I get my workouts done before most people roll out of bed. An ideal week would be like this (but of course, I don’t live in an ideal world, so I do plenty of trading and tweaking):

  • Mon: Morning short-swim (usually a 20-30 minute swim to work on technique)
  • Tues: Morning run (4-6 miles), evening strength training
  • Wed: Morning long-swim (1 hour drills and interval training), evening spin class (25-30 mile equivalent)
  • Thur: Morning run (5-7 miles), evening strength training
  • Fri: Morning medium-swim (30-45 minutes just focusing tempo pace), run 2-3 miles after
  • Sat: Bike ride (25-40 miles) and/or run (3-5 miles)
  • Sun: Long run (10-15 miles)

I’m lucky in that I have a lot of flexibility with my work schedule. I can start early or late as long as I get in my core hours. I also take rest days when I feel I need them, so I don’t typically work out 7 days a week, usually just 6.

3. Yeah…so…. I’m tired just reading your workout schedule! I can only swim now, and after an hour in the pool I’m pretty exhausted. Let’s talk about your diet. I’m sure you had to either give up foods you absolutely love and switched to eating granola (a.k.a. twigs and bark), for breakfast. What foods/drink are not the best things to indulge in during your training?

During training season, I try to eat “clean”. I was very rigid last year for about six months but that got boring; eating plain chicken with no seasoning is like eating white rubber. I scaled back and have taken a hit in my race times, but that was okay, because I LOVE to eat.  If I keep doing some form of exercise, I can still enjoy some of the foods that are bad for me. However, since I’ve been eating clean for the most part, if I eat a non-healthy food now, it gives me an upset stomach. I have to stay away from pizza, pasta, potatoes and red meat. Most people would probably cringe at the thought–as did I–but, I physically feel terrible after eating those types of foods.

The amazing part is that I can still eat tons of other good food and still lose weight. It’s more about what you eat, than how much you eat! Your body actually needs more food in endurance training that you would think. For example, I eat the same thing for breakfast every day (I LOVE my breakfasts!): four egg whites with green onions and a ¼ cup oats with a handful of blueberries. Mid-morning snack I’ll have a piece of fruit with either almonds or peanut butter. Lunch usually consists of a huge salad filled with colorful vegetables and 3 oz of chicken, yogurt, and sometimes a nut bar. Afternoon snack is a piece of fruit and more nuts. Dinner is 4-5 oz of protein, wild rice, and a vegetable. Evening snack is either nuts, 3-4 egg whites, or peppers in balsamic vinegar. It’s actually very hard to eat that amount of food in a day, but to be healthy and fit for the training I do, I need to do it.

  1. That’s a lot of nuts. Snicker Bars have nuts, does that count? Never mind. I know the answer. So, do you think anyone can be a triathlete or an Ironman? In your case, an Iron Woman? Let’s talk mentality here. The commitment is huge, and I would also imagine the psychological impact it can have on you during tough training days.

I have met and witnessed the most inspirational people along my journey! People who have overcome some of the most challenging obstacles in order to participate in this sport. Blind swimmers, athletes with one leg, moms battling cancer, dads with injuries, kids just starting out, and even participants who pull paraplegic in rafts for the 2.4 mile swim, then pull them along in a trailer on their bike for 112 miles and push them for the marathon run (26.2 miles). So when you ask if anyone can be a triathlete, I say without a doubt, yes! You don’t have to be fast; you just have to have the will. The caveat is to be physically up for the challenge. Anyone can be a triathlete, but not everyone should be. You must evaluate your own circumstances, and if there’s any doubt discuss it with your doctor.

Are there days when I question my sanity? Hell yes! Endurance training involves getting past the numerous mental obstacles–those little voices in your head that tell you I’m too tired, I hurt, it’s too dark, the water’s too cold, my feet hurt, I can’t breathe, my quads are on fire, etc. What keeps me going is the fact that some people can’t compete when they wish they could. I have no excuses. I also want to set an example for my kids. You can do anything you put your mind to no matter what age you are.

  1. What prompted you to try the half Ironman competition?

I think it was a natural progression after a couple of years of doing triathlons. Mentally, it took me awhile to believe that I could move up to a half Ironman. When a couple of friends started talking about it (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run), I cautiously started to entertain the thought that I should and could do it. The swim wasn’t much of a stretch at this point; it was the run that had me concerned. But I knew I could train to increase my mileage, so I signed up. I had ten months to train!

  1. Now that you have finished your first half Ironman, what were your most physically grueling and psychological moments of the race?

I have to say the bike was the most mentally challenging and the run was a more physical challenge. The swim (my weakest event) was a piece of cake believe it or not!

The bike was 3+ hours–with you alone listening to your thoughts–pedaling 85-90 RPMs nonstop! You have to come up with things to think about and not get a crappy song stuck in your head like I did. For safety reasons, you are not allowed to wear headphones, so it’s a lot of alone time with heavy physical exertion. Your mind is screaming, take a break! (just a little one…it won’t hurt your time much), but your heart is saying don’t stop.

Don’t stop.

Don’t stop.

The run was quite a physical challenge after 56 miles on the bike. I knew I needed to get my running legs working so I’d be able to finish. Coming off a bike at any distance really throws your legs for a loop. They feel like spaghetti with bricks hanging off the ends. I was also nursing my knee that I had injured three weeks prior, so I hadn’t done any long distance running before the race which was unnerving for me.  I took it slow, but had to stop and walk for a while after the first 2.5 miles. I caught up with a young woman–whom I had been pacing for about a mile–when she started to walk as well. We ended up talking and bonding over the next 11 miles. We’d run one mile, walk one minute. I had a better finish time for the race than I anticipated thanks to her! That’s one of the many bright spots of these events; the assemblage of athletes who don’t hesitate to provide support or lend a hand.

  1. Do you feel you’re stronger in a certain leg of the competition? Perhaps you’re a stronger runner than let’s say, a swimmer or bicyclist.

I’ve already made it known that I’m not the best swimmer. I will never be fast because I didn’t learn how to swim properly as a child. I also don’t have the muscle memory. It’s like learning a new language in your older years. You can get by, but you’ll most likely never be proficient. I can accept that because I just want to survive the swim, which is what the majority of triathletes aim for. I used to love the run because that was my best event. However, now that I’ve gotten faster on the bike, it’s almost a toss-up as to which I like better. The harder I push on the bike, the harder my run will be. But even if I hold back on the bike, I will end up pushing it harder on the run. The goal is to leave it on the course, so no matter what I do, it’s going to hurt!

  1. Would you do it again? Perhaps even try a full Ironman?

I’m already looking for my next half to sign up for. I almost pushed the button on the new Atlantic City Half Ironman the other day, but I missed the cheaper cutoff pricing and now it’s a little too rich for my blood. Races are expensive, so I have to pick carefully!

As for a full Ironman, it is now not beyond the realm of possibility. I used to believe there was no way I could ever go those distances, but after accomplishing the half, I can see me completing one in the next five years. I don’t want to do one now. I have a family that I like to hang out with, and training for the half Ironman found myself not spending the quality time I wanted with them. Maybe after my youngest gets into high school and doesn’t need me as much I’ll consider a full Ironman competition. In the meantime, I will keep signing up for half Ironman.

  1. I’ve done tri’s in the past, but haven’t ever had to make a pit-stop to relieve myself. I would assume at some point in a half Ironman that’s bound to happen. Do competitors stop to use port-a-potties that are stationed, or do you just…you know?

Haha…the question for the ages! This comes up a lot in forums, especially among women! And what follows may be a little too much information for some people.

The answer is yes, if you are hydrating enough or over-hydrating, you will need to pee. I learned this during my half Ironman. For the smaller races, I usually don’t have to go. When I do have the urge, I can easily hold it.

A lot of people drink too much before the start of the race, so you have to time your potty break with your swim wave start. Sometimes the lines can be long for the porta-potty! Let’s face it; Everyone has on a wet suit! If it’s an open water swim, I know a lot of people (myself included), who will just pee in their wet suits. It’s not the best situation, but it works. You get so much water through your wet suit that it just washes away. The benefit is that this leaves you with an empty bladder at the beginning of the bike leg!

However on the bike at my half Ironman, I was drinking too much at the start of the ride, and by mile 20 I started to feel the urge. There are porta-potties at the aid stations, but I thought if I stopped I would not want to get on the bike again; my legs were already feeling the burn.  I pushed past the first aid station at mile 20 with the only other station at mile 45.  I had 25 miles (a little over an hour away) before I could consider a stop. I know that for full Ironman events there are some athletes that will actually pee on their bike. I just couldn’t do it. And believe me, I thought about it! I kept pushing myself to the next aid station–all the while the urge was getting stronger and stronger–and I still had to drink and eat on the bike (never get off the bike hungry; it’s a bad way to start a run). As that last aid station was coming up at mile 45, I thought I could stop there, but my heart wouldn’t let me. I held it all the way back into transition (another half hour)! I grabbed my run bag and headed straight to the ladies room. That was a huge relief!

  1. Do you have an ultimate goal? You keep going, and going, and going, Armie! Most Ironman competitors think the Hawaiian Ironman is the toughest one out there. I’ve watched it on television; there is no way on God’s green earth you’ll see me doing that! I love Hawaii, but I love my body joints more!

My goal is to keep going until I can’t keep going anymore! I figure if I outlive my competition, someday I’ll be first in ALL my races (laughter). I don’t have to out race them, I just have to outlive them! Kona would be amazing! The guy that roped me into that first sprint 5 years ago has done Kona twice. If he can do it, so can I!

  1. I would love to see you do that and I would be glued to the television! Lastly, speaking of body joints, I’m sure you’ve run into some injuries from time to time. What are the most common for triathletes and Iron-Women in general? What do you do to overcome them?

I have definitely had my share, but overall I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been able to avoid any injury serious enough to take me out of the sport. My biggest injury was a herniated disc (C5-C6) that almost sidelined me permanently in 2012. It happened during a long run. I think I slept wrong the night before, and the run amplified the injury. It was excruciating, but I didn’t know it was herniated. I thought I just pinched a nerve. I raced two events with that pain before I had it diagnosed. The first race, both my hands went completely numb on the run. After that race, I got some powerful narcotics that helped me get through the second race two weeks later. When I received the official diagnosis–and wanting to avoid surgery at all costs–I started seeing a chiropractor who has been my lifesaver ever since! She was able to fix me back up and give me the proper tools and exercise to avoid re-injury.

My other big injury happened three weeks before the half Ironman. I was running a half marathon race and by mile 10, the side of my knee was in severe pain. I irritated my iliotibial (IT) band something fierce! After the race, I couldn’t bend my knee and the pain was tremendous.  I immediately grabbed ice from the med tent and sat for half an hour. Once I was home, I sat on the couch for the rest of the day with ice and Motrin. The next day, it was completely fine. However, I tried another long run a week later and it started acting up, so I quit running and took the last two weeks before the half Ironman to get some physical therapy. That seemed to have done the trick.

Some common injuries with triathletes are hamstring tears, shin splints, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, runners knee, and any other running related injury. Swimmers often suffer shoulder, neck, and back pain caused by poor swimming form. For biking, there’s Achilles tendonitis, knee and lower back pain, hip injuries, etc. Most of these conditions/injuries can be minimized with proper fit and form, and by not over-training.

I truly enjoy this sport and love to encourage as many people as I can to try a tri. My two best friends are now also triathletes as well as all our husbands and a few of our kids! I even got a few of my Girl Scouts to tri! So beware…if I ever move back to Chicago…

Thanks, Armie. You’re such an inspiration! I really hope to see you on TV in Kona one day. Perhaps I’ll even fly there and cheer you on!!!