This is the inspiring story of how a sedentary woman in her early fifties, with no athletic background, went on to accomplish an impressive triathlon first. The fact that no one could have seen this coming gives hope to all the rest of us that we don’t have to remain stuck where we are.
Sheila Isaacs of Shoreham, New York grew up in Africa where she contracted a tropical malady that doctors were slow to diagnose and treat, resulting in her being a sickly child. Later in her childhood, while attending an all-girls school, she learned what she refers to as “survival swimming” and was instructed in tennis, but never hit the ball with, shall we say, any consistency. She didn’t play any sports in high school or college, nor did she have any desire to do so. As an adult, Sheila was, in her own words, “really inactive” and she found just walking around in New York City to be “difficult” for her. She also experienced a couple of health problems serious enough to require surgery. Let’s just say that Sheila Isaacs was not a prime candidate to become an athlete of any kind. A self-described “academic” and mathematician by trade, Sheila had put her energies into caring for her husband, Hugh, raising their two children and working full-time as a systems analyst. Sports and exercise were the furthest things from her mind for her first 50 years; but that all changed in 1991 when, at age 53, she was challenged by a co-worker to compete with him in a triathlon.
Taking up the challenge, Sheila told everyone what she was going to do. When her colleague eventually decided to drop out during their training, rather than “lose face,” Sheila felt compelled to follow through and run the race. In this first race of her life, Sheila won a medal for finishing first in her age group; it was the first thing she had ever won, and she was hooked.
In the ensuing couple of years, Sheila competed in twenty-some more triathlons in 15 or 16 of the surrounding states. At this point, it occurred to her that by setting a goal to run a triathlon in each of the 50 states she could combine her love of triathlons with the fun of traveling and seeing our great country.
A little over a decade later, Sheila had run 99 triathlons, placing first in her age group 58 times, and had completed one in each of 49 states. Only Hawaii remained. She decided to go BIG by capping off her 50 tri’s in 50 states with the 2004 Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii — the granddaddy of all triathlons. This was a huge undertaking for the now 67-year-old because all her previous triathlons were of the shorter varieties.
For the Hawaii Ironman, Sheila had to compete with thousands of other triathletes from around the world for one of the 1500 or so much-coveted openings. She qualified for the 140.6-mile “big kahuna” (2.4-mile swim — 112-mile bike ride — 26.2-mile run) by winning her age group at the UK Half Ironman in Sherborne, England. Then came the months of intense training; each week, Sheila put in at least 5 miles of swimming, 150 miles of cycling and a minimum of 15 miles of running, plus weight training and a couple of hours of yoga. That’s about 20 to 25 hours or more of training per week.
It all paid off when she crossed the finish line in Hawaii in 16 hours 54 minutes 55 seconds, beating the 17-hour cutoff time with 5 minutes to spare, and coming in second in her age group. With this awesome feat, at age 67, Sheila became the first person (man or woman) to run a triathlon in each of the 50 states. With this race she also reached her other goal of completing 100 triathlons. Not bad accomplishments for someone who had no athletic background, or interest in same, until her 50s.
Sheila Isaacs gives us hope. She has shown us that despite our background or where we’ve been, what really matters is where we are going. Where are you heading? Let’s hope it’s somewhere you’ll enjoy.