Secret Lives: Two fitness centre staffers train for the Ironman

This is the first in a series of "secret lives" stories, showcasing the breadth of interests and hobbies that York staff pursue in their free time.

Shortly after Stephanie Ihama started working behind the customer service desk at Tait McKenzie Centre last spring, she brought in two scrapbooks to show colleague and fitness centre assistant John Bruce. He had noticed Ihama training in her spare time and asked her what for.

Six years ago, Ihama decided to lose weight after giving birth to her fourth child. The stay-at-home mom joined a local gym, started running with other members and lost 41 pounds. Once a high school track and field champion in Switzerland, she had quit competing after coming third at an international meet in Spain. “I was winning all the time. Third place was such a disappointment!” Four children later, she put her running shoes back on and felt that competitive surge return. Within a year, she ran her first 10-kilometre race and within two, a marathon. Last year, she competed in her first half-Ironman triathlon – running, swimming and biking 117 kilometres.

Left: Stephanie Ihama and John Bruce before competing in the Milton triathlon this spring 

Bruce was awed. “She’s done more races in five years than I’ve done in 25.” Running had always been a hobby and he’d run a few marathons, including the 1999 Boston Marathon, and entered a couple of triathlons for a lark – all after the age of 40. “I just liked being fit.” He’d dabbled at racing but never really tested himself. Then he began running, biking and swimming with Ihama as she trained and noticed they performed at about the same level and pace. When she returned after finishing the Ironman Muskoka 70.3, considered the most gruelling half-Ironman in North America, and said “You should do this”, he said, “Why not?”

They decided to enter the next Muskoka 70.3 together the following September. All winter long they trained indoors and as soon as the snow melted took to running along the Black Creek Trail after work. They’ve been doing 100-metre sprints in the pool, biking long distances over country roads and lifting weights in the gym, training two hours a day, seven days a week, to build endurance, speed and strength. Working at the Tait McKenzie Centre only made it easier.

Practically every second weekend since Victoria Day, they are participating in Subaru Triathlon Series events around southern Ontario. “It’s a way to give some structure to our training and benchmark our progress,” says Bruce. The shorter preliminary races also give them a sense of how to pace themselves, when to rehydrate and what kind of mental stamina they’ll need to swim 2 kilometres, ride 94 kilometres and run 21 kilometres on Sept. 13. “It’s not just putting one foot in front of the other,” says Bruce of the anticipated six-hour challenge.

Often thousands participate in these events. Two thirds are male, one third female ranging in age from teen to retiree and in ability from beginner to pro. From the starting point, they move forward in waves of 100 to 200 participants. So it’s not about winning, say Bruce and Ihama. It’s about besting themselves – and each other. “I just compete against myself, but John wants to beat me,” laughs Ihama, who admits Bruce beats her most of the time.

Each race poses different challenges and the two tackle each one with gusto. One of the pleasures is “you’re surrounded by like-minded people who know the effort, energy and dedication you need to do it,” says Bruce. “It’s all about being there and enjoying it while you’re doing it. It’s neat to be there.” Ihama likes nothing better than swimming across open water in a lake. They both thrill at pushing themselves to the limit farther and farther.

“It’s very rewarding because you go through so much effort to finish,” says Ihama. “It takes a lot of mental determination and mental strength. I really like the challenge. It’s funny, the more I do, the more challenge I want.”

Every so often, she and Bruce encounter another triathlete on campus. There aren’t very many, but there could be more if plans go ahead to start a triathlon club.

For now, Bruce’s goal is simple. “I just want to cross that line,” says the 51-year-old, whose confidence increases with each race. Put in perspective, “If I’m the last person coming across the finish line, I’m doing something 99 per cent of the population never does.” And that’s something.

Ihama’s goal is more ambitious – to do the Ironman in Zurich in 2011. She’s committed, especially now that Lisa Bentley, Canada’s top female pro triathlete, has written "Good luck for Ironman Switzerland 2011" on her T-shirt. “I want to do the Ironman before I’m 40. I would love to go to my home country to compete in my first Ironman.” It will take a year to prepare so Ihama will begin training in earnest at the end of this season. Will Bruce do it, too? “I don’t know,” he hedges. “Maybe. Probably.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer