An athlete’s fight against average, to cross the finish line against all odds.
Photography and Story by Clare Bonnyman.
A kilometer away, and Michelle Rumney’s feet were sore.
After 225 kilometers, and over 16 hours, her body was breaking. “My body just said, ‘what are you doing? ’It started shutting down.”
So close to the finish, Rumney came up the final hill, met a friend, and took a selfie. Minutes later, she ran across the line, hearing the announcer declare her one of the final finishers of Ironman Canada 2015. Pulled away to the medic, assessed and free to go home, Rumney sat with friends to watch fireworks, and left with the fleeting sense of accomplishment.
It was all over- for now.
Average is relative. To many, Rumney is average.
An average 50 year-old mother of four from Barrie, Ontario. A full-time elementary teacher. A wife of almost thirty years, a sister and a daughter. Rumney is also an average Ironman triathlete, travelling 226 kilometers at an average of 16 hours and losing about 4 toenails; usually.
Average is relative, but Rumney is part of a community pushing beyond, creating a new normal. Pitting themselves and everything they’ve got against the clock to cross the finish line.
To those who know an Ironman, or any triathlete, this mindset is about as average as it gets. An Ironman race is unlike any in the world, challenging athletes on a 3.86 km swim, a 180.25 km bike ride, and a marathon – 42.2 km of running to cross the finish line. Today hundreds of thousands compete in Ironman races around the world. From June to August, they fight alone against the clock to beat 16 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds, the cutoff time for the race.
Rumney’s official time for her second Ironman Canada – in Muskoka on August 29, 2015 – was 16 hours, 20 minutes, and 29 seconds. Not bad considering fifteen months earlier at the Rose City Half Ironman in Welland, Rumney felt a stabbing pain in her leg and walked the final 18 kilometers.
Six months later she was lying in the Royal Victoria hospital in Barrie with a misdiagnosis.
“They thought I had a torn meniscus, but they read the scan wrong,” she says. “They shouldn’t have gone in there at all.”
Instead, doctors found the back of Rumney’s patella was fragmented. They shaved it and left three small scars on her knee. Had they not gone in at all, they would have given her cortisone shots, impairing her ability to train. Rumney wouldn’t have been crossing the finish line ten months later.
A small price to pay to compete, something Rumney takes with a grain of salt.
“Great and not great,” she says.
The race of course, isn’t just a single day commitment. An Ironman race takes months if not years of dedication and training, leading to a season that lasts just three months. Most athletes compete in one event per season, and spend the rest of the year training.
It’s a sport one falls into, but not one you can excel at by luck or chance.
Fifteen years ago the death of her son led Rumney to give triathlons a go.
A life long athlete, she remembers then, “…Just doing activities to do activities, and I said I might as well do something with it.”
Her son died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), the unforeseen, unexplainable death of a child less than one year of age. It’s a diagnosis that remains a mystery even after a thorough autopsy, and today accounts for for 80 per cent of unexpected infant deaths. The exact cause of SIDS is unknown, but the aftermath is life changing.
Turning to triathlons, Rumney quickly developed a passion, channeling her energy and focus into physical activity, anything to bring herself back out into the world. In the 15 years since, Rumney has taught courses, coached athletes, and of course competed. Now Rumney is a member of the Barrie Baydogs, a 100-member triathlon club, even sitting as president for almost two years.
But her first Ironman was a secret.
Registering for an official Ironman race isn’t as easy as an email. The cost for a general entry is upwards of $200, dependent on when you register and where you race. Then there are costs for equipment, transportation, hotel, and more.
Rumney’s first race was small – only a few dozen athletes in Ottawa. She signed up quietly at Christmas.
“I didn’t tell anybody I was doing it until almost June,” she says. “Because ‘average sized’ people don’t do triathlons.”
As a regular-sized woman, Rumney knew she didn’t look like what people think an Ironman athlete is meant to look like. But following her first half distance race, she couldn’t help herself.
“They say, ’well once you’ve done a half you might as well do a full.’ I don’t know who says that but apparently someone does.”
On the day of her first full race, a hot Saturday in September 2010, Rumney raced alongside athletes passed out from exhaustion. Her feet blistered and swollen, she summoned the energy to stand after the bike, and began the marathon.
“This lovely volunteer says ‘honey are you going out on a run?’ and I say yes, and she says ‘you might want to take your bike helmet off’.”
“All I thought was are you fucking kidding me?”
After removing her helmet, she finished in just over 15 hours.
Her second race was a different story. Following her surgery in November, Rumney was in recovery, returning to school in a wheelchair and then crutches to deliver progress reports.
Her focus was getting better, and getting back to the gym. But in January and February her knee started to swell.
From that point onward, Rumney was in intensive therapy mode. She even purchased a personal ultrasound machine. The last two weeks before she raced Muskoka were filled with a circuit of eight specialist appointments. She would go from physiotherapy, to the chiropractor, to massage, and then to an osteopath, moving from most painful therapy to least.
She wasn’t running until May, and the farthest she was able to go was 10 km, a far cry from the marathon she signed up for. Her commitment was almost spiritual.
“As soon as you start giving yourself an excuse, you might as well throw it in because there is a thousand reasons why I shouldn’t have even started, and I chose not to listen.”
“It’s a choice.”
The decisions Rumney and other Ironmen make are reflected in the struggle each of them face in the final portion of the race.
Ironman-series triathlons are largely thankless, with top competitors qualifying for the championship race in Kona Hawaii, held every October. Only one athlete in the world is dubbed the Ironman each year, but most athletes don’t care. Thousands collapse, cry, and crawl to the finish line.
“There can only be one winner, and everybody else is cannon fodder,” Rumney says. “You finish because you choose to. You choose to suffer, you choose to throw up, and you choose to feel like crap, just to finish. It’s something you manage; it’s not something you race. If you don’t do it for yourself you might as well not do it.”
After crossing the finish line, Rumney received her medal, gathered her gear, and went to her hotel. The next day she drove back to Barrie and arrived home to her husband and youngest son, and got ready for work. School was to start Sept. 8, and Rumney had plenty to do.
A teacher for 16 years, she had to set up her classroom. Filling it with beanbags, yoga balls, and stools, she prepared herself for the entrance of 22 new students, and her personal brand of controlled chaos in a ‘freeform classroom’.
Her all-in approach to life extends to her classroom.
Every morning she wakes up at 5:30 a.m. If she doesn’t have practice –she coaches three basketball teams and the cross-country team- she takes herself to the gym.
She hasn’t run since the race, still struggling with her leg. Though the season is done, Rumney can’t take it easy. It’s a public service: “I need to be at the gym; I don’t want to kill anybody.”
Post-gym, she makes her way to school. When her kids arrive she takes them for a run around the block or to the gym, warming them up for learning.
It’s all a part of Rumney’s philosophy.
“If you want someone settled and focused, you need to run the crap out of them first.”
Rumney will continue to run the crap out of herself as she sets her sights on her next race. She wants to race every five years for as long as she can. “It’s a choice to be healthy or not,” she says.
A choice Rumney has had to fight for.
She has arthritis, and it runs in her family. It’s the same diagnosis that led her brother to get his feet fused this year – the procedure one of her sisters had last year. While hers isn’t quite as debilitating, Rumney can’t change a tire. She doesn’t have the hand strength.
But it’s all part of her ‘ordinary’ she says.
“Last year my ordinary was not being able to do a squat without a lot of pain, this year that’s not my ordinary. I take whatever is my ordinary, knowing that everything is changeable, both the bad and the good.”
Growing up, her parents encouraged activity. The kids were encouraged to try just about everything, and weren’t allowed to quit until they’d carried it through the season. They were assumed to be active, but it’s a normal that only Rumney has sustained into middle age.
When it comes to her Ironman plans, she’s got a wealth of support. But do they understand swimming, biking and running 225 kilometers in a day, on a bad leg, with arthritis?
“They all think I’m crazy,” she says.
As they should.