Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Fast Mamas

Athletes are hardworking people. They wake up odd hours, train in the cold and rain, torture themselves with the second hand of the clock. They go to work with wet hair and wrinkled pants and half-shaved faces and legs because they had a flat that morning, or their run was feeling so good they decided to go a few miles farther than usual… They break bones and tear ligaments and sprain ankles and bust knees. And whatever else you can say about them, one thing always holds true—serious athletes put in hours (and hours and hours) of training time to be as fast as they are.

Now add to that a few children with interests of their own—the swim meets, the soccer games, the theater practice, and all the precursors, too, the diaper changing and feeding and waking up in the middle of the night. Being a parent is equal to, if not more than, a full-time job. It would seem impossible to be both a mother and a competitive athlete.

But let us introduce you to four women who make it work, just a few of the many “fast mamas” here in Austin.

Missy Ruthven, 43 – triathlete:
Missy, helmswoman of Austin Tri-Cyclist and mother of two, said triathlon first peaked her interest in 1984 when she saw “the infamous” Julie Moss crawl to the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman. A high school track and cross-country runner at the time, Missy went on to run track for the University of Texas in San Antonio for four years. After graduating in 1990, she entered her first tri and loved it, despite dog-paddling through most of the swim. A year later she won her age group in Du Worlds, and in 1995 her and Don’s honeymoon in Cancun was capped by a third-place age-group finish at that year’s Du Worlds. In addition to many other overall wins and a year competing as a pro duathlete, she qualified for Kona at the half-ironman in Panama City, Florida, in 1998, and at Kona placed fourth in her age group, narrowly losing third in a sprint finish. And those are just the highlights of Missy’s race resumé. She concentrates on local races now, and is first-place finisher at many of them.

Missy and Don have lived in Austin for 18 years, and both work full-time at ATC. Their two daughters, Emily and Taylor, are 10 and 13.

Betty Hodges, 44 – cyclist, triathlete:
Betty is another well-known athlete in Austin—at road races and criteriums her name on the roster means you’ve got your work cut out for you if you expect to finish anywhere near the front. But Betty got started only about four years ago. When she quit smoking at 39, a friend suggested she train for a marathon. She did, followed by a few half marathons, then a sprint-triathlon just after her 40th birthday. Her bike split was encouraging, so she began competing in road races, crits, and time trials. This past year she won Cat 3 overall at the Tour of Austin, also setting the fastest female TT time of the day in any category. In 2009, she was training for her first Ironman, but developed a femoral stress fracture that put her on crutches for three months, and sidelined her from running for another three after that. Depending on the time of year, you’ll find Betty, back in good health, out racing at the Driveway or in other cycling events or triathlons nearly every weekend. She races on the Woolly Mammoth team, sponsored by ATC.

Betty has lived in Austin for 30 years and is currently a full-time student of nursing. Her two daughters, Anna and Grace, are 16 and 18.

Maggi Finley, 37 – triathlete
Maggi and her husband Dustin are recent additions to Austin’s triathlon community, moving here from Memphis, Tennessee, in August. Maggi was a cross-country runner in high school, and she and her husband have been racing together in triathlons since 1997. They were members of the Memphis racing team “Los Locos” for 10 years. From the last two years, race highlights for Maggi include winning first overall amateur in the New Orleans 70.3 in 2009 and 2010, second overall amateur at the Memphis in May Triathlon in 2009 and 2010, and second overall amateur at the Buffalo Springs 70.3 in 2010. Maggi won her bike, a Blue carbon fiber TT bike, at Nationals in 2009 with the fastest bike split, and was Tennessee state time trial champion in 2009. She also raced in Kona this year. (On the Saturday ATC ride, just try to hang on to her wheel and see how long you last.)

Maggi is a pediatric occupational therapist. Her daughters Molly, Sophie, and Brigid, are nine, six, and five.

Jen Stewart, 39 - runner:
Jen has lived in Austin since she attended law school at the University of Texas in 1997, moving here from Galveston. “I used to complain about three-mile runs along the seawall,” she says, but when she met runner and future-husband Andy Stewart she decided to impress him by signing up for the NYC marathon. (It worked, we’re guessing.) After that she was hooked, and in her first five years of competing ran two to three marathons a year and most of the races in the Austin Distance Challenge. Jen has completed about 20 marathons. Her last competitive marathon was the California International in 2008, where she came within less than a minute of her personal best from 2003 (3:10). This year will be her fourth stint as a pacer for the Austin Marathon.

Jen works full-time for the Texas Legislative Council as a drafting attorney for the Texas Legislature. Her daughter Maggie is almost five years old.

The biggest challenge, the fast mamas agree, is scheduling. Even for Betty, whose children are older, finding the time to train can be difficult. “I thought I would have no trouble fitting it all in,” Betty says. “Even though my daughters live with their Dad, finding a way to fit in their events as well as my own training and events is a real struggle.” She says when she first started competing, her daughters helped her focus by being her motivation to get up early to train. Many fast mamas squeeze in a workout in the wee hours of the morning or on their lunch breaks.

Missy still makes her workouts a priority, but says that having children has required her to focus on the quality of a workout, and to be more flexible if her plans have to change suddenly. For example, if she has to miss a scheduled workout because of a “kid thing,” like an illness or event or even if her daughters just don’t want Mom to leave right then, Missy finds another time to fit in her training. And since she doesn’t have a whole day free, she makes sure that each workout has a particular goal. “The challenge of triathlon and having a family is that triathlon is three sports,” Missy says. “There’s more training time required, and the races are difficult or even impossible to participate in if you don’t have someone to watch your kids.” She says that given her daughters’ current ages, however, she’s in a good stage now—her work schedule is flexible, and she’s usually able to train while they are at school.

Jen says her daughter Maggie is used to her parents “being stinky.” She says, “When she plays with her toys and is using her imagination the parents in her imaginary scenario will often have gone running or are getting ready to go running. If she asks where Andy or I are in the morning and we ask her to guess she’ll say ‘running.’” Jen has a scheduling advantage that most mothers don’t, in that her own parents have a house directly behind hers, and are often available to watch Maggie. But Jen works for the legislature, so she’s got another big commitment to worry about. “Between January and June of every odd year work takes over my life and I don’t run much,” she says. “Then I spend the next 18 months getting back into shape. The people I run with in the fall of the even-numbered years are not the same people I run with in the fall of the odd years. I get to run with a lot of people that way!”

Maggi and her husband work out early in the morning, take turns watching their daughters, and get babysitters occasionally so they can do a long ride together on the weekend. Before they moved, in addition to working full-time, they were also volunteering—Dustin was coaching a middle school football team, and Maggi their local cross-country team. “I think doing all of this before we started a family just made it a part of our lives and that didn’t change when the girls came along,” Maggi says. “Our schedules always included training, so it wasn’t a matter of fitting it in for us—it’s just a part of who we are.”

The fast mamas didn’t let pregnancy slow them down (or at least not for long). Most kept training, and some did a few low-intensity races. When Missy was pregnant with her second child, and also resting in an attempt to heal a hip injury, she focused on swimming. “This is when I really learned to love swimming,” Missy says. Jen did strides when she found herself missing sprints, and did a lot of trail-running and runs with friends. In addition to running and swimming, Maggi spent a lot of time on an indoor trainer. “I would have probably killed someone before I delivered if I hadn’t been able to work out during pregnancy, and it surely made for an easier comeback after,” Maggi says.

The future of triathlon?
Plenty of kids are pushed into sports they don’t really enjoy. The fast mamas we’ve profiled seem to take the “find your own path” approach. Missy says her oldest daughter likes yoga and skateboarding, but doesn’t have much interest in triathlon; her youngest likes to bike, and will sometimes bike with Missy when she runs. “But I don’t push them into doing any of the sports,” Missy says. “I just give them opportunities to do them and maybe they will pick them up later.”

Betty’s daughters swim. With a hint of pride, she says that both can swim circles around her. Her youngest daughter recently did the swim leg of a tri relay with her. Her oldest is training for her first triathlon. Similarly, Maggi’s daughters swim, and “are excited about pretty much any activity they can get into.” They did their first tri this fall and won the “cutest kids division.” They also frequently go with Maggi and her husband to races. “They love the adventure of getting up while it’s still dark, eating breakfast in the car, getting as dirty as possible at any venue, dancing at the post race parties, and passing out in the car on the way home.” Maggi shakes her head. “Of course, I’m sure in another year or two this will end and sleep will be more important.”

Maggie Stewart, at five, isn’t training for anything just yet. However, we hear she swims “like a fish.” In another decade or so, no doubt we’ll be seeing all of these kids in the top three (of whatever they decide to do) as much as their moms.

What’s the most important thing for a fast mama, hands down? Having someone around who knows why she’s out there doing what she does. So tell all the tri-moms you know how much you admire them…and then maybe offer some free child-care. We hear they like that.

Special thanks to the “fast mamas” for taking time out of their very busy training schedules to answer these questions.

[Know some fast papas? We want to feature a few stellar tri-dads. Send your nominations to]

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