Let me introduce you to Sue Damiano, a new Ironman Muskoka 70.3 Finisher! Sue went from being a non-swimmer in 2012 to finishing a Half Ironman in 2016! Sue dreams big and loves a challenge.
I first met Sue through our children – we both have kids on local swim teams and we met as we cheered for our children at their practices and swim meets. Sue is the greatest spectator at swim meets – I ask her to cheer for my son Caleb at meets because everyone can hear her (and nobody can hear me!). First and foremost, Sue is a mother and an advocate for her kids. Her kids are her primary focus, yet Sue found the time, energy and motivation to strive for her own dream this year of accomplishing a Half Ironman – a dream that used to seem impossible to her.
I am privileged to have Sue as a friend and to have been a part of her Muskoka Half Ironman journey. We both raced Muskoka this year (this was my second time doing the race) and Sue tells me that I was a big part in her having the confidence to sign up for the race in the first place – I am thrilled to know that I helped her believe in herself! I was able to witness Sue accomplish this new feat and see her joy at succeeding at her dream race.
HISTORY – the Lead up to the Half Ironman
JM: What is your background in athletics?
Sue: I was a runner in elementary school and did a bit of cross-country running and track in High School (Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School). I always loved running, but had never learned how to swim.
Sue was in fact afraid of the water and it was only once her two children started swimming for the Brock Swim Team that she became intrigued by the idea of swimming. Sue started thinking to herself, “Imagine if I could do that?!” Sue decided to hire her children’s swim coach for a few private lessons in her parents’ backyard pool. Sue laughs as she remembers her learn to swim lessons in 2012; “I will never forget the look on their faces,” (her children, Mackenzie and Brenden), “when I put on googles and a swim cap for the first time! They were stunned!” Sue describes how her first lessons started with simply putting her face under water and learning how to breathe. Soon Sue progressed to Adult Swim lessons at Brock U. and then she eventually joined the Masters Swim program at the Kiwanis pool once she was able to swim and worked on building up her endurance.
Sue completed her first triathlon in August 2014 – the Irongirl race in Grimsby (shorter than a sprint triathlon). Sue chose this race because it felt less stressful, with no pros completing and no men in the race. She did this race again in 2015, along with a second Try-a-Tri in Grimsby.
JM: After three short triathlons, why did you decide to do the Half Ironman?
Sue: It was my dream race! And you told me to just do it! I remember talking with you (Janine) at the Kiwanis Pool in the change room when you were signing up for a full ironman in 2015 at Cedar Point and you asked me to do the half ironman there in Ohio. I wasn’t ready then (2015) but that dream stuck in the back of my mind. Then this year you were talking about Muskoka and I decided to just do it now! Yeah, just go for it!
Sue and I signed up for the Muskoka 70.3 in January 2016. Now there was no turning back…
Sue’s husband, Vince was dumbfounded when he heard the bike distance of the Half Ironman – he kept repeating “90k! How and where are you going to bike 90k?!”
JM: How did you train for the Half Ironman?
Sue trained with the local Masters swim club a couple times per week, did long rides with a cycling club and then did a second ride on her own. She ran mostly on her own. In the good weather as her runs got longer Sue’s kids biked along with her on her long runs, along the trails. Sue did hill rides up and down the escarpment. Sue is quick to add, “next time (I guess another race is already brewing!), I would work on more leg strength; more hills and more speed-work.”
JM: Did you have doubts that you could finish the race?
Sue: YES! Not during the race, but the months before the race.
Sue was nervous and didn’t have a lot of confidence in herself at first. Some unexpected health challenges suddenly arose in the winter and spring with Sue’s son Brenden, and this only added to her doubts. Brenden has type I diabetes and is entering his teen years, with all the growth and active lifestyle his insulin levels have become more sporadic. Brenden passed out on two separate occasions, both which ended up with hospitalizations. At that point, with her son in the hospital, Sue felt like she was going to have to quit on her goal. Sue describes how she later heard her kids talking about how excited they were to go to Muskoka for the first time and then Sue realized that if she dropped her goal, she would be teaching her kids that it is okay to quit. Sue did not quit and she gained strength from her triathlete friends, who went on hill rides with her to build up her confidence, and swam with her in the Welland canal to gain experience with open water swimming. Sue describes how Geron (who I interviewed in another article) told her to “just face your fears!” Her friends helped her to believe in herself and to keep on going. Sue prayed lots and got through the challenges with Brenden as well.
Sue and Vince enjoyed several days in Muskoka with Mackenzie and Brenden, making the Muskoka Ironman a whole family event.
July 10th at 7:00am Sue and all the triathletes lined up for the swim. The swim started in waves, with Sue in the Women 45-50 wave, wearing Green Caps. Sue describes how once she was in the water she started thinking, “Let’s just have some fun!” Suddenly she was focused and calm and the doubts disappeared. Sue just thought about how amazing it was that everyone (her family and so many of her friends) were there watching her and participating in the race. She was proud of herself for overcoming her fear of deep water. Sue did amazing with such a congested start. She survived kicks to the face and just kept swimming. Sue finished her swim in 48:34, feeling great and giving spectators high fives as she ran to the transition zone to get her bike.
JM: What was a highlight of the race?
Sue: The bike was incredible. Muskoka is so beautiful! I loved the distance – being out there for along time. I felt euphoric as I biked past the lake and little beach areas and beautiful wooded areas. I also felt strong on the run, having held back a bit on the bike section, saving my legs for the run. I felt good throughout the race.
JM: What was a low-light of the race?
Sue: (Without hesitation) The 85 km mark on the bike! The hill was so steep and hard and I was going up the hill at a pace of 1km /hour. I hit a wall of pain! There was only 9 km left to go, so I just kept going. At that point I was telling myself I should have done more Effingham hills! The beast caught up with me on that last hill.
Sue finished the 94 km bike (she made it up that beast of a hill!) in 4:02 and she was off on her run! Sue did not stop!
JM: How did you feel for the run?
Sue: I felt strong on the run. I had hoped to do 2 hours, but needed to take a few washroom breaks.
Running a half marathon after swimming and cycling is a whole new experience. Sue has run half marathons under 2 hours no problem, but in the heat of the day after having exercised for 5 hours, just keeping on running is a huge feat. Sue did keep running, and she completed the 21.1 km run in 2:16:54.
Sue is now a 70.3 Ironman Finisher! She crossed the finish line to her cheering family in a time of 7:22:01. Most people have not exercised for over 7 hours. Sue did what she had once thought impossible.
REFLECTIONS on the Half Ironman Experience
JM: Now that the Half Ironman is over, what has this experience added to your life?
Sue: A huge sense of accomplishment! Inspiration for my family to not quit and to stay active.
JM: Would you recommend triathlon training to others?
Sue: Yes! It is amazing; it makes me so happy and it is a great way to stay in shape. I have met so many nice people in this sport.
JM: Will you do more triathlons? What is your next race or goal?
Sue definitely plans to do more triathlons. She is considering doing her first full marathon this fall. Next summer maybe she will do another half ironman and try to go faster or she may do an Olympic Distance triathlon, which is shorter and she can focus on speed.
Sue always celebrates with others in their successes. I am so thrilled that we can all celebrate with her as she achieved this great accomplishment of completing her first Half Ironman! I know this is just the beginning of many other great adventures and challenges for Sue.