Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Xtremely Queer : Tri-ing To Be Last

I was riveted to the Olympic triathlon last year as two fellow Yorkshiremen, the Brownlee brother, swam, cycled and ran to earn their places on the medal podium, and equally riveted to the first ever Paralympic triathlon in which fellow gay Brit David Hill competed.

Thinking back to my childhood it seemed that the marathon was the ultimate in extreme sports. These days millions of people run marathons, some even running more than one in a week. The idea that the marathon, as exemplified in the very first one in Ancient Greece in which the runner died, was the ultimate in human endeavour has long since been surpassed.

Triathlon was the immediate extreme successor to the marathon. Again, today there are thousands of people who ware regular triathletes. One of the pioneers of women’s marathon and triathlon is Sally Edwards (b.1947).

Sally was born in Florida. She has 3 older brothers. Coming from a large family myself (I have 5 siblings) I know how a competitive streak can develop early in life. After graduating from the University of California Berkeley with degrees in physical education and exercise physiology Sally served in the American Red Cross before taking up teaching.

In 1976 Sally founded her first business, Fleet Foot Sports, with her then partner Elizabeth James. Starting from one store in Sacramento Fleet Foot, which sold specialist sports footwear, had expanded to 40 stores across the US by the time they sold the business in 1993.

By this time Sally was an experienced marathon runner. Her first triathlon was in 1980 during the early years of the sport. In fact, in 1980 the current format hadn’t been established. Today the order of triathlon is swim, cycle, run. In 1980 it was the other way round. Sally didn’t finish her first triathlon. Many of those early triathletes found that the final swim led to difficulties in the water and even hypothermia in some cases, like Sally’s. The order was reversed to prevent the probability of triathletes drowning in the final stage.

Also in 1980 Sally competed in the Western States Endeavour Run, a gruelling 100 mile run, which she won in a time of just over 22 hours. The next year she finished in an even faster time, though in second place. During the 1980s Sally continued to compete in marathon, triathlon and Ironman events. She has competed in 16 Ironman triathlons.

In 1982 she co-founded the Sacramento Long Distance Running Association which now attracts over 8,000 runners to its annual marathon.

In 1984 Sally became one of the pioneers of women’s Olympic marathon. The Olympic Games in Los Angeles were the first to feature women’s marathon and Sally was selected for the US trials though she didn’t reach the required time for selection to the Olympic team.

However, Sally’s successes in triathlon continued. In 1989 she was approached by the sportswear company Danskin with the offer to become their figurehead for a brand new women-only triathlon series, the first of these being held in 1990. There were very few female triathletes at the time and they often competed alongside the men.

Sally had by now also started to become an established writer. To date she has written 24 books on triathlon, health and fitness. No doubt these books (the first one published in 1982) and her role with Danskin helped to inspire thousands of women to take up triathlon. During the Danskin triathlon’s 20th anniversary in 2009 it was announced that over 23,000 women had registered to compete that year.

One aspect of triathlon which Sally feels is very important is to make women feel they can complete the gruelling event and not be afraid of finishing last. To this end Sally decided that the best encouragement she can give is to be the last finisher herself, so that no other woman can be. It’s ironic that Sally, one of the pioneers and early record-holders in women’s triathlon should now have the record for finishing last in more triathlons than anyone else.

The number of marathons, triathlons and long-distance running events Sally Edwards has compete in runs into the hundreds. She was recognised by the organisers of the sport by being inducted into several triathlon Halls of Fame, including the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2011.

Sally continues to inspire athletes with guest lectures and talks, and her most recent business venture involving using technology in school sports and fitness classes.

Even though Sally Edwards hits her 70th birthday later this year she shows no sign of slowing down. Her energy has kept her going and in my calculations are right she has swum, cycled and run the equivalent of the whole of the equator. If that’s not extreme I don’t know what is!

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