Ever wonder when the marathon and triathlon craze started? You know what I’m talking about – that time before your Facebook posts were inundated with scores of women from all walks of life crossing the finishing line. You know the type:
I was one donut away from never being able to walk again when my neighbor Peggy encouraged me to run. Now my abs rival Jillian Michael’s and I run 30 miles before breakfast…
OK, I’m exaggerating. But posts like these – even if fictional – prove why DiFabio’s memoir is so compelling. She makes you want to spring out of your chair (or couch) and sign up for a race. No joke. In Women Who Tri, DiFabio writes about the triathlon phenomenon that has gripped her town and swept the nation. She takes us into the world of women in endurance sports while telling her personal story and profiling the inspiring women who have overcome challenges to find their inner athlete. DiFabio is a self-proclaimed “middle-aged, out of shape mother of four” who challenged herself to run a triathlon. Now, this race isn’t your typical 5K or 8K – and I only know these distances because I had to Google them – it’s a triathlon. Yes, an athletic contest consisting of not one, not two, but three different events, typically swimming, cycling, and long-distance running.
DiFabio has produced a superbly written journalistic memoir about the fascinating world of triathlons and the women obsessed with them. She is here with us today to talk about her journey.
Maribel Garcia: Alicia, thank you so much for joining Book Club Babble. Can you tell our readers about the Mullica Hill Tri Club and how the idea for the book came about? What made you want to research the subject of triathlons with such passion?
Alicia DiFabio: When I moved to the small, quaint, quiet little town of Mullica Hill, I had no idea I would be moving into the epicenter of a triatha-storm! The Mullica Hill Women’s Tri Club had just formed a few months before my family relocated to the area and a friend of mine was one of the four founding members. So I had been hearing all about the club and watching it unfold, from its inception. By the end of the tri club’s first season, they had about 120 members. But, membership grew rapidly and organically over the next several years. By their fourth year, they boasted 940 members, making them the largest all-female triathlon club in the country. It wasn’t just a tri club; it was a movement. And, I had a front-row seat.
I witnessed this club draw in hundreds of regular, busy women of all ages, shapes, sizes and fitness levels. It was all happening right in my proverbial backyard, so it was very hard to ignore. I was enthralled by all of this, so I started to do a little research on the sport in an attempt to discover why so many women were becoming obsessed with it. Also, I became very inspired by this amazing club and the countless stories I heard. The positive, powerful message at the core of this club was having a profound impact on the individual lives of its members and rippled throughout our entire community and beyond. It was quite magical; women inspiring other women to be the best and strongest versions of themselves.
As I expanded my triathlon investigation beyond Mullica Hill, I realized my town was simply a microcosm of a much larger phenomenon. Women all over the country and the globe were finding friendship, improved health, fun, meaning, and self-growth through this rapidly growing sport. In fact, women have been credited for the increasing popularity of triathlons and are responsible for much of the recent growth at the recreational level. It seemed like the book found me.
Although the idea for Women Who Tri started out as purely journalistic, I quickly realized that to truly understand this sport and the women who loved it, I’d have to become a triathlete myself. I joined the club, trained for, and completed my first triathlon at the age of 45 and learned more about this sport, and myself than I ever imagined.
MB: Your story and how you represent the Mullica Hill Triathlon club speaks to the club’s mission:
A non-profit club which was created to empower women in their community to not just achieve personal fitness goals, but also develop their inner athlete and raise awareness for important causes.
You relate some moving stories, not just about your journey, but that of so many other remarkable women. You give your readers a behind-the-scenes sneak peek into individual accounts of sacrifice, commitment, and dedication that motivated me to want to take on challenges that I had long ago given up. I’m not saying that I am ready to run a marathon, but I did start walking again and going to the gym. Why do you think that these stories have such an impact on us?
AF: Triathlon is just a giant metaphor for life. That, I believe, is what makes the stories I have showcased so relatable and even a tad motivating. I think we connect to “ordinary” people doing extraordinary things. We are inspired when we see people “just like us” do something they once believed they couldn’t. It’s a reminder that each one of us has that same strength and courage, and that if we haven’t excavated it yet, perhaps we should.
Triathlon is very symbolic of how we face difficult trials in life. Can we stick to the promises and goals we make to ourselves? Can we persevere when we’re scared or tired and believe we can’t move forward any longer? Can we finish what we start? Can we even find the courage to start at all? This is why triathlon is so transformative to the athlete and so inspirational to others.
MG: We have talked about some of the women whose stories you have featured in the book; let’s talk about your own story. Professionally, you have a doctorate in Clinical Psychology, and you write on health, wellness, women’s issues, parenting, and education. What I love, however, is that you are a triathlete yourself and a mother of four girls. Your eldest is also quite dependent on you. She has an uncontrolled seizure disorder, autism, severe cognitive impairments, and scoliosis. You are an inspiration for women everywhere. What is your advice for women who feel that they are too busy to do something for themselves?
AD: Well, I can completely relate to the feeling ‘too busy’ thing. That was my favorite excuse – and still is – and a completely legitimate, rational excuse at that! What I came to realize was that no matter how busy we are, we make time for the things we value and prioritize. When I peeled back the layer of excuses, I realized that I wasn’t too busy. I was too scared. I was scared of learning how to swim, then swimming in open water, and of riding a bike on an open road and of feeling slow and stupid and not knowing what to do. I was afraid of getting hurt, afraid of being last or looking dorky, and the list goes on. I was also afraid that triathlon training was too selfish because training for the three sports that comprise a triathlon takes up a lot of time and some expense. I was so afraid that it would have a negative impact on my four girls. It was quite the opposite. They benefited too, in more ways than I ever dreamed, when they watched their mom choose healthy habits, become stronger and more fit, and most importantly find the courage to face her fears. It was that last one that had the biggest and most lasting impact on my girls.
So, when it comes to finding time for a new fitness/health venture, the hardest part is getting started. The first few steps always take the most courage because it represents change, and change – even when made in a positive direction – is pretty hard for most people. I promise it will only improve from there! My advice would be to keep things in perspective and start out small, then build upon that. If your goal is a triathlon, focus on your biggest area of weakness or insecurity, and put the most time into that. You don’t have to go nuts and end up overtraining, which usually results in injury, but you do need to be properly prepared. Most of the preparation is mental. Also, start with the shortest, flattest, most newbie-friendly triathlon you can find. Then, brag about it all over Facebook.
MG: I appreciated all of the research and fun facts that you incorporated into the memoir. You took us all the way back to 1982 when Ironman Kona was an obscure sport. It was the first time that the event was broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. You focus on Julie Moss, a young woman who became a hero overnight. She was a 23-year-old graduate student who was running the Ironman for the first time. She was the underdog, the non-elite athlete, an unknown who had managed to somehow secure the female lead during the final leg of the race. But in her final mile, after 10 hours of continuous swimming, biking and running, her body started breaking down from immense fatigue. She eventually collapsed to the ground, no longer able to stand, but instead of waiting for the stretcher, she crawled. She literally crawled across the finish line and into history. She had hit a wall, and it was being televised on national television. This was such a formidable moment. It apparently made a big impact on you. When sportswriters talk about elite athletes, who overcome obstacles because they are willing to work hard in the face of fatigue, boredom, and pain…they kind of lose me. I automatically assume that you either fall into two categories: elite athlete or non-athlete. I love that you came along and used your talents as a writer and researcher to show that anyone can be motivated to do a triathlon. What kind of impact has the book had in the Mullica Hill community? How has it been received by non-athletes?
AD: Interestingly, I don’t feel like it’s the book that has made the impact on the town. I feel like it is, and has always been, the women of the Mullica Hill Tri Club who make the impact. I simply tried to capture their spirit and their stories. While I give full credit to the triathletes whose stories are shared in these pages, I am grateful to have had some small part in bringing their stories to a broader audience. If I’ve inspired anyone to challenge themselves, it’s only because I’ve been inspired by so many.
MG: You feature so many incredible stories about women in your book. Which one was your favorite?
AD: It’s so hard to pick a favorite story! I can’t even explain how kind, positive, sweet, inspiring, and humble each and every one of the 13 women I profiled was when I spoke with them. The funny thing was that none of them knew me from Adam, yet they answered my stalker cold-calls and gave willingly of their time, sharing the most intimate details of their powerful stories. I am forever grateful for the chance to know them, and quite honored to share a piece of their amazing spirits with my readers. I suppose I felt the most personal connection to Debbie Niemann’s story (she pulls her daughter who is diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy through triathlons) because we both have children with multiple disabilities and are full-time caregivers. But, Andrea Peet will forever stay with me. She is the first of the 13 woman I profiled; a recreational triathlete and marathon runner who was diagnosed with ALS, (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) about three years ago. She’s still out there racing in tris and half-marathons, using a hand cycle and a trike, raising money for ALS through her foundation, Team Drea. She is a ray of sunshine and a true gift. I am beyond inspired by this woman.
MG: What do you think the connection between running and charitable causes is? Why do people seem obsessed/invested with physical challenges when they could simply write a check?
AD: I asked myself the same question at the beginning of my research. Often it’s the charity or the cause that serves as a gateway into an endurance race. Women definitely seem to connect with the charitable component of racing and gravitate toward organizations like Team In Training and Race for a Cure. I was just at the Tri For A Cure Maine this past July, a fundraising triathlon that has raised over 11 million dollars in 10 years for the Maine Cancer Foundation. The race is so phenomenally popular, and so successful because people want to do something really hard and scary – like triathlon – in honor of, or in memory of, a loved one battling cancer.
Writing a check is an awesome, very important and necessary way to help. Many people report a feeling of “distance” with it and are seeking a deeper more meaningful connection to the cause for which they are raising money. If an individual chooses to race for a cause or a cure, often they are simultaneously trying to raise awareness along with money. Connecting more personally with some form of sacrifice and suffering – as with a hard race like triathlon – seems to add a symbolic value and deeper meaning to the endeavor. This is something researchers call the Martyrdom Effect. One survey reported that more than one-third of endurance racers do so to raise money for a good cause. I believe if you can do something positive for your physical and emotional health and also better the lives of others, that is a win-win.
MG: Alicia, thank you so much for joining us today.
Alicia is an author and writer with a doctorate in clinical psychology. She writes about parenting, women’s issues, health, and wellness. Her work has appeared in various magazines, literary journals, newspapers and popular websites. Her first book, Women Who Tri, hit #1 on Amazon’s Hot New Release list. She is the mother of four girls, a breast cancer survivor, an avid runner, an occasional triathlete and member of the largest all-female triathlon club, the Mullica Hill Women’s Tri Club.