Five months ago, Gini Fellows was on top of the world.
She took first place in her division competing in IRONMAN Florida, her first full IRONMAN, just after her 70th birthday, earning her a spot in the 2017 IRONMAN World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawai`i, on October 14.
She was deep into her IRONMAN Kona training.
She had just retired from a fulfilling nursing and teaching career in Biloxi, Mississippi, and was thinking about how great it was going to be to do her long bike rides in cool, windy Erieau, Ontario, where she and her tight-knit family spend the summers. Her coach is her son, Patrick, who also competed in IRONMAN Florida and was there to put the finisher’s medal around his mother’s neck.
But then everything changed.
In June, her husband, Bill, a physician, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Gini scrapped her summer plans and scheduled her workouts in the Mississippi heat around Bill’s appointments. The chemotherapy and radiation regimen was intentionally aggressive, but just as the doctors were becoming optimistic that the treatments were destroying the cancer, they did Bill in. Over Labor Day weekend, Gini’s husband of 47 years died. He was 87.
Gini’s friends had told her that if she did a full IRONMAN she’d want to do another. Soon she’ll have that opportunity in Kona. The IRONMAN 70.3, called a HALF IRONMAN, refers to the total distance in miles covered in the event, which comprises a 1.2-mile swim, a 57-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile run. By now, Gini’s done plenty of these.
The full IRONMAN triathlon event comprises a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. This is what Gini did in Florida last year. After more than 15 hours of swimming, biking, and running, Gini was approaching the finisher’s chute and heard over the loudspeaker, “Gini Fellows you are an IRONMAN!!” She’d been working hard for a year to hear those words. Later Gini said she realized she’d forgotten to cry as she crossed the finish.
“Maybe I will cry when I cross that finish line,” Gini wrote in her Florida race report, months before her husband’s diagnosis, when she learned she’d be competing this fall in Kona. Not the kind of happy tears Gini was thinking of, but as she told me in our recent conversation, she’s doing this for Bill. It’s what he would have wanted for her.
Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.
Carolee Belkin Walker: Gini – it’s nice to catch up. How are you?
Gini Fellows: I’m doing okay. Not great, but I'm doing much better than I was a few weeks ago.
CBW: I’m so sorry for your loss. And I’ve been thinking about Patrick. He’s your coach but you’re his mom. He’s just lost his father. This has got to be hard for him. How is that working now? Is he continuing to serve as your coach?
GF: He is. He has coached me through all of my races so far. He knows what I'm going through. He also knows how to coach me through some old injuries. He's helped line me up with a couple of other people to tweak my swimming. And I rode with some of his friends on a group ride last Saturday.
CBW: I read that your husband was a beloved member of your community, and I’m sure you’ve got so many friends rallying around you and your family. Does remembering what people have been saying about Bill help you get through your workouts?
GF: If I think too much, and I get into my head, I end up crying, so –
CBW: That's not helpful.
GF: No. I’ve been saying to myself, “Just keep moving.” If I think too much, I lose it. I have to blank out of everything.
CBW: You’ve told me before that while you’ve got great, supportive friends, you don’t have many peers who do what you do in terms of your training. Especially now, after Bill’s death, how do you feel about why you think you’re doing this and what impact do you think you’re having, if any, say, on your grandchildren?
GF: Most of my tri friends are all in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, and a couple in their 60s. And they all keep saying, “You're so inspirational to us.” And I hope so. I’m hoping that I can inspire women to get out and do some exercise and do things for themselves. I don't know what I would have done without the exercise. My husband’s illness was such an emotional drain, and exercising has helped to keep me at least focused. It’s important for women to try to do anything that they think they can do. It’s a challenge. When I first said I wanted to do an IRONMAN, Pat looked at me and said, “Well, physically you could do it, but there’s the mental part of it that is really going to be the hard part.”
You just have to focus. It's putting one foot in front of the other, one stroke after the other. I’m constantly reminding myself that I can still do this.
CBW: Tell me what you’re expecting in Kona.
GF: The swim sounds pretty good. But there’s no wet suit, so I’m concerned about swimming without a wet suit for that extra buoyancy.
CBW: Is that because the water is too warm?
GF: Yes. IRONMAN requires that the temperature be below 76 degrees. They expect it to be 79.
CBW: Have you done open water swims without a wet suit?
GF: I have. Mostly in warmer water during the summer, but this is a long swim, so I’m concerned about it. We’ll be swimming in Kailua Bay. It’s a bay.
CBW: That sounds nice, but it’s still the ocean, right?
CBW: And then after the swim, what’s the bike going to be like?
GF: That’s going to be the hardest part. It’s 112 miles of rolling hills and some very steep grades. I was reading that some of the grades aren’t that high but that they’re a mile long. And then there’s the wind. They have lots and lots of wind.
CBW: I was watching IRONMAN Kona last year and remember the winds. What’s the best way to train for that?
GF: Normally, I would have been at our cottage in Canada this summer, and it’s always windy there. So most of my rides have been on my trainer because of my husband’s illness.
CBW: The trainer is like a stationary bike, right?
GF: Yes. I keep thinking, five months ago, I was on top of the world. And then three weeks after I retired, we got the diagnosis of his illness. So my priority went from Kona to Bill. I did all my workouts. I just hope I did them hard enough.
CBW: In a couple of your blog posts, you wrote that your heart just wasn’t in it. What did you mean by that?
GF: I did my workouts, but I was concerned about Bill, who had to have a combination of radiation and chemotherapy. He was a bit older than me, and he had some other health issues, which caused him to be extremely ill. He was in the hospital the last five weeks of his life.
CBW: One of the challenges many women face when their children are growing up or if they’re caring for an elderly parent or a spouse is wrestling with that feeling that their “heart’s not in it.” Clearly, your situation is completely different, but it was always very challenging for me to exercise because I felt like I needed to be taking care of somebody or something. Did you and Bill have a chance to talk about your training? And how did he feel about it?
GF: He was adamant that I continue to train. In fact, when he was in the hospital, I’d stop by in the morning, and he’d ask me, “What did you do today?” I’d tell him I swam, or I’d biked on my trainer, or I ran, and he would say, ”Okay. All right.” Then he’d say, “You have to keep training. You have to keep doing this. I want you to go to Kona. That is important to you, and it’s important to me that you go.”
Right up until he couldn't talk anymore, he was adamant that I go and was very, very supportive.
CBW: Did you ever think about changing your plans and not training? Pulling out of IRONMAN Kona?
GF: No. No. In fact, I think the working out and the training helped me maintain some sort of normalcy through all of this.
CBW: Who’s going with you to Kona?
GF: My son, his wife, and our two grandchildren.
CBW: Will you have time to relax? What’s a taper like for an IRONMAN?
GF: We were just talking about that, because the ad agency for Brawny Towels, which is sponsoring me, is coming out to take some pictures and video of my training. The guy said, ”How much are you going to be doing?” And Pat said, “Not a lot.”
But I'm going to get out and swim two or three times during the week. We’re leaving the week before, so we’ll do some touristy things. I want the kids to be able to see some of Hawaii. And I'll get out on the bicycle course to ride in some of the hills and in some of the wind.
CBW: Where are you doing your swims right now?
GF: There’s a great place in Louisiana near Pat’s house. It's called Crawfish Aquatics, and they have allowed me to swim with their Masters group and also with one of Pat’s coaches.
CBW: Last year when we talked about IRONMAN Florida, you said running was the last thing you wanted to focus on. How do you feel about the run this time around? It’s marathon distance, right?
GF: Haha - I know. I’ve been running but haven’t done many long runs. I did one 3-hour run. But it's super hot in Mississippi and in Louisiana in the summer and it’ll be hot in Kona. So I’m feeling good about the run, mostly because I run and I walk. I’ve been trying to run half a mile and walk 20 seconds. As the heat builds up during the day, I may have to run 3 minutes and walk 20 seconds.
But right now, I’ve had to force myself to workout. I’m tired. The stress of losing my husband and just everything has kind of accumulated. So I go and do it. I’m working harder, but I’m still having to force myself. While he was sick, I could go and do it. But right now, I’m really making myself get up and do it.
CBW: When you finish your workout, do you feel any better?
GF: Yes. Once I’m done. Today I was dreading it and missed the morning swim. I pushed myself to go at lunchtime, and I thought, “I don't want to this.” I got in the water and just started swimming and did the workout that I had scheduled.
By the time I finished, I was fine.
CBW: Do you have a mantra for Kona? I think your advice to me was just keep your head down and keep swimming.
GF: Hahahah. “Just keep swimming.” Like Dory from -
CBW: Finding Nemo.
GF: Right. And then, on the bike, I just keep telling myself, “keep pedaling.” And I watch my cadence. I try not to look at my speed because in the hills, you're going to slow down. A friend of mine told me, ”Be patient with yourself in the hills, because you’ve got the wind.”
CBW: In the beginning of your Kona training, you had some knee issues.
GF: I did have a slight meniscus tear in January. But my orthopedic surgeon advised against surgery just yet. I wear a compression sleeve on my knee when I run. It doesn't bother me on the bike, and right now, I’m not sure whether I need it. But it seems to be working, and I’m not changing anything.
CBW: That’s great. Gini, I’m thinking about you. Everybody’s thinking about you. We’re all pulling for you. And it seems to me you’ve conquered the mental stuff we all face. That’s huge. You should feel so good about that, and your husband must have known that, too.
GF: I believe he did and of course I’m dedicating the race to him in his memory. And I think I can do it if I can stay focused. I know I’ll be ready physically. I went through the participants’ list, and I believe there are 9 of us in my age group.
CBW: You’re competing only with women, right?
GF: I’m competing with myself.
CBW: Hahahah. You’re right about that.
Thank you for being so open about your experience, Gini. It’s way more than many of us could ever hope to do. It inspires us to do something that challenges us. Because the payoff is great.
GF: It is. It is. It’s nice to be able to say, “I did that.”
Gini’s been blogging on my website, where you can find Gini’s journey to Ironman Florida as well as her journey to Ironman Kona. Watch the Brawny Towels video featuring Gini. My book, This Is My Brain on Endorphins, will be out in January 2018. Watch IRONMAN Kona live on October 14 or track Gini’s progress. Bib #215.