The XX Factor

Don’t Call Me Mommy. I’m Ironwoman!

I know a number of woman who love their exercise. My friends include spinners, swimmers, marathon runners, yoga and pilates enthusiasts, skiers-you name it. I love my exercise, too, and I agree with Mary Holt-Wilson, who writes today’s piece, that it is a great escape from the daily grind. I’m far less ambitious than she is, though. All I do is take my dog for long walks. I don’t work up much of a sweat, I don’t set goals. I don’t communicate with anyone else. But I know that taking Bella to the park or the beach for an hour a day is good for my body and soul. At the opposite end of the exercise spectrum, Mary, who turns 40 next year, is stretching her muscles and building up endurance I can only dream of. What do you do to stay fit? How does your exercise routine help keep you sane? Share your workout stories with me at Don’t be shy! We can’t all be Marys, but we can admire her stamina and determination.

I had a massive case of Kona Fever last weekend, and it wasn’t because I was missing Starbucks. On Saturday, Oct. 10, 2,000 triathletes dove into the surf at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii and began the daylong suffer-fest known as the Ironman World Championship.

I wasn’t there competing. I was sitting on my ass in Massachusetts, watching the race on my computer. But I wanted to be there. And someday I will.

Competing in an Ironman, especially one held in the grueling heat and wind of Kailua-Kona, is viewed by most as rather nuts. It begins with a 2.4 mile open-water swim. If not pummeled by competitors or eaten by sharks, triathletes then transition onto racing bikes to battle the winds and heat for 112 miles. After that they run a marathon, packing ice into their thin tri-shirts in a futile effort to keep cool enough to avoid frying like bacon on the asphalt. To compete in Kona, one must complete an Ironman event in another part of the world, and place within the top 1 percent-2 percent of his/her age group. Trust me when I tell you that isn’t easy.

I’ve been a runner for much of my life, but completing freakishly competitive endurance events did not make it to the top of my must do now list until after my third child was born. At that point I became manic with the desire to train-to equal out the time I spent tending to my three kids, my husband, my job, my house, and my two hairy dogs with time spent on, well, me. I know it defies logic to try to squeeze twenty hours of training into each week while teaching full time, managing the carpool, helping with homework, making lunches, vacuuming ten tons of dog hair, and doing several loads of laundry a day.

But I needed it. I needed a goal, it needed to be big, and it needed to be pursued now .

As you might imagine, explaining my drive to complete Ironman races and qualify for Kona was, and remains, a challenge. Over the last few years I’ve come up with several colorful explanations.

1. Giving birth to a third child altered my brain chemistry such that I became unbalanced, unstable, and insane.

2. Training for Ironman provides me an excellent excuse to blow off temporarily postpone the incessant needs and wants of my otherwise adorable progeny.

3. My friend Ange just raced at Kona, and while there she swam with a pod of dolphins . The most I’ve seen while open-water swimming in the frigid Atlantic is one lousy seal.

4. My husband and I celebrated our 10-year anniversary last month, and we failed to do anything of note to mark it. After all the time neglecting him during my never-ending training, what better way to properly mark the occasion than to travel to Hawaii so that he can watch me race 140.6 miles in one heat-scorching day?

5. Competing to be the most esteemed parent volunteer on the PTO gets old. Competing with thousands of fit, gorgeous, scantily-clad triathletes in the tropics, however, never loses its appeal.

The thing is, none of these explanations really gets at why . For a long time, even I didn’t get it. Why do I have this visceral need, this unrelenting desire to work my ass off? At the peak of training, preparing for an Ironman event involves swimming at least 11,000 yards (much of it in the open water), biking 250 miles, and running 40 miles. In one week . This doesn’t include time spent stretching, lifting, showering, keeping equipment in good condition, competing in weekend-long events, and obsessing over what combination of carbs, lean protein and healthy fats to eat, before, during and after working out. Why must I do something that consumes so much time and energy, something that threatens to topple the secure, safe life I spent so many years working to build?

I’ve thought a lot about this (probably because I’m asked way I train so hard on a daily basis) and I’ve come up with this: At some point, while being the architect of my own life, I stopped being the main character in it. Like many women, I spent my young adulthood seeking out and capturing all I wanted to call my own. I wanted a good job, a good man, a good home, and good little tots who would love me and call my Mom.

And I got it all: my guy, my kids, my suburban nest. I felt relieved and satisfied.

Then I woke up one day and felt dead. And trapped. And helpless to do anything about it.

I drank lattes with friends and demanded to go grocery shopping on my own. I retreated into cheesy magazines, organized spa weekends. I went to bed early, took bubble baths, and played hooky from work. It wasn’t enough.

So I made a plan to get to Kona. I needed something huge and totally self-centered. Each day in training I could do battle. The ache I’d feel after in my muscles fueled me with possibility, power, and change. I’d be the main character in my life, the hero in my novel. I would not be the sideshow drowning in cappuccino, bubble bath, self-pity, and despair.

Now I force myself up each morning at 5 a.m. so I can tap into the raw pain of physical exertion, so I can stare down an impossible challenge, so I can reach beyond the roles I hammered out for myself so long ago, and attempt, even after all these years, to become . Because of my Kona dream, that stable place I built for myself and my family has stopped feeling confining-and instead just feels like coming home.

Mary Holt-Wilson parents, trains and writes in Westwood, Massachusetts. You can follow her training and racing exploits at