The Ultimate Athletes
Four Greenwich triathletes share what it takes to push through mental and physical pain to run, pedal and swim their way to the thrill of victory
Visko Hatfield; Black Pants Courtesy of Nike
(page 1 of 3)
You see it on TV. As triathletes make their way to the finish line of the Ironman in Hawaii, arguably the most popular race of its kind, they seem so determined, and when it’s over, in spite of a grueling pace, punishing heat and interminable stages, they look like they can’t wait to do it again.
What makes these dedicated souls want to submit to such an extreme physical challenge again? Competitors often say emotional victory comes with racing and making it to the end, regardless of final standings. Training for six months, at least twenty hours a week, just to compete in an Ironman, or in the more forgiving half Ironman, Olympic or sprint distance triathlons (see sidebar “Triathlon Distances”) is only part of what it takes to reach that goal.
But it just doesn’t look like that much fun. What gives? Katha Diddel-Warren, Karen Newman, Darcy Ramsey and Karen Brown can answer that. These four Greenwich women have been there, won plenty and continue to train for spring and summer running races, charity rides, duathlons (run, bike, run) and triathlons. None plans on giving any of it up anytime soon.
What they have in common is a love of the sport. They thrive on it, and use it to push themselves ever further. They share a deep respect for the competition and unapologetic pride in their successes. All credit spouses and children whose unending encouragement cheers them on to run, cycle and swim harder and faster than they ever thought they could.
Most of all, they love to win. However, winning isn’t the only thing. Understanding this helps explain why they keep going back. “You see all different kinds of people at a race,” says Katha Diddel-Warren. “You may see a woman with a disability, so if it’s a challenge for me, it’s so hard for her. It’s awesome to see her there, making it to the finish.
“Then you see people coming in hours after you but we all completed the same distances. The fact that I’m winning is fun. It’s great and amazing and such a powerful feeling, but it catches me by surprise. For me, it’s also a win if I can I do it in better time.”
In the Beginning
On first impression, the four women are incredibly fit athletes. As they tell stories of accomplishment and renewed sense of purpose, of improved health and outlook, they exude intelligence and confidence with humor and class, each bearing an inviting from-here-to-here smile. Training and racing, they add, also helped them get through hardship, including injury, divorce, cancer. But their reasons for racing differ, reflecting personalities that dispel any notion of a triathlon type.
“The reason I’m doing this now is because my dentist suggested it,” chuckles the stylishly svelte Karen Brown. The self-proclaimed “rookie” in the group, who also loves to shop, marvels at her dentist’s role in what is now a major priority in her life, after her husband, Bill, and her two children, Jennifer and Tim. “This was in April  and we started talking about triathlons. I don’t remember why. Next thing I know he’s printing out this brochure.”
Two months later, after training about fiteen hours a week — running and biking in the evenings and swimming in the mornings — she was competing in the Kids in Crisis Sprint Triathlon in Stamford. “I was nervous but I am very competitive when it comes right down to it. I put so much pressure on myself that I actually got in trouble in the water. I almost panicked because of the crowd [of swimmers]. But I still came in fourth for my age group with a very respectable time.”
Katha Diddel-Warren, fresh-faced and bubbly, remembers her first triathlon in 1984, in Hong Kong, where she was living and working at the time. It was another twenty-three years before the designer and importer of handmade home accessories signed up for the Falmouth Sprint Triathlon, the one she considers her “real” first. “I was physically prepared but totally unprepared. I didn’t have a wet suit; just a bathing suit,” laughs the mother of Paul, Thompson and Kiki. “I knew my body could do it but there was also a little bit of this I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing feeling.”
Karen Newman, a nutritionist diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, also shares a funny tale of woe from her first effort at the Montauk Sprint Triathlon of 1989. “It was ridiculously cold, fifty-six degrees in the water. The bike I got was borrowed and too big, so I couldn’t sit. I had to stand and peddle for over twenty-five miles. During the run, I don’t think I felt my feet until about mile five. Still, I think I came in third in my age division.” She is now a five-time All-American triathlete.
Each of these women continues to go back for more. “That’s the fun of first exposure,” says Karen, who exudes such kindness, it makes her the most serene and philosophical of the four, though at the time of this first interview, she was also weakened by recent chemotherapy and a mastectomy. In spite of frailty and loss of hair, she becomes increasingly animated by her recollections, particularly when she shares family photos from past races where she sports long, wavy brown hair.
“You don’t know what to expect,” continues the mother of three boys, Stetson, Chase and Trent. “And by the time you’re in it, you think, ‘What fun!’ When you finish, you feel alive. That’s what draws you back. There is nothing like it.”