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
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.”
None of the women were new to sports when they started seriously competing. Katha Diddel-Warren played varsity tennis and squash through high school and college. One summer, on break from Brown University, the New York City native joined her brother to lead bike tours across Europe. Through the years, she ran and biked to stay fit. Following her divorce five years ago, she signed up for a few charity rides and has been racing ever since, in everything from short 25-mile runs to the Pan-Mass Challenge, a 200-mile, two-day bike-a-thon.
Last year, she returned to Falmouth, and competed in eight sprint and Olympic triathlons and three rides. Her plans for this summer again include Falmouth plus the Danskin Sprint Triathlon, the upcoming Jarden Westchester Triathlon, an Olympic distance event in Rye and a half Ironman, and the June Tupper Lake Tinman Triathlon.
Karen Newman was always running with her two brothers in her childhood home of Syracuse, New York. “I just knew it was a gift from God. I’d run, climb trees, play football and kickball, ride horses. When I was little, I rode my bike to my cousin’s house five miles away.” In high school, Karen was a star on the track team, and often participated in charity swims and races around the family’s Vermont summer home. Her husband proposed to her while she was running the New York City Marathon in 1989.
In 2001, Karen focused her sights on the Triathlon World Championships. She enrolled in the Masters Swim program at Sportsplex in Stamford as part of a twenty-hour weekly regimen that had her out every day through the summer in preparation for the July qualifiers in Lake Placid. She knew she had to make the top four in her age group to qualify for Worlds.
“We were finishing in the Olympic Stadium, and we’re coming around the track, and I come up to a woman and she’s fourth. I can hear my husband yell, ‘Ruuun!’ It was a sprint to the finish and I beat her by maybe a foot. I was jumping and hugging and crying. It was unbelievable. There are happy days in your life — when you get married and have children. This was one of my happiest. Then we went to Edmonton (Canada) for the Worlds. We had the parade of nations and fireworks. Just like the Olympics. I was crying, I was so proud.”
Karen came in twelfth, and has since been back to the World Championships four more times. “That’s the drug. There is nothing like it. Then I just got better and better. I just started winning tons of these races. And almost every race I entered, I won, and not just for my age. I got faster. I got faster and faster.”
Three months after Karen’s breast cancer diagnosis in March 2008, she competed in the World Championships in Vancouver. Three months later, while in chemotherapy, she competed in the Jarden Westchester (Darcy, Katha and Karen Brown were also there) and finished fourth in her age group, qualifying for this month’s National Championships in Alabama. But she will not be there. Though she is cancer-free, and her hair has grown back dark and curly, she will instead race to raise money for cancer charities, including the Alliance For Cancer Gene Therapy in Greenwich. “I’ll do some [sprint] triathlons in Vermont. I’m not out of it but I will focus my energies on having fun and giving back.”
Karen Brown started a little later than the others, as a college student in Boston, where she joined the Greater Boston Track Club. Running was her life then, filled with running workouts and Sunday races, from 5K to half-marathon distances. Ten years later, married with children, she moved to North Carolina, where she joined the Cardinal Track Club in Chapel Hill, and for two years, also took part in a Masters Swim program. “I got in the water the first day and swam a 2,400 [yards], which apparently is unheard of.”
It was during this period that Karen first came into casual contact with training triathletes. She met more after moving to Greenwich in 2002 as a single mom. But she continued to run, in spite of chronic leg injuries, until last summer, when she also raced in the Greenwich Cup (Sprint) Triathlon, the Madison Sprint Triathlon and the Darien ITPMan (Sprint) Triathlon.
For Darcy Ramsey, “the original tomboy,” her passion for sports began on the campus of Greenwich Country Day School, where her father was an English teacher. “We had the run of the entire campus,” says Darcy, a coach and trainer, and former state trooper. “Tennis courts, fields and streams, swimming pools and basketball courts. When all the other kids were off in safari in Africa or skiing in Aspen, we all went to the gym or the pool.”
Through high school and college, Darcy, the second oldest of six, played varsity sports. One summer, while cycling to cross-train for the upcoming field hockey season, she came upon a bike race in Greenwich. “I thought, ‘Hey! I ride my bike. That looks like a cool sport. I want to try that.’”
The racing has never stopped — from national championships to local races. What changed over the years was the type of race Darcy took on, and that choice depended entirely on the hours of training she thought a race required and whether she could squeeze such training around work and family. “During the time I was a state trooper, the bike racing was out of the question. I had been doing fifty races a year, including stage races. And the training was about 300 miles a week. Then [my daughter] was born. I no longer had the time. I no longer had the energy or the ability to travel,” explains Karen. “So I switched and did running races and duathlons. The other thing that was appealing to me was that with bike racing and short-distance duathlon, it was all very high-intensity, kill-yourself race for two hours. Physiologically, triathlon and Powerman was a nice change from the super-fast high-intensity stuff to going out for a sustained six-hour ride.”
The drive to compete runs deep in her DNA. “I came out of the womb an athlete and I have always wanted to see if I could do it, with the understanding that whatever challenge I give myself is going to work with whatever phase of my life I am in,” she says.
A more flexible schedule in 2003 allowed Darcy to take on her first triathlon, an Ironman. “There is such an allure and a romanticism about doing an Ironman,” says Darcy, who has since competed in four Ironmans and two Powerman Zofingen, Swiss-based long-distance duathlons that consist of 10K runs, 50K rides, 30K runs.
Victory Is Mine
To these women winning is as much about finishing as it is about finishing well. All may joke about the difficulty of getting up early in the morning but point to feeling jazzed once they are on their way to a race. There, they know they will be taking on something seemingly insurmountable but in the end gain achievement, confidence, inner strength and spiritual appreciation. When that happens, hardship is easier to endure. Joy is easier to celebrate. There is clarity, perspective, increased motivation.
For Karen Newman, cancer was a bit easier to withstand. For Katha, divorce was easier to endure. For Karen Brown, injury was easier to overcome. For Darcy, motivation was easier to retain.
There are other benefits. “I’ve met all kinds of people in all shapes, sizes and forms,” says Karen Brown, who admits she was “a heavy child” in high school. “I see people who have worked so hard taking care of their kids, and now they are out there doing something for themselves that will help them move in another direction.”
Her goal this year, after completing the Greenwich Biathlon in April, will have been to improve her time at the Kids in Crisis Triathlon in June and finish the MightyMan Half Ironman Triathlon in Montauk in October.
Karen Newman points to the great travel destinations and the meditative benefit of training and racing. “I feel a lot of God and love and joy when I race. That’s a gift He’s given me and I just try to enjoy every minute out there, even when it’s painful. I feel lucky to be able to do it.”
Katha agrees. “For me, the long-distance is very contemplative, in biking or in triathlon. It gets you into a really wonderful place. It’s not therapeutic. But it’s almost spiritual. I get in a zone, which is almost like what people find in meditation or hypnosis. It is your time. You own it.”