Kathryn Roche need not answer to anyone. She is the first woman in the United States to compete and finish the Triple IRON distance and has competed in nine triple IRONS since then. Not only this, she competed in the Hawaiian Ironman® both as a pro and amateur multiple times and has also completed the Race Across America (RAAM). She embodies the true spirit and grit of an ultra athlete and is a force to be reckoned with.
On the morning of October 6, 2011, Kathryn Roche wasn’t feeling well. At age 50, Roche has been going through some biological changes and unfortunately, the effects of menopause where causing her concern. She rose, put on her swim gear, and walked to the sandy shore of Lake Anna and went into the water with 16 other athletes from around the world and began her slow methodical stroke that would take her 7.2 miles, the first stage of the Lake Anna Triple IRON.
This was the 9th time Roche competed in the Lake Anna Triple IRON. As a veteran of the race she knew what she needed to get through the race, but in order for her to follow her race plan and finish in under 50 hours, she’d need to go into herself on one the deepest of levels, and she instinctively knew that it wasn’t going to be. As she began, she sensed couldn’t do the swim, so she quit and got out of the water.
Roche went and talked Eric, her husband of 11 years and fellow endurance athlete. He would have none it; she was to get back into the water.It would take 20 minutes of conversing with Steve Kirby, the Double and Triple IRON race director and his wife, Cindy, before she made the decision to rejoin the race.
Roche finished the swim and got on her bike. She felt fatigued, but began to pedal her way through the race. When she got into the first night she started to falter. Despite years of experience with sleep deprivation training and persevering through two nights without sleep, Roche dismounted her bike and laid down to take a break around 3 am. Normally an athlete might lay down for a 45-minute cat nap during competition. Instead, Roche slept through until morning, awaking about 9 am and losing six hours.
“You just cannot do that in these races,” she said.
Roche started cycling again but then made the tough decision to pull out of the Triple IRON.
“I was just sucking wind,” Roche said. “I figured I’d try to stay on the course and work toward finishing the double distance bike and do the double run.”
Doing this disqualified Roche, but in finishing the Double in “unofficial” status, she got credit for completing the Double IRON.
“I did the Triple swim, Double bike and Double run and had a whole extra day to do it. In the end, once I decided to go for the double and support the guys it took the pressure off,” she said.
And cheering on the guys is really your only option in the Triple IRON distance.
Roche is one of only a handful of women that compete in Triple IRON. The past two years, she competed as the only woman.”There are not may females that compete in this race,” Roche said. “One year there were three of us, and that was a big field.”
Getting to Lake Anna
Training and competing take a lot of time but financially, all the equipment, food, supplies, training, and race fees can add up.“I owe a lot to Mike Woods owner Team Active Bike store (http://www.teamactive.com
) and Erik Cook (http://www.poweredbywsi.com
) who is my close friend and mentor. Both of them have helped me tremendously. They make it possible for me to compete on many levels,” Roche said.
Mother of Five and Very Much Alive
Kathryn with her kids with first husband.
Roche is not your typical mother. While she simultaneously took care of five kids ages 3-10, and managed a farm, she was racing–and not in the local neighborhood 5K though that would have been amazing. No, Roche spent her time competing in triathlons—and big ones.
Roche was racing competitively in college but got pregnant when she was 19 and continued to have all five of her children in five years. She dropped out of college and married her first husband, Paul. When she was 25, Roche watched Mark Allen’s wife crawl across the finish line of the Hawaiian Ironman and was instantly inspired. She called up the race director and asked she if could compete in the race and the race director had to explain that she had to make the qualifying standard.
“I had no idea you needed to qualify for the Ironman®!” she said.
Back in the 1990s, there were no endurance triathlons other than the Hawaiian Ironman, so Roche, competed in endurathons with two babies, two toddlers, and a grade schooler at home.Roche qualified for the Hawaiian Ironman when she was 31. With her children now ages 3-10 she not only went on to compete in Hawaii, she would go on to complete a total of four Hawaiian Ironmans; one a the pro level.
“I competed in two as an amateur in 1993 and 1994 and was actually beating people at the pro status, so I went and bought my pro card and competed in my third Ironman as a pro,” she said.
Cameron, center, rounds out the family
But racing at the pro level took a much higher level of effort; and to race at the elite level it took a lot of time. Roche made the mature decision to put family before competing.”I knew I was good but I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my life with my kids to really compete at the pro level,” Roche said. “There’s only so much time,” she said.
Roche’s life changed course in the late 1990s when her 18-year marriage to Paul Roche ended. At the time she knew and had competed with her now second husband, Eric Wallace, a fellow endurance athlete, whom she married in 2000. In 2002, when Cameron, her sixth and youngest son, was two, Roche qualified again for Hawaii at the Lake Placed Ironman and then competed in the Hawaiian Ironman a fourth time again as an amateur since she had let her pro status lapse.
In 2003, Roche decided to step it up a notch.
Finding the Triple IRON
Roche and Wallace were competing in adventure races through Oddessy Adventures when she learned about the Lake Anna Triple IRON which was and still is the only triple IRON in the continental U.S.
“I saw these huge endurance triathlons and said ‘this is out of this world crazy, and I want to do the triple!’” said Roche. “The only thing was I didn’t know how to train for these race because they were so long.”
In her mind, the double IRON was something she could race, but is was the sleep deprivation and the length of the race that attracted her. “In the triple, the strategy is different and the race is more on the individual,” she said. There was another attractive factor; at that time, no American woman had ever completed a triple IRON in the U.S.
So in 2003, Roche became that woman, and has gone on to compete at Lake Anna every year since.
During her first race she ran with the guys and asked them questions about how to strategize and how to get through night.
Now, Roche is able to give that advice herself. As she prepares for her next year in racing, she may move up to the next level—the infamous Mexico Deca IRON, just to test the waters and herself.
Factors In Prepping for a Triple IRON
Roche competed in the Race Across America (RAAM) in June 2011. The took race a lot out of her both financially and physically, and as a result, she considered not competing.
Many would ask if there is enough time in the day to train for a triple IRON.
“There is a misconception that I train 24 hours a day but I don’t. I have a base built up from years of doing this. Now I don’t train much more than what I would for a double IRON. The intensities between a double and triple are different, and I do races during the year that help me set up for the triple. You have more energy in a double, but when you hit two days without sleep you really need to go somewhere else mentally or physically,” she said.
Note: due to technical issues with putting in photo captions, I want to personally thank Will Ramos for supplying most of the photos in this article.