As she approached her 50th birthday a year ago, Shannon Clay-Gillette was looking for a challenge.
The Medford native had moved back to the Rogue Valley after 25 years of living in Utah and working in the ski industry. Though she had kept active through skiing and snowshoeing during those years, Clay-Gillette, who currently coaches swimming at Rogue Valley YMCA, had given up the triathlon training that had been her fitness focus throughout her 20s and up until her daughter was born in 1990.
"I had gotten away from the athletic community," says Clay-Gillette. "Even though I was around active people, I missed the camaraderie of athletic friends."
She watched her daughter, Shalaya Kipp, develop into a national-caliber, high-school alpine ski racer. Last spring, Kipp became the NCAA steeplechase national champion, running for the University of Colorado at Boulder, and she competed for the United States in the steeplechase at the London Olympics.
"Watching Shalaya compete in cross-country and track meets, it inspired me to step up and take stock of what I wanted to do myself," says Clay-Gillette. "It turned out to be finding my athletic self again."
To mark her half-century milestone, Clay-Gillette settled on something far more ambitious than she had accomplished half a lifetime ago: an Ironman triathlon. The ironman distance requires athletes to swim 2.4 miles, bicycle 112 miles and run a 26.2-mile marathon.
She began to train in earnest last February for the Nov. 3 Ironman Florida race. Her early training strategy was to rebuild muscle strength.
"My weekly training was composed of two days of strength training and the rest of the week composed of swimming, biking and running," explains Clay-Gillette. "As the season progressed, I dropped one day of strength training and added one day of cycling."
In the spring, she increased her training time with longer bike rides. In the summer, she traded lap swimming for open-water training in Howard Prairie Reservoir, not far from her home. Clay-Gillette's husband, Russ, often kayaked with her in the reservoir to keep her company and provide visual navigation.
During her peak training weeks, Clay-Gillette logged 18 hours in the gym, water and on the roads.
On the morning of Nov. 3, Clay-Gillette found herself on a Panama City beach in a mob of 3,000 triathletes when the starter's gun fired.
"It was a mass swim start — everyone started at the same time," says Clay-Gillette. "I didn't feel in danger, but I was concerned about getting kicked in the jaw or maybe an elbow in the cheek."
The swim consisted of two laps with a short run on the beach in between. The swim her strongest event, Clay-Gillette was in third place out of the 76 women in the 50-54 age group who would eventually finish the race.
Next up was the 112-mile bicycle ride.
"Florida is flat as a pancake: That's both good and bad," recalls Clay-Gillette. "Good because there are no hills, but bad because you can't coast, so you're pedaling the whole way."
The bike leg proved to be the most difficult of the three that day.
"I'm most confident in the swim and run, but the bike was an unknown," says Clay-Gillette. "I never had any doubts about finishing on the bike. I was just disappointed; I thought I'd go faster."
The triathlon competitors had their race numbers marked on their shoulders in waterproof ink. The specific age group is written on the back of the calf.
"Every time a girl would pass me (on the bike), the competitor in me couldn't help but look at her calf to see how old the person was who was passing me," admits Clay-Gillette. "After a while I said to myself, 'Stop doing that. This is your first Ironman.' "
The run, a marathon, went smoothly even though the day's temperature peaked in the low 80s.
"It was a two-loop course, completely lined with spectators, so that was energizing," says Clay-Gillette.
As she approached the finish line, the sun had set and darkness had descended on the course. Her main thought, says Clay-Gillette, was "I'm ready to finish. Then a commentator announced your name as you finished and said, 'You are an Ironman,' and that's always nice to hear."
Clay-Gillette's husband and two friends were waiting to celebrate her finish. Her time of 12 hours, 12 minutes and 30 seconds was good for 869th of 3,061 finishers, and she was 11th in her age group.
A week later, Clay-Gillette already was planning her next races. She'll use her new fitness in a few shorter triathlons, but she's determined to do another Ironman.
"I don't know if it's in the cards for next summer," says Clay-Gillette. "Because my daughter will be competing in the U.S. track and field championships and may go to the world championships, and they're held in Moscow."
And that trip, she says, is worth putting her training on hold.