In It for the Long Run: Athlete Plans 100 Triathlons in 20 Years
The day before competing in her second triathlon, Julie Henszey and her friend Jan were sizing up Lake Wazeecha in Wisconsin, the site of the swimming leg of the race. Henszey had notched her first triathlon a few months earlier when Jan invited her to a race in Atlanta. But she wasn’t really serious about competing.
Near the water, Henszey spied a fit-looking gentleman in his 70s and asked him if he was competing in the race.
“Yes,” he said. “My son got me started on triathlons when I was in my early 50s, and I’ve now knocked off over a hundred races.”
It was a “light-bulb” moment.
“I was inspired by his story and thought 100 triathlons was an amazing goal,” says Henszey, who was 35 at the time. “This could be a way for me to make sure I was fit as I grew older.”
Doing the math, she discovered she’d need to log five triathlons a year to reach a goal of 100 races in 20 years. She tucked that information away and completed three more triathlons that summer. Later that year, she committed to the goal.
At 50, Henszey, who works as an executive and performance coach, is on track for success, having completed 75 races. She believes planning helped her stay the course.
Committing to a Plan
After establishing a goal and time frame, it’s important to adopt solid strategies to help you stay on track.
Mapping a steady pace, Henszey decided to complete five triathlons each year. She puts the races on the calendar at the start of each race season and plans social activities and vacations around them. While sticking to the schedule as much as possible, she stays flexible. If something urgent comes up, she regroups and finds another race to replace it.
By setting common expectations and negotiating daily commitments, Henszey was able to maintain a regular training routine during racing season. When she decided to tackle a grueling half Iron Man triathlon as part of her yearly schedule, she stuck to a 10-workout-per-week training regime. That required putting firm boundaries around time spent at the office.
“I needed to leave work at 4:30 p.m. to fit in my workouts, so I posted my hours on the wall of my office. My colleagues knew when I was available, and I knew I had to get my work done in a specific time frame each day.”
The fact that Henszey’s 100 triathlons in 20 years goal was ambitious may have worked in her favor. Studies show that setting larger, specific goals has more impact on performance than easier, general ones. And breaking larger goals into smaller segments—like Henszey’s yearly race quotas—can make a big undertaking seem more manageable.
When life throws a wrench in our plans, it’s time to get creative. By rethinking limitations and reframing beliefs, there’s usually a way to move forward.
When Henszey’s children were young, family, work and social commitments left her little time for herself. She needed to challenge the belief that she didn’t have time to train. Brainstorming, she found that by letting go of some tasks, juggling her schedule and relying on the help of friends, she could stick to her training schedule.
“Try looking at things from a different perspective, and make choices that support your goal,” she says. “For example, instead of saying, ‘I wish I had time to run, but I have to clean my house,’ say, ‘I wish I had time to clean my house, but I have to run.’”
Fear and doubt can sabotage the best-laid plans.
“Our brains are programmed to focus on bad things that could happen,” Henszey says. “I often quote Rick Hanson, a psychologist and author, who said, ‘The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones.’ If we want to make changes, we need to introduce new habits and thoughts and not be so scared of what might happen, because it usually doesn’t.”
Putting negative thoughts to bed could be as simple as removing the element that worries us the most. When she started competing, Henszey worried about being kicked or slapped during the triathlon swim, when swarms of athletes vie to hit the water. To remove this constant anxiety, she decided to carve out a space further away from the pack—even though it might affect her overall event time.
Moving Past Roadblocks
With any goal, progress doesn’t come without challenges. Henszey has pushed through workouts in cold, driving rain and pedaled in wind gusts that make the road feel like wet cement.
“Many times, I felt like just packing up and heading home, but my goal keeps me going,” she said.
The cost of competing has also been an obstacle—especially during times when money was tight. A competition-level bike, wet suit and race fees don’t come cheap. But she tries to focus on the fact that she’s working toward long-term health—something that is a priority for her.
Staying power is essential for achieving all kinds of aims—from saving money or starting a business to advancing a career or getting a degree. When life throws a curve ball, persistence and grit can keep you in the game.
Realizing the Vision
A lot can happen in 15 years.
Since Henszey began her journey, she divorced, remarried and changed careers. But through it all, she’s steeled her focus on the 100 in 20 goal.
“It really energizes me,” says Julie. “It’s important to have goals that make you stretch.”
When Henszey crosses the finish line for the 100th time, her friend Jan will, once again, be by her side. After the celebration, she will think about new goals—as yet uncertain. But one thing’s sure: She’s up for the challenge.
Photo: Julie and her husband Michael Henszey, 2011. This was Julie’s 52nd triathlon.