Camptown husband and wife compete in Ironman Triathlon
Published: January 6, 2013
Rachel Murphy was so tired.
She ran, she walked. She plopped one foot in front of the other, right then left, left then right. It was hard to breathe. But the road ahead just wouldn’t end. Her body was wearing out.
It had all started that morning. First she swam 2.4 miles in a lake, then rode a bike 112 miles. Now she’d run almost 26 miles.
This was the Lake Placid Ironman Triathlon, a grueling contest that tests — and often defeats — even the fittest athletes. The Camptown woman was competing in the 2012 edition along with her husband, Mike Murphy, running beside her.
But it was night. Even the sun had given up on her and left, and darkness was swallowing them up. She had only about a half-mile left. But she knew she couldn’t do it.
Then she appeared: the EMT lady. She was there to help people who couldn’t go on. This was Rachel’s answer.
“I’m done!” she declared. “I can’t finish.”
“OK, dear,” the medical worker soothed her.
A year of running, biking, swimming, working. Dreaming. And now, like a drop of sweat on hot skin, it was about to slide down, down, down, then splash and die on the hard ground. This was the moment.
* * * * *
“Murph,” as Mike’s friends call him, teaches health and physical education and coaches cross country and track at Northeast High School, while Rachel teaches band at Wyalusing. Both are accomplished runners today, yet different paths brought them here.
Murph, 38, was always athletic. Growing up in Yardley, Pa., near Philadelphia, he did it all: swimming — “I just really took to that” — then soccer, track, tennis.
“I always liked what I was best at.”
He swam a few years, “then that kind of switched to running.” In 10th grade he dropped soccer to just run.
And he was good at it. His Pennsbury High School relay team took a state championship, and his cross country squad was a runner-up. At West Chester University, near Philadelphia, Murph won eight conference track championships either individually or with his relay team.
After college, he eased up. But he gained weight and started running more intensely again.
“I was heavy. That really was a big motivating factor,” he says. 1999 was “the comeback.”
Today, he sits in his classroom with a coach’s whistle on the student desk in front of him, Rachel at another desk. Both are trim and healthy. In the corner stands a human body model; a heart drawing hangs on a side wall. In the back are the special posters. “The pack is stronger than the individual,” declares one, with pictures of runners. Another shows a sketched unicorn’s head and the message “Nothing says better, better than Boston.” Below are the words: 2010 Boston Marathon.
As she grew up, Rachel was not an avid athlete. She was into music. Sure, she ran on the Wyalusing cross country team a couple of years, because her friends did, but “I was not much of an asset,” she insists. Run five miles a day? No way!
She majored in voice at West Virginia University, got her master’s in music education at Marywood and returned to Wyalusing to teach.
Then she joined a “biggest loser” weight-loss contest and started running again. “I’ll work. I’ll make myself run,” she thought. And “I really ended up liking it!”
Then Murph and Rachel met. Something clicked.
Almost. Because although Rachel liked running, “she didn’t still quite love it,” Murph says.
They signed up for the Danby Down and Dirty trail run. “That’s the race that I credit,” Murph says, for making Rachel fall in love — with running again.
Three years later, they ran Down and Dirty again. Afterward, in a ditch, Murph asked Rachel a question:
Will you marry me?
* * * * *
They married in February 2010, on a hotel roof in Martha’s Vineyard. Murph wore a dress jacket in the 30-degree weather; Rachel, a gown and white coat. “Rachel looked like an ice princess!” her husband remembers.
After the ceremony, they ran a 20-mile race.
* * * * *
After the first Down and Dirty, Rachel had made a declaration: “She said, ‘I want to run a marathon’,” Murph says.
So she did. Again and again.
Rachel’s been running seriously for six years now. She’s up to 12 marathons, including Wineglass (in Corning and Bath) and New York, and the granddaddy of them all, Boston. Six times. In 2012 she finished in about the top 35 percent.
Add in all the shorter races near and far, and Rachel’s averaging 30 to 40 a year.
Murph’s kept all his race bibs since 1986. “I counted them up a couple of years ago.” He estimates he’s close to 300 now. That, too, includes New York and Boston (roughly the top 5 percent in 2011).
“We just tend to run a lot of races!” Rachel declares.
And, as of this interview, Murph had run at least one mile every day since Dec. 2, 2008. In all weather. He ran. In 2009 when he had surgery. He ran. “You imagine anything and I ran.”
Sometimes people in training wonder: “Am I going to run today?” he says. They may end up skipping too much.
“I just took that decision out of the equation.” He will run. Period. Sometimes he’s had to trot along a highway or at rest stops to get in his mileage. But he does it. It might be late at night, and “the last thing you want to do is go out in the dark” — in 10-degree weather — and run. “But I do it.”
His dedication’s earned Murph a spot on the United States Running Streak Association list. “I’m No. 241 in the United States,” he reports. (No. 1 is Mark Covert, a 61-year-old teacher from California, who’s run every day since July 23, 1968.)
“It’s absolutely for nothing,” he adds. No money, no prizes.
“But I really like it.”
And, yes, you might ask them both: WHY?
Running “keeps me sane,” Rachel says. She runs for her health, too, and to socialize with friends. “It’s a huge part,” she adds. You can “talk for two hours.”
“And there’s days I don’t like it,” she admits. But she keeps at it.
Almost anyone can do it if he or she tries, she believes. And be pretty good.
For Murph, it’s not about the accomplishment. “It’s being out there,” he states. Out in the snow, the heat, the cold, the floods. Just feels natural.
One time they did a non-competitive run in the Virgil, N.Y., mountains. “It was really cold” — about 5 degrees — but “so pretty,” Murph remembers. New snow hugged trees’ shoulders as runners loped by, and afterward, everyone ate pancakes. It was one of his favorites. The world was beautiful. And he was part of it.
* * * * *
“It was ALL his idea.”
Rachel was not planning on an Ironman.
“I always wanted to do one,” Murph says. “I kept putting it off.” For years, he’d watched the famed Ironman World Championship in Hawaii on TV. “I can’t do it without crying,” he admits.
“I just had to be a part of it somehow.”
Finally, he declared: “I’m gonna do it this year.” A friend of theirs was doing it, too.
“You’re both nuts!” Rachel declared.
They visited Lake Placid, in the Adirondacks, during the 2011 triathlon so Murph could sign up for 2012. And they watched. Seeing people cross the finish line is an emotional thing.
That night, Rachel told Murph: “I think I’m going to do it.”
* * * * *
They got triathlon bikes, wet suits and all the other stuff. They were in it together.
Highland Lake, near Warren Center, and the Elk Lake pool were good places to practice. They biked on Route 6. At first, Rachel would nervously get off and walk her bike downhill. By the end, she was whooshing downhill at 30-40 mph.
Throughout the year, they racked up impressive numbers.
“We just came up with a plan,” Rachel remembers. They’d do 80- or 100-mile rides, with shorter 45- and 50-milers or days off between. One day they peddled 90 miles around Lake Seneca. “And training on a bicycle takes forever!” Murph says.
And don’t forget running. They’d do long runs, but not next to riding days. And they had to eat — a lot.
Hot weather? Didn’t matter. Maybe they’d go out in the morning or evening. Freezing weather? Heavy rain? That lake still waited.
But all did not go smoothly. Last spring, in the midst of it all, they got the news.
Murph’s mother had been fighting pancreatic cancer, lymphoma and multiple sclerosis. She was not getting better.
“They told me that my mom was going to start hospice,” Mike says.
Things changed. They “put life on hold,” he remembers. “We didn’t do anything.” He spent time at her Warren Center home and ran maybe just 2 or 3 miles a day. But sometimes other things are “just more important,” he says.
Mary Ann Murphy, only 61, died June 6.
“She was always ... my biggest fan,” Murph says. She was even buried in a Northeast Cross Country sweatshirt. Lake Placid? “She would have been there.”
They’d lost training time. But they knew what they would do.
“We’re just going to train as much as we can,” Murph said. They followed the plan.
* * * * *
On the morning of July 21 Murph, Rachel and about 2,800 others gathered at Mear Lake, Lake Placid, N.Y. It would be a pleasant day, in the 70s, in this land where steep, green hillsides kneel to sip from blue lakes.
They wore wet suits over biking and running clothes. Rachel was so worried, she’d been crying. Murph was fine. “I’m a pretty good swimmer.”
Then it was time. Go!
Everyone kicked and thrashed around in the water. “People swam over me, people swam under me,” Rachel says. Lifeguards and helicopters watched for anyone struggling. Rachel saw one man have a panic attack. It’s “very, very, very difficult for some people,” Murph says. Some people quit right there.
But as they swam, things cleared out. They freestyled around the lake twice, covering 2.4 miles. Murph finished in 62 minutes. Rachel had daydreamed of 1 hour, 45 minutes; she made it in 1:38. “Which I was so excited with!”
They pulled off their wetsuits. Rachel gobbled a peanut butter and jelly sandwich — after swimming “you’re really hungry!” she says — then jumped onto her bike. Murph had taken a bagel along.
“I felt like I was a little undertrained,” he admits of the cycling.
The trail is pretty, Murph says, but one of the toughest around, with lots of hills. And just sitting on a bike for seven hours is uncomfortable.
Rachel, though, liked the ride the best. She biked awhile, made a bathroom break, and biked some more. “I cannot believe I’m at mile 90!” she thought. But most of that last 22 miles went uphill. Everything slowed.
Riding separately, Murph and Rachel spent seven hours perched on little seats, hunched over, peddling, coasting, peddling away the miles and squeezing between mint-green hillsides with nearly straight-up slopes. (“Fallen rock zone,” reads one road sign along the way.)
Murph and Rachel both finished the ride in 7 hours. It was late afternoon.
It was time to run.
Murph was eager. The first 4 miles was great, then he got cramps. By mile 8, “I was just struggling all over.” By 13, he knew: “I was going to have a long day.”
Rachel’s first 14 miles went well. “This is great!” she thought.
But a race course can cackle with a cruel fickleness. Just like that, she began struggling too. “I can’t believe I have 12 miles!” she said to herself.
Along the way, Rachel saw a group of runners just stop. They were yelling. One turned and started running back along the course, using up precious energy ... what was wrong?
A man lay along the road. He was screaming. A medic on a Gator vehicle drove up to him to help.
“That was kind of scary!” Rachel says.
That’s what an Ironman can do.
The bike ride had drained Murph’s legs and after 14 ½ or 15 miles, he started taking walk breaks. First short ones, then longer. Rachel caught up at mile 19. “I started feeling a little better,” Murph remembers. But she was feeling worse.
A marathon can be painful and dangerous. In just an hour, a runner can sweat away a quart of water — don’t replace it and the body stops (Boston.com website). And according to a 2008 article by Tom McGrath in “Men’s Health,” a marathon can: stiffen muscles, leak enzymes into the blood, stress the heart, throw off blood flow in the heart and increase the level of heart attack-causing chemicals in the blood. Some people die. (The article points out, though, that any heart damage does reverse itself and proper training helps protect runners from these problems. And training is very healthful itself.)
This day, Murph and Rachel were doing a marathon-length run on top of the biking and swimming.
They paced themselves by phone poles — run between two, walk between two, back and forth. At mile 23, “I didn’t think I was going to be able to finish,” Rachel says. “Every step I took was going to be my last.” She thought she’d hit the ground. And she still had three miles to go.
“I couldn’t believe how heavy I was breathing.” She was gasping, even walking.
And the hills were still there. “I do not have the energy to walk up a hill,” she said. “I’m not sure I can make it up this hill.” She’d try to run, but couldn’t go far.
And so it went. Pole after pole, and step after step. The couple stuck together.
Murph was worn out, too. “It’s very difficult to describe the level of exhaustion that I felt.”
And then, there was the finish line!
Yes, but they couldn’t cross it.
Perhaps it was a cruel joke, but runners had to turn to the right and go another mile up a road and back. THEN they could cross.
So No. 1759, in his white shirt, and No. 532 in her blue, with red sunglasses perched atop her head, plodded on together, just as they’d done over so many roads and trails in city and country over the days and years. And through happiness and sadness. Through life.
But the body can’t go on forever.
And so they came to the critical moment, the moment that would decide everything for Rachel and make her an Ironman ... or not. The EMT was there offering help. What would it be? This was it.
“No!” Murph declared.
He pulled Rachel by the hand.
* * * * *
She still didn’t think she could stay upright. But she did. “I can’t do it. I can’t run,” she said.
OK, Murph said. We’ll walk.
The last yards looped around an Olympic track. Here, an audience watched, a screen showed runners close-up, a man snapped photos. Weary runners lifted their arms in triumph.
“OK, I can do it,” Rachel said. “I can run.”
Their feet slopped away the last yards. Murph’s time and place weren’t what he’d wanted. But he was with Rachel — that’s what mattered. And Rachel — she was making it.
And there it was, for real this time. A big, blue arch overhead with the word “Ironman” on it. The finish. They ran under it.
“Mike and Rachel Murphy from Camptown!” an announcer boomed.