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January 14, 2011

Uncommon Interview: Ruth Anne Whitfield

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Anthony Stark built a suit of armor and became Ironman. Ruth Anne Whitfield (A.B. ’09), a Resident Head at the International House, devoted eight years to rigorous running, biking, and swimming to become an Ironwoman—on top of being a full-time student. The Ironman competition consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon, which she completed in 17 hours on November 28 in Cozumel, Mexico. Whitfield set her sights on the super-triathlon at 16 years old and tailored her participation in athletics to suit her preparations: She joined the varsity swim team and the track and field team to improve her swimming and to learn proper weight training technique. Whitman took a break from training to sit down with the Maroon in Ratner Athletic Center—familiar territory—to discuss dolphins, waffles, and the human body’s capacity for suffering.

Chicago Maroon: What was your motivation for competing in the Ironman?

Ruth Anne Whitfield: It just seemed like the ultimate endurance test. As an athlete, I was always looking for the challenge. I was always doing extra practices in the morning on top of what we would do at afternoon practices. When I would get upset—like, a lot of people would go eat chocolate—I’d go run like five miles. It just seemed like, how cool would that be to say I swam two and a half miles, then I biked 112, and then I ran a marathon?

CM: Is that the allure for most of your fellow Ironmen?

RW: No. Well, obviously it’s hard to speak for them, but it’s been said that the triathlon is the midlife crisis sport... You went through your first divorce, you had your fourth child, and now you’re like, “OK, what do I do to improve my sense of self-worth?”... And so the bulk of the people who do triathlons and Ironmans are between the ages of like 28 and 50.

CM: Give us an idea of what it’s like during the race. Was there a point where you thought about caving in to the pain and quitting?

RW: I wanted to stop before I had even started, because there’s something about the actual day of the race. I had never cried, I had never complained that much. I was always going into this Ironman race thinking, “Oh yeah, I’m going to finish.” But there’s something about that day, when you’re there... I’m terrified of sharks, there’s shark-infested water, and there were like dolphins in the middle... the dolphins were actually caged in.

CM: They caged in the dolphins but not the sharks?

RW: I mean, they had boats out and stuff, and the assumption is sharks aren’t going to attack a group of 2,000 people.

CM: What did you do to keep yourself going?

RW: I just started yelling at myself... One of the things that I really like in life is food, and so I started yelling out my favorite foods. I was yelling out like “Waffles!” and like “Chicken wings!” and all these different things.

CM: Any connection between the Life of the Mind and the life of a triathlete?

RW: Endurance is the key to getting through the University. I think all of us have gone through that point or that love/hate relationship where you’re like, “Why did I come here?”... It’s the ultimate endurance. You’re going to go through pain. You get through it because you have an end goal in mind.

—Hans Glick

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