But apparently training for triathlons is what passes for fun in Ireland’s world – and her husband Len feels the same way. “It’s a perverted sense of fun, isn’t it?” laughs Len Ireland.
Maybe if he’d had a poster of the Tiddly Winks world championships in his office all these years, their lives might have taken a different turn. But, it was a poster of the Ironman race in Hawaii that Len looked up at every day, and he told himself – that would be him before he turned 50.
Somewhere along the way, Heather got swept up in Len’s dream. Why not? They’d been partners in marriage since 1980, partners in parenting three children, partners in running, and partners in life.
It was about eight years ago that the two avid runners decided to take their passion for fitness and running to the next level. They started training for triathlons and had two under their belts before competing in the 2003 Ironman USA.
In the sporting world, Ironman is one of the most challenging events and also one of the most inspiring. When Ironman founder John Collins first initiated the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon, he wrote down an outline of the rules and the course with the exhortation: “Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!”
As Len sums it up, “They don’t call it Easyman!”
The Kona World Championship in Hawaii has to be one of the world’s most recognized endurance events and the global benchmark for testing one’s personal limits. In order to gain entry, you have to place in the top of your age group in another Ironman event. Len did that in 2004 but, because this had become a joint dream, he wanted to wait until Heather qualified too, which came in 2006.
Rick Hellard, the couple’s friend and coach of six years, finds it inspiring that Len refused his spot twice until Heather got a spot at the same time. “They are truly a team and are in this together,” he says admiringly.
They were so close to realizing their joint dream when personal disaster struck. Within a year, Heather’s father had died and their daughter Hannah had become seriously ill. All of Heather’s hard work and training evaporated as she traded training time for sitting by hospital bedsides.
As Hannah’s condition improved, Heather slowly started to train, but once again, fate threw an ugly twist when she fell and broke a leg. Undeterred, she ran as soon as doctors allowed, but within days she found out her brother was ill and the prognosis was not good. At the same time, the World Ironman committee in Hawaii had actually sent word to the Irelands that their request to have their qualifying times deferred for a year was accepted.
Determined not to dwell on the events of those terribly sad times, Heather wipes her tears away to explain that she and Len went ahead with Hawaii after her brother’s death because it’s what he would have wanted them to do.
For the Irelands, it really is a love affair — a love for each other, their family and their chosen sport.
“We relate to and support each other and that’s what makes it work,” she says, adding “It’s because we both do it,” as Len quips, “I just follow the rock star.”
Despite the fact that training consumes anywhere from 14 to 20 hours a week, their family of three adult children aged 19, 23 and 27, comes first. As Heather works full time at Air Canada while Len logs long hours as President of Gorlan Mechanical, they have other priorities and are probably not average Ironman triathletes.
“We don’t give up life for this,” laughs Heather, who says they also take coffee and Advil and look forward to a frosty beer in the evening after a long run or training ride. Yet they do admit to being A-type people – Len needs less sleep than most and Heather has a high pain threshold – but they’re real.
Even at the start line, the evidence of their couple-ship is very much in view. They stay close together before a race, wish each other well, kiss goodbye, and then they’re off to race.
On July 25th, 2010 at Ironman USA in Lake Placid, Len, soon to turn 57, finished first in his age group. But, his stellar performance was bittersweet. Heather, who was second in her age group after the bike finish, was feeling strong and ready for the running competition. Unfortunately, she was unable to finish due to complications that required IV treatment at the six mile med tent.
It was a devastating blow but not a deterrent for a couple who share such a passion for their sport. They both take pride in each other’s accomplishments and the tough part is when one has a good day and the other does not.
Although, good is an understated word for this amazing couple who just happen to be better than most at balancing life, family and work to be competitive Ironman triathletes.