La Jolla Ironwoman overcomes back injury to run 10th triathlon


It was 1982 when La Jollan, then 22-year-old Kathleen McCartney, participated for the first time (and won) an Ironman triathlon. “That was one of the highlights of my life and really set a course for the rest of my life,” she said in an interview with La Jolla Light. Oct. 8, she will participate in her 10th Ironman at age 57 in Hawaii, the birthplace of the worldwide-sought race.

Ironman is a triathlon consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.22-mile marathon run in that order without a break. The race first took place in 1977 in Hawaii, and McCartney first knew about it as early as 1981, when her then-boyfriend participated (and won) the race. “As soon as the gun went off and I saw the swimmers going for the best adventures of their lives, I was inspired and decided to be one myself,” she explained.

Almost immediately after she started training for the 1982 race and confronted a life transformation. When she began training, her mindset was to finish the race, but, she said, “As my training progressed over several months, I thought, ‘Wow, I could do more than just finish!’ and that was an incredible transformation, to see yourself as a non-athlete, and one year later, have a chance of winning the Ironman race.”’

And she won indeed, after passing San Diegan Julie Moss, who fell to the ground yards from the finish line. As the Ironman official website reads, “Moss staggered, then stumbled, before falling to the ground. While she was crawling to the finish line, McCartney passed her for the win, but the dramatic footage aired by ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports’ featuring Moss’ heroic struggle, inspired a generation of triathletes.”

After making history, McCartney participated in the race five more times until 1988, and then took a break to focus on her family. Once her kids were grown (six, eight and 10 years old respectively) she came back to the race. “I wanted my kids to know me as the Ironwoman,” she said.

When asked what is it about the Ironman race that she loves so much, she answered, “There is nothing like that in the world, it’s magical, there’s something about that race that is so intriguing to so many people. I can’t get enough of it and I’ve always considered it one of the best days of my life.”

In 2007, McCartney experienced a ruptured herniated disk. “It was causing me such excruciating pain, that I didn’t know how I could endure it,” she explained. After successful surgery, she would have a normal life, “(Tri-City Medical Center orthopedic surgeon Dr. Neville Alleyne) basically saved my life and gave me a wonderful pain-free life back again.”

But normal wasn’t her Ironwoman self, “I was very protective, I thought my days of doing the triathlon were over.” After 25 years of marriage, she went through a divorce. “I hit rock bottom and I was looking for something … I thought, ‘What can I do to feel powerful and strong again?’ and I thought of doing the Ironman.”

Dr. Alleyne, also a La Jolla resident, specializes in spine injuries. He partnered with a physical therapist to design a treatment that will take McCartney back to a competition level.

“In McCartney’s case, her recovery and ultimate return to competition was due in a large part to an intense core strengthening program. Although she was already in good shape and an elite athlete, this core training was more intense and deeper than any regime she had done previously. It helped that Kathleen was a highly-motivated patient,” Dr. Alleyne explained.

McCartney added, “I focused on what I could do, swimming and riding a bike, and walking. I decided to do the 2013 triathlon, and just walk the marathon. Dr. Alleyne made a plan for me to regain my strength and by the time I got to the 2013 triathlon I was able to run the marathon. I ended up running the entire 26.22 miles, and I never looked back.”

Her training now, unlike the intense buildup of her early days as an Ironwoman, consists of yoga, Pilates and other core-strengthening exercises, 140 miles of biking, 25 miles of running and three miles of swimming a week.

She said that training helped her learn more about herself, “I discovered a source of endurance ... and that I had incredible determination and perseverance. These are things that would have gone untapped throughout my life had I not got into triathlon. I sure hope I go for the 11th Ironman. One of my goals is to do the Ironman with my kids, that’s what I see in my future,” she said.