Canaan woman stays on the run, literally

CAANAN–On September 25, 925 athletes from across the country will compete in the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Canaan resident Joanna Ezinga will be among them.

One of only 312 women to compete in this prestigious event, Ms. Ezinga, 59, qualified for the race by finishing third in her age category at the Danskin Woman’s Triathlon, a sprint triathlon, and first in her age bracket at Lake George, an Olympic-distance triathlon – both USAT sanctioned qualifying events. A “sprint” consists of a half-mile swim, 12-mile bike ride and a 5-kilometer run. An Olympic-distance triathlon is double that.

The USAT monitors the results of the races it sanctions to arrive at rankings. The top ranked competitors in each of the 14 age categories (ranging from 18-19 to, yes, 80+) are eligible to run in the national championship. The top finishers there will be eligible to compete in the International Triathlon Union World Championship, to be held in Beijing in 2011.

Ms. Ezinga, mother of three, began running in 1983 after the birth of her second son, competing in 5 and 10ks for about 10 years. Looking for “more variety,” she ran her first triathlon, the Danskin, in 1992. Looking back, she marvels at taking this on without coaching or a formal training program.

Four years ago, Ms. Ezinga gave up a career as an administrator in the non-profit sector to begin a coaching business with a focus on triathlon coaching. She became a certified personal trainer and then worked to become a USATriathlon Level 2 Certified Coach. That makes her one of only a few hundred in the country, she says. She’s also a USACycling Level 2 Certified Coach.

She is preparing for the fourth season of her “Give It a Tri” triathlon training program, designed for women at the beginner and intermediate levels. With the start of a new beginners group every spring, she says, “It is rewarding to watch these women progress… not just in terms of race completion times but also the development of mental toughness and confidence.” Working with women in their 40s to 60s who are not necessarily natural athletes, she strives to help them achieve a “transformative experience” that will translate to other aspects of their lives.

Ms. Ezinga had her own such experience while she was enduring the Lake George Triathlon swim leg last fall. Conditions were “brutal” due to a high chop in the lake. Unable to get her bearings or see other swimmers, there was a moment of distress. “I found the courage and strength to work through it, one stroke and one breath at a time,” she said.

Referring to herself as “an average person,” she asserts that the dedication and discipline required to train for a triathlon has been “the door that I walk through to learn more about myself… to become more accomplished.” It is this that she hopes to instill in the persons that she coaches.

To prepare for September’s championship, Ms. Ezinga is working with a coach–actually coaches–a husband and wife team who are buddies of hers from Ohio. She admits that she is giving them fits by her decision to take a month off from mid-March to mid-April to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail. She has started the “base phase” of her training regimen, which consists of building a strong aerobic base, strength and core work as well as skill development (such as swimming technique). When she returns from the hike, she will begin the “build phase,” in which she will place more emphasis on raising her anaerobic threshold–the ability to work all out for greater periods of time, as well as additional strength training–keys to the ability to sprint up a hill, for example. In June, she will compete in an Olympic-distance “training race” in Middlebury, Conn., at the Northeast Regional Championship. As she approaches race day, she will enter the last training phase, which is a tapering off.

Having coaches to whom she is accountable helps her balance her own training with her commitment to the individuals and teams that she is coaching. Her present training routine requires 12 hours per week, which will increase to 20 hours in the spring. When she is not engaged in core or strength training (six days per week) or swimming, biking and running sessions (three to five days per week, each), Ms. Ezinga is coaching groups and conducting personal training.  She will start up the next “Tri” beginners group in May, and will coach a swim club and lead a hiking program at the Kripalu Center. And then there are her duties attendant to being president of the board of the Mountain Road School in New Lebanon.

The top finishers in the 19-person 55-59 group at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship last year finished between just under two and a half hours to just over three hours. Ms. Ezinga’s Lake George time, with that turbulent swim leg, was two hours, 57 minutes. She has her eye on a top-10 finish and believes she has a shot at a top five–and perhaps even an invitation to Beijing. She wonders, however, if she might not have a better shot next year when she “ages-into” the next age bracket. Time, so to speak, will tell.

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