I almost hate to open up this "can of worms known" as triathletes. However, it’s not every day when a former training partner qualifies for the Ironman World Champions in Kona, Hawaii. Sue Rubens, 41 of Plymouth, did just that in early November at Ironman Florida where she swam 2.4 miles in 1:12:41, biked 112 miles in 5:06:35, and then ran a marathon in 3:47:21. Not only was her total time of 10:14:31 a PR by one hour and 45 minutes, but she broke Jan Guenther’s mark for a Minnesota Master, and she was less than 2 minutes behind Minnesota’s best short course triathlete, Cathy Yndestad. (Photo courtesy of Sue Rubens)
First off, congratulations on your Ironman Hawaii qualifying performance. Before we get to that, can you briefly describe your previous Ironman (IM) attempts?
My first two Ironman races were under decidedly different extreme weather conditions in my home state of Wisconsin. My first Ironman was IM WI ’05 in which the brutal heat of 90+ degrees truly made life interesting for the athletes. I believe the race had the highest DNF rate of any IM distance with nearly 20% of the field not finishing. At mile 60 of the bike, my left leg went into a severe and mind-numbing cramp that brought out some words this Catholic girl doesn’t use often! I was forced to peddle with one leg on and off for the remainder of the ride; after I reached the transition area my legs were so spent and I was so salt-depleted that I literally tipped over my bike and had to be carried to the transition room. In my runner’s “high” or delirium, I thought I would be fine once I started to run (Ha!). Apparently my body thought it should be at the bar as my legs crumpled under me with the first stride. I thought, well I guess I will walk until I can start running (Ha again!). I shuffled down roads so familiar to me as a Wisconsin-native and graduate of UW Madison but I could barely keep my head up. My husband and sister saw me at mile 8 of the marathon and were ready to yank me out but I mumbled/drooled something about “no way” as they both joined me in walking the rest of the race. When it was all said and done, I finished at 15:26, probably the proudest if not ugliest finish of any race of my life! I had lost nearly 12 lbs during the race yet I am proud to say as a true Wisconsinite, I did make it to the Great Dane bar for beer and nachos afterwards!
IM WI ’06 was the polar opposite conditions - featuring cold, wind and rain with almost a 40-degree temperature swing from the year before. It was a different type of test to endure the unrelenting wind and rain but I crazily had something to prove from the previous year and I came in at 12:00.
After battling hot and cold conditions you decided to head south to Ironman Florida this year. How were the conditions and how did the race play out?
The weather for IM FL was absolutely perfect with a light breeze and temps in the low 70s. I was apprehensive about the ocean swim and what the waves/salt water inhalation would be like, but it honestly could not have been much better as the water was calm and the sea creatures kept to themselves! I got out of the water and thought my time was 10 minutes worse than what it actually was, so I was a little PO’d heading onto the bike. The bike course is a one-loop route on flat and smooth roads – it is a great course to get into a consistent rhythm and stick with it (which was a good thing as my bike computer had went haywire after the first 10 miles). The run course is a nice, uneventful two-loop flat route with plenty of fan support along the way.
Unlike a running event with a qualifying standard of usually time or place, spots to Hawaii are determined by a predetermined number of slots, which vary by each age group. Given the makeup of the event, it can be nearly impossible to know where you are standing within your age group. When did you realize you had qualified for Hawaii?
I didn’t find out for sure until after the race, I had looked at times from the previous 4 years and knew I had been faster but I was nervous about how many gals were ahead of me and how many spots were allocated for my age group.
Was qualifying your only goal or did you have a time goal too?
Qualifying was the primary goal along with coming in between 10:30 – 10:45. Interestingly, had I finished in my original goal time I probably would not have qualified for Hawaii even though that was the range of qualifying times the last 4 years. The woman who won my age group had a rock star performance and beat many of the pros!
In the sport of triathlon, an injury can be a blessing in disguise – especially if it limits your stronger sport because as it forces you work on your weaker events. Can you tell us about the injury that kept you from running and how your subsequent biking improved?
I was diagnosed with a stress reaction in my left hip in April ’07 due to overdoing it with too much winter fun during the February snowstorm. A stress reaction is basically a precursor to a full-blown stress fracture, which made it very painful to put full weight on my left leg. My doctor immediately took me off of running and was very cautious about the type of cardio I was allowed to do (i.e. elliptical ok, stairmaster not ok). I ended up being off of running for over 3 months and directed my training to swimming, biking, and elliptical workouts. I love biking so spending more time in the saddle was great! I was able to do significant mileage, which undoubtedly contributed to an overall improvement in biking power.
While the races themselves are solo efforts, training is not. Tell us a little bit about training with Matt and his P2 group.
Coach Matt is passionate about the sport of triathlon and has guided many athletes to their best performances. This past season was my 3rd year with the P2 group - it is an awesome mix of athletes of all ages who work hard, train hard and sometimes play hard! The support everyone gives each other is pretty amazing; there wasn’t one race I did this year that didn’t have another P2 teammate participating or on-site providing boisterous fan support! There hasn’t been a race yet that I haven’t learned something from watching my teammates compete.
Most triathletes come from a strong background in one of the disciplines. What’s your background and how’d you get involved with triathlons?
I started running marathons when I turned 30 and enjoyed training with Minnesota Distance Running Association (MDRA). I enjoyed the singular focus of marathon training and competed at Grandma’s, Chicago, Boston, New York, Dublin, and Portland. But my body was getting a little beat up by the running mileage so I knew I needed to find another competitive outlet. I had always loved to bike and was an average swimmer so I thought I’d try triathlons and I was bitten by the tri bug! One of my friends from MDRA told me about the P2 group so that seemed like a great fit if I decided to refocus on running down the road.
If you could swim, bike and/or run with any Minnesotan, past or present, who would it be?
That is a good question! There are so many athletes I have come to admire since I started doing tris that I just hope to keep learning from the athletes who have set the standard in not only race performance but also sportsmanship and class on race day.
You’re a HUGE Wisconsin Badger at heart, yet your husband, J Robinson, coaches wrestling at the University of Minnesota. How does that work?
J knew he married a gal whose blood runs Badger red! He is a good sport about it and endures the grief he gets from U of M athletes and staff when he has to use my car with all of the Badger fan fare on it. For my 40th birthday last year he surprised me with a party at Camp Randall football stadium complete with a visit from Bucky Badger so I secretly think he yearns to be a Badger!
I assume J has given a pep talk or two in his life. What did he tell you before Florida?
J has been by far the most important factor in how I process competition and training. Throughout the season he sends me cards, notes, and emails with words of encouragement and support. He respects the time commitment needed for IM training and has always been my biggest fan. Before Florida he told me that I was ready, that I had worked my tail off and that to take each phase of the race as it comes. He had finagled a press pass for the race so he was in the chute when I ran by (not expecting the kiss I planted on him at the turn around point, nothing like seeing a tough guy really embarrassed!).
Finally, since you’re the best party planner around, what’s the key to hosting a great party?
Great music, a wide selection of food and beverages and a handy supply of paper towels for the many mystery spills that turn up!