Sports

Finding fun in triathlons at 40

NEILY JENNINGS, A former longtime Starksboro resident, bikes in the Vermont Sun Triathlon at Lake Dunmore on June 18. She finished second in the 40-44 women’s age group and fifth overall among more than 50 women.
Photo by Pat Hendrick Photography

SALISBURY — Neily Jennings said she completed her first triathlon in her native Hartford, Conn., area when she was “15 or 16, and that was just for fun.” 

That was before Jennings, now 40, attended and swam competitively at the University of Vermont. And it came 23 years, a career, a marriage and two children before she would again swim, bike and run her way to a triathlon finish line.

That was in 2021 in one of the many such endurance events Vermont Sun Fitness Centers sponsor at Lake Dunmore. 

During the years between those two competitions, Jennings, who moved with husband Connor Timmons and their two young children from Starksboro to Charlotte at the end of June, said triathlons always remained in the back of her mind.

But although she loved swimming and biking, she said she was unsure about that third and final running leg and finding the time it would take to prepare for it. She had kept up her swimming, and she and Timmons were faithful road and mountain bikers.

Finally, Jennings said that time was right about two years ago, and she committed to a Vermont Sun sprint triathlon. The sprint part of the title is misleading: It’s a 600-yard swim, a 14-mile bike ride and a 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) run. Its sprint label only distinguishes it from an Olympic-distance triathlon, which doubles those distances.

“I always wanted to, but for me it was the running. I’m not a runner. So I had to work my way up to be able to run even a 5K,” she said. “I think I got back into it because my second child was two … so it was kind of ready-for-me time. So signing up for a triathlon was a way to sort of ensure that I would prioritize some training time. Otherwise I think I would always let other people come first.”

Fortunately, Timmons, a native of the Montreal area, supports her as much as she supports him.  

“He’s a super-feminist partner, so he’s always trying to make sure I’ve got my time. But he plays hockey and a little bit of soccer,” Jennings said. “So we try to make sure each other has some coverage to do that stuff.”

After UVM, Jennings “moved around a bunch, and then I met my husband.” The move to Starksboro, where they both spent most of the past decade working for the Common Ground Center, was logical, she said.  

“Vermont seemed like a good halfway point between both of our families, and we both loved Vermont,” Jennings said.

As well as the move to Charlotte, Jennings also no longer works for the Common Ground Center. She is now the Finance and Operations Coordinator for Aorta Cooperative, which she said does “consulting, facilitating and training with a racial equity lens. We’re all over the country.”

After relocating, the family still plans to maintain ties in Addison County by attending the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society in Middlebury. 

Jennings has no plans to give up triathlons anytime soon, either. 

“I’m hoping to be one of those people who are still doing them in their 70s, but we never know how our bodies will hold up over time. I’ll do it as long as injuries don’t prevent it,” she said. “But I’m kind of addicted. I think if I’m not able to continue I can fall back on swimming as an activity with a lower-impact.”

MOTIVATION

In retrospect, it’s not difficult to see how Jennings became a triathlete. 

“I’ve just always been an active person. I enjoy cross-country skiing. I enjoy biking. I like to be outside hiking, kayaking,” Jennings said.

Physical fitness is a crucial component of her overall sense of health and well-being, she added.

“For me exercise is first and foremost a mental health and emotional well-being activity,” she said. 

As someone who competed at a high level as a swimmer, Jennings acknowledged that side to her attraction to triathlons. But added the common bond among the participants to the mix.

“There is a sense of being part of a community of people who have this strange urge to show up at six in the morning and do this,” she said.

She cited the June 18 triathlon, (where she was fifth overall among 50 women and second in her 40-44 age group), which had conditions that were less than optimal. Yet 150 people were there for sprint and Olympic triathlons. 

 “It was 56 degrees, windy and raining. The lake was like swimming in the ocean it was so wavy. I was just swallowing water. I couldn’t believe how many people showed up. None of us had to be there. But everyone just showed up and jumped in the lake,” Jennings said.  

Why did she and so many others make their way to Branbury State Park that morning, or on other mornings?

“I think there’s just something fun about it. For me the attraction of a triathlon is I get bored doing one thing, so I like there are three different components. If I was just training for a marathon I would get sick of just running all the time,” Jennings said. 

There’s more:

“I’ve never been a ball sports person, a team sports person. I’ve never been coordinated. I don’t know, maybe I’m more of an independent person,” she said. “I just like when it comes down to it you’re doing your race. There’s no one to rely on but yourself, and you’re just trying to get what you can out of yourself.”

PREPARATION

Despite the joy of pushing her own limits, it remains a challenge to fit in enough workout time between parenting, work, Timmons’s pursuits, and family time. 

“I will take that time whenever I can get it. Sometimes I’ll drop (the children) off at school in the morning and do a half-hour run right after that. Or I’ll cut out of work at 4 p.m. before they get off from school and go out for a run,” Jennings said.  

NEILY JENNINGS AND husband Connor Timmons each support the other’s athletic pursuits — she competes in triathlons, and he plays hockey and some soccer — while working fulltime and raising two young children.
Photo courtesy of Neily Jennings

She also will hop on the stationary bike after bedtime and generally “fit it in around all the other stuff.”

Jennings faced another major challenge this past fall, when a bike accident in September resulted in a broken arm that required surgery. She said it made for a frustrating fall and early winter. 

“I was full-stop on any exercise. It was really tough for three or four months,” Jennings said.

To recover from that required unexciting workouts starting in January. 

“I started (stationary) biking in my basement,” Jennings said. “I would put my earbuds in and just go for half an hour, because that’s as much as I could handle.”

When the weather cooperated enough she hit the roads.

“I started running when it was thawed enough to run outside. I don’t have a gym membership, so I just waited for the weather,” Jennings said. 

Her return to competition — a Mother’s Day 5K sponsored by Vermont Sun on the triathlon course — went well.

“That was kind of my preliminary, see if I can do this, run. Actually I won it, mostly because the first-place person took a wrong turn,” Jennings said.

Her times have improved, although despite her competitive finish in June that was not her finest effort due to the conditions.

“But I do June, July and August, and I will see an improvement, because I will be training more over the summer,” she said.

She has encouraged friends to join in the fun, but with mixed results.

“Everyone has one component that they’re afraid of. They’ll be like, ‘I can swim and bike, but I can’t run,’ or ‘I can run, but I can’t swim,’” Jennings said.

She suggests those who feel that way should try Vermont Sun’s team triathlon option, in which different athletes can complete each leg.

“That’s a great way to dip your toes into the sport. Get a team together. The teams have a great time,” Jennings said. “And for an hour and half it’s not like it has to take up your whole day.”

She also points out Vermont Sun has made its triathlons more inclusive.

“Vermont Sun recently added a non-binary category. So if people have been shying away because they don’t think there is a place for their gender … there’s a whole category now,” Jennings said. “People should know.” 

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