Tag Archives: Boston Marathon

Iron Woman

June 4, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

This article originally published in May/June 2015 issue of 60-Plus.

The Ironman Triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run. Surely, one might think, such a feat of athleticism would explode the joints of a human over, what, 40?

Not so, at least for the super-human. Mariana Phipps will be 71 this coming May. She’s a mom to three boys. Heck, she’s grandma to six children. Yet, she’s still a top competitor in one of the world’s most grueling test of human endurance.

Phipps was a swimmer as a girl, but couldn’t compete in high school or college in pre-Title IX days. By the time she started taking classes at Creighton University, it seemed that her serious days as an athlete were behind her.

“I was a pretty good, heavy smoker, and didn’t even think about doing any sports,” she says. “I had kids and I was busy.”

When her husband found out he had heart disease, they both quit smoking. However, she says, when you quit smoking, you need to do something else, “otherwise you blow up pretty fast.” She got back into swimming, and since many of her fellow swimmers were runners as well, she took up running and, later, bike riding.

Phipps ran her first marathon at age 51 in 1995 in Lincoln. She did her first Ironman at age 56 and qualified for the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii in her first year of qualifying. She routinely finishes in first or second place for her age group in triathlons and won the World Championship for her age group in Hawaii in 2005.

Kurt Beisch, who works as the race director for Race Omaha, a Nebraska non-profit organization in the multi-sport industry, says the World Championship in Hawaii is like the Super Bowl for triathlons.

Race Omaha puts on several annual racing events, including the Omaha Triathlon, the Omaha Women’s Triathlon, and the Omaha Kids Triathlon. The competitors, Beisch says, are definitely an eclectic bunch.

“They range from newbies, first-time multi-sport athletes, to very decorated nationally ranked athletes,” he says. The women’s triathlon field is made up of about 38 percent first-time athletes, which makes for a great amount of camaraderie.

Indeed, Phipps says, the triathlon competitors make the sport a very social one. This may seem a bit odd for an activity that, on its surface, seems to depend entirely on the individual’s stamina and endurance. But competitors feed off each other’s enthusiasm.

“We have a very good brotherhood of triathletes here in Omaha,” she says. “And I am fortunate enough to know a lot of younger ones and more mature ones.”

Beisch, who is also a decorated triathlete, estimates that about 15 percent of the participants in the field at the events are aged 50 or older, and some of them are some of the most accomplished athletes in the country.

“[They] make me look like a grade-school triathlete compared to the achievements they’ve had in the course of their lifetime,” he says.

Older competitors, he says, have an advantage in qualifying because there are fewer of them, so there’s less competition.

But more so than the competition, Beisch says, triathletes experience a great sense of accomplishment and that “coming across that finish line is an event.

“You have covered a lot of ground, you have pushed yourself in different ways and you have competed in three events,” he says.

Phipps has worked for Nebraska Furniture Mart for the last 39 years, and the company has been very flexible with her hours to allow her maximum training time. When getting ready for a triathlon, her weekly schedule involves two swims, two bike rides, and two runs. She trains 10-20 hours a week for an Ironman and may bike up to six hours a day (though shorter triathlons
don’t require as much training time).

She gives the impression of someone who really knows her stuff. In spite of the many jokes she makes about her age, there’s a quickness and vitality to her manner.

She’s also, it seems, just about unstoppable. She has a plate and several screws in each arm and a visible scar running down from her wrist. Before one event she broke her foot and couldn’t take painkillers because painkillers can cause kidney damage. She competed anyway.

This year, she plans on competing in the Boston Marathon for the sixth year in a row. In 2013, she was having a great race and was approximately four blocks from the finish line when the race was stopped and she was escorted to safety.

Later, she saw the local Boston media’s coverage of the bombing from her hotel room. “It was grotesque. Just blood everywhere. Obviously, people crying and moaning. It was just horrible.”

However, there wasn’t any hesitation about returning the next year.

“It wasn’t even a question about going back,” she says. “We weren’t about to let the enemy stop our dreams.”

So what keeps her going? Part of it, Phipps says, is that you compete against yourself.

“You can’t compare yourself to what you were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago,” she says. “Every time you enter a new age group you have to think it’s almost like a whole new ballgame.

“Luckily, they have age groups every five years. You think of yourself as trying to stay as fast as you can in that age group, and it’s the one thing that you look forward to getting older…because let’s face it, getting older is not fun. But, when you do go over that next hump, into the next age group, then you realize it’s a whole new set of personal records for your age. That helps a lot.”

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Jodi Saso’s 
Heart for Running

February 18, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

For many avid runners, qualifying for the Boston Marathon is considered the pinnacle of their running career. For 35-year-old Jodi Saso, completing the Boston Marathon was that and so much more.

Not only did it mark a major feat in her running career, but Saso crossed the finish line just 10 weeks after undergoing major heart surgery. Completing the marathon was a personal confirmation that she had risen above her heart condition and could continue “life as usual,” despite this unexpected setback.

“I didn’t want to be a victim of my circumstances and lay around feeling sorry for myself,” says Saso. “It was all about determination and not wanting to live that life. I figured I had one shot to do this, and I wasn’t going to let my surgery get in the way.”

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This is all even more amazing when you consider the fact that Saso had taken up running just several years ago when she decided she need to do something to get herself and her dog into shape. The pounds began to fall off, running became easier, and it wasn’t long before Saso had developed a new passion.

Saso found running to be a natural fit, and before long, she had started training for marathons. By 2012, she had run eight marathons in one year in addition to several half marathons and a 50-mile run. She was hooked and breaking her own records with each race. Saso felt wonderful physically and emotionally.

But an annual check-up with her doctor told her otherwise.

When Saso was very young, her pediatrician suspected that she might have Marfan syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that affects the connective tissue. The most serious complications of Marfan are defects of the heart valve and aorta. However, Saso never received a firm diagnosis. When she began seeing a new family practitioner in her late 20s, he too suspected Marfan syndrome and recommended they monitor her heart on a regular basis. A heart echo performed at her 2012 visit revealed an aortic aneurysm—a stretched and bulging section in the wall of the aorta.

“When the aorta becomes stretched, there is a big risk of the aorta dissecting or tearing or, even worse, rupturing and causing death,” says Traci Jurrens, MD, cardiologist at Nebraska Methodist Hospital, who performed the echocardiogram. “Jodi’s aorta had reached the threshold for repair.”

Because of the difficulty of the procedure, most cardiac surgeons replace both the valve and aorta during surgery, which requires lifelong anticoagulation with the blood-thinning drug called Coumadin, explains Dr. Jurrens. Coumadin can have a host of side effects, including easy bruising and bleeding.

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“Since she was so young, we determined that it would be worthwhile for Saso to go to the Mayo Clinic, where cardiac surgeons were able to perform the surgery without removing her own valve,” notes Dr. Jurrens.

Saso’s surgery was scheduled for Jan. 31, 2013. The timing could not have been worse. She had qualified for the Boston Marathon the spring before. The run was scheduled for April 15, just 10 weeks after her surgery. It was a dream she was not willing to let go so easily. “I asked my doctors if there was any way that I could still run the race,” she says. “They were doubtful, but they said it was contingent upon how the surgery and recovery went.”

Following surgery, Saso says she was in so much pain that she thought she would never leave the hospital. “Before I left the hospital, they told me that I had to walk the entire floor six times a day,” she says. “That first day, I could barely walk 10 feet.”

But that’s when Saso’s determination kicked in. “My goal was to run the Boston, and I was going to do everything I could to make that happen.” By day three, she was off pain medications. By day five, she was doing two laps instead of one six times a day and was released from the hospital to go home.

Encouraged by her quick recovery, Saso was on a fast track from then on, she says. By two weeks, Dr. Jurrens had released Saso to return to work. Four weeks after surgery, Saso finished an entire stress test—Dr. Jurrens’ first patient to do that. Jurrens cleared her to run the Boston as long as she promised to run it over four hours.

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Donning a T-shirt that read, “I had open heart surgery 10 weeks ago. Let’s do this!” Saso proudly crossed the finish line in 4:08:15.

“I felt amazing,” she says. Luck continued to be on Saso’s side. Having mistakenly booked her return flight extremely close to the race finish time, she had no time to hang out and celebrate. Instead, she left the race immediately to catch her flight. A short time later, she heard about the 2013 Boston bombings. “Someone was looking over me,” she says.

“Jodi has done remarkably,” says Dr. Jurrens. “It is quite a difficult procedure, but Jodi had excellent results. Because Jodi was in such great shape, she was able to get through surgery very well. In general, great functional capacity prior to surgery predicts better recovery from cardiac surgery. That being said, we really do not know what is safe for Jodi in regard to running, and we do discourage excessive exercise. But running is Jodi’s life, and she is going to make her own decision in regard to running.”

Saso completed five marathons in 2013 but says she is planning to slow down the pace for her own health benefits. “I’m going to do just two marathons a year in the future,” she says. “I want to be smart about this, and I really don’t want to have surgery again.”

The pace may be slower, but her determination to live life as usual is stronger than ever, says Saso. She recites one of her favorite quotes, which she says she applies both to running and life: “The body does not want you to do this. As you run, it tells you to stop, but the mind must be strong. You can always go too far for your body. You must handle the pain with strategy…it is not age. It is not diet. It is the will to succeed. Let’s do this!”