Cancer survivor finishes triathlon

Judith Blake takes a break from cycling. Blake, a cancer survivor, recently completed an Ironman Triathlon.

Judith Blake takes a break from cycling. Blake, a cancer survivor, recently completed an Ironman Triathlon. PHOTO COURTESY OF JUDITH BLAKE

BAR HARBOR — When Bar Harbor resident Judith Blake was a teenager, women weren’t allowed to participate in races. Every year, thousands of runners would gather in Boston for the annual marathon, and she would support them from the sidelines. “I wasn’t supposed to be running,” she said.

In 1961, the Amateur Athletic Union prohibited American women from competing officially in road races. Even in the Olympics, women were not allowed to run more than a half-mile, as it was believed they would risk their femininity and reproductive health.

After the race was over, Blake would run by herself, stopping the moment she spotted a car and pretending to walk down the street. But consumed with the desire to remain fit, she was undeterred. It is the reason the 65-year-old took to running in secret, to rock climbing and mountaineering in her 20s, and also the reason she completed and stood fourth in her age group at the Ironman triathlon held in Maryland last month.

Blake considers running to be more than physical exercise. For her, it is a form of meditation, a way to dispel thoughts and stresses to focus only on her breathing.

“It’s really helpful in staying balanced.”

But the reason for her to participate in this triathlon didn’t have to do as much with staying fit as it did with a goal she set for herself after she was unable to participate in last year’s race owing to her fragile state as she recovered from radiation and chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer.

Blake signed up for the Ironman Wisconsin race before she learned of her diagnosis, and contacted a trainer, Kathy Alfino, to coach her for the competition soon after. When Blake began training last summer, she couldn’t even swim the length of a pool. Alfino started her with small steps, such as a 10-minute walk in a day, which was all Blake’s body could handle. Together, they forged toward the goal, and even though she beat the disease last year, Blake said she wasn’t prepared for how weak her muscles were after the treatment. “I kept training, hoping to be able to do it,” she said. But less than four weeks before the race, she pulled out, putting her health first. “I wasn’t meeting the benchmarks to be able to complete such a long race.”

Blake said not participating left her disappointed. “It had been a thing in my head that I was going to recover from the cancer and do this race,” she admitted.

Endurance racing, however, she believes is not for the fainthearted, so she decided not to give up. “I just had to reset my goals.”

Earlier this year, she realized she had lost all basic fitness. “I knew I wanted to get back into shape,” she said. “Running in particular had been a hugely important part of my everyday life.” With Alfino’s guidance, she began small – with a 1,000-yard swim or a 20-minute run. Her Colorado-based trainer would email her the “final surge” – a training schedule for workouts and challenges – and Blake would respond with her comments on how much she was able to accomplish and how she felt after the training.

As a scientist at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Blake is required to travel often for work. Even in those work trips around the country, she said she would rent a bike or seek out swimming facilities to keep to her training schedule.

By August, she was completing 4,000-yard swims and 100-mile bike rides. “What was very helpful for me was having someone else figure out, to tell me what to do,” she said of the support her trainer provided. “Right up to the day I did the race, I was worried I would not be able to finish.” When she voiced her concerns to Alfino, her response always was “Of course you’re going to finish,” which in turn led Blake to remain positive.

“There is also a lot of discussion about the mental aspect of doing these endurance races,” said Blake. “Because if you’ve done the training, at some point, it’s just a matter of whether you want to continue or not.”

During the race, Blake said, she focused not on the strong winds or the muscle spasm in her back from remaining in one position for the cycling part of the event, but on time and pace calculations.

“I ended up doing a lot of mathematics in my head and figuring out what pace I need to have in order to make the cut-off time,” she said. Not only did she end up meeting the cut-off time of 17 hours, her finishing time of 15:43:26 placed her fourth in her age group. “I did really struggle with the run,” Blake admitted. “But I did finish.”

Amanat Khullar

Amanat Khullar

Amanat Khullar is a sports reporter for the Mount Desert Islander. She comes from New Delhi, the capital city of India and graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

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