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From Chocolate Cake to Nails
NLM's Kathi Canese Comes Home A Certified 'Ironman'

By Rich McManus

How do you get on airplanes anymore, or pass through security at the Natcher Bldg., if you're an Ironman? It turns out that the ardors of winning that designation — swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles, then tossing in a marathon (26.2 miles) for dessert — make subsequent difficulties pale in comparison.

This is what Kathi Canese, a librarian with the National Library of Medicine's PubMed team, has learned since placing 20th in her age group at the 25th annual Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii on Oct. 18.

Kathi Canese
Canese, 45, almost never turned iron at all. To get to the world championships, she had to finish first or second in her age group at one of the precursor Ironman competitions. Canese was talked into participating in her first Ironman triathlon — held at Lake Placid, N.Y., last July — by a friend who had done three such competitions before. She was so surprisingly successful there, finishing first in her age group in a time of 12:15:07, that she decided to try Hawaii.

"I always said that Lake Placid would be my first and only Ironman," she said, "but when I qualified for Hawaii, I just had to do it." Adrenaline might have helped make her decision for her; Canese said that her last mile of the Lake Placid race was her fastest. "I was so excited to be near the end."

Canese didn't even know until the morning after the Lake Placid Ironman that her time had qualified her for the world championships. So quickly do races on the Ironman circuit fill that she had just a day to ponder whether or not to enter Hawaii; if you dally in deciding, race managers skip you and move on to the next registrant in your age group.

Having now proven to herself that she can not only survive but flourish in the event, Canese says she may not enter Hawaii again. "It's exhausting, and it's expensive, too," she said. But she plans to maintain a regular schedule of half-Ironman events (there's one called Eagleman next June near Cambridge, Md., where she finished seventh in her age group in 2003, and another at Duke University) and Olympic-distance triathlons (at the less foreboding distances of a 1-mile swim, 40-kilometer bike race and 10,000-meter run — the next one is in May, in Columbia, Md.), not to mention occasional 10K road races near her home in North Arlington, Va. Her best time in the latter event was a 38:30 five years ago in D.C.'s St. Patrick's Day race.

Canese grew up, essentially a nonjock, in Smithtown, on Long Island. "I was a gymnast in high school, and during my first year of college," she recalls. "But I wasn't a runner at all."

She took up running in graduate school — "a couple of miles every other day" — at the State University of New York at Albany, where she studied library science. "I did it so that I could eat chocolate cake," she confesses.

In the summer of 1992, 3 years after first coming to NIH as a librarian in NLM's Medlars management section, Canese said she had "kind of an epiphany," and decided to begin training for her first marathon — Washington's Marine Corps event. "I hooked up with a group of people [who were training for the race] for about 3 months, which wasn't quite enough time." Nonetheless she finished in 3:38, which qualified her, by 2 minutes, for the following spring's Boston Marathon. Around this time, she says, "I kind of got hooked on running."

Canese grabs her bike by its "arrow bars" as the cycling portion of the Kona Ironman competition begins.

She finished Boston in 3:15 in 1993. "Then I just started doing a bunch — at least a couple of marathons a year," she said. Around 1996, tempted by further challenges, Canese decided to enter some triathlons at the Olympic distance.

Training for such events is not trivial, and Canese credits her membership in the Potomac Runners as keeping her motivated. "When I'm serious, I train 7 days a weeks, with two workouts on a couple of those days," she said. Four mornings are for running, including a weekend long haul of 12-20 miles with a large group of runners who meet at Belle Haven Marina, along the bike path to Mt. Vernon. Canese swims 2-3 mornings a week with a master's group at a recreation center in McLean, Va., and in the summertime swims from 5:30 to 7 a.m. at an outdoor pool at Hains Point. Sundays she takes a 50 to 100-mile bike ride, and supplements it with two evening rides per week, at distances of around 40 miles. When the weather's bad, she mounts an indoor training cycle in her basement.

"My community of friends are mostly athletes," she says. "I do all my training with other people — it's a social thing for me, as well."

Three-event races such as triathlons and Ironman competitions also demand that participants be skilled at logistics; you have to stow gear at various transition tents, and find a way to nourish yourself over the course of a daylong effort. Canese offers anecdotes tracing the strict order to which all races adhere: swim, bike, run.

When she first dove in to Mirror Lake at Lake Placid, N.Y., amid 1,800 other competitors, Canese was repeatedly shoved underwater by men, who outnumber women by at least 4-1 in these events. "It's chaos at the start of a race," she cheerfully admits. Canese looked down and saw divers peering up at her; they were stationed there to rescue athletes who might need help. Both Lake Placid and Hawaii shared a high-tech aspect; all participants wear computer microchips, which enable them to be tracked not only by race organizers, but also by fans and family members half a globe away who can monitor the event on the web.

Biking is a world of rules and conventions unto itself. Canese rides a $2,000 Cervélo "tri bike" specially made for triathlons — lightweight, skinny tires and aerodynamic, with "arrow bars" in place of conventional handlebars. Unlike most bike races, which are team efforts in which riders can "draft" or be sucked along in the wake of a leading rider, triathlon biking enforces a three-bike-length gap, policed by officials on motorcycles. You have precisely 15 seconds to pass another cyclist and reestablish the gap; if you fail, you get written up and lose crucial time.

The transition from biking to running is crucial; Ironpeople have to stop "pounding" about 5 miles before the end of the race and switch to "spinning," which gives the legs a chance to prepare for an altogether different form of stress.

Canese is a member of the PubMed team at the National Center for Biotechnology Information. Her Natcher Bldg. colleagues support her racing career.

The pros who enter these races compete in a single outfit, Canese reports. People like her, dubbed "age groupers," bring changes of clothes for each of the three competitions.

Although each participant handles nutrition differently, Canese uses the bike portion of the competition to eat. She typically consumes four Clif bars, an energy supplement, while cycling, and might be able to choke down half a sandwich while changing into her running singlet.

"Running is definitely my strong suit," Canese says. "It's where I have the most confidence." She especially relishes picking off bikers who had passed her earlier in the day.

Hawaii was so hot and humid on race day that Canese, striding through fields of black lava baked by the sun, took to dumping water on her head. "I was squishing in my sneakers by the end of the race," she recalls. The race ended long past dark, and runners held glow sticks just to keep from colliding. Canese acknowledges that most age groupers have to walk a portion of the marathon — they are simply too worn out by this time to sustain a jog.

Canese finished the Kona event in 12:49:04, physically drained but emotionally exhilarated. "It's fun to be with the best," she said. "It was unlike anything else I've ever done." So impressed were her coworkers back on the fifth floor of the Natcher Bldg. — many of whom had followed her progress via computer — that they threw her a party on Oct. 24.

Canese doesn't rule out Hawaii again, and has resumed training for some local triathlons. "I won't say never," she laughs. "I plan to keep doing triathlons as long as possible — I get a little antsy if I don't get to train. I'm also thinking about doing some adventure racing, which involves different events such as kayaking, orienteering and mountain biking. There are some crazy ones that involve rappelling, too, but that's too adventurous for me."

Her NLM job is also an energy-consuming adventure. As part of the National Center for Biotechnology Information's Information Engineering Branch, Canese "serves as a liaison between the NCBI programmers and the people I used to work with in the traditional part of the library. So I do a lot of database testing, documentation and classes." She also teaches a PubMed course at Woods Hole, Mass., every summer.

Ending an interview in order to be feted by coworkers, Canese notes that her colleagues have gotten swept up in her competitions, too. "I think maybe I'm a positive influence on them," she says, an Ironman in a velvet glove.

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