Sally Schofield speaks to Bangalow triathlete Claire O’Meara about her recent Ironman Australia success in Port Macquarie. Six years ago, Claire O’Meara decided to take up the intense sport of triathlon, an event that includes running, cycling and swimming over eye-watering distances.

“I couldn’t ocean swim. I’d never ridden a road bike, certainly not a time trial bike,” she laughs. But she loved running and understood the importance of keeping active in her middle years (she’s in her 60s) and beyond.

On Sunday 5 May, the Bangalow resident competed in an Ironman event, an international series of triathlon competitions held all around the world, this one, Ironman Australia Port Macquarie. “They close off all the roads, divert traffic and take over the entire town. It’s a huge event,” she says.

“It’s one of the hardest one-day challenges in Australia,” Claire says. Consisting of a 3.8-kilometre open water swim, directly followed by a 180-kilometre bike ride, and straight into a 42.2-kilometre run, I think we can all agree. I wonder what goes through Claire’s mind over all those kilometres? “I sing a lot to myself. I write lists in my head. I solve problems. You don’t think about the distance, you just think ‘Okay, I’ve just got to get to the next checkpoint. Or to the next Aid Station.’ But there’s so many people cheering and supporting you, and you see your husband on the sideline, and it just lifts you and you get there.”

Competitors have 17 hours to complete the course, and every step is monitored not only to prevent cheating or short cuts but to make sure athletes are on target to complete the course in the allotted time.

“If they think halfway through the bike leg that you’re not going to make it by the cut off time based on the speed you’re travelling, they’ll come and give you a tap on the shoulder and you’re pulled out of the race.”

But there was no tapping out for Claire, who had spent three months training intensively for the event (and two months prior to that working on basic fitness) with an ex-professional triathlete. Her aim was to improve her race time on her first Ironman Australia event, held in Busselton, over very different terrain, in 2022.

“She worked my ass off with the goal of me improving my time, which I did, by half an hour,” she says. Claire completed the race in 13 hours and 23 minutes and took out second place in the 60–64-year-old women’s category at the Port Macquarie event, qualifying for the world championships in Nice, France in September.

But despite her commitment and the rigours of training, the podium place wasn’t something Claire was quite prepared for. And as athletes are essentially asked “on the spot” if they will take part in the World Championship event, Claire had to regretfully decline. A surprise trip to Europe wasn’t in the budget this year, and Claire is currently very focused on her studies in Clinical Exercise Physiology. “I want to do research into older female endurance athletes. My goal is to encourage women, particularly older women, to exercise for longevity, and so that they don’t become incapacitated. “My age group really needs to do strength training, and people automatically think of gyms, but there are so many other things you can do and the benefits to your health and your lifestyle.

“If you look at the really big races, it doesn’t matter your age, fitness, size – it’s all about inclusion. There’s a huge community of what they call ‘age groupers’. It’s not an ‘elite’ sport although there are obviously the high-level professionals, and they’re amazing.”

If you’re interested in trying triathlon, Claire suggests connecting with your local club. “When you’re in a club environment, it inspires you because everybody sort of starts from scratch and you learn together. I belong to the Byron Tri Club and a group called RPG which my coach is part of. “I didn’t even have a bike when I first started, and I had to learn how to swim in the ocean,” she says.

Admitting the training and racing are both somewhat addictive, Claire is determined to have another crack at the World Championships by competing in the Ironman event held in Cairns next year.

“Next year, the World Championship races are held in Kona, Hawaii, which is the home of the original Ironman,” she says. “And that would be incredible.”

Feature image Photo @koruptvision

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