The Coast News Group
Kathleen McCartney, 59, of La Jolla, will compete in her 12th Ironman Triathlon World Championship on Oct. 13 in Kona, Hawaii. McCartney rides her bike from La Jolla to Carlsbad twice a week, a 50-mile round trip, to work at the Tri-City Wellness and Fitness Center. She won the race in dramatic fashion in 1982. Courtesy photo
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Kathleen McCartney takes on Ironman World Championship for 12th time

REGION — Most people go to Hawaii to vacation, but not Kathleen McCartney, who will be flexing her muscles on Oct. 13 at the 40th anniversary of the iconic Ironman Triathlon World Championship.

The 59-year-old La Jolla resident, who claims three top-six Ironman World Championship finishes, will have her work cut out for her in Kona once again.

More than 2,400 triathletes from around the globe will be competing in the Ironman, consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) open water swim in Kailua-Kona Bay, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bike ride across the Hawaiian lava fields to Hawaii and back, and a marathon (26 miles 385 yards, 42.195 km) along the coast of Kailua-Kona, finishing with the magical run down Ali’I Drive, then crossing the finish line to the honor of hearing: “You … are… an … Ironman!”

The Ironman World Championship has been held annually in Hawaii since 1978, with an additional race in October 1982 due to its growing popularity.

It is owned and organized by the World Triathlon Corporation and is the annual culmination of a series of Ironman triathlon qualification races held throughout the world.

When McCartney won the race in 1982, it was one of the event’s most dramatic finishes. She passed Julie Moss, who had collapsed just 10 yards from the finish line, to win.

McCartney went on to finish six Ironman World Championships between 1982 and 1988, then took 15 years off to raise her family.

She came back again to Kona in 2003 to compete once again to share with her children her life as an Ironman, celebrating the 25th anniversary of Ironman.

But things stalled a bit for McCartney, who in 2007, suffered from a ruptured herniated disc that caused her debilitating pain and ended her dream of competing in another Ironman or even running again.

An understanding and extraordinary surgeon, Dr. Neville Alleyne from Tri-City Medical Center, performed a microdiscectomy to cure her pain and worked with her to strengthen her core.

Kathleen McCartney said working at Tri-City Wellness and Fitness Center in Medical Integration in Carlsbad allows her to combine her “passion for wellness and fitness” with her “passion for making a difference in people’s lives every day.”

By 2012, the 30th anniversary of her championship race, she was able to complete in her eighth Ironman World Championship with Moss and now she’s back again.

The divorced mother of four adult children and one grandchild will be in Hawaii for one week before competing in the 2018 IRONMAN World Championship. She spoke with The Coast News a week before the triathlon’s kick-off and said she was excited to once again be part of such a milestone event.

“I’m so excited, I can hardly wait,” she said. “I’m looking forward to getting to Kona and competing in one of the best sporting events in the world. After all the months of training, I am ready to get to the Big Island and get into race mode. My goal is to complete the 140.6-mile event between 13 and 14 hours.”

Early beginnings

McCartney said she became interested in Ironman in 1981 when she went to Kona as a spectator. At the time, she wasn’t a swimmer, cyclist or runner, nor had she ever been a competitive athlete.

She was a junior at the University of Santa Barbara and was inspired by what she witnessed as she watched the race unfold.

“I was standing on the seawall of Kailua Bay at the start of the swim and I looked into the water and saw the 360 triathletes about to embark on what seemed like an impossible challenge. But as soon as the starting gun blasted, right then, I knew I no longer wanted to be a spectator in life; I want to be there, in that the water taking on the biggest adventure and enormous challenge of my life.

“I decided I wanted to be an Ironman; I was inspired by people who were challenging themselves to the extreme and I committed myself on the spot.”

A tall order for someone who had always been just “a recreational athlete.”

“I had never been on a sports team of any kind, I just loved to play tennis and ski,” she said. “I was not a competitive athlete of any kind.”

Training hard

For this year’s event, McCartney has been training by cycling to and from work which is a 50-mile round trip ride up the coast to the Tri-City Wellness and Fitness Center in Carlsbad. There she works as a Wellness and Fitness Liaison with the Center’s Medical Integration programs in Neuro for Parkinson’s disease, strength training (including programs for cancer, diabetes and deconditioned patients), cardiology, orthopedics and warm water therapy, all to establish optimal exercise therapy and lifestyle changes for lifetime wellness.

“I’ve been competing in triathlons over a span of 37 years; I have never finished a workout that I regretted. With my busy schedule … I commute, enjoy time with my friends and family … my life is full and busy, but I do my best and try to fit it all in and make it happen and exercise daily.”

She said she typically rises early and stays up late to get everything she needs done accomplished.

“I’m up in the 5 a.m. hour and twice a week, I’ve been riding my bike from La Jolla to Carlsbad,” she said. “I try to complement my workouts with my work life; I have to make the most of every day.”

While it sounds like a tall order, she said this year’s Ironman event is one that she has trained the least for because of her work schedule, family, and all her other commitments.

“I have a lot going on, but I’m just grateful for all of it and I love my life,” she said.

As for her work, McCartney said working at Tri-City Wellness and Fitness Center in Medical Integration has “been a perfect fit for me, and I work with a team of great people. I love meeting new people and introducing them to our unique Medical Integration programs. I get to combine my passion for wellness and fitness with my passion for making a difference in people’s lives every day.”


A superwoman of sorts, when asked if in these politically charged times should the contest not have a gender specific title. McCartney said she has been asked during multiple interviews if she would prefer being called an “Ironwoman,” as opposed to “Ironman.”

“I don’t mind being called an Ironman; actually, it never has crossed my mind,” she said. “When I think of Ironman, it represents a place of strength, empowerment, and personal growth. I have never been offended that it’s called IRONMAN; it doesn’t have a gender orientation to me. To me, Ironman is iconic, world-renowned, and I would not want to change it.”

She added that there is no greater feeling than crossing the finish line in Kona and hearing the words: “You are an Ironman.”

“It just gives me the chills and brings tears to my eyes, and overwhelming sense of accomplishment and fulfillment,” she said. “I look for my loved ones who are their waiting for me at the finish line, and I feel like I’ve just experienced one of the best days of my life. I’m not just doing the race for me, but I am celebrating the 40 years of Ironman that have helped build the foundation of my life and live the Ironman motto ‘anything is possible.’”