Triathlon Hall of Famer Sally Edwards was recently in Chicago to host a training party for the Trek Women Triathlon Series and Danskin Triathlon Series, the country's largest, longest-running multi-race series. The author of 23 books and founder of multiple companies, including Fleet Feet Sports, Edwards holds the lofty title of "Chief Inspiration Officer" for the triathlon series.
Edwards' goal is to demystify triathlons by telling women they can achieve their goals and by showing them how. Between races, she travels the country attending Trek Women training parties, where she gives out training plans and tips and inspires with stories from her years of competing. Even at age 63, Edwards could probably finish near the front of most races, but she's decided to make her mark at the back instead.
While in the Windy City, Edwards spoke to espnW's Sarah Spain about her strange, wonderful journey from front of the pack to last to the finish line.
Sarah Spain: You've done about 130 triathlons. If you can remember back to the first one, which leg of the race was the toughest for you?
Sally Edwards: Swimming. The water was 58 degrees! I was a pioneer, you know, so this was back in  when ... it wasn't swim, bike, run. [As a race coordinator] you could do whatever you wanted to do and they did it run, bike, swim. But we quickly found out that hypothermia sets in. ... So I DNF'd -- did not finish -- my first triathlon, 'cause I had hypothermia. I think less than half the field finished. We were learning a lot, and I just fell in love with it.
SS: Okay ... so you suffered hypothermia and you didn't finish the race. We have to ask: What about that first experience led you to love triathlon -- so much so that you're still doing it 30 years later?
SE: Triathlon is positively addicting. There's nothing like it. You can work on your swim, and then your bike and run need help. Then you work on your bike and your run and swim need help.
After that first triathlon in 1980, there weren't many more to do, so Edwards did 16 Ironman competitions over the next decade or so. Then she got a call from Danskin; they wanted her to be the spokeswoman for their brand new endeavor.
SE: Around 1990, the president of Danskin called and said, "We're gonna start an all-women's triathlon series." Well, I thought Danskin just did leotards -- I was wrong. ... So [I did it and] I just fell in love and then became a pioneer in women's triathlons.
Starting with her very first Danskin event, Edwards proved inspiration isn't always found in those at the front of the race. Over the years, she'd met too many women who were afraid to attempt a triathlon for fear they might be the last to cross the finish line. And so a woman whose racing career had earned her a spot high atop the national rankings decided she would be the one to finish last. Since the series' inception, Edwards has been dead last in every Danskin Triathlon in which she has competed.
Her dedication to being the "Final Finisher" means no other woman has to finish last, or finish alone. Edwards celebrated her 100th last-place Danskin finish in Denver, Colo., in 2004, and she hasn't stopped pulling up the rear since.
SS: Talk to me about your "Final Finisher" initiative. So many tough competitors wouldn't have the humility and selflessness to forget about setting new personal bests and forsake the thrill of breaking the tape at the finish. Why continue to be the last person over that line?
SE: It is my honor to finish last. You know, I went from first to worst! [I made the] transition [from] competing professionally at the highest levels in triathlon to being ... the last one to finish the race and [having] the worst rankings in America. I'm the worst triathlete based on the point series that the national governing body keeps track of! [Laughs] I'm not proud of that, but I'm proud that no woman has to finish last. The fear of finishing last keeps women from having fun.
[The woman in last place] wants to quit, she's in pain. ... It could be anywhere from an 18-year-old to an 80-year-old who finishes last. It's always surprising. One time it was a collegiate volleyball player on a full-ride scholarship. She couldn't ride her bike up the hill. She had to walk. Every. Single. Hill.
If Edwards is in a race, the women in the back, like that volleyball player, will always have someone by their side as they push toward the finish line.
Maggie Sullivan, director of the Danskin & Trek Women Triathlon series, said of the "Final Finisher" program: "It is actually quite a wonderful experience to be that final finisher and be back there with Sally, because from her they can get a tutorial on the sport, particularly on the sport of running. It's really been rewarding to see the difference this can make on the lives of women in America."
SS: Do you have any "Final Finisher" stories that really resonate with you?
SE: I've finished last more than 100 times now, and I guess the one that touches me most is the woman who has ignored herself for either her children or her job, or her health and breaks out of it and says ... "It's my turn, it's my day. It's my time, you know. I have the right to be out here and do this." That's always been the story played out in so many different ways.
SS: If you finish last every time and don't have that goal of pushing yourself to new times, what keeps you racing?
SE: The motivation today is much different than when I first started. When I first started finishing last it was really about helping that individual woman, that single person, and now it's much more about getting America fit. The more women that you can write about and encourage, the more we can talk about the positive impact of participatory sports, not spectator sports, the more I can get women off the couch and onto the starting line and to that metamorphosis of going from a caterpillar to a butterfly, flying across that finish line. When they have that emotional experience, their children and their spouses and their friends are all there to witness them morphing into this happy, fit, fun, healthy woman, which is, I think, inside every woman there.
SS: Do you ever take a day off? What's the longest stretch you've gone without exercising?
SE: I do some adrenaline sports ... like multi-day racing, adventure races, ride-and-ties with horses and runners. When you're in adrenaline/high-impact sports [injuries are] inevitable. I crushed a vertebra, so that took me out for six months. But I love it ... I like things hard. And it's interesting, because most women don't. But, you know, my parents, I thank them for their chromosomes and my brothers for my lifestyle. I thank them for just not letting me be a girly girl. They raised me rough and tough and I like that.
SS: You're 63 now. Do you still feel healthy and great every time you go out and exercise?
SE: [laughs] I do! I have more energy now than I had in my younger days. I think this whole concept of aging and slowing down is just a real myth. I've been an athlete all my life and now I get to be an athlete who has money and experience and a large group of friends, so life is better than ever.
SS: Do you have any tips to help other women to be strong in their later years as well?
SE: I would say invest in yourself, it's the most important investment you can make. Invest in eating well and being emotionally healthy. Invest in tools, like heart rate monitors and good bicycles and good running shoes. Invest in your time. A lot of women just spend a lot of time giving and sacrificing and that's important work, it feels good, but the greatest feeling of all is to be healthy and happy.