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For some, life is about the journey, not the destination, but for Patricia “Pat” Ketcham, it’s all about the destination. And that feeling of relief and excitement when you finish something difficult.
Ketcham felt just that after crossing the finish line at the first Ironman World Championships in Hawaii this fall since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
Though the 64-year-old Salem-area resident didn’t finish first, she was among about 5,000 competitors who attended Hawaii’s worldwide Ironman-only event in Kailua-Kona earlier in October for qualification.
The 140.6-mile journey began with a crystal-clear 2.4-mile swim in the ocean, progressed to a 112-mile bike ride with scenic views, and ended with a 26.2-mile marathon across lava fields.
While that may sound ideal to some, Hawaii’s conditions have made it known as one of the toughest endurance competitions in the world.
Physical and mental stamina
The race took a little longer than expected, Ketcham said.
“I really enjoyed the swim, it was really good,” said Ketcham. “The bike I probably underestimated a bit is the hydration requirements, but it was a spectacular ride.
“The run was just hot. … That’s also the part you’re trying to prepare for on the bike. So when you get off the bike you have enough fluids and you have eaten enough food to be able to have a good run. Didn’t happen to me, but that’s okay. That’s how these days go.
Few understand the physical stamina required to compete at this level and exceeding expectations is a challenge in itself.
“The small mistake of not hydrating and eating enough, especially in Kona, can lead to a bigger problem than it normally does,” she said. “So you really have to pay attention to those elements of the race.”
Fluids, electrolytes, as well as carbohydrates are provided throughout the course, but every racer must be aware of when to consume them.
While the top athletes finished in the eight to nine hour range, Ketcham prevailed with a finishing time of 16 hours, 26 minutes and 19 seconds and placed 65th in her division for women aged 60 to 64, 1,175 in their gender and 2,252 in total.
A life lesson learned from the competition? “The importance of mindset,” Ketcham said.
“You tell yourself to just hold on, and things usually get better. Difficult periods come and go, it’s just not able to give up. I think that’s an important part, the value of being tenacious or having perseverance.”
A target 10 years in the making
You can try to become a triathlete overnight, but competing in an Ironman takes time, patience, and maybe a few life detours.
Ketcham attended Sprague High School where she competed in track and field, swimming and tennis. Running came naturally to her as part of her training, but after an injury she said she never went back to just running.
As an avid marathon runner, she completed her very first Ironman in Arizona in 2010. Every year except 2018 and 2022 (2020 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic), she has finished in the top 10 in three different age groups.
“It was a pretty easy transition,” said Ketcham, who credited a cyclist friend with teaching her how to maneuver a bike for competitive racing.
In 2012, she met Carla Schubiger, who had twice competed in the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii, through Oregon State University. Schubiger had coached several athletes before eventually becoming Ketcham’s coach.
“It’s really helpful to have someone who’s been there and competed in Kona,” Ketcham said. “Having that alongside other support was key.”
Only at the Ironman 2019 in Arizona did she qualify for Hawaii with first place in her age group.
“They (Ironman) are all special, but the Kona Ironman in particular is very special,” she said.
An experience worth a second try
Ketcham said the one thing that surprised her most about the whole experience, aside from the scenic view, was the number of spectators cheering along the route.
“It lives up to its name,” she said. “It was a really calm atmosphere and very welcoming.”
Ketcham said she hopes to do the race at least once more within the next three years.
At her peak, Ketcham was doing 16 hours of training every week.
“A lot of that can happen on the weekends within reason,” she said. “One day, bike for five to six hours, then a little run, and on Saturday or either day it’s usually two to three hours of swimming.”
Ketcham may have crossed a goal in her life, but the journey continues.
Her calendar for next year is already packed, starting with the Walt Disney World Half Marathon in Florida in January, followed by a half marathon in Victoria, British Columbia in May and the 70.3 Oregon Half Ironman in Salem in July. She will finish an Ironman in Arizona next November.
“It’s important for me to realize that age is really a change in framing,” Ketcham said. “You mustn’t let that limit you. You are still vital and able to do many things that you want. It shouldn’t depend on how old you are.”
If you have an idea for someone we should profile for this series, email Alia Beard Rau, Senior News Editor, Statesman Journal, at [email protected].