Chemistry prof. Teresa Garrett has been riding bikes for most of her life. She was a member, but not a star, of her high school track and cross country teams, and she started swimming on a regular basis about 15 years ago during her second pregnancy.
Garrett says she never expected her casual enjoyment of these three pastimes to transform her into a serious athlete, but that’s what happened. Just after the spring semester ended, she finished second in her age group in an Olympic triathlon in Knoxville, TN, swimming just under a mile, biking 24.2 miles and then running 6.2 miles in a total time of 2 hours and 47 minutes. Taking part in grueling competitions like this has become a regular part of her life.
“It started in 2002 as I was recovering from my pregnancy,” Garrett says. “I was biking and running with a neighborhood group of moms in Cary, NC, where I was living at the time. I’d always been a runner, I liked to bike, and I enjoyed swimming-- and triathlons were a mix of all those activities.”
Her first competitive race in North Carolina was a “sprint triathlon,” a 300-yard swim, 12.4 miles on a bike and a 3.1-mile run. “I entered in the novice division, and there was no thought of competition,” Garrett says. “But it was fun, and it was a mental challenge, so I decided to try a few more.”
When she landed the job at Vassar in 2007, Garrett became a little more serious, running a few half-marathons as well as some triathlons. But she says her dedication to the sport jumped up a notch in 2014 when some Vassar colleagues told her about a unusual triathlon, called the Survival of the Shawangunks which is held every year in mountainous terrain just a few miles west of Poughkeepsie. The event begins with a mostly uphill bike ride to a lake. Competitors finish the ride in a state park, then run to a lake; they swim the lake, run several miles, swim another lake, run several more miles, swim a third lake and then run to the highest ridge on the mountain. “It was a race well known to Vassar runners,” Garrett says. “My colleague (associate prof. of chemistry) Zach Donhauser had done it, and (track coach) Justin Harris won it in 2010.”
On advice from a mutual friend, Garrett asked Harris to help her prepare for the event. It was then that she learned that in order to qualify, she first had to finish a half-iron man competition – a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run – in under seven hours. “Justin wrote down a list of nine things I had to do every week to train,” Garrett recalls. “I looked at the list and said, ‘Are you crazy?’”
But Garrett adhered to the training regimen, and she finished the half-ironman competition in six hours and 10 minutes. After a brief respite, she launched her training for the Survival of the Shawangunks. Gradually, she began to post faster times, but not without some physical and mental discomfort. “I’d go on these three-hour bike rides and I’d be far from home, and my body would tell me, ‘This is not OK,’” she says. “I’d start to cry and call my husband. I was half-hoping he’d offer to come get me, but he’d say, ‘Do you have enough food? Do you have enough water?’ And I’d say yes, and he’d say ‘OK, see you when you get home,’ and he’d hang up.”
Garrett finished the Survival of the Shawangunks in 5 hours and 50 minutes, good for fifth place out of 15 competitors in her age group. “What I remember about the finish was somebody put a medal over my head, and I threw up all over it,” she says.
Harris says he isn’t surprised by Garrett’s success. “With Teresa, it was all about getting her to believe that she is an athlete, and since she's an athlete, she can have goals that are out of reach initially, yet achievable,” he says. “She’s done an incredible job of giving things an honest try, which has put her in a position to be in the best shape of her life, and this is no easy feat, considering all the things she has on her plate.”
He says he’s learned as much from Garrett as she has learned from him. “Teresa has inspired me many times; she’s shown me that there is always time to grow, learn, and to challenge myself to break my own rigid view of who I am as a person - that I'm still an unfinished product,” he says. “For that, I continue to enjoy working with her as her coach.”
Garrett says she has no intention of slowing down as a triathlete. “I had a lot to learn about myself, and doing this has helped me in a lot of ways,” she says. “Every race has so many variables – the weather’s bad or you get a flat tire, or the sandwich you packed falls off your bike.
“Doing this teaches you to be mentally and physically agile enough to accommodate all of life’s variables,” Garrett continues. “It’s applicable to my job, to my research. It’s not enough to have a goal. You have a plan to reach that goal and to have a Plan B when Plan A doesn’t work.”
While she has no desire to tackle a full iron man event – a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon – Garrett does plan to keep doing what she’s doing for the foreseeable future. “I like being one of the best in my age group,” she says. “I want to go even faster. It’s fun to beat people.”