By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun
2:24 PM EDT, September 1, 2012
Sue Komaromy has been out of New York since leaving her home on Long Island more than a quarter-century ago to play volleyball at Towson. Yet there is still a lot of New Yorker that remains in the 44-year-old mother of two who lives in Sykesville.
The speech pattern, the spunk and now the most significant accomplishment of her sports career: qualifying for the Ironman World Championship next month in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. It seems only fitting that Komaromy gained entrance into the event by finishing first in her age group in the Ironman U.S. Championship in New York.
Dedicating the race to Arthur Joseph Haggerty, a New York cousin who had died from brain cancer, Komaromy said she didn't even know where she stood after finishing the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon in a little less than 101/2 hours on a steamy day last month.
"The run was the hardest marathon I had ever done, plus it being an Ironman," she said recently. "I kept thinking, 'I've just got to keep moving forward here.' I didn't even know until after the race when I looked at my watch. My husband came up to me and said, 'I think you did it.'"
Even then, they weren't sure until her cellphone "started blowing up" with congratulatory calls and text messages from friends who were following the race results online.
"One of my friends actually took a picture [of the results off his computer screen] and sent it to me. That's when we started crying," said Komaromy, who used the event to help raise $5,000 for a foundation that does melanoma research. "The fact that I qualified, I still can't believe that I finally did it."
The victory came more than a decade after Komaromy began dedicating herself to Ironman training, seven years after Komaromy underwent back surgery and little over a year after Komaromy was on crutches recovering from a cracked sacrum, the bone that connects the spine and the pelvis.
Training for a marathon in Virginia Beach, Va., early last year, Komaromy complained of severe back pain. Several MRIs failed to identify the problem. The surgeon who had performed her first back operation had moved to California; a surgeon recommended by a friend was able to locate the injury.
"I was running the fastest splits of my life. I had gotten through all my training, [and] all of sudden my back was killing me; I could barely walk," Komaromy said. "I thought it was an old disk problem. I went from running my fastest splits ever to being on crutches for eight weeks."
Steve Komaromy, who describes himself as a casual runner, said of his wife of 16 years, "She was in a funk all summer."
After resuming training, Komaromy focused on qualifying for Kona, an event that has gained international attention because of its setting and the level of competition. It proved to be the final step in her transition from college athlete to suburban mom to a born-again athlete in her early 30s.
"I just always liked to be active, loved being outside," said Komaromy, whose volleyball career at Towson was affected by a serious wrist injury her sophomore year. "My kids got older and I realized I was falling out of the shape I wanted to be in. I started working out more and more at the gym. Eventually my husband was saying to me, 'How can somebody spend that many hours at the gym?' I met up with some folks who were doing triathlons and I looked into doing some races."
Komaromy had grown up on Long Island and was comfortable in the water. She also had spent time running and riding bikes with her husband and their two children, now in their early-to-mid 20s. It proved to be a natural transition to an event that combines all three exercises, though Komaromy was not exactly a natural when it came to posting great times.
"From the get-go, I always did OK, not great, but OK," Komaromy said. "Eventually I got better and better."
Komaromy said she was hooked from the time she first competed in the Columbia Triathlon. Three months later, she entered her first half-ironman in New Hampshire. Three months after that, she ran in her first New York City Marathon.
"For me, it was awesome. It was a homecoming-type thing," she said.
She can't remember the year — "it was 10 or 12 years ago, I think I have a T-shirt with the year on one of them," Komaromy said — but admits that "it was pretty aggressive for the first year. … I loved every second of it."
In New York, Komaromy nearly qualified for the next year's Boston Marathon, finishing a couple of minutes off the qualifying time. She recalled stopping at one point to shake hands with children diagnosed with cancer who were part of Fred's Team, the children's cancer center started by New York City Marathon founder Fred Lebow at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
"I had raced to raise money for Fred's Team," Komaromy said. "It was a great experience. They put you up at the Plaza Hotel, they brought you over in tour buses to Staten Island for the start of the race and then they brought you over to the kids during the race. When I ran by these sick kids, they were so excited, but I probably spent two or three minutes with them. I wouldn't change a thing."
Komaromy eventually qualified for Boston a number of times but has yet to run in the country's most historic marathon.
"I signed up once and got a hotel room. Just things in life get in the way. That year my husband had to have pretty major back surgery. I was home with him for his recovery," Komaromy said. "Life and your family's health and the conditions all around you all have to line up for you to do well if you're not doing this on a pro athlete's level. My family comes first, and work comes first and there are a lot of things that supersede this."
Komaromy competed in her first full Ironman in Cambridge in Dorchester County in 2008. She wasn't deterred by the fact that the course was deluged by rain in the days leading up to the race. She wound up finishing "fourth or fifth" among the female entrants and taking home a small amount of prize money.
"That was enough to kind of inspire me to do better," she said.
Initially she had set her sights on qualifying for Kona next year, when she is on the younger end of the 45-49 age range and "I officially become an old lady."
Training for this year's Ironman U.S. Championship required Komaromy to get up around 4 a.m. each day and put in two to three hours of training before work at a local information technology company where she is a projects manager. If she couldn't get in her full workout before work, she had to finish at night.
Greg Safko, who has trained with Komaromy for the past seven years and won a national lottery to participate in (and finished) the 2009 Ironman in Kona, said Komaromy "is the real deal" whose injuries might have derailed the dreams of others with less fortitude.
"She perseveres through all obstacles. She has that indomitable spirit that's necessary to be a participant in the world championships — that's a very elite group," Safko said.
Safko said overcoming injuries is part of being a triathlete, but said of Komaromy, "it's a unique tenacity that she's got. … You have three sports that you have to be able to excel in. ... You have to be able to be very good in two to carry the third. She's as strong as they are."
On weekends, she trains nearly eight hours each day.
"My husband knows he's not going to see me from 6 in the morning until 1:30 or 2 in the afternoon," she said. "My friends ask, 'When are you going to come out with us? Come out and have a cold beer with us.' You've got to put all those things to the side. I'm no saint. I will go and have a few drinks with my friends — you've got to keep your relationships. They definitely take a back seat to what the main goal is."
Komaromy credits her husband with allowing her to do the training.
"He's my cook, he keeps the house in order — not to say that things don't get neglected, they really do," Komaromy said. "My house is a mess, my car is a mess, everything around me has been neglected because of the last few weeks of training. My goal after New York was to clean the house and clean out my car. Now I have to train for Hawaii. All these things are put on the back burner."
Komaromy said she has never wanted to go on vacation in Hawaii, but that going to compete at Kona "has always been my dream."
She and her husband will go out for the Oct. 13 event about three days ahead of time. Komaromy said they plan on taking a well-deserved week's vacation afterward. As for the Ironman itself, Komaromy has mixed feelings.
"I told my husband, 'I want to go out there and I want to enjoy it,'" she said. "I don't want to go out thinking I have to have this great race and throw down these great times. I want to smile; I want to take in the scenery. But I know I kind of don't want to let people down and I have to try to do well."
Steve Komaromy said that the pressure will not just be from the outside.
"Her coming in 100th out of 105 will not be enjoyable for her," he said. "She might not push herself like she did this last race, but she's not going to go out there like it's a walk in the park on Sunday."
The websites for Sue Komaromy's fundraising efforts for melanoma:
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