For Columbia triathlete Suzy Serpico, conquering this challenge was epic

For The Baltimore Sun

When Suzy Serpico was making plans to island-hop in Hawaii last month, relaxing on multiple exotic beaches wasn’t what she had in mind.

On May 10, the Kings Contrivance resident became the fourth female ever to finish the Epic 5 Challenge Hawaii, a grueling event comprised of five Ironman-distance triathlons on five islands on five consecutive days.

That translates into 703 miles of strenuous physical activity in less than 120 hours: 12 miles of swimming, 560 miles of biking and 131 miles of running — all after averaging four hours of sleep a night and dealing with the hassles of near-daily air travel.

“You have to commit 200 percent to the Epic 5,” said Serpico, 38, about the test of physical and mental endurance that nearly defies comprehension.

“I experienced every emotion you can come up with each day in Hawaii,” said Serpico, a Hammond Elementary School physical education teacher and Columbia Association spinning instructor. “I was scared and excited and there was fear of the unknown.”

Because of the extreme difficulty of the event — which took place on Kauai, Oahu, Molokai, Maui and the island of Hawaii, in that order — finish times are not a focus, said race director Rebecca Morgan.

Since the Epic 5’s founding in 2010, there have been 32 finishers who have logged 38 finishes and nine participants who didn’t finish all five triathlons, Morgan said.

This year, there were three entrants — two men and Serpico — and all were finishers, yet Serpico still managed to stand out, Morgan said.

“There will be pain and suffering during an event like this; that’s pretty much a guarantee,” she said. “Suzy’s mental game was super strong and she was incredibly positive, too. That’s rare.”

New approach

Serpico, who was a professional triathlete from 2012 to 2015 and has run 19 Ironman triathlons, said she’s changed her approach to the sport in recent years.

“I used to be all about winning, which I’ve never taken for granted, but too much pressure can take the joy away,” she said. “Now, I consider it more of a lifestyle.”

Serpico and her husband, Danny — who ran an Ironman triathlon together on their honeymoon 10 years ago in Cozumel, Mexico — also know what’s involved in training for ultra-endurance events from the other side of the sport.

The couple co-own Rip It Events, a Columbia-based endurance event production and coaching company where he’s the race director and she’s the head coach.

Serpico’s husband couldn’t accompany her to the Epic 5 after its dates and location were switched from Canada in July to Hawaii in May, when he had races to direct.

“That was tough on both of us,” Serpico said, adding that turn of events led her to lean even more heavily on her three-person crew — Stephanie Blades, David Blades and Mark Naphin.

“You need people who are willing to put their lives on hold for you for one-and-a-half weeks,” she said. “They were my lifeline and I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Stephanie Blades, who works for the Community Action Council of Howard County, said the Epic 5 is a pinnacle of Serpico’s athletic career.

“All of Suzy’s experiences as a pro and as an amateur have led up to this race,” Blades said. “In some ways, she trained her whole life for it.”

Quite a few people couldn’t believe the event was real when they first heard about it and asked her if Serpico “had dreamed it up,” she said with a laugh.

“Suzy is a woman of extremes,” Blades said, so such inquiries weren’t surprising. “She’s either all on or all off, but mostly on. We all feed off her energy.”

Centennial High athlete

The former Suzy McCulloch raced in the Columbia Triathlon as a senior at Centennial High School, where she played volleyball and basketball before graduating in 1998.

“At a young age, I found I had a talent for it and I saw that if you put in the work, you get results,” said the Ellicott City native. “I was also given the gift of stubbornness; being hard-headed helps.”

Serpico used the Epic 5 Challenge to raise money for Parkinson’s disease research in honor of her father, Chuck McCulloch, who was diagnosed in 2012. She collected 150 pledges totaling $10,215 through Bigfoot Endurance. Her parents live in Woodstock.

“Suzy knows how to use the power of her mind and her heart,” Blades said.

Naphin, who lives in Canada, said free-spirited athletes like Serpico “are wired differently.”

“She’s loud and boisterous and never shows that she’s miserable,” he said. “She’s more concerned about her crew than herself and that allows her mind to be free and the nerves to ebb.”

By Day 4 of the event, Serpico was suffering from intense foot pain, so Naphin cut the toe boxes out of her running shoes to relieve pressure from swelling. On the last day, he cut open her biking shoes.

“Suzy has the ability to go into her hurt cave and not think too much about the pain,” he said. “She’s an absolute beast at her physical game, but her mental game is even more impressive.”

Other mountains to climb

Morgan noticed that Serpico had a smile on her face each day, which she viewed as a true feat in light of the drive it took for finishers to log better-than-average times this year.

Though not a focus of the Epic 5, times must be reported to USA Triathlon, which sanctions the event, Morgan said.

The average total time this year was 73 hours and 40 minutes, just over three hours faster than the overall average time of 77 hours and 8 minutes since the Epic 5 began, Morgan said. Last year’s average was 86 hours and 48 minutes.

Serpico said her mood fluctuated somewhat each day, but in the end, determination won out.

“I doubted myself a lot. I said, ‘This is nuts’ and “Why am I doing this?’ ” Serpico recalled. “But when my body was tired, my mind wanted to keep going. It’s a game of mental toughness.”

The natural beauty of Hawaii was especially uplifting when her spirits ebbed, Serpico added.

“Swimming is my happy place and I got to swim [in local bays] with sea turtles and other sea life,” she said. “We swam in a pool to avoid sharks and currents in Molokai, but we saw a night sky full of stars there.”

Serpico said she was humbled by the number of people who followed her journey on Facebook and lent their support and well-wishes. She also received a big welcome back when she returned to Hammond Elementary.

Many people have been asking her how she will top what she labeled “a surreal experience and the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the Epic 5, a fact that hasn’t escaped notice. But there are other mountains to climb.

“I’ve been searching for a new challenge,” Serpico said, adding emphatically, “and I will find something.”

Those who know her best say they expect nothing less.

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