Runners: Nancy Sutton

The Runners profile, normally available to premium subscribers to Running Shorts but free to everyone today, features Winston-Salem triathlete, and new Ironman, Nancy Sutton.

Runners: Nancy Sutton
Winston-Salem's Nancy Sutton, completing a marathon and finishing Ironman Lake Placid on July 24. 

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The Runners profile, normally available to premium subscribers to Running Shorts but free to everyone today, features Winston-Salem triathlete, and new Ironman, Nancy Sutton.

The Warmup






Sister, Laura Williams, and her husband, Bryson Williams; niece, Meg Williams; nephew, Trey Williams.

Day job

Retired, 2017; former educator in Cherokee, Guilford (taught health and physical education at Ferndale Middle School)and Forsyth counties (taught health and physical education at Mineral Springs Middle School); has been a helpful living coach with YMCA's diabetes prevention program and a healthy heart ambassador for a blood pressure self-monitoring program; volunteer as guardian ad litem with Forsyth County court system.

Why I swim, cycle and run ...

"Probably 20 years ago, I ran every day. I ran myself into a meniscus problem. Basically, I just pounded my meniscus to nothing. I said to myself, 'You're not going to be able to do this every day. The same thing's going to happen. You've got two knees; eventually both of them are going to be shot. So what can you do? What can you throw in the mix?' So I got a bike. I move because it makes me feel better. I started supplementing my run with bike. And that's all it was to start with, just a supplemental exercise.

"Then I thought, 'It's a hot day in the summertime. I think I'll go swim. And then I sat back one day: 'Swim. Bike. Run. Try putting them all together.' And I did my first triathlon in '06 (Excellence Triathlon, Tanglewood Park; won her age group), and I was hooked. My brain enjoys thinking while I'm exercising, likes to have a job. Making those changes, putting those exercises all together, 'how do you get from swim to bike to run?' There was something about it. And I've been doing it ever since.

'I move because it makes me feel better.'

""I've always been in athletics. I played volleyball, basketball and softball and ran track in high school. And then in college (Western Carolina), I played volleyball, basketball and softball. When I got out, I tried playing some team sports, some rec leagues. I've always tried to keep myself just ahead of the curve, just so that I know when it's time to change. What are some things that I can do that will be better for me and keep me active longer? And running just made sense. Andrews, N.C., which is where my first teaching job was: There's nothing out there. So hiking, and running were my two things. Cooper River Bridge, I think, was one of my first races."

... but why swimming didn't come easy

"I almost drowned when I was 7 years old. I jumped in a pool not knowing that you have to swim. I was always able to touch in the bathtub. I'd push and slosh around in the bathtub; I thought that was swimming. ...

"I can remember it like was yesterday. ... My cousin said, 'You want to jump off the diving board?' I said, 'Yeah.' She said, 'Can you swim?' I said, 'Yeah.'  ... She jumped off, swam to the side. I jumped off, and there was no bottom. ...And I went down.

"I was able to splash and come back up. And I remember seeing her standing on the side of the pool, looking at me. And I went down a second time, splashed and came back up. And I saw the look in her eyes, and I saw her run to get my uncle, her dad (Brian). ...

"I was going down for the last time, and he pulled me out. I had a fear of the water for a while. My mom (Louise) put me in swimming lessons right away when we got back from visiting my uncle and his family. I had a huge fear.

"I still to this day have a fear of being touched in the water; open-water swims, that happens all the time. I'm not a great swimmer, but I'm learning to be better and overcome that fear."


Nancy Sutton practicing a descent along the Ironman Lake Placid course.

"The Ironman Lake Placid (completed July 24; her first) was undoubtedly the hardest thing I've ever accomplished. I would have been thrilled to finish in 15 hours. Realistic, unrealistic: I wasn't sure. I finished in 14:31. But that was due in large part to my training partner, Lisa Barefoot. If she hadn't stuck it out with me, I don't think I'd have done as well. It's always good to have somebody just ahead of you that you're trying to catch up with. She was very sacrificial in her race; she could have finished under 14 hours. I've never been so tired in my whole life. The fatigue, the utter fatigue, that I felt was amazing. I was like, 'Gosh, how can you feel this tired and continue to go on?'

Nancy Sutton at the Trailblaze Challenge.

"Make a Wish does a hike, a Trailblaze Challenge (28.3 miles), every year. You think, 'Well, you just hiked 28 miles, you've run a marathon before,' but there's a huge difference from being on the road. That was so difficult. I almost felt that same type of out-of-body experience, that fatigue. To me, it was such an accomplishment and such a great cause that I was inspired, and grateful, all at the same time."

My journey to Ironman

If you'd like to see and hear Nancy Sutton share her story, click on the video above. 

'Every year ... there was a challenge I had to maneuver around'

"Being a health educator, I knew it was important for me to practice what I preached. So I turned 40, started getting mammograms. I was just on the cusp of 50 in 2013 (June). Went and got a mammogram, and something didn't look right. Got another; had to go for a needle biopsy. It turned out to be atypical ductal hyperplasia, which is a pre-cancer. I was very fortunate, very lucky. They removed the spot; they called it a partial mastectomy, but to me they just took some tissue out. I followed up, and the medication that they wanted to put me on, one of the side effects was uterine cancer.

"We were racing; we did the Raleigh 70.3, in May or June. I think we did a 70.3 down in Charlotte. 'Hey, we're ready for an Ironman.' I turned 50. What do you do when you're 50? You get a colonoscopy. When I was coming out anesthesia, he said, ‘You did great with your cleanse, you did a super job. You have a malignancy.’ 'Oh my God.' But they caught it in time. I went to a surgeon here in Winston, and they took my sigmoid colon out (about 12-14 inches). Didn't need any treatment. But that was a setback, a real setback. I was out of work for four weeks. Took me a little while to get back on my feet again. We had signed up for the 70.3 again, and I didn't make that race.

"And then in 2015, because of the medication that I was taking to prevent breast cancer, they caught that in time before it became Stage 1 uterine cancer. Abnormal cell growth, but they caught it just before it was cancer. So I had to have a hysterectomy. Because of my cancer history, they said they're not taking any chances.

"Within two years, I had a lumpectomy and then I had two really major surgeries. ...

"My only aunt passed away. She had been sick with cancer, and I went to see her a lot. My dad (Lewis) became sick; he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I brought him here to live, and he passed away in 2016. ...

"It took a while for me to recover from that. I finally started riding, I think it was 2019, and went back to Wilmington and did a sprint triathlon. 'Yeah, I feel good, I'm back.'

"And then, of course, we hit COVID. But I got connected with some cyclists, so that was my escape. I had to make sure I was eating more calories because my doctor was like, 'You can't lose any more weight. In April 2020, I rode 1,200 miles. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday. That was what I could do.

“I had a friend (Mark Scheerer) that lived right up the road from me. On July 3, 2020, he and I are coming back from a long ride, 88 miles into a ride. And I was tired. It was hot. I made an overcorrection, hit his wheel, hit the sidewalk. I remember waking up in the ambulance. I had broken my (right) trochanter in two places. A clean break, and then the top was cracked. I had four fractures, two skull fractures, split my head open. All kinds of road rash. I had a fantastic surgeon here at Baptist who put me back together, Eben Carroll. He was phenomenal. He knew that I was an athlete. He told me, kind of in a morphine haze, 'with your permission, I'm going to do something I don't do for everybody. I know you're an athlete, and I'm going to put this metal plate in that's going to get you back on your bike quicker.' I was back on my feet in five weeks, and I was riding again in six weeks.

"Lisa and I went riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway (December 2020). I get into a tunnel; my light is out. My bike slips out from under me, and I break my (left) collarbone.

"Between July and December, I had five fractures. Every year, just about, there was a challenge I had to maneuver around. ...

"In September 2021, a month after I signed up for Ironman Lake Placid, an MRI showed I had two partially torn rotator cuff muscles in my right shoulder. The doctor wanted to do surgery but begrudgingly allowed me to do PT. The PT was amazing and got me where I could swim with no pain, and I probably will not need surgery, at least not any time soon.

"Watching Lisa really inspired me. She had all of these races did so well in, a world-class athlete with Ironman. And I trained with her. When she needed a running buddy or a cycling buddy, I would train with her. She said, 'You ought to think about doing Lake Placid.'"

The plan for Lake Placid

The swim at Ironman Lake Placid covered 2.4 miles.

"Being an older athlete, I knew I had to take a safer approach than if I were 20, 30 years younger. With the guidance of Lisa and her experience, she introduced me to a book called '80/20 Triathlon' training. You train 80% of your training in a low intensity and 20% at a moderate to high. What that does is build your endurance. I had a great base of endurance going into it. We set it out 18 or 19 weeks out. As you can imagine, it each week got progressively a little bit more challenging. We would do a couple of weeks of heavy loads: not necessarily intense loads but heavy loads of workouts. And then we'd have kind of a week off, where we'd do a little bit less. We usually would swim on a Monday, we would bike and run on a Tuesday, there might be a standalone run on a Wednesday. We'd get anywhere from three to four swims in a week, usually three to four bikes, and somewhere around maybe three or four runs on the heavy weeks.

'Whenever my brain gets to do stuff, the rest of my body's happy. If my brain's not happy, nothing else works well.'

"At the end, we had six-hour bike rides and then we would have an hour run, and those were really challenging. I would be so tired. 'Lisa, how in the world are we going to get 24 miles? We just ran 6 and I'm beat.' She said, 'Don't worry, you'll be ready.' ...

The second Ironman discipline, on the bicycle, requires races to go 112 miles.

"We went out for a run one day, and the idea was we would get our heart rates up a little bit higher. Zone 1 through Zone 5 is how we how we calibrated our workouts. There was one point where we were supposed to get our heart rate up into Zone 3, and my legs weren't strong enough to get my heart rate up. I was in such great cardiovascular shape. If I do another Ironman, which is not out of the realm of possibility, I'm really going to work on some strength, because my skeletal muscles weren't up to par with my cardiac muscle. Long periods of training at low intensity was really what we focused on."

Say what?

"There was a guy on the sidewalk on our first lap on the run. Straight uphill, back into Lake Placid. It was brutal. I'm trying to jog a little bit; I had walked some. I heard him say, 'Gah, I could walk up these hills faster than they can run.' I wanted to go over there and shake him and say, 'But did you ride 112 miles or swim 2.4 miles before?'"

The Cooldown

Why I don't slow down ... or stop

"I just ... I love it. I love being active. It's as much a part of my everyday being as eating or sleeping. I can't imagine not being active. When the pandemic hit and things shut down, I thought, 'I can't be in this house. I can't read books.' Obviously reading is wonderful. But I couldn't relegate that as my only activity, just being inside and being scared. I knew it was safe to be outside and be with a limited number of people. I knew that if I could get through that and find ways to stay active that I would be OK. To not be doing something, I can feel my mind crumble. I can literally feel it. ...

'I love being active. It's as much a part of my everyday being as eating or sleeping.'

"For my mental outlook, I know how important it is. And there's something about training: I love to train, I love the planning, I love writing it down in my journal. 'OK, today I'm going to do this.' Never in any of those circumstances that I went through did I think, 'OK, I'm not going to do this anymore.' If anything, it was a motivation. 'You're going to get through this because you've got things to do.' The thought of getting back in the saddle was what helped me heal through a lot of the setbacks."

My inspiration

Nancy Sutton, left, and Lisa Barefoot during the Ironman Lake Placid weekend.

"Lisa and I go way back (competing together beginning in 2008), and she's an amazing athlete. ... I've watched her, just the determination that I see when she is competing, when she's training. She's always looking for ways to get better. She knows where she needs to make improvements, and she knows how to find resources to make herself better. It compels me to be better. I've been very fortunate to have her as a training partner, and it's made me a better athlete. She's been my biggest inspiration. She's been my biggest motivator."

What I've learned about myself

"I've been very fortunate. I'm very, very grateful for the opportunities I've been given. And my health, that I'm able to lead and in my spare time really focus on doing the things that I love. ...

"The biggest thing that comes to me is persistence is key. Never saying never. Not quitting. Sticking with it. Maybe changing your sails a little bit in the wind but trying to stay on course. You don't always get there the way that you think you're going to get there, but you still get there.

"The children that I taught came from impoverished situations, sometimes unsafe situations, difficult. And letting them know, I'm always in your corner. I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to stick this out with you. Teaching them you can do the same thing. Anything's possible. That's one of the slogans for Ironman: anything's possible.

"If you're persistent, if you don't give up, then you can achieve the goals and the dreams that you've set out for yourself, if you've got a plan to get there. That's what has been my bedrock: Don't give up, you've got this, stick to your plan.

"And to be that example to other people. If I want to tell these children that you can do things, you can do great things, then I've got to an exemplar and say I'm not going to give up.

"And that's not just children; that's adults as well. If I'm going to tell you that it's important to take care of yourself, then I'm going to take care of myself, too. I'm going to these screenings that twice saved my life. So just doing the things that are important and staying with it, just sticking with it."

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