Never too late

In 2010, Ruth Brennan Morrey was 35 and coming off a 10 year hiatus from sports - an elite soccer and marathon career interrupted by many things including the birth of three children and acquiring a PhD - when she decided to try triathlon and became a pro. First step: learn to swim.

One year later, the Rochester, Minnesota mother of three was the women’s overall age group champion of the ITU Long Distance Worlds in Henderson, Nevada. In 2013, she scored the fastest run splits at three 70.3s – all under 1:20 – while finishing 5th, 6th and 12th overall woman. In her most impressive performance, she was racing second overall woman, five minutes behind leader Eva Nystrom during the 150 kilometer bike segment at the 2013 ITU Long Distance World Championship in Zofingen. On a steep, wet downhill, a car pulled in front of her and she crashed heavily. The bike was severely twisted, and she lost five minutes kicking the tire back into the frame and filling the flat with a CO2 cartridge. She rejoined the race in 9th place and pushed hard. She passed the 3rd place woman with a finish line sprint to earn the bronze.

In 2014, Brennan Morrey scored the fastest bike (2:21:31) and run (1:20:50) splits with an overall win at Kansas 70.3, 57 seconds ahead of Rachel Joyce. That same year she posted the fastest women’s run at the Ironman 70.3 Worlds in Mt. Tremblant while finishing 15th.

After a disappointing Kona debut in 2015 and a 2016 early-season back injury that plagued her for several months, Morrey made a comeback and a breakthrough at Ironman Arizona where she overcame a 16 minute deficit after the swim with a personal best 4:53:13 bike and women’s-best 2:57:45 marathon to finish 4th.

At an age when many champions in her sport retire from elite racing, Brennan Morrey feels her best days are ahead of her.

Slowtwitch: How good a soccer player were you? Why did you quit? What traits carried forth to your marathon and triathlon activities?

Ruth Brennan Morrey: I was a freshman starter for a Division I powerhouse at University of Wisconsin-Madison. Everyone is a star entering a Division I program, then team performances override individual performances. Besides US national team involvement, semi-pro and Division I soccer were the highest levels to achieve in the sport for women at the time. I loved playing, but it was my time to be finished. Resilience, passion for sport, and work ethic overlap well from my soccer days. I do miss immediate gratification from putting a ball in the back of the net! More patience is needed in triathlon!

ST: What makes you a good runner?

Ruth: Apparently a person logs 7-8 miles during a soccer game, so over 18 years of playing hundreds of games, those miles add up to a solid endurance base! Since my brother was a 2:30 Boston marathoner, it is also likely in the blood too. Running feels so natural and there is certainly a spiritual connection when running. I recently told my coach that sometimes it feels like I was put on this earth to run a fast tempo pace for a long period of time! This is a treasured gift.

ST: What factors led to that 10 year gap in your athletic résumé?

Ruth: After my NCAA soccer eligibility ran out in 1998, I signed up for a marathon training class to stay in shape. I ran a 3:15 fairly easily and two days later I played in a 90 minute soccer game so knew I could run faster. I registered for the 1999 Grandma’s Marathon with the goal to break 3 hours. My brother, a 2:33 Boston marathoner, paced me for the first 10 miles. At mile 10, he told me I had just passed the top Minnesota runner, and was also on track to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials, which was always his running goal. I had no idea what that meant. I picked up the pace to 6:25/mi, and finished in 2:48:20 (qualifying time was 2:50). This catapulted me into the distance running world. One day I was a soccer player, the next day I was an elite marathoner. I just went with it, and since I loved running, I thought it was the next logical step. I ran in the Olympic Trials in 2000 in Columbia, South Carolina, which was an incredible experience. I was elated to race against running legends like Joan Benoit Samuelson.

ST: How much pride did you take for finishing 34th at Trials? And why did you quit marathoning?

Ruth: The funny thing is... I didn't have a true developmental track, psychologically or physiologically, to be a solid runner. I was certainly competitive and in every soccer game I wanted to win. Each running race became solely an opportunity to win, continue my athletic identity, and stay competitive. But after 2 1/2 years, I burned out. Looking back, my mindset was all wrong. I had no true purpose. I was running for my own glory. Forget the process, I wanted outcome! But I was missing the critical WHY question. I was also plagued with injuries and questioned whether the hurt during training was worth it. I got married in 2002, started a PhD program, had 3 kids, and didn't run a single 5k or any other distance for 10 years.

ST: Why did you pursue a PhD in Counseling Psychology?

Ruth: My academic interests began in Sports Psychology, but my heart was truly in working with athletes with disabilities and with people living with chronic disease. It was a natural fit after growing up with a mother with multiple sclerosis. My PhD dissertation focused on the construct of hope, goal setting, and functional outcome with rehabilitation patients.

ST: What led you back to sport?

Ruth: In time I grew in my faith, and promised myself that I wouldn't compete without having a solid grounding in why I chose to compete. Competing and training for a reason greater than myself, and using the gifts and talents I've been given in a God-honoring way is an entirely different ballgame.

ST: Tell us about your personal rule-out traits and non-negotiable positives in seeking a coach.

Ruth: My blog post details the story of my coaching non-negotiables, but it basically comes down to an individual with high professionalism (integrity, humility), superior understanding of the body, a lifelong learner and solid teacher with excellent communication skills, and a deep care for his/her athletes. A major bonus is that I truly like the coach as a person.

ST: How much did coach Phil Skiba improve your performance?

Ruth: Phil was my first triathlon coach and for three years, I improved tremendously (from a 1:24 half marathon as an AG to 1:18 best as a pro). But particularly he improved my bike performance - his academic interest.

ST: What has your current coach Alan Couzens done for you?

Ruth: Both Phil and Alan are guided by science and are lovers of all things data, but have a different approach to training. Alan has also taught me the value of patience and throughout a challenging 2016, he has exposed my head and guided my heart to becoming a better athlete. Alan connects and communicates extraordinarily well and his passion and belief translates positively into athlete performance. I have been very blessed with outstanding leadership during my career.

ST: What was the meaning of your 40th birthday?

Ruth: Kona 2015 fell on my 40th birthday and in my 40 years of life, it’s the day I had to dig deepest within my soul. I'll never forget it.

ST: What did you say to yourself about real suffering when you started up Palani Hill at the 2015 Ironman Worlds?

Ruth: There was a sense of confusion as to why the marathon was causing such a struggle. The run was my time to shine. I visualized numerous scenarios before the race - except this one - and I was not prepared for the worst case scenario.

ST: What were you singing to yourself when you realized you were suffering from vog (haze containing volcanic dust) and were headed for a disappointing 3:39:57 marathon?

Ruth: "I Lived" by One Republic was in my head all week, and the lyrics were perfect for this day. It’s a song about learning about life through struggles and being vulnerable to the process.

ST: How did you feel about your performance where you finished 23rd pro in 10:22:57 and you had all those family and friends there as part of your team?

Ruth: I was hugely disappointed with the outcome in all three disciplines, but when 20 of the most precious people in your life are on the sidelines, there is no greater joy.

ST: What did you feel seeing the joy on your daughter Shea’s face at the end of your disappointing marathon?

Ruth: As much as we would like, I've learned that race results aren't meaningful to kids. She sees me as her mother first, pro athlete second. She witnessed her mom having a hard time, continuing to fight through, exposing my imperfections, and embracing the struggle. Actions roaring over words, my kids were critical for my continuation. They need me, I need them.

ST: Your son also offered you some supporting words?

Ruth: When we returned from our trip, I was sending the kids off to school, and out of nowhere, my 10-year-old son said, “Mom?” “Yes, Connor?” “When I heard you dropped out of the race, I just wanted to come find you at mile 23 and carry you the rest of the way.” We both lost it.

ST: What pride do you take at being one of the best runners in the sport? By my reckoning, you have entered a select group of top women Ironman runners – chasing the footsteps of Mirinda Carfrae, Chrissie Wellington, Rachel Joyce, Angela Naeth, Mel Hauschildt, and Caitlin Snow.

Ruth: Being named within this group is quite an honor itself. Thank you. Running is an intimate part of my triathlon identity. I am grateful for my ability to run well, need it to place well, and don't take it for granted.

ST: What about you might be what Garrison Keillor talks about when he discusses the good Minnesota citizens of Lake Woebegon?

Ruth: Keillor says, "Where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above-average." Not sure exactly what you are getting at here, but I do know I am a strong woman, strong mother, strong Christian, and strong competitor. I do think I have a huge responsibility to give back to my community, help other young athletes find their way, and share some of my lessons of finding purpose.

ST: Looks like you have joined some great female triathletes in getting better in internationally significant races into their late 30s and early 40s.

Ruth: I began the sport 6 years ago and literally didn't know how to swim when I began. Although I'm 41, my development is still in its infancy. My bike/run combination keeps me competitive, but I know my best days are still ahead.

ST: What are your competitive dreams at this point?

Ruth: My dream is to continue racing and training for the right reasons and use my experiences as a platform to do good things after my career. If we are talking outcome, it would to be a more well-rounded athlete, to win an Ironman, run a low 2:50 marathon, and swim a sub-1 hour swim. There is no doubt in my mind that these goals will be possible... yes, even in my 40's :).