By Dorothy Bliskey
When Evelyn McLean-Cowan attended Waupun High School in the early 1970s, competitive sports for girls was in its early stages. There wasn’t even a cross country team for girls until her senior year. But she ran on the school’s track team and excelled. It was her earliest attempts at competitive running.
Evelyn competed in relays in high school track, but discovered what she really loved was long-distance running. “I found running to be exhilarating,” she said. “I started out with the 800 and then went to the mile. I was running about six-minute miles and was second in the conference in that event. While I wanted to do both the 800 and the mile, they only let girls run one long-distance event back then.”
Forty years later, as a wife and grandmother, this 58-year-old Fond du Lac woman is once again competing – not only in running, but biking and swimming in triathlon events. This past summer she competed on a worldwide level with Team USA at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, Canada. She was among 3,000 athletes from 70 countries. In her age group (55-59), she ran, biked and swam in the triathlon with 50 others from various countries. Opening ceremonies rivaled those of the Olympics.
Considered the pinnacle of the triathlon competitions, the event is the world’s leading stage to promote an active lifestyle. It’s also a series for elite athletes who are competing for a spot on the Olympic triathlon team. To qualify, Evelyn had to first compete in a national event in the U.S. – which she did in Milwaukee the previous year.
The event called for her to swim 750 meters (one-half mile), bike 19.74 KM (12.25 miles) and Run 5K (3.1 mile distance). Out of the 50 competitors in her age group, she came in at number 30. “Although I wanted to do my best, how I placed didn’t really matter to me. I loved the experience of participating – and I was very happy to have my best swim time ever.”
The swimming part was also the most challenging. “I had never done a dive-in start for the swim, and my left goggle filled with water. I kept calm and told myself to keep going and just sight with my right eye,” Evelyn said. “I maintained my mental composure throughout the race and felt strong physically, thanks to practicing open water swims last summer with members of Redline Triathlon Club.”
To prepare for the triathlon, Evelyn swam, biked, ran, and did strength workouts every week for more than a year. “In an optimal week, I’d swim 2-3 times a week, bike three times a week on countryside roads with fellow cyclists and run twice a week.” In addition to all that, she did strength training at a nearby fitness center, TNT Fitness.
Her winter fitness activities were – and still are – to bike indoors on a stationary bike, cross-country ski and snowshoe. She also devotes time to working on swimming techniques at indoor pools.
Through the Redline Triathlon Club she joined, Evelyn has had the opportunity to attend clinics and learn tips from other members. “Some members have a coach and are very scientific about their training. I generally just listen to my body. I try to take a day off once every couple of weeks.”
In her younger years, Evelyn ran in the Boston Marathon and several other well-known events. Her finish time (3 hours, 3 minutes and 43 seconds) in the 1982 Boston Marathon was a very good time – especially when considering the route is challenging and the weather that day was quite hot. “Boston Marathon was an awesome experience,” she said. “There were many supportive people along the entire route and spectators even sitting on rooftops to cheer. Fewer women participated back then, so whenever a woman would run by, there would be a roar of cheering. I wondered how people knew my name. Later I discovered everyone’s name and number had been printed in the newspaper. This was before the Internet was available.”
Other competitive highlights over the years for Evelyn included a Grand Prix running series of 10k races through the Wisconsin Athletics Congress. She placed fifth in the state, just behind a UW-Madison runner. In a regional Pepsi Challenge 10K run she came out on top, which led to an all-expense-paid trip to race on the national level in Kansas City.
Time off for 25 years…
Injuries from an unfortunate collision with a taxi while riding her bike in Madison sidelined her. That and time spent raising her family ended her competitive running – for a couple of decades.
“My running came to a halt shortly after the Boston Marathon, when I was hit by the taxi. I had months of physical therapy and the only exercise I could do was swimming, because it’s non-weight bearing. Even though I wasn’t a very good swimmer, I eventually joined Masters Swimming and competed in the 1600,” Evelyn said.
For a 25-year period, due to chronic back issues and her focus on raising three children with her husband Mike, Evelyn chose to stop competing. “To keep my sanity, I ran and swam for the fun of it and to keep in shape.”
Things changed in 2005 – and so did Evelyn’s focus; when a doctor she saw for a running injury suggested she get into cross training by joining the Redline Triathlon Club. She began with group swims on Saturday mornings. Before long, members were encouraging her to join them on bike rides. She rode a couple of Sprint Distance Triathlons and enjoyed it. It was the catalyst for getting her back in the swing of competing.
In the future she hopes to repeat her journey to triathlon competitions like she experienced in Canada last summer. Evelyn feels good about being able to compete at an age when she didn’t think she could anymore. “What I am most proud of is my persistence and not giving up despite obstacles, injuries, and other setbacks.”