With two miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, 26 miles of running and just 17 hours to complete the gauntlet, an Ironman triathlon is considered to be one of the most difficult sporting events in the world. But don’t bother telling Nancy Ko, who is currently training for her first Ironman this November. The San Marino resident has never let daunting challenges faze her. She is too busy raising triplets and serving numerous roles within the community, including financial secretary and publicity chair of the Valentine Elementary School PTA, president of San Marino’s National Charity League Juniors, and leader of the local Girl Scout troop and Cub Scout den.
“I think every mom is an iron mom, whether you do the Ironman or not,” said Ko. “You have to juggle work, family, activities.”
Ko was born in Los Angeles and attended Alhambra High School, where she met her future husband, Jonathan. The couple graduated from Loyola Marymount University and eventually moved to San Marino in 2008 upon learning that she was pregnant.
“We thought, we have to go live in a city where they have really great schools,” said Ko, who decided to take up running for exercise as a way to combat an unwanted consequence stemming from her first two jobs out of college: weight gain.
The first was a music licensing position that she described as “boring” and the next was in television production, where her company offered three catered meals every day.
“I just packed on a lot of weight because I was mostly sitting in an office all day and eating way too much,” Ko said.
She started on a treadmill and slowly began to ramp up the distances, befriending a like-minded runner named Ly Ly Ta along the way. The two hit it off and embarked on several marathons during the next few years.
“After the kids were born, I would try to run a marathon a month from the fall to the spring,” said Ko, who gave up her traditional office job when she became a mother. “It was more like a vacation or a day off for me, because I wouldn’t train during the entire month because I was busy taking care of the kids.”
The burgeoning runner then attempted a half-Ironman after watching her friend, Ta, complete a full one. But Ko’s lack of adequate training made the experience rather unpleasant.
“I felt like I nearly died because I didn’t realize how hard it was,” Ko said.
That’s when she decided to really devote herself to proper conditioning with the hope of one day tackling a full Ironman. Ko was preparing for her chance last year but suffered a leg injury during a bicycle crash and had to postpone training. Following her recovery, Ko sought out a personal coach named Lynne Feedler about six months ago. An elite athlete and two-time Ironman world championship qualifier, Feedler has been revitalizing and fine-tuning Ko’s training. The pair utilizes Garmin technology to track each other’s workouts in advance of the Nov. 20 competition in Tempe, Ariz.
“For me as coach, I like it because it kind of makes the athlete more accountable,” said Feedler, who referred Ko to a personal swim coach as well. “You can see the pace and speed.”
As for Ko, she has mixed feelings about the Garmin tracking system.
“It’s cool, but not really so cool because I see what [Feedler] does and think, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’” Ko said. “It’s really incredible.”
Besides offering tangible motivation through Garmin, Feedler also helps out in a major way by developing a regimen that fits with Ko’s busy schedule.
“I just go week by week,” said Feedler. “She gives me what hours she has available, so we work with that. She usually has really early mornings and then sometimes more in the day, but sometimes not.”
“I think she’s really committed to getting to the finish line in the Ironman, even with everything that she’s juggling. She doesn’t miss a workout very often, so that’s good.”
Most mornings during the week, Ko wakes up at 3 a.m. so that she can drive down to Ta’s house in Yorba Linda before the sun rises. Some days, she rides her bike to Huntington Beach and back, 90 miles round-trip. Other days, Ko gets in her swimming training at a nearby lake.
“She dreams big and she goes big,” said Ta. “She makes these big goals … and she does that for everything, whether it’s sports or the kids or putting on these school functions. The stuff that she does is huge, and she follows it all through.
“When she’s at the lake, I try to be there to support her if I can. A lot of it is mental training. If you have someone else with you, it’s a lot more fun.”
Ko benefits from another support system composed of her husband and parents, who share in the responsibility of taking her 8-year-old triplets Nicholas, Ethan and Jennifer to school at Valentine or to their swim lessons on weekends.
“I don’t think I would be able to do it without them,” Ko said.
Ko is also indebted to Huntington Hospital, where she had her three children without incident despite the fact that triplets carry a higher risk of premature births. Through NCL Juniors, Ko is using her Ironman journey as a platform for a fundraising effort in support of the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.
“We were so fortunate that they didn’t end up in there,” said Ko. “They went home with me four days after they were born. I thought the least I could do is raise money for [the hospital].”
Ko’s children are the light of her life and they will be in Arizona cheering on their iron mom with the rest of the family in November. In the meantime, there are still more PTA finances to oversee, more events to promote at Valentine, more NCL meetings to lead and more 250-mile training weeks like the one she completed earlier this month.
“Basically, I don’t know how she does it,” said Ta. “She has three kids and is able to balance a lot more than the normal person can. … She puts a lot on her plate and somehow she’s able to handle everything and come out even stronger at the end. When she tells me that she wants to do something, I never doubt that she can do it.”
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