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Randolph College Professor Pushing for Ironman Title

Local newspaper columnist features Peter Sheldon's quest

8/10/2009 3:41:59 PM


The following story appeared in the Lynchburg News & Advance on Aug. 10, 2009. It is reprinted with permission.

By Darrell Laurant

Peter Sheldon isn’t sure why he never learned to swim.

“I grew up in Massachusetts,” said the Randolph College physics professor, “and we used to go to the beach. But you don’t really swim at the beach, you just get in the water.”

Beyond that, Sheldon was a little leery of being in over his head.

“I never swam in pools,” he said. “It’s something my parents never made me do.”

Until recently, that omission never really affected his life. His athletic addiction was running, and marathoners generally remain on dry land. Sheldon had finished close to 20 long-distance events, in fact, without experiencing any moisture beyond a heavy sweat.

“Then I decided I wanted to try an Ironman Triathlon,” Sheldon said.

These events combine running (check), biking (check) and ... swimming. (Gulp.)

“There was no way around it if I wanted to do this,” he said. “I had to learn to swim.”

That, he admitted, was “daunting and scary.” But he bought a swimming video, tried to replicate what he saw in the Randolph College pool, and began working daily swims in with his daily runs and academic responsibilities. That was last December.

“If you are going to accomplish some things in life, you have to take some risks,” said the 41-year-old professor.

Still, it was slow going in the water. Come summertime, Sheldon switched to swimming laps at the Miller Park Pool. Gradually, he began to get more mileage out of his crawl stroke.

“When I started, I couldn’t swim 50 meters,” he said. “That got better, but I was still having a lot of trouble with my breathing. And I’m not real strong in my upper body, like a good swimmer needs to be.”

Moreover, the 2.4-mile swim in the Ford Ironman in Louisville, Ky., doesn’t take place in a lap pool, but the Ohio River. There are no lanes to guide a swimmer with a broken compass.

“I went up to Cape Cod on vacation,” Sheldon said, “and found myself swimming around in circles. Obviously, that wasn’t going to work.”

So Randolph College cross country coach Catherine “Cat” Phillips, who is training 32 local triathletes to raise money for the Alliance for Families and Children, took Sheldon to Bedford Lake to straighten him out — literally.

“I can swim in a straight line now,” Sheldon said, “but I’m still pretty slow. The good news is, the swim is only 10 percent of an Ironman.”

Followed by 113 miles of biking and a full marathon (26.2 miles). Sheldon is starting to feel ready, in his more optimistic moments. Other times, he thinks about the Ohio River.

“It’s supposed to be pretty dirty, and I swallow a lot of water,” he said. “Also, I’m told the current is moving along pretty good, and I’ll be swimming against it for about a third of the time. I could wind up going backward.”

Sheldon concedes that “some people think I’m crazy,” but adds “This is something I’m doing for me.”

I think he really believes that.

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CONTACT: Brenda Edson, Director of College Relations


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