Racing with no end in sight: Bruce and Robyn Williams make a living out of fitness

There are those who lead active lifestyles and then there’s Robyn and Bruce Williams.

 


Robyn, a TRX and cycling instructor at the Blue Ash YMCA branch, is gearing up for a half Ironman triathlon in May while her husband, Bruce, trains for a 102-mile bike ride that ends with a 25-mile steep climb up a mountain. Then they’ll both compete in the World Triathlon Finals in August in Canada before they go to New Zealand in November when Robyn will compete in the World Championship Half Ironman.

 


That’s just this year.

 


“We still do all this stuff,” says Robyn, 60, who can’t say definitively how many triathlons she and Bruce have done. “We’re not crazy with times and data. It’s a lifestyle for us.”


“We try not to be overly compulsive about it,” Bruce adds. “I know it does require a lot of time.”


The couple started doing triathlons in 1984, so there really are too many to count. But the Ironman tally is 15 for Bruce and 13 for Robyn. And both have competed in the prestigious, rock-star-status Ironman World Championship held annually in Kona, Hawaii. It is the culmination of a series of Ironman qualification races held around the world. Bruce has been there five times and Robyn qualified three times and ran it twice. They were there together in 2015.


“That was pretty cool, being able to compete at that level together,” Robyn says. “It really is the most competitive environment I have ever experienced. During the run I actually broke down a few times because I just couldn’t believe I was there.”


The native Canadians met in college, at the University of New Brunswick. Bruce was already an established swimmer and qualified for the time trials for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. Robyn studied ballet and was a diver and played other sports. But she didn’t get into competitive running until she was 27.



A two-year relocation assignment with Procter & Gamble brought them to Georgia in the 1980s. Both were cycling and doing some running at the time and, every weekend, there was a road race somewhere within 30 minutes of them, according to Bruce.

 


So Robyn decided to give it a try. She signed up for her first 5K, the “Pig Jig” in Vienna, Ga. — and she won.

 


But she didn’t love running right away. “I didn’t like the feeling of the burning of the lungs,” she recalls. “I didn’t like my thighs rubbing together. I was ready to quit a few times.”



What changed? “I started seeing results. I started losing some weight. I started feeling really good.” And she realized she was good at it and joined several friends who were into running. “I started entering a bunch of races, 5Ks turned into 10Ks,” she says.


Then Bruce saw an advertisement about a YMCA in Valdosta, Ga., that was putting on a local triathlon. “I said, ‘we should just go down and do this race’,” he says. And they did. It was a 1,000-meter swim, a 15-mile bike race and a 5K run.


When they returned to Canada, they found a local triathlete who mentored them for six years and they put on triathlons for adults and kids in their community. Robyn also went back to school and earned a marketing degree. “It was busy,” she says. “We were working and training and raising children and running triathlons.”


In the early 1990s, when triathlons were starting to gain popularity, Bruce saw an article about an Ironman competition in Florida. While there weren’t a lot of those competitions at the time, he found some people to train with and entered the race. They took their two sons and turned it into a family vacation in Orlando.


“It was a big sense of accomplishment,” he says. “It was actually a very good experience. The camaraderie with competitors was really good. It wasn’t overwhelming. You get focused and enjoy it.”


Robyn was skeptical. “That was just so weird to me,” she says about the competition.


When they arrived in Cincinnati in 1998, again with P&G, they competed in a few triathlons, Robyn started her own business, Proactive Fitness, and she started a kids’ triathlon in their neighborhood.


“It was fun,” she says. “There were 50 kids coming to the neighborhood pool.”


Then, thanks to a chance meeting at a Kroger store, Robyn changed her mind and decided that she wanted to do an Ironman too. “I see this woman in the aisle. And (she’s wearing) this really cool Ironman finisher jacket. And I said, ‘My husband just did an Ironman.’” They spent an hour in the aisle talking about it. When she got home, she said to Bruce, “You’re not going to believe this. I’m going to do an Ironman.”


She trained with the woman, who introduced her to another competitor and she completed her first Ironman in 2001 in Panama City, Fla.


“Oh it was so hard,” she says. “I think I went through that high. I felt ‘Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I finished.’ I was pumped. It was a pretty good feeling.”


Their two sons Tanner and Jarret were active as well and took up swimming when they were young.


In 2005, Triathlete Magazine published an essay written by Tanner about his parents. He called them “exercise fanatics who like to do these things called triathlons and Ironmans.” He was 16 and the essay was an excerpt from a writing assignment. “My parents really enjoy this stuff. In fact they pay large sums of money to put themselves through this torture,” he wrote. “Why would someone want to do what my parents do? It’s madness. They actually fight over who gets to exercise and when.”


At the Blue Ash Y, Robyn discovered several others who shared their passion for triathlons. For five years, she and two other members, Mitch Baker and Chip Dobson, held triathlon clinics on Saturday mornings at 6 a.m.


“We had a lot of interest,” she says. “One time we had 40 people. We had a group swimming and a group in the cycling studio and then we’d flip them. And then we all ran together.” They also brought in guest speakers, discussed nutrition, and taught how to change a flat tire among other topics.


“We did a lot for that group. It was really fun,” she says. “I’d definitely do that again.”


The group eventually turned into the BAMRACING, or Blue Ash Multi Sport Club, and is very active today.


“The best part is meeting new people, seeing the tri-community reach new goals and seeing folks participate in something they never thought they could,” Robyn says.


Bruce, 62, has been retired two years. Robyn teaches four classes at the YMCA and substitute teaches at Leaves of Learning school. On any given day you’ll find her and Bruce swimming and/or cycling and maybe going for a run with weight training and yoga thrown in the mix.


Now 31, Tanner, a Taekwondo instructor and 5th degree black belt, praised his parents for showing him and Jarret the benefits of their dedication and discipline in the endurance sports.


“They accomplished a lot but the effort they put into it on a day-to-day basis was (and still is) astounding,” he wrote in an email. “My parents, like many others, could teach by example. And luckily, I didn’t become so indoctrinated to assume I needed to reach their levels of athleticism to be successful or happy … because they are still crazy. That hasn’t changed.”

Read more articles by Jan Angilella.

Jan Angilella is a freelance journalist, blogger, and publicist. She's been in the communications industry for more than 25 years. She's also mad about Italy. Read about her adventures there on her blog 1cannolo2cannoli.org. Remember: no 's' on cannoli.
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