By David Rogers. BLOWING ROCK, N.C. — She has fallen down a few times and gotten slugged (accidentally) by a male competitor, but Kathy “K.B.” Medford takes it all in stride, literally. She is one of those rare athletes who reached a level of fitness (for fun) to compete in half-Ironman triathlons (AKA Ironman 70.3) — and her passion sends her globetrotting.
Medford will trek to Scandinavia this summer. After winning the 70+ age group for women on March 19 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the septuagenarian set her sights on the World Championships in Finland, coming in August. It will be her third entry in the Worlds.
Ironman 70.3 is the same three athletic disciplines as the full Ironman triathlon, but exactly half the distances for each segment.
“The Half Ironman is a 1.2 mile swim, a 56 mile bike ride, a half-marathon of 13.1 miles running,” Medford explained.
In other words, it is at least a few hours of good work.
“For me, it is about six and a half to seven hours, depending on the course,” she said.
Discovering Adventure Athletics
Being an athlete came to Medford at a young age.
“I’ve kind of always been into athletic competition,” said Medford. “In high school, it was field hockey, the track team and basketball. I ended up working as a ski instructor after my first-year skiing at a resort in the Poconos of Pennsylvania, in the 12th grade.”
But Medford wasn’t just a jock. She was a student-athlete.
“After high school, I went to Penn State University, which was on a trimester system. I went spring, summer and fall, then took the winter off and taught skiing. Each spring when I came back to school I was just vibrating in the chair, studying, after being energetic and athletic all winter.”
a lot of their funding was based on how many people showed up at their first meeting!
Medford is not a stranger to competition at a high level. As a younger woman, in her college years, she became an accomplished whitewater paddler.
And it was at Penn State that Medford took up whitewater paddling.
“The Outing Club at Penn State had a really strong whitewater paddling club. They had a number of Olympic athletes. It was one of the top centers in the country for young men and women who really wanted to try and make the U.S. team for the Olympics,” Medford shared.
In fact, it was one of those Olympic athletes, Carrie Ashton, who conferred on Medford her nickname, “K.B.” In 1972, Ashton was in the Olympics in whitewater paddling, kayak, and U.S. national champion for several years, Medford reported to High Country Sports in an early April, one-on-one interview at the family residence on the outskirts of Blowing Rock.
“My maiden name was Kathy Bolyn and ‘K.B.’ just stuck with my friends,” said Medford.
“The Penn State Outing Club offered a beginning class in whitewater at the beginning of the semester,” Medford said, smiling as she recalled, “They were actively recruiting students to attend the class because apparently they got a lot of their funding based on how many people showed up at their first meeting! So, they were trying to rope everybody in they could. They approached me during my first run on the university’s indoor track.”
Although the team started out with some 20 newbies at that first meeting, they ended up with only two, Mikki Sager and Medford.
“Mikki was a gymnast and built like a wedge. She was unbelievable. So Steve Draper grabbed her to race C-2 and they made the U.S. team. She was terrified the whole first year!” Medford recalled of the young woman who became one of her closest college friends — and after they had both graduated.
I went down there to thinking i would be there for a year or two. Well, i was a river person at nantahala for 20 years.
A Short Trip to the North Carolina Mountains — for 20 Years
It was Sager who gave Medford her first introduction to the North Carolina mountains and paved the way for honing her whitewater skills.
“I learned from the Penn State team as a beginner, then Mikki got a job at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City and she called me up to say, ‘You gotta come down here. This is great!'” Medford said. “So I went down thinking I might be there a year or two. Well, I was a river person at Nantahala for 20 years. I rafted all the rivers. I kayaked. And I made the U.S. team twice, in the off years for the Olympics.”
As a kayaker, Medford also became an entrepreneur.
“A fellow showed up at Nantahala and we ended up producing a video about how to roll a kayak. Boy, that video sold like hotcakes! It ended up paying for my way through physicians assistant school after I left the Nantahala Center,” said Medford.
Medford also met husband, Houck Medford, around this time and ended up moving to Winston-Salem with him.
Back to School, and More
“I went to physician’s assistant school at Wake Forest University and then worked at Forsyth Hospital in Winston-Salem for 17 years,” Medford said.
Houck Medford deserves credit for getting his wife started in cycling, which K.B. later learned is one of the three elements of the triathlon, even if she had yet to discover what would become her athletic passion.
There was no YouTube back then, no cell phones.
“Houck was into cycling and there were a lot of local races around Winston-Salem. I took to cycling pretty quickly, too,” she said.
“We started competing in a lot of mountain bike races,” she recalled. “With a cabin in western North Carolina, we biked and biked and biked. Then Fleet Feet, a running store in Winston-Salem brought in Stacy Baties to teach running and it initially drew almost 200 people. She coached a 5k program, a marathon program, a half marathon program… dividing people up in groups of 10 or 12 who could run together at the same speed.”
But there was even more significance to the coaching, too.
“Stacy’s coaching appeared to be the same level of instruction that I received years earlier by the Olympic coaching for the U.S. whitewater team,” Medford explained. “There was no Internet or any other way to find out how to do anything, to excel at it, other than to receive personal coaching. There was no YouTube back then, no cell phones. She shared invaluable knowledge on how to train.”
The Best Start
Even with her running getting better and her cycling getting better, Medford was still clueless about triathlons, but that would soon change and literally lead to a world of adventures.
“One of my physician assistant colleagues had a friend who was an MD in my department. In the past they had biked across America and shared the same adventures in triathlons. They were also competing in triathlons. I had no idea that they existed or what they were. So, one day they invited me to ‘come do a sprint triathlon with us this weekend,'” Medford recalled, before explaining what she eventually learned about the sport.
“There are four different levels of triathlon. Everyone hears about the full Ironman, which I have never done. But the half Ironman is exactly half of the full, at 70.3 miles. The Olympic triathlon distance is half of that, and the fourth level is the Sprint, which takes an hour and a half to two hours — which is kind of cute to call it a ‘sprint’!” Medford laughed.
Medford said she won her age group (then in her 50s) that very first time competing.
“Working as a physician’s assistant 50 to 60 hours a week and never having trained for a triathlon, it just didn’t seem right,” she said, with a hint of embarrassment.
But she was hooked and her friends kept encouraging her to compete in more races.
“There are professional triathletes,” said Medford, “but they are all in their 20s and 30s. Those are the men and women you read about in the magazines. The rest of us are considered ‘groupers’, competing for fun. All the manufacturers of triathlon supplies, equipment and apparel make their money off people like us.”
After her first year of competing, Medford received a letter from USA Triathlon, the organization with which all triathletes must register, telling her that she was in the top 10 percent of her gender’s age group.
I also knew I needed help.
“They said being in the top 10 percent qualified me to compete in Nationals and I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me!'” Medford laughed. “So I told Houck about it, thinking it would be fun to compete in the 2009 Nationals, which was in Milwaukee. I took 5th place in my age group in these Nationals which qualified me for the World Championships in Canada the following year.
“But I also knew I needed help, learning how to really train,” Medford added. “I found that help in a fellow by the name of Pat Rimron, who was living in Winston-Salem. He wrote out a program of what I had to do each week and it built and built and built. He got me in pretty good shape for the race in Milwaukee.”
It might well have been the Milwaukee experience that reinforced Medford’s triathlon-themed travel bug.
“It was so beautiful in Milwaukee,” added Medford. “Who would ever think it? And it was around this time that I discovered YouTube, which is where I really learned how to swim. Swimming is a highly technical skill, and the videos were very technical. Houck bought a GoPro camera, and he would film me underwater. That showed me areas where I was doing stuff not quite right. I also went down to Florida for a 4-day session on how to swim. Everyone there was a triathlete.”
Swimming in a triathlon, said Medford, is a lot different because you are competing in open water, without lane lines like in a pool — and often in water where you can’t see more than three feet in front of you.
“You have to learn how to navigate,” she said. “At that time for a triathlon event, they started you in waves with 50 other women. You are bumping into each other, and some are swimming over the top of you. If the guys catch up to you, it can get worse. I have been slugged before by men, accidentally. There is a part of the stroke that is called, ‘punching the monkey,’ your arms shooting out in a spearing motion. You can’t always see and people in front of you get slugged — or people coming up from the rear might slug you!” The organizers of the triathlon have now made the swim portion much safer by starting 2-4 at a time. There are no more mass starts.”
There are beneficial differences in triathlon swimming, too, Medford discovered.
“You can draft behind someone and get up to a 30 percent benefit by swimming off of someone’s feet,” said Medford, smiling. “I have gotten pretty comfortable, though, swimming.”
So, i went to france!
Ironically, Medford says that much of her success has come from being ‘mediocre’ in all three sports.
“Someone who trains just for one of the three disciplines, like running, may not be very good in the other two. Being mediocre or just above average in all three skills can produce a very good overall result. To me, triathlon training is so beautiful because you are never injured. There are rests between the segments when training. In the beginning you might swim, bike, and run every 3rd day. Once in a while I might do two sessions, different disciplines. You progress to where you can add hours of training and even two sports in a day.”
How many hours in a week are spent training?
“Right now, I am doing 9-10 hours a week. The professionals will train 15-20 hours each week,” said Medford. “For someone just getting into triathlons, they can do pretty well with just 4-5 hours a week. Pat Rimron paused his coaching career and I was fortunate to find Karen Buxton in Greensboro to help coach me. She has been with me now for almost 10 years. There are also many discoverable coaching plans online.”
A Ticket to Travel
Getting Medford to talk about her Ironman 70.3 experience in Puerto Rico meant also learning about France.
“I have an identical twin sister,” said Medford. “She and her husband live in New Hampshire but they go to France every year and she organizes a bicycle trip over there. They of course speak French fluently, they have studied French culture, French this and that. I have been on one of their trips and it was really nice. Well, in 2019 they were having the World Championships in Nice, France and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if I could qualify for the Nice world championships?’ I had worked up to and competed at the half Ironman level the previous two years, so with the goal of qualifying in mind I researched the schedule of Ironman events in 2018, where you can qualify and the participant lists to determine my best shot. I determined that the Puerto Rico event was the first one in the northern hemisphere and the year before nobody in my age group competed. Well, it turned out there were seven competing in San Juan in 2019, and they were a rockin’ group of people. I did pretty well, finishing second.”
But that did not guarantee her a spot in Worlds.
“There were about 50 slots at Worlds for women and the first-place finisher at each qualifying event are guaranteed a spot,” Medford said. “That takes up about 17 spots. Then they roll down to the second and third place finishers, but usually at the younger levels where more people are competing. But that year, the women’s professionals got together with the Ironman organizers and were successful in getting more slots. As it turned out, all of the female age groups got a second place slot in addition to the first place. That’s how I got my slot in 2019, although I double qualified that year because I also competed in another qualifier, in Williamsburg, Va., and I got first place in my age group.
“So I went to France! My sister and her husband were my sherpas and took good care of me. They even got a bed and breakfast next to where the swim start was for the competition,” Medford recalled, with a smile as she reminisced. “It was a beautiful race, all the yachts and stuff. The bike segment was what they used for the Tour de France, in these huge mountains, with narrow, 2-lane roads that went down through villages that were built before cars. You are coming down the mountain really fast and all of a sudden there is a 90-degree turn on a one-lane sized road, with a brick building right in front of you! The run was pretty flat, along the Mediterranean Sea. There were 36 competing in my age group and I finished No. 10.”
there were complications in the chemotherapy, which resulted in emergency heart surgery.
Disappointments and Encouragement Along the Way
The Nice, France world championships in 2019 were not the first for which Medford qualified.
“Each venue gets the event for two years and the two years before Nice were in South Africa, which I did not compete in. But the two years before that the Worlds were in Chattanooga, the first time they had been in the U.S. in a long time. I qualified and registered to compete in 2017. Chattanooga event but I was diagnosed with breast cancer so had to get that taken care of. There were some complications with the chemotherapy which resulted in emergency heart surgery.”
The health issues did little to deter Medford’s athletic ambitions.
“The chemo was pretty rugged, but exercise helped me feel great during the day. I entered a couple of races as bald as a cue ball! That was during chemo and I still did alright. Since I had registered for the Chattanooga race I went and picked up all the goodies, but I did not compete,”
Of course, the Ironman competitions were not immune to an impact by COVID-19.
“The next ones were supposed to be in New Zealand, but COVID hit, and those events were shut down,” said Medford. “The Ironman organization moved the race to St. George, Utah. I qualified and went to that one. In my age group there were 49 women competing and I finished at No. 9.
“Not everyone finished,” Medford continued. “The course was a piece of work, plus the organizers moved the women’s race from Friday to Saturday at the last minute. There was a ripple effect of problems because the airlines weren’t helping. It was costing the women an extra $800 to fly out on Sunday instead of their original departure times on Saturday. Hotels were booked. It was just a mess.
there was this rolling, black cloud of a sandstorm headed our way!
“For the race itself,” Medford added, “they moved the women’s race to 9:15 in the morning, after all of the men had raced. That really put the women in peril because the temperatures for the month before that day had been over 100 degrees. Fortunately, the afternoon temperatures were “only” in the high 90’s by race day. The temperature was about 70 degrees at the start. I got out of the water in 9th place in my age group but then had the fastest transition time, so started on the bike segment in 4th place.”
The desert challenge, though, was just beginning.
“To the organizers’ credit, they did a good job on the bike course. We rode up to a brand new, four-lane highway that had not yet been opened to public traffic. It was on a ridge top and it paralleled a lake for a couple of miles. I looked off to the left in the valley and there was this rolling, black cloud of a sandstorm headed our way! Oh my gosh! It hit with 45 mile an hour wind. The bike wanted to blow out from underneath you. Some of the ladies in front of me stopped. Others were riding tentatively with one foot out to catch themselves if the wind hit to tip them over.”
Medford was either better prepared or very lucky.
“I was being peppered with sand, but I had this visor on my helmet that if I turned my head a certain way it kept the sand out of my eyes. And I figured out that if I rode off to the side of my bike seat, I could keep the bike upright,” recalled Medford.
How long did you have to endure the sand?
“Well, the sand actually didn’t last that long, because of the hail and rain that came next!” she said. “That hurt worse than the sand! I kept looking at the road to see if the hail was going to make the road slippery with ice, but the pavement was so hot it just melted away.”
and they were all wearing garbage bags!
Meanwhile, the rain and wind kept pummeling the riders and the temperatures plummeted.
“I was getting cold as I was dressed for the 90’s, but not yet shivering,” said Medford. “I knew there was an aid station at Mile 15. I was hoping they might have garbage bags so I could fashion some makeshift outerwear. Then, a mile before I reached the aid station, the weather suddenly cleared up and it got hot.”
Laughing, Medford added, “When I got to the aid station, all the workers were down the hill picking up all the stuff that had blown away — and they were all wearing garbage bags!”
Medford said that toward the end of the bike ride there was yet another big storm, but she kept going.
“The running course was through the town of St. George and you had to run it twice to get the 13.1 miles. You had to run up a very steep section of Main Street up to a long ridge above town. It became more of a walk-run, then the coming down was so steep you could not run — and then you had to do it again. And what made it worse was by that time the temperatures were approaching 100 degrees,” said Medford in describing the last St. George segment. “I finished 9th so I was happy being in the top 10.”
However, for the following year even if she qualified, Medford said she had no ambitions for competing in St. George a second year.
“I told Houck that if I even made a squeak about competing in St. George the next year just shoot me!”
Now in 2023, having qualified for the Ironman 70.3 World Championships with her San Juan, Puerto Rico performance, Medford’s focus is getting ready for Finland, but not without a degree of apprehension.
“Finland and Sweden have applied to become members of NATO,” said Medford, morphing into an international political analyst. “Finland, of course shares a land border with the northwest region of Russia. In fact, Helsinki is only about a 5-hour drive to St. Petersburg. I just hope that Vladimir Putin doesn’t attempt to invade Finland like he has Ukraine. I know he has protested NATO’s even considering their membership. I just hope that doesn’t become an issue.”
Medford admitted to not having done much research on the World Championship courses but was confident that it would be of championship caliber.
“They have done previous Ironman competitions there,” said Medford. “It is supposed to be cold water on Aug. 26. I have a feeling it won’t be 100 degrees and we won’t have sand!”
Reflecting on her qualifying competition, in Puerto Rico, Medford said that a highlight was the number of spectators, especially for the running portion.
“They changed the course a little bit and you had to go out and back, three times. There were a lot of bars along the route to Old San Juan City, which is run by our National Park Service. It is beautiful, just gorgeous. You are running along the Atlantic Ocean and on one side it is all natural and on the other side it is all spectators. And the tourists as well as the local people were all so supportive of the athletes competing. People who I had no idea who they were, clapping and smiling and cheering. I felt like a celebrity!”
By turning 70 in January, Blowing Rock’s Medford was thrust into a new age group. Given her journey thus far, does anyone want to bet against her?