At 7:20 a.m., Ashley (Dalton) Forsyth dove into the ocean off of the Big Island, Hawaii, among 1,200 of the best female athletes in the world. Limbs flew in every direction – she took elbows to the side and kicks to the head. Swimmers shoved their way over and ploughed underneath her as they jostled for position.
She was at the pinnacle of her athletic career – the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, the gold standard of triathlons. The 36-year-old had trained relentlessly to get here, but nothing could prepare her for the body blows and the swells of the salt water on race day, Oct. 14, 2017.
"The swim is like nothing you've ever done," she said. "ere is no way you could train for this, unless you swam in the ocean and had your friends beat you up."
Forsyth emerged from the water with a fat lip, her goggles knocked off, her eyelid bruised. But when she looked at her watch, she was thrilled. She had swum the 2.4 miles in one hour and eleven minutes. "It was a great swim. I was excited to get on the bike."
But it was still early on race day, and this was Kona, a grueling course that winds through lava fields at temperatures of over 100 degrees, a competition that is known to bring grown men and women to tears.
Once she mounted her bike, Forsyth knew something was wrong. Her neck hurt badly and she couldn't lower her head to get into the "aero" position, a crouch over the handlebars that maximizes speed.
Eighty miles later, out on the course longer than expected, her food supply depleted, the winds kicking up, Forsyth dismounted her bike and laid down flat on the ground for 10 seconds.
Could this Ironman competitor push through the pain for another 32 miles on the bike? And then run a 26.2 mile marathon in the Hawaiian heat?
Forsyth's rapid rise a top age group triathlete has been nothing short of remarkable. In 2013, she entered the Ironman Mont-Tremblant in Quebec. She had one goal: to finish. She checked that off her bucket list and with each subsequent triathlon, improved her time. By 2015, she had her sights set on Kona.
The next year, Forsyth was the second woman to cross the line at the Ironman Maryland, passing other women during the marathon. She broke into tears of joy when she crossed the line of her best race ever. e next day, she learned she had qualified for Kona. "It's the pinnacle," she said. "There are people who spend decades trying to qualify for Kona."
Looking back to her high school days, there was no sign that Forsyth would become an unstoppable distance athlete. The McKeesport native transferred to Shady Side Academy in her junior year because she wanted an academic challenge.
She played on the ice hockey team and ran cross country to stay in shape, but she finished near the bottom of most of her races.
If she didn't stand out as a runner, she thrived as a student in the rigorous academic environment. "I loved the constant commitment of being better every day," she said. "Shady Side was a great community of people, well-rounded. I loved it so much."
She was so inspired by Buddy Hendershot's nature writing class that she returned to Shady Side years later to do student teaching in his English class. Dr. David Weill, her organic chemistry teacher, also pushed her to do her best. "Dr. Weill was the toughest teacher I've ever had, but whom I learned the most from. He passed away shortly before our organic chemistry final my junior year."
Sue Whitney, her senior advisor and cross country coach, was the most influential. "She was the best! She was my mentor, coach and confidant." Whitney encouraged her to look into St. Lawrence University, where Forsyth received a Bachelor of Arts in English. She then earned an M.A. in organizational leadership at Point Park University while serving as director of campus life.
In 2009, she moved to Philadelphia to start a job as associate dean of student affairs at The Art Institute of Philadelphia. There was only one problem – she was lonely in a new city.
So she joined a hockey team, and when some of her teammates began doing triathlons, she figured she would try it too. She went to register for a triathlon in Philadelphia, but it was sold out. The only way to get in was in a charity spot. The American Cancer Society sponsored her as a charity entry. She was happy to do it to honor her grandmother who died of cancer.
As a charity runner, the American Cancer Society provided her with a coach, Jack Braconnier, who has been with her for the last six years. "She sets an example. If you go in and do the work every day, you can chip away and get to the highest level," he said. "She always embraces work. I can put anything on her schedule, and she'll do it."
He said qualifying for Kona "is 10 times harder than qualifying for the Boston Marathon," because it's not based solely on times. Spaces in Kona are awarded first to the top competitor in each age group, and the remaining spaces are handed out according to a complex formula. So, even after she finished second overall in Maryland, she wasn't sure she had qualified for Kona until the next day.
Forsyth combines her type-A work ethic with a sense of fun. Her training partner, Emily Koch, said, "When we work out together, we grunt at each other. She is also super supportive, bringing new people into the sport."
As Forsyth trained for Kona, she was also finishing a doctoral degree in higher education at Immaculata University. And she held down a full-time job as an academic programs specialist at the Project Management Institute, a demanding position that requires a lot of travel. "It's unreal the amount of things she is able to balance," Koch said.
Leading up to Kona, Forsyth's workouts were so rigorous that her husband, Mark, would occasionally find her asleep on the living room floor at 8 p.m.
Seven weeks before the world championship, she was training 23 hours a week, before and after work and on weekends. During one workout, she spent two of those grueling hours with her bike on an indoor trainer, increasing her power every 30 minutes. Then she got off the bike and hopped on a treadmill, with the thermostat set to 88 degrees to simulate the heat at Kona. "When you say this out loud, it sounds so unbelievably bizarre," she said with a laugh.
She felt ready for Kona – even the challenge of swimming through the ocean. About 2,500 people from around the world competed in Kona, and Forsyth entered the water with 1,200 female competitors. She didn't fully anticipate the impact of the elbows and kicks, but she could take it.
She was confident until she mounted her bike – her neck hurt, and she knew she wasn't having the race she wanted. Slowing down at that point was a real disadvantage, because the winds kicked up after noon.
At the lowest point, she had abandoned a top age group spot and wondered if she could even finish. But she told herself, "I cannot quit."
By the time she got off her bike and started running, replenishing herself with food and fluids at all the water stops, she knew she was home free. "I was so happy to be off the bike. The run felt awesome."
Two miles from the finish, she made a right turn on the course, and she could hear the announcements as the triathletes crossed the finish line.
"I have to get to that voice," she told herself. At the end of the course, where the crowds had gathered to cheer everyone home, she picked up her pace.
"My husband was there. My coach was there. I could see them as I was coming down the finish line."
She did it! She finished Kona – and with an incredibly gutsy run.
Coach Braconnier said, "I was very proud of Ashley's result and effort at Kona. She didn't have the exact result that she wanted due to some tough conditions on the bike that disrupted her nutritional intake. Because she was on the bike longer than expected, it is tough to come back from that. She did an amazing job of battling on the run and still holding a solid speed to finish with a marathon to be proud of. I know she wanted more, but I am so proud of her first finish at Kona. She will be back."
Next year, she wants to concentrate on half Ironmans, because she also excels at the shorter distances. She was the overall female winner at Ironman 70.3 Maine.
Forsyth also recently competed in the USA Triathlon long-course national championship and qualified to represent Team USA the world championships in Denmark in 2018.
Looking ahead to May, she and her friend Andrea (Hohler) Karsko '00 will run the Pittsburgh Marathon together to honor Major Benjamin Follansbee '99, a classmate, friend and cross country teammate. He passed away in December 2012. They are raising awareness of PTSD and suicide prevention by encouraging donations in his memory to Pets for Vets through Animal Friends.
And Forsyth envisions a return trip to Kona. Memories of that bruising swim and biking past lava fields don't scare away this Ironman competitor. "Absolutely, I hope I can do it again."
by Cristina Rouvalis | Photography provided by Ashley Forsyth
Published in the Winter 2017-2018 issue of Shady Side Academy Magazine