Student tackles triathlon challenge

Rachel Harbarger, a nursing major at YSU, competes in the Ironman 70.3 Eagleman triathlon in June in Cambridge, Md. Photo courtesy of Rachel Harbarger.

It was 92 degrees on a June morning in Cambridge, Md., and waiting near the starting line, Rachel Harbarger was growing anxious.

She had been watching for approximately an hour as other participants of the Ironman 70.3 EagleMan Triathlon were gradually released to begin.

The 2,400 competing athletes were freed in this order: professionals, semi-professionals and amateurs’ age groups from oldest to youngest.

Harbarger, a 21-year-old Youngstown State University nursing major, was part of the last group to depart.

“It’s tough, because you’re standing around for, like, an hour, watching everyone go, and you’re ready to go,” Harbarger said.

Finally, the restless Elkridge, Md., native was let loose for a grueling, exhausting journey that covered 70.3 miles and would take her more than six hours to complete.

1.2 miles

With the EagleMan being her first half Ironman competition, Harbarger was unfamiliar with the territory. In fact, she’d competed in only one triathlon before: a small sprint triathlon, held in Boardman in May.

Still, the first leg of the EagleMan, a 1.2-mile swim through the Choptank River, was a familiar practice.

Although Harbarger originally attended YSU in 2009 to compete on the YSU swim team, she left the squad in 2011. Despite earning a letter in both seasons, Harbarger lost interest in the sport.

“I just kind of lost the passion for it over time, swimming so much,” she said. “It wasn’t as fun as it was in high school.” However, she still wanted to exercise.

“Over the summer, after I quit, people at the pool were talking about how this lady did an Ironman and it was such an intense training,” Harbarger said.

“So, I looked it up and decided to do it because I wanted something hard to train for.”

She soon found out how demanding the training really is.

“It’s very time consuming,” she said. “That’s probably the toughest part. It’s such a long race that you have to prepare for.”

56 miles

While the swimming portion of the EagleMan allows for plenty of cheering spectators, the 56-mile bike loop through Dorchester County, Md., is quite lonely.

“Since it’s so long, there really aren’t that many people cheering for you around there,” Harbarger said.

Luckily for Harbarger, she wasn’t completely alone. Caitlin Glenn, Harbarger’s friend and a fellow YSU student, was also in her group. Glenn is more experienced than Harbarger, having done several half Ironmans and a full Ironman triathlon.

“I didn’t know what to expect for the Ironman,” Harbarger said. “But I can just get a lot of advice from people who’ve done it before.”

Another person she turns to for advice is YSU student Gabe Illes. Although Illes didn’t compete in the EagleMan, he has participated in five similar events.

Illes said he appreciates the support that he, Glenn and Harbarger offer to one another.

“You want to tell somebody about an event you signed up for, and people just kind of say, ‘Oh that’s nice,’ but don’t really understand,” Illes said. “It’s great to have people who you can talk to about what you’re going through.”

That support is essential during training. Although it’s tough because of clashing schedules, Illes, Harbarger and Glenn work out together from time to time.

“It’s especially nice to have somebody you can train with at your pace,” Illes said. “That takes a lot of the drudgery out of it and makes it even more enjoyable.”

13.1 miles

At the end of a country road that stretches for 13.1 miles is the EagleMan finish line, where Glenn — who finished fifth in her age group at 5:31.23 — waited for Harbarger.

Running down that road, Harbarger was a long ways from what she’d initially come to YSU to do. But almost six hours through the trying competition, she was right where she wanted to be.

“No, not really,” Harbarger said when asked if she regretted leaving YSU’s swim team. “Overall, I find everything more satisfactory in the training that I do now.”

Illes agreed that seeing results come from dedicated training in preparation for the lengthy events is satisfying.

“To finally go out there and see the fruits of your labor is rewarding,” Illes said.

Finish line

Harbarger crossed the finish line to greet Glenn at 6:05.42.

“That was really nice to have someone there at the end,” said Harbarger, who finished eighth in her age group. “She knew the pain I was going through.”

As painful as the competitions can be, they are something the trio has continued to do. Harbarger and Illes also competed in the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon on Oct. 21.

Meanwhile, Glenn has continued to compete, participating in another Ironman 70.3 on Aug. 19. She placed first in her age group and 42nd in the world rankings.

And while the awards and rankings are nice, Harbarger said she knows the competitions hold greater meaning.

“Everybody I’ve met along the way is just positive people that are willing to help you and give advice,” she said.