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She’s Going the Distance: Debbie French

When Debbie French started training for her first race, a 3.1-mile fun run in 2006, she couldn’t run from her house to her neighbor’s without stopping for a break. It’s safe to say she’s come a long way. The fun run became a half marathon (13.1 miles), which became a marathon (26.2 miles), which turned into an ultramarathon (31 miles), which became an even longer ultramarathon (50 miles).

Right after the fun run, Mrs. French learned how to swim and added triathlons to the mix. She started with the shortest—or sprint—distance (400-yard swim, a dozen or so miles on the bike and a 3.1-mile run) before graduating to longer distances. In 2014, to celebrate her 40th birthday, she finished an Ironman—a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, done in that order, without a break. If you’re wondering, it took her 16 hours.

For some athletes, training for a race as long as an Ironman is a full-time job, but that wasn’t a luxury afforded to Mrs. French, who fit in long workouts, sometimes more than once a day, whenever and wherever she could.

“Family first is always my motto,” said Mrs. French, who is raising two teenagers with Lee, her husband and fellow endurance athlete. “That meant that sometimes I was up before dawn with a headlamp on, to get in a 25-mile training run.”

When she was training for the Ironman, Mrs. French was teaching commercial interior design at a Spokane, Wash., community college. She and Lee also sold a house and built a new one. Despite the tough schedule full of competing priorities, she didn’t consider quitting the sport.

“There’s something inside all of us that we want to do but we don’t think we’re capable of doing,” she said. “Honestly, some of these things scare the living daylights out of me, but the sense of accomplishment I get every time I cross a finish line is food for the soul. It moves me every day.”

For many athletes, crossing the finish line and being declared an Ironman is the pinnacle of one’s racing career. But for Mrs. French, the highlight of her career was the 50-mile Le Grizz ultramarathon, which runs alongside Montana’s Glacier National Park.

At the 18-mile mark, two things happened—a grizzly bear ran out in front of them on the trail, and Mrs. French’s iliotibial, or IT, band started to throb, a repetitive stress injury sometimes called “runner’s knee.” A good friend running with her encouraged Mrs. French to not give up and walk the rest of the way if she had to.

“She was such an inspiration,” she said. “It took us about 13 hours, but we finished together. It’s the highlight of my career, not because I finished fast, but because I finished period.”

Whenever Mrs. French returns home after a big race, her fellow Daughters are always eager to hear about it.

“They’re so supportive and always so kind to ask me what my latest adventure is,” said the member of Jonas Babcock Chapter, Spokane, Wash. “Our chapter meeting was the week after the Ironman, so the regent asked me to bring my medal and talk about the experience. I don’t expect anyone else to share my particular passion for endurance racing, but I hope that by sharing my experience, others can see that they’re never too old to follow their dreams and start something new.”

Mrs. French will be celebrating her 45th birthday later this year, and she plans to honor the milestone with another Ironman race, so training is in full swing. She’s also considering her longest ultramarathon yet—100 miles. 

“My husband did one, and I was part of his support crew,” she said. “That got me thinking, ‘If he can do it, maybe I can, too.’”