It’s a fair question. What would possess a 55-year-old asthmatic woman to compete in a 5K race?
The bigger question is why in the world the same woman would use the experience as a building block for an Ironman triathlon?
Kelly Adams-Williams, a teacher at Central ISD, said it all started with a “Jingle Bell.”
A self-proclaimed “non-athlete,” Adams-Williams kept herself in shape in typical fashion, through running and various other workouts. A friend, Elizabeth Durrett, encouraged Adams-Williams to give a 5K race a shot.
“I was like, there’s no way I can do that,” Adams-Williams said. “I’m a severe asthmatic. I’m doing well just to jog around the block.”
Durrett — the two were friends with kids in the school’s band — persisted. In December of 2015, Adams-Williams entered the Jingle Bell 5K in Nacogdoches — her very first competitive race.
“During the race, I picked out a man I thought was close to my age, and I thought I’d use him to pace myself,” Adams-Williams said. “Little did I know, he was a very fast runner. I thought my heart was going to explode, but I actually won my age group. I earned a medal: a jingle bell on a string.
“But I thought, ‘Wow, I can do this, and I’m not bad at it for an old broad.’”
Durrett, a triathlon buff, lent her brother’s bicycle to Adams-Williams and they began riding together. Durrett then encouraged her riding partner to take a master swim class, and Adams-Williams said the experience nearly halted her training right there on the spot.
“At first, it was just horrific,” Adams-Williams said. “I thought I could swim because I’m a scuba diver, but swimming competitively, length after length of a pool, was a whole different thing. And with my asthma, I was such a bad breather, so my swim coach, Steve Roth, would have me swim the length of the pool (25 yards) at the Boys & Girls Club and then blow bubbles. I’d go underwater and let out all my air and then come bobbing back up. Swim 25 yards, blow bubbles, swim 25 more, blow bubbles.
“I was such a terrible swimmer that after a couple of months, I just quit. After some encouragement and with Steve’s help, I went back, and I began to see some improvement — very slowly, but I got better and better.”
The training resumed, and before long, Adams-Williams was encouraged to try her first triathlon. She competed in the Tri Aggieland race at Texas A&M University.
“It was just a ‘sprint’ triathlon, maybe 200 yards in the pool, 12 miles on the bike and a 5K,” Adams-Williams said. “Again, I thought my heart would explode, but I finished it.”
The triathlon atmosphere got her attention.
“You just can’t imagine,” Adams-Williams said. “People are cheering, there’s a law enforcement officer directing traffic at every intersection, there are people dressed up crazy with bells and whistles and signs everywhere. It’s just so fulfilling when you cross that finish line.
“Then I became addicted to the medals (laughing). I wanted to compete in more and more races. I kept up with the 5Ks, and then I wondered if I could handle a 10k. I did the Junior Achievement 10K race, and I got another medal. I was placing, which I thought was great for my age. However, I wasn’t placing in any of the triathlons — yet.”
Before long, she was taking her place on the stands. Placing in the sprint triathlons boosted her confidence enough to attempt an Olympic triathlon: A 1.5K swim, a 24.8-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run. Adams-Williams’ first attempt came in Kemah, and she finished in third place.
“I think that’s pretty much how I got addicted to all of this,” she laughed.
She kept moving up in increments. Next came a half-Ironman (1.2-mile swim, 56.2-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run).
“I did my first half-ironman, and I finished,” Adams-Williams said. “I felt like I owned the world. One nearly killed me, though. I ended up in the hospital on an IV because I didn’t quite have my nutrition down.”
Adams-Williams hired a coach (Kathy Hudson of Tri Dot, a triathlon training platform).
“Kathy’s also an asthmatic, so she would adjust my training around my asthma flares,” Adams-Williams said. “She taught me about cadence and power on the bike, pacing yourself and nutrition. After I’d done four of the half-ironman competitions, I started wondering whether I could do a full one.”
Her support system at home proved key. Husband Scott served as the “Sherpa” — the one who carries the participant’s gear. Daughter Meagan, a videographer, helped chronicle everything while adding a boost of humor.
“Meagan was my biggest cheerleader,” Adams-Williams laughed. “She made the best signs. ‘Consider this Practice for the Apocalypse’ and ‘You’re Running Better than the Government.’”
Adams-Williams trained for a year before heading to Florida’s Panama City Beach and a half-Ironman triathlon. The day of that particular competition was a “red flag” day in the ocean. Large waves knocked the swimmers around and kept them from seeing their destination.
“I was just flailing —my swim form went out the window, and it went straight to just dog-paddling for my life,” Adams-Williams said. “I’d never had to grab a buoy before — it’s legal as long as you’re not using it for forward motion — but I grabbed one that day, and I could see the beach. I finally crawled out of the water and climbed on the bike. I’d swallowed so much salt water I was throwing up and making every potty stop.
“But I did finish it. I crossed at the same time as a 65-year old, double knee-replacement emphysemic lady. I made the time cut-off, so I decided to give the full Ironman a shot.”
A full-blown Ironman. A 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile marathon – a total of 140.6 miles.
A full-time teacher, Adams-Williams trained at 5 a.m. or 5 p.m. every day. As bad luck would have it, she suffered a major asthma flareup just weeks before the competition. She tried resuming her regimen, but her training schedule was off, as were her reflexes. She said she suffered bike wrecks and was “covered in road rash” before the event.
Nevertheless, the big day arrived on Nov. 2, 2019, and Adams-Williams showed up ready to give it her best shot.
“They have a saying during the race: ‘I Will Become One.’ They give you a bracelet and it’s on your bib, and that’s how everyone knows it’s your first Ironman competition,” Adams-Williams said.
She said the Florida water was smooth but cold — and littered with jellyfish. When she finished the swim portion, she climbed out of the water and moved toward her bike only to find the race director there to greet her and others.
“I felt like I knew him because he’d posted some race videos ahead of time,” Adams-Williams said. “He realized it was my first triathlon, so he walked me up the beach and encouraged me to just soak it all in and enjoy every minute — not to take it too seriously.”
Adams-Williams said she took his words to heart. She “cheesed” at every camera, and she offered encouragement to the slower riders and kudos to the faster ones.
“Halfway through the bike portion, I noticed some of the remaining damage to Panama City after last year’s horrible hurricane,” Adams-Williams said. “You’d go by hotels that had bands holding them up, and at one point trees were at a 60-degree angle. I said, ‘Lord, if you’ve got enough air in Your lungs to blow over those trees, You can give me air in my lungs and in my tires.’
“That became my mantra the rest of the way: ‘Give me air in my lungs and tires.’”
By the time she completed the grueling bike portion, Adams-Williams said the emotions hit her.
“When I got off my bike and changed clothes for the run, I just burst into tears” Adams-Williams said. “All the emotion just came pouring out. I started the run, and that’s when I first saw my family. For the whole day up to that point — maybe eight hours into the triathlon — I hadn’t seen them. I’d just stopped crying from the transition, but when I saw my people, I started crying all over again. They got pictures of me just sobbing, and I don’t even know why. They kept telling me I was going to make it.”
The next challenge was meeting checkpoint requirements. Participants who don’t make the checkpoints by specific times are pulled from qualifying. They’re allowed to finish, but their results don’t count. Everyone is supposed to finish within the 17-hour minimum.
Barely into her run, Adams-Williams developed an issue with her foot, which slowed her considerably. Then her watch died; she had no idea how far along she was or how much farther she had to go.
“It was dark and cold, I was hobbling and I started really getting into my head with doubt,” Adams-Williams said. “I just made up my mind that whether my time counted or not, I was going to cross the finish line. I wasn’t going to give up.
“When I came around the very last turn, there were people telling me I had it, but I was whining, ‘Are you sure I’m going to make it? What time is it? Am I the last one?’ They told me there was a whole parade of people behind me, that I wasn’t last.”
Finally, the chute signaling the end of the race appeared. There, Adams-Williams encountered the race director again.
“He asked me how it was, and I told him I thought I was going to die,” Adams-Williams said. “He told me again to slow down — not that I could have gone any slower at that point — and enjoy the chute, to give everyone there a high five and realize I was about to become an Ironman. Everyone was cheering so loudly.”
The voice of the Ironman competition, Mike Riley, greets each finisher with an exuberant greeting: “Kelly Adams-Williams! You … are … an … Ironman!” He makes a point in the last hour to stand on the red carpet and greet finishers personally — “Not just the super athletes, but those of us who struggled and straggled all day long.”
“My hope was to finish in between 15 and 16 hours. I finished in 16 hours, 29 minutes and 12 seconds,” Adams-Williams said. “I heard him say, “Kelly Adams-Williams, her first Ironman!’ Then he took my hand and said right into my face, ‘You did it, Kelly. You … are … an … Ironman!”
“That made every single bit of it worth it. All the falling, all the accidents, all the dealing with asthma. When he said those words to me, and I crossed the finish line — I became one! — it was one of the most amazing moments of my life. I had to give God all the glory for getting an asthmatic, 55-year-old woman across the finish line.”
She returned home to a hero’s greeting. Her school held an assembly and posted a yard sign: “Mrs. Adams is our Ironman.” She’s now classified as an Ironman All-World Athlete and is ranked among the top 10% of her age group.
“It’s just crazy,” Adams-Williams said. “I was an Average Joe in high school. I wasn’t some uber-athlete or anything. I was in choir and drama. It just taught me that if you put your mind to something, and you’re willing to put in all the hard work, you can achieve whatever you want. Not just a sport, but in any part of life. Nothing is beyond your grasp if you have the support and the mental fortitude. There were enough people who believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself.
“The Ironman’s motto is ‘Anything is possible.’ I’m living proof.”