Dani Phillips, didn’t know how to swim, but still signed up for a triathlon — and has since completed 12. Dani Phillips’s obsession started small and for the least likely of reasons: She wanted to help a friend lose weight. “My friend’s daughter asked me to go running with her mom,” Phillips recalls. Even though Phillips had never run a mile in her life, she answered, “Sure, why not?”
Phillips’ family couldn’t believe she would get up at 5 a.m. so she could run and still make it to her job as a quality-testing technician. Her doctor discouraged her, saying that at 45 she was too old to take up strenuous exercise. But Phillips and her friend were determined to work their way up to a 5K race, even though, at first, neither could make it once around a quarter-mile track. “I’ve started a lot of things in my life and not finished them,” Phillips says. “The only reason I kept going was for my friend.”
The day she first ran three laps in a row, “I was like, woo hoo!” she says. “I knew I was getting somewhere.” Eventually, the running also became a way for her to work out some of the issues from her marriage, which had ended in divorce four months earlier. Phillips did well for her age in her first 5K race, and though her friend quit running, Phillips kept going. “That race represented a complete change in my life,” she says. “It was the first step in realizing that I still had a lot of life left in me. It was an awakening.”
A New Life Through Running
She had to overcome sciatica, shortness of breath, and hip and knee problems, but by reading books and magazines about running and making regular visits to a physical therapist, Phillips worked her way up to 10K races, half-marathons, and eventually a marathon. Then one of the women in Phillips’ running group gave her the idea of competing in a triathlon. “There were only two little problems,” Phillips says. “I had been on a bike only once in the past 25 years, and I couldn’t swim.” Phillips signed up for lessons at a rec center and persisted even though she found swimming “gross.” “I had water up my nose constantly, and the whole rest of the day I’d be coughing up crap,” she says. She dusted off her $30 garage-sale bike and went on a seven-and-a-half-hour riding adventure her first time out. “I could hardly walk the next day, it hurt so much,” Phillips says. (She upgraded soon after.)
Four years after she started running, Phillips completed three “sprint distance” triathlons (roughly a half-mile swim, a 12-mile bike ride, and a three-mile run). The next year she finished three sprints and one Olympic distance (which is twice the sprint distance). Last year, at 51, she aced her first half-Ironman, which doubles the Olympic distance. Phillips has dropped from a size 12 to a size 4, but what matters much more, she says, is that her social life is active again and she is enjoying a huge sense of accomplishment. “From the time I started running,” she says, “I just found ‘me’ again. It brought my happiness back. Before, I was really in a depression.
I guess the best way to explain it is, I was in a dark room all the time, and now I’m in a room full of light.”