Iron Lady: Virginia Diné conquers panic attacks, jellyfish to join ranks of elite triathletes
Sports always came easily to Martina Jones Maddox.
When she moved from Teesto, Arizona, to Las Vegas to attend high school, for example, she decided to join the swim team.
“For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that not knowing how to swim would be a problem,” laughed Maddox, now 28 and a duty corpsman in the U.S. Navy.
It actually wasn’t a problem. The coach let Maddox swim in the slow lane while the girls were practicing until she got the hang of it. Before long, she was winning ribbons for the team.
As a child growing up on the rez, Maddox had thought the bilagáana bicycle tourists were crazy. But after she joined the Navy and was stationed in San Diego, she was looking for a sport to take advantage of all the nice weather and bought a road bike. She joined a cycling club, mostly men, and within months was keeping up with them.
As for running, that was something she had always done and was good at.
Inevitably, she eventually decided to combine her three sports. And that was when she started hitting walls.
“I wasn’t even sure what a triathlon was, but I signed me and my husband up for one,” she recalled. “I didn’t train or anything.”
She started out with a sprint triathlon, which she thought would be a piece of cake: a 500-meter swim, a 12-mile bike ride and a three-mile run. But the desert girl soon discovered swimming in the ocean in a wetsuit was way different from training in a pool.
“The water was cold, and there were so many people,” recalled Maddox, who is Red Sheep Clan born for Lok’aa Dine’e. “I had a panic attack and just sat there for a while. I was one of the last ones out of the water. I thought, ‘I hate this.’”
But by the time she finished the relatively easy biking and running portions, meeting nothing but encouragement from her competitors and bystanders along the route, she had a change of heart.
“I became obsessed with triathlons, and getting better at them,” she said.
In the Navy, Maddox had learned the power of teamwork. She decided what she needed was a team. She joined a group of female triathletes sponsored by sports apparel company HERevolution, convincing them they needed more ethnic diversity.
“I met some really amazing women athletes,” said Maddox. “They showed me what to do. I went up a level.”
Then the Navy sent her to the 37-mile-long Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia. It occurred to Maddox the tropical isle with its year-round 85-degree temperature would be the perfect place to train for the daddy of all triathlons: an Iron Man.
An Iron Man triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon. According to Wikipedia, “It is widely considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world.”
To test the waters, Maddox signed up for a half-Iron Man, which she thought she could do easily. Again, swimming was the bugaboo.
“I missed the swim cutoff time,” she recalled. “I cried. At first I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ But in the back of my mind, I knew I could. I just needed more support.”
Maddox hired Astrid Stroms, a sought-after triathlon coach based in Las Vegas, to coach her online. While on Diego Garcia, Maddox would keep track of her miles, her times, her heart rate and everything she ate and drank, and Stroms would tell her what to do next.
Her husband, Koen Maddox, thought it was all a little crazy, but by then “he was used to me doing all these things,” Martina Maddox said.
Diego Garcia turned out not to be the ideal training site for an Iron Man. In the direct equatorial sunlight, pools heated up to near hot-tub temperatures, making distance swimming unbearable.
The ambient temperature seldom crept above 90, but the humidity hovered around 100 percent, so your sweat wouldn’t evaporate.
And, Maddox discovered, only about 12 miles of roads on the island were bikeable.
“People would just watch me go around and around the island, wondering what I was doing,” she recalled.
A training target
Starting last November, Maddox targeted her training at the Ironman Maryland, which is scheduled in September. With almost a year to train, and little else to do on the militarized atoll, she was confident she had a good chance of obtaining the coveted “Iron Man” title.
“When you cross the finish line, they say, ‘Congratulations, you’re an Iron Man!’” Maddox explained, “even if you’re a woman. That is what I wanted to hear above everything.”
Several months into training, Maddox hit a slump. Her times seemed to be getting worse instead of better, and she felt depressed. She had to drag herself out to practice.
“I called my coach almost in tears and said, ‘I don’t want to do this. I can’t do this,’” she recalled.
“Your electrolytes are down,” shot back Stroms, who had obviously heard this kind of talk before. “Take an electrolyte pill and then decide.”
Maddox did and felt better almost instantly.
“After that I always made sure I had plenty of gel,” she said.
The months passed, an uphill battle against the heat and drudgery, missing her husband and family, until the big race was only weeks away.
“My mother (Nita Yazzie) and little sister started talking about coming out from Teesto and Winslow to see the event,” Maddox recalled. “I tried talking them out of it, because I didn’t want them to see me fail.”
Then Maddox thought of her late father, Mark Jones, who had died of cancer.
“Dad always told us, ‘If you’re just sitting there, do some sit-ups, do some push-ups, go for a little run,’” she said. “I decided I would do this race for him, and everybody else who can’t do it.”
Koen, Martina and her family got up long before dawn to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Cambridge, Maryland, the starting point of the race, from the Maddoxes’ home in Virginia.
“There were Iron Man banners everywhere,” Maddox recalled. “As I went into the changing tent, I thought ‘I’m actually doing this.’
“My sister had bought me an Iron Man coffee cup and my husband gave me an Iron Man duffel bag,” she said. “I thought, ‘I’d better finish this because I’m going to have this Iron Man stuff.’”
Most of the competitors looked like the ultra-fit athletes you would expect. But not all.
“There were amputees,” recalled Maddox. “There was a guy with cancer. I thought, ‘Everybody has their reason to be here, and I have mine. If they can do it, so can I.’”
‘Swimming through pho’
Maddox always dreaded the swim portion of triathlons the most, but there was an extra reason to dread this one.
Some contestants who had explored the course earlier reported the ocean was full of jellyfish. After hearing that smearing the exposed parts of your body with petroleum jelly was the best way to deter them, Maddox had frantically searched every store in Cambridge until she found what she was sure was the last jar of petroleum jelly.
It didn’t help much.
“I was barely in the water when I felt like I was swimming through pho,” she said.
Jellyfish tentacles wrapped around her ankles, giving her horrible stinging welts. She kept swimming. A current started pushing her off course. She picked out a strong swimmer and followed him.
“Those long hours of training paid off,” she said. “My body just automatically did what it had to do, just like my coach said.”
At the halfway mark, Maddox knew she was going to make the cutoff.
“I thought, Oh my God, I’m good! I can make it!’” she recalled. “I’m going to be an Iron Man!”
Best Coke ever
Back in the tent, volunteers helped Maddox peel off her clingy wetsuit and sprayed her with vinegar, which apparently is some kind of home remedy for jellyfish stings.
Koen got her bike for her, and she hopped on for her best part of the event. She started out between 20 and 30 miles per hour, but then reminded herself she had 112 miles to go and slowed down to 12.
At the 80-mile mark, she started to get tired. The course ran by a high school, where a group of enthusiastic teens greeted the pack of cyclists and shouted encouraging words, giving her a second wind.
As a woman passed her, Maddox asked, “Am I going to make the cutoff?” “Yes,” responded the cyclist. “You have plenty of time.”
Back at the tent, Maddox dropped her bike, slid out of her biking shoes and into her running shoes. Her feet felt like concrete. Her lower back was on fire.
The tent had accumulated the nauseating stench of a couple hundred sweaty triathletes. And she still had a marathon to run.
It was a hot day, and as the miles disappeared under her feet, people started passing out. Homeowners along the route turned their hoses on the runners to cool them down.
But Maddox had spent a year training in the tropics. It didn’t feel that hot to her.
When she got tired, Maddox let herself slip into a fast walk. All she had to do now was make the finish line by midnight, and she would be an Iron Man.
At the 20-mile mark, she felt nauseous and couldn’t even keep goo down. She threw her water bottle in the trash, then grabbed a small glass of chicken noodle soup and one of Coke at the next aid station.
“It was the best Coke I ever tasted in my life,” she laughed.
The course was a loop that kept passing the finish line. Through a fog of fatigue, Maddox saw people hugging their relatives and heard the announcer declaring them Iron Men.
Suddenly, it was the last lap. And then the finish line was in sight. She heard the announcer thanking someone for their service in the military, and realized it was her.
The next thing she heard was, “Martina Maddox, you are an Iron Man!”
“I was so happy!” She recalled. “I crossed the finish line full of energy.”
In the medical tent, someone asked her how she was. “I’m hungry!” was all she could think to say.
“What do you want to eat?” asked Koen. “Anything!” she replied.
A masseur went to work on her. She remembers feeling embarrassed that she was sweaty and sticky, but then thinking that of course he was used to that.
Then she heard her mother say, “Your dad would be really proud of you!” and her eyes filled with tears.
So … Martina Maddox is an Iron Man. Check that off the bucket list, right?
“I’ve already signed up for another one in Roanoke, Virginia, next July!” she said.
Ultimately, she’d like to do the one in Tempe, Arizona, her home state. And she wants to see some other Navajos there.
“What I really want to do is inspire other Navajos and Native Americans to challenge themselves physically,” she said. “We’re so strong, but we fall easily into self-doubt.
“You don’t have to have the best shoes or the best bike or even the best body,” she added. “Just start out with what you have, and go from there.”
Her mother is Nita Yazzie, from Teesto, Arizona, and her late father was Mark Jones, from Inscription House, Arizona. She has three sisters and two brothers.
Her husband is Koen Maddox from Riverside, California. Her coach is Astrid Stroms, who coaches in Las Vegas, Nevada, for Tri Fusion Endurance Sports.