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Academy grad dominates triathlons

For many, the New York City Marathon is a grueling test of endurance.

For Ellen Hart, it was a nice run through the five boroughs that capped a spectacular season for the triathlete.

Hart, an Albuquerque Academy graduate who is now based in Denver, finished fourth in the 55-59 age group with a time of 3 hours, 27 minutes and 15 seconds in the 2015 marathon on Nov. 1.

“It was so much fun,” Hart told the Journal. “It was the perfect ending to a surprisingly fun and good season.

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“I just wanted to enjoy it and I know it sounds oxymoronic to enjoy a marathon. But I wanted to enjoy it because it’s such an iconic event. I started out really slowly and finished fast. I felt good and I was really enjoying it. My daughter and her boyfriend were there at 21 miles and I stopped, the first time I’ve ever done that in a race, to hug somebody. So the end part, which had been pure misery two years ago, was actually really fun.”

While running in the world’s largest marathon was more about enjoying herself than winning, Hart has been on a remarkable string of success in triathlons, which involve swimming, cycling, and running in immediate succession over various distances, this year. The Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile run.

“When I was a kid I would get up early and go for a run, and who does that?” Hart said. “I’ve always been athletic enough, always wanted to push the limits of what I could do, and I guess the Ironman is the ultimate in that.”

From Aug. 30 through Oct. 18, the 57-year-old Hart has become the world champion in her age group in all four triathlon distances and won five age-group world championships.

“It went beyond my wildest imagination,” Hart said. “The research shows that no one has ever done that before, winning five world championships, period, let alone five in seven weeks.”

Hart started her run with a Half Ironman (70.3 miles) victory in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Australia. She followed that up by winning the sprint (16 miles) and Olympic distance (32.13 miles) in a span of three days in Chicago while racing for Team USA at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final.

“I love racing for the United States,” Hart said. “This is the first one I’ve done in the United States so it was a lot of fun racing for the home country. I thought I’d be lucky if I’d ‘podiumed’ at either one, so to win both was really a big surprise.”

There was no surprise on Oct. 10, when Hart defended her 2014 age-group title at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. She also won in Kona in 2010.

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Hart finished the run with a win at the Adelaide ITU Duathlon World Championships in Australia on Oct. 18.

“This last couple of  years I’ve trained very hard and very consistently,” Hart said. “And I’m very aware of the smaller things, too. Like making sure I get enough sleep and I’m probably a little better about nutrition now. I’m very conscious of trying to be respectful of my body and nutrition and rest and training.”

Hart’s road to the top of her age group was anything but smooth.

Hart, who was born in New York and moved to New Mexico in 1966, was a star athlete at Albuquerque Academy before graduating in 1976. She went on to win eight varsity letters at Harvard and was co-captain of the soccer team.

In 1980, Hart qualified for the Olympics in the 10,000 meter run but didn’t compete at the Moscow Games as the U.S. boycotted. In 1984, Hart entered Olympic qualifying for the marathon as the world-record holder in the 20k race and as the U.S.-record holder in for the 30k but finished 11th and failed to qualify for the Games.

She also battled anorexia and bulimia. In 1996 her story was made into a movie: “Dying to be Perfect: The Ellen Hart Peña Story.

“I had a pretty debilitating eating disorder from age 21 to 31,” Hart said. “I was an elite runner in my 20s but as the eating disorder progressed things got worse and worse and it ruined my career. Because of that there are things I can do now that I couldn’t do in my 20s. So I don’t take anything for granted ever in terms of getting to do what I love. I never in a million years thought I’d be a competitive athlete at this point in my life and I’m just extremely grateful.”

Hart called the eating disorder an addiction but after a decade of battling it and going through many types of therapy it was family that cured her.

“For every person who recovers, it takes some leap of faith,” Hart said. “There was more to me than winning races or being thin or getting A’s on my report card or being that perfect little girl. I had to make that leap of faith that there was something more than that to me, and there was something more important. And what that ended up being was motherhood.”

Hart’s daughter Neila was born in 1990, Cristina came along two years later and Ryan was born in ’97.

In 2003, Hart took aim at helping others who were suffering like she had by co-founding The Eating Disorder Foundation in Denver.

“I couldn’t really figure where people would turn if they needed help,” Hart said. “When you’re struggling like that, you want that first phone call to mean something because it takes so much courage just to pick up the phone and say ‘I need help’. We’ve done some wonderful work in support and education and prevention.”

Hart, who still does non-profit work with the EDF and other organizations, had some incredible lows while dealing with her disorder. But she has also served on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, and has been a member of the United States Olympic Committee.

She was married to then-mayor of Denver Federico Peña from 1988 to 2001. Peña was the United States Secretary of Transportation from 1993 to 1997 under President Bill Clinton, who, like Hart, was a runner.

On three occasions, Hart went jogging with the 42nd President of the United States.

“Those were some memorable runs,” Hart said. “I won’t forget those. It was an honor.

“I really respected the fact that he was one of the busiest people on the planet and he still made time to go running.”

Now the question is: After dominating in 2015, Will Hart still make time for more triathlons next year?

“It takes a lot out of a person,” Hart said. “It skews the balance of work and family and athletics. I’ve done nine (Ironman triathlons), and that seems like it’s a pretty good number. So it feels like it might be time to take a break from the full distances. But I’ll still be doing shorter distances. I just feel as if I’m still really enjoying it, I still have that enthusiasm for triathlon.

“It’s nice to win but being able to share it with the people you love is the best. It’s still really, really fun.”

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