2010-11-18 / News

Marine biologist finishes her first triathlon

By Geoff Campbell

Wigton raises her arms as she finishes the first triathlon of her life, in a time of 10:51.27. The race was the Panama City Ironman, which she finished second in the female division (18-24 age group). Wigton is also working on her PhD at Old Dominion and is in her second year of the marine biology program. Wigton raises her arms as she finishes the first triathlon of her life, in a time of 10:51.27. The race was the Panama City Ironman, which she finished second in the female division (18-24 age group). Wigton is also working on her PhD at Old Dominion and is in her second year of the marine biology program. “The car pulled out suddenly,” Rachel said.

On a July day in 2008, a routine training ride along Southwest Avenue for the aspiring tri-athlete, ended in a 25 mph bike-on-car collision requiring Rachel Wigton to be airlifted off the island to receive immediate trauma care.

On November 6, 2010, Rachel completed her first full triathlon in 10:51.27 – she finished second in the female division (18-24 age group).

Lying in recovery with her jaw wired shut and surrounded by family, Rachel remembers thinking that she’d only “be out for a week.” She said her family was very supportive, but more likely to joke through a crisis than to cry. She recounted the humor that helped her keep perspective.

About her injuries, Rachel said, “It could have been much worse.”

On-the-scene “seizures, a shattered jaw and a bad head injury,” Rachel said that she was “out cold for 15 minutes,” and “not aware for five hours.”

“It was scary for my family,” she said. Also at the scene that day were her brothers, in training for their high school cross-country season.

Optimistic throughout the ordeal, there was never a question as to whether or not she would return to racing, “I always knew,” she said.

In spite of her injuries, including a severe concussion, Rachel says that the residual effects of the accident are limited to a clicking jaw, occasional headaches and edginess while riding a bike in traffic. “It could have been much worse,” she repeated.

Rachel’s motivations to race are numerous. She finds that training keeps her life in balance. She noted that the week following the Panama City triathlon was challenging at times because recovering required a level of inactivity that can sometimes lead to restlessness.

Rachel says that the training, as time intensive as it is, allows her to maintain friendships with like- minded people who seek the benefi t of exercise and value strong friendships.

Her commitment to the memories of two friends and Portsmouth Abbey classmates is also motivation. She runs to support the Ali Sacco Fund, which provides financial support for cardiac research, and the Adam Towler Foundation, which according to an article published in the July 18, 2010 Laramie Daily Boomerang, funds “organizations and causes that Adam Towler held dear in life.” A close look at her finish-line picture reveals the wording on her race-day shirt: “For Adam, may you run with the angels.”

The Nov. 6 race in Panama City, Fla. carried the Ironman brand, and a first-place divisional finish there qualifies participants for the world championships in Kona, Hawaii, which is considered by some to be the premier triathlon. Rachel was only 46 minutes off the qualifying pace in Panama City and she is already looking forward to next year’s competition.

The Ironman components include a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike race and a 26.1-mile marathon. According to race records, Rachel completed each leg in the following times, respectively: 1:05:35, 5:47:12 and 3:48:11.

For perspective: Of the 2,856 entries – both men and women and both professional and amateur competitors – Rachel finished her first full triathlon in the top 15 percent of all of the participants.

The bike component offers her the “most room for improvement.” She is anticipating a significant improvement in her biking times when she begins training and competing on a tri-bike which is “more aerodynamic, more effi- cient, and leaves your legs in better shape for the run.”

“Fat Frog’s Bike and Fitness” of Chesapeake, Va. has promised to provide amateur sponsorship for Rachel. The result of that sponsorship may be the tri-bike that will likely improve her times, Rachel said.

“As tough as training was, I had a lot of fun and definitely enjoyed it,” Rachel said. “I have no regrets, regarding my time. I’m very pleased.” She was joined in Florida by Brian Jastrebsky, her “biking buddy,” and Lawrence Phillips, a member of her running group; both men are planning to compete in their first Ironman events next year, according to Rachel.

She trains three hours a day and three times a week in each sport. Twice a week she lifts weights.

“I don’t want to be one thing,” Rachel said, perhaps referring to her other endeavor, a PhD Program at Old Dominion University. Rachel is in her second year of the marine biology program that allows her to focus on biomechanics of cephalopods. She is researching the efficiency of movement of squids, octopuses, and cuttle fish.

Her probable goal, Wigton said, is to “stay in academia, half in research and half in teaching.” She graduated from URI in 2005 with a degree in marine biology and is already credited with significant research in the field.

Rachel recalls that her first 5k race was Jamestown’s Jack O’ Lantern Jog that her dad entered her in when she was a pre-teen. “There was no costume involved,” she said. “I’m not really creative with the costume thing.”

A cross-country runner at Lawn Avenue School and then at Portsmouth Abbey, Rachel competed in her first triathlon, the Wild Dog – a half triathlon – in the summer between her senior year of high school and her freshman year at URI. The Wild Dog used to be held on the island.

There were many road races along the way, even a race in Bermuda, all of it leading her to begin a tough training regimen in preparation for the Providence Half Ironman in 2008.

Rachel, dubbed “the miracle kid” by her doctor, will begin preparing soon for the Boston Marathon in April and then again for the Providence Half Ironman in July, followed by the Panama City Ironman at this time again next year.

Rachel shared a quote from one of her favorite books – “Again to Carthage” by John L. Parker Jr. – about how the race is just a small part of it and how sometimes it’s more about the time spent training.

“What I mean is that some see a race, and they think that’s what you do. They sort of know you had to train, but they weren’t watching then, so they don’t understand how incredibly much of it there is. But to us, it’s almost the whole thing. Racing is just this little tiny ritual we go through after everything else has been done. It’s a hood ornament.” – Bruce Denton in “Again to Carthage.”

Return to top