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    Bella English

    Wanting to be like shea - or not

    Carolyn Shea, in a triathlon in Burlington, Vt., last year.
    Carolyn Shea
    Carolyn Shea, in a triathlon in Burlington, Vt., last year.

    In my next life, I want to be Carolyn Shea. The Weymouth woman is 57, and getting ready to do her ninth Ironman triathlon. That’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and then a marathon. Back to back to back.

    I once did one of those mini-triathlons in Sharon, and I thought the quarter-mile pond swim alone was going to kill me. It didn’t help that the guy behind me kept grabbing my ankle.

    Shea, who is manager of glaucoma services for the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, is also training for the upcoming Boston Marathon — her 11th — with Team Eye and Ear. The money she raises will go to a compassionate care fund for patients who can’t afford their glaucoma meds.


    Last week, she participated in the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico. The marathon-length race honors the US and Filipino POWs who were forced on a death march by the Japanese in World War II. It was the third time Shea has participated.

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    To Shea, none of this is a huge deal. She’s just following the course she started at Watertown High School, where she played three sports.

    “I did the only three sports they had for girls,” she says. “Field hockey, basketball, and softball.”

    My high school only allowed girl basketball players to dribble the ball three times, and we couldn’t cross the half-court line, except for the two “rovers.” I guess all that sweating could have given us the vapors or something.

    Title IX, which mandated equal access to sports programs for boys and girls, didn’t pass until Shea was out of high school.


    “I wanted to stay in shape, so I started running,” she says. “That’s how it all started.”

    At University of Massachusetts Amherst, she ran track, and then started with road races, gradually adding distance. In 1978, she ran her first Boston Marathon — as a bandit, someone who isn’t officially registered for a race. Her time was 3:28. In 2003, she qualified for a number, and has been running it since.

    On March 3, Shea participated in the Escape from Alcatraz triathlon. She’d done it last year, in June, but the date was moved this year to accommodate the America’s Cup races, which will take over San Francisco Bay this summer.

    The result: cold weather, high winds, and 6-foot swells on the 1.5-mile swim. Boats took the swimmers to the island, and participants then swam back to shore. One man died after diving into the water.

    The dead man was identified as a 46-year-old Texas lawyer, who apparently suffered a heart attack. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the water temperature was 51 degrees, and the wind made the air feel closer to the mid-40s.


    “It was the first time in my life I thought I was going to drown,” says Shea.

    She had swallowed a ton of water and gotten off course before being pulled into one of the safety kayaks. She caught her breath — and plunged back into the water, completing the swim, followed by a hilly 18-mile bike ride and an 8-mile run that included stairs, trail, beach, and pavement.

    She’s modest about all her accomplishments: “It’s easier to stay in shape than to get back in shape,” she says.

    Shea has performed all of these feats in the past year while undergoing extensive dental implant surgery, which has made it difficult to eat at times. The ordeal — and that’s a polite word for it — involved bone grafts and dentures. In fact, when she swam at Alcatraz, she nearly lost her dentures, and her jaw killed.

    On second thought, maybe I don’t want to be Carolyn Shea in my next life.

    In the winter, she moves indoors for bicycle training. Shea works full time, sometimes late, and so goes to her fitness center, the Weymouth Club, in the early morning.

    “There’s a bunch of people in my age group,” she says. “We all have full-time jobs, and we train together and have traveled to races together. It’s fun.”

    Triathlons are huge nowadays, with enrollments soaring — some think it’s partly because of Lance Armstrong’s interest in them, even post-doping scandal.

    “It’s crazy, it’s huge,” says Shea. “I think triathlons are becoming a lifestyle for some.”

    She is doing two Ironman triathlons this year, one in Lake Placid in July, another in Panama City in November.

    At the Boston Marathon next month, Shea will be running with others who have a connection with Mass Eye and Ear.

    “Mostly, people have a personal reason for running,” she says. “Either they have a family member treated here, or a family member or themselves with a particular condition, or they’re employees raising money for a specific fund at Mass Eye and Ear.”

    Shea plans to keep running and racing until she physically can’t.

    “It’s great therapy,” she says.

    And, she swears, lots of fun.

    Her boss, Dr. Louis Pasquale, says Mass Eye and Ear is lucky to have Shea participate in fund-raisers for the hospital. Plus, he’s totally impressed with her athletic prowess.

    “Carolyn has probably circled the globe several times over if you consider the aggregate number of miles she has logged as a marathoner, triathlon athlete, and Ironman competitor,” he says.

    I’m humbled, and vow not to complain ever again about walking the dog around the duck pond, or going up three flights of stairs.

    Bella English lives in Milton. She can be reached at