TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I had the pleasure recently of getting to know Monica Sberna, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Triathlon Club of San Diego. Monica has a huge heart as you will see with all the money she has raised for important causes. You are sure to enjoy her story below.
Craig: What were your sports before triathlon?
Monica: I was one of those kids that played pretty much every sport at some point growing up, but mainly just for fun as I was always good, but never truly great at any. In high school, I competed on the track team as a sprinter and discus thrower (I know…shocker), but I was always middle-of-the-pack and did it more for the comradery than the competition. I also played intramural broomball in college, which I loved, but sadly I haven’t found too many opportunities to play since then.
Craig: What was the driving force that got you involved with Team in Training?
Monica: Having always been physically active in something or another growing up, I found myself in a weird place when I moved to Columbus, OH for my first job and had essentially nothing to do after work. So a co-worker at the time told me about Team in Training, one of the largest endurance sports training programs dedicated to raising money for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. At the time, I had no personal connection to those affected by blood cancer; but after attending one of their info meetings, I (almost foolishly) decided that I was going to raise $2,900 to run the Nike Women’s Half Marathon out in San Francisco, CA…because it sounded like fun. And so I trained with coaches and fellow teammates to run my first half marathon in October 2010.
After that, I was hooked! I originally joined Team in Training for the support system (coaches and planned workouts), but this organization truly changed my life. Working in clinical research myself, I know first-hand how important it is to help fund life-saving research. But most importantly, I have had the privilege of meeting so many amazing individuals who have not only touched my heart, but have inspired me to do more than I ever imagined I could. So I continued to challenge myself, completing my first full marathon in 2011 (Nike Women’s Marathon), my first century ride in 2012 (Viva Bike Vegas), and my first sprint triathlon in 2013 (Wendy’s International Triathlon) all while raising an additional $7,000 for The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Craig: What was your first experience with triathlon like?
Monica: Having already signed up for the Wendy’s International Triathlon (sprint distance) through Team in Training, I decided I wanted to “get my feet wet” at a smaller triathlon to help calm some of those “first race” jitters. So I signed up for a super sprint held at my alma mater, Miami University. The race consisted of a 400m swim inside at the recreational center pool (serpentine fashion), followed by a 20K bike in and around Oxford, and a 5K run on Miami’s beautiful campus. A picturesque course to say the least, had it not been a very cold, April morning in Ohio.
I remember being more nervous than I had ever been before while I was waiting to enter the pool. And those nerves got the best of me as my swim ended up more doggie paddle than freestyle and I’m pretty sure I was the second to last swimmer out of the pool. But I survived…only to realize in transition that I had forgot my full-fingered riding gloves I was planning to bring (now I always have a race-day checklist). And sure enough, my fingers not only froze but went completely numb by the time I entered T2, which made trying to tie the laces of my running shoes nearly impossible.
I was so done with the race I started to cry, but my then boyfriend (now fiancé) Michael, standing helplessly outside of transition, continued to cheer me on. So I wiped the tears from my face and started to run. And somewhere along those 3.1 miles I suddenly came to realize that even though it wasn’t pretty, I was doing it! I crossed the finish line with a big smile on my face and as they say, the rest is history. I went on to complete 5 more triathlons that year, including two Olympic distances, and am so thankful to have had Michael there to cheer me on at every race I’ve done since then.
Craig: What was so special about the day you raced the 2013 Deer Creek Fall Challenge?
Monica: One of my favorite triathlon memories actually has nothing to do with the race itself. In fact, it was actually one of my longest, most trying triathlons to date. But a teammate of mine, Ralph, was attempting to complete his TNT Triple Crown (running, cycling, and triathlon event with TNT) all in one year, having just run his first half marathon earlier that spring. I, on the other hand, was burned out from training and hesitant to even start the cold, late September race. But when I showed up on race morning, Ralph, who had sprained his wrist two weeks prior, was still planning to race the Olympic distance; so of course I had no excuse.
We started the race in different waves, but as usual my swim took forever and once again I was one of the last participants out of the water. So the goal at that point was just to catch Ralph so that I could present him with his Triple Crown at the finish line. Easier said than done when you’ve been slacking on training, but I was determined to be there when he finished. So I pushed myself on the bike and run in order to catch him and the hug I received when he crossed that finish line was one of my most rewarding race finishes to date. A perfect example of how determination and passion can push you to do more than you ever thought possible.
Craig: You moved to San Diego in August 2014. What fundraising events have you done since arriving here and what were those experiences like?
Monica: As I mentioned previously, I was very involved with fundraising for Team in Training when I lived in Ohio, so when I moved to San Diego I wanted to continue to fundraise for other organizations I felt passionate about. So in 2015, I signed up to run the Disneyland Dumbo Double Dare as a St. Jude Hero. That meant not only would I be running the Disneyland 10K on Saturday and Disneyland Half Marathon on Sunday, but I also committed to fundraise $2,000 for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Still to this day, that was one of my favorite races as it was not only my first time at Disneyland, but I was able to honor 12 of my personal pediatric cancer heroes the first 12 miles, with the last 1.1 mile dedicated to all the pediatric clinical trial patients I worked with day in and day out at Rady Children’s Hospital.
Then later that year, a good friend who I had trained with for my first century ride lost his two-year battle with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and in his honor, a number of his friends and family formed The Purple TuTu Society. While I won’t go into the reasons behind the name, this group of 38 individuals successfully raised over $92,000 for Pelotonia 2016, a two-day cycling fundraiser for the James Cancer Hospital in Columbus, OH. Unfortunately, I was not able to make the trip back to Ohio to ride with them, but I vowed to ride 100 miles once again to help honor Dan’s memory and raise money for cancer research. So in 2016, I participated in San Diego’s own cycling fundraiser, Padres Pedal the Cause, committing to raise $1,000 to benefit local cancer research at the UCSD Moores Cancer Center, Rady Children’s Hospital, and more.
Craig: What did you learn from the century and half marathon you did on the same weekend last fall?
Monica: When I signed up to ride the 2016 Padres Pedal the Cause in honor of my friend Dan Weisenbach, little did I know it would turn out to be one of the most physically and mentally challenging weekends of my life. Having already registered for a number of half marathons that year already, I was shocked to say the least when I learned that the event, previously held in September, had been moved to November, the day before the Silver Strand Half Marathon. Not one to back down from a challenge though, I committed to finish both events in a test of both physical and mental fortitude, all while wearing a purple tutu in Dan’s honor.
I think the century ride for Padres Pedal the Cause was more mentally grueling than anything with over 7,151 feet of climbing in just under 10 hours. In fact, I almost cut the route short (at the official turn-off) in fear I wouldn’t be able to finish before dusk. But Dan was truly out there with me, telling me to keep going and that I could do it! The Silver Strand Half Marathon the next day however was definitely a test of my physical endurance. My body was tired and part of me wanted to give up, but the one thing I learned that day was you can truly accomplish anything you set your mind to, especially when you have someone to finish for.
Craig: How did you get involved in the Triathlon Club of San Diego?
Monica: Having already completed a number of triathlons in Ohio, one of the first things I looked for when I moved was a group I could train with out here in San Diego and Triathlon Club of San Diego seemed to be the obvious choice. So I attended one of the Intro to TCSD meetings, which is where I first met Paula Munoz. As acting Vice President and Secretary at the time, Paula was always looking for more people to get involved with volunteering, as we all know how involved she is herself. So volunteering at a number of club events turned into assisting the Expo Coordinator, which ultimately turned into an opportunity to revamp the volunteer program as Volunteer Coordinator.
Craig: What should we know about your current role as the Volunteer Coordinator?
Monica: TCSD is and will always be a volunteer driven organization, so the Volunteer Coordinator’s job is to help get the word out when volunteers are needed. We have many veteran volunteers who help lead our weekly workouts, run our monthly club events, and even help publish this newsletter. But I want members to know that we are always looking for people to help in any way they can. Two of our biggest needs that don’t involve a ton of time commitment are helping out at our monthly club races and TCSD expo booths. Keep an eye out for e-mails and Facebook posts asking to sign up for these events once race season gets into the full swing!
Craig: What have been some of your funnier moments in triathlon?
Monica: I’ve definitely had my fair share of triathlon blunders, from forgetting (sometimes necessary) equipment to missing bike turns; but I think my swim at the 2013 Tri Fit Challenge definitely takes the cake. The swim for the Olympic distance of the race is set up in triangle fashion at Antrim Lake, with the top point of the triangle located at the dock where swimmers enter and exit the water. Being a novice swimmer, as you most likely realize by now, I started at the back of my wave and took my time swimming, concentrating on trying to stay calm.
However, after swimming for a while and sighting off of what I thought was the far left buoy, I stopped for a moment after realizing that there didn’t seem to be any other swimmers around me. So I looked up and soon realized that I was somehow in the middle of the triangle all by myself! Considering I don’t always swim in the straightest of lines, I figured I must have drifted left after the first turn and accidentally caught the wrong buoy in my sight. But lesson learned and from then on, I always double check that I’m sighting in the right direction.
Craig: What have been some of your favorite out of town races?
Monica: Considering I’ve done more running races than anything else, those tend to be some of my favorite. As you can imagine, the Nike Women’s Marathon & Half Marathon in San Francisco, CA will always hold a special place in my heart as those were my first half and full marathons. Plus, I loved wearing my Tiffany finisher necklaces for years after the races, proudly explaining where they were from when asked. But I must say that the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon & Half Marathon (a local race at the time) is to this day one of the most emotional races I’ve ever run.
In 2012, Nationwide Children’s Hospital (where I worked at the time) became the title beneficiary for the then Columbus Marathon & Half Marathon. And with this partnership came what is known as their Patient Champions. Each year, a Patient Champion is dedicated to each mile of the 26.2 course, with one Angel Mile to honor those who are no longer with us. These patients not only share their stories to help inspire those running the event, they are also out on the course the day of the race giving out high fives and hugs to any runner who needs it.
As you can imagine, this can be a huge motivating factor to keep moving forward during a physically challenging day for most runners. This was an especially emotional experience for me as I also personally knew one of the 2012 Patient Champions, whose family was waiting with smiles and hugs at mile 18. I remember that race for many reasons, but I definitely believe it’s the “most meaningful marathon in the country” and would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to run it. Plus, it’s in Columbus, OH, so it’s also one of the flattest.
Craig: What are some of your favorite San Diego races?
Monica: I’ve knocked most of the half marathons in San Diego off my bucket list at this point and my favorite so far has been the San Diego Half Marathon in March 2016. Truthfully, I can’t really put my finger on any one specific reason other than it was a fun course (only one major hill) with a great finish line and pretty sweet swag to boot! I haven’t competed in as many triathlons, but I definitely loved the Esprit de She for obvious reasons and am sad that it will no longer be a women’s only race this year. I think that series was a great advocate for women in triathlon and gave those just starting out a very encouraging environment to give triathlon a try.
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over triathlon, what would you change?
Monica: I’m not sure I would change much about triathlons if I could. For me personally, I would love shorter swims, but that’s what makes it a challenge. Most triathletes seem to have at least one disciple they have to work at more than the others. For me, it’s the swim, for others the run, but that’s what makes accomplishing one so much more rewarding!
Craig: What are your future endurance sport goals?
Monica: For 2017, my main goal is to complete my 30th half marathon for my 30th birthday on May 28, 2017 (technically three days before my actual birthday, but races don’t usually happen on Wednesdays). This has been a goal of mine since I ran my 15th half marathon in September 2015 and realized that if I ran 12 half marathons in 12 months (another goal) in 2016, I could feasibly reach 30 by May 2017. These may not be my fastest halves, but I have absolutely loved the experience completing not only 12 half marathons last year, but my Disney Coast to Coast and San Diego Triple Crown as well!
And then after that, I will be setting my eyes on my first half Ironman! I definitely will have my work cut out for me to say the least, but I am constantly inspired by all of the triathletes here in San Diego. But most importantly, I want to continue to try and fundraise for at least one charity event every year. These races are always the most meaningful and I have met so many amazing people who have truly changed my life. Cancer research will always be important to me as it’s what I do day in and day out, but I actually would like to work with other organizations such as CAF in the future.
Craig: Monica, thank you so much for sharing your story. I wish everyone could give back half as much as you have to your community. You are out there enjoying endurance sports and making a difference in people’s lives. We are very fortunate to have you as a member of the TCSD. Good luck on your quest for your 30th half marathon and that half Ironman finisher’s medal.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.