By Aliza Alperin-Sheriff
HoVal grad finishes 4th in her age group in grueling annual Ironman run-swim-ride competition
On Oct. 11, after 10 hours, 20 minutes and 6 seconds of swimming, biking and running, Emily Sherrard crossed the finish line at the 2014 Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kona, Hawaii, placing fourth in the women’s 25 to 29 age group.
The race at Kona, like all Ironman races, consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon-length run. An Ironman 70.3 is half the length of an Ironman, which is 140.6 miles in total. Not only had Sherrard never completed a full Ironman before going to Kona, she also hadn’t done the equivalent of each segment individually.
“Most of my workouts in the pool are over two miles anyway, but Kona was my first 112-mile bike ride and my first marathon,” she said in November, reflecting on her race experience.
For someone who has only been competing in triathlons for three years, Sherrard’s race resume is impressive. She has achieved many first place finishes and even won a world championship title. Even more remarkable, she has accomplished all of this while attending medical school, which, like intensive athletic training, is an activity that requires a great deal of time and focus.
Sherrard, 26, grew up in Hopewell where her parents have lived for nearly 30 years. Her father, Sandy, is a wine salesman and works for Vintage Imports, a wine distributor based in Bristol, Pennsylvania.
Her mother, Suzanne Holdcraft, is a doctor who practices family medicine at Hopewell Family Practice. Sherrard also has a sister, Tricia, 23, who lives in Hopewell and works for the Office of Annual Giving at Princeton University.
Sherrard has always been athletic and was involved in numerous sports as a child, including soccer, swimming and basketball. She began running competitively as a sixth grader at Timberlane Middle School, partially because it was one of the few sports offered. However, she had an aptitude for running dating back to her days at Hopewell Elementary School.
“I beat almost all the boys when we did the mile run in gym class,” she recalled.
Sherrard also cited her father, who ran track and cross country in high school, as influencing her choice of sport. He enjoys running, she said, and she started running with him when she was 11 or 12. While at Timberlane, she excelled in the 400-meter dash, setting a school record in the event.
Sherrard continued to run at Hopewell Valley Central High School. As a freshman, she played soccer in the fall and swam in the winter before doing track in the spring.
“Freshman year, I came onto a team with some really talented upperclassmen like Jessica Pall, Kate Willever and Sarah Seiler. They were kind enough to take me underwing and help me grow into running,” she said.
For the rest of her high school athletic career, Sherrard ran all three seasons, participating in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track. Overall, she was part of six championship teams. As a sophomore she set a school record in the 800-meter run and a county record in the 1600-meter run. As a senior she was a member of the school’s National Championship Sprint Medley relay team.
After being recruited by a number of colleges, Sherrard decided to attend Duke University where she majored in biological anthropology and anatomy and had minors in chemistry and biology.
“I thought it had one of the best combinations of athletics and academics. I also wanted to go to school with a lot of school spirit,” she said.
She currently lives in Philadelphia, where she is a fourth year medical student at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. She became interested in becoming a doctor as a freshman in high school because she enjoyed science. Only later did the fact that her mother is a doctor influence her decision to pursue medicine.
“As I got older I started appreciating what my mother was doing, how much she loved her job and how much her patients loved her, what she did every day and how she helped people. That’s my big reason for going into medicine,” said Sherrard.
Sherrard had many successes during her college athletic career, including multiple All-East honors, being a multi-time finalist in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championships, competing at the NCAA Cross Country National Championships and achieving numerous personal bests. But she was ultimately disappointed in her accomplishments.
She never made All-Atlantic Coast Conference or All-American and she felt like she never reached the speeds that she was capable of on the track. She also suffered from injuries that kept her from competing for the entirety of her junior year.
“I swore I would never train again when I finished,” she said.
However, Sherrard couldn’t stay away from the allure of competition for long.
“In med school, I felt lost and aimless without athletics in my life, so I bought a bike and decided to do triathlon,” she explained.
She hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps and practice family medicine, possibly specializing in sports medicine.
Between school and training for triathlons, Sherrard doesn’t have time for much else.
“Training is what I do for fun and to keep me sane,” she said.
Sherrard won her age group in the first triathlon she signed up for and has continued to succeed from there, including placing first in her age group at the 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Championship.
“It’s pretty amazing. We didn’t really see it coming,” said Sandy Sherrard about his daughter’s accomplishments as a triathlete. “Before going to her first triathlon, her mom asked, ‘How do you think you’re going to do?’ She said, ‘I think I’m going to win.’ She did. She has an amazing amount of self-confidence.”
As Sherrard became more involved with triathlon, she began to contemplate competing at the Ironman World Championships in Kona.
“Kona is kind of the Mecca of triathlon. I knew as a triathlete that I wanted to do it,” she said.
Last Thanksgiving she decided that this would be the year to qualify for Kona because it was potentially her last chance before finishing school and beginning her residency, so she signed up for the qualifying race, Eagleman 70.3.
Training for Kona involved “a lot of swimming, a lot of biking and a lot of running,” she said. Sherrard woke up at 5:30 every morning to train before going in for her rotations, and would do another workout when she got home. During the week, she would train in each of the events individually and on the weekends she would do all three together.
Finally, after months of training, it was time for Sherrard to fly to the Big Island. She was accompanied by her parents, her boyfriend Kiley Austin-Young, and his parents, all going with her to show their support. Austin-Young is also a triathlete, and he competed at Kona in 2013.
While Sherrard’s mother and sister (who couldn’t make it to Kona) had accompanied her to the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, Kona was the first big race that her father had a chance to attend. While he was excited to see his daughter compete, he also experienced some trepidation.
“We were almost a little bit frightened when she competed in distances that were so long. We weren’t quite sure how she was going to survive, especially at Kona. We were just hoping she would finish the race without having to go to the medical tents and get an IV,” he said.
Sherrard characterized Kona as long, but added, “It actually goes by a lot quicker than you’d think. You’re so focused on what you’re doing, you don’t really think about anything else.”
She described the experience of competing at Kona on her blog.
She wrote, “BOOM! Lots of contact was made in the first 200m and it was impossible to finish a stroke without hitting another swimmer. I lifted my head up more than I usually would to sight and breathe and try to find some clean water, which was impossible. What was supposed to be swimming felt more like trying not to drown…I found a rhythm, calmed down and started moving up in the pack, propelled forward by the momentum of the fast swimmers around me.”
After 1:09:47 in the water, it was time for Sherrard to get on her bike, where she once again had to make room for herself in a crowded field.
“My mantra became ‘nutrition, fluids, stay legal, don’t draft.’ I could control my fluid and calorie intake with relative ease, drafting was another story. The density of athletes on the course—and not just any Ironman athletes, but the best in the world—poses a real challenge to one’s ability to abide by the rules,” she wrote. “The crowds thinned out, but the winds picked up. It was a warm cross-wind coming down from the lava fields. Large gusts would toss me around and blow me sideways across the highway; there was no hiding from it. I had to white-knuckle my way through aid stations in order to keep my bike steady while I was grabbing bottles, with my heart pounding in my chest.”
Sherrard finished her harrowing bike journey and moved on to the marathon.
She wrote, “The last mile was one of the best experiences of my life. With the energy of the crowd and knowing that I was about to hear those four words I have waited for months to hear I felt like I was soaring, even thru the pain. I kept my momentum as I made the final turn toward the finishing stretch, the greatest finish line in the sport.”
Her father said that he was “wowed and amazed” by Sherrard’s fourth place finish among women ages 25 to 29, which granted her a spot on the podium. However, he added, “She’s very driven. She wrote down a list of goals and she was able to meet most of them. One was to make the podium at Kona. Our goal was for her finish. Hers was to finish and do extremely well.”
Sherrard said that the physical toll of the race was brutal.
“I have never been so sore in my whole life,” she said. “I placed the finisher’s medal around my neck and it was painful to have it banging against my stomach. I was hobbling around for about five days until I started feeling normal again and my feet weren’t super swollen. Afterwards, I still had a little bit of time off from school, so I hung out in Hopewell, watched a lot of TV and relaxed.”
At Eagleman 70.3, where Sherrard qualified for Kona, she also earned an elite license, which allows her to compete as a professional. She has decided to take some time away from school in order to do so. Professionals run in the same races as amateurs with the main difference being that they compete for money and get money from their sponsors for making the podium.
“I’m doing it to compete against a more competitive field and see how well I can do in the sport,” she explained.
She is currently trying to decide whether to take off from school this coming spring to compete professionally and then finish school or to finish her last four rotations, graduate and then take a year off to compete professionally. She said that there is a liability in taking time off from her medical training.
She explained, “It’s not a good idea to delay residency for too long from a medical career standpoint. I want to take this chance to see how well I do in triathlon. There’s a risk involved in that, but I feel like I’ve done well in school. Also, I have a good story to talk about when applying to residency programs that will make me stand out. Hopefully they’ll appreciate that.”
For now, Sherrard is looking ahead to the 2015 season.
“I’m excited to see how I do as a professional,” she said. “I’m going to need to shift how I define success next season—I won’t necessarily be winning races. I’m thankful that I have the support of my family in this endeavor. They don’t always understand why I’m so devoted to triathlon, but they’re supportive and want to see me succeed.”