We were first introduced to one of TeamSFQ's most dynamic women, Josie Vitale, in the Summer of 2018 when she wrote about the link between triathlon and her amazing ink, (tattoos). This week we check back in with Josie to learn the clever and meaningful ways she has intertwined her passion for triathlon with those who matter most in her life.
When, where, and why did you first dip your toe into the triathlon?
I found triathlon in a quest to get healthy after a systemic infection from breast augmentation surgery. I was at a point in my life where I was really seeking to control everything. I had achieved a high-level of success early in my career and at a very young age, I was also married and had 2 babies by the time I was 28.
All that changed along with hormones and my post baby body made me feel in retrospect, very out of control. Like many women, I sought out plastic surgery to take control of my changing body and ended up in a very bad spot because of it.
After I recovered from my surgeries I weighed less than 100 lbs Lulu was only 18 months old, my body was tired and I was physically and emotionally wrecked. I knew I needed to do something to get healthy again, so I started with spin class and a little swim in the mornings before work and a decade later I’m registered for Ultraman!
I’m told what happened to me is uncommon, and I think you’d be surprised to know that I’d never take any of it back (with the exception of time missed with the girls and almost dying). That whole experience set into motion what I feel is part of my life’s purpose.
You seem to enjoy the longer, iron-triathlon distance, as you demonstrated in 2018 by racing three Ironmans within three months, and you are taking on your first Ultraman in Canada this July, what is it about going "really long", that you "really" enjoy?
I think it's actually the training that I enjoy maybe more than the racing. I remember the first time I was training for Ironman Mont Tremblant, I was alone all the time. It started to feel like work and I was constantly assessing my value as a parent, which is easily reinforced by “The Peanut Gallery.” Lets’s be honest, particularly when it comes to women there’s no shortage of unsolicited opinions on how you are messing up your kids. I have found that both because of my career, and my training, there are always people willing to question my decisions.
All that alone time sometimes led to self doubt, back in those days I needed a “why” to even get me to the start line. Over time though I found an amazing group of women to train with and network with, although for the most part I’m still alone quite a bit, I cherish my time with these amazing ladies.
I’ve found that I really enjoy long consistent paces. At first I thought that it was because I don’t like to hurt cardiovascularly, and to me the thought of a sprint or olympic pace just sounds flipping painful. Like doing a 5k race when you are training for a marathon. Now I realize that its the mental clarity I get when I go long; after a few hours of physical activity my mind is so clear. I’m not running through work scenarios, hyper-analyzing old conversations, future planning or anything, I’m just clear. It's like the feeling you get after your first yoga class, like “Big Block Savasana.” The body is quiet, but tingling, mind relaxed, confident in the present moment, not worried about the future.
I remember the first time I did JFK 50, I hit this point about 38 miles in and remember saying to fellow teamSFQ member, Sherri Zehner, “I’m afraid to keep running, but I’m also afraid to stop running.” And then I had this moment of clarity that it just didn’t matter. I watched one foot in front of the other on the trail and just allowed it to happen. If you go long enough “why” becomes less important, I think it becomes more like a vision quest, it doesn’t matter why you’re there, you’re there so you just need to do.
I also love things that feel adventurous. The Triple in 2018 was all about having a summer of adventure for the girls, and David and I feel like Ultraman is the same. We are all going to work together, and I know something incredible is going to happen. I can’t help but believe in my heart that doing these things together is showing the girls something special. Plus, they adore being part of the SFQ family.
Since you live in Hershey, Pennsylvania, an area of the country that endures harsh winters, and you do a tremendous amount of traveling for your thriving career, how do you achieve the intense training sessions required for preparing for your races?
I’m lucky to have the Queen of Ultra by my side as coach and friend, knowing and training under Mary Knott as part of Team HPB has honestly changed my life, and my entire concept of what I am capable of. I have complete trust in Mary, and her vision of what Ultraman Canada takes. One thing I really like is that there are certain staple workouts, some of which I notice start to appear weekly as we ramp up toward race season, I really like that consistency because I can see myself progressing over time.
As far as the travel is concerned, I think we are still figuring it out. I transitioned into a new position this year which has simultaneously up-leveled my career and dramatically increased my travel. So far, as much as I can tell the secret to success is for us to be highly communicative about basically everything. My travel, how I’m feeling, how the girls are doing my mental, physical, and emotional state, and we are assessing as we go. It’s still early, so we’ll have to reconnect in the spring when the volume sets in so I can let you know if I’ve started questioning my life choices.
One thing I have learned about myself is that once I decide to do something I make it happen one way or another. I mean, if I can race Ironman Lake Placid a day after burying my father, I can pretty much do anything. Actually, we should talk about that someday. I can’t help but believe that there is something to be learned about that experience.
The northeast poses its own set of problems for training due to the long hard winter. Actually, where I live was a big factor in the Ultraman race we ultimately decided on. I needed to select a race that gave me some preceding warm months for outdoor riding to set myself up for success. I’ve learned that although most people kid themselves and try to pick the flattest race, thinking it will be easier, the right thing to do for me is to pick races that makes sense seasonally and based on the girls’s school schedules regardless of the total ascent on the bike. I could have applied for Arizona (March) or Florida (Feb) both awesome locations and decidedly less hilly, but after thinking it through with David and Mary, I couldn’t wrap my mind around executing the outdoor riding needed to confidently complete the bike in the dead of winter.
Along with your own personal athletic goals, you are a coach for your daughter's track and field team. What does the role of coach mean to you? And, how does it feel to be both "mom" and "coach" to your daughters?
This is actually my favorite question, because I get to brag on my kids. Like I said earlier, I can’t help but believe that all of the training and racing that David and I do is having a positive impact on Gigi and Lulu. Dave and I both have coached for Hershey Blaze, our local track club, since the girls were like babies, they ran sub-bantam at 5 and 6 years old. We have always volunteered our time to coach these teams all through the years. It seems easier to watch the years transition as the running season does; outdoor in the summer, cross country in the fall, indoor in the winter, over and over.
Alan and Jen Paynter started the team for their own kids in Hershey where they saw a lack of a local club running program, and over the years the club has grown to become a family. It's also brought our family close to the Paynter’s. Many of you know that I call their daughter, Maliyah, my third child, she has been our friend and Gigi and Lulu’s babysitter since they started with Blaze. I look at Alan and Jen’s relationship with their kids, all now college bound, and I see how coaching and supporting them athletically has kept their family close and created such a positive community of people.
Last summer Gigi and Lulu both asked to do multi sport during outdoor track season, I was obviously over the moon. Gigi competed in Pentathlon and Lulu triathlon, seeing them beaming with self-pride was the best part of those meets. It's a tough time for young girls these days. We are living in a country that is getting better at calling out the gender disparities and rape culture, but still hyper-sexualizes women and girls leaving our tween-age daughters with very vulnerable self-esteem. I feel like Dave and I coaching and encouraging them in track is teaching them self love, confidence, and resilience. In the same way that they have supported me and Dave traveling for races over the years, we are now able to support them on their race adventures, and the post race hugs are the best!
For those of us who follow your stories on Instagram, (and I strongly suggest everyone follow Josie's stories on Instagram, @josie.vitale), it is clear that you have a fantastic sense of humor, and truly appreciate and celebrate the mini-nuances of everyday life that make it so special, (your husband, your daughters, your sisters, your friends). How did you cultivate such an awesome point of view on life?
I can sum this up in one word “authenticity”. Particularly in 2018 where Instagram became more like a therapeutic outlet. I was training for 3 Ironman’s, working, being a mom and my dad was dying of brain cancer. I think people identified with the reality of the situation, it all became so messy, but it was actually unintentionally funny, there was no subtext, it was a total shit show, but it was life, and as I think back on it, it was actually one of the most emotionally healthy things I could have done; just get that shit off my chest.
I wasn’t worried about what people were thinking, it was so messy anyway It felt like we were all in it together. I’ll be honest, I’ve lost a bit of my Insta mojo this year. After my job transition I started unintentionally editing myself, because I think was worried that my training or racing just wasn’t that interesting. It all felt a bit forced, and I was worried that maybe I had run out of things to say. It’s coming back, so stay tuned, there are things I want to share for sure.
I kind of feel like I’m an “Everyman.” Basically, if someone like me can do this, anyone can. I used to tell myself so many stories about the type of people who do ultra endurance events. Like maybe they don’t work as much as I do, or they don’t have kids, or whatever. I can tell you that it's absolutely not true seeing Tara Norton win Ultraman World’s with her young daughter in her race crew was a big lightbulb moment for me, and talking to Jess Deree at tri camp, she’s a friggin' surgeon and an Ultraman. Mel Urie the first woman on the PLANET to complete Uberman, and did it all while working full time at an intense job. Mary Knott, Amy Hite, Libby Schroeder, Michelle Landry, Hillary Biscay and you Taryn…all super successful women, with all the commitments of life and all performing in many capacities at a super high level. We can choose to listen to the stories we tell ourselves or we can go DO THINGS and stop over thinking it. Insta is my story and for better or worse I can’t edit it, because it's just my life.
I mentioned earlier that you have Ultraman Canada on your schedule this year, but what other athletic and life goals do you have in your sights for 2020?
Honestly, this is a bit TBD. I’m thinking of Texas and or St. George, because I love the idea of the back to back Ironman's, but other than Ultraman, I have no commitments. I remember feeling very intensely while crewing Ultraman World's and Uberman, that I would be back to both of those places, so we’ll see where the Universe guides me. I also remember being under the full moon in Badwater Basin and telling Mary and Heidi that I wanted to do Badwater, (we were sleep deprived and also doing old cheerleading moves) …I guess anything is possible. I’ve been trying to convince David to do Bigfoot 200 with me for like 2 years, can you imagine the insta story on that one (I die!)
Read more about Josie here, Not just another M-dot tattoo: we dare you to not be moved by this story!