Upstate students show their mettle in Iron Girl triathlon

Upstate graduate student Heather Nelson finished tied for fourth place out of almost 1,100 competitors in the Syracuse Iron Girl sprint triathlon Aug. 3 at Oneida Shores Park.

Heather, entering her third year in the Cell & Developmental Biology program, is one of three Upstate students who participated. She was joined by Liz Van Nortwick (DPT, Class of 2015) and Marika Toscano (College of Medicine, Class of 2015) representing Upstate’s Women’s Health Network.

Iron Girl was Heather’s first triathlon. Her training included watching YouTube videos on swimming technique and going to the Campus Activities Building pool to work on her efficiency in the water.

The three Iron Girl students reflect on the experience below.


SUNY Upstate

Liz Van Nortwick

I had such a great time competing in the Iron Girl — it was so much fun. Swimming has always been my strongest event, but I was thrilled when I finished and saw that I had set personal records for my bike and run times.

It was my first time competing with my new bike and I was enjoying myself so much that after 18 miles, I wasn’t ready to get off and start running.

I’m graduating in May but if I am able to, I definitely want to participate again next year. I’m so grateful to Upstate for the opportunity to compete this year. I really enjoyed it.


At the start of the day, the announcer told us to remember that we were all teammates during the race. This was really the theme for the day — everyone was supporting and motivating each other throughout the course.

SUNY Upstate

Marika Toscano

During the bicycle ride, I rode next to a few different women I didn’t know and we had fun conversations along the way. I heard their stories about why they signed up for the Iron Girl and told them mine. At the end of the race, as I began the run portion, I saw Heather Nelson sprinting toward the finish line, which was exciting!

She was really flying and that made me think I should run faster and finish out the race hard since she was doing the same. It was great motivation!


I was extremely nervous for the swimming portion. The beginning was really hard, as everyone was close together and I was getting kicked and splashed from all directions. After 200 meters everyone was spread out and I was able to settle in a groove. In the end, I swam much better than I expected (but) of all three events, the swim was undoubtedly my weakest.

SUNY Upstate

Heather Nelson

The bike felt like a breeze. I have been training on really long, steep hills, so the flat course allowed me to cruise. My goal was to maintain an 18 mph pace, which I met by finishing with an average of 20.9 mph. I focused on catching and passing the riders in front of me, and was able to maintain a faster speed.

Aside from my muscles feeling well-worked, I was feeling pretty good as I approached transition 2. As I bent over to change my shoes, fatigue suddenly hit me and my entire body cramped up. I knew I had to move quickly though, so I did my best to ignore the pain and keep pushing through.

When I hit the run, I knew it was my time to shine. Running is my passion and the only thing I have been doing for an extended period of time. Unfortunately I had to do it after tiring myself in the swim and bike, so it turned into a new challenge for me.

The whole 5K I felt like I was running extremely slowly. I could not get myself to run any faster, as my legs and stomach were extremely cramped. The cramps never worked themselves out, but as I got to within 100 meters of the finish line there was a large group of runners in front of me. One of the volunteers said to me, “Catch them all.” I gave it everything I had and sprinted to the finish line. I ended up passing everyone in the group except one.

When I saw the results posted, listing me in first place for my age group and tied for fourth overall, I did not believe it. I had to hand my phone to my family and friends for them to look to see if I was reading it right. After confirmation, I was filled with joy — my day was made.

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