J Robinson’s wife shows grit through Ironman triathlons

Sue Rubens has completed 15 marathons and 8 Ironmans.

Image by Jordan Biersc

Sue Rubens has completed 15 marathons and 8 Ironmans.

by Dane Mizutani

Minnesota wrestling coach J Robinson can’t swim, hates to bike and hates to run. His wife, Sue Rubens, lives for all three.

Rubens is an avid competitor in Ironman triathlons — an extreme triathlon that includes a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, all in succession.

Rubens regularly spends 30 hours per week training for these races but said she gains her motivation from Robinson.

“If you have that internal flame to compete, he can turn that up a notch,” Rubens said. “He brings that competitive fight out of most people and the most out of me.”

The pair married in 2000, and Rubens, a die-hard Badgers fan, jokes of her fandom with Robinson. Even her bike is decked out in custom Wisconsin paint.

Rubens grew up in Madison, Wis., and has run for her entire life. She ran her first marathon in 1996 after she watched the Twin Cities Marathon from the window of her home.

She competed in marathons and dabbled in triathlons for a couple years before finding her niche in the Ironman competitions.

“It was a thing where she got involved with marathons, and it was a natural progression of her wanting to test herself in certain situations,” Robinson said.

Rubens competed in her first Ironman competition in 2005 in Madison. “It went about as bad as you could expect,” she said.

Robinson, a coach who has consistently pushed his wrestlers to the limit throughout his career, begged his wife to quit.

She didn’t.

Rubens said Robinson tried to pull her out of the race “about 100 different times during the marathon” of the triathlon, but she wouldn’t quit.

“It’s not in my personality to not finish something,” she said. “I walked the entire marathon. It took forever, and it was awful, but I just thought to myself, ‘I can’t not finish this because that’s not who I am.’”

Robinson walked the final 16 miles of the marathon with his wife.

Rubens said she lost 12 pounds in the race, but she ultimately finished in 15 hours, 26 minutes.

She said that after the race, she wanted redemption. That quest became part of her lifestyle and part of Robinson’s as well.

He didn’t speak of that 2005 race, but said he gains a lot of his inspiration from his wife.

“We all use motivation from different people and different things in our life, but when you’re living with someone who trains for these things, it’s amazing to watch,” Robinson said.

He said she wakes up at 5:30 every morning to swim and will go on 120-mile bike rides some weekends.

In 2007, it all paid off for Rubens when she qualified for her first Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. She has since qualified in 2009 and 2012. But she said that particular race in Hawaii has her number.

“I haven’t done as well as I want to, but I will not give up until I do it better,” she said.

Rubens said she needs to improve her swimming in order to finish better. She said biking is her strongest part of the event.

For Robinson, it might be a little too strong.

He said the last time he went on a bike ride with Rubens, she cut him off and he flipped over the handlebars of the bike.

“It threw me into the bushes,” he said with a smirk. “I’m not going out bike riding with her anymore.”

Rubens said she was thrilled she got Robinson to bike, but she never expected what happened next.

“He was passing on the right, and as a biker you never pass on the right,” Rubens said. “I didn’t hear him, and it scared the crap out of me, and I overreacted and turned my handlebars into his bike,” she said.

Rubens said she hopes to continue to grow in her craft, but said she’ll never forget her first race.

“I’ll always be the most proud of that first Ironman because it took so long, and I didn’t quit,” she said. “I always look back at that first one and say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I made it through that.’”

Robinson coaches some of the best wrestlers in college and can be classified as a tough guy. But he said he would never compete in an Ironman competition with his wife.

“I don’t have a chance,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t need to go there. … Nothing she does for that I like to do.”