Story by Jon Dinan
In late July, Janel Benson, of North Branch, completed her first Ironman Distance Triathlon in Lake Placid, NY, one of the toughest and oldest Ironman races in the world. It consists of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2 mile run.
“The day I finished the triathalon was by far the best day of my life,” said Benson. “To be surrounded by friends and family while accomplishing something I’ve been working toward for almost a decade was amazing.”
Janel finished the race in 14 hours and 29 minutes. Many friends and family from Sullivan County were there to cheer her on, including her mother, Jane Benson of North Branch, NY.
“She awes me all the time,” said Jane. “It makes me tired watching her, but our weekend in Lake Placid was the best weekend of my entire life. It’s absolutely amazing what she’s been able to do.”
Because spots at Ironman Distance events are so competitive, those who wish to participate need to be a volunteer at the race the year before. In 2011, Janel put in her time at a bike aid station in Lake Placid and woke up at 4 a.m. the next morning to get a coveted spot in the registration line.
Following her registration, Janel trained six days a week for eight months.
In addition to accomplishing this rare feat, Janel competed for a cause bigger than herself. Through the Ironman Foundation, Janel raised more than $6,000 for the Fayetteville-Manlius A Better Chance (ABC) Program, a college preparatory program for academically talented, economically disadvantaged minority students. Each year the Fayetteville-Manlius chapter recruits 5-7 talented, young scholars to participate in the program and attend a top-ranked public school in Manlius, NY.
The Fayetteville-Manlius ABC program is one of only two community school programs in New York State. It is independently operated and governed by a local board of directors. Funds for the program are raised annually through community sources.
Janel has been active in sports since high school. As a student at Delaware Valley Central School she participated in varsity soccer, softball, track, and basketball. After graduating salutatorian of her 1996 class, Janel went on to play soccer at Franklin & Marshall (F&M) College.
At F&M, Janel earned Centennial Conference and GTA Academic All-American Honors and served as team captain for two of her four years.
In 2000, she earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree from F&M, graduating Magna Cum Laude with honors in sociology. Even then, Janel was heavily involved in community service organizations, like America Reads.
Passionate about education and inequality, she decided to pursue teaching and mentoring after college. She taught 6th grade at an economically disadvantaged middle school in Philadelphia where more than 90 percent of the students qualified for free or reduced price lunch. She was also resident director for an A Better Chance (ABC) Program outside of Philadelphia where she advised and lived with eight high school male scholars.
Janel also continued her involvment with soccer, playing competitively in a women’s league in Philadelphia and coaching the West Catholic girls’ varsity soccer team for several years.
It was around that time Janel became interested in distance running, but in 2003, Janel was sidelined with a knee injury.
“I was bummed out that I couldn’t run or play soccer,” said Janel. “A friend encouraged me to take up swimming, something I could do while injured, and once I learned to swim, she pushed me to consider signing up for my first triathlon.” Janel said.
That summer she competed in her first sprint distance triathlon (1/4 mile swim, 15 mile bike, and 3.1 mile run), and was immediately hooked.
Since then, she has competed in more than 40 distance runs and triathlons, including 4 marathons, 3 Half-Ironman distance triathlons, and one ironman distance triathlon.
Currently, Janel is a sociology professor at Colgate University and a board member of the Fayetteville-Manlius ABC program.