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Susan Langheim
There is a lot more to this woman than meets the eye
By John Moody

You see someone on TV, and you think you know them, right?

Susan Langheim has been selling cars on local television for years. You know her for her Friendly Chevrolet and Honda of Illinois ads -- she's the boss at both places.

She’s attractive and upbeat, always groomed just right, very much the lady. 

Here’s something you probably don’t know about her: She’s an athlete. Not just someone who likes to swing a tennis racket at the club on the weekends or plays golf on ladies day due more to her affinity for the nice clothes and the post-round lunches with friends. Nope, that’s not what we’re talking here at all. 

Susan is a competitive triathlete. The triathlon, in case you’re wondering, is a combination event that includes swimming, biking and running. All that fun wrapped up in one package. What better way to spend 2½ hours or so on a Saturday morning, you ask?

As she says, it is not a sport for the faint of heart. This from a woman who used to turn down a regular jogging request from her favorite person, her husband, John Langheim. 

“When we first got marred in 1995, John wanted me to run with him, and I just didn’t get it,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘Running, yuk!’ But, now I get it. I do love it.”

And, here’s the thing: She’s pretty good at this. No, actually, she’s really good.

She is one of 18 Americans in her age group (50-54) to qualify for Worlds later this year in Budapest, Hungary, that by way of a strong finish last fall at Nationals in Alabama.

Keep in mind, she’s pretty much a rookie. She’s only been at this for about a year and a half. She’ll be a part of an amateur team, Team USA, competing with teams representing more than 50 nations. 

“It’s my passion,” she says in her small, understated office at Friendly Chevrolet at Prairie Crossing. “I guess I was bitten by the triathlon bug.”

That’s for sure. She’s done about 10 events in that short time frame, usually placing high, and she’s won a couple of times. That’s how you advance to Budapest. She admits that so many events crammed into the calendar is “probably not the advised way to go” … but, hey, “sports are not just for kids,” she says.

The idea first came to her when she’d listen to her personal trainer, Cris Martin, tell her own triathlon stories. Plus, with her youngest being 5 years old, she had been giving a lot of thought to living healthy.

Susan was so fascinated by the whole prospect that she called her oldest daughter, Micaela, in Tucson, Ariz., to see if she had any interest in trying one out together. Micaela found a race not too far away in St. Peters, Mo., and three months later, they had crossed the finish line.

“We were giggling and jumping up and down. We both loved it,” Susan says.

Oh, yeah, by the way, in between triathlons, she ran her first marathon last November. It’s a little thing called the New York City Marathon. With more than 40,000 runners and some 2 million spectators and a course that covers the city’s five boroughs, the experience was exhilarating.

“The New Yorkers love their marathon; they cheer every last runner all day,” she says. “At mile 16, they cheered so much you got emotional.” 

She couldn’t help but smile that day. Later, she smiled more when she learned her time had qualified for this spring’s Boston Marathon. It bears repeating: She’s good at this stuff. 

She remains modest about the whole thing as she discusses her athletic accomplishments. Her office is comfortable, nothing ornate, just a couple of pieces by local artist Mike Manning on the walls, including one she commissioned that features the world-famous Chevy Bowtie. Behind her desk hangs a print of the iconic 1953 Corvette.

She prefers the Olympic-length triathlon consisting of a 1.5k swim, followed by a 40k bike ride and then the 10k run to finish. For her, the biking is the hardest part.

She kind of had to re-learn the art of bicycle riding. She had a coach in St. Louis, Carrie Clay, who got her up to speed.

“Carrie has been a tremendous help to me,” she says. “If not for her, I would still be trying to figure out how to switch gears on my bike. 

“I hadn’t been on a bike since I was tooling around as a kid. And, since the bike part is the major part of the triathlon, it’s the most challenging; you can lose so much time. My bike is like my horse — it’s quite a setup.” 

She rides a Steelhead made out of titanium, very lightweight, probably weighs as little as a large pair of men’s dress shoes but easier to pick up off the ground than size 13s. It’s custom-fit for her, and it has a NeverReach hydration system, which basically means she can get a drink while racing by sipping from a straw-like device with very little effort. 

Her favorite leg of the competition is the swimming: “I’m most comfortable in the water.” That’s something she attributes to her summers on the swim team at Illini Country Club as a kid. But, there have been times when she’s been a little intimidated with a 7 a.m. start that begins with competitors heading into the ocean in the fog with 5-foot swells.

She played tennis at Glenwood High School, class of 1976, but didn’t really consider herself that athletic. She remembers begging her social studies teacher, Mr. Baumann, to start a girls track team.

But an athlete she is. John, a Marine Corps veteran, who loves athletics and has been a runner for 30 years, is enjoying her sport, too. 

“I just think it’s cool to have an athlete in the family who is so competitive,” he says. 

He doesn’t dwell on the possibility of her getting hurt since she’s prepared so well. 

“If you’re going to win races and be competitive, you can’t worry about injuries.” 

He was concerned for a bit when she finished the marathon in New York and came in with both feet bloody — turned out to be blisters, which goes to her toughness. 

“I would have quit long before that,” John says.

In the spring she attended a CEO Challenge in Boulder, Colo. Among other things, its focus was on fitness. She was given the nickname there, which John got a kick out of, “Silent but Violent.”

At 51, she has a resting pulse rate of 43 or so, and her cholesterol is great. Her doctor says she’s “off-the-charts healthy.” Not bad for a mother of seven, five girls and two boys, ranging in age from 5-30. 

There are dark moments and self-doubt in any race, lots of mental negotiating and emotions that roller-coast up and down. It’s the place where her brain’s right side and left side are fighting with one another. As she puts it, moments that alternate between, “This is great … this is awful.”

“I tell myself, ‘Just finish and you can take a couple of days off from training,’ ” she says. “You learn to push through the veil of discomfort.”

Even after a bad day, she continues to learn about her sport. 

“I never really mind a sub-par race because I walk away with so much insight,” she says. “I know what I need to work on, and I focus on the positives of even a poor race.”

 She trains most days, anywhere from 15-18 hours every week, alternating between biking, running and swimming, usually getting in four bike rides, four runs and a couple of swims in a week.

“She’s religious about it,” John says. 

She’s learned a lot about nutrition, which she calls the fourth leg of the triathlon. The drill, she says, is to properly hydrate and fuel before and during a competition.

What’s the payoff from all this brutally hard work? She likes the physical and mental benefits she gets, but she’s realizing the mental part may be more important. 

“I do love the physical because I think it’s such an important way of moving through life, she says. She loves the mental and emotional dividends and the strong decision-making that has come to all aspects of her life. It’s given her what she calls “a self-confidence in my mid-life.” And, she likes to see her husband’s beaming face at the finish line.

She started out in the sport not very long ago with the modest goal of just finishing her race, but not these days: “Now I want to win.”

“I love the feeling of feeling strong and being able to keep up with my 5-year-old,” she says. Besides, all her kids “are proud of me. They like it.”

She is pleased with another important byproduct related to her children:

“It helps teach them to see that there’s discipline involved,” she says. “Things don’t happen magically. You have to work at it.”  

So says Susan Langheim — mother, wife, boss and international triathlete.


Story published Friday, May 7, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 3 )

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