As a keen swimmer on the lookout for a new challenge, MAS Member Dr Sarah Poplar was in her mid-40s when she added running and cycling to her exercise routine. Just 2 years later, she was representing New Zealand at one of the world’s most gruelling triathlon events.

Putting her feet back on the ground after a 182km cycle in the hot Hawaiian sun, Sarah knew she had to dig deep for the 42km run ahead of her. Battling dehydration and a headache, she remembers setting off at a steely plod, determined to cross the finish line at last year’s Ironman World Championship.

“That run was just miserable,” she laughs. “I’m not a great runner, and it felt like it was never ending. Even as it got dark, it was still so hot, you’re struggling to take on water or gels and everything seems to stop working. The second part of the marathon is the hardest. You will yourself to go a bit faster, but you’re just sapped of strength. Heading to the finish line though, I felt like a horse running to the stables. There was so much relief I just about finished in a sprint! It was so exhilarating.”  

Looking back on the 13-hour event, which included swimming past tropical fish and cycling alongside swirling black lava fields with lush mountain peaks as the backdrop, Sarah says the upsides far outweighed the tough times. And most of all, she credits the camaraderie on the course with giving her the mental stamina she needed to get through.   

“I thought with it being a world champs I would be surrounded by these highly toned and highly competitive athletes with all the best gear, but the vibe was so supportive and everyone lifted each other up,” she says. “I met a Swiss woman during the last part of the marathon and we worked together, egged each other on, crossed the finish line and celebrated together. We really got to know each other well over those 2 hours running in the dark. 

“Like with the New Zealand-based events too, it’s the social element that gives you a boost when you’re down. For me, that’s more effective than any sugar water or sports gels. The social support gives you mental support.”

Dr Sarah Poplar with her training pals

Sarah (right) says the camaraderie of other athletes helps her get to the finish line.

Never say never

For the Whangārei-based haematologist, exercise isn’t just about tackling events. It’s also the perfect way to let go of the stress of her rewarding but emotionally intense career working mostly with cancer patients.

“It’s hard getting home from a long day at work and pushing yourself to go for a run, but I find the minute I’m out there, it’s really enjoyable. I can leave the work stuff there and come home rebalanced.”  

Over the past few years, she’s built up from slow jogs and gentle bike rides to competing in Napier’s annual IronMāori event and the Taupō Ironman, where her finishing time qualified her for the world championship event in Hawaii last October.  

These days, with an intensive training schedule involving 14 hours a week of exercise in the 6 months leading up to a big event, she says it’s hard to believe how far she’s come.  

“A couple of years ago I would have said, ‘I’m not a runner at all, I’m a swimmer but I can’t run.’ The same with cycling. I had no idea and had a lot of support from our local cycling group, who helped me choose a bike, put the gear on it and get fit. I’ve had a lot of help from so many amazing people, and completing these events has also been a real lesson to me on what can be done and to never say never.”  

I find the minute I’m out there, it’s really enjoyable. I can leave the work stuff there and come home rebalanced.”

Dr Sarah Poplar

The lesson was brought home even more when she met an 82-year-old competitor at the Taupō Ironman.  

“You definitely meet some incredible people at these things. This guy had done 38 Ironman events and I think there were about three people taking part in his age group. I want to be that sort of 82-year-old!”  

And for Sarah, placing 1,050th out of a field of 2,200 female athletes at the Ironman Championship was a reminder to trust herself and her abilities. “I was really thrilled and surprised to place at the halfway mark. I think, as women, we underestimate ourselves and we battle with that feeling of imposter syndrome.”  

Kiwi contingent at the Ironman World Championship

Some of the Kiwi contingent at last year’s World Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

Dr Sarah Poplar at the finish line with a friend

After 13 hours of hard slog, Sarah (right) was thrilled to cross the finish line with a new friend.

As if conquering Ironman wasn’t enough, she’s recently completed this year’s classic South Island endurance event, the Coast to Coast, and hopes to one day take on the Tarawera Ultra-Trail. 

“Why do I do it? That’s a good question! It’s all about the adventure,” she says. “It’s hard to keep up the training without a goal to work towards, and sometimes the training is the best part of it as you’re always learning new things and connecting with new people.”