The Perpetual Warrior: CrossFitter Lia Sterciuc’s Journey To Completing The Double Deca Ironman

October 31, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Lia Sterciuc
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Lia Sterciuc did not learn how to swim as a child. 

Life in communist Romania in the ‘70s and ‘80s was not exactly conducive to leisure. Particularly that which involved swimming. But at 21 years old, she found herself on the bed of the Dunabe River. 

After several years of trying, Sterciuc had finally able to make arrangements to attempt to flee the country and seek asylum in Austria with her husband who had already fled. She would need to leave her infant son behind but was assured that after she and her husband found refuge outside of the country, her son would be rescued and brought to them.

After hiking three miles to the river with her fellow escapees, carrying just a few of her possessions Lia was told to roll up her sleeve so the doctor could give her an adrenaline shot to prevent a heart attack when she jumped in the freezing water.

  • “I remember I was almost laughing hysterically, like that’s going to kill me. How about being shot while in the water, how about drowning, how about hypothermia,” said Sterciuc. But she rolled up her sleeve and after receiving the shot, the doctor pushed her into the water.
  • The water was freezing and the freezing October air in Romania that night did nothing to help her situation.
  • “I just remember I couldn’t breathe,” she said. “I couldn’t regulate my breathing. I couldn’t take a deep breath for a few seconds.”
  • But after a few seconds, Sterciuc found her bearings and allowed the swift current of the river to begin pulling her downstream.

“Six to seven kilometers and then you will be in Hungary,” That’s what we were told,” recalled Sterciuc.

  • “How hard can it be?” she said. “Well, it was hard. The water was so cold. I remember my legs were numb, my arms were numb, and I literally thought ‘I’m going to die.’ I’m going to be a corpse just dragged along the river,” she said, her voice shaking at the memory.
  • Less than an hour later, Lia Sterciuc and her fellow escapees would find themselves captured by the secret police, held captive and ultimately sent back to Romania where she would be forced to work for no pay mixing concrete until she “repaid her debt to society”.
  • It would be another several months before the Romanian Revolution succeeded and it was announced on the news that citizens could apply for passports, allowing Stericiuc to take her one-year-old son and join her husband in Austria, then they immigrated to America.

Lia’s life in America was a stark contrast to the survivalist nature of her youth in Romania. Much like the technicolor shift of Dorothy’s world in the Wizard of Oz, Sterciuc found herself flush with opportunity both for herself and her family.

  • “My parents never left the country. My parents never owned a passport. Literally, everybody was overworked and lived a life of survival,” said Sterciuc.
  • “Food was constantly mentioned in our household,” she continued. “It was a constant worry.”
  • “What would one eat? What would one save for tomorrow? Everything that we had around our table was rationed,”
  • “I remember going with the card to get the bread and punching a hole in the respective day knowing I cannot get anything else beyond that. All we talked about was what would we do tomorrow. 
  • “The question ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’ was never asked,” she said.

That question would continue to remain on the back burner for Lia and her husband as they worked to pursue education and provide the American dream for their two young children. But 20 years later, those children grew up and Lia felt the void as the question “Where do you see yourself in five years?” finally came into reality. And so, she started running.

  • “After we arrived here in this country, we never dealt with the trauma of escaping, because we completely delved into making a life here and learning a language and going to school and after the kids left for college, we felt a big void,” she said.
  • “I needed to do something. I felt like I was getting depressed. So it was either therapy or running and I started running,” Sterciuc laughed.

And run she did. While most might decide to take on a 5k or a half marathon, Sterciuc decided she needed something a bit bigger to fill the void she felt.

  • “I decided to sign up for a marathon and then I needed a goal and after I ran my marathon. I thought how would it be to run an ultra? And then I discovered trail running and found 100 miles, and then 150 miles,” said Sterciuc.
  • “I think now I’m over 200 marathons and ultramarathons combined,” she added.

Once she’d exhausted the challenge of running, Sterciuc decided she needed something bigger. That bigger challenge brought her straight to Ironman. A 1.2 mile swim, 112 mile bike, and 26.2 mile run.

  • But that race didn’t just present a new physical challenge for Sterciuc, it would also pose an immense mental hurdle she would need to overcome.
  • “I was traumatized by swimming,” Sterciuc said reflecting back to her experience fleeing Romania. “I was terrified of darkness and the water.”
  • But since her teenage years, Sterciuc has never allowed fear to overpower her.
  • “In 2017, I signed up for an Ironman and I remember immediately throwing up, because I was so nervous,” she recalled. 

“Fear is the silent destroyer of dreams,” said Sterciuc as she reflected back on her journey back into the water for the first time since her attempted escape.

  • “I couldn’t even look at water,” she said recalling her first trip to her local pool.
  • “I started taking swimming lessons and couldn’t even cross the mid-point where the deep end starts and so I just stayed in the shallow end,”
  • “But slowly and slowly I started to be able to cross it and I finished my first Ironman in 2017.”

With that challenge behind her, Sterciuc decided it was time for the next big thing and that’s when she discovered ultra-triathlons.

  • Her first ultra, a 20.4-mile swim, 1,150-mile bike ride and 300-mile run would be in 2019 and after the success of that, she set her mind to completing the double-deca ironman. A 48-mile swim, a 2,250-mile bike, and a 300-mile run.
  • “It was not planned,” said Sterciuc of her incredible progression from one marathon to completing 20 marathons at the back end of an ultra-triathlon.
  • “It simply started with the first mile of running and you start believing in yourself and you find your passion and the more I ran, the more whole I felt, I felt stronger and I didn’t feel as a victim, I felt as a warrior and I overcame so many obstacles,”
  • “I recently read something that said that old people who went through a trauma, are very attracted to endurance sports,” said Sterciuc on her obsession with ultra-distance events.
  • “It’s very healing for me. It reconfirms that you overcame things in your life and every time you feel like you’re sliding back, you feel like you need to race again to overcome something,”
  • With that mentality, in 2023, Sterciuc decided that she would take on the double-deca Ironman in Switzerland that August.

But the path to twenty consecutive Ironmans would not be linear. For one thing, there’s no couch to double-deca Ironman program floating around on the internet, and thus it was completely up to Sterciuc to develop her own training protocol.

  • I started January 21st 2023, fully knowing my race would be in August. So literally I had to work backward,” she said.
  • I would wake up at 5 am and I would swim for 4-5 hours take a shower, change, come home and go to CrossFit and do the workout and come home and hop on the bike.
  • “There were some days where I would stay on the bike for 10 hours. To be able to sit on the saddle for 10 hours, because I knew I had to do that daily. So there were days I would say let’s see if I can go for 150 miles,”

But beyond her time in the pool, on the saddle, and hitting the pavement, Sterciuc credits much of her success to one major component of her training.

  • “I cannot emphasize enough how much CrossFit helped me. It helped me with the bike and the run,” said Sterciuc.
  • During her eight months of training, Sterciuc religiously attended class at CrossFit Invictus Seattle where the training not only strengthened her physically but mentally as well.
  • “I don’t think there was one day where I didn’t go to CrossFit,” she said.
  • “Even though my legs felt like jello, I would go so that my body would recognize that pain of how it feels to workout through tired legs and fatigued legs,”
  • “I had to go to CrossFit if nothing else, just for that community,” Sterciuc said.
  • “That was my break in the day of being alone. When you run you’re alone, when you bike you’re alone,” she continued.
  • “The pool was mind-numbing, constantly looking at the black line in the pool. Trying not to overthink it,” Sterciuc added.
  • Lia also credits the community and coaches at Invictus Seattle with support beyond just training.
  • Often times Invictus Seattle manager Justin Gehrt would text her to remind her to eat or check in with her to make sure she was doing ok.
  • “That was my biggest struggle. Nutrition was the hardest thing. I’m not a big meat eater. I felt like I was losing weight,” she said.
  • “I was encouraged a lot by people at Crossfit to eat more. Justin would constantly be saying you need to eat. He made me send him pictures [of my food],” she concluded.

After eight months of non-stop training and thousands of miles in the pool and on the road, Sterciuc found herself at the start of the double-deca ultra-triathlon in Switzerland. Not only was she the oldest competitor there, if she finished, she would be the eighth woman in the world to complete this race in its entire history.

  • “This race is difficult if you’re completely healthy and your body works. 100% more people have gone to the moon than have finished a double-deca,” Sterciuc said.

Difficult would be an understatement for what Sterciuc would experience over the nearly 3,000 miles of swimming, biking, and running that she would attempt to complete over 724 hours (30.2 days).

  • “The first leg was the swim and that was the leg that I feared the most,” said Sterciuc.
  • “I was so cold at night. My body was losing its ability to regulate its temperature. My husband got to the point where he was pouring hot water down my wetsuit,” she said.
  • “We are not meant to breathe under the water for 3 days,” she added.
  • “When I got out of the water to go from a horizontal position, I felt like I was drunk because of the change of position,” she added remembering how difficult it felt to walk on land for the first time in several days.

After the swim, Sterciuc would move onto the bike, where she would complete 2,250 miles. But this was where disaster struck.

  • On the first day of the bike, Sterciuc swerved to avoid a young girl crossing the path and crashed her bike.
  • “I Immediately I knew it was fractured and I went back to the tent where my husband was and said we need to go to the hospital,” said Sterciuc.
  • “So we went to the ER in the nearest town and they confirmed the arm was fractured,” 
  • Sterciuc recalled rejecting pain medication from the hospital staff out of fear that it would make her too sleepy to continue racing. All the while googling how to make modifications to her bike so she could bike with a broken arm.

After being released from the hospital Sterciuc returned to the course where she and her husband attempted to modify her bike to allow her to bike with a cast on. But the pain would be too much.

  • It hurt so bad I started crying,” she said “So I said let’s go back to the hotel I can’t be here,”
  • That night, as Lia lay in bed, she remained awake staring at the ceiling and thinking.
  • “I remember thinking who are you when everything falls apart,” she said. “And I was thinking is this my limit? my broken arm?”
  • It turns out it would not be. At 3 a.m., she woke her husband up and informed him that she would be returning to the course to see the race through.
  • “This is my dream, I’m going to finish this no matter what,” Sterciuc remembers telling her husband.
  • She and her husband modified her bike and she figured out how to rest her left hand and allow her right hand to perform all the shifting and braking.
  • But all the pressure on her left arm proved to be too much. After several laps, her left elbow was rubbed so raw she could see her bone sticking through.
  • But she wasn’t giving up and her husband was not going to let her. With some quick thinking, he ran to the local grocery store and purchased a Magic Eraser sponge, which he promptly duct-taped to her elbow to give her a more comfortable resting position.

But Lia still had over 1,000 miles of biking to complete and as she settled into the course, the rain began to pour.

  • It rained so hard that athletes were utilizing garbage bags to protect themselves from the rain, and by the end of the race, her bike cables were so waterlogged they were ruined.
  • But Lia pressed on. Despite the fact that she could no longer eat on the bike because she only had one hand and despite the fact that her right hand could barely function after hours of constant braking and shifting with one hand, she finished 10 hours before the final bike cutoff for the race and was able to move to the run.

By the time Lia got to the run, her arm was so swollen she began running with her left hand raised above her head to try to get the swelling down. Her fellow competitors called her “Lady Liberty” as they watched her run the course, her arm raised proudly in the air. An ironic metaphor for Lia’s own journey to this point.

After several days of running, Sterciuc finished two days before the final cutoff. Her hair was matted, her arm broken, and her legs destroyed, but her soul was intact. As she crossed the finish line after 28 days of competition to become the eighth woman ever to complete this race, she felt 55-years of resilience, persistence, and life envelop her.

  • “I think the past and our traumas are the ink that writes our future and that fuels me,” said Sterciuc.
  • “I think of how blessed I am and how fortunate I am and how many people died trying to escape and I chose this pain. It’s a privilege, broken arm or not, it’s a privilege to be here,” she continued.
  • “This is what I chose to do. In the end, I just found what I’m made of and you never know what that will be,” she concluded.

“In the end, I will never let myself be a victim. I will always be a warrior. I’m here to inspire my children and my family,” said Sterciuc.

  • “I’m 55 years old. I’ll be 55 at the end of this year. I should be sitting on the sofa knitting for my grandchildren,” she continued. But I feel like I lost so much time being quiet growing up in a communist country. I want to push the boundaries of what I’m capable of and live my life.
  • “I’m trying to squeeze every ounce of life out of this opportunity,” she concluded.

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