Triathlon-Rubens family photo

Whether competing or volunteering, Ironman Wisconsin has become a family tradition for Madison’s Rubens family — from left, Teri Behrs, Mary Labno, Mike Rubens, Joan Rubens, Sue Rubens and Annie Rubens.

Most every family has its shared activities that help serve as the ties that bind.

For some it may be camping or golfing. For others it could be cooking or playing bridge.

The Rubens family of Madison has upped the ante, adopting the Ironman triathlon as its family tradition.

Joan Rubens, the matriarch of the family, has volunteered in each of the first 15 Ironman Wisconsin events and has been on hand to greet three of her children at the finish line.

She’ll be there again Sunday when her daughter Annie Rubens becomes the fourth member of her family to compete in the grueling event.

As with all the other Ironman Wisconsins, Joan Rubens, 81, will be on hand early in the morning as the athletes start out on the 2.4-mile swim in Lake Monona next to Monona Terrace. She will head out to help out on the 112-mile bicycle route through the West Side and the countryside beyond. And she’ll be at the finish line in the shadow of the state Capitol to hand out medals and congratulatory hugs.

“Number one cheerleader,” Rubens said of her role. “It’s my family, but I also cheer on other athletes because they’re doing such awesome work.”

This year she’ll have two daughters to hug, as Annie will be joined by her sister Sue Rubens, who has competed in nine Ironman races, including Ironman Wisconsin twice.

They will be following in the footsteps of their sister, Mary Labno, who became the family’s first triathlete when she competed in the 2004 Ironman Wisconsin, the first of her four Ironman races.

Their brother, Mike, was an Ironman resister until finally breaking down and competing in the 2012 race here. All told, the Rubens siblings have done the Ironman 14 times, six in Madison. In addition, Mike’s significant other, Teri Behrs, has done the Ironman seven times, four in Madison.

“I was lucky enough to find a family that shares my crazy,” said Behrs, 51.

At first glance, the Rubenses would seem an unlikely family to get hooked on Ironman. Joan and her late husband, Lee, who died in 2001, were never particularly athletic, although they were active and energetic.

“It is pretty amazing,” said Mike, who insists he is one-and-done as an Ironman. “We’re not sure where the genetics came from. Our parents were always active but they weren’t out doing marathons or anything. Mom has a ton of energy and we’ve been able to channel that somehow. Teri always claims we’re genetic freaks and I guess it’s hard to argue when you think about it.”

Mary, 56, admits she was rather naïve when she started competing in much shorter Olympic-length triathlons. “I had a bike with a kickstand,” she said.

To that point the Ironman was just something she had seen on Wide World of Sports and only happened in Hawaii as far as she knew. When Ironman came to Madison in 2002, she knew she’d eventually give it a shot. Her first one was in 2004 and she also competed in 2006 and 2008, along with a Florida Ironman in 2007.

“You learn what you’re capable of,” she said. “You learn that a lot of what you can do is all in your head. If you think I can do something, usually you can do it. Your body will get it done. It’s fun, but it’s hard.”

It’s especially hard when the weather is uncooperative, as Sue discovered when she raced her first Ironman in 90-degree temperatures in 2005.

“I’m most proud of that one,” said Sue, 49. “It took me 15½ hours and I walked the entire marathon. I had this massive heat overload, massive cramps, massive dehydration, lost 12 pounds. But I finished. My husband wanted to pull me out but I said, no you’re not pulling me off of this. I’ll walk.”

Mary accompanied her for much of the walk and they sang Carpenters songs along the way as a distraction from the misery. If that experience didn’t scare her off, apparently nothing would.

“I definitely got bit by the bug and needed a little redemption the next year,” Sue said.

The next year wasn’t much better as she struggled in cold, wet conditions. But the following year she competed in Ironman Florida and cut her time to 10 hours, qualifying for the world championship in Hawaii. She would compete at Kona two more times.

Sunday’s Ironman will be her first in three years and her first in Madison since 2006. It also will be her first on a new knee that underwent reconstruction surgery last summer. She had been competing with a torn ACL for about 10 years but then tore her meniscus last summer.

“I haven’t pushed myself,” she said. “This knee’s got to last. I’m going to be 50 and I can’t just keep getting knee replacements.”

Part of her inspiration to race this year is to join Annie, who until now has limited herself to sprint triathlons after suffering a torn hip labrum in 2004 and being advised not to run more than 3 miles.

Why make the jump to a full Ironman now at age 51?

“Everyone gets to their own ‘why’ and that’s a really important thing to recognize,” said Annie, who has volunteered every year since 2008. “You have to have something that motivates you to get through the hard days and the hard times.

“My ‘why’ is for people who can’t. I feel blessed and before every race I say celebrate your health. To be grateful about the ability, the good genes and the family support of your spouse to do it is just huge. I just want to finish with a smile.”

The Rubens men were more resistant to the Ironman despite being physically active. Dan, 54, of Ramona, California, is a hiker and golfer but hasn’t done a triathlon. Neither has Peter, 58, of Portland, Oregon, who limits his efforts to rock climbing, wind surfing, swimming and skiing.

“Compared to my siblings, I’m the wimp,” Peter said. “Ironman is so far beyond what I’d imagine ever attempting. I guess there is this drive in all of us to be the best in our own way. The magnitude of Ironman is a high water benchmark of that drive.”

Mike, 55, was an accomplished bicycle and swim racer and had competed in the American Birkebeiner cross country ski race. But the marathon element dissuaded him from trying the Ironman until 2012.

“That was not very enticing to me,” he said. “I don’t really like running that much. It was pretty agonizing. I felt like death, but I got done and it’s nice to cross that finish line.

“As miserable as I felt crossing the finish, there’s my mom catching me and putting the medal around my neck. That was pretty cool. I don’t know how many racers can say that.”


Dennis Punzel covers Wisconsin Badgers volleyball, women's basketball for the Wisconsin State Journal.