Hempfield grad Becca Hayes has been competing in triathlons since 2009. She’s a veteran in the craft. But she still gets nervous before the starting gun fires.
“There are always butterflies and anxiety before the race,” she said.
Hayes, 38, felt the same way Sunday in Geneva, New York, where she competed in the Ironman 70.3 Musselman. There were no gut feelings about what she was about to do over the course of the next four-plus hours — be the first of 386 females to cross the finish line.
The race was a half Ironman competition consisting of a 1.2-miles swim, 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run.
Hayes competed alongside teammates from the Lancaster-based Yoder Performance triathlon group, which is worth pointing out considering what happened near the end.
After Hayes came out of the water in the top-10, and off the bike in the top-two, the only female left in front of her was teammate and Donegal alum Becca Yunginger. The setup created a tricky situation for Yoder Performance founder and coach Andrew Yoder.
“I coach both women,” Yoder said. “I feel for Becca Yunginger because she was having a great race. And then you’re ecstatic for Becca Hayes.”
Yunginger was the third female finisher. Hayes passed her at the 7-mile mark of the final, 13-mile run portion of the half-Ironman, crossing the end-line in four hours, 34 minutes, 52 seconds.
“That was super surreal,” Hayes said. “I never expected to tear through the tape before. It was a sweet moment. To have my husband there and coach there, it makes that moment all that much better in spending a special moment with people you care about.”
The performance was a mountaintop moment thus far in the race career of Hayes, who played soccer at Hempfield through her junior year.
“I got cut from soccer my senior year,” she said. “That’s what motivated me into running. I needed something to do.”
She soon signed up for a marathon. But in training for it, developed pain in her knees, which led her to the swimming pool, which later led her to compete in her first triathlon in 2009.
Eight years and several triathlons later, Hayes met Yoder over a cup of coffee. Yoder, a Hempfield alum and former standout triathlon competitor, was in the beginning stages of starting up his own group in which he could train others in the craft.
“At that point, I was coaching while I was still trying to race professionally,” Yoder recalled. “We competed in the Mount Gretna Triathlon in 2017. Becca didn’t do well. ... that was a catalyst for me to take my group sessions and to take my coaching more seriously.”
Hayes competed in her first half-Ironman in 2018, at Lake Placid, New York.
“I was fourth in my age group,” Hayes said. “But because it was my first half-Ironman, I felt I could have done better.”
On a bike during a group training session in West Hempfield Township in April 2019, Hayes crashed when attempting to avoid a chicken crossing a road. Hayes was knocked unconscious for about 45 minutes. She awoke in the back of an ambulance.
“I had broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a torn labrum, a concussion,” she said.
The crash put her racing career on hold for a year. She came back just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic to shut down everything, leading Yoder Performance to train most of 2020. Hayes quickly regained her form, often setting the bar for her teammates in practice.
“The secret is she is there every session,” Yoder said. “She does the work. She’s a dream athlete to coach. She’s really good energy and respected by everyone in the group, the humble champion.”
Hayes juggles training between being a wife, mother to a 10-year-old daughter and full-time work as an insurance agent.
Yoder is confident Hayes could win her age group at this year’s Ironman 70.3 World Championships in September. But Hayes, along with several teammates, won’t be competing in the event since it happens to be on the same day Yoder is getting married.
“He (Yoder) continues to hound me about skipping the wedding and going to World’s,” Hayes said. “My priority is friends and relationships. There will always be another World’s. I will have that opportunity next year for sure.”
Yoder considers the prime years for triathlon competitors to be in the late 30s and early 40s. In other words, Hayes is just entering her prime.
“She’s got plenty of time,” Yoder said.