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She Runs With the Heart of an Iron Woman

February 04, 1993|AURORA MACKEY | Aurora Mackey is a Times staff writer

Set eyes on Sally Bond for the first time and there's no getting around the thought: This sure doesn't look like an Iron Woman who nearly kissed the angels because of ignorance.

At 58, Bond stands a smidgen over five feet, with wavy graying hair and laugh lines etched into a heart-shaped face.

As she sips tea at her dining room table, the ocean glimmering just a few streets beyond her Oxnard townhouse, the impression of fragility deepens: Her voice is a soprano whisper, like a child telling a secret.

But then come the random clues that maybe Sally Bond is a bit sturdier than she appears:

There's the way she firmly plants her heels into the rug when she walks.

That very spiffy racing bicycle of hers.

And the pictures--loads of them scattered throughout the home she shares with Walt, her husband of five years--of Sally Bond in a crouch as she rounds a curve on her bike.

Or Sally Bond emerging after a two-mile ocean swim.

Or Sally Bond kayaking in the Pacific.

Or Sally Bond crossing the finish line of an "Iron Man" triathlon a few years ago with a cheese-eating grin on her face.

"She's pretty amazing," says Walt, 11 years her junior. "She just puts her mind to doing things and then she does them."


Not so many years ago, Bond readily admits, "doing things" didn't hold the same appeal.

Until her early 40s, she was a heavy smoker whose idea of strenuous exercise was pushing 45. Her husband at the time also had no inclination to exert himself.

"You just slide into that state of mind," she says. "You get farther and farther away from being a participant in life. The worst part is, you always have an excuse."

In Bond's case, excuses were plentiful. As a child, she'd contracted rickets and rheumatic fever, which she says led to three operations to correct bone damage. Born with crossed eyes, she also had surgery for that.

Then, 10 years ago, she battled uterine cancer.

"As a child, I had no self-confidence--I was skinny and bent over and never felt I was able to do much. And after the cancer, I also never thought I'd be able to do much. So that was just how I saw things."

But in the magical way that inner turning points have a habit of taking place, something changed. At first, it was in small sips--a walk around the block or to the park, finding the will to quit smoking--and then, like a parched man who stumbles onto an oasis, in great gulps.

She and her husband divorced. She began walking, running, then swimming and biking. When her next birthday came around again, she was ready.

"When I hit 50, I said, 'I'm going to celebrate for the entire year,' " she says. "I'd get up at 4:30 and run eight miles before work. I walked with weights at lunch. After work, I'd bike 30 miles or swim 2,000 yards. That's why I think completing the Iron Man in Hawaii that year meant so much.

"It was a celebration of my body."

Bond kept celebrating too, especially after she met up with "this really, really nice man" on a ski trip and found out that he had gone through a similar change in outlook. They got married, started kayaking out to the Channel Islands together, going on camping trips, running on the beach.

Walt thought that she was the last person in the world who was in danger of dropping dead from a heart attack.


Walt has a picture of the day in his mind.

For as long as he's been running with his wife, she has always been out in front as he plodded on methodically just trying to keep up.

On this particular day, though, Walt is way ahead. He's even waiting for her.

"It really worried me," he says. "I knew something had bothered her but she didn't go to a doctor. So I made her a deal. I said we'd go on a kayaking trip if she first got checked out."

Bond actually had had symptoms for more than a year: pain at the base of her neck, pain in her chest and the feeling that she was "choking to death" when she exerted herself. But she dismissed the warning signs.

After all, she exercised, didn't she? She ate well. No one in her family had history of heart disease. And she was a woman. Women, she thought, don't get heart disease the way men do.

"I was just very uninformed," she says. "I thought the warning sign of a heart attack was pain in the right arm, or something like that."

By now, Bond knows the statistics: that heart disease is the No. 1 killer of American women. That one in nine women between the ages of 45 to 64 has some form of cardiovascular disease, with black women, women who smoke and post-menopausal women at particular risk.

That women are twice more likely than men to die within the first few weeks after a heart attack.

And now, Bond also knows that she was lucky. After she had a six-minute treadmill heart test, Bond's doctor admitted her into the hospital for heart surgery. Another week, he told her, and she almost certainly would have died.

That, she knew, would have been very unfortunate. There was that marathon coming up in a few months and a Tin Man triathlon in Ventura not long afterward.

"They had all these great machines in the cardiac rehab, and I was the only woman in there," she says.

"I saw it as the perfect opportunity to start training."

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