The (stubborn, ornery, unruly, hell-bent, no-denial) making of an Ironman Champion.
Written by: T.J. Murphy
Two days before Ironman New Zealand in 2004, a triathlete from Los Angeles struggled to make final race preparations. A pain in her left thigh throbbed, and the age-grouper with five Ironmans to her name was unable to sustain a meager three-minute jog. At the time she was trying to convert a low-riding marathon shuffle into the gazelle-like motion of a track runner, an objective that undoubtedly exacerbated the pain and likely caused it in the first place, but regardless the notion of pulling out of the race was as distant as the nearest neutron star. The headstrong blonde started the race with her two rules of Ironman racing clenched into her mindset like grinding teeth. Rule No. 1: Never drop out. Rule No. 2: Never walk.
She put on jewelry (“I like being a chick.”), threw back a handful of Advil and started the race. This did the trick for several hours, but during the run, pain seeped through the ibuprofen in the form of agony. Rule No. 2 went off like a fire alarm in her skull. “At that point I was doing my best to pretend to run,” she now recalls. At aid stations she screamed for more Advil as her imitation run degraded into a shambles. “Medical officials chased me down. I was bent over when they grabbed me and stood me up. I thought I was going to pass out.” There were 10 kilometers to go. The medics thought she should give up and go home, but the young woman would have none of it.
To allay the distressed volunteers, the triathlete asked if crawling was OK. It’s a vivid comment on how disturbing her form looked that medics found this an agreeable compromise.
Off the hook, our pertinacious triathlete dropped to the pavement with six miles to go and started to crawl, pivoting awkwardly off the right knee to avoid putting weight on the left. After three miles, two local boys offered kneepads. With less than a mile and a half to go, the top medical official showed, halted the crawling triathlete and fired off a few questions. The conclusion was swift. “You’ve fractured the femoral neck of your femur,” the doctor told the athlete.
The crumpled woman was incredulous. “How do you know it’s broken?” she asked, more as a bratty protest than an earnest question.
“You’re 25 years-old. You’re risking permanent damage,” the doctor replied.
“I don’t care!”
The medical official saw the burning madness in the eyes of the American. “I’m the head event doctor. Your race is officially over.” An “excruciating” ride on a stretcher soon followed.
X-rays showed a fracture of the femoral neck cutting through the bone like cracked marble. Luckily, the bone hadn’t displaced and three titanium screws were inserted to hold things together. “Phew!” thought the woman. “I can start training soon.”
Eight months later, she clocked 10:08 at Ironman Florida, a PR by 40 minutes. She would later turn pro and join Brett Sutton’s renegade triathlon squad based in Leysin, Switzerland. Sutton sized her up: Limited talent, unlimited hunger for work. Sutton generally doesn’t want Americans on his team. “They’re too soft,” he says, but this one won him over. The two agreed on her goal: to get a podium finish in an Ironman race in three years. This came sooner than they planned, followed by a topper. At an Ironman in September 2008, the 30th of her life and the last month of the three-year deal, she was the first woman to cross the line.