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The Making Of Ironman Champion Hillary Biscay

  • By TJ Murphy
  • Published Aug 25, 2010
  • Updated Jun 19, 2012 at 12:20 PM UTC

“She had the worst bike position ever seen,” Lorenzen says. “She wore a cotton T-shirt, couldn’t change a tire and used mountain bike shoes. She had absolutely no idea what she was doing. If you were to ask me then if I thought she’d ever become a pro, I would have said you’re crazy.”

The two eventually broke up but remain friends to this day. Much to his annoyance, Biscay still refers to Lorenzen as “Muffin,” even when talking about him to a journalist. At the time they were training for Ironman Florida, Biscay held little respect for Lorenzen’s triathlon experience and knowledge, choosing to battle him instead.

“We’d go on these bike rides,” he remarks. “I’d end up going too fast and get out ahead of her. I’d see her fading so I’d ease up so she could catch me. She would get pissed that I dropped her to begin with, so no matter how much I slowed down she’d slow down too until we were at a standstill. She called them protest rides.”
Lorenzen had forged a connection with Brett Sutton after the success story of Sutton’s coaching transformation of American Siri Lindley. Lindley went from a consistent fourth-place finisher to International Triathlon Union world champion, and Lorenzen, wanting to deepen his coaching ability, contacted Sutton and began an apprenticeship, training as an athlete and learning how Sutton thought. “Working with Brett, I saw he’s a master of psychology,” Lorenzen says.

“Hillary had been improving,” he continues. “She decided in 2004 she was going to go for it. She’s very stubborn and tenacious, but she had a dozen different people telling her what to do. I told her that if she was serious about triathlon she had to find someone she trusted. If you listen to a bunch of people tell you how to train, you’ll just end up with crap.”

“Muffin had contacted Brett for me,” Biscay says, recounting how Sutton first asked for her race résumé, including best split times for swimming, biking and running. “He e-mailed me back, saying that my run was shit, my bike was shit and even my swim was shit.”

Sutton gave Biscay a tryout thanks to Lorenzen, and in October 2005 she joined the group in Leysin. It was a thorough risk for Biscay, who had little idea how she was going to pay for it all and not knowing if she’d make any money racing. “It was all going on a credit card,” she says.

The first days of training under Sutton are jarring for athletes coming from sedate programs. “I remember every morning I’d wake up feeling like I got hit by a truck,” Biscay recalls. “It was a struggle to get out of bed.”

Sutton was in an early phase of reconstituting his team and there were only a few others to capture the eyes of the man they call “The Boss.” So Biscay received plenty of attention. “On my bike rides he’d be following me around and screaming at me to get in my aero bars. After, he would say things like, ‘You call that riding? That’s what I call sitting in a lawn chair.’”

Key bike rides were performed on a hilly 80-kilometer loop. Biscay was told one day to time her ride circling the route. “I was out there and he found me, following in his car, and yelled at me to stop being a wussy. But I was barely surviving the pace.”
At the finish of the ride, Sutton pulled up and looked at his watch.

“What was your time for that?” he asked Biscay.

Biscay checked her watch and told him, adding that it was “pathetic.”

“Well,” Sutton responded. “You’re half right. It was fucking pathetic.”

“Every day those first few months I didn’t know if I was going to survive,” Biscay says.

Sutton continued to push Biscay mentally and physically. Although he’d expressed doubts to Lorenzen (Sutton once asked him, “What did you send me?”), he recognized the value of Biscay’s discipline.

“She had a 15-year grounding in two training sessions a day, putting up with pain on a daily basis,” Sutton explains. “This was the rock I saw that she had imbedded. As a coach, you can use it to develop the skills one needs to be successful.”

At the 2004 Ironman Arizona, Biscay tested the training she’d battled through. The goal was to break in to the top 10, and Sutton counseled her to take it easy on the bike. “There were so many strong girls that April,” Biscay remarks. The field included Michellie Jones, Bella Comerford and Desiree Ficker. “I swam hard, but tried to ride within myself on the bike. I was in second or third place, and was shocked that no one was flying by me. I started the marathon in third place and thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’”

Biscay finished third in 9:43. A month later she posted another third-place finish at Ironman Brazil.

“When I got back to the training camp Brett didn’t let up on me at all. He’d say, ‘I’m pretty sure the run was short at the race,’ or mention that the field was soft. Of course, it was all about building my determination.”

Determination that flowed on and on. From April 2006 to August 2008, Biscay knocked out the following numbers: third, third, fifth, fourth, second, third, third, third, fourth, sixth, sixth, second, second, fourth, eighth, second, sixth, third and fourth. These numbers correspond, chronologically, to her best finishes in Ironman and Ironman-length races. Frustration at all the near misses at a first-place trophy began to build, and 2008 was the final year in the arrangement she’d be able to train under Sutton. Things got off to an interesting start.

It was still 2007, and the middle of November loomed. Biscay was restless. A few weeks had passed since the Hawaii Ironman, her ninth Ironman in a 12-month period, and it was time to get back in shape. The year had been digestible but a bit annoying: Biscay added five top-five finishes to her growing collection, including two second-place trophies, but still no time at the top of the podium. What’s a girl to do? It was time for Biscay to get back in gear, so she entered the JFK 50-mile ultramarathon in Maryland’s Washington County, started in 1963 as part of President John F. Kennedy’s national fitness initiative. Biscay’s off-season initiative was coupled with a social need. “If I didn’t do something,” she recalls, “I would have been too crabby to be around.”

Most of the 50-mile course takes place on either the Appalachian Trail or a towpath. Weather was a tad different than in Kona, so Biscay wore two long-sleeved layers and tights. What she wasn’t prepared for were rocky sections of single-track trail and quad-bombing terrain. “I was way out of my element,” she admits. When Biscay dared to check her watch after 15 miles she had been running for more than two and half hours. The route broke to the flats when it hit the towpath, a relief to Biscay if it hadn’t been for the leaves carpeting the trail. Biscay’s a strong swimmer, but she’s had to engineer her running form out of the natural running talent you’d find in C3PO. Her feet barely clear the ground, an efficient mechanical nuance but one that at about mile 20 of her ultra managed to clip a rock and send her slamming into the ground, elbow and hip absorbing the blow’s primary force. Later on, she clipped another rock and went down again. “I finished with a massive hematoma on my leg. It was like a knife going through my thigh.”

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TJ Murphy

TJ Murphy

T.J. Murphy is a 2:38 marathoner and five-time Ironman finisher. He is the former editorial director of Triathlete Magazine, Inside Triathlon and Competitor Magazine. His writing has also appeared in Outside Magazine and Runner’s World. He recently authored “Inside the Box: How Broke All The Rules, Stripped Down the Gym and Rebuilt My Broken Down Body.”

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