The Making Of Ironman Champion Hillary Biscay

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

Although she limped for days, the worst ultra after-effect was with her elbow. “It became swollen. It went on for three weeks.” The swelling went down for a spell but on a bike ride while training in Tucson it ballooned and the pain soared. Two hours of surgery was required to remove the core infection. “They had to dig the crap out of it.” Biscay’s temperature rose to 103 and the wound had to be left exposed to heal. It was around Christmastime. Biscay’s father took care of periodically removing and replacing the dressing and he was “pretty grossed out.” Ironically, Biscay’s father is a doctor.

For Biscay, the bitch of it was that she had the iron-distance Challenge Wanaka triathlon waiting for her in New Zealand on Jan. 19. She’d finished third in 2007. Scratch the race? Biscay doesn’t roll that way. But Sutton was deeply concerned. “He told me, ‘We can’t mess around with an infection. I’ve seen athletes end up with chronic fatigue.” Sutton gave the one American athlete on his squad a training plan that restricted Biscay to sub-130 heart-rate work. Biscay got the message when she noticed that even the low-intensity training left her “smashed.” Biscay played it safe in the few weeks she had to prepare. She finished second in 10:11, gloriously intact, and thus began her 2008 mission of winning an Ironman.

Deep into the season, Biscay’s start of Ironman Wisconsin was noteworthy on two levels. One, as mentioned, is that it was the final month of the three-year time frame she’d agreed on with Sutton. Second, it was the fourth Ironman of her second double-double of the summer. In July, she raced Roth Challenge in Germany and chased it, one week later, with Ironman Lake Placid. In Roth she finished sixth and in Lake Placid third. Emboldened by the feat, Biscay started thinking about doing it again with Ironman Louisville and Wisconsin, another back-to-back set of races. “Once I get an idea like that in my head, I won’t let go of it. All I can think about is how to get Brett to sign on.”

Sutton did, in part because one of the first things he did as Biscay’s coach was to have her forget about trying to become a track runner and being happy about doing what comes natural for her. “She’s not running three-hour marathons,” Sutton explains, “but just under 3:30. So the recovery, with her run technique, is much faster than a high-stepper.”

“She’s mentally happy to do tough things,” Sutton adds. “She gets a buzz out of it.”

At Ironman Louisville, Biscay laid it out hard in the swim and into the bike, feeling strong at T2 and within a few minutes of the leaders. Early in the run, she reported on her blog that the “carnage” began and things crumbled into a “death march.” Still, Biscay finished fourth in 9:59.

One week later, Biscay lined up at Ironman Wisconsin, haunted by the warning from her friends that a tidal wave of fatigue might come crashing down. Wisconsin was her eighth Ironman of the year including the double-doubles. Biscay slashed through the swim in 52 minutes, opening up a large gap on her fellow contenders. She bolted out of T1 and held the lead into the second transition. Any blanket-level of optimism was reined in when Biscay saw that she had company a few minutes back around the six-mile marker of the run. With nightmarish images of more carnage, Biscay shifted into a higher gear and “went for it,” holding off Karin Gerber for 13 miles. But near mile 20, Gerber passed. Biscay locked on, fighting to stay in contact, but eventually Gerber established a break. Biscay began to despair until her teamTBB teammate, Luke Dragstra, yelled, “Hills, just keep trucking because anything can happen!” With two miles left, the gap remained less than a minute. “I just focused on Karin’s back like a target,” Biscay recalls. The effort paid off: Thurber faltered and Biscay passed her with a mile to go. When the official clock read 9:47, Hillary Biscay had won her first Ironman.

“It gave me the greatest satisfaction you can imagine,” Sutton says about the victory. “We both promised our best effort, and we both delivered.”

Per the deal, Biscay’s time being coached by Sutton was up and now she’s moving on to train with former teammates Chrissie Wellington and Belinda Granger in a new group that will be headed up by Cliff English, the coach and (as of early December 2008) husband of Samantha McGlone.

Biscay’s final Ironman of 2008 was in Kona, where the tidal wave did finally catch her and she finished well back, in 10:35. After the race she took two weeks off, capped by a weekend trip to Las Vegas. It was all the off-season Biscay could handle. It’s time to get back in shape.

This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Inside Triathlon. For more from the magazine click here.

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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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