You don’t need to be a diehard triathlete to know that the Ironman World Championships in Kona is the ultimate testing ground for grit, endurance and perseverance. Only a select few — about 2,000 of the top 1% in their age groups — are capable of qualifying to push their physical and mental limits to a superhuman degree: swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles straight, in under 17 hours.
This October in Hawaii, three very unlikely Ironman participants — Shirin Gerami, Natalie Grabow and Turia Pitt — overcame major obstacles to line up at the start of the 40th annual event.
Against all odds, these fierce females finished the world’s toughest one-day race and simultaneously leveled the playing field for unconventional athletes to go the distance. Below, these trailblazing triathletes share their remarkable journeys.
Shirin Gerami, 27
Why she rocks: In 2013, Shirin Gerami became Iran’s first female Olympic distance triathlete when she competed in the ITU World Championships in London. Three years later, Gerami, who had picked up the sport during her senior year at Durham University in England, became Iran’s first female Ironman, completing the 140.6-mile race in 13 hours and 11 minutes.
Her training plan: Gerami bounced between her home base in London and the UK, Canada and Portugal, working with triathlon coaches and clubs, including Tri Training Harder, to build a strong foundation. A few months into her yearlong training plan, eight-time Ironman champion Paula Newby-Fraser beckoned her to Boulder, Colorado, to work with three-time Ironman champ Michael Lovato on Team Lovato. There, Gerami learned how to better read her body — from monitoring her heart rate to set her running pace to using her power meter to improve her cycling. “For the body, it’s been a process of learning how to listen with respect,” Gerami says. “For the mind, it’s been about immersing myself in the right, supportive environment. In both cases, it’s been a learning curve of not being shy to ask for help.”
Her biggest obstacle: Persuading Iran’s sports ministry to support her. According to Iranian law, she needed to adhere to a strict Islamic dress code — a hijab and clothes that covered her arms and legs — to represent her country. Creating an appropriate triathlon outfit that wouldn’t hinder her performance was one thing. Getting the ministry to approve it was another. During the race transitions in Kona, Gerami used a tent to privately strip from her custom full-body swim skin to her Iranian government-approved biking and running outfit. Needless to say, the extra steps didn’t slow her down.
What’s next: Transcending the cultural divide one race at a time. “My ultimate dream is to make sports accessible to anyone, regardless of gender, nationality, belief, values or choice of clothes,” Gerami says. This December, she’s looking to conquer the Ironman 70.3 Middle East Championship in Bahrain.
Natalie Grabow, 71
Why she rocks: This was not Natalie Grabow’s first Championships, but it was her fastest. The retired resident of Mountain Lakes, New Jersey initially qualified for the prestigious event in 2006 at age 61, just one year after picking up the sport. For each of her seven championships, she’s nabbed a spot on the podium, coming in third and progressing to second in her age group over the years. This October, however, her finishing time of 14 hours and 19 minutes finally earned her the division crown. “I’m very grateful that I can do this at my age and that my body is cooperating with what my competitive spirit asks of it,” Grabow says. “This win was very exciting and meaningful.”
Her training plan: “I train all year long and generally do about five triathlons a season,” says Grabow, who works with private coach Steve Johnson from Colorado. “I train anywhere from 10 to 18 hours a week … I have a strong work ethic and love the long hours and discipline required to succeed at endurance racing.” Having the right gear helps, too. “A power meter has definitely helped make me stronger on the bike,” she says. “Having a strong bike segment took some pressure off the run.”
Her biggest obstacle: A sore hip that flared up on the run.“You have to stay mentally strong throughout the day and manage the ups and downs,” she says. “There is always going to be something unexpected that occurs.”
What’s next: Defending her title in 2017. “I will continue to race Kona as long as the training is fun and I can complete the race in a respectable time and feel good while doing it,” she says. “Each year you have to reassess how your body is doing and whether you are still eager to work as hard as you need to in order to do well.”
Turia Pitt, 29
Why she rocks: An out-of-control brush fire on an Australian ultra-marathon course in 2011 was nearly fatal for race participant Turia Pitt, who was left with burns covering more than two-thirds of her body. Five years and more than 100 surgeries later, the endurance athlete clocked a finishing time of 14 hours and 37 minutes at the Ironman World Championships. “Early on in my recovery, doctors told me that I’d never run again” says the Aussie. “A lightbulb went off in my head. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll show you! I’m going to do an Ironman one day.’ If I could finish an Ironman, then it was proof that I was fitter than before the fire, so that was my big motivation.”
Her training plan: Before she could run, Pitt had to relearn to walk. It took her three years to prepare herself to begin training for her first Ironman. Nearly a year and a half later, she completed her first Ironman in Port Macquarie, Australia, and within four months, she was lining up at the start in Kona. “The training was pretty intense,” says Pitt, who worked with Australian Ironman champs and level 2 triathlon coaches Bruce and Christina Thomas of Energy Link. “I would do up to 24 hours a week of running, biking and swimming, plus sprints and hill work and other speed and endurance tests.”
Her biggest obstacle: Overheating. “Because 65% of my skin is burnt, it can’t regulate my body temperature, so I get hot very quickly,” Pitt says. She relied on a heart rate monitor to help manage her body heat. “When my heart rate increased, I’d back off the pace and cool myself down with ice and water.” Heat wasn’t her only concern. Amputated fingers from the fire meant she needed a custom bike to help her shift and brake with the click of a button. Despite her diligent preparation, it was far from a perfect race. “The heat got to me, I couldn’t keep food or drink down, I battled headwinds on the bike and wanted to quit more times than I care to admit,” she confesses. Still, she couldn’t be prouder: “Crossing that finish line five years later was just incredible, and something I’ll never forget.”
What’s next: After taking some time to reflect on this huge accomplishment, Pitt will start getting ready for her next big goal: Leading a fundraising trek to Mount Everest Base Camp in May 2017.