A tiny number of individuals on the planet at any point in their lives have an interest in going out and completing a 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112-mile bike race or 26.2-mile run. Even fewer actually have the determination, will and fitness level to attempt and complete any one of those three athletic endeavors in their lifetime, let alone all three.
There is however a small minority who can complete the grueling athletic trifecta in succession, faced with a 17 hour time limit, in some of the harshest and grueling racing conditions in the world. Those individuals earn the right to call themselves an Ironman, or in the case of former Claremont-Mudd-Scripps women’s swimmer and Claremont McKenna College alumna Whitney Dawson ’12, an IronAthena.
Whitney, a former distance swimmer for CMS, competed at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii on Oct. 11, and finished in ninth place in the women’s amateur 18-24 division. Confronted with the notoriously windy, hot and dry conditions which in part give the World Championships in Kona its reputation as the toughest event on the planet, Dawson completed the event in 11 hours, 42 minutes and 11 seconds.
“Kona is supposed to be the most challenging race in the world because those tough conditions usually exist,” Whitney said.
Just imagine working out for 12-straight hours. You could wake up in the morning, go to work for an eight hour day, drive home, get in a workout and eat dinner. In that same amount of time, Whitney and other Ironman athletes potentially would be finishing their final event of the day, the full marathon.
It runs in the family
While competing in a triathlon or an Ironman competition may be a bucket list item for many, being a triathlete is in Whitney’s blood. Whitney’s mother Bridget is a triathlete as well, winning her age group at the world championships in 2012 in New Zealand.
“Mom is a very good triathlete, one of the top-ranked triathletes in the world in her age group,” said Whitney. “I actually became a swimmer at a very young age because my parents believed that swimming is the hardest part of a triathlon, so that’s what stuck with me and I swam all the way until the end of college.”
As you might expect in a family of triathletes, Whitney began competing in triathlons at a young age, around nine years old. She has competed in roughly two per year since in varying distances and locations, but admits she has competed in “too many to count.”
Hills, hills and more hills
Despite being a triathlon veteran, it wasn’t until the summer of 2014 on July 27th in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada that she competed in her first full Ironman event, Ironman Canada. With Whistler’s stunning mountain scenery and Whistler Mountain as a backdrop, Whitney overcame a difficult, extremely hilly course and raced her way to a first place finish in her age group. Not bad for her first-ever full Ironman.
“Hills on hills on hills were the name of the game,” Whitney said after the event. “It was a tough day, but very rewarding.”
Winning her age group in Whistler is what qualified her for the World Championships in Kona which were held a little over two months later. Two months didn’t leave her very much time for training, in part because the amount of time it takes to recover after completing an Ironman.
“It takes about a month to recover from an Ironman which sounds unbelievable until you do one and then it makes perfect sense,” Whitney said.
After about a month of recovery from Whistler, Whitney trained for a month leading into the World Championships with the help of an experienced coach who he himself, had raced Kona 10 times. Training consisted of swimming for an hour four times per week, running four times per week with a long run mixed in on Sundays and two short, mid-week bike rides with a long ride on Saturdays. After training back home in Oregon, Whitney and her team flew to Hawaii eight days before the World Championships to get acclimated to the course and climate and also enjoy herself and soak in the atmosphere.
Race Day – Ironman World Championships – Kona The alarm clock went off at 3:30 a.m. Then in the pitch black at 4:45 in the morning, she set off on her long day. First, check-in, then she had to get her race number temporarily tattooed onto her arms, followed by weigh-in. Once all of the logistics were taken care of, the real fun began.
“The atmosphere once we got there was so exciting,” Whitney said. “The experience is very dramatic.”
At 6:30 a.m., with the sound of a cannon being shot off, the professional race began, just as the sun rose over Kailua Bay. Roughly 30 minutes later, the rest of the competitors started their first leg of the Ironman, the 2.4-mile ocean swim.
“I loved the whole starting line experience,” Whitney said. “The cannon and all the cameras and just the energy in the area at the start were just insane.”
Whitney completed the swim in relative ease in slightly over an hour which ranked second in her age group with the 112-mile bike ride and marathon to follow.
“The bike portion was fun even though it was insanely windy with head winds and cross winds,” Whitney said. “That was a little nerve-wracking but it’s all part of the experience.”
Faced with the hot and windy conditions, Whitney completed the second leg of the race in six hours and five minutes which ranked sixth in her division. The third and final portion of the race for Whitney was the most difficult.
“The toughest part for me definitely was the run which I was expecting because I had dealt with several injuries this year which didn’t allow me to train in the way that I wanted to leading up to the race,” Whitney said. “My longest run going into the race in Canada was only 10 miles which is not ideal preparation for running a marathon.”
By the time she started the marathon, Whitney had already been racing for over seven hours. She finished the marathon portion of the race in just under four and a half hours. The last four and a half hours were the most difficult.
It was her years of swim training growing up and at CMS with head coach Charlie Griffiths, that helped her through the run.
“I was under-trained for the run and it was those miles where everything hurt and I was thinking I wanted to stop. That’s when my swim training helped,” Whitney said. “I can’t tell you how many times in swim training over the years that I have wanted to stop but I learned how to push through.”
And push through is what she did, earning a ninth place finish in the 18-24 year-old age group in what was her first World Championships, with possibly many more to come.
“I didn’t have many expectations heading into the day because it was the World Championships and every single person in my age group was an Ironman age group winner during the year at another race,” Whitney said. “I could have gotten dead last and been alright with it considering I raced against all the other top finishers in my age group from around the world.”
So what’s next for Whitney? Another Ironman of course.
“Mostly I feel like I have something to prove,” Whitney said. “With such minimal run training and now two [Ironman] races under my belt, I know I’m nowhere near my full potential. I couldn’t have asked for more out of my first year of Ironman racing, but I am anxious and excited for the next [race] already.”
If you care to find out more about the 2014 Ironman World Championships, NBC is airing a special recapping the event, on Saturday, Nov. 15 at 1:30 p.m. EST.
Read Whitney’s full account of the event here.