Laura Sophiea (born in 1955) plunged into Kailua Bay for the first
leg of the 2007 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and followed a
friend through the chaos of arms and legs splashing through the water.
Almost immediately two men-”big, rude, and mean,” as Sophiea put
it-swam over her. She panicked and began to tread water. Then she found
a pair of quick feet and followed them until the three-quarter mark
where she was kicked so hard in the nose and lips that she saw stars.
She checked for blood and kept going. Sophiea always expects tumult in
the swim of the Ironman and trains in the pool by swimming fast at the
start of her workout and then backs off a bit in the middle before
piling on strong intervals at the end to mimic the mad rush at the
conclusion of the 2.4-mile (3.9 km) swim.
Next up, the bike. The 112-mile (180 km) ride is famous for its heat
and winds, and in 2007 it was worse than usual. Aside from a 7-mile
(11.2 km) stretch when the coastal breezes were at her back, Sophiea
was buffeted by headwinds and crosswinds over the entire course. She
saw one rider get hit by a car. Sometimes the wind was so strong over
the lava fields that it pushed her bike at will. Usually cyclists share
their annoyance as they pass each other. But on this day, they were
The marathon is what worried her the most. She had torn her
hamstring some three months earlier. Sophiea was 52 years old and this
was her 17th Ironman. She has fared remarkably well over the years
while training for one of the toughest endurance events in the world.
True, there was the time in 2000 when she competed in Ironman with a
broken back. And in 1991, she wondered whether she would be suitably
hydrated if she had to pull off the course and breast-feed her youngest
daughter. But the run would be a test. She had spent hours getting
massages to speed the healing of her leg. And she had practiced
visualization to help her run pain free. She had backed off on her
running from 35 miles (56 km) a week to 20 (32 km) in the final run-up
to the race. She wondered whether the lower mileage would hurt her
endurance or if all of the pounding would harm the hamstring.
It turned out it was the front of her legs, the quadriceps, that
seemed tired as she transitioned into the run. She had already logged
nearly an eight-hour day on the course. She was in first place in her
age group. But the woman in second was only eight minutes behind.
Mentally, miles 7 to 14 were the toughest in years-there was still so
much ahead. As the miles droned on, so did the self-doubt. Why had she
taken this on again?
She tried sipping a Coke, which helped her pick up the pace. In the
final miles, she began feeling better and started to enjoy the race. As
she neared the end, she could hear the music playing. I watched footage
of Sophiea finishing the race on Ironman’s Web site. Thousands of
people lined Alii Drive in Kona and cheered as the athletes passed. The
pace quickened as Ironman announcer Mike Reilly told the runners the
clock was closing in on 11 hours.
The men and women around her were all younger. Most of the finishers
seemed to ignore their fatigue and were bounding for joy as the end
drew near. One man brought in his children for the final yards as
athlete, son, and daughter held hands and crossed the finish line
“Laura Sophiea from Birmingham, Michigan,” Reilly shouted over the
loudspeaker as she rounded the corner and came into view. Sophiea was
running strong, wearing a white sleeveless top and black running
“Way to go, Laura! Course record holder right here, 50 to 54! Laura Sophiea! Breaking 11 hours!”
Sophiea had won her age group in the Ironman again, coming in at
10:59:32, maintaining an 8-minute gap on her closest challenger. She
pumped her arms triumphantly and smiled and waved to the crowd.
Then suddenly she veered sideways and started to fall. Two
red-shirted attendants grabbed her and threw a towel over her
shoulders. Then came a third, a fourth, and a fifth-all of them
struggling to hold her up. In a moment, her joy turned to pain; the
sparkle in her eyes grew as distant as a fallen prizefighter’s.
Medical personnel rushed her into a tent, where two liters of saline
dripped into the vein of an arm. An hour afterward, she vomited what
little remained in her stomach.
For Sophiea, it was a typical Ironman finish. For all of her
training and experience, each year she always bonks at the end, sapping
every ounce of energy until it doesn’t matter anymore. She told me her
collapses at the Ironman do not bother her. She even viewed the extra
liter of saline she received as a bonus-a gift-that helped her get back
in the groove for her next race a month later in Clearwater, Florida.
Ordinarily, she would have flown back to Michigan a day after
Ironman and sleepwalked her way through work for the rest of the week.
But it had been a momentous year. She had taken a leave from her job as
a librarian and media specialist at a middle school. Afterward, she
stayed an extra two weeks in Kona to recuperate and resume training.