Everyone who has ever stared down at an IRONMAN entry form has shared the same combination of excitement, fear and trepidation. So many concerns are woven into it, like the time it’ll take to get ready and the seemingly endless list of things you’ll need to juggle to get it all done.
How much more daunting would signing that form be if one of your thoughts was something almost nobody else was going to have to deal with: can I do this with one leg? Multiply that extra consideration with the fact that you already tried it once and failed to finish. At that point the piece of paper takes on a whole new meaning.
The IRONMAN World Championship has a way of getting you to come back for more after that first time. It’s rarely a one-and-done affair.
Something gets in your blood. It’s like an itch that needs a bit more scratching, You get home afterwards, and even though a part of you can’t even think about doing the whole journey all over again, another part is thinking just maybe there’s a bit more out there for you. Maybe it’s a better time or now knowing you can actually race it.
But sometimes those original dreams turn into unfinished business. And it’s not always about improving but about actually crossing the line that says “You Are An IRONMAN”. Yes, as perfect as training can be, race day can turn disastrous and even the most prepared can be forced out of the race. That happened to Sarah Reinertsen in 2004.
“My whole IRONMAN journey actually began when I met another challenged athlete named Jim MacLaren. He and I used to get our prosthetic legs made at the same place in NY. I had never even heard of the IRONMAN triathlon before him.”
“It blew me away that people actually raced for 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running! I was even more in awe that Jim was showing the world that a guy with a prosthetic leg could do it too. In fact his example empowered me to think that I could do it too.”
“Getting to my first Ironman took a long time, it was 12-years of building my endurance on the run. I knew there were cut offs in the race, so it wasn’t until I broke 6 hours in the marathon that I started to figure out the swim and the bike.”
Standing just 5’0″ (1.5M) Sarah had the dream like everyone who qualifies for Kona of becoming an IRONMAN finisher. She’d qualified at IRONMAN 70.3 Buffalo Springs earlier that year, ticking the first box in her dream. Race day in Hawaii was tough though. Winds on the bike were horrendous and she got sick to her stomach.
“I felt so strong and ready to take on the Kona course that I flew over to Hawaii that October confident that I would conquer the race and hear Mike Reilly announce me across the line and say, “Sarah Reinertsen, you are an Ironman!”
“I finished the swim, and hopped on my bike with no worries. But that feeling quickly dissipated when the winds starting kicking up just 30-40 miles into the bike course. I stayed calm and kept telling myself – this is what happens at the Hawaii IRONMAN. It’s windy but don’t worry about the headwinds. You’ll get a tailwind once you change direction on the Queen K.”
“But after climbing out to Hawi the winds shifted and I was pedaling into a headwind going downhill and the worries came back. I was having trouble with my nutrition and started puking on the bike as I pedaled.”
Sarah missed the bike cutoff by 15-minutes. She was out of the race.
Later that night she was at the finish line watching the others come in. Sarah Reinertsen knew she had unfinished business. She knew she’d be back in 2005. IRONMAN had gotten under her skin. There was something left to prove. She only has one leg and she wanted to be the first woman with a prosthetic leg to complete the race.
“The NBC cameras captured the whole ugly scene: my struggle to pedal into the winds and even my puking on the bike. By the time I got the airport I knew my day was over. When I came into transition I knew I was too late. I knew I was disqualified.”
“I switched into my walking leg and just sobbed. All I could hear was Mike Reilly announcing the other finishers in the background. I was embarrassed and so disappointed – this was a dream years in the making and now I had failed.”
Pat Griskus had become the first man to do that twenty years earlier in 1985. Sarah wanted to become the first woman in 2005. She wanted to set a new standard of what is possible, and IRONMAN was the perfect showcase if she could pull it off. Here is what she did differently to make sure the result was also different than the previous year in 2004:
“In 2005 I switched up my strategy to make it happen. I got a new coach (Paul Huddle), got a custom bike made, and trained even harder. I went to Hawaii three times before the IRONMAN World Championship to train and raced at the IRONMAN 70.3 in June.”
“I carried a keychain around with my goal time – 16:05 – but truly I just wanted to finish within the cut off of 17-hours.”
“I ended up doing the swim 10-minutes faster than 2004. My bike was 90-minutes faster. And my run time was 5:52 (my best marathon was 5:30). I crossed the finish line in 15:05 to make IRONMAN history as the first woman on a prosthetic leg to do that!”
Indeed her amazing dream was out-performed by exactly an hour. She hoped for 16:05 and beat that with a finish of 15:05. But what really makes this an incredible Top-40 Greatest Moment At IRONMAN is not just her 2005 finish but the personal commitment and tenacity she put into her comeback that year after a huge disappointment in 2004.
No one goes to the IRONMAN World Championship thinking they’ll only train 75% and just see what happens.
No, everyone, including Sarah in 2004, arrive with as much fitness as they can possible squeeze into their bodies. And that was not enough for her to finish. So to then go back to the drawing board and find a way to muster up even more is the iconic calling of IRONMAN. It’s the itch that needs a bit more scratching before it’s satisfied.
It’s the echo of a distance voice you hear within yourself every day after the disaster that says you can do better. And that you must go back and try. Sarah Reinertsen listened to that voice and did the amazing.
Here’s video of her journey at IRONMAN:
And if you are in Kona for this year’s IRONMAN World Championship, keep an eye out for Sarah. She will be racing there once again!
“For the 40th anniversary I’m going back to Kona. I hope to go even faster this time at age 43 than I did at age 30! But truthfully I just want to finish in sub 17. And while Jim MacLaren is no longer with us, I’m still trying to keep up with him and hope to follow in his footsteps into the IRONMAN Hall of Fame.”
You can read more details about the specific challenges she faced with a prosthetic leg in a story Lee Gruenfeld wrote on IRONMAN.com.
To follow Sarah and see what she’s up to click HERE.
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I am the Founder and CEO at Mark Allen Coaching. I am proud to have been voted in an ESPN global poll "The Greatest Endurance Athlete Of All Time." During my multi-sport career I won the Ironman Triathlon World Championship six time, the inaugural Triathlon World Championship at the Olympic Distance in Avignon, France, and at one point in my career I won 21 straight races across every derivation and distance. It was a great career, but that's all it would ever be unless I was able to share all of the experience and methodology we invented long before smart watches, power meters, and flashy uniforms. That's why I started Mark Allen Coaching, as a way to return to others at least the part of the gifts I received.