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 quiet.
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 together.
"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 shorts.
"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.
This is an excerpt from Second Wind.