The (stubborn, ornery, unruly, hell-bent, no-denial) making of an Ironman Champion.
The (stubborn, ornery, unruly, hell-bent, no-denial) making of an Ironman Champion.
Written by: T.J. Murphy
Two days before Ironman New Zealand in 2004, a triathlete from Los Angeles struggled to make final race preparations. A pain in her left thigh throbbed, and the age-grouper with five Ironmans to her name was unable to sustain a meager three-minute jog. At the time she was trying to convert a low-riding marathon shuffle into the gazelle-like motion of a track runner, an objective that undoubtedly exacerbated the pain and likely caused it in the first place, but regardless the notion of pulling out of the race was as distant as the nearest neutron star. The headstrong blonde started the race with her two rules of Ironman racing clenched into her mindset like grinding teeth. Rule No. 1: Never drop out. Rule No. 2: Never walk.
She put on jewelry (“I like being a chick.”), threw back a handful of Advil and started the race. This did the trick for several hours, but during the run, pain seeped through the ibuprofen in the form of agony. Rule No. 2 went off like a fire alarm in her skull. “At that point I was doing my best to pretend to run,” she now recalls. At aid stations she screamed for more Advil as her imitation run degraded into a shambles. “Medical officials chased me down. I was bent over when they grabbed me and stood me up. I thought I was going to pass out.” There were 10 kilometers to go. The medics thought she should give up and go home, but the young woman would have none of it.
To allay the distressed volunteers, the triathlete asked if crawling was OK. It’s a vivid comment on how disturbing her form looked that medics found this an agreeable compromise.
Off the hook, our pertinacious triathlete dropped to the pavement with six miles to go and started to crawl, pivoting awkwardly off the right knee to avoid putting weight on the left. After three miles, two local boys offered kneepads. With less than a mile and a half to go, the top medical official showed, halted the crawling triathlete and fired off a few questions. The conclusion was swift. “You’ve fractured the femoral neck of your femur,” the doctor told the athlete.
The crumpled woman was incredulous. “How do you know it’s broken?” she asked, more as a bratty protest than an earnest question.
“You’re 25 years-old. You’re risking permanent damage,” the doctor replied.
“I don’t care!”
The medical official saw the burning madness in the eyes of the American. “I’m the head event doctor. Your race is officially over.” An “excruciating” ride on a stretcher soon followed.
X-rays showed a fracture of the femoral neck cutting through the bone like cracked marble. Luckily, the bone hadn’t displaced and three titanium screws were inserted to hold things together. “Phew!” thought the woman. “I can start training soon.”
Eight months later, she clocked 10:08 at Ironman Florida, a PR by 40 minutes. She would later turn pro and join Brett Sutton’s renegade triathlon squad based in Leysin, Switzerland. Sutton sized her up: Limited talent, unlimited hunger for work. Sutton generally doesn’t want Americans on his team. “They’re too soft,” he says, but this one won him over. The two agreed on her goal: to get a podium finish in an Ironman race in three years. This came sooner than they planned, followed by a topper. At an Ironman in September 2008, the 30th of her life and the last month of the three-year deal, she was the first woman to cross the line.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ironman Wisconsin champion Hillary Biscay.
Born and raised in Palos Verdes Estates, Biscay’s parents had little need for establishing rules to rein in their energetic teenage daughter. “I was a strange and intense child,” Biscay explains. “I was serious about two things: school and swimming.” A competitive swimmer since the age of 8, Biscay orchestrated her life around two-per-day swim workouts and monomaniacal studying habits, the blinders rarely coming off. The aftereffects of her disciplined youth emerge when talking with the present-day Hillary. Bring up a movie reference in a casual conversation with Biscay, and she’ll wave you off. “Don’t use movie references with me,” she said once when the late Paul Newman’s name was brought up. “I don’t know anything about them.”
When she was 15, Biscay grew weary of her swim team program’s mediocrity. A team in Huntington Beach caught her eye—a serious team that turned out national-level swimmers. Problem was that it took at least an hour of motoring through traffic to get from her home to Huntington Beach, and an hour back to school. Two workouts a day meant two times the commute. Biscay’s parents: “Are you kidding? No way.” Not to be denied, Biscay opened negotiations with her grandparents, who lived in Long Beach. “What do you think about a plan where I stayed at your house during the school year? And you could drive me back and forth from school to swimming?”
The reply: “That would be wonderful, dear!”
“My parents had to get on the bandwagon,” Biscay says, “or I would have been living at my grandparents full time.”
And so driving duties were split between the ever-patient and supportive parents and grandparents, Hillary using the time in the car to study.
Biscay first went to the University of Michigan but was disillusioned when she noticed the coaching staff going easy on teammates who skipped workouts. The lack of dedication was unnerving to Biscay so she left. While doing a summer training stint, she happily found the USC coach, Mark Schubert, “a complete hard-ass,” and transferred. In 2000 she qualified for the U.S. Olympic trials in the 200 breaststroke. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Biscay’s unyielding study habits were applied to an English program where she focused on African-American writers. She earned her Master’s and went on to a PhD program.
After the trials, Biscay says she knew she had gone as far as she would as a swimmer, but departing the sport would open a void. She decided running a marathon was a good idea. The day after her last swim race—August 30, 2000—was the day she started training for a marathon. The 30-minute run about killed her. “After a few weeks I could run 45 minutes,” she says. Her goal race was California International, a December marathon in Sacramento. Biscay finished in 3:49. Afterwards, Biscay thought it was time to do an ultramarathon. In January 2001, she clicked off the Catalina 50-miler in 12:29. Then she began training for her first Ironman.
“When she started she was so raw,” says Brent Lorenzen, who dated Biscay during the lead-up to Ironman Florida in 2001. “At that point Hillary had enjoyed an easy life. Everything was taken care of for her. She didn’t even know how to set an alarm clock.” Lorenzen was a triathlete doing some coaching on the side and the two trained for Florida together.
“She had the worst bike position ever seen,” Lorenzen says. “She wore a cotton T-shirt, couldn’t change a tire and used mountain bike shoes. She had absolutely no idea what she was doing. If you were to ask me then if I thought she’d ever become a pro, I would have said you’re crazy.”
The two eventually broke up but remain friends to this day. Much to his annoyance, Biscay still refers to Lorenzen as “Muffin,” even when talking about him to a journalist. At the time they were training for Ironman Florida, Biscay held little respect for Lorenzen’s triathlon experience and knowledge, choosing to battle him instead.
“We’d go on these bike rides,” he remarks. “I’d end up going too fast and get out ahead of her. I’d see her fading so I’d ease up so she could catch me. She would get pissed that I dropped her to begin with, so no matter how much I slowed down she’d slow down too until we were at a standstill. She called them protest rides.”
Lorenzen had forged a connection with Brett Sutton after the success story of Sutton’s coaching transformation of American Siri Lindley. Lindley went from a consistent fourth-place finisher to International Triathlon Union world champion, and Lorenzen, wanting to deepen his coaching ability, contacted Sutton and began an apprenticeship, training as an athlete and learning how Sutton thought. “Working with Brett, I saw he’s a master of psychology,” Lorenzen says.
“Hillary had been improving,” he continues. “She decided in 2004 she was going to go for it. She’s very stubborn and tenacious, but she had a dozen different people telling her what to do. I told her that if she was serious about triathlon she had to find someone she trusted. If you listen to a bunch of people tell you how to train, you’ll just end up with crap.”
“Muffin had contacted Brett for me,” Biscay says, recounting how Sutton first asked for her race résumé, including best split times for swimming, biking and running. “He e-mailed me back, saying that my run was shit, my bike was shit and even my swim was shit.”
Sutton gave Biscay a tryout thanks to Lorenzen, and in October 2005 she joined the group in Leysin. It was a thorough risk for Biscay, who had little idea how she was going to pay for it all and not knowing if she’d make any money racing. “It was all going on a credit card,” she says.
The first days of training under Sutton are jarring for athletes coming from sedate programs. “I remember every morning I’d wake up feeling like I got hit by a truck,” Biscay recalls. “It was a struggle to get out of bed.”
Sutton was in an early phase of reconstituting his team and there were only a few others to capture the eyes of the man they call “The Boss.” So Biscay received plenty of attention. “On my bike rides he’d be following me around and screaming at me to get in my aero bars. After, he would say things like, ‘You call that riding? That’s what I call sitting in a lawn chair.’”
Key bike rides were performed on a hilly 80-kilometer loop. Biscay was told one day to time her ride circling the route. “I was out there and he found me, following in his car, and yelled at me to stop being a wussy. But I was barely surviving the pace.”
At the finish of the ride, Sutton pulled up and looked at his watch.
“What was your time for that?” he asked Biscay.
Biscay checked her watch and told him, adding that it was “pathetic.”
“Well,” Sutton responded. “You’re half right. It was fucking pathetic.”
“Every day those first few months I didn’t know if I was going to survive,” Biscay says.
Sutton continued to push Biscay mentally and physically. Although he’d expressed doubts to Lorenzen (Sutton once asked him, “What did you send me?”), he recognized the value of Biscay’s discipline.
“She had a 15-year grounding in two training sessions a day, putting up with pain on a daily basis,” Sutton explains. “This was the rock I saw that she had imbedded. As a coach, you can use it to develop the skills one needs to be successful.”
At the 2004 Ironman Arizona, Biscay tested the training she’d battled through. The goal was to break in to the top 10, and Sutton counseled her to take it easy on the bike. “There were so many strong girls that April,” Biscay remarks. The field included Michellie Jones, Bella Comerford and Desiree Ficker. “I swam hard, but tried to ride within myself on the bike. I was in second or third place, and was shocked that no one was flying by me. I started the marathon in third place and thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’”
Biscay finished third in 9:43. A month later she posted another third-place finish at Ironman Brazil.
“When I got back to the training camp Brett didn’t let up on me at all. He’d say, ‘I’m pretty sure the run was short at the race,’ or mention that the field was soft. Of course, it was all about building my determination.”
Determination that flowed on and on. From April 2006 to August 2008, Biscay knocked out the following numbers: third, third, fifth, fourth, second, third, third, third, fourth, sixth, sixth, second, second, fourth, eighth, second, sixth, third and fourth. These numbers correspond, chronologically, to her best finishes in Ironman and Ironman-length races. Frustration at all the near misses at a first-place trophy began to build, and 2008 was the final year in the arrangement she’d be able to train under Sutton. Things got off to an interesting start.
It was still 2007, and the middle of November loomed. Biscay was restless. A few weeks had passed since the Hawaii Ironman, her ninth Ironman in a 12-month period, and it was time to get back in shape. The year had been digestible but a bit annoying: Biscay added five top-five finishes to her growing collection, including two second-place trophies, but still no time at the top of the podium. What’s a girl to do? It was time for Biscay to get back in gear, so she entered the JFK 50-mile ultramarathon in Maryland’s Washington County, started in 1963 as part of President John F. Kennedy’s national fitness initiative. Biscay’s off-season initiative was coupled with a social need. “If I didn’t do something,” she recalls, “I would have been too crabby to be around.”
Most of the 50-mile course takes place on either the Appalachian Trail or a towpath. Weather was a tad different than in Kona, so Biscay wore two long-sleeved layers and tights. What she wasn’t prepared for were rocky sections of single-track trail and quad-bombing terrain. “I was way out of my element,” she admits. When Biscay dared to check her watch after 15 miles she had been running for more than two and half hours. The route broke to the flats when it hit the towpath, a relief to Biscay if it hadn’t been for the leaves carpeting the trail. Biscay’s a strong swimmer, but she’s had to engineer her running form out of the natural running talent you’d find in C3PO. Her feet barely clear the ground, an efficient mechanical nuance but one that at about mile 20 of her ultra managed to clip a rock and send her slamming into the ground, elbow and hip absorbing the blow’s primary force. Later on, she clipped another rock and went down again. “I finished with a massive hematoma on my leg. It was like a knife going through my thigh.”
Although she limped for days, the worst ultra after-effect was with her elbow. “It became swollen. It went on for three weeks.” The swelling went down for a spell but on a bike ride while training in Tucson it ballooned and the pain soared. Two hours of surgery was required to remove the core infection. “They had to dig the crap out of it.” Biscay’s temperature rose to 103 and the wound had to be left exposed to heal. It was around Christmastime. Biscay’s father took care of periodically removing and replacing the dressing and he was “pretty grossed out.” Ironically, Biscay’s father is a doctor.
For Biscay, the bitch of it was that she had the iron-distance Challenge Wanaka triathlon waiting for her in New Zealand on Jan. 19. She’d finished third in 2007. Scratch the race? Biscay doesn’t roll that way. But Sutton was deeply concerned. “He told me, ‘We can’t mess around with an infection. I’ve seen athletes end up with chronic fatigue.” Sutton gave the one American athlete on his squad a training plan that restricted Biscay to sub-130 heart-rate work. Biscay got the message when she noticed that even the low-intensity training left her “smashed.” Biscay played it safe in the few weeks she had to prepare. She finished second in 10:11, gloriously intact, and thus began her 2008 mission of winning an Ironman.
Deep into the season, Biscay’s start of Ironman Wisconsin was noteworthy on two levels. One, as mentioned, is that it was the final month of the three-year time frame she’d agreed on with Sutton. Second, it was the fourth Ironman of her second double-double of the summer. In July, she raced Roth Challenge in Germany and chased it, one week later, with Ironman Lake Placid. In Roth she finished sixth and in Lake Placid third. Emboldened by the feat, Biscay started thinking about doing it again with Ironman Louisville and Wisconsin, another back-to-back set of races. “Once I get an idea like that in my head, I won’t let go of it. All I can think about is how to get Brett to sign on.”
Sutton did, in part because one of the first things he did as Biscay’s coach was to have her forget about trying to become a track runner and being happy about doing what comes natural for her. “She’s not running three-hour marathons,” Sutton explains, “but just under 3:30. So the recovery, with her run technique, is much faster than a high-stepper.”
“She’s mentally happy to do tough things,” Sutton adds. “She gets a buzz out of it.”
At Ironman Louisville, Biscay laid it out hard in the swim and into the bike, feeling strong at T2 and within a few minutes of the leaders. Early in the run, she reported on her blog that the “carnage” began and things crumbled into a “death march.” Still, Biscay finished fourth in 9:59.
One week later, Biscay lined up at Ironman Wisconsin, haunted by the warning from her friends that a tidal wave of fatigue might come crashing down. Wisconsin was her eighth Ironman of the year including the double-doubles. Biscay slashed through the swim in 52 minutes, opening up a large gap on her fellow contenders. She bolted out of T1 and held the lead into the second transition. Any blanket-level of optimism was reined in when Biscay saw that she had company a few minutes back around the six-mile marker of the run. With nightmarish images of more carnage, Biscay shifted into a higher gear and “went for it,” holding off Karin Gerber for 13 miles. But near mile 20, Gerber passed. Biscay locked on, fighting to stay in contact, but eventually Gerber established a break. Biscay began to despair until her teamTBB teammate, Luke Dragstra, yelled, “Hills, just keep trucking because anything can happen!” With two miles left, the gap remained less than a minute. “I just focused on Karin’s back like a target,” Biscay recalls. The effort paid off: Thurber faltered and Biscay passed her with a mile to go. When the official clock read 9:47, Hillary Biscay had won her first Ironman.
“It gave me the greatest satisfaction you can imagine,” Sutton says about the victory. “We both promised our best effort, and we both delivered.”
Per the deal, Biscay’s time being coached by Sutton was up and now she’s moving on to train with former teammates Chrissie Wellington and Belinda Granger in a new group that will be headed up by Cliff English, the coach and (as of early December 2008) husband of Samantha McGlone.
Biscay’s final Ironman of 2008 was in Kona, where the tidal wave did finally catch her and she finished well back, in 10:35. After the race she took two weeks off, capped by a weekend trip to Las Vegas. It was all the off-season Biscay could handle. It’s time to get back in shape.
This article originally appeared in the January/February issue of Inside Triathlon. For more from the magazine click here.