Carey Cribbs freely admits she really had no business signing up for an Ironman. She had never done a triathlon in her life, didn’t own a bike, and only had a handful of marathons under her belt. Triathlon wasn’t even on her radar until an ice storm rolled through her hometown of Fort Worth, Texas in December 2013, cancelling her planned marathon and leaving her cooped up inside her home with a bad combo of cabin fever and the taper crazies.
“I was trapped in my house for three days with nothing to do,” says Cribbs. “So I signed up for Ironman Arizona.”
Cribbs had only 11 months to learn about swim, bike, and run (“I didn’t even know what the words ‘clipping in’ meant!” she laughs), as well as how to string them together for 140.6 miles of the Ironman triathlon. But as an ER physician and mother of four, Cribbs was no stranger to a challenge. At age 59, she was all-in on Ironman, hiring a coach and training diligently with a group of local triathletes who showed her the ropes of the sport.
As a rookie, Cribbs only expected to finish her first Ironman. “I had heard all the horror stories about going too hard on the bike, so I made sure I was holding something back. In fact, I stopped at special needs, where I was eating a Lunchable and a Snickers bar, when a blinded athlete and his guide arrived asking if any of the volunteers had a tool to adjust their seat. I offered them mine – they didn’t want to accept because they didn’t want to slow me down. I told them I was just there to finish. After 20 minutes, I was on my way again.”
When Cribbs eventually dismounted her bike in the transition area, she was met by her coach. “You’re in third place!” he yelled. “Go!”
Cribbs held on to her third-place spot and took the podium in her very first Ironman – something she never would have expected. Was it possible she could take the top spot? Could she one day get to Kona? Over the next five years, Cribbs chased down the Kona dream, only to fall short each time. In 2018, however, she saw an opportunity at Ironman Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain:
“When the bib list was published a couple of weeks before the race, I was the only one in my age group of W65-69. In fact, of the 2,000 racers, only 137 were women,” says Cribbs.” At that point, I knew I had a chance to go to Kona.”
But she also knew nothing in triathlon was a given. In order to get her Kona spot, she would not only need to finish the race, but to do it in a shortened time frame. Unlike most Ironman races, which have a time cap of 17 hours, Ironman Vitoria-Gasteiz had a limit of 15 hours and 40 minutes. “Most of my Ironman races had been between 14:45 and 15:45, so I knew that anything major might put me over the time limit. Even a flat tire could derail my race.”
But Cribbs thrives under pressure, and race day was no exception. In front of a huge, energetic, and enthusiastic crowd, Cribbs finished in 14:38:48 – a personal best – and bagged her Kona spot.
Though Cribbs got a late start in the sport, she says she’s really been training all her life. “I think of the Ironman as a long, easy swim followed by an ER shift in which nobody dies; I just have to stay upright and put one foot in front of the other until it’s over.”