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After narrowly missing the cutoff at the 2013 Ironman World Championship (pictured above), paratriathlete Karen Aydelott will compete at this weekend’s Ironman Arizona with hopes of earning another shot at the Kona finish.
Karen Aydelott is a study in resilience.
An accomplished endurance athlete, she had run numerous marathons since her first in 1976 and completed two dozen Ironman triathlons, winning her age group (50–54) at Kona in 1997. That all seemed to come to a sudden end in 2006 when she was on a training ride and a car struck her from behind.
The accident shattered her right leg. Her doctor told her she would never run again. “I sort of scoffed at that,” she says.
Two years and six surgeries later, she feared the doctor might be right. Her right leg was an inch and a half shorter than her left, and her foot remained so mangled she could not put a shoe on it. So she told the doctor to cut off her leg just below the knee and got fitted for a prosthesis. She wanted to be able to compete again. “Instead of looking at something physical that just wasn’t going to work, I wanted to at least try to do something,” she says. “And I did.”
Indeed, she did. Aydelott, who lives in Southern California, has since run another marathon, ridden 12 double centuries (200-mile rides) and completed six more Ironmans. In July, the retired YMCA executive and grandmother, now 70 years old, finished second in her age group (70–74) at the Ironman 70.3 Vineman.
She is looking forward to this Sunday’s Ironman Arizona, which has been a good race for her in the past. Part of her training included the Mazda Foundation Million Dollar Challenge in October, a 620-mile benefit ride from San Francisco to San Diego for physically challenged athletes.
Aydelott’s remarkable comeback has not been as simple as it sounds. After her amputation, she had to learn how to walk then run with an artificial leg. “It’s not easy to learn how to use a prosthesis, particularly at my age,” she says.
Once she did get accustomed to using her new leg, the prosthesis wore her stump raw. Her tibia had been cut straight across, but it had sharpened to a point, which caused a series of infections. She needed two more corrective surgeries and to be fit for new prosthetic legs (she uses different legs for the run and bike segments).
Aydelott drew strength from other amputees she met, such as Iraq war veteran and 2016 Rio Paralympic bronze medal-winning triathlete Melissa Stockwell. “These people are so awesome because they just pick up the pieces and go on,” she says.
It also didn’t hurt that she has a naturally upbeat temperament. “I like the idea of smiling a lot,” says Aydelott, who also laughs easily.
She has faced the disappointments since her amputation with that sort of equanimity. For instance, she qualified again for Kona in 2013 but finished 47 seconds outside the time limit. “I had a mechanical on the run,” she jokes. “At about six miles, a bolt loosened and my leg wobbled. We were finally able to locate a wrench and tighten it at 13 miles, but by then my back was spasming.”
Despite some nagging issues with the fit of her running prosthesis, Aydelott is looking to Ironman Arizona as a chance to qualify again for Kona—and then finish within the time limit.
In the decade since injuring and eventually losing her leg, she has come to accept her limitations with grace and recognize that her struggles do not make her unique. “We all have challenges,” she says. “I just have a visible one.”