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The year was 1997. The Voice of Ironman, Mike Reilly, and I were taking turns bringing the best age-group athletes up on stage at the Ironman World Championship. That brief moment in the spotlight serves as reward for all the mind-numbing training days endured by everyone who podiums there.
What has always impressed me is how normal, everyday folks balance their training around family, work and everything life throws at them in order to change the perception of how fast a 40-, 50-, 60-, 70- or 80-year-old can race 140.6 miles in the stifling heat and horrific winds of the Kona coast.
That year, a 51-year-old woman named Karen Aydelott from Pasadena, Calif., (by way of Minnesota) stood on the No. 1 spot when her division was called. She had just gone 11:49. In her career, she has completed 27 iron-distance events, and this would be her only win in Kona in 12 attempts.
Her first triathlon was in 1984 in Minneapolis. On race morning, she woke up early so as not to disturb her husband and two sons, took the baby seat off the bike and rode over to Lake Harriet for the women’s-only event.
Aydelott won her division and was home to make breakfast and greet her family before anyone knew she was missing. “I was pretty excited,” she admits.
Her first race in Kona came in 1989, and this year she will be attempting her 13th Ironman World Championship, this time at the age of 66. The last time she raced in Kona was in 2005.
On June 22, 2006, while doing a bike workout around the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, she was run over from behind. She remembers nothing, but was told that she was flipped over the top of her bike and then dragged under the car. She emerged with back issues, road rash and an ankle that suffered an explosive break.
Like a typical triathlete, she got right to the point with the doctor. “I’m an athlete,” she remembers telling him. “I need to get back to training, so let’s get this show on the road.”
After looking at the X-rays, the doctor was blunt as well. “Karen, you were an athlete,” he said. “I doubt if you ever will be again.”
Aydelott endured eight operations before she realized it was time to have the talk. “We had discussed amputation early on,” she recalls, “but now I knew that it needed to be done. I wanted to get back into triathlon and I couldn’t do that without the amputation.”
Two years after the accident, she had her right leg amputated below the knee. “Having my leg amputated gave me hope,” she says. “It opened up the door for me.”
There were challenges. She had to clip in and out with her left foot and deal with the fact that it takes 30 percent more energy to power a prosthetic. Aydelott’s goal wasn’t to get into Kona through the physically challenged lottery. It was to get there by qualifying as an age-grouper in her division. “I’m conceding nothing, and I knew that I would never give up.”
She didn’t qualify in 2010 at St. George or Arizona, but Aydelott knew that things were looking up when she was able to get out of the saddle and charge. “OK, I’m back,” she said to herself. “I’m me again.”
She qualified for the 2012 Ironman World Championship by winning her division in Arizona last November with a time of 16:10:32. “Getting back to Kona is a dream come true,” she says. “I can’t wait for race day.”
Bob Babbitt is the co-founder of Competitor magazine, the co-founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the host of Competitor Radio and an inductee into the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame and USA Triathlon Hall of Fame. To hear his interviews with more than 500 endurance legends, visit Competitorradio.com.