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Earning Ironman: Racing To The Start Line

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Eschenwald crosses the finish line at 11:59:13 achieving her sub 12-hour goal.
Eschenwald crosses the finish line at 11:59:13 achieving her sub 12-hour goal.

Written by: Nan Kappeler

Age-group athlete Belinda Eschenwald battled several setbacks before finally making it to the 2004 Ironman Canada and achieving her goals.

With the heart of the triathlon season rapidly approaching, many athletes are fine-tuning training plans, mapping out race destinations, making plane reservations and reviewing travel itineraries, all in an attempt to ensure that each race goes as smoothly and stress-free as possible. Despite all of the preparation, the unexpected can occur. Given the focused and determined nature of most triathletes, there is little that can get in the way when it comes to getting to the starting line.

Over the years athletes have forgotten driver’s licenses, missed flights and forgotten wetsuits. The story of Belinda Eschenwald’s race to the starting line at Ironman Canada in 2004 is one example of the determination to start a race. Her story has become folklore among triathletes in Orange County, Calif.,

Coach Bee, as she is referred to by friends and members of her Capo Masters swimming team in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., had been on a three-year mission to break the 12-hour mark in an Ironman race.

“I was wearing a gold bracelet with ‘sub-12′ engraved on the front and I wasn’t going to take it off until I broke 12 hours,” said Eschenwald, who had already competed in six Ironman races. “I was determined to do it at this Ironman Canada race.”

On Thursday, August 26, 2004, Eschenwald and friend Dolly Ginter, a professional triathlete who wanted to come along to for support, arrived at Orange County’s John Wayne Airport for the day’s first flight out to Penticton, British Columbia.

Eschenwald and Ginter pose in Penticton.
Eschenwald and Ginter pose in Penticton.

At the gate, the agent noticed Eschenwald’s driver’s license had expired and denied her entrance to the plane. Since Ginter had already boarded, the two agreed to meet later in Canada. Eschenwald planned a quick trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and assumed she could easily catch a later flight.

“I knew my driver’s license had expired,” said Eschenwald. “My divorce was just about to be finalized in a few weeks, so I figured I would change my last name and get a new license at the same time.”

But the DMV noticed the last name differed on her social security card. The driver’s license had her married last name, and because she was born in Puerto Rico, policy at the time put a combination of her mother’s maiden name and her father’s last name on the card.

After being unable to provide documentation of her last names at the social security office, Eschenwald realized she would have to come up with another plan. With a quick time calculation, she figured a straight 26-hour drive would put her at registration 30 minutes before close.

“I said forget it. I’m driving. All I knew was that I had an 18-hour drive to the border. I just got on the I-5 North freeway and figured I would call friends for directions once I passed the Canadian border.” By noon on Thursday, Eschenwald was headed north in her yellow Nissan Xterra. While she drove, word got out in Orange County that she was en-route to the race via car.

“Nobody could believe I was driving,” she explained. “They thought I would mess up my chance to have a good race. I decided to prove them wrong. I wasn’t returning home unless I broke 12 hours.”

Throughout her drive, Eschenwald tried to remain positive and focused, thinking about the race. In order to avoid dehydration and stomach problems, she stayed away from coffee and instead drank sugar-free red bull.

She arrived at race registration with her calculated 30 minutes to spare and met up with Ginter. Shortly after, she retired for the night and allowed herself to sleep in as long as possible the next day, skipping an opportunity to warm-up and feel out the course.

Race day, emotions set in and Eschenwald remembers crying at the start, thinking how unreal the whole journey had been.

During the swim and bike, she recalls feeling great, posting a personal record of 5:52 on the bike course. Once onto the run, breaking 12 hours came down to the last six miles.

“It was exactly 11 hours at the 20-mile mark,” Eschenwald said. “I panicked and sprinted all out. The last mile I sprinted up Lakeshore Drive. I became so overcome with emotion that I was going to break 12 hours.”

Eschenwald leaped as she crossed the finish line at 11:59:13. On a post-race high, she stayed at the finish line until midnight to cheer on the last finishers. At 4 a.m., she got back in the car with swollen feet in what she calls “Ironman pain” to make an early meeting at her sales job.

“After driving 26 hours straight to work, I was 30 minutes late. Can you believe they were mad?”