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Recalled: A Dramatic Duel at the 1997 Hawaii Ironman

For Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham, the 1997 Hawaii Ironman came down to the final 20 feet.

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Fifteen years after Julie Moss put Ironman on the map with her dramatic crawl to the finish, two women almost re-created that harrowing final stretch at the 1997 Ironman Hawaii. Wendy Ingraham had been in the lead for much of the race. “I lost my salt tablets somewhere around mile 6 on the run,” Ingraham remembered. The consequence became clear at mile 13: “My body started to cramp starting from my toes moving up to my back. It was very painful with each step.” Heather Fuhr (the eventual winner) and three other women, including Sian Welch, passed Ingraham in the second half of the marathon.

Welch had been fighting her own nutrition problems all day, stemming from a virus that caused her to vomit throughout the 112-mile bike. “Wendy was in bad shape when I passed her at mile 25, and I looked like I was in great shape,” Welch recalled. “After going down Palani [Road], everything seized up, so tides sort of changed.”

The scene in the finish chute would be almost comical if it weren’t so painful to watch. In the final quarter mile, Welch was in fourth place, stumbling down Ali’i Drive. Her legs repeatedly collapsed beneath her as she looked over her shoulder. “I guess whenever you are having problems you look behind instinctively,” she says. “I just remember trying everything possible to stay ahead.”

With maybe 100 feet to the finish, Ingraham came into view, looking equally as spent. Her knees were bowed as she waddled toward the line. “I just kept fighting to catch her back,” she said. Ingraham caught Welch at the blue finishing mat, literally steps from the finish. They both staggered and collapsed. They both tried to rise to their feet, then slumped back to the ground. In a moment of clarity, Ingraham started crawling to the line to finish fourth, and Welch followed suit.

“I’m a persistent person, especially when I get my mind set on something,” Welch said. “[Husband] Greg says I’m like ‘a dog with a bone.’ That year was special—I thought I could win for the first time. Of course it takes a perfect race, but nothing was going to stop me.”

Ingraham didn’t see a DNF as an option either. “You can never give up the fight for pain—that is only temporary,” she says. “I would not have known how to do the race any differently. It was the day that was given to me; it ended how it was supposed to.”

This article was originally published in the May/June 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

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