One year after a crash, Mirinda Carfrae looks for redemption at Ironman World Championship
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii -- There's never a good time to get hit by a car while riding your bike. But three days before the Ironman World Championship, when you're the defending champion, is a particularly bad time.
Yet that's exactly what happened to Australian Mirinda Carfrae last year. The three-time world champion and course record holder was biking through the busy downtown in Kona when a car pulling into a parking lot hit her.
"There were people stopping and looking. The lady who hit me knew who I was. She was crying, and I'm trying to hold it together, then I'm crying," Carfrae, 35, said in an interview this week. So Carfrae just got out of there, kept riding, and it seemed like everything was going to be OK.
She started the race anyway. Of course she did. She had spent her whole year preparing for it.
She made it through the swim, but right away, she struggled to maintain any kind of power on the bike, with her hip, glute and shoulder still in pain from the accident. She found herself slowly slipping farther and farther behind. And not even halfway through, she stopped, quit and climbed into a sponsor's car.
"It was probably a good month of just sadness," she said of the aftermath. "But it comes along with all this, when you care so much about something and you put so much into it.
"And knowing that I had to wait a whole other year to get back here."
"It was devastating," said Carfrae's coach, Siri Lindley, herself a world champion at the Olympic distance back in 2001.
The two have worked together for nearly 11 years. That means they know each other very well. And what they eventually decided was that there were two upsides to Carfrae's crash and DNF -- both of which they think will ultimately help her as she goes for another Ironman world title this Saturday.
One upside to the accident was that Carfrae's husband, Tim O'Donnell, had a breakthrough that same day, taking third in the men's race and finishing as the first American. Carfrae was at the finish line to greet him, something she could not have done had she still been racing.
"I got to be there for him, and he's always there for me [at the finish]," she said.
The other upside is a little more abstract. Carfrae, who's been racing triathlons for 16 years, has been at the Ironman World Championship in Kona every year since 2009. She's won three times and placed in the top three six times. She's one of the most consistent racers in the famously brutal conditions. (A 2.4-mile ocean swim, 112 hot and humid miles on the bike, and then a marathon run through lava fields.)
It's hard to keep the fire burning through all those years, so Lindley and Carfrae had talked about taking a year off from the world championship and using that time to build up a longer training block, without the stress of such a tough race on the body.
Last year wasn't necessarily supposed to be that off year, but they got the break they were looking for anyway.
"Let's assume it happened for something greater ahead," Lindley said. "Maybe this year was supposed to be the year to take off, but we just didn't get the message."
"Looking back now on last year, leading into the race I certainly didn't feel as excited as I had previously or I did this year," Carfrae said. "Being forced to not finish the race might have been a blessing." She laughs. "Well, we'll see what happens."
And it's not like Carfrae spent the last 364 days just brooding and crying. Sure, she spent some time doing that, but then she got on with things.
First up, a few weeks after the race, was a team meeting. Carfrae, Lindley, O'Donnell and O'Donnell's coach, Mark Allen, met at the couple's house in Boulder, Colorado, to hash out a plan for how both the triathletes could find a way to excel in the same sport and at the same race. In 2014, O'Donnell had a terrible race and Carfrae won. The next year, Carfrae had the accident and felt worn out going into the event, but O'Donnell had a great race.
After five bottles of wine, the four of them had worked out all the details of how both athletes could succeed -- down to exactly where the two were going to stay in Hawaii and when they were going to get there. (They flew in separately this year so Carfrae could get to Kona a few days earlier.)
Once that was settled, Carfrae got back to training and, most important, to having fun. "I wanted to freshen things up," Lindley said. During the winter, Carfrae focused on short and fast training, and on different kinds of workouts. She and O'Donnell went to the Bahamas for the unique Island House Triathlon, an event that pits Olympic racers against Ironman champions over multiple days.
Then, in June, she raced Ironman Austria, where she won in a course record of 8:41.
"She wasn't sure [about Ironman Austria], because we'd been doing so much differently, but I knew it was going to be great," Lindley said.
This year has been more low-key than the ones following Carfrae's 2013 and 2014 wins. She's had fewer demands on her time and fewer sponsor and media obligations pulling her in every direction. In the triathlon community, she's largely taken a back seat to the woman who won in Carfrae's absence last year: Switzerland's Daniela Ryf.
Ryf had an amazing 2015. In August, two months before winning Kona, she won the 70.3 (half-Ironman) world championship. She went undefeated in eight races last year and won the Nasser Bin Hamad Triple Crown series -- which included a $1 million prize.
But this year most of the triathlon press outlets have picked Carfrae as this weekend's likely winner, primarily on the basis of Ryf's exhausting racing schedule, which included back-to-back Ironman races earlier this summer. On Saturday, though, Carfrae will inevitably be far behind Ryf after the swim and bike (Carfrae's weaker events) and will have to make up time in the marathon, which can be challenging. Plus there are a lot of other women waiting to pounce if they have the opportunity.
Carfrae is determined not to give them that opportunity. She's being extra careful this week and will likely have a motor-scooter escort as she bikes out of town. She's also going in with the goal of not necessarily winning -- you can never predict what will happen in Kona -- but having her best race ever.
"Basically, I've had two years of preparation for this race," she said. And all that work isn't going to go to waste.
This is her eighth year coming to Kona, her eighth year of preparation. She's seen other competitors come and go, and she knows what it takes to win. She also knows she's going to take a year off soon so the couple can start a family. But, in the meantime, she's still having fun.
"It's triathlon, it's sports. S--- happens," Carfrae said. Besides that one day, the rest of this past year has been good to her. She and O'Donnell are healthy, fit and happy. They built a new house; they traveled. They get to do what they love. "I can't complain," she said.