This Is Iron Sarah

The Ironman World Championship is grueling at best, but that hasn't deterred amputee Sarah Reinertsen. The 43-year-old went back for her third race in 14 years, and, well, third time's a charm.

It's just before 7:20 a.m., and triathlete Sarah Reinertsen begins treading water in the warm Pacific Ocean. She is one of about 700 competitors at the starting line of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. As soon as the gunshot goes off on this October morning, Reinertsen propels her arms forward into one smooth breaststroke and tries to find her space among the chaos. Out of frustration, Reinertsen, who is 4-foot-11 and weighs 107 pounds, yells, "Come on, ladies, play nice!" as the other racers aggressively push and kick their way forward.

In order to calm her nerves and shut out distractions, Reinertsen starts to count: Twenty-five strokes hard, 25 strokes easy. People swim over her, kick her in the face. Then she feels the sharp sting of a jellyfish on her right leg. She doesn't stop. "The pain is temporary, but the bragging rights are forever," Reinertsen says later. "I had to keep repeating that to myself." When she sees the yellow buoys, she knows she's in the homestretch -- kind of.

For the entire 2.4-mile stretch, Reinertsen is swimming with only one leg. She is an above-the-knee amputee and is prohibited from wearing her left-leg prosthetic; it's considered an aid. So, for the next hour or so, her arms are her main source of energy in an attempt to rest her right leg as much as possible for the last two portions of the race: a 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run.

Reinertsen's whole life has been about adapting, and this race is no exception. At the age of 7, she made the decision to undergo amputation surgery after years of complications due to a birth defect. From that moment, she made the decision never to let any challenge or hurdle get in her way because of her physical disability. "Over the years, my M.O. has always been when I hit failure or disappointment, I don't go, 'Woe is me.' I go, 'Oh, yeah, let me show you,'" Reinertsen says.

Thirteen years ago, Reinertsen became the first woman on a prosthesis to complete the Ironman World Championship. The year before, she attempted the race but did not finish. Now, at age 43, she set her sights on completing the championship again with two goals in mind: finish in less than 15 hours, and inspire others of all ability levels to achieve any goals that might seem unreachable.

She's off to a good start when she sets a personal record (1:21:09) in the swim portion. Only 138.2 miles to go.

During a practice swim two days before the race, Reinertsen talks strategy with her husband, Brooke Raasch. Raasch was Reinertsen's only handler on race day. "I never would've been able to get here without his support," she says.
The practice swim at Kailua Bay gives Reinertsen the chance to check out the course conditions -- and sneak in a last-minute workout.
In addition to the official Ironman sticker with her bib number (111) on the front of her bike, Reinertsen likes to add personalized stickers to her handlebars. Her favorite one reads, "Imua," a Hawaiian word that means "keep moving forward."
Reinertsen wears a custom T-shirt that shows off her pride. "I am an athlete with a disability. I embrace who I am. I am disabled, and I am proud," Reinertsen says.
Instagram takeovers, news conferences and an endless stream of interviews fill Reinertsen's days leading up to the race.
After a busy few weeks, Reinertsen -- a Long Island, New York, native who splits her time between Orange County, California, and Beaverton, Oregon, with her husband -- relaxes by floating for a while in the pool of the condo they rented for a week in Hawaii.
Reinertsen, in the blue cap, treads water before she attempts her third Ironman World Championship. "The swimming part is always scary for me," Reinertsen says. "You swim out to the middle of the ocean. At first you see the reef and sand. Then you don't see anything."
The massive open-water start challenges Reinertsen to stay calm and stick to her strategy: "Focus on getting to the turnaround boat, and pass the last orange buoy," she says. "Then it's all yellow buoys, and you're close to the end."
After the swim, Reinertsen heads straight to the showers to wash away the harsh salt water and the venom from the jellyfish sting before starting the bike race.
Reinertsen races against the clock to change clothes and put on her Össur prosthetic with a cycling cleat bolted to the bottom of the foot for the 112-mile bike ride ahead.
With her game face on, Reinertsen gears up to overtake another rider on the Queen K Highway. "The bike portion is where I really needed to crush," Reinertsen says.
What's one way Reinertsen keeps herself busy on the bike? Singing. Headphones might be prohibited, but singing is fair game. Her average pace was 15.74 mph, and she finished in 7:09:06.
More than eight hours into the race and at the final transition, Reinertsen screams in pain as the sunscreen stings her chafed skin.
While Reinertsen counts down her final 20 miles, she high-fives the runners who are less than a mile from the finish line. She finished with a run time of 05:59:47.
After not finishing the Ironman World Championship in 2004, Reinertsen redeemed herself in 2005 and became the first woman to complete the race on a prosthetic leg. This year, she crossed the finish line once again -- and even faster, in 14:41:05. "I did it 24 minutes and seven seconds faster than I did 13 years ago. I crushed it," she says. The overall winners were defending champs Patrick Lange of Germany (7:54:39) and Daniela Ryf of Switzerland (8:26:18).
While Reinertsen and her husband could rest the day after the race, there were still phone interviews with the media. "I feel amazing. But right now, I'll be honest, I'm so chafed. I took off my leg, and my stump sock was all bloody [after the race]," Reinertsen says. But that would never stop her from finding her next challenge.

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