Mirinda Carfrae's Seemingly Impossible Surge To Win

Midway through the 2014 Ironman World Championships it looked like there was no way Mirinda Carfrae could win the race. But somehow she closed a 14-minute gap and earned her third world title. Marco Garcia/AP Images for IRONMAN

Another high-profile pro triathlete might have opted not to finish, or at least to take it easy. If she wasn't going to podium -- what she, her sponsors and her fans all expect in every triathlon -- there would be no point in putting her body through the grueling effort at one of the toughest competitions on the planet.

But when defending champion Mirinda Carfrae of Australia learned she was more than 14 minutes off the leader, Swiss superstar Daniela Ryf, at the 2014 Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, she didn't back down. Instead she decided to humbly modify her game plan -- something an athlete with a bigger ego might have struggled to do.

"Going into a race as defending champ, anything other than winning is a failure to some extent," Carfrae told espnW. "I didn't believe I was going to win. I had to let go of that hope early in the race. So I figured I'd try to put together the very best race that I could and change my goals from winning to getting in the top five."

Only a "decent" swimmer, Carfrae always knows she will have to make up time on the run -- the final, 26.2-mile leg of the three-course competition -- against her part-fish peers. So the question for her in every triathlon is, how much time?

During her previous Ironman seasons Carfrae had usually started her run about eight minutes behind the leader, and since her Kona debut in 2009, she'd earned a podium position every year, including the top spot in 2010 and 2013. But overcoming a 14-minute gap to win would be unprecedented: Up to that point, the Ironman victor who made up the biggest difference was Mark Allen, who triumphed after a 13-minute deficit in 1995.

"A lot of people wrote me off and I certainly wasn't feeling super confident hopping off the bike," Carfrae said. She did some quick math and determined she'd have to run a marathon in about 2 hours 47 minutes -- a 6-minute-mile pace that's "faster than all the men's times," she said.

But Carfrae knew she couldn't get too bogged down in that, or in how much she had to overcome: "When you don't have a positive mindset, you don't achieve your best. It weighs you down and it's tough to perform. So I kind of just forgot about it and focused on making the top five."

The mental shift paid off: Fourteen miles into the marathon, Carfrae had caught up with the third-, fourth-, and fifth-place racers, who were all in a cluster. As she gracefully whizzed passed them, she suddenly found herself in third and with a shot at the podium. She latched onto this new hope with such white-knuckle-grip fury that it fueled her to kick up the momentum. Around mile 18 or 19, sliding into second place started to become a reality.

"When you can see second place up the road, everything falls away and all you can focus on is that one person," said Carfrae, who caught Great Britain's Rachel Joyce at mile 20. With Joyce now behind her, Carfrae could finally start to make out Ryf's figure just ahead.

"I was excited, but I couldn't get too excited. I couldn't afford to waste any energy. I had to stay composed and continue to make smart choices, like go through the aid station without slowing down but still taking in fluids and food," she said.

By mile 23, Carfrae had overtaken Ryf, but there was still a 5K to the finish and anything could happen.

Feeling good, Carfrae concentrated on staying alert and holding her steady pace. She would periodically shake her arms to release tension in her shoulders, which also helped to slightly lower her heart rate. She had no idea if Ryf was saving something for the very end. "There's a lot going on in your mind, so it's important to try to keep it simple, positive and relaxed," she said.

Nine hours and 55 seconds after the start of the triathlon, Carfrae had not only done what seemed impossible -- closed a more than 14-minute gap -- but also had added two and half minutes between her and Ryf, who came in second.

"For me, this race is always about giving my best. I train all year for this one day," Carfrae said. "You know when you get to a point in a race where you can either push on or back off. Everyone has chosen to back off at least once. And you go home devastated with yourself. Knowing what that feels like, I would rather go through a brick wall 10 times than go home, look at myself in the mirror and say, 'You gave up.' With this race, if I didn't get first place, I knew I could say, 'At least I gave it a shot.' I would rather take the tough road every time."

At this year's Ironman World Championships in Kona on Saturday, she will need to dig deep once again to close that inevitable gap before the run. She's hoping the deficit will be much smaller this year. "I hope to get to that starting line in better shape than I have before," she said. "My plan is to ride as hard as I can and limit the damage to the leaders."

But above all, she feels mentally ready to again come from behind and take it all for the fourth time at Kona: "I have set the year up where I haven't raced a whole lot so that when I do get to race, I'm excited."