Ali Wood: It takes a strong woman to make an ironman

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Picture Alexe (Wood) Lawrence standing at the edge of the ocean, wrapped in a wet suit, staring out at large boat anchored more than a mile off shore.

As a girl growing up in Morenci, she knew how to dog paddle, but not much more. That’s not good enough for the Ironman Triathlon. You can’t dog paddle 1.2 miles out into ocean, then turn around and paddle back to land. Not if you’re competing with hundreds of other super athletes.

That was the dilemma Ali faced back in 1999 when she made the decision to become a triathlete. It happened on the way to the starting line of the Boston Marathon.

“While I was on the bus they used to transport the runners to the starting line, I talked with a gentleman who did triathlons as well as marathons,” she said. “Listening to his stories made me want to try a triathlon.”

The decision was made, but action didn’t follow immediately.

iron “It took me a while to get up the courage to try one.”

In the meantime, she ran another marathon in Chicago later that year and in the San Diego Rock ’n Roll run in June 2000.

“By then I was pretty burnt out from just running,” Ali said, “so I decided to try the triathlon.”

Training

Learning to swim was high on the to-do list. She joined a local gym in suburban Detroit and taught herself to swim. All of her training was done in a pool, however, and it was quite a different experience to swim in Lake Michigan in her first race in Chicago.

It was a good intermediate step toward the Ironman. Classified as a sprint marathon, competitors covered about half a mile through the water.

Ali had done a lot of bicycling over the years, but it wasn’t for speed and her experience with shifting gears was limited.

“I was never very efficient with changing speeds, etc., so I had to learn that.”

She did some road work on weekends, but during the week she trained indoors, converting her racing bike into a stationary bike by using a tension device that attaches to the rear wheel.

Her preparation was aided by a software program that produces training schedules based on race distance and available practice time.

Much has been said about “the loneliness of the long distance runner,” but that’s not always how it feels.

“I enjoy it,” Ali said. “Some days not so much, but generally exercise is my stress reliever.”

At that time, she was the manager of a systems department for a Ford Motor Company supplier. The job produced plenty of stress.

She listened to music or read books while cycling indoors, but she kept the earphones off outdoors. Her concerns about traffic took away the music. Running is a time to sort through your life, keep track of things to do, get organized, solve problems.

The toughest part of training was simply to work it all into her life.

ali2 “When I was training for the Ironman, so much time had to go into training—and yet I was trying not to let it consume my life.”

She played volleyball in a recreational league, she wanted to do things with friends, she had a husband, Jake. She became good at juggling time.

“Luckily, Jake has a job in which he works later at night,” Ali said. “I usually timed it so that I was just finishing my workout when he got home.”

Weekends were more difficult, but she tried to get training out of the way early in the morning so they had the day together.

Competition

With four marathons behind her, Ali traveled to Chicago in 2000 for the Mrs. T’s Triathalon. The sprint event covered about half a mile of swimming, 14 miles of bike riding and 3.2 miles of running.

“I really liked it,” she said, “but it was intimidating. It was before the Summer Olympics and there were many professional triathletes there.”

It whetted her appetite—she knew the Ironman was in her future. She started training for the Panama City (Fla.) event and added a bigger triathlon in July 2001. A race in Cleveland followed the Olympic (or International) Triathlon distances: almost one mile of swimming, 25 miles of biking and 6.4 miles of running.

Not quite a Sunday stroll, but definitely lightweight compared to the Ironman.

Panama City

Now, back to that image of Ali Lawrence in her wet suit, staring out into the Gulf of Mexico, knowing she would travel 2.4 miles before reaching dry land again.

“I’d never really swam in the ocean before,” she said. “The water was a little choppier, and by the time I was done I felt like my tongue was two sizes bigger.”

The hardest thing about the swim, she says, is the mass of bodies in what’s always the first event of a triathlon. Everyone is trying to swim as fast as they can and there’s a lot of jostling about.

“I read somewhere that swimming in a triathlon is like having someone throw lawnchairs at you the whole time. You get kicked, punched, run into—never on purpose, but everyone is always bunched up together.”

The swim is the toughest part for Ali. She usually hyperventilates at first, but then relaxes into the flow of the event.

Next comes a 112-mile bicycle ride.

“The transition is hard because you’re still wet and you’re trying to get you bike gear on and make sure you’re comfortable.”

Comfort can be a challenge for someone perched atop a bike seat for a few hours.

“The transition to running is probably the hardest. It depends on how the bike ride was. You can be very sore and very tired.”

Now it’s 26.2 miles on foot. Each of the three events tugs on a different set of muscles. The race starts at 7 a.m. and closes up 17 hours later at midnight. Ali completed the grueling course in 14 hours and 25 minutes.

More than a year passed before she did it once again. It wasn’t an Ironman this time, but a regular triathlon based in Windsor, Ont., with a swim in the Detroit River.

That was last August and currently she is off the heavy training schedule. She has a different job assignment—less stress, longer hours—but with warmer weather and more daylight, she’s once again feeling the urge. Besides, she’s never been really satisfied with her finishing times.

It sounds as if it’s about time to once again hit the road, the pool and the stationary bike.

And what keeps her going after more? That’s easy, says Ali Lawrence.

“It’s the feeling of accomplishment you get when you cross the finish line.”

     – April 23, 2003 

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