A Year of Ups and Downs in the World of Triathlon

By Beni Thompson | Nov. 13, 2019, 3:27 p.m. (ET)

beni with medal after IM Vitoria-Gasteiz

This year has been quite the year with huge ups and downs. I started my forty-eighth year with overall and AG wins at IRONMAN 70.3 Pucon and IRONMAN New Zealand (setting AG course records in both). New Zealand also qualified me for the IM World Championships in Kona, but I missed my slot allocation. Additionally, I was given the immense honor of being named USA Triathlon’s 2018 Female Masters Triathlete of the Year. 

In May, I competed in the ITU Long Course Worlds. Two weeks before, on a rainy bike ride, I took a spill and cracked my right lower rib. Even still, I raced, won my age group and came in third overall for females. 

Because I had missed my slot allocation in New Zealand, I signed up for Ironman Vitoria-Gasteiz in Spain on July 15. Unfortunately, eight weeks before this race (one week after ITU world Long Course) I crashed on my bike, broke my left clavicle and three ribs on my left side, leaving me with a concussion and hemothorax. 

I got home from the hospital with just seven weeks until the Ironman, and I couldn’t imagine completing it let alone winning my age group to make it to Kona.  I couldn’t breathe, stand, sit, lie down, cough, sneeze, turn — I could do nothing without pain. I remembered the Ironman motto, “anything is possible,” and sitting in my house feeling sorry for myself, I changed my mind. I would without a doubt complete IM Vitoria and win my spot to Kona. 

Three weeks after committing myself to this goal of qualifying, on a solo training ride, I was hit by a road rage motorist, causing me to crack my healing clavicle. Thankfully, the plate and screws holding my clavicle together were still intact. 

The doctor gave me the ok to continue training, but it delayed my swimming and running training. I was only able to train for about two and a half weeks before the Ironman in Vitoria-Gasteiz. 

Eight weeks after my initial injury, I completed in Vitoria-Gasteiz and earned my Kona spot, experiencing an Ironman that had unrivaled crowd support.  Without a doubt it was my husband, family, coach friends and surgeon that helped me to START and FINISH. 
Even though I qualified for Worlds 70.3, I stayed home to try and recover, heal a bit more and prepare for Kona. Three weeks before Kona, in the middle of a track workout, I felt something very painful in my right Achilles. I found out that my already bad tendinitis had microtears, mostly at calcaneus. Hello water running. 

I was cleared to compete in Kona because I was at a low risk for complete rupture of my tendon due to the location of the microtear. However, I was only able to run outside three times from that point on, all of which in Hawaii the week before Kona, on grass, for 20 min at a time. Sure, it was painful, but I’ve run races with pain before and managed it well. 

I had the unexpected surprise of meeting Ironman CEO Andrew Messick the day before the IRONMAN World Championship when he volunteered to take me through transition and bag drop. I didn’t realize who he was until I asked his name to properly shake his hand and thank him for his time. I thanked him and told him that Ironman gave me the platform to teach my kids a valuable lesson by accomplishing something I at first thought was impossible. Every morning my kids got to see me make a decision — decide to work for my goal or decide it was too much.

I went into the race mentally and physically ready; truly believing that I could mix it up with the top ladies in 45-49 AG. I had a pretty good swim, a great bike, and managed to move from seventeenth out of the water to third out of T2.  I started the run with a positive mindset, but within the first three miles I had to focus on people ahead of me to distract from the fact that my ankle was getting worse. 

Sometimes, I can maintain external focus and run to my ability level despite what might be going on inside of me. This time, however, it only got harder to not feel the increasing pain. Suddenly somewhere between miles eight and nine I felt something weird give in my right leg. At first it was like a jolt, but then it felt like hot liquid fury in my leg. I screamed out because of the pain, got weird looks, and then just shut my mouth. 

I figured out a way to limp/jog/walk while hardly using my right leg. Whenever I tried to speed up, the pain was brutal. I resigned myself to toe touch the right leg and jog/walk/limp the 17 miles to the finish. I figured I must have badly strained my tendon but never even imagined that I had completely ruptured my Achilles’ tendon, which is exactly what I had done.  Even when I effectively kept most of the weight off my right foot, the burning I felt from my calf down never left me. 

Rupturing my tendon made me learn and experience things on a whole new, humbling and transformative level.  I had four different athletes stop their race and jog/walk with me. A British athlete taught me to properly pronounce the word ‘bugger,’ so there we were in the Energy Lab yelling out. Each athlete would say, “let’s run to that aid station or pylon together.” They all said exactly what I needed to hear to continue on towards the finish. 

Kelli Phuah, a fellow 45/49 AG (3rd place 2018 Kona), and Chad Albright, a fellow Roanoke triathlete, walked with me and made sure I was ok. The screaming volunteers at each aid station, and the crowds along the last mile all encouraged me on.  My 16-year-old son stayed beside me most of the last mile, which felt the longest, talking with me and telling me that he could only hope to become as tough as me. My two girls screamed encouragement and jumped up and down beside me while I vainly tried to speed up my limp rate down the finishing chute until the red carpet. 

beni with husband and kids

My wonderful husband of 25 years found me in the dark on the Queen K when I felt too ashamed to even let him know it was me. He quoted Top Gun to help me smile, but I’m not sure I did. He walked, and I pretended to jog/limp, refusing to believe I was walking. I told him I was so sorry for disappointing him and for him to please pass that message on, and he knew it would be hard for me to hear that I was being ridiculous, that the people who had helped me only cared for me and not for any result. We passed volunteers that had been on their feet for almost 24 hours, and they were still cheering themselves hoarse. It was one of the most painful but enriching and educational three miles I have ever run.  

When I returned home, I had surgery to reattach my Achilles’ tendon. Throughout this year, I have learned that support from family, friends, and my community has enriched my journey, and triathlon consistently puts me square into impossible situations that challenge me to imagine, think, and work my way through incredibly hard obstacles. I have to keep working until I reach my goals. 

This is what I want my kids to see.  I’ve always felt that my actions, rather than words, are better at teaching them the value of hard work, faith, respect for others and yourself, and never giving up. Despite the fact I didn’t win or come out on top of anything, those last 17 miles in Kona taught my kids more than any win I could ever give them.  It taught them that impossible is just a word with no meaning unless you let it overcome your will.  

This year I got to fully experience the community that triathletes share in Kona, and really all other triathlons too. It’s a collective understanding of the months of hard work, sacrifices, fears, challenges and triumphs, how those other triathletes knew exactly what to say to me when they saw me slowly limp jogging the Queen K, still with many humbling miles to go till the finish. 

Although I’m still trying to come to terms with the fact I won’t be running for four months, still struggling to not feel like a letdown, I’m truly grateful I have had a year that can only be called extraordinary. I’m ready to learn what the next months will teach me about overcoming this new obstacle, and hopefully I won’t drive my husband, family, coach and friends too crazy during this process.