Q & A with Karen Aydelott
A veteran triathlete who lost a foot several years ago, Karen Aydelott handed me one of the best lines I’ve heard in a long time: When I asked her why she was racing in an able-bodied division at Kona, she replied, "Because it was too hard to qualify as physically challenged." I spent some time talking to Karen to try to get answers to the seventeen question spawned by that one answer.
By Lee Gruenfeld
LEE: I’m still reeling from that, so let’s start at the ending. First, are you really entered into an able-bodied age group?
KAREN: I am. Women 65-69.
LEE: Who do you think you are…Oscar Pistorius?
KAREN: No, but we share one thing in common. The only way we could get into the events we really wanted was to compete alongside able-bodied athletes.
LEE: Okay, but Oscar had no choice because there are no PC divisions at the Olympics. There are at the IRONMAN World Championship.
KAREN: Yes, but they’re too hard to get into.
LEE: Let me guess: You have to give an arm and a—
KAREN: No, even that won’t do it, nor will training your heart out. The problem is that the entry rules for challenged athletes were changed a few years ago so that it’s now a lottery system. I tried twice to get in and didn’t make it, and by "trying" I mean that I entered the lottery and waited. There was nothing I could do to influence the process.
LEE: Not an ideal situation for a born competitor like you.
KAREN: It wasn’t at all, and I was more and more eager to get back to Kona.
LEE: I’ve seen you race here. How many times altogether?
KAREN: An even dozen.
LEE: With plenty of top-five finishes, including a win.
KAREN: I love this event, and I realized that the highest probability way back was the standard qualifying route.
LEE: We’ll get to how you did that in a second. How did you get into triathlons in the first place? Were you always athletic?
KAREN: Not really. I was in high school before Title IX and didn’t have a lot of options, but was still on the swim team and took ballet lessons. That’s when I got my first inkling that I was cut out for longer events.
LEE: You did endurance ballet?
KAREN: Very funny. No, on the swim team. The longer the race, the more I liked it. Of course, the longest event was the 400-meter individual medley because everyone was convinced that women would drop dead if they tried anything more strenuous.
LEE: What sports did you do in college?
KAREN: Synchronized swimming and modern dance. That was it until my two boys were born.
LEE: What happened then?
KAREN: I wanted to get fitter and also recover from two nine+ pound babies. I went to the Y, then started running in the gym and liked it. That was right at the beginning of the running boom, and Nike had just come out with a shoe made from a women’s last. I was also in a difficult marriage and needed some escape, so all of those things sort of collided. I wasn’t an especially good runner but I did a bunch of marathons and enjoyed them.
LEE: And triathlon?
KAREN: I kind of stumbled into it. Someone was talking about a sprint event close to where I lived. I signed up, won my age group and thought, I’m probably going to get better at this than I am at running.
LEE: Were you any kind of cyclist?
KAREN: Not at all. I didn’t get my first decent bike until I was 40. It was only $400 and I had to pay for it on time.
KAREN: Like I said, it was a difficult marriage. I thank the stars for John [Hubby 2.0, and a certified good guy] every day.
LEE: So you still liked the endurance stuff once you figured out you weren’t going to drop dead?
KAREN: I like challenges, and I was pretty good at the long distances. Muncie was my first 70.3, and it was a wonderful experience. I actually qualified for Kona but it seemed so over the top that I turned down the slot without a second thought.
LEE: To most people in this sport that’d be like turning down a MacArthur Fellowship.
KAREN: No kidding! That’s about when I started hearing a lot of buzz about IRONMAN, and ordinary mortals doing it. I gave myself two years to get ready, but the next year when I won a slot at Iron Horse in Springfield, I decided to go for it.
LEE: That would have been 1989, the year of the—
KAREN: Iron Duel, between Mark Allen and David Scott. And I saw it!
LEE: You did? How?
KAREN: They were coming in as I was heading out. I didn’t learn the full significance until later, but I knew that two guys shoulder to shoulder toward the end of the race was a real big deal.
LEE: How’d you do?
KAREN: It was very tough. Hyponatremia and everything else you could imagine. I finished in around 13:30 and was very disappointed. Of course, I’d sell my soul for that time now.
LEE: But you weren’t discouraged.
KAREN: Not in the slightest. I planned to stick with it until I ran the race I knew I had in me.
LEE: Surprisingly tough age groups you moved through. You must have come up against [11-time age group winner] Lesley Cens-MacDowell over and over.
KAREN: Not to mention your own lovely bride three out of every five years. But I improved steadily, and started placing, and then I had a great race in 1997 and won.
LEE: We’re getting to the bad part. First tell me where you grew up.
KAREN: I was originally from Philadelphia. My father was an army doctor and we moved around a bit when I was very young, but after he got out we settled in Decatur, Illinois, where he opened a private practice. I lived there until I went to college at Wellesley.
LEE: What did you study?
KAREN: Art history.
LEE: Ah: So you had a real practical bent.
KAREN: It worked out pretty well. My first job out of school was with American Heritage Publishing, where I did research on pictures for [Pulitzer Prize-winning historian] David McCullough, who was with the Smithsonian Institution. I moved to Minneapolis after getting married and lived there for 25 years. I was executive director for two YMCAs there, and then one in San Luis Obispo when I decided to come to California in 1996. I then ran a Y in Pasadena for nine years and moved back to SLO when John retired.
LEE: The accident happened in Pasadena.
KAREN: I’d been riding for a few years with some pure cycling guys who challenged me to keep up. I got really great workouts but, one June morning in 2006, some driver who wasn’t paying attention slammed into me from behind. I heard the noise before I felt anything and thought I could keep the bike up, but I fell and ended up under the car. The driver had been going so fast she couldn’t stop right away. The force of being dragged along like that flipped me over and took my ankle out.
LEE: What does that mean, took it out?
KAREN: It’s what they call an "explosive break." The lower couple of inches of the fibula were blown away. Pieces of it ended up on the road.
LEE: Did you know right away how bad it was?
KAREN: I knew it was bad. What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t fixable. Nobody did until much later.
LEE: But they tried.
KAREN: I had eleven surgeries, including on my back, which was also injured in the accident. The pain was unbearable and a year later they fused four vertebrae. It was a risky procedure but very successful.
LEE: And the ankle?
KAREN: A different story entirely. They first tried to fuse the bones. It didn’t work, and an infection set in, which is very common with ankle injuries. They tried again, it didn’t take, bones slipped and got misaligned. At one point they took my talus out – that’s the second largest ankle bone and transmits the entire weight of the body to the foot – and my leg got two inches shorter. I also looked like I had a club foot, which didn’t exactly elevate my spirits.
LEE: When did you figure out that this wasn’t going to work?
KAREN: Two years after the accident. After all of those surgeries and setbacks it was clear to me that this was never going to work, that it was going to hurt all the time and I’d never walk right again.
LEE: How do you arrive at the decision to have it cut off?
KAREN: I was completely ready. I researched it, talked to people who’d been there, and I knew that the only way I’d ever be able to walk without a limp and ride a bike and wear normal shoes was to do it on an artificial lower leg that could be built to perfection instead of my mangled ankle that couldn’t be fixed at all. In other words, I needed to be me again and that was the only way.
LEE: Looking back, are you happy with that decision?
KAREN: Absolutely. I’ve never looked back. That’s not say there haven’t been plenty of frustrations along the way but I improved steadily, I had some real control over the situation, and I’m way ahead of where I could even hope to have been, both mentally and physically. Getting my first socket was like being reborn. I hadn’t walked much in two years and now I could.
LEE: How long before you got back on a bike?
KAREN: The surgery was in July; I was riding by December. A year later I did Big Rock [international distance triathlon], then the Desert Triathlon the following spring, then IRONMAN 70.3 California. I didn’t have my running foot yet, but I did it anyway. I kind of trotted the whole way but I finished and it was thrilling.
LEE: I suspect we’ve skipped over a whole lot of pain and suffering in trying to summarize this odyssey.
KAREN: You have no idea. But there were some significant positives that far outweighed the negatives. And by positive I mean more than just getting my mobility back.
LEE: Such as?
KAREN: The extraordinary support I received. It was hard for me to ask for help; I wasn’t used to being on the receiving end and it took a while to learn the importance of letting people be helpful.
LEE: Are you talking about moral support, physical assistance…?
KAREN: Both. The prosthetists who worked with me were extraordinary people, the Challenged Athletes Foundation helped in very substantive ways, I had experts like Peter Harsh, my coach, Mark Sortino, my faithful "handler," Ray Barrios, and the entire Fortius racing team. There was also Alisa Benson, a former triathlete who had to give it up because of her own health problems, and your own wife, Cherie, who stuck by me from the very beginning. As determined as I was, I simply couldn’t have made it alone. Having the support of all of these people made me believe I could do this.
LEE: Any of them here in Kona now?
KAREN: Mark is here, Ray and his brother, Alisa and her husband.
LEE: After all your years of racing you had to get injured to finally get your own entourage.
KAREN: And you know the funny thing?
LEE: There was a funny thing?
KAREN: Yes. Some of the more severely injured military guys I met through CAF dismissed my little problem as a "flesh wound!"
LEE: You gotta love those guys.
KAREN: It’s all relative: I still had a knee on the injured side and one entirely good leg.
LEE: So how’d you qualify for the world championship?
KAREN: I’d done Arizona and St. George and didn’t finish either of them.
LEE: Must have been pretty discouraging.
KAREN: Exactly the opposite. I was greatly encouraged by both. I’d gotten really far into the run and only missed finishing because the clock ran out, not because I quit. That told me for sure that I could do it. When I went back and raced Arizona again, I finished and I qualified.
LEE: And you raced that as able-bodied?
KAREN: I did all of them that way. What did I have to lose? Turns out there was only one other competitor in my division, she didn’t finish, so here I am in Kona.
LEE: Women 65-59 is much bigger this year: 17 athletes. What’s your goal?
KAREN: If I finish, I’ll be the happiest person on the island, and I’ll also be surprised. It’s a huge challenge for me.
LEE: What’s the biggest component of that challenge?
KAREN: Probably the weather. I have to get it done on the swim and bike and then survive the run, and I don’t have a lot of experience with humidity. St. George was also hot but it was dry.
LEE: I did a couple of articles on challenged athletes during race week last year, and Scott Rigsby told me about this vacuum system on his prostheses that pumps perspiration out.
KAREN: Unfortunately, that design won’t work for me. I’m prepared to stop and take the leg off to dry it if I have to, or if it’s putting so much pressure on a nerve that the pain gets overwhelming.
LEE: You did Arizona on your walking foot, right? Will you do that here in Kona?
KAREN: No. In Arizona I had an ulcerated sore and the running foot was so agonizing I put on my walking foot after three miles.
LEE: Are you allowed outside assistance for changes like that?
KAREN: No, so I was lucky to be on that course because it loops back right past the transition area. I was able to get the walking foot myself and not break the rules.
LEE: No such luck in Kona.
KAREN: All part of the challenge. I may have won this race once, but if I get across the finish line by midnight this year, this is the one I’ll be looking back on for the rest of my life.