Benefield: Returning Ironman champion riding string of success

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When asked about the extraordinary move last summer by race officials to cancel the swim portion of the Ironman 70.3 Santa Rosa event, eventual women’s winner Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae recalls that she was not devastated. Not at all.

“It was a small internal cheer,” she said. “Swimming is my weakest (discipline).”

But when Carfrae, 38, says weakest, it’s a good idea to give that statement context and remember that all things are relative. Carfrae will swim 1.2 miles in Lake Sonoma Saturday morning faster than your average bear, then she’ll ride 56 miles on her bike remarkably fast — and if all things go the way they usually go for Carfrae in a race, she’ll kill the 13.1-mile run.

In an event like triathlon, where terrain and course setup can differ dramatically, it seems almost pointless to compare what Carfrae did in the Ironman 70.3 in Coeur d’Alene on June 30 with what she may do in Sonoma County on Saturday. But I’ll do it anyway: She finished the swim in 27:50, finished the bike in 2:23.06 and the run in 1:20.09 in Idaho. On a slightly different course than that which will be run in Sonoma County, Carfrae’s bike time was 2:35.48 and her run was 1:39.44. Only one pro in the field ran faster.

Although she’s a veteran Ironman racer and did this event (and won) way back when it was called the Vineman, she hasn’t done the complete course as currently configured. This year features a new full-loop run on the Prince Memorial Greenway — and, of course, a swim.

But her Coeur d’Alene times do bode well for her chances Saturday, because her second-place finish came on the heels of winning both the Ironman 70.3 Mont-Tremblant and the Ironman 70.3 Victoria last month.

“It was a really successful June. I’m pretty happy with those results,” she said. “I’m ahead of where I thought I was, which was really encouraging.”

Where Carfrae — who now lives and trains in Boulder, Colorado — wants to be is priming for the Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii, in October. After Santa Rosa, she’ll take some time off before gearing up for the Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz in September and then the biggie the following month.

“The timing for this race is perfect,” she said.

Mont-Tremblant, Victoria, Couer d’Alene and now Santa Rosa are all pieces of her progression toward the full-distance triathlon championships that she has owned in years past.

Carfrae set the Ironman world championship course record in Kona in 2013 and owned multiple marathon-leg records in that race over the years.

In all, Carfrae has stood on the podium seven times at Kona — winning three times, coming in second three times and finishing third once.

She’s been the Ironman 70.3 world champ. She is one of the biggest names in the sport.

But Carfrae hit a point a few years ago where she described her attitude toward triathlon as increasingly “stale.”

Enter Isabelle, the daughter that Carfrae and her husband Tim O’Donnell welcomed to the world nearly 2 years ago. Did we mention that O’Donnell, too, is a professional triathlete who is also racing in Santa Rosa?

“I have absolutely loved racing, but prior to having Izzy, it was just getting a bit stale,” she said.

There was no racing for her in 2017, which in itself was a game-changer because Carfrae has been at this since she was a teen in Australia.

“I took 2017 off,” she said. “I think that was a welcome shift for me, just having a different outlook. You can’t have a child and not have everything in your world shift.”

Toddlers have a magical ability to counteract feelings of staleness, and to shift a person’s worldview.

“Prior to having Isabelle, triathlon was my whole world. Early in my career I needed to win to pay the bills, I needed to win to eat,” she said. “It can be a bit of a pressure cooker.

“I am a lot less stressed about racing,” she said.

But she still toes the line with the mindset that if she races at her best, she can win.

Carfrae isn’t the first and certainly isn’t the only mother who doubles as a professional triathlete. Meredith Kessler, a racer who owned this event from 2012-15, is a mom to Mak, who is not yet 2. She is expected to race here Saturday.

Still, the balancing act that Carfrae and O’Donnell work — while also winning races — is remarkable.

Carfrae said since having Izzy and returning to competition, she’s racing the 70.3 distance as well as ever.

“For me, that is very exciting,” she said. “Having a daughter and not really knowing if I was going to be able to come back and compete, and then coming back and competing even better? I’m having my own thoughts on what age means.”

Carfrae, who still manages to breastfeed Izzy while putting together a demanding training and travel schedule, said she’ll keep competing as long as she feels successful.

And the definition of success, too, typically shifts when one becomes a parent, no matter their job.

“The perspective just shifts,” she said. “Everyone knows that triathlon is not the most important thing. But once you have a child, you are OK with everything. I don’t stress about the minor things.”

So in the unlikely event that there is a last-minute course change Saturday, Carfrae won’t sweat it. And if it means she doesn’t have to dip her toe into Lake Sonoma, she might even give a little internal cheer.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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