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40 Stories – Lori Bowden – 1999

There are many key milestones in IRONMAN’s 40-year history, moments that redefined possibility. You can find a few in every single World Championship. One of those bar raising races happened in 1999.

The woman who broke one of the race’s ironclad barriers that year was Canadian Lori Bowden. She grew up in a triathlon family with parents who competed in the sport. Add that exposure to the sport that Lori gravitated to as a teen, which was running, and you had all the ingredients for pure potential to be realized.

Breaking barriers is a signature of IRONMAN. Mind blowing performances done by one elevates the bar for everyone.

Some of those landmarks in IRONMAN history were things like Dave Scott lowering the World Record from 11:15 to 9:24 in 1980. Another was Paula Newby-Fraser going sub-9 hours in 1992 with a jaw dropping 8:55:28.

Lori Bowden was about to break another barrier. It would be running under 3:00 hours in the marathon. But it wasn’t like she’d been knocking on that door in Kona and was expected to blister the run the way she would that year.

In 1996 her marathon split was 3:12. A year later she clocked a 3:21. And then in 1998 she dropped her run PR in the race to 3:07. And in none of those years did she have the fastest marathon of the day.

“1999 was on the old run course that started near the end of Alii Drive. The volunteers were always so great at grabbing your bike and helping you get off if it. You would often feel like you could barely straighten up to even walk as you went into the change tents.”
“The run started straight up a steep hill, then just a little ways to a downhill into what was called “The Pit” and then back up and out, another long climb. I always thought that course was super hard,  but I liked it because you could do well if you were mentally tough there and managed to tell your feet to move and block out the pain and the awareness that you were barely moving!”
“It was a constant conversation in my head. I told myself that I felt great and that I was happy to be running as there was no more chance for something out of my control like flat tires or mechanical problems. It was just me and my body and a pair of running shoes!”
Lori Bowden broke 3-hours for the marathon and outsplit the next fastest women by over 10-minutes.

Her marathon was about to be a turning point for no just Lori but for every women’s champion who would come in the future.

“I just tried to catch up to and pass each girl ahead of me one at a time. If I felt exhausted and struggling, everyone else probably felt the same or worse. I just had to keep moving and try to look like it was comfortable so if I passed someone they would think I was feeling great.”
“The way out to the airport always seemed so long and even longer down into the Natural Energy Labs. Once I got to that point, I would just tell myself I was almost done, even though there was still over 8-miles left.”  
“The turnaround in the Energy Lab was always brutal as everyone behind always looked so close. I basically ran scared the rest of the way back to town. That made me run faster. I kept saying to myself just move your feet! Quick tiny steps were better than anything. Just move!”
“Even being in front, you always think someone else might start feeling better, or what if I suddenly got a cramp? Or a stitch? I just pushed. Anything can happen on the way down Palani hill! What if my legs cramped and I couldn’t run?! I just tried to be light and quick. Basically the whole way I told myself “I feel good, I feel good” even though it was really HARD!” 
“I had no idea of my pace or time or anyone else’s.”

Lori Bowden pulled off the amazing. She ran an unchallenged 2:59:18 for the marathon and won the first of her two IRONMAN World Championship titles. The next fastest woman women were Karen Smyers and Fernanda Keller who both ran 3:09, ten-minutes slower than Lori.

Here’s an interview Bob Babbitt did with Lori and her fellow Canadian Heather Fuhr, two of the best runners ever in IRONMAN history:

IRONMAN 1999 was not a day custom made for fast marathons.

Those usually happen when the bike has no winds, which helps conserve energy for the marathon. No, on this day the winds were horrendous. Only two men broke 4:40 for their bike splits (Thomas Hellriegel 4:38 and Christoph Mauch 4:39). I can only imagine how much faster Lori could have run if the conditions were less brutal.

But regardless, she was the first woman to break three-hours on the marathon. And that is certainly one of the Top 40-Greatest Moments At IRONMAN!

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  1. Fascinating story and very inspiring, showing that each of us is able to push one’s own perceived boundaries and limitations beyond what we believe is possible, for me that is the true magic of triathlons.
    I have always ever done sprint triathlons and am today wondering whether at the age of 58 (and being very fit) I could still start training for an Ironman?
    Guess, since the willpower is there, all I am missing is the right coach…..

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