In the early morning hours of Nov. 20, Karen Aydelott pulled on her wetsuit, tugged on two swim caps and got ready to plunge into the 61-degree waters of Arizona’s Tempe Town Lake with about 2,640 other people.
Aydelott, of San Luis Obispo, had arrived at the starting area of Ironman Arizona at 5 a.m., the same time the transition area opened for the long-distance triathlon.
Around her, hundreds of triathletes double-checked their gear and prepared for the start of a grueling race that includes a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run, in that order.
Aydelott was excited, but nervous. She’d competed in the same race the prior year, but dropped out 20 miles into the run. She ran 23 miles in a hilly Ironman race in Utah in May, but wasn’t able to finish in the required time.
“I wasn’t as well trained as I wanted to be,” Aydelott recalled during an interview at her San Luis Obispo home. “I wasn’t sure I could even finish.”
As the cannon sounded, signaling the mass start of the race, Aydelott started propelling through the murky water, bumping up against the other competitors.
The next 16 hours would determine whether Aydelott could reach a goal she’d held for the past three years: to complete an Ironman race for the first time since the loss of half of her right leg.
Aydelott, 65, was exposed to competition at a young age. She swam competitively during high school in a small city in central Illinois and started running in the early 1970s to get in shape after she’d married, had two boys and moved to Minneapolis. Aydelott ran in men’s shoes — this was shortly before the “jogging boom” established road running as a populist athletic challenge.
“I remember going to the running shoe store bugging them about (Nike) Liberators,” she said.
Aydelott was hooked.
“I felt positive,” she said. “You can run anywhere.”
She brought running to her day job, too, after a volunteer position at a branch of the YMCA of Metropolitan Minneapolis turned into a career as executive director of several YMCA locations, first at the University of Minnesota.
She often represented the YMCA in an annual “Get in Gear” 10-kilometer run in Minneapolis, and introduced a training program for school-age children to compete in the accompanying 2-kilometer fun run.
One morning in 1984, Aydelott left her house, strapped on a borrowed bike helmet and rode to Lake Harriet. There, she competed in her first sprint-distance triathlon, which typically includes a half-mile swim, a 15-mile bike ride and a three-mile run.
She won her age group.
In the years that followed, Aydelott took on new challenges, running and cycling longer and farther than before. She completed her first Ironman-distance race in 1989 at the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, on the island of Hawaii.
Since then, she’s finished 27 others. In 1997, at age 51, she placed first in her age group at the world championships in Kona with a time of 11 hours, 49 minutes, 56 seconds — an event she described recently as “damn cool.”
“I didn’t break records,” she said. “I just had a good day.”
She faces a setback
She first fell in love with the Central Coast when she came to the area to compete in the Wildflower Triathlon at Lake San Antonio. She moved here in 1996 to lead the San Luis Obispo County YMCA for five years.
In San Luis Obispo, she became known for improving programs and increasing grants for the agency, and she was named a Cuesta College Woman of Distinction in 2001.
“To me, she epitomizes what is possible if one is passionate and persistent,” said former San Luis Obispo City Manager Ken Hampian, one of the YMCA board members who hired Aydelott. “She’s maybe the gutsiest person I’ve ever known, and at the same time a very sweet, gentle and generous person, too.”
Aydelott met her second husband, John Robbins, in 1999 while they were training for Paris-Brest-Paris, a 750-mile bicycle ride in France with a 90-hour time limit.
By 2006, Aydelott was living in Southern California and working as executive director of the Pasadena YMCA.
About 6 a.m. on June 22, 2006, Aydelott was riding to meet friends for a bi-weekly training ride when she was hit by a car and dragged several car lengths. Aydelott’s right ankle was badly damaged, her bike totaled.
After eight surgeries and a bone infection, Aydelott was left with a choice: live with her right leg 2 inches shorter than her left, or have part of her leg removed — and preserve an opportunity to continue training.
In 2008, she chose amputation.
“Having my leg amputated actually gave me back a sense of hope and of possibilities,” she wrote in an application for a Challenged Athletes Foundation grant in 2010. CAF has given Aydelott grants for a running leg and socket, and in turn she’s raised $10,250 the past two years for the organization. “My mantra all along has been to ‘concede nothing’ and to keep trying as much as possible with a smile.”
The road to recovery has been long, and painful. After the July 2008 surgery, Aydelott slowly rebuilt her strength.
She had her first prosthetic leg by September 2008 and was cycling on the road again by late that December. Nearly a year later, she was back to “shuffling” her way through triathlons.
But her ultimate goal — completing a full Ironman-distance race, and qualifying for Kona — eluded her.
On Nov. 20 at Ironman Arizona, Aydelott finished the 2.4-mile swim in Tempe Town Lake in an hour and 17 minutes. She reached the stairs, and volunteers helped pull off her wetsuit. She put on her prosthetic and headed out for a windy, 112-mile bike ride.
Her husband, John, breathed a sigh of relief when she finished the ride, 6.5 hours later. Aydelott changed into her running prosthesis. But 3.5 miles later, some pain prompted her to change into her walking leg — more comfortable, but a lot slower.
Alternatively walking and trotting, Aydelott motored on. She kept one eye on the clock. She had to finish before midnight, which marked the cutoff time, 17 hours after the race started.
“You have ups and downs along the way, but I really never stopped (moving),” she said.
Aydelott could hear the roar of the crowd as she approached the finish line, 16 hours and 10 minutes after she’d started. The cheers were so loud that she couldn’t even hear race announcer Mike Reilly declare: “Karen Aydelott, you’re an Ironman!”
With that, Aydelott finished, placed first in her age group and became the first female amputee to qualify as an age group athlete for the Ironman World Championship next October.
“You lay a dream out there and you just work toward it,” Aydelott said. “All I’ve done is followed a dream I’ve had. Not that I could win, but that I could do this.
“I know of people who have endured far greater tragedies,” she added. “But if I can serve as motivation, if someone sees me and says ‘I’m going to finish, too,’ then, yeah.”