By Nona Tepper
At exactly 14 hours, 21 minutes and five seconds, Lindsey Hankus crossed the finish line in Panama City, Florida, after an exhausting Ironman that included a 2.4-mile swim in the Gulf of Mexico, 112-mile bike ride down a deserted highway and 26.2-mile run through a state park. Hankus achieved her personal best race time at that Ironman in November, which many consider the most difficult race in the world.
Her banner Ironman followed a first-place finish at the Chicago Triathlon in August. Hankus, a Forest Park firefighter, was the first woman first responder to cross the line on Columbus Drive. She has run six races this year, mostly half marathons to train for the recent Ironman. But even in those shorter races she set record times. Hankus credits her 2017 races, the best of her career and first time competing since having a child, to a regimen of chilling out, drinking craft beer and not caring about what time she crosses the finish line.
"So I did my best time for a half marathon [in May], and the night before I was at a beer fest. I got really drunk and woke up and was still a little buzzed," she recalled, laughing. "I joke I was still buzzed when I started [running] that day. Every picture that was taken has my eyes closed."
Hankus, 36, began 2017 aiming just to have fun and finish the Ironman. She hadn't raced since giving birth to her son Frank, six years before. Prior to that, she competed in Ironmans in Florida and Hawaii.
To train, Hankus joined a local triathlon club. The group met daily, but consistently working out with the group was impossible because of her work schedule. She works a 24-hour shift at the firehouse and then has 48 hours off, week in and week out. At the firehouse, she walks on the treadmill after dinner to keep in shape and clear her head. She said she's made a lot of important decisions while walking, including coming to terms with how to discipline Frank.
"I ran when I could, biked when I could, and swam when I could," Hankus said of her training.
When she trained for the previous two Ironmans, she would spend at least 20 hours a week working out, said Phil Chiappetta, deputy fire chief. He said she tried to spread her time evenly across swimming, biking and running as much as possible.
"One of the strengths she has is she's mentally tough," Chiappetta said. "In my opinion, to compete in those races, you've got to be more mentally tough than physically. The last Ironman she did in 14 hours, you don't train to work out for 14 hours. Basically, you've got to have the mindset to tough it out and finish."
While she was training, Hankus had two bad workouts that stuck with her. She said a 100-mile bike ride nearly broke her. Another 20-mile run left her walking the last few miles.
"I thought from that, the race was going to be a really huge struggle," she recalled.
When Hankus arrived in Florida, she felt pre-race jitters, like always. As she stood on the starting line of Panama City beach, donning a pink swim cap, black bodysuit and goggles, she tried to smile, but instead grimaced.
Swimming can often be the most difficult part of these races, she said, because the water temperature, consistency and crowds are all out of her control. But in this race, swimming was the easiest part. She focused on what she wanted her stroke to look like, reaching up as high as she could go and then forcing her hand down and back to hit her thigh. Soon the swim portion was over. Hankus took a selfie and jumped on her bike.
In an effort to keep it casual, she stocked her bike with a huge bag of her favorite candy, Lifesavers, and planned to stop every half mile and enjoy a mint. She also planned to strike funny poses for cameramen along the track.
As she biked along the closed, two-lane highway, Hankus started worrying a little more about her strategy for the race, and thinking a little more seriously about her time. She felt a cramp begin to form in her stomach, and those pre-race jitters turned into full-force anxiety.
She stopped at a rest station, pulled out an energy gel and ate a salt tab and oatmeal cookie. The calories immediately made her felt better. She thought again about her goal: Have fun and finish the race. Getting back on her bike, she started peddling and hiked up her shorts, so she could work on her tan.
Finally, at about 8 p.m., Hankus crossed the finish line.
"I think back when I was really working [toward] it, I was always like, 'I don't know if this time will ever be in the cards for me; I just don't know where I'd make up the time'" to finish under 15 hours, she said. "And then, somehow, things just changed for me this year."