About 80 miles into the second leg of the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, Lindsey Hankus struggled to keep the pedals moving as she climbed a long hill with a baking, tropical sun beating down on her. Up to this point, the 28-year-old Forest Park firefighter had been grinning as she attempted one of the world’s most grueling endurance competitions. The prestige of the event, the world-class athletes that surrounded her, and the promise of lifelong bragging rights had buoyed her spirits. But this hill was kicking her butt.
Naturally, for her anyway, Hankus started laughing.
“I was really happy the entire time,” Hankus said of her participation in the Oct. 9 triathlon. “Even at my worst point in the race I was laughing, because it was so ridiculous.”
Hankus finished the Ironman event, an accomplishment in and of itself, in a time of 15 hours and 31 minutes. That’s 15 hours to swim 2.4 miles, pedal 112 miles and then wrap it up with a marathon run of 26.2 miles. It took her approximately one year to condition herself for such an exhausting event, but when she talks about the intense training commitment Hankus says flatly she should have done another triathlon earlier in the year. Doubling up, she said, would help keep her occupied.
“I don’t know what to do with my time,” Hankus said of not having an event for which to train.
Over the last several years, Hankus has taken a deep interest in endurance sports. Two years ago she finished a half-triathlon in Michigan. Last year, in Florida, she completed her first Ironman triathlon and covered the same distances as in Hawaii.
But junkies of the sport know that the world championship held annually in Kona is the triathlon event of the year. It’s hilly and huge sections of the course are isolated, adding an incredible psychological element that tests everyone’s grit. It also gives amateur competitors a chance to tackle the same course as pro triathletes.
Of the approximately 1,800 Ironman participants, 200 get in through a lottery system. Hankus was one of them this year, and considers herself lucky.
MJ Slikas, a 40-year-old triathlete and Hankus’ coach for the world championship, qualified for this year’s event by finishing tops in her age group in another Ironman event. She finished three hours ahead of Hankus in Hawaii, and on Nov. 7 will go to Florida for yet another race. Slikas didn’t intend to push her body so quickly from one triathlon to another, but an unexpected slot in the world championship is too much to turn down.
“When you qualify for Kona, it’s an opportunity you don’t pass up,” Slikas said.
An Orland Park resident, Slikas has been competing in triathlons since 2003 and began coaching about 18 months ago. Of all the athletes she has known, Hankus stands out, said Slikas, for her quiet dedication. The young firefighter is a soft-spoken woman who doesn’t understand the concept of quitting.
“She’s one of the quietest ones I have, but I know she’s got the drive,” Slikas said. “I call it ‘eye of the tiger.’ She’ll never quit.”
Slikas saw little of Hankus in Hawaii, but wasn’t surprised to learn that at the 80-mile mark her trainee began to falter. For many athletes, said Slikas, 70 or 80 miles into the event is a critical stage, not only for the body but also the psyche. The 112 miles of pedaling took Hankus almost eight hours to complete.
“It’s not the distance so much; it’s the time,” Slikas said.
At the fire station where Hankus has worked for almost five years, Chief Steve Glinke said he sees flashes of the determination and discipline it takes to train for an Ironman. Hankus would rise early and run or bike to work from her home in North Riverside. On the job, Hankus is “no slacker” and sees every task to its conclusion. He described her level of fitness as “an extreme,” but said that since joining the department Hankus has always been fit.
“I don’t think you can be the big, bold type and maintain that kind of humble discipline,” Glinke said of his quiet crew member. “We’re all very proud of what she’s accomplished.”
All the training, and the fact that she finished standing, injury free and smiling, doesn’t mean that the Ironman was easy. Moments of self-doubt emerged, and in the weeks leading up to the event Hankus was struck by a few dizzy spells and a couple terrible workouts.
“I can train for a lot of things, but not dizziness,” Hankus said.
In the first leg of the race, she swam about one-quarter of the 2.4 miles with salt water in one eye, but it wasn’t that big a deal. Hankus is comfortable in the water and spent most of her time concentrating on small details of her stroke. It was an exercise in passing the time, she said.
Back on dry land, her first 40 miles on the bike were easy enough. Then, as temperatures continued to climb and the hills began to add up, Hankus struggled. There were strong headwinds to contend with and her legs threatened to cramp.
“There was one hill that was just impossible,” Hankus said of that critical 80-mile mark. “I had to slow down and I was in my easiest gear.”
Later, when she was transitioning into the run, Hankus would notice she had been stung by an insect. The bite would remain swollen like a tennis ball for days.
With a full marathon still ahead of her, Hankus said it was such a relief to be done with the bike. Not lingering, but not speedy, she took 12 minutes to change into her jogging shoes and get into dry clothes. Hankus had walked the last half of the marathon in Florida last year and wanted a stronger finish in Hawaii. She linked up with another firefighter from California and the two ran most of the 26.2 miles together.
Nearly eight hours on a bike seat had left her a bit weary, but not down.
“You couldn’t beat that smile off my face,” Hankus said of her day in Hawaii.
Still, almost halfway through the run, Hankus was grateful for what was already behind her. Running with a small group of strangers, she said she earned a few laughs when she offered what was on her mind: “I’m just so happy to be off that bike.”