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Smith's 180 Degree Turn

Matthew Dale profiles Ironman 70.3 age group world champion Caroline Smith

Published on Wednesday, Jan 23, 2008 at 02:13 PM.

Matthew Dale profiles Ironman 70.3 age group world champion Caroline Smith
Working in medical sales, Caroline Smith walked into the pulmonologist's office, probably said hello to the receptionist, then headed down a hallway, near the nurse's station. Then she stopped and did a double take.

Smith looked at an X-ray. She was no lab technician but saw something in the picture that disturbed her.

“Unusual growths,” she says. “My perception was this person had cancer.”

And Smith wondered. In three, five, 10 years, would that be her X-ray? A one-time national caliber junior swimmer who could have swam in college, Smith had tired of the disciplined lifestyle and said goodbye to twice-a-day workouts. Having attended an all-girls Catholic high school, she opted for the college party scene, first at the University of Alabama, then LSU.

She drank.

“Miller Lite, really, whatever,” says Smith, who grew up in New Orleans and now lives in suburban Mandville, La. “Just go out, drink beer, fish, hang out at the bar. Stay up late. Sleep late.”

She smoked, sometimes two packs a day.

She gained weight, from 130 pounds to 165.

The lifestyle is not unusual in college, but here was Smith, then 30, still living irresponsibly, looking at that X-ray and saying, “Is that what I’m doing to myself?”

Of her decade-long partying scene, Smith adds, “I was lucky to get out of that alive. I did some stupid things. Drinking in excess, making irresponsible decisions, poor choices in every aspect of your life.”

She pauses, then admits, “I think I caught myself before I spiraled out of control.”

pre_swimcropped_prime.jpgLast November at the Ford Ironman 70.3 World Championship, six years after Smith stared at that X-ray, there she was, jogging down the finisher’s chute, arms thrust overhead. Now 36, Smith not only won her age group, but finished first among all amateurs in 4 hours, 23 minutes. Four weeks earlier, she set an Ironman PR at Kona (10:39), placing seventh out of 71 in her age group.

This year she’ll race professionally, focusing on the 70.3.

When Smith opted to pull a lifestyle 180 six years ago, she asked herself a question.

“When was I happiest?”

And she remembered that fit, muscular, freestyle swimming sprinter. So she returned to the pool, swimming at Franco’s Athletic Club. She was already transitioning, going to the gym two to three times a week when she stumbled across the X-ray. She bumped that up to four to five times. She heard about a spinning instructor everyone loved.

Smith hit the class. The fact it started at 5 AM didn’t bother Smith. A drug she was taking to help herkona_run_1_cropped_prime.jpg stop smoking turned her into a nocturnal owl. To make sure she got a bike for the popular class, she stood outside the gym at 4:15 AM, even though it didn’t open until 4:45.

The spinning instructor doubled as a talented triathlete and tri coach. Smith tested an 800-meter swim, 30 km bike and 5 km run in 2002.

“I thought I was going to die,” remembers Smith, who weighs 130 pounds again. “It was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.”

Something else hit her, too.

“It was exhilarating. It was such a rush,” she says. “Such a sense of accomplishment. All I could envision is I wanted to get better. I wanted to be that girl who won.”

Appropriate for a race named the Elephant Walk Triathlon, Smith later that year won the Athena division (150 pounds plus). By the end of the year she committed to the 2003 Ford Ironman Florida.

Meanwhile, she leaned more on that tri coach/triathlete/spin instructor, Donnie Jarrell. He gave Smith her first 70.3 training schedule, her first Ironman training log. He taught her how to prepare, how to focus, how to eat, even how to think.

One of Jarrell’s favorite sayings: “Energy follows thought.”

Jarrell told friends he saw something special in Smith.

“Something I didn’t really see early on,” she admits.

kona_bike_cropped_prime.jpgIn 2005, that something began rising to the surface. She cracked five hours at a half-Ironman, then placed ninth overall at the Ironman 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake. The year proved bittersweet. Smith’s results soared. And her mentor, Jarrell, died. Two years earlier, he was diagnosed with ALS, the disease that killed Jon Blais, who in 2005 became the only ALS victim to finish Ironman Hawaii.

What kind of person was Jarrell?

A special-education instructor, Jarrell sometimes showed up for swim practices sporting students’ bite marks.

“He just gave and gave,” says Smith.

Another Jarrell mantra rings in Smith’s ears when she’s on the bike and her back and neck and legs are searing in pain. The same thought comes to mind on cold days when her feet are numb. Or when she flats. Or when it’s raining. Or when her suit’s rubbing her raw and the sun’s beating down on her back.

“You get to do this,” Jarrell would say.

Smith, crying on the other end of the phone, thinks of her friend and says, “There are people out there who can’t go out and do it.”

To whittle time off the clock as Smith has done, sacrifices must be made. By 2004, she began transitioning from that job in health sales. By ’05, she quit completely. She cobbles together an income now, coaching triathletes, teaching adult swim classes. She even teaches Jarrell’s old spin class. To save money she cancelled her home phone line, nixed all but basic cable, sweated through summer rather than run the air conditioning.

“I just stopped spending things on stuff,” she says. “You almost make money to spend money. I’m poorer than ever now, but I’m happier than I’ve ever been. As soon as you redirect your money, you realize you can live humbly in order to achieve things you really want.”

Of her wildly successful 2007 season, Smith says, “I’m just amazed. Sometimes I’m afraid that I’ve done so well that I can’t do as well next year.”

Having decided to turn pro, she’s not that scared.

Why turn pro so late in life?

“Why not?” she says. “I got a late start in this. An opportunity’s been given to me. I hope that reprieve I took from athletics in my 20s will pay off and give me some time on the back end.”

You can reach Matthew Dale at mdale@ironman.com


Do you Remember

This morning's workout was great. After the last few weeks of not so good training, and seemingly poor results, it was refreshing to have a good one. This morning's spin class was huge - typical of the new year with everyone looking forward to the first race of the year (around here, that will be the Louisiana Triathlon in April, but for me - it will be the 70.3 in Oceanside, Claifornia.) It's so motivating to have such a big crowd at 5am and JP's brought some yummy oatmeal cookies his wife made for us to eat halfway through! After spin class, i headed out for my run hoping to it would go as well as spin class....and it did. While I was running, I had a number of things running through my head - as always. One thing in particluar was the fact that I think of so much stuff and it's all so clear while I'm out there running alone, it's too bad I have no way to write it all down. I swear, if I could write my blog while I ran, I would have a lot more postings on here! Usually, by the time I get home and eat and unwind, my mind wants to take a break too, and I lose the desire to write anything. But for whatever reason today, I have made it to the computer with a clear mind and an eagerness to share my thoughts. For the last few weeks I have been in a Funk. I'm not sure why, but it's just where I am and it's a cycle that is hard to break. This morning, I had a breakthrough - deciding to change my traning a bit. The type of workouts I have been doing may be the very reason why I am not having good ones. Last night while I was lying in bed exhausted and feeling like my brain was fried, I thought back to my Kona traning last year when I could go and go and go - and the reason I could do all that was because I went long, slow, and aerobic. Basically, I kept my heartrate down and went forever. So one of my biggest problems lately is feeling like I can't last....getting worn out and bummed out because I was tired. So this morning, I kept my HR low and rode for an hour, and had an awesome easy 9 mile run.
9 miles....all the time thinking of the things going on in my life, the year to come, and the years behind me. In Spin class today, I played a song "Do You Remember". I can't recall who sings it, but it's about a girl who used to get abused by her father. None of that is signifigant to my life as I have the best Dad anyone could ask for....but the words "Do you Remember" kept going through my mind - over and over......so I began to remember some things....

I remember when I did my first spin class.
I remember running the "loop" with the group for the first time....and thinking "where did this stupid hill come from?"
I remember running in the dark thru beau chene for the first time.
I remember talking to Donnie for the first time.
I remember his classes.
I remember buying my first bike.
I remember my first race.
I remember when my goal was to "just finish" a sprint.
I remember the only race I ever DNF'd. I had a good reason, and it wasn't an Ironman.
I remember bonking for the first time in my first half ironman. But I don't remember much about it!
I remember feeling Donnie's hand on my back pushing me up to the group when I fell behind on a ride. (I still feel it)
I remember Donnie hiding in the bushes in beau chene ready to jump out and scare the bejezus out of me! It always worked....
I remember tripping over a speed bump running in the dark and falling flat on my face. (there were no witnesses, and it's been a while since i've done that)
I remember Donnie's green wig and those ugly teeth he would wear to make us laugh.
I remember the day we learned he had ALS.
I remember him standing in the rain with a cane in Lake Placid watching Ironman from the sideline when he was supposed to be racing.
I remember him teaching class from his wheelchair, using his computer when he couldn't speak anymore.
I remember how many lives he touched, and how many people loved him.
I remember his funeral.
I remember how he believed in me.
I remember when I first ran a sub 8:00 mile and rode averaging 2o mph.
I remember when I ran sub 7:00 miles and averaged over 24 mph.
I remember what it felt like to buy a size 8 for the first time. Then a 6. Then a 4.
I remember my first bike crash.
I remember my first sponsor.
I remember winning my first race and getting PAID!
I remember meeting Ryan.
I remember beating all the boys last year.
I remember tripping over the barbed wire to pee in the woods. that hurt.
and I remember once only wishing I could run 9 miles....and then, in 2003 when a 9 mile run was my longest run ever....and then last year, when a 9 mile run was part of a mid-week easy day.



Oh......we had a good time in the dome last night... and i will pay today. fortunately, i scheduled a day off today, so i can recover....
Have i mentioned it's time to get serious this year? hahaha....yeah, i have.....and it's really time now. This place is hard to live in sometimes -- and live healthy! It's certainly a challenge! But it's the best place in the world, and I love it!
As we put LSU football behind us (and the Saints), along with the holidays and the new year, we now face Mardi Gras which will be here soon enough in February. Hmmm....it never ends here...you see how easy it is to get caught up in it all?


Last Word with Caroline Smith, Ironman World Championship 70.3 Winner

Check out the article about me by Craig Guillot in the New Orleans City Business Northshore Report!

NOTE: The Ironman World Championship in Clearwater, FL is the IRONMAN WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP 70.3

A 1.2-mile swim followed by a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1 mile run sounds grueling but it’s just another day in the life of Mandeville resident Caroline Smith. The fitness and swimming
instructor from Franco’s Athletic Club recently competed in the Ironman World Championship in Clearwater, Fla. Smith placed first in the amateur female category and the female 35-39 age group and was the 15th woman to finish overall.

Have you always been into athletics?
For the most part. I grew up in New Orleans swimming competitively for a team called Green Wave. I kind of fell out after high school
when I went to college and was more into the partying, drinking and smoking scene. By age 30, I reassessed my life and just wasn’t as
happy anymore. I was really missing that element of competition and training and goal setting. I just wanted to get back to some level
of fitness, started going back to Franco’s and just fell into triathlons.
A triathlon seems kind of extreme, perhaps more than just “getting in shape.”
It’s a lot more intimidating than it really is. When I tried my first one, I was scared to death. As a swimmer, I hated running and did not like it at all. I didn’t even own a bike either and had to find one and learn how to ride.

What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of a triathlon?
Without a doubt it’s the running. When I first started, I used to get passed by everyone. I would do pretty good on the swim and could hold my own on the bike but I’d be slow on the run. I used that as fuel though and it only drove me to do better.

What advice would you give to someone looking to get into triathlons?
Start spinning. Go to a health club, get on the bike. Get involved with your local triathlon group. You can start on all three simultaneously but you should really take your weakest growth area and focus on that before you get into any sort of mileage. You need to develop your weakest sport so that you can first of all complete the triathlon, and just finishing your first one is inspiration enough.

Why do so many people who make resolutions to stay in shape quit after a month?
I think many people just expect instant gratification. You have to look inside yourself and make a longterm commitment. It takes a long time for your body to adjust. Don’t go to the gym to lose 10 pounds in a month. Make a commitment to the gym for a year.

What is it like to train on the North Shore?
It’s fabulous.We have Franco’s, which is an unbelievable health club. Cycling up here in St. Tammany is a little tough because of the congestion but the Tammany Trace is fabulous. I don’t swim in the lake as much as I used to before the storm though because we’re kind of afraid what’s out there since Katrina. I think we’ll be having some open water swims on the South Shore soon.

What do you do to relax?
These days, I lie in bed all day and watch football on Sundays. I get a massage about once a week, sometimes that hurts though. I occasionally do go out for a brisk bike ride or an easy run. I think this lifestyle is actually more relaxing than not. Exercise really unwinds you and makes you feel good.