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.
“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.
“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.”
Last 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 her 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.
In 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 firstname.lastname@example.org