Courtesy of the College of Idaho sports information department
CALDWELL, Idaho - Underneath a vibrant Australian sunrise on the Palm Cove beach of Cairns, College of Idaho student-athlete Emily Hawgood dove into blue waves back-dropped by rainforest-clad mountains as she started the ultimate test of endurance and strength. Hawgood, the youngest woman competing, was on the first leg of a 140.6-mile trek to become an Ironman triathlete.
Hawgood entered the race just hoping to make the cutoff times of each stage and finish her first full Ironman race. But after seeing her time at the halfway point of the swim, Hawgood’s competitive spirit kicked in. The goal of completing the race was no longer good enough. She was there to compete.
But what drives a person to push their body to its physical limits? In Hawgood’s case, it’s a life-long love of swimming and running, coupled with a desire to test her abilities and “do something crazy.”
Growing up in Zimbabwe, she participated in every sport offered at her boarding school at one point or another, but swimming, cross-country, and track and field were her constants. Her first introduction to an endurance race was an event called the Ironwill, a team-orientated race with three days of mountain biking, hiking, camping, abseiling (rappelling) and swimming.
“I participated for two years and loved the feeling of testing the mental and physical abilities of myself and our team,” Hawgood said.
On a vacation trip to South Africa, Hawgood was introduced to the Ironman race for the first time. Two guys from Zimbabwe, who were staying with Hawgood and her friends, were competing in the South African Ironman race in Port Elizabeth. While not even racing, Hawgood couldn’t sleep the night before the race because of excitement.
“I stood on the sideline all day wishing I was out there, and the next day eavesdropped on the conversations of Ironman athletes and promised myself one day I would do an Ironman,” she said.
After traveling from Zimbabwe to the C of I campus in Caldwell, Idaho, Hawgood set up a meeting with swim coach Christine Mabile to ask about joining the swim team. As Mabile walked into the office, an ornament on her keyring caught Hawgood’s eye.
“She walked in with an Ironman keyring and, in awe, I asked her about it,” Hawgood said. “She told me all about her Ironman journey and then in January of 2014, she told me she had signed up for the Boise half-Ironman, and that evening I signed up, too.”
Mabile trained with Hawgood for the half-Ironman and pushed her to pursue her goal of completing the Ironman. Describing Hawgood as a natural endurance athlete with focus and determination, Mabile watched Hawgood drop 15 seconds in the pool this year to qualify for the NAIA Swimming and Diving National Championships in the 200-yard breaststroke. At nationals, she knocked off another four seconds to clock the second fastest time in C of I history.
“She works incredibly hard and dedicates everything to her swimming, running and academics,” Mabile said.
A week before the Ironman, Hawgood was one part petrified mixed with another part excitement. The night before, all she wanted to do was race. In the morning, with bible verses and quotes written on her wrists for encouragement, she made her way to the starting line.
“It is a huge commitment to train and get to the start line, let alone complete the race,” she said. “I was just totally grateful for the opportunity to be racing alongside people from all around the world who had the guts and the heart to be there, it was a humbling experience.”
1 hour 1 minutes and 42 seconds.
After finishing the 2.4-mile swim, it was onto her iron-horse to complete a 112-mile bike ride. With the ocean and waves always beside her, Hawgood took in the view as she fought headwinds on the uphill sections and rain for half the bike leg. But the encouragement from fellow racers and cheering fans helped her keep peddling.
“Some of the supporters had put up motivational posters along the road, which brought energy at all the best times,” she said.
7 hours 22 minutes and 4 seconds.
With the swim and bike finished, the last leg would be all, well, legs. A marathon stood between Hawgood and the finish.
Halfway through the run, her stomach muscles started acting up, hunching her over at times due to cramps. With her family and friends supporting her, and knowing a marathon was nothing in comparison to what she had already accomplished, Hawgood pushed through.
With 23 miles behind her and only three to go, the sun faded past the horizon and darkness and rain crept over the course. Hungry, tired and hurting, Hawgood knew she had to finish now. She put her head down and sprinted.
11 hours 50 minutes 59 seconds.
“Running down the red carpet was pretty amazing and overwhelming—the lights, the people, the announcer saying ‘You are an Ironman’ and the realization of reaching a very intimidating goal,” Hawgood said. “It's hard to describe the feeling and all the emotions.”
After almost a half-day of swimming, biking and running, Hawgood finished second in the 18-to-24-year-old group, was 47th out of all women, and 294th overall. First-place finishers of age groups go on to nationals in Hawaii. Hawgood narrowly missed out on that opportunity, placing second by only 2.5 minutes.
It was an exceptional performance by an exceptional athlete—one who also leads a life of exceptional character. Hawgood received the Champions of Character award at NAIA Swimming and Diving Nationals this year, which recognizes athletes with exceptional respect, responsibility, integrity, sportsmanship, and servant leadership.
“She has the utmost character of anybody I’ve ever met,” said Mabile.
Although Hawgood would like to run another Ironman right now, her next focus is swimming and running for the Yotes.
“Running and swimming at the C of I has been the best experience ever,” she said. “I didn't know if i would be able to be on one team, let alone both. Being part of both teams has been a blessing. I have the best coaches I've ever had, people who love to dream, encourage and build their athletes up to be the best they can be. The whole C of I campus community is a family that allows you to live life to its fullest, wherever you decide to go.”
Even if that journey takes you from Zimbabwe and Idaho to Australia and across the finish line for the right to be called an Ironman.