Sore from the long flight to Kona, Hawaii, Beni Gras-Thompson spent the week before the 2017 Ironman World Championship trying to psych herself up for the race.
Then, a left-turning car side-swiped Gras-Thompson while she biked through a green-lit intersection on a training ride. The bike took the brunt of the crash but left her with a bruised hip and road rash.
The next day, swimming in Kailua Bay, Gras-Thompson felt the tug of a riptide. Unlike the first time that had happened, she didn’t panic but let herself drift out until she could swim back parallel to the shore.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she recalled thinking.
That’s when, close to the beach, she hit coral and cut her feet.
Concerned, her coach had just one question: “Can we just put you in a bubble until the race?”
Race day didn’t come any easier for the Roanoker, though her results belie the difficulty of dealing with malfunctioning bike gears, a heat index that hovered around 100 degrees, gusts of wind that knocked over some competitors and an ill-advised sprint that left her faint just ahead of the finish line.
When she crossed the line 10 hours, 39 minutes and 35 seconds after she started, Gras-Thompson raised her arms in exaltation and covered her face with her hands. Against some of the world’s best, the 46-year-old mother of five had finished seventh in her age group and 88th among all women.
“The only thing that’s been harder was giving birth to my twins,” Gras-Thompson said.
Gras-Thompson was a college track and field athlete and still holds the 10,000-meter run record for a first-year student at the University of Virginia. In her 20s, she did triathlons and attempted but did not finish an Ironman, which consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bicycle ride and 26.2-mile run.
In the years since, she’s run the Blue Ridge Marathon and other local runs but mostly set racing aside. Then three years ago, she had surgery to repair her Achilles tendon.
Last year a friend persuaded her to try a half Ironman. Gras-Thompson was hooked, and she decided she wanted to fulfill her old goal of completing a full Ironman.
“It’s really different coming back from being a late 20-year-old and how you approach a race to being a 46-year-old with five kids,” she said.
“Your perspective has just changed so much. I go into it with different goals. I see things differently than I used to.”
Gras-Thompson hired a coach, Parker Spencer, who convinced her she could do more than simply finish an Ironman.
He told her to set her sights on the world competition stage.
“I’m sure she thought multiple times that I was crazy,” Spencer said.
A year ago in North Carolina, she finished her first full Ironman and came in first in her age group, a performance that qualified her to compete this fall in Kona. Since then, she’s done full and half Ironman races in Chile, Texas and Chattanooga.
Her children, who range in age from 10 to 15 years old, didn’t quite know what to make of this renewed interest.
At first, they just saw her frustration and exhaustion, Gras-Thompson said. “Mom, why are you doing this? It’s killing you,” they’d ask. Over time, they got it, she said.
“They knew that I used to compete but I don’t think they knew how intensely that I completed or how I really am at my core as an athlete,” Gras-Thompson said.
Christian, her 14-year-old son, said he wants to follow her footsteps. He swam with his mom this summer as she trained.
“At first it was difficult to keep up, but I kept going,” he said.
Gras-Thompson’s husband, Kip Thompson, traveled with her to Hawaii but the rest of the family stayed home. She was also joined by Chad Albright, a Roanoker and Kona Ironman veteran who also competed.
Her kids and supporters in Roanoke followed their progress from an app. To keep from waking up others in his house, Spencer said he hunkered down in his laundry room, his eyes glued to the app.
She had a “perfect” swim but slowed during the bike portion, he said. Gras-Thompson started the marathon in 26th place, and that’s when her pace picked up, Spencer said.
“She was just picking off people left and right,” he said.
Christian said he followed his mom’s progress from Roanoke Catholic School’s homecoming celebration.
Near the end of her race, he stood up and yelled to the room: “My mom’s in sixth place!”
She slipped to seventh by the end of the race, but “that doesn’t matter,” Christian told his mom Wednesday.
That’s the lesson Gras-Thompson said she hopes her children take away from her racing — that effort and attitude matter more than success.
“It’s the best way I can show my kids how to work hard, succeed and fail,” she said.