In a sport where races take upwards of five hours to complete, the biggest decision of Olivia Harlow’s triathlon career was made in five seconds.
When Ironman triathletes qualify for world or national events, organizers put them on the spot and ask them to commit to registering for the event. If the athletes agree, they immediately sign paperwork and pay a non-refundable entry fee. They have just a few seconds to decide.
At a race in Augusta, Ga., last September, Harlow finished second in the 18-24 age group, 17 minutes short of qualifying for the 2016 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. But the first-place finisher elected not to register for the world championship, so the organizer called Harlow’s name.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, maybe,” Harlow recalled thinking. “My time that day was way better than expected. In the heat of the moment I look over at my dad and he’s looking at me like, ‘You have to.’ I put my hand up and ran up to the stage.”
Harlow, 24, will compete alongside 3,000 triathletes Sept. 4 in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Australia. An Ironman 70.3, also known as a Half Ironman, consists of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run.
A 2010 graduate of Assumption High School who now lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., Harlow ran track and cross country for four years. When she was younger, she also swam at Lakeside Swim Club. While attending Ohio University, she was inspired to register for a triathlon after watching her father, Bob, complete a full Ironman at age 50.
Triathlons are a unique sport in that amateurs like Harlow race alongside professional athletes, many of whom are sponsored, although the two groups are judged separately. It is easy for newcomers to get involved in the sport, but extremely difficult still to achieve elite status.
“Triathlons are definitely a mental sport,” Harlow said. “I think anyone can do a triathlon, physically. We all have the ability to be fit and to pursue these kinds of things athletically; it’s so much more a mind game. … I think as people we constantly try say to ourselves, ‘We can’t, we can’t,’ but if you switch the mindset you can. You can.”
Harlow’s first Half Ironman was in Muncie, Ind., in July 2014. She was immediately taken with the atmosphere of the event: Competitors waking up at 4 a.m. to get ready in the dark, pump-up music blasting around the course and hundreds of sleek, specialized triathlon bikes.
“I walked in with my same steel, aluminum bike I’ve had since seventh grade and my dorky helmet,” Harlow recalled. “I’m like, ‘What am I doing here?’ It was kind of intimidating but I just had so much fun. I still remember just smiling pretty much the entire run because I was just to happy to be there.”
Now Harlow has a triathlon bike of her own, a Cervelo with forward-facing aerobars and a steeper seat tube angle to minimize drag. Her typical training regimen includes two-a-day workouts, swimming in the morning and biking or running at night. In addition to swimming and biking at least twice weekly, she also does at least one speed run and one long-distance run.
Harlow supplements the cardio with plenty of abdominal workouts and weight training to strengthen her core and her neck, which she said gets very sore from being hunched during bike rides. She doesn’t follow a strict diet; she loves smoothies and kombucha but will happily eat a burrito or pizza whenever the mood strikes.
“I eat like a hippie half the time,” Harlow said. The other half, “I eat like an obese man.”
Whatever she’s doing is working. Harlow’s 5:31:39 finish at the Augusta qualifier shaved nearly 12 minutes off her time from that first race in Muncie. Her father, Bob Harlow, ran alongside her in Muncie. Since then, Olivia and Bob Harlow have also run a half-marathon together, and plan to enter a marathon in Nashville together in April.
Bob Harlow has been by Olivia Harlow’s side since her first race. Next week, he will join her in Australia to watch her compete in the world championships, an achievement he said has exceeded his expectations.
“I knew she was going to be good, I just didn’t know she was going to be this good,” Bob Harlow said. “On the course, you can just see the fire, the focus in her eyes. She wants to get in front of the next person in front of her.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing, however. In her second 70.3-mile triathlon, a hot and humid day in Nashville back in 2014, Olivia Harlow had just finished a grueling hilly bike course and was onto the footrace. Three miles from the finish line, she collapsed.
“It felt like someone was pumping concrete into my left calf muscle,” she said.
With no aid stations in sight, Olivia Harlow lay on the ground paralyzed with pain for nearly 10 minutes until a competitor running by helped her to her feet. Olivia Harlow limped across the finish line with tears in her eyes.
Olivia Harlow didn’t let that experience turn her away from the sport. Instead, it gave her more confidence going forward.
“I will do whatever it takes to cross the finish line,” she said. “Sometimes you can almost be more proud of yourself just knowing you felt like absolute crap and had all odds against you and still fought all the way through.”
The upcoming world championships will be an already big challenge complicated by what Olivia Harlow said is a declined fitness level. Olivia Harlow returned to the United States in February after spending four months interning at a newspaper in Cambodia, during which her training took a backseat. Cycling is always her weakest link, but the water portion in Australia won’t be a walk in the park, either — it will be her first ocean swim.
Olivia Harlow said she knows the odds will be stacked against her at the world championships, but is determined not to focus too much on results.
“It’ll be hard, but without staying positive I don’t even know if I could finish this thing right now,” she said. “In the grand scheme of things it’s five and a half, six hours of your life.”
There’s no predicting how Olivia Harlow will finish in the Ironman 70.3 World Championships. It might take her five hours. It might take her eight hours. But make no mistake: she will finish.