‘It’s not over until I win.’
This was the Les Brown quote Charlotte Kooima had written on her arm during her first Half Ironman triathlon. And for the 46-year-old, crossing the finish line was most certainly a personal victory.
Inspired by her sister’s 1998 marathon finish, Kooima embarked on her own marathon journey that same year. She knew training wouldn’t be as easy in her rural Iowa town of just 7,000 people with no running store, training groups or major support system.
“I’m crazy and nuts by nature and wired to be super independent,” she says with a laugh. “My husband married nuts!”
Since beginning her journey to 26.2 miles, Kooima completed 10 marathons before adopting the first of their two daughters in 2006. “When I became a mom, I willingly put my life on the back burner and did the mom thing,” she recalls. “I just told myself that I had a good run at all of the marathon stuff.”
The realities of motherhood and caregiving enveloped her life for the next eight years. During this time, both her mother and grandmother got sick, and she found herself taking care of her parents and her children.
Kooima knew she had plenty of good to give, but had lost herself and her athlete identity along the way. She gained a substantial amount of weight and generally felt pretty bad about herself. It was a walk with her kids in 2014 that proved to be the pivotal moment in her fitness journey.
“I’m not built like a runner or triathlete, but I’ve got guts and more grit than you will ever know.”
She remembers that day vividly when she admitted out loud, “I’m not happy, and I’m tired of slapping on a smile for everyone!” She missed the endorphin surge of running, along with the stiff muscles and sweating that came with it. Then and there, Kooima committed to bringing herself back to running and fitness.
While the best-laid plans are always full of good intentions, a freak fall during a run and subsequent foot surgery in late 2014 stopped Kooima in her tracks shortly after she started training and racing again. She found her goals on the back burner once again.
“Thankfully, I am very stubborn and my goal was to return stronger than before,” she says. She even remembers telling the surgeon, “I don’t care what you have to do — get that foot back to the point of running!”
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To aid in her training efforts, Kooima started logging her workouts and keeping track of mileage and food intake, resulting in a 30-pound weight loss.
In 2015, Kooima embarked on her comeback 2.0 — with a vengeance. In addition to running seven half marathons in nine weeks, Kooima also completed her first sprint-distance triathlon. It was a small race with about 30 athletes and she admits she didn’t know what she was doing.
“I went with the flow,” she says. “I enjoy each component of the triathlon, but I just didn’t know if I could put them together.” Luckily, she was able to put them together and found a new passion — and challenge.
JOURNEY TO HER FIRST HALF IRONMAN
Kooima tore into triathlons in 2016, completing eight sprint-distance races. Her mind started to drift to the thought of eventually attempting a half Ironman distance triathlon (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run) but she feared telling people her goals and aspirations because of how she thought people viewed her.
“I’m not built like a runner or triathlete,” she says emphatically. “But I’ve got guts and more grit than you will ever know.”
The thought of doing an Ironman-branded race posed a new challenge, and once her brain took hold of the challenge, she knew she had to do it. She started her training mostly in private. She trained through the harsh Iowa winter — mostly on treadmills and bike trainers — in the early morning and daytime hours so that she could be present for her family in the evenings. Save for a handful of friends and family, she told no one of her plans to take on the 2017 Ironman Wisconsin 70.3 race. As much as she hates to admit it, she was afraid of failing and still had plenty of doubts.
Confident in the bike and run, the swim became Kooima’s biggest obstacle. During her first Olympic-distance triathlon, she had suffered a panic attack because it was her first time in a wetsuit, which can feel very constricting if you’re not used to the tightness.
Knowing a wetsuit would be in her future and determined not to repeat that fearful moment, Kooima drove to Madison, Wisconsin, for an Ironman Wisconsin 70.3 training camp. She hoped the camp would allow her to experience the atmosphere and the course conditions as they might be on race day. Unfortunately, her practice swim triggered the same wetsuit panic she felt months prior and, for the first time, she was ready to throw in the towel. She even texted a friend, saying, “This is where I end.” His response? “Oh, no it’s not.”
“I had my pity party for a few minutes,” she recalls. “But my friend flipped that switch for me. It’s amazing what you can do when someone believes in you.”
Her moment of truth came on June 10, 2017: Ironman Wisconsin 70.3 race day. This was the culmination of regaining a sense of pride, identity and achieving a goal she never thought possible. Charlotte Kooima was toeing the line at her first half Ironman triathlon.
Given her recent swim experiences, she was most fearful of the swim, but she simply started off slow. A few breast strokes helped make her comfortable in the water and before she knew it, the swim leg was over — without so much as a second thought.
“I remember smiling so big in the water,” says Kooima. “I conquered the swim and could’ve cared less about how the rest of the race went!”
Unfortunately, the race didn’t go as smooth as she had hoped, but her spunky attitude and determination continued to propel her. At one point on the bike leg, she dropped her chain on a hill, but quickly got off the bike and fixed it, giving the hill a piece of her mind, shouting “Not today hills! You’ve got nothing on me! I’ve worked too hard and have come too far!”
“I don’t think we challenge ourselves enough or give ourselves enough credit. Never underestimate the inner self.”
After 56 miles on the bike, Kooima started the 13.1-mile run to the finish line. Her favorite sport was actually her toughest that day because she had underestimated her caloric needs and found herself completely bonking on the run.
“By mile 6, I wanted to throw up because I was drinking so much water and not enough electrolytes,” she says. “My stomach was sloshing around.”
It was a low point, but it never occurred to her to stop. “I just kept telling myself that I have to get around this lake to get back to my bike. I have no choice. I have to keep moving.”
As she approached the finish chute, she received the push she needed from one of the volunteers, who shouted “Now is the time for the guts!” Kooima felt like that was meant for her, and in that moment, she knew she had the guts to finish.
Kooima picked up the pace and ran across that finish line of her most difficult, but rewarding race. “It’s so special because I didn’t think I could,” she gushes. “I had to dig deeper than ever before. I don’t think we challenge ourselves enough or give ourselves enough credit. Never underestimate the inner self.”
Her advice to others who want to challenge themselves? “Find your inner strength. Everyone has it,” she says. “We all have endurance in something and you will surprise yourself. Don’t listen to the negativity that comes with the mind!”
Most important, though, Kooima gives her favorite tip: “Always finish with a smile.”
Written by Carrie Barrett, an IRONMAN Certified Coach, a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach and a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She is a contributor to Austin Fit Magazine, Ironman.com and other running and triathlon-related outlets. She is also the author of two e-books on the sport of triathlon available on Amazon.
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