As she neared the finish line at The Woodlands’ Town Green Park more than 14 hours after her journey began, Shannon Puphal summoned the strength to flash a smile.
The pain from the hyperextended knee during the 2.4-mile swim; the heat that drained her through the 112-bike ride; and fatigue from a 26.2-mile run all seemed worth it as she heard announcer Mike Riley’s words.
“To hear him say my name and ‘You are an Ironman,’” Puphal recalled. “It’s a most emotional thing.”
Puphal, the marketing and communications director for Wise Regional Health System, put herself in elite status among endurance athletes by completing the inaugural Memorial Hermann Ironman Texas event May 21 in the Houston suburb. The 35-year-old mother finished the 140.6 miles of swimming, biking and running in 14 hours, 41 minutes and 14 seconds.
She was one of 2,001 finishers who battled through the intense heat and humidity to accomplish a feat that few athletes have performed.
“Half of 1 percent of people can do a half marathon, and that’s just running,” said veteran triathlete and Fit-N-Wise trainer Mike Bowers. “What percent of people can accomplish [an Ironman]? Not that many.”
He said it’s even more impressive considering that Puphal had competed in her first triathlon just two years before.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “She did her first sprint in 2009, and two years later she was doing her first full Ironman. It’s incredible to go to that distance that fast.”
Puphal has always been an athlete, but not always an endurance athlete.
Growing up in Central California, her first love was gymnastics.
“I was 5-2 until my junior year, and then I grew seven inches in the summer,” Puphal said. “That was it for me though I still competed my senior year.”
Because of her gymnastics background, she also did some diving in high school although she was never much of a swimmer.
“The farthest that I ever swam was from the pool to the ladder to get out of the pool,” she said.
After college, Puphal started running a few 5Ks with a friend, who eventually talked her into signing up for a 10K.
“I remember telling her that I was going to kill her,” Puphal said. “It was the most miserable experience. I remember thinking that I’m not meant to run this far.”
But she continued running, joining Team In Training in 2000 and finishing the Governor’s Cup Marathon in Montana.
Puphal moved to Texas, and when she had her daughter in 2008, she took a break from running.
After giving birth, she looked for a new challenge with her friend and colleague at Wise Regional, Michelle Stone.
“I wanted to do the Try the Tri, and we started training as a group effort,” Puphal said.
Even with a running background, it was a big step for her.
“I had just learned to swim freestyle a couple months before and hadn’t ridden a bike much since grade school,” Puphal said.
With the small field at the first-time triathlon event, a nervous Puphal dived into the pool at Fit-N-Wise and swam the 250-yard leg.
“Coming out of the water at the Try the Tri, I was just happy not to drown,” she said.
After that first triathlon and the enjoyable experience at the Try the Tri, she was hooked.
“I just fell in love with it,” Puphal said. “I’ve always run, but with the triathlon you get to mix up your training. It’s more of a full-body workout.”
Bowers said that was one of the goals of the Try to Tri.
“We design the Try the Tri for beginners to make it a great experience,” he said. “We make it fun, and a lot of people have gone on from beginning there to doing more.”
She completed another event in McKinney afterward, then moved up to Olympic distance, completing the race at Lake Bridgeport and qualifying for nationals.
Puphal kept upping the ante, and on New Year’s 2010, she made the decision to sign up for her first Half-Ironman in Galveston that April.
“I remember sitting on the dock thinking ‘what am I doing?’” Puphal said. “Once I got in the water, I took it slow and tried to enjoy it.”
She told her parents who came to the race to expect to carry her out on a stretcher. Instead, her orders were to sign her up for a full Ironman.
“It was a great experience,” Puphal said.
After missing out on registration for the Florida and Arizona races, she got in the first Texas event.
She kicked off her training in October, 30 weeks before the event. Training started with eight to 10 hours per week of work. It inched up to close to 20 over six days.
Most of her lunch hours were spent swimming at Fit-N-Wise or on Old Reunion Road for a 6.2-mile run. She would hit the bike trainer at night after her daughter went to bed.
On weekends, she would get in her distance rides or runs, but she had one rule to keep her from training all weekend.
“I always wanted to make sure I was home for a pancake breakfast with my daughter one day a weekend,” Puphal said.
Since January, the miles piled up. She biked 2,332 miles, ran 367 and swam 150,262 yards.
The training paid off for her second Half Ironman in April as she cut an hour off her time from the previous year.
Then May 21, she woke up at 3:30 a.m. and started preparations for her big day. Finally, the gun went off to start the swim.
“The start was chaos; there were legs, elbows and feet everywhere,” Puphal said. “I had never been in a mass start with men before.”
After an hour and 37 minutes, she completed the 2.4-mile swim.
“The swim was over before I knew it,” she said. “I would swim the full distance every Friday. My goal was to come out of the water and feel like I had not started.”
She hit the bike for the tortuous bike ride as the temperature soared past 90 degrees.
“The first part of the bike was uneventful, and then I started to see the heat cause damage,” Puphal said. “Luckily we had an overcast to save the race from being a disaster.”
Puphal took six hours and 47 minutes to complete the 112-mile ride. Off the bike, she began the three-loop, 26.2-mile run. With the heat, humidity and a leg that she couldn’t fully stretch out after injuring it on the swim, she took it slowly.
“I felt good the first loop,” she said. “You just have to take what the day gives you. I was out there to get it done. It was going to be a PR regardless.”
Five hours and 55 minutes after starting the run and more than 14 hours after she began her long personal conversation with herself, Puphal neared the finish and saw her family members.
“It’s overwhelming,” Puphal said. “You start this whole journey, thinking you can do this. Then you cross that mat. There’s no words for it. It’s an awesome experience.”
The new Iron Woman hopes to return to competition in July at Ray Roberts Lake near Denton. She will be at the Try the Tri June 11 at Fit-N-Wise, where her triathlon career started, cheering on and helping beginning triathletes.
“If it wasn’t for the Try the Tri, I would have never accomplished this goal,” she said. “The support made me want to do more.”
Getting a Start
The Fit-N-Wise Try the Tri Triathlon for beginning triathletes will start 7 a.m. Saturday, June 11, at Wise Regional Health System. The event consists of a 250-yard swim, eight-mile bike ride and two-mile run. Cost is $30 and is limited to 100 participants. Register at http://www.active.com.
Racking Up the Miles
Since the calendar turned to 2011, Shannon Puphal piled up the miles in preparation for her first Ironman. Here’s a breakdown:
- 2,332 miles on the bike
- 367 miles running
- 85.75 miles swimming
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