Story and photos by Kristen McFarland
ISSUE #22, Winter 2003/2004 – Monica Caplan grew up swimming in Boulder. She started at five and swam for the local club team, the Poseidons, and then at Boulder High School. A scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Madison sent her east to compete for three more years.
Then in the summer of 2000 she tried the Longmont Triathlon. “I came from a swimming background so I just thought I’d give it a whirl.”
“It was hilarious. I had my brother’s bike that I didn’t even know how to ride.” She was first out of the water, and third in her age group, though, and she’d had a great time. “When you lead a race, it’s always fun, and I led the race for a little while.”
Her next try was Boulder Peak. “I think I was third or fourth in my age group.” Although she felt stronger on the bike she was very disappointed with a 52 minute 10K. So she started to train.
Back in Boulder at this point finishing up her degree at CU, she was teaching some swimming on the side, and met Siri Lindley. Siri suggested Monica try her coach, Brett Sutton of Australia, who has coached many world-class Olympic distance athletes. He began to coach her over the internet.
In early June of 2001 she went to Lake Placid to race in the USA Triathlon age-group qualifier for the ITU Olympic distance World Championships and was second overall by less than a minute. This was with a severely shortened swim due to freezing waters.
Then she qualified for the Ironman World Championships at Buffalo Springs in Texas. This was in her first half Ironman ever. She turned her slot down, though. She had a feeling that there would be other opportunities.
Time to get serious and turn professional. At the ITU World Championships in Edmonton she met Sutton, who had just coached Siri to the win. He invited Monica to join in a camp in Brazil the next fall for the southern hemisphere racing season.
In South America in races in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay, she learned the draft-legal style of international Olympic distance racing. In her first international points race in Brazil she came in second.
Spring of 2002 came and training was going very well, but then she had a bad bike accident during a 40 x 1K loop drafting training session. The girl in front of her went down and took Monica out. Time to go home.
After two broken ribs and three surgeries to repair a shattered radius, all she could do that summer was rehab and things like the elliptical trainer and the wind trainer. She did manage to race Treasure Island in California that November and pulled off a third place finish. “I had a really good race, surprisingly.”
Monica headed down under to Australia for the winter, returning to work with Sutton. But the crash had shaken her. “I was very timid. In those situations, World Cup, ITU, it’s so fast and so technical, and you just have to be on.” She also was having trouble with the way that the athletes in the bike pack in drafting races all come off the bike at the same time and it becomes mostly a running race. “I wasn’t having fun.” So she hung it up and left for home in April.
She started working with Coach Dave Scott, and he suggested she try the Utah Half Ironman. Her second stab at the longer distance was very successful. She led until mile 10 on the run and came in second. “After that I just said, “This was easy, I’m going to go do an Ironman.”
The upcoming Ironman USA Coeur d’Alene was her choice. In Idaho she was the first woman to finish the swim and then led the bike for around fifty miles. “I had a rough marathon. I never stopped, I ran the whole way, but it was a long, long, day.” She came in third, not bad for the first time racing the distance, and qualified for the World Championships in Kona.
Before that, though, she netted her first professional win at the Half Vineman in August, leading from start to finish. “I had a great day that day, a great run. I just felt good the whole day.”
She didn’t have expectations that were too high. “It’s always like a big talk-up. People just say how hard it is and how hot it is and how windy it is. Like it’s the root of all evil.” So she tried to remember that she had put the training in and to make it be just another race and not pay too much attention to “all the war stories.”
As was her usual M.O. for the season, she led out of the water with a 50:28 swim split. Then she hung on to the lead for a couple of hours on the bike and rode the 112 miles in 5:19:23. Again, the run was the tough part. “Every step was agony. But I didn’t walk, and I ran [3:41]…”
Although it was “the most painful experience of my life,” Monica is ready to try again next year. “I think with more training, and now I know what to expect, and with better preparation, hopefully it won’t be as painful of a day.” She’ll probably be going harder and faster the next time, so maybe there will still be plenty of pain, but she just might go fast enough to get paid for her efforts by cracking the top ten.