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Willmar woman embraces Ironman challenge

Kristen Williamson completes grueling Ironman Triathlon in under 14 hours

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Willmar resident Kristen Williamson runs during the 2021 Ironman Triathlon on Sept. 12, 2021 in Madison, Wis. Williamson finished the race in 13 hours, 51 minutes, 35 seconds. Photo Courtesy of the Williamson family.

WILLMAR — Willmar resident Kristen Williamson woke up on Sunday, Sept. 12, in Madison, Wis., to embark upon one of the toughest challenges ever created: Swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2, the same distance of a marathon, all in the same day. The challenge is known as the Ironman Triathlon.

She did so in 13 hours, 51 minutes, 35 seconds.

Williamson, 30, was born in Indiana. Growing up, Kristen and her older sister, Amanda, were fit and energetic but not in extracurricular activities.

“I guess growing up I was a gymnast and a dancer, so not even kind of in that realm,” Williamson said. “I had run kind of with my dad when I was in middle school and high school. But I never formally did track or cross country.

“As far as swimming goes, I would just swim recreationally, not on any teams or anything like that, '' she added. “And then biking, most people bike as a kid so you kind of have that experience. But it was definitely a shift going into this race.”

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As time went by, Williamson’s interest in conquering enduring challenges began to take shape.

After completing half-marathons (13.1 miles), and regular marathons (26.2 miles), Williamson was proud of her accomplishments, but wanted something more.

Goal set

After watching her sister complete the Ironman Triathlon first hand in 2015, her new goal was officially set.

“I got to experience the finish line and it was incredible,” she said. “You see just all different kinds of people take on this challenge and it’s awesome to see people finish it. From that point I just kind of really had it in my head that I really wanted to complete this sort of challenge at one point in my life.”

Despite knowing what the next challenge was going to be, the question then became when would be the best time to do it?

“I thought about it for years and just was really interested in doing it,” she said. “It takes a lot of time to prepare even for the day and even before you start training.”

When Williamson and her husband, Taylor, moved to Willmar, the thought of completing the challenge was still there.

Finally, Williamson signed up for the Ironman Triathlon in 2019 with the hopes of participating in the challenge in 2020.

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The preparation began immediately.

Demanding training schedule

The majority of her time off-time was spent first swimming indoors before swimming in lakes, spending seven to eight hours at a time biking, and running long distances.

Williamson described the preparation and training as being a part-time job.

“I would get up really early in the mornings and go and swim at the YMCA. There would be times where I’d have to do another workout after working my full time job and come home at night,” she said.

“Most weekends I was out swimming, biking or running. Outside of the somewhat normal day-to-day things, doing your job, doing things at home, it’s the only other thing I did for about a year.”

With so much preparation having to go into the race, Williamson credited her husband in being the ultimate suporter.

“He has been great and just such an encouragement and I think that it helped me keep going even when things were really tough,” she said. “He supported me at times by meeting with me out on my bike, even doing some of my bike rides with me. He wanted to go on runs together, so we spent a lot of time being active anyway.”

With the pandemic occurring in 2020, so too came the cancellation of the Ironman Triathlon.

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Some may have viewed the cancellation as an inconvenience, but Williamson, a person of faith, saw it differently.

“It was kind of actually a blessing that (it got canceled) because it gave me an extra year to train for it,” she said. “I think by the time it came around (this year) I was just so excited to be able to be there and complete the challenge. It almost kind of gave me a year to look forward to it.”

After years of preparation, the time had come for Williamson and her husband to travel to Madison.

Throughout the car ride, and the night prior, Williamson explained the thoughts that swirled in her mind.

“Wondering if your body is really going to keep up with you throughout that. Just kind of tackling the unknown has really been one of the hardest things,” she said. “Even doing workouts where I was going further and further distances. There’s still a little bit of nervousness that goes into that to just kind of go after that and be confident that your body is going to keep up.”

On Sept. 12, WIlliamson stood among more than 2,500 participants and continued to keep herself motivated and positive throughout the day.

“I told myself that morning and kind of repeated to myself ‘you’re going to become an Ironman today,’” she said.

When it came time to get into Lake Monona to begin the race, Williamson got into what she described as being somewhat calm water.

With thousands of participants nearly swimming in the same place, Williamson explained the key to success within the water.

“One of the first things you want to do is make sure that you’re calm and you’re breathing,” she said. “No matter who is swimming around you, because there are so many people in the water, just really calm your mind and really get in a good head space.”

While she was confident in her preparation, the validation did not officially come until during the swim.

“I think it wasn’t until I started swimming and actually started the race where I was just in it and really felt like ‘this is going to happen today no matter what,’” she said.

Nearing the end of the 2.4 mile swim came the preparation of the transition from swimming to biking.

Williamson was nervous about how the transition would go, until she realized she had more excitement than nerves at the exact moment of transition.

“It actually went better than what I thought it was going to,” she said. “You kind of use that excitement and help to kind of get that transition to your next event, which biking is the majority of where you spend your day.”

With having to bike 112 miles after swimming over two miles, Williamson was prepared knowing that muscle tension and fatigue were sure to kick in during this time.

Which it did, in just over 100 miles biked.

“I think one of the things that you always keep in the back of your mind is you can do anything for one day,” she said. “That was kind of my mantra and motto for one day, just knowing that this pain is very temporary, but it’s a goal or something that has been on your mind for years. I think you constantly remind yourself of that.

“I think the other thing is the adrenaline of the day and finally being in the race also helps to kind of push through those moments.”

Williamson says her faith also guided her through the race in its toughest times.

“I prayed for strength, guidance, and endurance throughout,” she said.

After hours of biking, Williamson felt the absolute excitement of preparing for the transition of running a marathon.

“Being able to get off that bike and start running kind of really felt like the cherry on top because running is my strongest sport,” she said. “Being able to finish out with the marathon, as crazy as that sounds, was actually just kind of like the best way I could finish out the day.”

During the run, Williamson felt the cheers and supports from bystanders and University of Wisconsin students.

However, it was when she saw her two biggest supporters, her husband and older sister, that gave her the ultimate boost.

“Being able to see them as I was heading out on my run was really just energizing and it gave me the energy to finish strong,” she said.

After hours of ultimate endurance, Williamson began to feel her goal was going to be completed between the 23-24 mile mark, less than three miles from the finish line.

“That is very late in the game, but I purposely kind of didn’t let myself believe that until I was that close,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to stay present throughout the whole process and kind of enjoy and take in the day.”

In the closing moments of the race, Williamson met with a runner she had started her swim with at the start of the day.

“She actually said, ‘we’re going to become Iron Men today. That's the point in which it really sunk in,” Williamson said. “I was finally able to say, ‘yeah, I’m going to finish this thing. I’m going to be able to call myself an Ironman.”

When it came to the final left turn, with the Wisconsin State Capital in the background amongst the night sky, Williamson happily stretched out her arms wide in triumph as the announcer yelled out, ‘Kristen Williamson, you are an Ironman!’

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Kristen (left) Williamson smiles with her husband, Tyler, after completing the Ironman Triathlon on Sept. 12, 2021 in Madison, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of the Williamson family.

Mission accomplished

Her final time was 13 hours, 51 minutes, 35 seconds.

“I remember just being so happy. I was just yelling just for joy down the final stretch,” she said.

“I think you just have so many emotions. So many things that you think about. You think about all of the hours of training, and for me it was really about the journey just to get to the start line and really kind of think of the community that I had built back in Willmar through this process.”

After hours of maximum endurance, and years of preparation, Williamson said the cool down did not take minutes, or hours, but days.

“It took me a few days, actually about a week to calm myself down,” she said. “When you finish a goal like that you always kind of have a little bit of sadness that it’s over. But I think that’s kind of the other side of racing too, that you realize that it’s not really your entire life and to be able to come back to friends and family and the community that I built over the past couple of years going through this process.”

Williamson says her proudest moment of completing the Ironman Triathlon is bringing her achievement back to Willmar, and hopefully inspiring other women as well.

“My hope is that I can encourage other women to go out and go after some of those goals that seem like they’re impossible, or things that maybe there aren’t a lot of women doing them,” she said. “That’s my hope.”

When asked if she would like to partake in the Ironman Triathlon again, or what the next challenge might be, the 30-year-old said it’s something to think about.

“It’s hard for me to say I would never do (the Ironman Triathlon) again. I think it definitely could be a possibility in the future. For now though I might take a few years before I do another challenge,” she said.

Matthew Curry is a sports reporter and photographer for the West Central Tribune.
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