Arvada athlete redefines meaning of ‘trailblazer'

Steve Smith
ssmith@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 12/13/22

By day, Arvada’s Carol Whipple is a project manager for the National Park Service.

When she’s not handling those responsibilities, she’s a pretty good duathlete, a sport that …

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Arvada athlete redefines meaning of ‘trailblazer'

Posted

By day, Arvada’s Carol Whipple was a project manager for the National Park Service.

When she’s not handling those responsibilities, she’s a pretty good duathlete, a sport that combines two segments of running sandwiched around bicycling. She’s done that for 25 years and recently won an international title. She’s finished in the top 10 at world championships.

In 2022, she won a bronze medal in the spring duathlon and a gold medal in cross duathlon.

If you add it all up, Whipple has competed in more than 20 world championships in 13 countries.

Trailblazer #1

Whipple said she’s been athletic, starting off in elementary school.

 “We had field day competitions and the president’s fitness test,” she said. “I would usually be among the fastest and most fit in my class.”

Title IX was in its beginning phases when Whipple got into high school. Cross-country for girls wasn’t an option then.  

 “Since I loved to run, I gathered up my courage along with several other girls and approached the boys’ cross country coach about having a girls’ team,” she said. “He wasn’t too thrilled but agreed, requiring us to do the same workouts as the boys. Finding comparable girls cross country meets were few and far between as there were only a handful of girls’ high-school teams around the state.”

Her girls team entered the boys junior varsity meets. Whipple said the girls squad finished in the top half of the field. At the end of the season, she participated in her first “pioneer role” experience; her team won the first-ever state girls cross country title and, she said, “won the coach over. He was really proud.” 

That fall, two members of that team entered the Seattle Marathon. There were four women in the field.

“Marathoning was just beginning to become popular, but women running them was rare. It had just been a couple years, at that point, that there were actually ‘official’ women’s divisions,” Whipple said. “Nationally, there were approximately only 50 or less of us that competed in a marathon.”

It wasn’t her “favorite distance,” but Whipple qualified for the first women’s Olympic marathon trials in 1984. She started duathlon competitions in the late 1990s. She won the first Colorado State Games duathlon and qualified for her first USA Triathlon and competed with the national team at the world championships.

Training regimen

Whipple and her coach developed a training plan several months in advance of the world championships. Offseason work is slower and longer running sessions and miles on the bike for endurance. In the spring, she adds “speed intervals” and starts racing two or so times a month. It totals about 10 to 15 hours a week.

“As I’m still racing the sprint duathlon distance, I vary up my cycling workouts between the road and mountain bikes,” she said. “While Colorado is ideal for cross-duathlon training, with so many nearby trails, I do mix it up and train out of state to get experience with different types of terrain.”  

Her strength in cross duathlon comes from a running background.

 “I have really taken to the 'cross country' off-road trail running, the courses that feature steep descending and climbing in addition to log and stream obstacles. These are the most fun,” she said. “On the mountain bike sections, I enjoy the mental focus of reading the trails and riding over different types of terrain. In racing, however, one of my strengths has always been to have a very efficient and fast transition from run to bike and from bike to run. This is where a race can be won or lost. Precious seconds can mean the difference.”

Whipple said it’s important to build skill levels on all types of terrain. For her preparations for the world championships and other races, she said it’s important to get out and either run or ride the course as many times as possible before the actual race.

 “That way you have the equipment (shoes, tires) for the conditions, you know where the most challenging sections are (roots, rocks, drop-offs, switchbacks, etc) and how you’re going to ride it,” Whipple said. “Visualization is key, including keeping mentally focused in the race. It takes the most effort.” 

Trailblazer .. a few years later

“Duathlon race distances range from the shorter 5K run/30K bike/5K run format to the standard Olympic distance of 10k run, 40K bike, 5K run and longer distances equal to that of a half-Ironman (13.1K run, 70K bike, 10K run),” she said. “I’ve competed at all distances for Team USA.”

To qualify for the national team, athletes have to finish in the top six of their age groups at the national championships.

Whipple won the world championship in cross duathlon race earlier this year in Romania. She qualified for the world sprint duathlon in that country when she received an invitation to compete in cross duathlon at the World Multisport Championships

“I was intrigued by the challenge of learning new skills, training and preparing for this inaugural race,” she said. “Most athletes my age (she is in her mid-60s) have long hung up the mountain bike wheels. And for women my age to learn the skills in order to be competitive is pretty rare.”

After she accepted the invitation, she had six months to get ready.

 “I found the training to be fun, riding different terrain – kind of like being a kid again – on my bike, riding and jumping on the off-road trails,” Whipple said. “I took several lessons and trained with more experienced MTB riders so I learned the skills correctly from the start.”

Before leaving for the world championships, Whipple and her teammates researched the terrain and a potential race profile. It included a YouTube video of a ride through the course.

“But you don’t get the true sense of how hilly and technical it is until you see it firsthand,” she said. “The setting on Cornesti Plateau in Targu Mures, Romania was beautiful. The Black Forest is fairly open but has extremely steep hills and switchbacks, logs and rock drop-offs. The mountain bike course was very technical. We arrived several days in advance to become familiar with the course and get our equipment ready.”

Race prep, race day

Twelve members of team USA entered this first-ever cross duathlon, about half of the field; Whipple was the oldest. Her age group competitors were from Turkey and Austria. The temperature was in the mid-70s. The challenge was a late-in-the-day starting time.

“Most of us are used to racing in the morning hours,” Whipple said. “Our race would go off at 3:30 p.m. so managing timing on nutrition and rest was a challenge in itself. The men would start approximately 30 minutes before us. This would prove to be problematic on the mountain bike course later on.”

The four-mile cross-country run featured a winding trail through an open forest and trails lined with ferns. Runners had to jump over logs and several streams. The trail went back up the hill in time for a repeat loop of the same course.

Then it was time to transition onto the bikes.

 “We launched onto the downhill single-track trail with very tight switchbacks,” Whipple said. “The course wound its way along the hillside with several short steep climbs before descending further into the deepest part of the valley before dropping into the valley ravine. There were several challenging tall rock drop-offs as well.

“Sections were so steep that even the most experienced elites were having to walk their bikes up short distances,” Whipple added. “The men had been finishing up their last laps when the women began the bike segment. This was problematic in that there were very few passing zones, and the men were flying down the trail and running over anyone in their way. I had to bail several times but was not injured.”

The ride also included several bear sightings.

After the 15-mile bike ride ended, Whipple and the others ran one more loop.

“As a seasoned competitor, one of my favorite sayings is, ‘It’s not over until it’s over,’” she said. “In multisport, you might think you’ve , but there may have been a time penalty or a competitor slipping by that you might have missed. I had a sense from our Team USA leader (Tim Yount) that I had a slight lead over my competitors after the first run but it would be an all-out race on the mountain bike to stay ahead. My European competition was more experienced on the MTB. This would prove correct. After over three hours on the bike, literally only 4 seconds separated me from my competition.” 

‘On the edge’

 Whipple rode the bike course “on the edge.”

“The faster you ride, the more technical it becomes,” she said. “While it can be inherently dangerous, there is a real sense of accomplishment, and I didn’t want to feel like I had left anything out once the race was over. It was over four hours of adrenaline rush.” 

 She also ran into another program .. a race curfew.

“The race time cutoff was fast approaching. I knew that if I won, it would be tears of joy in the win. But also, it could be tears if I didn’t make the time cutoff,” she said. “I felt strong and determined heading out for the last run. I began to sense that I might actually win. This is where one has to dig deep to stay focused, will the body on and believe that you are going to finish.”

She climbed up one last hill, saw the finish line 120 yards ahead and a large timing clock.

“I had an exhilarating feeling of pride being a Team USA athlete,” she said. “As I crossed the finish line 20 minutes ahead of my competitor, my teammates were all cheering. The best part was that all of them had made a podium finish too. It was a formidable group of women – having been the very first to compete in this inaugural cross duathlon. Over four hours of epic racing had bonded us all.” 

Competing overseas

Whipple said there wasn’t anything unusual about competing in a foreign country, aside from COVID travel restrictions and staying healthy.

 “The European countries embrace the sport of duathlon, and it’s common to have thousands of people cheering at the race,” Whipple said. “Quite often they crowd the streets and plazas, and you ride through a sea of people, similar to the Tour de France. Children will ask for autographs and photos. Later, they will sometimes run alongside as you’re racing and chant, ‘USA USA.’  Each course has been uniquely different, from medieval towns with cobblestone streets to racing high in the Alps.” 

 Twelve of the members of the USA team competed alongside. She called the cross duathlon event “the most epic racing experience” as a “pioneer” cross duathlon competitor.

“The setting of the Black Forest was awe-inspiring, as was the challenge of the race course,” Whipple said. “It all came down to being physically trained, mentally prepared, having perfect weather and having an inner confidence that this was going to be my day.”

Cross duathlon, world championship cross duathlon, Carol Whipple

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