Tough love from Caitlin Snow

AP Photo/Chris Stewart

Caitlin Snow, right, finished ninth at the Ironman world championships in 2011 and is looking to leave everything on the course again this weekend in Hawaii. At left is Virginia Berasategui of Spain.

Caitlin Snow hadn't even reached her teens when she saw the suffering an Ironman could inflict, and she heard it calling her name.

"I saw an old video of Julie Moss crossing the finish line at the 1982 Ironman and was struck by the scene and the excitement and thought it was so inspiring," the 31-year-old from Brockton, Mass., said. "I had never seen anything like it before -- these amazing feats of endurance and toughness."

There was something about watching Moss stagger under the effects of dehydration, collapse and crawl across the finish line. At 13, Snow decided she had to try it for herself.

"My mom signed me up for the Worcester Youth Triathlon, and I remember I borrowed her bike and raced in flannel shorts and a tank top," said Snow, who has finished in the top 10 at the Ironman World Championships three years running and will be back in the hunt on Saturday in Kona, Hawaii. "At one point a kid rumbled by me on a Big Wheel. It was a goofy kids' race, but I had a blast."

After that she started racing triathlons around the state nearly every weekend of the summer and competed on a local swim team during the week.

"I was racing short-course events in the U19 division of mostly adult triathlons," she said. "I would win my age group every race because no one else was in my age group. At the time, I just loved all the encouragement and congratulations I was getting."

It wasn't until her sophomore year at the University of Massachusetts that she began to fully focus on triathlon, competing in ITU-format events (1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike and 10-kilometer run). In 2004 she even managed to snag the NCAA national championship as a senior, despite the fact that her school didn't have a triathlon team.

Two years later, a torn ACL rerouted her career from short-course triathlons to the infamous Ironman distance (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run).

"As I was rehabilitating, I did a lot of long training with my husband, who was training for an Ironman, and I knew I always wanted to move up to that distance," she said. "A few months before the race, I decided I had might as well give it a try."

AP Photo/Chris Stewart

The 26.2-mile run is where Caitlin Snow truly shines.

The 2007 Ironman Lake Placid served as an epiphany.

"I just instantly loved the event and the crowd support," she said. "There's something about the long day and pushing your body that much, versus pushing yourself over a shorter distance."

It was then that she decided she would put all her efforts into qualifying for the world championships in Kona. After winning the 2008 Ironman Lake Placid and punching her ticket to the championships, she officially made the leap from full-time high school math teacher to professional triathlete.

"I was taken with that desire to constantly improve, to push a little harder, adjust this or tweak that," said Snow, who most recently won Ironman 70.3 Steelhead in Michigan, a half-Ironman event, in August. "There's nothing like that feeling of crossing the finish line knowing you did everything you could do and it paid off. That's especially true at Kona."

Holding three of the top-10 best marathons splits in the history of the world championships, she hopes to add to her growing résumé as one of the best American Ironman triathletes. She finished ninth last year in Kona.

"My biggest goal is always to be as tough as I can," she said of this weekend's championships. "If I leave everything out on the course, when I cross that finish line, I can't be anything but happy."

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