Lori Bowden can remember seeing them occasionally. The ‘normal people.’ They’d be out on weekends sipping trendy drinks or dressed to the nines and heading to a party. For a moment she’d wonder what it was like, before her thoughts returned to tomorrow’s training or the race in Hawaii the following week.

Ask the average person about life revolving around training forty hours a week, then swimming, biking, and running staggering distances back-to-back-to-back in Ironman triathlons around the world and they’d likely say it was anything but ‘normal.’

And, in a way, they’re right. The life of one of the greatest female triathletes of all time has been nothing short of remarkable.

Born in Fergus, Ontario, Bowden grew up in a Toronto-area household with parents who were both dedicated triathletes. She often watched their races on weekends and recalls being awed by the unique atmosphere at these events. Bowden always gravitated towards distance events, running cross-country in high school, but it wasn’t until 1987 when she became a regular triathlon competitor, albeit as a weekend hobby.

By fluke two years later, she moved up to the Ironman distance (3.8 km swim, 180 km cycle, 42.2 km marathon run), when she was disqualified for forgetting to wear her bike helmet in a qualifying race for the Ontario provincial team. To prolong the competitive season, her only option was to try a half-Ironman, which then qualified her for a full Ironman in Penticton, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Bowden moved to Victoria in the mid-1990s, where she was able to train year-round with rapidly improving race results. In 1997, she won her first Canadian Ironman event in Penticton and by 2002 would add four more Canadian titles. Before long she was known as “The Queen of Penticton.”

Bowden would add three wins in Australia and two in Austria over the course of her career, the second Austrian victory in a time of eight hours 51 minutes 22 seconds, still the second fastest time ever achieved by a female athlete. She is one of only five women to complete an Ironman in less than nine hours, accomplishing this feat three times.

Yet it’s in terms of sheer world championship results at the annual Kona Ironman in Hawaii where Bowden must be considered one of Canada’s most outstanding individual athletes of the past twenty years. Consider her yearly placings against the best international triathletes on the planet over an eight-year period beginning in 1996: 8th, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd, 1st.

In a sport where simply completing the grueling Ironman distance is considered an accomplishment, Bowden would win twelve events out of nearly thirty in a seven-year period. All the more extraordinary when besides the months of training required, the sheer distances involved, and the mental toughness needed to see it all through, race conditions can be brutal enough to stop the hardiest of competitors in their tracks. In Hawaii, if the rolling waves in the swim didn’t make one seasick, then there were the notorious hurricane-force gusts of wind that could blast a cyclist right off the road.

For Bowden the toughest parts were getting through the chaos of the swim fighting for every breath with thousands of thrashing arms and legs clubbing anyone who came too close, and then the cycle, which could suddenly grind to a halt with a slipped gear or flat tire. After all that, the marathon run was always a relief, where Lori Bowden felt truly free.

Normal? No. And thank goodness for that.

Written and researched by Jason Beck, Curator of the BC Sports Hall of Fame.