A First Time For Everything

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Champion triathlete Tyler Stewart will attempt her first 100-mile race Saturday at Western States.

Photo by Martin Sundberg

You might say Tyler Stewart has beginner’s luck.

“After college I moved to California. Everyone here does something athletic, so I felt like I was missing out,” says Stewart, who now lives in Novato, California. “One of my friends found out I didn’t know how to swim and dared me to do a triathlon. I did a Half Ironman and I happened to win, even though I was doggy paddling through the swim.”

The win was no fluke. Stewart went on to win the Amateur World Title at the 2005 and 2006 Ironman World Championships, and racked up a slew of accolades as a professional triathlete, including recording the fastest-ever bike split in an Ironman: 4:42:40 at Ironman Texas in 2011. … Not bad for someone who didn’t play a sport in college.

When she toes the line Saturday at the Western States Endurance Run in Squaw Valley, California (her first attempt at the 100-mile distance), she is hoping for the same good fortune that propelled her through that first triathlon.

While she was rising as a professional triathlete, Stewart discovered she had a knack for running. She won the 2009 and 2010 The North Face Endurance Challenge (TNF EC) 50K in San Francisco in 5:06:46 and 5:13:06 respectively. In 2011 she won her first marathon, the Santa Rosa Marathon in 2:45:14. The time qualified her for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston last January, where she placed 65th in 2:44:04.

Again, not bad considering she ran the TNF EC 50 Mile in San Francisco (she placed fifth in 8:00:52) only a few weeks before.

“After Kona last year, I got tired of triathlons,” says Stewart. “There wasn’t much of a challenge left in it for me because I knew I could do it.”

“I’m game for any challenge,” she says. “I don’t care if I have a more important race three weeks later.”

The latest challenge presented itself when she ended up volunteering at mile 85 of the 2011 Western States 100. “I was like, ‘I have to do this,’” she says.

Her time at TNF 50 qualified her for the Western States lottery, but her name was not drawn for the 2012 race. So she e-mailed the race director. “I said, ‘hey, I don’t know how this works, but I’m a pro triathlete, and I ran a 50-miler. Can I get in?’” she says.  “And he said ‘you can if you go place first or second in one of the Montrail Ultra Cup races.’”

It just so happened that one of the qualifying races was practically in her backyard. She signed up to run California’s Lake Sonoma 50 Mile on April 14. There was just one problem – while racing the Way Too Cool 50K in Cool, Calilfornia, on March 10, she tore her plantar fascia.

“I didn’t run between the races,” she says. “My next run after Way Too Cool was Lake Sonoma.”

The gap in training didn’t interrupt her goal of getting to the Western States starting line. Stewart passed a runner late in the race to finish second and claim her spot at the famous 100-mier.

“It’s been a long road since April, with little running and a lot of cortisone shots,” she says. “I’m not going into Western States the way I’d like to, but I’m up for an adventure.”

Whether she can persevere this weekend with minimal training – and in her debut at the distance – will be the fiercest test yet to her versatility and her streak of successful “first attempts.”

“Honestly, and a lot of people say this, my goal is to cross the finish line,” she says. “I’ve met lots of pro ultrarunners now, and many of them have not finished a lot of races, and they’ve been doing it for years. So I think that’s a good goal, to get my body over that finish line in the first try.”

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada