Boulder, or San Diego? San Diego, or Boulder? Which place creates champions? Everyone makes a deal of training in Boulder and San Diego. But which is best in America: the altitude, the open roads, the solitude? There is also San Diego, with its beaches, open water swimming and inland hills. Which is the go-to place to get fast, to get tough?
Then you have Haley Chura’s training grounds: Bozeman, Montana. The northwestern state, along the edge of the Rockies is home to desolate roads, world-famous thermal geysers, and wilderness creatures capable of killing creatures rivaling those of Australia with its saltwater crocs, great white sharks and deadly jellyfish. It’s this escarpment where Haley Chura has honed her craft to the tune of six Kona starts —three as an age grouper, three as a pro.
And yeah, at 4,700ft above sea level, it’s got elevation.
Toughest place to train? It’s Boseman. OK, maybe Chura wins.
“Hey, it’s a special place!” Chura says. “It’s set me up well for years in Ironman.”
Perhaps it’s that hard wilderness training that saw her score a fourth-place finish in 9:24 in late June, an effort that resulted in what will be her fourth career Hawaii Ironman World Championship pro start this October. The Big Show is back and Chura is thrilled to have a ticket to the show.
“It was a good return to racing. It’s been 2017 since I’ve been to Kona, and it is a special place, so I’m thrilled to go back. I love the triathlon community, and that race is a reunion.”
Chura’s name is indeed a familiar one on the pro racing circuit, one you always find on a start list—and generally find on the podium. Her 2020 season started with marathon on her mind— a big one: Olympic Trials. And thanks to Covid, that was the start and end to her 2020 campaign.
Her penchant for just getting the job done at home in Bozeman, Montana (not exactly a famed triathlon hotbed) stands to good reason. Her mother was a professional downhill skier, and her father was a swimmer and lifeguard. Bozeman, a town of 114,000 people, is best known for nature. Winters with skiing, summer activities ranging from rock climbing to hunting. And yes, it’s home to famed Yellowstone National Park.
It’s also home to wildlife. We’re not talking trash pandas (raccoons) or feral cats. Remember what you know about Yogi Bear and Boo-Boo? Bears. And not the timid black bears. Think The Revenant; grizzly bears. It’s downright dangerous in the hood. Add massive bison and unpredictable wolves and coyotes to the mix, and it’s the wild at its wildest. Chura needs to take greater care than most when headed out on a ride.
“We have some incredible rides, and often, they take some planning. I’ve often done 90-mile rides with my dad sagging for me, and it’s because of the animals,” Chura says. “I sometimes carry bear spray, and if you come across a heard of bison—you wait. I remember a day in May where I rode up behind a group of bison and was just too afraid to go by it. I said, ‘I’m not messing with that.’ So, I jumped in dad’s car, we went past, and then I got me and my bike back out and continued.”
And yes, there are those things she really needs to keep her eyes out for.
“I rode in Glacier National Park one day and saw a grizzly far off in the distance on Beartooth Highway. Oh, and tourists. Tourists with their RVs, they’re the toughest ones to deal with sometimes!” she says with a laugh.
In truth, there are the normal wildlife: deer, birds (some that will swoop down on you like magpies,” Chura adds. “And babies! So many baby bison, so cute! We get good wildlife!”
With a state motto of Big Sky Country, Montana really that—it’s truly country.
“I remember one day riding with a friend pulled up to a general store on our bikes and noticed a horse tied up to the hitching post. It took me a second to remember—that’s not normal for most people to see.
Chura’s path to Kona went through Coeur d’Alene, a race she didn’t even initially have on her docket.
“I did Ironman 70.3 St. George and felt a little rusty,” she said. “When Coeur d’Alene was added as a pro qualifying race, and it wasn’t in my planning, but 2021 is the year of being flexible with your plans! It was geographically convenient, and I’d won the 70.3 there in 2017 and 2018, so doing it as an Ironman was a longtime bucket list race for me anyway. So, it became a situation of just taking opportunities when you get them.”
With just eight weeks of prep, she dialed up the volume, and gave it a crack with the rest of the field in 100 degree-plus Fahrenheit temps. And as the day went on, things were clicking along….provided she kept the core temp down.
“It was funny—I was on the run and a guy on a moto was interviewing me in the race decided to go through a sprinkler set up on course for athletes, and I was like, uh, —I need that water!” she said. “I ended up doing a 3:05 marathon in 100-degree heat. I didn’t expect to get a slot, but to be able to run in the heat and get to Kona, it’s a good thing going to a place like Kona.”
Chura’s Kona expectations? She knows enough to know it’s hard to set goals in a place so unforgiving. She does recognize the pandemic has created two classes of athletes that could really change the fate of many athletes; those who qualified pre-pandemic closing with no race action in their legs—in many cases, for over a year—and those who qualified post-pandemic opening. It could make for some interesting dynamics. Chura hopes to be part of the pot-stirring in the race.
“It’s really fascinating,” Chura says. “With some qualifying back in 2019, and the logistics so different for so many athletes, we’ve just never had a Kona like this. I recognize that some countries don’t have the same vaccination opportunities or have different training restrictions or opportunities. It’s going to be a special Kona.
“I watched the swimming Olympic trials,” Chura adds, “and Katie Ledecky said she really appreciates the sensations her body goes through in the 1500, even the fatigue. Pain from effort is a privilege. The pain of running up Palani from tight hip flexors, even my fingernails hurting heading into the Energy Lab, I just look forward to being healthy, fit and ready to experience those sensations.”
In the end, Chura is just happy to get to play on the sport’s biggest stage.
“Kona is always a wild race—people take big risks, everyone goes big, nobody settles—and that’s what makes it so exciting. I think a lot of people are like me; just happy it’s even happening. I just hope I help make the race exciting, and that it’s going to be a big party!”
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