Hanna Grinaker, the best long-distance runner in Detroit Lakes high school history and standout at the University of Wisconsin, recently tested her endurance on the world stage at the Ironman World Championships in October at Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
The life path to Kona, however, was fraught with ups and downs physically, mentally and emotionally.
In high school, Grinaker was a two-time state cross country runner-up and dominated every regular season and section meet from her freshman through senior seasons, along with being a versatile star of the track and field team. She’s the school record holder in the 800, 1,600, 3,200m races, and anchor of the record 4x800m relay team, along with holding the best 4k and 5k cross country times ever.
“Hanna was probably one of the strongest competitors I’ve ever been around,” said former DL head track coach Mike Labine. “She was going to put herself out there on the line every day as hard as she possibly could. It’s just amazing how hard she worked.”
Labine and Grinaker still stay in touch, even speaking after Grinaker’s Ironman finish.
At Wisconsin, she was the 2006 Big Ten freshman of the year in cross country, an All-American 2006-07, All-Region 2006-08 and two-time first team All-Big Ten 2006-07, second team in 2008.
Her final collegiate season was wiped out due to injury and for the next decade she went through a variety of emotions about competing, both good and bad.
Compounding those feelings, a romance started at the Fargo marathon, which played a part in turning her back to endurance training.
In her fifth year at Wisconsin, Grinaker suffered a pubic ramus stress fracture while training for the Big 10 cross country championships.
“That’s so central and the root of your core,” she said.
Grinaker didn’t run for a year.
The following fall she pursued her master’s degree in exercise science at NDSU and was a grad assistant for the Bison track and XC programs. She was running, but nothing regimented or competitive.
“I felt like running became something that wasn’t fun anymore,” said Grinaker.
She got back into competing at the 2013 Fargo half marathon, which she won. It was the first of a variety of victories to come but on the life side of things Fargo was also where she met her future fiancé Sean Cooley mid-race.
“I passed him in the race with three miles to go and ended up beating him,” Grinaker said.
Cooley reached out to her after the race and the two kept in touch and started dating in 2014.
Cooley was a triathlete when they met, Grinaker wasn’t sure what she was.
They officially became a couple at a half-marathon in Duluth.
The two moved to Minneapolis in 2015 where Cooley was beginning a residency in anesthesiology.
Cooley was competing at the time, Hanna wasn’t.
“I didn’t really enjoy it that much,” she said
Finding a way back to enjoyment came in equal small parts of destiny and chance and Cooley had a lot to do with it. However, competing for Grinaker is a highly personal space she owns within herself. Taking on new challenges and experiences provide an optimal outlet.
“What I’ve found is I’m so much more myself and I feel like I have so much more energy and I’m so much more positive and spiritual when I’m pushing my body or just being active,” she said. “It’s helping you move your emotion rather than feeling your emotions.”
In the fall of 2015, Grinaker came home from work and Cooley had a triathlon bike waiting in the living room.
“I had really no interest in doing any multi-sport but we biked together on a ski trip in Aspen,” said Grinaker.
During that trip, a bike race ensued between Grinaker, Cooley and his brother.
“I ended up passing them going up a hill and that got his wheels turning,” she said.
Cooley planted the seed and Grinaker started training on the bike into the spring of 2016.
“A tri-bike is very like riding a broomstick,” she said. “The bike is so tiny that you don’t feel like you have a lot of weight beneath you.”
In June, she signed up for her first sprint triathlon, purposely planned on a weekend Cooley wasn’t available so she could do it on her own. Sprint tris are one of the shortest of triathlons.
Grinaker completed the race in an hour and won it setting the course record.
“I couldn’t get my wetsuit off; I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I was kind of all over the place.”
The following weekend she competed at an Olympic tri, double the distance of a Sprint. The next weekend she doubled that distance at a half-tri.
In her first year, she competed in eight triathlons, won four and set course records at four.
“At that point, I was thinking this is fun,” she said. “I had the same mentality that I did at Wisconsin. My very best year at Wisconsin was my first because I was totally clueless about anything.”
Griankers feelings changed in 2017
“I just didn’t like competition,” she said. “At that point, I was just doing whatever Sean did for training.”
She qualified for the half Ironman World Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee but ended up bailing on the race.
“I wasn’t feeling it,” said Grinaker “I was in a weird funk.”
In the fall of 2017, one of her good friends was competing in a 50k trail race along the Superior hiking trail and he suggested she sign up for the half marathon so the two could start together. The half marathon was sold out and she signed up for the 50k.
“In hindsight, I didn’t realize how long 50k is,” she said.
It’s 31 miles.
“I had never run that far,” Grinaker said.
She didn’t have trail shoes and was basically unprepared, but new experiences and challenges always proved to be generators of momentum, enthusiasm and success. A new crowd with a different vibe helped also.
“I started to fall in love with the experience of trail running,” she said.
Incredibly, she won that 50k race.
“That got me excited again,” said Grinaker.
That winter, Cooley bought her a fat bike. His increasing role as love interest and bicycle motivator had caught the eye of one particular member of the Grinaker family.
“My mom ended up calling these my promise bikes,” Grinaker said. “We had been together for three years and people had started talking.”
She raced a few fat bike races and found another refreshing change.
“It was different and new and I could have this identity that she shouldn’t win; she’s new to this stuff. I was under the radar again,” Grinaker said.
Fat bike racing brought back her inner fire to compete and she started attacking triathlons in 2018.
Grinaker was undefeated through seven triathlons heading into a September date at Ironman Wisconsin.
“I wanted to commemorate my time in Madison and also celebrate my journey to get to that point,” she said.
Grinaker placed second overall in the female amateur division and qualified for Ironman Kona in what was called the amateur Ironman performance of the year in a battle with Illinois’ Jacqui Giuliano, the race winner.
In 2019, her entire focus turned to Ironman Kona. She competed in a few races and a half triathlon in Whistler, British Columbia in July, which, of course, she won.
“I was so fearful of not getting to the starting line in Kona healthy that I didn’t want to risk anything,” she said.
She trained through August and September heading into Kona in October.
“I heard so much that you can be in the best shape you could possibly be but you could just get owned by the island,” Grinaker said.
Part two delves into Cooley and Grinaker’s experience at Ironman and Hanna’s incredible race to finish a 2.4 mile swim in the ocean, followed by a 112-mile bike race through lava fields and a 26.2 mile marathon to polish off a full day of maximum exertion. Sean finishes a chase of his own.