This story is the second of a two-part series on the training of former Laker running star Hanna Grinaker and her fiancé Sean Cooley culminating at the Ironman World Championship this month. Read part one here.
In 2013, Hanna Grinaker and Sean Cooley ran together at the Fargo Marathon. That chance meeting turned into a relationship and over the next six years the duo found love on a path to the Ironman World Championship this October in Hawaii where the week of competition ended in a marriage proposal.
“That was a different experience,” said Cooley. “Zero nerves until you pull the ring out and then, holy crap, this is happening. Wow!”
Cooley had asked permission from Hanna’s parents to propose but had to keep his secret, and the ring, under wraps until after Ironman.
Grinaker had just finished her final training regimen of 25 hours per week split between swim, bike and run with the majority on the bike, five hours at a time.
In the final six weeks of preparation she would finish workouts with a 30-minute sauna session to help her core temperature adapt to Hawaii.
“I had this mentality that I told myself to be a robot,” said Grinaker. “You just have to execute. You can’t overthink this, you have to put your brain in a different space. I also had a lot of gratitude because I know what I’m asking my body to do, most people can’t. To get through the process healthy and still feel motivated to do it was a cumulative gratitude. It just fed into itself.”
At the beginning of the year, Grinaker told herself to show up to Kona healthy and happy. Just the training to get there is riding a fine line pushing the boundaries of one’s fitness and avoiding injury.
“I felt like I had won before I even got there,” Grinaker said.
Successfully finishing Ironman is all about pace and time.
“She executed her race plan perfectly,” Cooley said. “It left her excited to get back to the training and get back there. I think she’s fully capable of winning it as an amateur next year if she puts it all back together. She stuck to her gameplan and didn’t let the excitement of the race get to her at all.”
Grinaker was fully loaded on potential dread and was prepared to hate the experience.
“I did not expect to like it as much as I did,” she said. “I expected to go there and have periods of the race where I questioned my life choices and hated my coach and being out here. I expected those feelings to come but they never did.”
In a race recap on her blog, Grinaker shared, “Perception of effort has always been so mysterious to me. There have been races that, on paper, have been equally demanding, but for whatever reason, I had been on top of my suffering in one, and completely overwhelmed by it in another. With time though, I’ve learned it’s usually my thoughts about how hard a race will be that drives how well my brain will cope. Instead of hoping a race won’t be one of those grinding affairs, I brace myself, expecting the hurt to come and welcoming it when it does. Can it hurt more....? Oh I’m sure it can.”
Cooley, a top-level amateur himself, had competed at Ironman before. His experiences were beneficial to Grinaker’s race-ready mindset. When the two first started training he helped morph Hanna’s expectations.
“She had this vision of how she should feel and the pace that she should be running at from college and high school,” he said. “Running off the bike you’re just not running those same speeds. From a triathlon standpoint, the times she was running off the bike, that she was embarrassed by, at the time, were so much faster than anybody else even at the elite-level triathlon. You have to put it in perspective. You’re not running your 10k personal record; you’re biking miles before that. It’s not about running a PR. You run the best that you can.”
Grinaker’s first obstacle at Ironman was a 2.4 mile swim in the ocean’s swells.
“It’s an interesting feeling,” she said. “You can kind of get in your groove with swimming.”
At least once one gets out of the melee at the start.
“Swimming in Kona can be pretty violent; people are clobbering you for position or grabbing your feet and pulling you back,” Grinaker said. “Then you look down and see all these bright colored fish. You have to remind yourself, I’m swimming in the freaking ocean!”
The swells on the one-hour swim had Grinaker feeling vertigo on the bike for the first hour of five spent pedaling 112 miles.
“It kind of freaked me out a little bit,” she said. “I had to think of something else and put my focus elsewhere.”
Cooley positioned himself along the course to help Hanna keep that focus.
“It’s really easy to bike too hard or run too fast and lose 20 minutes at the end of the race if you blow up too soon,” he said. “You just tell them they’re doing great and keep them focused on the now. You don’t want to say...in five miles. When you’re doing Ironman, you have to be present the whole time. If your mind starts to wander or you start thinking about the finish it’s very distracting.”
Grinaker’s focus turned into enjoyment.
“That surprised me,” she said. “The longer the race went on I was just, ‘this is awesome.’ To be on the bike and you look over and you’re looking off into the Pacific ocean and you see the heat waves on the road. You feel the sun so hot on your back. It was just like an out of body experience but I felt so grateful to be at that race.”
The bike race on the big island of Kona is not through lush vegetation. It’s a far more taxing landscape.
“It’s a lot of black, because it’s all lava fields,” said Grinaker. “There’s not a lot to look at. If you didn’t look to your left and see the ocean, you’d be like, ‘Oh my, I’m riding in hell.’”
Grinaker kept her steady pace into a 3.5-hour marathon finish with Cooley and their families waiting on an emotional finish and the completion of all the training and Hanna’s positive shift in thought process about competition.
“It’s Sean that created that mentality for me of watering down some of the stuff I do so it’s not so all-encompassing or so important that it’s the make or breaker of your life,” she said. “You sign up for another one. You do another Ironman. You don’t have to build things so far up that it prevents you from doing it or enjoying it while you’re doing it. I feel like he’s always chasing the next high.”
The chute to the finish is lined with people for miles and provides a high of its own.
“It’s not until that point that you realize you did it,” said Cooley. “The race is a long day that is gone in a blink of an eye. I told her before the race, ‘the miles are going to be long but the next thing you know you’re going to be finishing the race and wonder where the day went.’’’
Grinaker said that was exactly correct. There were miles that felt like they were taking forever.
“Then you realize, you’ve been out there for 10 hours,” said Cooley. “That’s definitely when Hanna started feeling the emotions too from fighting all day and it coming to an end.”
Grinaker crossed the finish line and put her head in her hands as the 13th overall female amateur, the second American and with a 13-minute personal record.
“I did feel pretty emotional about it,” she said. “Races are so exposing. They expose all of your vulnerabilities when you’re racing like that. I put so much into it. You want to show people how prepared you were. I was strong mentally; I did what I was supposed to. Sometimes that gives you the most anxiety. You want it all to come together to show all that time and sacrifice was worth it. Finishing like that, maybe it was a little relief but it was so fulfilling but in a way that I’m not done. I want to do it again and I want to try for something more.”
Cooley was after more when he brought up a hike Monday after the race. His brother and cousin were in tow ready to capture the real proposal but nobody knew where it was going to happen.
“I didn’t know where I was going to do it,” said Cooley.
The couple turned the hike toward a beach a mile away.
“Hanna was kind of hobbling around because she had just done the Ironman two days before,” Sean said.
The right spot finally appeared and Sean’s chase for Hanna’s hand was nearly complete.
Hanna again held her face in her hands.
“She sort of teared up a little bit and I gave her a hug,” he said. “After 30 seconds of smiling and laughing with each other…I was sort of, ‘so, is that a yes?’”
Hanna responded in the affirmative.
“My relationship has been very easy,” said Grinaker. “Training together and doing these endurance events you show your ugly parts sometimes. I think it definitely can make the relationship stronger. Our personalities and likes and differences are so alike. There’s such a strong friendship there that I’ve never thought marriage with him would be hard. Then again, hard things are worth it.”
The happy couple took some ribbing from friends and family at the culmination of their six-year courtship.
"It was funny all the messages we got,” said Cooley. “Before multiple people said congratulations it was more, ‘it’s about damn time.'"