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The Top 10: Kona's Greatest Age Groupers

Written by Timothy Carlson
Posted Nov 14, 2008

The list was an exercise in futility to compile and will no doubt be argued and second guessed (and rightly so). But here are our Top 10 Greatest Ironman World Championship Age-Groupers.

Cutting this list to a definitive 10 is simply impossible. Can't be done without changing your mind 10 seconds later.

After all, who could leave out Ironman founders John and Judy Collins, the very models of the everyman and everywoman whose spirit of adventure and love of challenge jumpstarted this crazy new sport? Of course, Tom Warren must be on the list. The 1979 underdog winner inspired Barry McDermott's lyric tribute in Sports Illustrated, which in turn motivated ABC to cover the race. And there's no way that Cherie Gruenfeld, with her seven age group wins, one course record and generous spirit, who donates her time and energy to get poor kids in San Bernardino to try her sport, isn't there. What about Hawaiian Cliff Rigsbee and his six age group wins and one age group record? And Donna Kay-Ness and her two still-standing age group course records? Robert McKeague, who must have traveled by time machine to get an official finish over 80 years of age - blasphemy to skip him! No good reason to leave off Ethel Autorino, who took down Sister Madonna several times and still holds the 70-74 record. Then again, who could justify leaving off Laura Sophiea, who broke Missy LeStrange's incredible 10-year age group winning streak in one of the closest duels in Ironman Hawaii history?

Stuffing all these glorious Kona heroes into one tiny bottle on a list of 10 is just nuts. After all, why not Marc Herremans - coming back from paralysis in 2002 to win the wheelchair division four years later? Or Sarah Reinertsen, the first above-the-knee amputee to make the bike cutoff and finish Kona in 2005?

I don't have a good answer for leaving any of these fine triathletes off this preposterously short list, which simply begs the question of criteria. Should I reward raw numbers or give the nod to quality wins? Do I give more weight to character, courage, and charitable contributions to society? Happily for the sport, the Ironman attracts amazing people who shine on many fronts. Maddeningly for the maker of such a list, generosity, character, courage, spirit, athletic chops and grace under pressure can be found in abundance on every page of the results.

Missy LeStrange: 13 wins

While Missy LeStrange grew up a doctor's daughter in luxurious La Jolla, she has always been most at home in the farmland of the San Joaquin Valley. Getting her degree in agriculture at UC Davis, she was drawn to triathlon while swimming in six-time Ironman champion Dave Scott's famed masters classes. Inspired and mentored by The Man, LeStrange's 1983 Ironman Hawaii debut at age 31 was auspicious - her 11:46:14 earned her a second place in her age group. Starting with wins in 1988 and 1989 and after a year off in 1990, LeStrange began an incredible 10-year winning streak in age group competition from 1991 through 2000. Along the way, she set a women's masters record of 10:05:24 in 1993. A little like the end of Bjorn Borg's streak of five straight Wimbledon titles, LeStrange lost an epic battle in 2001 with Laura Sophiea, who passed her in the 24th mile and added a mere 85 seconds by the finish. In 2004, LeStrange nabbed her 13th age group win, which put her five wins ahead of Paula Newby-Fraser - the professional Queen of Kona. 

Madonna Buder: 12 wins

She was born Dorothy Marie Buder in a 1930 St. Louis heat wave. The woman who became known as the Nun on the Run was 46 years old and a member of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd when a priest at an Oregon retreat urged her to start running as a form of prayer. From that moment on, Sister Madonna, whose mission was to counsel prostitutes on the mean streets of Spokane, hit the streets in quite another way. In the next 30 years her prayers included over 50 marathons, 300 triathlons, and a mountain of gold medals. Along the way, she overcame enough broken bones in training and races to match x-rays with Evel Knievel: including getting knocked off her bike by vicious winds in the 2000 edition of Ironman Hawaii, and waking up in a pool of blood. At Kona in 2006, Sister Madonna won her 12th Ironman Hawaii age group title and, with 57 seconds to spare, pulled off an earthly miracle by finishing Ironman Hawaii at the age of 76.

Lesley Cens-McDowell: 11 wins

Lesley Cens-McDowell stands just 5 feet, 1 inch and weighs 108 pounds, but she has been a steely competitor across three decades. Cens-McDowell was a medical researcher in immunology who raced 125cc grand prix motorcycles in California before she took up running and then triathlons at age 35. In 1984 at age 39, she took on her first Ironman Hawaii and finished eighth in her age group at 12:04:14. Soon thereafter, she started a remarkable run second only to Missy LeStrange: Cens-McDowell won 40-44 in 1986, 1988 and 1990. Then she really hit her stride, winning the 45-49 age group in 1991, 1993, 1994 and 1995, setting a lifetime PR and age group mark of 10:58:15 in 1993. In 1996, she set a 50-54 mark of 11:11:19 that lasted until 2005. That mark, like many of Cens-McDowell's victories, was of the Secretariat variety - with a winning margin of 1 hour, 20 minutes and 19 seconds. "I have been fortunate to set records," said Cens-McDowell. "I held the 40-44 and 45-49 records until Missy LeStrange came along and broke them. But when all is said and done, the Ironman is hard and it can bring you to your knees. That's why the elation is so great when you do it the way you planned it."

France Cokan: 10 wins

Mild mannered, soft spoken and equipped with thick glasses and a gentle manner, he hardly looks the part of the fierce giant of Ironman Hawaii men's age group racing. France Cokan left Slovenia and arrived in the United States in 1959 with 11 bucks in his pocket. He was 28 years old, had lived through the nightmare of World War II, and had a medical degree that would take six more years of study and internship training to qualify him for a U.S. license in internal medicine. In 1983, at age 52, he took on his first triathlon in Seattle. Two years later, he finished fourth in the 50-54 division in Kona in 11:51:38. In 1986 (11:47:05), 1987 (11:35:28) and 1989 (11:12:58), he won the men's 55-59 division and set records every year. With Kona wins in 2006 and 2007 in the men's 75-79 division, Cokan earned record 9th and 10th age group wins. Recently, Cokan took the Bruce Treadmill test and scored off the charts, much better at 77 than he had scored 14 years before. Cokan credits his health and longevity to a rigorous application of the Ornish Diet - severely limited salt, no processed grains, sugars and starches, no concentrated fats that can't be found in nature. "The idea is to eat as people did before heart disease became the scourge of modern life," he says.

Bruce Buchanan: 7 wins

This retired periodontist made a miraculous recovery from four years of serious back problems, to score a second place finish in the 65-69 age group category in 2006 at Kona. This puts him at a chronologically measured 68 years of age, while his aerobic system and heart would be more like 25. But his bones and ligaments? CAT scans and MRIs would pin that category at over 100 years. Somehow, despite chondromylacia, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, broken toes, broken collarbones, broken ribs, hip injuries, two concussions, three knee surgeries and 34 years of a severely aching back, Buchanan managed to score seven Kona age group wins between 1991 and 2002. A collegiate swimmer and 2:42 marathoner, Buchanan took up cross training to stay in peak fitness when chronic injuries ruled out his accustomed 90-miles per week running regimen. In his swiftest Kona performance, he out dueled former Swedish Olympian Orjan Sandler and set a 50-54 age group mark of 9:52:36 in 1992. Today, he has been chafing with another crippling back injury, seeking out new specialists and plotting his return to the lava fields.

Les McDonald: 5 wins

Triathlon knows Les McDonald as the only president the International Triathlon Union has ever known and as the man who virtually single-handedly led the new sport into the Olympics. But there is much more to the McDonald saga. Born in Great Britain on April 30, 1933, McDonald worked in the coalmines at age 14 but escaped that unhealthy fate through sport, embracing soccer, running, boxing and mountain climbing. In the 1950s, he immigrated to Canada and earned a spot on their national downhill skiing team. He later became a ski coach and member of Canada's national soccer federation, and represented electrical workers in union negotiations among a lengthy litany of achievements. Perhaps ironic given his later jurisdictional disputes with the World Triathlon Corporation, McDonald's greatest personal athletic achievements were as an age group competitor at Ironman Hawaii. At age 50, he became enamored of triathlon and Ironman Hawaii and from 1983 set five straight new 50-54 age group marks every year, culminating with a 10:55:32 mark in 1987. 

Jeff Cuddeback: 3 wins, held 3 age group records simultaneously

While some Ironman Hawaii age group competitors come back and win year after year, Longwood, Florida's exercise physiologist and triathlon coach Jeff Cuddeback takes a perfectionist's approach. A NCAA Division 3 swimmer at Gettysburg College, Cuddeback found his bliss in triathlon and particularly on the lava fields of Kona. In his first two tries in 1985 (10:00:22) and 1989 (8:52:28), he took second in his age group. After that, Cuddeback had Kona dialed. In 1993, he set the men's 35-39 record in 8:49:57. In 2000, he set the 40-44 age group record in 9:05:34 with a winning margin of 38 minutes. In 2003, Cuddeback out dueled the legendary 2000 Olympian Rob Barel of the Netherlands to win the 45-49 age group title in a new age group record of 9:12:09. Until two of his marks were broken in fast conditions in 2005, Cuddeback held three age group course records simultaneously. This year, Cuddeback has his sights set on a new target: Kevin Moats' 50-54 record of 9:26:23, set in 2006.

John MacLean: the first athlete to finish in  a wheelchair

In 1988, John MacLean was a rising rugby league star for Australia's Penrith Panthers when he was hit by a 12-ton truck while training. He suffered multiple breaks to his pelvis and back, a fractured sternum, punctured lungs, a broken arm and was rendered a paraplegic. Refusing to give in to despair, MacLean mastered the wheelchair and thus became one of the world's greatest athletes. MacLean took up triathlon and in 1995 narrowly missed the bike cutoff time but was allowed to finish the course for an unofficial finish. In 1996, a flat tire left him past the bike cutoff once again. But in 1997, MacLean broke through, made the cutoff and finished the race in 12 hours 21 minutes and 38 seconds. While Maclean moved on to other challenges, he led the way for great Ironman wheelchair athletes Carlos Moleda, David Bailey, Randy Caddell and Marc Herremans. In 1998, he became the first wheelchair athlete to swim the English Channel, and in 2000 competed in the 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and marathon in the Sydney Paralympic Games.

Jon Blais: challenged ALS, raged against the dying of the light

 "The most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well."  -Baron de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games

With all the courageous overcomers who have been drawn to Ironman Hawaii, none have exemplified those words better than the Blazeman. Diagnosed with attention deficit disorder as a child, his principal advised him to pack it in and attend a trade school. Instead, Blais attended Rhode Island College and became a special education teacher to help kids like himself. In 1995, he moved to triathlon mecca San Diego and took a job working with children with emotional problems. Diagnosed in 2004 with inevitably fatal amyotrophic lateral sclerosis - better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease - he refused to surrender to the neuro-degenerative muscle wasting disease and managed to finish all 140.6 miles of the 2005 Ironman, beating the odds and fighting an arm and a leg that barely functioned. With half an hour to spare, he did his patented Blazeman log roll across the finish line. Jon Blais died of ALS in May 2007, but his spirit lives on as countless men and women now finish Kona doing the Blazeman roll.

Bree Wee: Hawaii's favorite mom set the women's overall age group record

Growing up she was a Florida surfer girl and tried barrel racing and running. 10 years ago she was a student at Ohio University and dreaming of doing a triathlon. Five years ago she was a grad student in exercise physiology at Ithaca College. Just three years ago she was still single, moved to Kailua-Kona and started to get serious about triathlon. In very short order, Bree met and married husband Jim Wee, had a child Kainoa (means strong in Hawaiian) and started working with Life Sport coach Paul Regensburg. In 2007, all her life forces came together as she finished first overall woman amateur and broke Kate Major's overall amateur record. When asked which was harder, the Ironman or giving birth, she pointed out that she was in labor for 10 hours, 6 minutes - and her Kona race only took 9 hours 47 minutes and 40 seconds.