Sometimes spur-of-the-moment decisions lead to the best outcomes, which explains why I’m sitting on a plane barreling across the Pacific Ocean for the island of Kona, HI, and the 2022 Ironman Triathlon World Championships, the event’s first time back on the island in two years. Obviously, I’m not on my way to compete but rather to honor a promise I made to an athlete that’s near and dear to me and GU. But before I can tell that part of this tale, I need to share a bit of GU’s history with Ironman Triathlon World Championships, and the larger endurance Ohana (Hawaiian word for extended family), so this whole story makes sense.
Triathlete fans may remember the infamous finish during the 1997 Ironman World Championship between Wendy Ingraham and Sian Welch that was dubbed "the crawl." Both women, who were battling for fourth and fifth place, had collapsed from extreme exhaustion/cramping within sight of the finish line, and began to heroically do whatever they could to cross the line ahead of the other. "I felt like a big prehistoric bird, all humped over trying with everything I could just to move forward," remembers Ingraham. I thought to myself, "OK. I can't walk, and I can't even stand up -- so I guess I should crawl. That's the fastest way." Ingraham crawled her way to a fourth-place finish and what most folks don’t know is that Ingraham credits Roctane’s BCAAs (still a top-secret NEW GU product at that time) with giving her the focus/mental clarity to make the decision to crawl.
Speaking of finish lines, GU Gives, GU’s charitable foundation, was conceived at the 2013 Ironman Kona finish line when our president and CEO witnessed an adaptive athlete narrowly miss the time cut off. They were so moved by his efforts that it inspired them to partner with the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). A new Passion Fruit Roctane gel was created, with a percentage of the sales proceeds donated to CAF to provide prosthetics for adaptive athletes.
I was on that finish line in 2013. I witnessed athletes pushing themselves beyond their limits, digging deeper than they thought they ever could, and I shed tears watching folks accomplish something they’d only dreamed of. While not a triathlete myself, I experienced firsthand the raw emotion and power of human achievement and it left an indelible mark, which leads me back to the promise I made and why I had to be at the 2022 Ironman Triathlon World Championships.
She didn’t start doing triathlons until she was 48 and participated in her first IM Kona in 1992. Since then she’s racked up 13 age group titles and has done IM Kona a whooping 21 times. Meet Cherie Gruenfeld, 78 years young, and one of GU’s longest standing athletes. She first discovered our brand back in the mid-90s because a friend shared a GU gel with her. She liked the product so much that she called the phone number on the back of the packet and got none other than GU’s founder, Bill Vaughan, on the line and a relationship was born.
When asked why she decided to return to Kona one last time, she said, “In 2015 I stopped doing IM racing and focused on 70.3 racing. I was happy doing that. In 2019 I turned 75 and when I saw the F75-79 record, I felt like I could break that. So I committed to one more race with that goal in mind. In July of that year, I had a medical issue which ended the Kona plan. By January of 2020, I was good to go and planned to return to Kona that October, but COVID nixed that plan for ’20 and ’21. So the event returns in ’22 and I am now 78 and am committed to finish what I started at 75.”
I got to give Cherie a hug before she began the swim, missed her on the bike leg, but caught her on the run as she passed the GU cheer station on Alii Drive. She was determined, moving steadily, and smiling, so crossing that line was never in doubt, even when crippling back spasms stopped her in her tracks with just a few miles to go. As Cherie has done for the past 30 years, she dug deep, figured out a way to move forward, and pushed on towards the red carpet. I was fortunate to get into the finishing chute, a rare privilege, so that I could be one of the first to celebrate her historic victory, an unprecedented 14th age group title. You know who else was there to greet here? Ironman legend Mark Allen, which speaks volumes about the legacy, impact, and respect that Cherie has established in her years of competing. The whole finish went wild when she crossed that line and Mike Riley, the voice of Ironman for decades, uttered those infamous words for her final time, “YOU are an Ironman Cherie!”
I will forever be grateful for, and impacted by, our brief moment at the finish - a hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a few tender words of respect. Cherie’s words that “it’s never too late to be what you might have been” are a reminder that there is so much potential in trying something new and that we should never let doubts and fears get in the way of setting audacious goals. Thank you, Cherie, for your commitment to your craft, for setting a high bar when it comes to human achievement, for inspiring countless athletes, for the example you’ve set over the past 30 years, for the athletic milestones you’ve accomplished, and for reminding us to take the first step when it comes to tackling challenges. Most of all Cherie, please know that GU is proud to have you as part of our Ohana, as part of our brand history and legacy, and that we’re forever grateful that you gave us a call way back when. Mahalo.