Downtown drama at midnight

Two triathletes race to beat 17-hour mark in Ironman Cd'A

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JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Cathy Stephens, from Spokane, finished 23 seconds after the final cutoff time of the Ironman Coeur d'Alene at midnight.

COEUR d'ALENE - With the clock clicking down on Sunday night, two runners were still a few miles from the finish line of Ironman Coeur d'Alene.

One was Jordan Khani, an 18-year-old high school graduate from Ladue, Mo., not far from St. Louis.

The other was Cathy Stephens, a 43-year-old administrator from Spokane.

Both had already battled through a long day that started at 7 a.m. on the shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene. Each completed a 2.4-mile swim in cold, choppy water. Each finished a 112-mile bike ride over a course with more than 5,000 feet of climbs.

Each was weary as they began their next challenge, 26.2 miles. It would be their last to complete their quest to officially be declared an Ironman.

But time was running out.

The 17-hour limit, at the stroke of midnight, was near. Khani and Stephens knew it, too. So, in the cover of darkness, clinging to their glow sticks, they summoned the last of their waning energy and charged on.

One would make it.

One would not.

Jordan Khani declared last year he wanted to be an Ironman after watching a video in PE class of the Ironman World Championship in Kona.

"It was really cool, a cool thing to do," he said. "I wanted to do it bad."

The soccer and lacrosse player even told his teacher, 'I'm going to do an Ironman.'"

"Yeah, right," the teacher said.

Khani was no swimmer, but he would learn. And biking, well, he could handle that.

"I love biking and biking loves me," he said.

And then, there was that marathon at the end of Ironman.

"I can sprint like, really fast," he said.

For seven months, he dedicated himself to swimming, biking and running. When he arrived in Coeur d'Alene a few days early, he thought, "I can do this."

Cathy Stephens had battled severe asthma throughout her life.

Her lungs collapsed twice, she was in and out of hospitals, and put on "nasty medications." But she was as active as she could be.

Seven years ago, she started running. Not much. Just a mile, maybe two. She recalls the first time, it took her 45 minutes to recover after a run.

Still, it was then she started dreaming of a triathlon. Soon, she turned that dream into reality and completed a sprint tri. With new confidence, next on her list was an Ironman.

She piled up the miles on the road, the treadmill and the pool, and was ready to go for 2011 Ironman Coeur d'Alene.

But a few days before the race, pollen choked the air in the Lake City. She suffered an episode of asthma and had to pull out.

A year later, she returned.

"I have some generous friends who wanted to see me do this again and I trained again and here I am."

Fred and Michelle Khani, along with thousands of spectators, watched the wave of swimmers plunge into Lake Coeur d'Alene. Among that group of some 2,400, was their son.

"We thought he was crazy to sign up," Michele said. "But he has a lot of determination, a lot of will power. Whatever he wants to do, he does."

Jordan came through the swim in 1 hour, 50 minutes and hopped on his bike. He had never biked beyond 56 miles. This would be new territory.

The teen wearing bib number 859 put his head down and pedaled. When he stopped, 6 hours, 46 minutes and 50 seconds later, he had covered the 112 miles and was back in City Park.

Next up, the run. He thought he was ready.

"I can run for a long time," he said. "Doing it off the bike, that's pretty hard."

Harder than he expected. He found himself forced to walk, even stop and sit down along the side of the Centennial Trail to recover. Every now and then, he looked at his watch. A single mile now was taking 17 minutes.

He began to realize it would be very close if he were to reach the end by midnight, so he demanded his legs move faster.

Stephens was worried about the swim, even calling it scary.

"The first 20 minutes, it takes my lungs that long to warm up. I feel like I'm going to drown," she said.

But she survived her fright, as well as waves that kicked up with the strong winds on the second lap, to come out of the 57 degree water in 1:55:16.

A huge cheer arose when Stephens ran onto the sand and pulled off her goggles, such that it caught the attention of Ironman announcer, Mike Reilly.

Her supporters were determined to see her through.

"I literally was handed off from one friend to the next," she said.

On the bike, the 1987 Coeur d'Alene High School graduate struggled up the steep climbs heading south on U.S. 95. She had to deal with a flat tire, and spent 8 hours, 6 minutes and 48 seconds on the new course of the 10th anniversary of the race.

Slow, yes. But finish it, she did.

Time to run.

As the miles passed, the pain grew.

'I was absolutely hurting so bad. But at the same time, I know I would finish whether it was under 17 hours or not," she said.

Alex Endo, a spectator and former Coeur d'Alene resident, urged Khani on, even running alongside for a bit and offering encouragement. Well, more like tough love.

"We told him. 'It's going to be super close, you've got to pick it up.' He did it," Endo said.

Father Fred Khani, waiting at the finish, began to doubt Jordan would finish in time with just a few minutes remaining and his son not in sight.

"C'mon man, c'mon Jordan," he said quietly. "I know you can do it."

As Khani ran hard down Sherman, he could see the lights in the distance. As he drew closer, he could see the electronic timer, too. When he entered the final stretch, with screaming crowds on both sides filling the stands, it turned to 16:59. And for the first time in many miles, he smiled. He had it.

He crossed the finish line with 41 seconds to spare.

A few minutes later, he sat, wrapped in a space blanket with a bottle of water, media surrounding him. One person asked for his autograph. He obliged.

"I thought in my head I was going to finish, but I didn't know it was going to be that close," he said.

The last two miles, he figures, were his fastest of the day. Had to be.

He pointed over to some people standing beyond the Ironman fence. His mom and dad were among them.

"My family is a huge part of it. I love them. They're everything to me," Khani said. "This is a way for me to show I'm maturing."

On May 19, he turned 18.

"It's a way for me to show I can get down and dirty, I can get stuff done," he said.

His beaming parents rushed up and hugged their son.

"I think it's great," Michele Khani said. "He's put a lot of effort into it."

Father Fred agreed.

"When he sets his mind to it, he gets it done."

Jordan Khani was more than satisfied. He was proud, too.

"All that matters is that you finish," he said. "A finish is a win."

He grinned as he offered up his true motivation that drove him for nearly 17 hours.

"I had 50 bucks and a Frosty on this," he said.

Cathy Stephens, despite a final push down Sherman, came up 23 seconds short.

Her first question, "Do I get a medal?"

She did.

As she recovered, surrounded by friends, she smiled and laughed.

"I'm exhausted, but elated," Stephens said. "It's the most glorious exhaustion I ever felt in my life."

She didn't care that she was not officially an Ironman. Didn't matter.

"I finished. I am an Ironman," she said as she walked away.

She called the day a "huge victory."

"You know what? This is such a miracle I am even here doing this. I don't give a rip. I am so happy that I finished and they gave me this medal. The fact that Mike Reilly wanted to give it to me, and I got to take a victory lap, that meant so much."

Stephens credited her "posse" with seeing through the longest day of her life.

"It was like Rocky running me in at the end," she said as she took one look back toward the finish area, already being dismantled by Ironman staff.

She paused to find the right words.

She found them.

"It has been an incredible day."

JEROME A. POLLOS/Press Jordan Khani, from Ladue, Mo., was the final official finisher of Sunday's Ironman Coeur d'Alene race beating the midnight cutoff by 41 seconds.

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