Laurelee Nelson

Kelowna’s Laurelee Nelson crosses the finish line at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, on Saturday. Nelson won the women’s 65-69 age division.

It’s no surprise that in every picture of Laurelee Nelson’s most recent trip to Hawaii, she’s smiling. Winning an Ironman World Championship will do that to you.

The 65-year-old Kelowna woman is still buzzing after she finished the swim-bike-run endurance race first in her age group on the weekend in Kona.

“It was kind of a dream for a couple of days there,” she said on the phone from Hawaii. “Did that really just happen?”

It did.

Saturday’s race was her seventh at the endurance championship’s grand finale and 16th Ironman race of her career. She’s also raced nine times at Ironman Canada in Penticton.

Needless to say, this year might be one of her favourites.

Nelson completed the event in 12 hours 47 minutes 52 seconds.

The Ironman consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile cycle and 26-mile run. Nelson’s split times were 1:33:34 (swim), 6:33:59 (bike) and 4:26:44 (run).

She was first among women racers ages 65-69. Just qualifying for Ironman is an achievement. Organizers hold 40 races across the globe featuring 95,000 athletes trying to reach the standard that gets them invited to Kona.

Only 2,500 get that chance, including Nelson.

Not bad for a mother of four and grandmother of nine.

“I felt like this year everything went really well,” she said. “All my races leading up to it and all my training leading up to it — no injuries, so I think everything was on course. I was hoping for a good day.”

She got it.

Her time this year was actually an hour faster than last year when she finished 11th in her 60-64 division.

She chalked that up to preparation, nutrition and having good people around her. She met her husband, Don Debienne, about two weeks before her first ever triathlon in 2006.

“He’s totally there for me,” she said. “I rely on him to get me ready.”

They also went to Hawaii early this year in order to acclimatize.

Does that mean these races are getting easier?

“I’m getting smarter with my training, so it does make it easier when I’m smarter,” she said, laughing. “And I trained enough for it. Some of them I haven’t trained enough for, and I pay for it.”

Even though she knows the course well, she spent a couple of weeks in Hawaii before the race to prepare. That decision proved more important than you might guess, she said.

“The heat is overwhelming and the winds here are unpredictable, as well the water, the ocean,” she said. “Everything is all about getting used to, especially the heat, because it is so hot at this time of year here.”

Taking care of your body is also mandatory. To triathletes, nutrition is the fourth leg of your race, and it happens long before you hit the water. But Nelson said she doesn’t have any wild, scientific diets. She eats what she likes, but she makes sure to watch her intake carefully in the two weeks before a race.

Keeping hydrated is obviously even more important.

That’s another advantage of having completed so many Ironman races, she said. Nelson has been in races where she wasn’t as careful, and that’s when she’s hit the wall (or “bonked”).

Now, she is better able to hear her body’s cues and commands on the course.

If she’s not feeling great on the run, for example, she might slow down for a couple of hundred metres, take in some fluids or eat an energy supplement.

It’s how Ironman racers are able to keep focused for as long as 12 hours.

“It’ll come back,” she said. “It usually does. That energy comes back and you keep going. … As long as you can think straight — which is kind of hard for that long; your brain does do weird things.”

Nelson had been a distance runner, and she signed up for the 2006 Ironman with a friend fighting breast cancer.

She was virtually hooked, although Nelson admits she missed the entry deadline for the 2007 Ironman Canada race.

“I missed it so much I signed up for 2008 and I’ve been doing them ever since.”

She also sets goals. She met 71-year-old Cullen Goodyear, another age-group champion, through racing, and the two have forged a bond that’s kept Nelson going.

“I want to kind of be like that, as long as I’m healthy,” Nelson said. “It is something I have a passion for. I feel amazing when I’ve done something like this. I kind of look up to her and I think, ‘if she can do it, I’m going to keep going as long as I can. She’s happy, and it makes me happy, too.’”

NOTE — Another Kelowna athlete, Cailla Patterson, competed in the women’s 45-49 division and finished 14th out of 92 competitors in a time of 11:1:15. She swam in 1:12:49, cycled in 5:55:10 and ran in 3:44:17. She was 166th among all women regardless of age.