In a race that would last hours, trouble came just a minute after the starting gun.
Caryn Lubetsky, a local mother, law professor, and veteran distance
The swim began at the break of dawn, under difficult conditions — a temperature in the mid-80s and an unusually strong current. Soon after Lubetsky began swimming, towing Gruson behind her in a kayak, the pair was hit by an enormous wave. The kayak flipped, ejecting Gruson. Lubetsky was caught under the boat, the two cord wrapped around her neck.
But Lubetsky didn't panic. "This is when you go into action," she says. She and her support team quickly rescued Gruson, who was 20 or 30 feet away in open water. They righted the boat.
"Are you OK?" Lubetsky asked her teammate. "Of course," Gruson answered.
It was a typical response. Gruson, now 68 and a former writer for the New York Times and Miami Herald, was interviewing a Vietnam vet decades ago when her subject suffered a flashback and began strangling her. The oxygen deprivation from the attack left Gruson unable to move her legs, hardly able to move her arms, and barely able to speak. But it only emboldened her spirit. She began competing in endurance races, and a couple of years ago, she met Lubetsky, a veteran racer.
"The first time you meet her, you know that she's someone special," Lubetsky says. "She has just a soul and energy that emanates from her."
Lubetsky and Gruson — full of adrenaline after the wave scare and cheered on by an entire fourth-grade class of Miami Country Day School students, who've been incorporating the racers into lessons about fortitude and overcoming challenges — completed the swim in about an hour and 20 minutes. "One of the fastest swims on the course," Lubetsky says.
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But then things only got harder. The 112-mile bike leg, because of a nasty headwind, evolved into something of a biblical test of will. "The most grueling experience of my life," Lubetsky says. Gruson, straining to stay balanced in her wheelchair, remained positive, and the crowd support was overwhelming. But the leg took almost nine hours. "I'm fighting for my life here," Lubetsky says, "pushing as hard as I could."
By the time the pair began running, it was dark. Lubetsky wore a headlamp, and the two pushed hard through the first 13 miles. The second half, they let themselves enjoy. The crowd was getting louder, cheering and offering high-fives and taking pictures and waving signs and hoisting flags. The fourth-graders and teachers were going wild. The last few miles became a blur of tears and noise and excitement.
And after 15 hours, 47 minutes, and eight seconds, the veteran racer and her paraplegic partner crossed the finish line of one of the hardest challenges in all of sports. "It's relief," Lubetsky says. "It's exhilaration. It's pride. It's being a part of something that's bigger than just the two of us.
"It was one of the most incredible moments of my life."