Special to espnW
Ashley Horner steps onto a treadmill, inserts her earplugs and stares at a blank wall as she runs and runs in silence. And runs and runs in silence. The 34-year-old fitness celebrity is training herself to combat boredom. She's concerned it could set in during her upcoming challenge: 50 Ironman-distance triathlons in 50 days.
All told, that's 120 miles of swimming (think Los Angeles to San Diego), 5,600 miles of biking (New York to Cairo, Egypt) and 1,310 miles of running (Miami to Chicago). She'll traverse 7,030 miles (Chicago to Shanghai), start to finish. Incredibly, she has never completed a single Ironman-distance triathlon -- 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run -- in her life.
"I've done several Olympic distances, several sprint triathlons and a half Ironman, which is 70.3 miles," Horner says. "But I've never actually done a full-distance Ironman triathlon."
And in an added twist, she's going to do her first one in Haiti, her next 48 in each of the 48 contiguous states and then No. 50 back in Haiti.
And she's worried about monotony?
"Guaranteed, I'm going to get it done," she says.
Fitness & fundraising: Horner's track record
In April 2017, Horner ran 230 miles around Haiti in just three days, raising more than $64,000 for the Maison Fortuné Orphanage in Hinche, Haiti. Just one month ago, Horner completed a 13-day, 1,300-mile cycling challenge from Virginia Beach to Oklahoma to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.
"The first three or four days of my [Virginia-to-Oklahoma] ride, my body was just miserable. It was beat up. I hurt everywhere," she says. "Then, after the five-day mark, every single ache and pain went away and my body just adapted. ... I just got stronger every day.
"I know that by doing these Ironman distances, there's going to be a certain point where my body understands that this is its job."
If any of this sounds simple, it's simply not. Many in the triathlon community, in fact, think it's downright ridiculous.
"I don't want to say they've been negative, but some of them have been upset that I'm even doing this," says Horner, who has been swimming, running and biking four to eight hours daily to prepare. "I read a comment today that was like, 'You've never even done a full-distance Ironman, how do you think you can possibly do this?'"
Billy Edwards, coach of the Naval Academy's three-time national championship triathlon team and a 19-time Ironman finisher, has his doubts.
"In my opinion, she's probably going to fail," says Edwards. His opinion is more a commentary on the format than on Horner's ability to cover the mileage.
"Over the course of 50 days, there's going to be a point where she encounters the limits of her physical ability," Edwards says, citing the likelihood of sore shoulders from swimming, or persistent wear and tear on her body. "The question is: Where is she going to compromise?"
That said, there is precedent. In 2015, James Lawrence completed a similar challenge -- 50 triathlons in 50 days in 50 states. Being a female athlete, Horner is somewhat used to the negative talk, the haters and the self-doubt that often prevents women from attempting something difficult. But she wants to show her community of #Ashletes -- she has nearly 600,000 followers on Instagram -- that no matter what anyone says, just show up and put in the work.
"I really want to empower women," says Horner, who anticipates each triathlon will take her somewhere between 12 and 16 hours. "I hear all the time [from] girls and women who want to run a 10K or a marathon, or they say, 'My whole life I've wanted to do that.' Well why haven't you f---ing done it? Just do it! Just sign up for one. Don't let things scare you away."
It's not that Horner is fearless. It's that she has a greater purpose.
With this upcoming challenge -- she has dubbed it #WomanOfIron -- she's aiming to raise $100,000 for the Maison Fortuné Orphanage, which focuses on education for orphans and underprivileged children throughout Haiti. With the funding, MFO will be able to hire more teachers, provide more books and courses, and offer more programming for the almost 400 children it serves in the village of Hinche.
"In Haiti, you have to pay for education. It's not free," Horner says. "So, I just want to be there to support these kids ... and be able to see them all go to university and graduate so they can become leaders in their community."
For the past three years, Horner has been MFO's biggest donor, thanks to her fitness-fundraising efforts. "I'm not doing this for anybody but the kids at Maison Fortuné. They are my 'why,' through and through. I have grown so close to those kids, and just thinking about them makes me so emotional because I love them so much. They will get me through."
Haiti, across America and back again
After completing Ironman No. 1 in Hinche, Horner will fly home to Virginia Beach to start her stateside quest. And while rest and recovery are an essential way to keep her body moving, Horner needs to keep the mission moving, too, completing an Ironman distance in each of the the 48 contiguous states. She'll sleep in an RV that makes its way to a new state each night, where host families and community members will provide support and staging and might even join Ashley for a ride or a run.
While the travel sounds monotonous, Horner is unconcerned that it will impact her sleep.
"I think I'm going to be so tired that I'm just going to pass out no matter what," she says. "When I did my perimeter run [in Haiti], I remember one time being so tired that I just went face-down in the middle of the jungle on this little blow-up air pad, with not a care in the world."
But no matter how well-trained, well-rested or well-suited she is for the #WomanOfIron challenge, Horner will still have to contend with some variables beyond her control -- such as weather.
"A few things I'm worried about: lightning storms, pools closing." But Horner already has a backup plan for making sure she gets the distances done, no excuses. "In that situation, I could just do things in reverse. Or I would have to bike indoors and run on a treadmill. Bottom line, I'm going to do whatever it takes to get it done."
Starting in the dead heat of August will add some additional stress to her body, as well. No biggie. She has had heat exhaustion before.
"I know how my body feels on the onset of heat exhaustion," says Horner, who plans to check in with doctors along the way. "So I will be doing everything I can to stay hydrated."
Horner, more than anything, is apprehensive about spending time away from her sons, 10-year-old Tripp, 9-year-old Cash and 3-year-old Otto. "Fifty days is a long time to be away from them. Whenever I do a challenge like this, I really miss my kids. ... So, I am definitely going to have to have them come out to be with me on weekends. I'll need that."
The nontraditional key to Horner's quest
While Horner starts her journey in top health, with no injuries, the cumulative wear and tear on her body will be significant. Many athletes stop lifting to lose weight prior to endurance challenges (in an effort to reduce impact and move less mass), but Horner has a radically different approach.
"I'm lifting as heavy as I can," she says. "All the strength training has protected me from injuries. It's really important."
In fact, strength training is so important to Horner that she will continue lifting throughout her #WomanOfIron challenge. "I'll probably go in at 5 a.m., get my strength training done, and then start my swim. I'm not sure I'll be able to do it every day, but at least three or four times a week."
Horner has some other tricks that help her make a big challenge seem more achievable.
"I put things into small groups, little bitty goals," she says. "'Let's get through these three Ironmans, and then we'll worry about the next set.'"
"But the final 10," she says smiling, "I'm definitely going to be doing a countdown."