It's 7:30 a.m. on a chilly morning in early June, and the gates at Frenchtown Pond State Park are still locked. Shivering, the swimmers gaze over the gray pond and help each other squeeze into wetsuits. The rain let up an hour ago and a dreary mist lifts off the grass as sun reluctantly rises. This is Monday, a recovery day, so the swim will be easy—by their standards. Wading into the calm, 60-degree water, they set out at a steady pace. In less than a minute they've rounded the jellybean curve of the pond, the black arms of their wetsuits flashing above the water like Canada geese taking flight.
Professional triathlete Linsey Corbin is out in front, followed by her young protégé Jennifer Luebke and two male teammates—the four lapping the pond in tight formation. After 30 minutes they head toward the dock. Leaving the water, their chatter is an oddly cheery contemplation of a problem common to cold-water swimmers: anticipated bleeding where their wetsuits abrade their necks.
Corbin is accustomed to pain and unimpressed by the minor bloodshed. In 2006 she lost eight toenails during her first Ironman—a race that combines a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run. Later that year she completed the Ford Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, while nursing a broken collarbone.
"I go into every race expecting pain and discomfort," the 28-year-old Corbin says. "I mean, who said doing an Ironman would be easy?"
Corbin just makes it look easy. Two years into her professional career she cemented her standing among the international triathlon ranks by finishing as the top American woman and fifth overall at the 2008 Ironman World Championships, securing her position as one of the top female triathletes in the world.
Corbin's swift ascent to world-class status has made her one of the very few professionals in the sport who makes enough money on races and endorsements to comfortably support herself, and she does it all from Missoula—far from sponsors, coaches, and elite professional communities in places like San Diego and Boulder. With a supportive community of enthusiastic endurance athletes, Missoula offers its own distinct advantages and helps shape a training regimen that, while unorthodox, has rocketed her to the top tier of pro triathlon and made her a legitimate contender for the world championship.
"People ask how I survive and train year-round here," she says. "I have found a way to make it work."
FORCE OF NATURE
A hyper-energetic blonde, Corbin inhabits a compact frame that seems ideally suited for a sport designed to push competitors' bodies to their limits, and her watchful eyes suggest the intense focus required to compete at sustained levels for hours on end. Even at rest, chatting in a coffee shop, Corbin seems alert in a way that brings to mind a kestrel, as if some darting, swooping part of her nature continually propels her to keep flying.
Originally from Bend, Ore., Corbin attended college in California before moving to Missoula in 2000, where she fell in love with the town and with Chris Corbin, the man who would become her husband. She dabbled in downhill ski racing in high school, and also ran track and cross-country, but nothing in her youth foretold her rapid rise as a triathlete. In 2003, on a whim, she entered Missoula's Grizzly Triathlon and won. Just three years later Corbin set a course record for her age group at the 2006 Wildflower Triathlon at Lake San Antonio, Calif., one of the largest and most prestigious races in the country. An amateur at the time, she was ineligible for the $3,000 prize her third-place finish would have earned, prompting her quick decision to go pro.
Since then, Corbin has enjoyed renown as Missoula's premier professional triathlete, a hero to the local multisport crowd and a favorite of the national press.
"She has definite star quality," says Brad Culp, editor of Triathlete magazine. "Linsey is one of those people that everyone likes. It's hard not to. She comes off as an everyday country girl who just happens to be really fast at swimming, biking and running. Linsey is definitely one athlete that we all look forward to seeing at the races."
Even fellow triathletes can be star-struck in her presence. Seattle age-grouper Phil Spencer joked on his blog that Corbin "demanded she get a photo" with him at this spring's Grizzly Triathlon, though it's presumable Spencer was the one begging for the snapshot. Corbin's growing celebrity springs naturally from a competitive zeal that never shuts down, on or off the racecourse. When she isn't putting in her 25 to 30 hours of weekly training—including a daily swim regimen, weekly distance runs and 100-mile bike rides—she's likely maintaining her Web site, keeping up a steady correspondence with coaches, sponsors and reporters, or teaching clinics for the local triathlon club.
If it weren't for Montana's icy winters, Corbin admits she'd struggle to keep her drive in check.
"Winter is great for me—at least the first part—because it really forces me to take a break in my training and take a proper off-season," Corbin says. "I have always wondered, if I lived in Tucson or San Diego, what it would be like to train year-round. I think the injury and burnout rate would be pretty high for me."
From a triathlete's perspective, Montana is a cold, harsh place for much of the year. Lakes and rivers never really warm, and snow often frustrates joggers and cyclists well into June. Despite less-than-ideal training conditions, Missoula sustains a thriving triathlon scene, and a number of impressive young athletes have emerged from the ranks of the local racing club, Team Stampede, which fostered Corbin's raw talent as an amateur and remains a vital part of her life.
In 1994, endurance athlete Matt Seeley and a handful of like-minded friends created the club as a nurturing ground for Missoula triathletes. Since then, Team Stampede has claimed four national club championships and propelled several members into professional racing.
Early Stampeders earned a reputation for "just coming in and sleeping wherever," Seeley says. "It was a different approach from those people who had a hotel and had to be in bed by nine o'clock." But members of the scruffy Montana crew began to consistently finish in the top slots. Stampeders may appear easygoing, but in competition they're fierce.
"There's a mentality that we've been taught from other Missoula triathletes that you go big or you go home," Corbin says. "We'd always show up at Wildflower like a ragtag team on borrowed bikes, but we had an extremely strong work ethic. We would just go and kick everyone's butt, passing people on $6,000 bikes [while] we're not even clipped into our pedals."
With endorsements from the likes of Saucony and Clif Bar paying her travel and equipment expenses, Corbin has the freedom to live and train anywhere in the world. But she says she's got a good thing going and plans to stick around.
"Linsey is at a level where it's tempting to be closer to coaches and sponsors," says Seeley, who thinks her choice to stay in Missoula shows "she's got a loyalty to the Montana scene."
In a nod to the Stampede tradition of grit, guts and good cheer in any situation, Corbin crosses all her finish lines wearing a cowboy hat, a practice begun by the original Stampeders. An instantly recognizable accessory, the hat distinguishes Corbin from a crowd of nearly identical toned and ponytailed women, and tells the world she's proud to be Montana-made.
"Nothing compares to coming home to my great training partners, friends, and [husband] Chris, of course," Corbin says. "I have been to a lot of places in the last four years, and it is pretty hard to find a place where you can leave your front door and only hit two traffic lights and then be able to ride for four to six hours."
Rarely do amateur triathletes compete for anything more than a T-shirt, and even the best athletes still devote years of hard work before moving to the pro class and competing for purses ranging from $500 to more than $200,000 for winning the world championship in Hawaii. Even at the upper echelon very few pros earn enough from racing to quit their day jobs. Seeley—"a true triathlon legend" in Corbin's words—continued to teach mathematics at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo during his nearly 10 years of professional racing. Corbin may prove to be an exception. Three years into her pro career she's earning enough to spend her days training rather than working a shift, and she owns 11 bikes, including a high-tech, hyper-specialized triathlon bike that costs $10,000. The single-purpose machine is a far cry from her first racing bike.
"When I first started I used a borrowed bike," Corbin says. "It was my husband's—well, boyfriend at the time—and then, over time, as I got better I got nicer equipment."
Choice gear may give pros an edge, but above all, winning an Ironman requires mental discipline. A wandering mind can throw you off your game, allow negative thoughts to eat at your confidence, or cause race-ending errors—like failing to eat enough. The secret to success, Corbin says, is to develop "finite focus." Only one thing should be on a racer's mind, and that's the next immediate task in the race.
"If you think about the whole thing it's pretty overwhelming," Corbin says. "On the marathon, for sure, just think about one mile at a time. You can't think, 'I have to get off the bike and actually run 26 miles.' No way. I would just stop."
A great attitude can't prevent even the finest motor from breaking down occasionally. For two months this spring, a hamstring injury interrupted Corbin's training. Returning to competition for the Boise 70.3 on June 13, she had doubts about her racing condition. Triathlons are run at a variety of distances, and Corbin usually excels at the longer ones, including the 70.3, or Half-Ironman. Would she still race as well after the injury?
Corbin described her pre-race jitters in a June 16 blog entry. "Wednesday I packed for the race," she wrote. "Wednesday afternoon I UN-packed for the race as I was unsure about competing. By Thursday morning I was RE-packed and on my way to Boise to race."
And race she did. A strong second-place finish behind Canadian Magali Tisseyre—an athlete Corbin calls "world-class"—gave her plenty of incentive heading into summer.
Her competitive season culminates with three world championship events this fall: the Ford Ironman World Championships and the Xterra World Championships—both in Hawaii during October—then on to Clearwater, Fla., for the 70.3 World Championships on Nov. 14.
"At the Ironman distance, [Corbin is] definitely among the top five women in the world," says Triathlete editor Culp. " She's a contender to win just about every race she enters. The longer the race, the better her chances."
Corbin also has time on her side. She's relatively young by triathlete standards, and may not reach her peak for several years.
"I may not take a world title this year or next, but I think it is a possibility, and I am going to do my best to make it happen," she says. "I don't like to be beat, which is why I do this sport, because you keep going back again and again trying to improve."
Rookie pro Jennifer Luebke: No fragile flower
Jennifer Luebke won the women’s Olympic distance competition at the Wildflower Triathlon in California this spring, a high-profile victory that, like Corbin’s 2006 Wildflower performance, spurred her to turn pro. A soft-spoken Frenchtown native with a fresh-scrubbed face, Luebke has wide eyes and a shy smile that give her an air of sweetness and delicacy. But she’s tougher than she looks. Most people thought she wouldn’t return to Wildflower after she left the course on a stretcher last year.
The 2008 race had been going so well for Luebke that she neglected to eat or drink enough and bonked just a mile from the finish. “I ended up passing out while I was running,” she says, laughing. “They found me pretty much face down in the dirt.”
In her first professional race, the Boise 70.3 in June, Luebke brought home a 16th-place finish—a strong showing, though out of the money. But she’ll get plenty more chances. Gentle but determined and only 23 years old, she’s a mere babe by triathlon standards, with plenty of time to develop into a world beater.
In the meantime, she’ll pay her dues. Like many others in the sport, Luebke juggles a rigorous training schedule with a passel of part-time jobs: coaching eighth-grade swimmers, assisting at an interior design firm, working as a nanny for a 5-year-old, and “random tutoring” for high school students.
“I keeps me sane,” Luebke says of the sport. “No matter how busy I am I always make time to do something [active]. Otherwise I’m extremely cranky.”