Valerie Caylor displays her race medal after finishing the 2021 Michigan Titanium Ironman in Grand Rapids last month.

IRON MOUNTAIN – Faith, family and friends.

That’s what powered 20-year old Iron Mountain resident Valerie Caylor through her first ever Ironman Triathlon.

A 2019 Kingsford High School graduate who is currently a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Athletic Training, Caylor recently completed the Michigan Titanium Ironman in Grand Rapids.

Caylor, who plans to pursue Physical Therapy in graduate school, finished the daunting 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run in 14 hours, 40 minutes and 52 seconds, achieving her personal goal of 15 hours. She was 54th of 131 competitors, 16th fastest of 34 females.

Originally registered to compete in 2020, Caylor ended up training for an extra year due to COVID-19 cancelling the 2020 event.

“It was a long haul for my Ironman, training for two years.” she said.

A runner since age 11 when she would try to keep up with older cousins training in cross country, Caylor completed her first half marathon at age 13 and by the time she left high school, she estimates she had covered the distance nearly 50 times. She pushed herself in August of 2019 by running her first full marathon. Shortly after that she met Natalie Norton at a church retreat. Norton, 26 at the time, had just finished her first Ironman.

“I fell in love with the idea, as (after the marathon) I didn’t know what I wanted to train for next,” Caylor said. As the urge to challenge herself persisted, Caylor asked Norton for her training schedule.

Despite not owning a triathlon bike or knowing how to properly swim freestyle, Caylor signed up for the 2020 Michigan Titanium Iron Man. The fact that the event ended up cancelled may have proved to be a blessing in disguise.

“The pieces just began falling in place after that,” she said. “My dad, an accomplished athlete himself, taught me how to swim. My uncle gave me his triathlon bike, and I connected with other Iron Man athletes like Norton, Brandon Rutter, Molly Brown-Boulay and David Brule, who all coached and inspired me as I trained.”

Caylor also taught spin classes at Northern Lights YMCA Dickinson Center this past summer ahead of the race.

“The Y helped me build connections in a new way in our community,” she said. “I was able to help and encourage others with their fitness. This is very important to me and a huge reason I am choosing the athletic training and physical therapy career path.”

Along with leading spin classes, Caylor was a regular in the Y pool.

“The YMCA swim instructors were incredibly helpful before and after teaching their lessons,” she said. “They helped me improve my form over the summer.”
“She was open minded and super committed to learning and improving,” NLYMCA Aquatics Director Tanner Walsh noted. “We were all impressed with her work ethic and happy to play a small part in her journey. What an accomplishment!”

Caylor also expressed gratitude to many others in the community who helped her along her journey.

“I cannot stress enough how many people it takes for one to complete an Ironman,” she said. “Sport and Spoke was a lifesaver throughout my training since I knew nothing about bike maintenance or bike gear.

“Swim Teal Lake was an awesome event that helped me face my fear of swimming open water. Kingsford High School volleyball welcomed me to train with them two mornings a week. I simply would not have been prepared without these and many other community godsends.”

When race day arrived, the swim, bike and run, Caylor’s feelings were much more intense than the knots she would get in her stomach as a kid anticipating a 2-3 mile run with her older cousins.

“The race itself was horrible and amazing at the same time,” she said. “Throughout my journey, I knew God had my back. He provided me with every single tool and person I needed along the way to get to the finish line.”

Caylor said the swim was warmer than she was used to in the U.P., especially for someone who spent time this summer jumping off Black Rocks in Lake Superior.

“The bike was the most mentally challenging task I’ve ever faced,” she added. “It was 94 degrees, humid, no music and very hilly. My watch indicated I biked more than 4,000 feet of elevation.”

After the swim and bike, Caylor felt a bit relieved to only have the marathon left.

“I felt strong once I was a couple miles in,” she said. “I got to see my family every six miles which encouraged me after the long and lonely bike ride. In the last three miles of my run, I got a mantra stuck in my head, “God made me strong. God made me motivated. God made me courageous.” I started repeating this in my head, then a whisper and then out loud. My pace started to pick up drastically and I was able to finish the Iron Man strong.

After her finish, her family and friends told her they had prayed for her to feel “strong” and “courageous.”

“Their prayers came true!” Caylor said.

“Val does not back down from anything,” Caylor’s father Carl said. “We suggested she do a normal triathlon first, but she wasn’t having anything to do with that idea. She set her mind on the big picture right away. We were hoping she would not over train and over do during the race, but she did the homework and put in the time. We had confidence she’d be able to handle the vent. In fact, our biggest fear was that the bike didn’t break down! We are very proud of her and her efforts.”

Caylor hopes her story encourages others to commit to fitness in their own lives.

“Set high goals and surround yourself with people who support these goals,” she said. “Committing to a healthy lifestyle is a marathon, not a sprint. Giving yourself grace in the process in totally acceptable – I had a chocolate milk shake from 5 Guys the night before my Iron Man. Being frustrated, feeling exhausted, messing up nutrition and hydration, and having unmotivated days is normal. But when you keep working towards the goal even after you have all these obstacles, you will eventually get to the finish line!”