It has been only two years, but a lot has happened in Kayla Bowker’s life since she won the women’s marathon at the inaugural Bend Marathon and Half. She has (in chronological order) gotten married, suffered a serious hip injury while running the Portland Marathon, been hit by a car, and qualified for the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kona, Hawaii.

But Bowker, now 28 and living in Spokane, Washington, will be back at the Bend Marathon for the third straight year this Sunday, this time lining up at the start of the half-marathon alongside her mother, Karyn Lloyd, and husband, Brandon Bowker.

“Bend is a very special race for me,” Bowker said last week. “It sounds weird, but I don’t think it’s because I won it, but because it’s become a family thing for us. Winning is amazing, it solidifies that you’re doing the right things and you work hard, but Bend has become that family thing for us. My dad ran the first one with me, even though he did the half. My mom and husband did it last year, and they’re doing it again this year, and we’ll probably continue to come back to Bend as long as we can for that race, just because it’s become a family weekend where we come down to Bend and I drag my family into my craziness.”

Back in 2015, Bowker’s main goal was to run a marathon in less than three hours. The Portland Marathon in October seemed like her best shot to do so, and she entered the Bend Marathon as a way to test her fitness with about six months to go. She ended up winning in 3 hours, 9 minutes, 32 seconds, nearly five minutes ahead of the second-place finisher, Bend’s Charmion Freifeld.

“I think my dad found (the race),” said Bowker, who grew up in Hood River and often visited Bend as a child. “It was one of those ‘let’s try and turn this into a weekend’ things, and I signed up for the marathon and my dad, who was 69 at the time, signed up for the half. And I ended up winning it, which was really cool.”

Her experience at the Portland Marathon was not so rosy.

“I had been having some hip pain for quite a few months, and I chalked it up to running too much, maybe,” Bowker recalled. “So I rested a lot before the marathon, and during the marathon it just exploded. I started feeling it in mile 3, by mile 6 I was in a lot of pain. By mile 10, I could barely run. I basically run-limped-walked the next 16 miles of the Portland Marathon, which was kind of a bummer because if I remember correctly I was on pace to (run) a 2:56 or something like that.”

Bowker underwent surgery on her left hip to repair a torn labrum in December in the hope that she would have enough time to train for the Coeur d’Alene Ironman triathlon in Idaho in August, 2016. Four months after the surgery, she returned to Bend to run the half-marathon, finishing second in 1:30:05.

“I just felt like me,” Bowker answered when asked if she felt the effects of her injury and rehab during the race. “It reminded me that I’m a runner, and this is what I do. It was just another day in the park. It was a reaffirmation that that strength is always inside of you and you can always tap into it, even when maybe the road is a little bumpier than usual.”

But in the month before the Coeur d’Alene Ironman, Bowker was on her bike during the final stretch of a training ride near her home when she was hit by a car. The impact broke her left ankle, damaging the same leg that had been operated on nine months earlier, and left her with cuts and nerve damage. Bowker said she was lucky the injuries were not more severe, but there was no way she could recover in time for the triathlon.

“I had been working really hard to recover from surgery, to be strong enough to be able to train for an Ironman,” Bowker said. “I worked my butt off last year. And it just got taken away from me in an instant, all because somebody, they were not watching (the road). So that was kind of a rough time period. I harbored a fair amount of anger for it for a little while. But once I got situated I was like, I’ll recover from this and we’ll get back and try it again in 2017, maybe.”

But since the couple had already planned to visit relatives in Arizona over Thanksgiving, Bowker’s husband signed her up for Ironman Arizona, which was held that weekend in Tempe. She was cleared to resume training in early September and had 21/2 months to train for the new race date.

Based on her training and the results of triathletes she knew who had similar abilities, she expected to finish the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run in about 11 hours, 15 minutes. Instead, she finished the race in 10:15:03. At times her pace was so fast she wondered if the numbers on her watch were correct.

“At about mile 16 (of the run), I had been looking at my watch going, holy crap, is that right? I started doing the mental math in my head, and I was like, I’m going to break 11 hours,” Bowker recalled. “I happened across my husband, and I was like, ‘Baby, baby, am I doing this right? I’m tired here, am I doing the math right, am I going to break 11 hours?’ And he did some quick math, and he said, if you keep this math up, you’re going to run a 10:15. I remember thinking, you bet your ass I’m going to do that. So I said, all right, I’ll see you at the finish line, and kind of took off.”

Bowker won her age group by more than 15 minutes. In doing so, she qualified for the Ironman championship in Kona, an accomplishment she had barely even considered.

“Choosing to go to Kona was actually tougher than anticipated — it’s expensive, and you have to pay then and there,” Bowker said. “I had promised my husband I wouldn’t train for another Ironman the next year. We basically spent our first year of marriage with me never seeing my husband, because I was always training, so it was tough on him, as well. But he kind of said you have to do this, and so here we are in the middle of April, and I am two months into training.”

Training for Kona means that “short races” — like Sunday’s half-marathon in Bend — are essentially “training days.”

“I will actually get a good workout in the day before, at least that’s the plan, weather permitting,” Bowker said. “That’s a tool for me, is to see how my body responds after a hard workout the day before, or a long bike ride the day before. I’m a very competitive person, I always try to win things, that’s just the way it is. But if it doesn’t happen, it’s not going to disappoint me because of what this race has become for me. It’s a fun family thing for us to do, it makes me happy. And my mom may be like, that’s ridiculous, Kayla, but it makes me happy to know that even though we all run at different speeds, knowing that they’re out there at the same time as me makes my heart happy.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0305, vjacobsen@bendbulletin.com

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