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Tragedy in Tenerife

This story should read just like a romantic movie.

This story should read just like a romantic movie. There’s a chance meeting in a bar, with the female lead reluctant to even talk to the male star. There’s the slow, but inevitable hooking up of our two main characters. The two compliment each other – he gives her confidence that she can achieve a goal she would never dream of mentioning to anyone else. She introduces him to an activity that would become a major part of his life. He’s a cop, she’s mental health therapist who, as a teenager, volunteered at a food bank and a suicide prevention hotline.

Find a decent writer, a great cast of characters, set up a crew for the scenes that will need to be shot in the Canary Islands, Chile, Cancun and Texas to keep up with the couple’s traveling and training exploits and you have the makings of an exciting story.

Which is why this story can’t be told that way, though. There’s no movie here. Just a story that needs to be told in a triathlon magazine. A story about one of us “normal” triathletes.

This May there will be a bright light to partially end the love story that needs to be told about Laura Mackay and Travis Eltom. Unfortunately it will come in the form of a memorial race.

Like so many of us, Laura Mackay’s “bucket list” was both extensive, and full of high-end athletic goals. High on that list was qualifying for the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Which is why, last February, the day after her 37th birthday, Mackay was descending into the town of Masca on Tenerife, the spectacular Canary Island that regularly attracts the world’s top cyclists. She was on her brilliant red Felt F4C, the bike she’d asked for instead of an engagement ring.

Like so many of us, Mackay hated to inconvenience her training partners, especially her husband Travis Eltom. Skittish after an accident the previous August, Mackay kept trying to convince Eltom to go ahead on the steep switch-backed descent.  “It’s not a race,” he kept telling her. “There’s no advantage in going any faster.”

The previous day there had been heavy rains in Tenerife, so the road down the mountain into Masca was closed to cars. Eltom led the way, setting the pace. They had to stop repeatedly to rest their hands because they were constantly braking and they needed to rest their cramped fingers. When he stopped on the side of the road for a bathroom break, Mackay went ahead.

As he got back on his bike, Eltom could see his wife riding ahead. He watched her go through a patch of mud. Then he watched in shock as she appeared to lose control of her bike. Unable to slow herself down, Mackay hit the cliff face.

Eltom was at her side in seconds. He held her while they waited for the air ambulance. In the end, though, the head injuries were too severe. Mackay died in her husband’s arms.

“Everyone worries about upsetting you,” Eltom says in an interview almost a year after the accident. “I don’t ever forget it. I think about it every day.”

The trip to Tenerife was supposed to be a “stress reliever,” he remembers. “My mom had been getting over cancer, it was supposed to be a break.”

During the 10 days they’d been on the island it had been just what they had hoped for. They’d ridden up to the top of Teide, Spain’s highest summit. The two were using the trip to get ready for Ironman Wisconsin, where Mackay hoped to get a coveted Kona slot.

“She was well on her way to Kona,” says her coach, Kevin Masters. “I know most recently her run was improving by minutes every time she did a race. It was really getting down to some competitive age group times. Her cycling was not going to be an issue because she was always riding with Travis, who is a very strong cyclist.”

While everyone else was confident that Mackay had a legitimate shot at making it to Kona, she wasn’t so sure.

“Laura, in my biased view as her husband, was an incredible example of what a regular age grouper triathlete can accomplish,” says Eltom. Mackay started running with a co-worker to be healthy and fit in 2002. The eventually led to some marathons, which, as so often happens, morphed into a desire to complete a triathlon. She wasn’t a strong swimmer, but joined a masters program and competed in her first super sprint triathlon in June, 2004.

“It was a miserable day,” Eltom remembers, “With freezing temperatures and even a few snowflakes.” That hardly slowed Mackay down, though. She signed up for the inaugural Sylvan Lake Half Ironman in July, 2004.

That was shortly after she’d met her future husband. In June of that year, Mackay, a counselor for Alberta Health Services, and Eltom, an Edmonton police officer, found themselves in the same bar one night. Neither had been in a bar for almost a year – Mackay because she was becoming a serious triathlete and Eltom because he’d been so focused on his own fitness as he tried to get into Edmonton’s Police Service Tactical Unit. He’d been training regularly on his mountain bike over the last year, and had also run two half marathons. Mackay ended up in the bar after a Matthew Good concert with her brother. Eltom was there trying to cheer up a friend who was getting over a recent break up. It was that friend who almost scared Mackay off after having a few too many drinks, but somehow the two managed to get together.

That was June 25, 2004. They got married on February 23, 2007. By then they embodied the active lifestyle of a fit, active triathlon-crazy couple. Mackay’s incredible dedication and pure love of the sport hooked Eltom. He managed to convince her that she truly could achieve that seldom-uttered dream.

“Before she met me she was always seeing what she could complete,” he says. “Once she finished something, she moved on to a new challenge. She never thought of herself as skilled at it. She never realized that her will could lead to talent.”

Mackay did her first Ironman in Penticton in August, 2005. Watching her dedicated training inspired Eltom to take up the sport, too. They joined a few triathlon clubs, but would eventually hook up with Kevin Masters at Aerobic Power Training Systems.

“Laura was the quiet focused one,” Masters remembers. “You would not know she was hanging out in the middle of the group as she would be drowned out by others going on about their workouts, etc. Laura did not talk about it, she just did it. That goes for her accomplishments as well, she was very humble and was interested in everybody else’s success.

“To coach her was easy and hard. Easy because she would do anything you asked, hard because she would not quit even when it might be a good time to call it a day. The best story for this was when a bike workout had a typo, which turned a regular session into an intense marathon. It actually got to a point where her very strong and intense husband packed it in because he said there’s no way the workout could be right, but Laura finished every last bit of it.”

Mackay and Eltom became the ultimate triathlon couple. They traveled around the world to race, competing in Chile, Texas, Cancun, Florida and across Canada. While both had some success, Eltom and Masters both agree that Mackay’s came not because she was a gifted athlete, but because she was so determined.

“Laura started out as an average age group triathlete, but she proved that hard work and determination could lead to much more than that,” says Eltom. “Laura had an unbending will when she set her mind to something.  Her accomplishments are not the result of being some naturally gifted athlete or someone who spent their childhood competing in some other endurance sport. Laura succeeded in endurance sports because she refused to quit and put in the effort each and every time.”

Mackay finished the 2007 Ironman Canada race in 11:52 and would qualify for the Ironman World Championship 70.3 in 2008. Earlier that year, she broke five hours at the Great White North Triathlon (half Ironman) outside of Edmonton.

In 2009 the two journeyed to another cycling haven, Mallorca, for a holiday. It was the first time they had taken a trip that didn’t have a race associated with it. Later that year, while riding in Jasper, Alberta, Mackay hit a rock while riding behind her husband at 42 kph. She suffered an open compound fracture to her right elbow – she broke off a 2 cm piece of bone in the process.

“Laura immediately got up and walked herself to the ditch and sat down before I had even turned around and got back to her,” Eltom says. “She calmly lay in the ditch as myself and some kind motorists administered first aide and we waited for the ambulance.  Laura required two surgeries and a three-inch screw and wire to put her elbow back together.”

That would hardly slow down a woman with Mackay’s determination. As soon as the stitches were removed she was out running. A few months later she qualified for the Boston Marathon by running 3:28 at the Sacramento Marathon in December.

So how do you move on when you’ve lost your best friend and training partner? Eltom went to Wisconsin this year. He wanted to try and qualify for Kona in his wife’s honour, but more important for him was that he finish the race in a time that would have qualified his wife for Hawaii. Stomach issues made the first goal impossible, but determination not unlike his wife’s made the second a reality.

Then there’s the memorial race.

“On May 15, 2011, I have teamed up with the Edmonton Police Foundation Half Marathon and created the Laura MacKay Memorial 10km Run and 5km Walk,” Eltom says. “The memorial race/walk will become an annual event to remember Laura’s amazing spirit and involvement with the local triathlon and running community.”

There’s no movie to be made, here. Just a story in a triathlon magazine that hopefully honours the memory of an athlete who both made a difference and who can show us all what is so special about what we do.