Brianna walked into the H.V.M.N. office like nothing happened. She parked her bike and stood at her desk and asked how my weekend was.
The ease of her arrival was stunning. She’d just arrived home from weeks of international travel that culminated with her competing in the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in South Africa. That weekend I’d gone on a hike, saw a movie and played pickup basketball.
It takes a true athlete to participate in an Ironman event. Not only is the event grueling, but the hours–and years–of training leading up to the event take someone with unbreakable willpower, drive and supreme athletic ability.
The resume speaks for itself: PhD in Metabolic Physiology from University of Oxford. Professional rower with Team Great Britain. Two-time champion at the World Rowing Championships. Youngest person to row the English Channel at age 12. One of BBC’s “100 Women” of 2016. One of Business Insiders “30 and Under” rising tech stars.
When I first met Brianna, she’d just entered her first Ironman 70.3 triathlon (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike ride and 13.1 mile run). She finished fourth in her age group and 21st overall among woman.
That qualified her for the World Championships, from which she just returned, nonchalantly as ever, tossing treats from South Africa on the table for us all to share.
Which athletes are fittest: swimmers, runners or bikers? That’s the debate that sparked the first Ironman triathlon in the late 70s. John Collins (a Naval Officer stationed in Hawaii), and his wife Judy, had both participated in triathlons, what then were new formats of races. Living in Hawaii, they wanted to combine the most difficult races possible from the island into one super race: the Waikiki Rough Water Swim (2.3 miles), the Around-Oahu Bike Race (112 miles, originally completed over two days) and the Honolulu Marathon (26.2 miles).
“Whoever finishes first, we’ll call the Ironman,” Collins famously said. Thus the first “Hawaiian Ironman Triathlon” was born. Collins and 15 cohorts sprinted across hot sand and into the warm Pacific on the inaugural race in 1978–only 12 finished. Competitors needed to provide their own support crews, hydration and nutrition. The course description and pre-race rules were handwritten; on the last page, its ethos was all but etched in stone.
“Swim 2.4 miles! Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life!”
The first ever winner was the Gordon Haller in 11:46:58. In 2016, Jan Frodeno set the record in 7:35:39. But everywhere in between, there’s been a series of iconic moments.
Lyn Lemaire as the first Ironwoman in 1979 (12:55:38–fifth overall finisher). The first national broadcast was on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” in 1980. Famously dubbed “The Crawl,” Sian Welch and Wendy Ingraham literally crawled across the finish line in 1997. Jim MacLaren completed the Ironman in 1989 after losing his left leg, and Jon Blais completed the 2005 Ironman after being diagnosed with ALS. The first Half Ironman 70.3 was in 2001 in the UK.
So brings us to September 2018, the Half Ironman 70.3 in which Brianna partook: the first ever Ironman World Championship event on the African continent. Here’s what she had to say about it.
H.V.M.N.: For someone who’s under 30, you’ve had quite an accomplished athletic and academic career. Doing all that requires discipline and drive and probably a little craziness.
BS: As long as I can remember, if someone made it into a competition, I’d do it. I was seven when I’d had my first race ever. It was at a park near my house and we had to run a mile as fast as we could. I came in third but I did that race for the next three years.
It’s funny you remember not winning.
We have family videos of competitions between my sisters and me. Once, when I lost, I had a huge tantrum. I’m on film screaming ‘It’s no fun when I don’t win!’
Where did that competitive spirit come from?
Probably my dad. He was big into endurance sport.
How’d competitiveness help mold your athletic trajectory?
I used to compete in running races, then did my first triathlon at age nine or ten. I’d run so hard that I would throw up.
At nine I started rowing, and when I was 13, I competed in my first national championship. I wasn’t a child prodigy, always coming in third or fourth. The main reason I do well at anything is because I don’t give up. A lot of the kids that used to beat me burnt out. I’m not some superstar. So winning the world championship in rowing was this validation that you can overcome something even if you’re not a starlet.
Let’s get back to your Ironman races. How’d you qualify for the World Championships in South Africa?
In March, I competed in the Ironman 70.3 in Campeche, Mexico. That’s the first 70.3 I had ever done, and the first triathlon I’d done since I was like nine or ten. I placed fourth for my age group and 21st amongst all women. I was surprised and pleased with the result. I wasn’t even trying to qualify.
We were sitting in the prize area, and names are called of those qualify. If you don’t accept right then and there, you’re passed up and your slot is offered to the next competitor. It came down to me and I knew I had to do it. It felt selfish to qualify and not go. It was a huge adrenaline rush when I signed up for South Africa. It’s a huge commitment of time, a commitment financially–but it was exciting. I got a special coin that day and carried it around with me during the five months of training.
What was it like on the course in Mexico?
The biggest thing was the heat. It felt so close. I’d dealt with things like wind previously, but never something like this. But I try to problem solve it, considering things like hydration and making sure I have a contingency plan.
I was. I didn’t know how the distance would feel. It’s just so different than rowing. There’s a lot of pressure and excitement. You’re one swimming cap in a sea of 300 swimming caps. But it was really cool; you’re there on a Saturday morning and there are hundreds of people who are going to jump in the ocean with you. You know, the whole thing is about being calm. You never redline until the end. There’s a lot more time to think.
OK so you’ve qualified for South Africa. You’ve decided to do it. How’d you approach training this time around?
For Mexico, my training was sort of relaxed. I learned a lot from the experience and it helped with South Africa.
For South Africa, I trained with more of a purpose. I went out and met other triathletes. We did some specific sessions running off the bike–those are called brick sessions–and did some positioning work. I swam more regularly. Training for three sports was hard. I trained harder and a bit smarter. Mexico had so many unknowns. With South Africa, I had a clearer idea about what I wanted to do in my own race.
What was it like being there among the world’s best triathletes?
There’s something special about a championship. You get the feeling it means a little more. The venue is buzzing with energy, there’s grit, excitement, the future being kind of unwritten. There’s this ‘I’ve been training for years to get here’ sort of feeling that I was able to tap into.
That’s special. It’s probably a unique group of people.
You see people out on training runs and see people tuning their bikes up–the place is taken over by the event. It’s diverse: chiseled people in the athlete’s village carrying around $10k bikes, families, husbands, wives, kids. There’s a good energy.
Triathlons aren’t for everyone. But for the everyday athlete wanting to get a little more serious, how might they do that?
Having goals that naturally lead together. When I was rowing at age ten, it was the National Championships, then moving to medal winning, then wanting to go to the World Rowing Junior Championships event, and so on. The next step was always tantalizingly out of reach.
You should believe it’s worth a shot. A lot of people look at a goal and know they won’t get there. I don’t let that rational part of my brain stop me from trying. You can always find reasons not to do something, but you should hold onto the part of you that wants to try.
So pick a goal that’s a little out of reach. Make an actionable plan. Keep training and find a routine. Surround yourself with people who are better than you.
Rapid fire. Ready?
Best advice you’ve received?
It’s better to do 80% of the training 100% time, than do 100% of the training 80% of the time.
Frances Houghton. She was on the UK Rowing Team, did five Olympics and won three silver medals.
It’s ingrained, I’ve done this for years and years. I like the way exercise makes me feel. It’s meditative, it’s a good release from all the other things I’m thinking about.
Give us a look at your weekly workout schedule.
Alarm goes off at 6am. I’ll either bike, run or swim and depending on which, it’ll last one or two hours. I always do a longer run or ride on the weekends, and shorter workouts during the week. I try to incorporate strength and core work for injury prevention a couple times a week.
At work I try not to remain in the same position and always keep hydration and nutrition in mind. I try to earmark a couple days during the week when I’m not training. Some evenings in, some out. Being in a new city, it’s nice to have plans. A big part of training has been socializing and meeting people. Training has to be fun, or else you’re not going to do it.
And finally–there’s one thing I can’t figure out about you. How do you balance it all?
It’s all about having a schedule. But you have to be flexible–roll with the punches a bit. The less you think about it, the easier it is. I’ll get my clothes out the night before. Or if I have to meet someone, they always hold me accountable.
In rowing we used to say: ‘Rather than a three-out-of-ten day, make it a three-out-of-three day.’ You can’t always have your best day. You need to get up, go out and do something, because that helps you make progress.
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