I had the pleasure recently of talking triathlon with TCSD member Rachel Richards. Rachel completed her first Ironman this April in Arizona with a time of 14:40:47. Please join me as we get to know a very special lady.
Craig: What was your sports background before triathlon?
Rachel: I was heavily involved in equestrian sports from the age of 9 through graduate school. Sounds completely unrelated to triathlon, I know, but I have stumbled upon other pros that also ride/rode horses (Michellie Jones and Sam McGlone, anyone?) so I guess it’s not that uncommon. There are some transferable skills, for instance, overcoming your fears and having confidence on a large, potentially dangerous animal (not unlike riding a bike). Also, horses require getting really dirty, not unlike being covered in sweat, dirt, muddy water, and God knows what else by the end of a triathlon. Ironically, I used to go running with my horse on dirt trails by the barn before I rode. This always generated several strange stares from other hikers but I would just joke that I didn’t have a dog to run with. It was a great workout for me (riding competitively actually requires some fitness) and a good warm-up for the horse. I actually competed in a “tetrathlon” for Pony Club when I was little; we had to shoot (air pistol), swim, run, and jump over a course of fences on the horse. I could ride well and run okay but the swim was a joke. Everyone else must have been on a swim team or something. I came in dead last. My arms were like spaghetti noodles flopping out of the water. My dad caught the whole thing on tape.
Craig: How did you get started with triathlon?
Rachel: When my third horse retired in 2004, I was in graduate school and couldn’t afford the time and money required to support a new horse (believe it or not, there are things out there more expensive and time-consuming than triathlon). I began running but was plagued with injuries. I was already cross training by swimming and doing weights when my physical therapist pointed out that if I had a bike, I could do a triathlon. I bought my first road bike and signed up for my first sprint triathlon, the St. Peters Rec Plex Triathlon, just north of St. Louis. I was terrified because the bike was 20 miles and that seemed like a really long way at the time. I trained for months. When I crossed the finish line, I had two thoughts: Where is the food? I’ve never been so hungry! And, why did I wait so long to do this?
Craig: What was your Ironman Arizona experience like?
Rachel: It is difficult to capture how much this race meant for me in words. Even though I did absolutely everything I could possibly do to train for this race (and I mean everything), I was still completely petrified when I lined up in the lake on race morning. I had done all the training, and all of a sudden, in the lake, it just hit me: What am I doing? This is absolutely insane! Then, the cannon went off, and my mind was instantly cleared of thought, and a great sense of calm and peace swept over me. I just started swimming.
It was a really tough day; the weather conditions were the most extreme they had ever been for that race: 97-degree temps and 30 mph headwinds. It felt like the 5th ring of Dante’s Inferno on Beeline Highway that day. I saw very, very fit athletes dropping like flies all around me. Later, I learned that the DNF rate was the third highest in Ironman history. Of course, looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing. It just made crossing the finish line that much more special. I learned a lot about how to endure pain and overcome negativity that day. I just wanted to cross that finish line; that was it. I focused on that one goal all day long. I forced down calories, salt pills, and tons of water religiously. Relinquishing all pride and ego, I slowed my pace down to a crawl to allow my poor heart rate to slow and just kept thinking about the marathon I still had to run. The aid stations were serving hot water. Then, they started to run out of water. At one aid station, I had to stop, get off the bike, and dig through tossed water bottles to find enough to drink. I knew if I didn’t, I wasn’t going to make it to the next aid station. It was no longer a race; it had become a matter of survival.
I reached the end of the bike and was just so happy to be done with the bike that I was actually relieved to start the marathon. I headed out of T2 and felt great. I guess all fueling and hydrating worked. I noticed I was one of the few with a smile still on my face. The afternoon shadows grew long, and the sun began to go down, and as the temps cooled off, I felt better and better. My legs and feet were deliciously numb, and I felt like I was floating over the ground. It was like having a runner’s high for 26.2 miles. Around mile 19, I looked up at the night sky and was overwhelmed by the millions of twinkling stars against the hazy backdrop of the Milky Way. I was completely unprepared for something so brilliantly beautiful that late into an Ironman. I had never run a marathon before and had been warned about hitting the wall at mile 20. Maybe it was the delicious chicken broth, or the magical elixir that they call Coca Cola but I never hit the wall. Instead, I had a resurgence of energy at mile 20 and began picking up speed.
The final mile of the Ironman was bittersweet; I was shaking in anticipation of crossing the finish line but also overcome with a deep sadness that my first Ironman was coming to an end. I turned to go down the chute and actually started sprinting; I was so excited. Crossing the finish line was a blur of crackling loudspeakers, bright lights, and cheers but I will always remember the intense mixture of emotions that surged through me as I crossed: the exquisite, overwhelming feelings of accomplishment, victory, euphoria, and relief. Seconds later, I looked around: Now what?
Craig: I know you were really looking forward to you IM. Once it was over, did you experience any post race hangover?
Rachel: Most definitely. I had focused on that one goal for so long that all of a sudden, afterwards, it hit me: Oh, I have to deal with my life now. Plus, my body was tired so it was really easy to be overcome with post-Ironman blues during my recovery month since I wasn’t allowing myself to work out as much. I kept having this recurring dream that I was still out there running the 3rd lap by Tempe Towne Lake; that I was still doing the Ironman. I was overcome with great sadness upon awakening to realize that I wasn’t. My Ironman was over. It was as if I had left a part of myself out there on the course in Tempe.
Once I started working out again and seeing all my tri-buddies, I started feeling better. I had heard the best way to recover from a big race like that is to have another race in the future to look forward to but it was hard. I just couldn’t get pumped for Spring Sprint and San Diego International after Ironman Arizona. However, I showed up at the start completely relaxed with a “Let’s have fun,” attitude, something I’ve never been able to do before. I don’t get nearly as nervous before sprints and Olympics now. I had a major PR at Spring Sprint, which injected me with renewed confidence and motivation. It was a great race to dust off the cobwebs and get me out of my funk.
Craig: What is your favorite part of being a member of TCSD?
Rachel: In a nutshell—the Aquathlons. They represent all my favorite things about TCSD. I get to see all my friends, get in a tough, competitive speed workout and eat a ton of good food afterwards while watching the sunset in one of the most coveted spots in the U.S. (the Shores). The Aquathlons always remind me of how lucky I am to be doing what I love alongside great people in one of my favorite places in the world. Plus, you never know who you’re going to bump into—Emilio DeSoto, Kate Major, Normann Stadler; it’s a celebrity hotspot!
Craig: You have a regular ride that you lead and organize. I was really impressed that you took that on as a fairly new member of the club. What do you suggest for other new members to get involved?
Rachel: I was really tired of riding by myself, but the Saturday rides up the coast had become monotonous. In addition, since I was training for a half-ironman, I wanted to ride a bit longer but it seemed like everyone who was riding long was really fast and way more experienced than me so I kept getting dropped. I reasoned I might not be the only one with this problem and sent out an email to the club to see if others were interested. The response I got back was overwhelming. I started organizing the alternative Saturday bike rides, and it’s been such a rewarding experience, I’ve never looked back. I guess the planning involved is a bit of a time-suck (mapping out the route, typing out the directions, sending out the email, and making maps and route slips) but honestly, I have so much fun planning the rides, it doesn’t feel like work. I love learning new routes and meeting new people. I’ve made so many friends through the rides and had so many fantastic experiences. There is absolutely no better way to spend a Saturday morning than getting a good workout, socializing with friends, and viewing the most scenic parts of San Diego atop a bicycle—all done simultaneously (and of course, the great food at a local eatery afterwards)!
My advice to new members is: get involved. When I first joined TCSD, I was very intimidated. I started showing up to workouts and social events and was amazed at how friendly and down-to-earth everyone was. I realized there was no reason for me to be afraid; I was way harder on myself than anyone else! Plus, the learning curve is steep. By training with more experienced triathletes, I learned invaluable tips and was always motivated to work out because I wanted to see my friends. I’ve found the most difficult decision I have is picking which workout(s) to do because there are so many! There is no better way to become familiar with other club members than to participate in club workouts or races, or better still, volunteer for an event.
Craig: If you could wave a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you like to change?
Rachel: I would make the sport less intimidating and more inviting for the average American. Obesity has become such an epidemic in our country, and most people think they could never do a triathlon. They don’t realize that to finish a sprint triathlon, it’s easier than it seems. Plus, it’s more than just going to the gym and running on a treadmill. It’s a lot of fun too, which means people are more likely to stick with it. Triathlon is very popular in San Diego but the rest of the country is not so fortunate. I would love to see the sport grow and have more racing opportunities around the country, especially at the Ironman distance.
Craig: How has triathlon changed your perspective of your body?
Rachel: When I first started exercising, I was trying to get toned and shed a few pounds. My motivation lay heavily in changing my physical appearance. After I started doing triathlon, my goals started shifting to performance. I began to eat better (i.e. more) because I realized I needed to fuel my body properly in order to go faster and not break down. Now, I appreciate what my body can do and am less concerned with how it looks. Who cares if I don’t have a six-pack? I can do an Ironman! I am constantly amazed at the limitless boundaries of how far I can push myself and have gained a lot of respect and appreciation for my body. Because of this, I think triathlon can be a great way to build confidence, especially for women.
Craig: Why do you race and train triathlons?
Rachel: Besides the obvious (competition, health, and social aspects), I consider myself an experiential triathlete. I’m not particularly fast; I’m not out there to win but I always have a fantastic time. I have a triathlon blog so sometimes I joke that I race to blog (admittedly, I have done some cockamamie workouts just for the blog). Sometimes I feel like a triathlon reporter out there, taking mental notes and pictures of everything I experience so I can go home and document it on paper. It makes each workout and race very special because I’m always searching for spectacular moments; I’m never disappointed. In addition, it’s a great exercise for the mind; I never forget anything. I’m not just training my muscles and heart; I’m also training my brain to remember every little detail. Because of this, I have captured every big race and workout in writing (complete with photos) so I’ll have those memories forever. One of the reasons I love the Ironman distance so much is that it’s much more of an experience and much less of a race, at least for me. For the first time, I didn’t care about what mile I was on or my speed. I simply stayed in the moment and enjoyed myself, with each swim stroke, each pedal stroke, and each footfall, for 140.6 miles. It was incredibly liberating. I’ve never felt so alive.
Craig: What is the funniest thing that’s happened to you in a triathlon?
Rachel: During my first half-ironman, CA 70.3 2006, I dug myself into a deep hole by not eating and drinking enough. Needless to say, I got very dehydrated and began to feel nauseous, lightheaded, and delirious. I had been using the sponges at the aid stations to cool off and wanted to throw away the used one but I didn’t want to litter, and I was in between aid stations. I saw a mailbox and mistook it for a trash can, accidentally “mailing” my used sponge. I wonder what the mailman thought the next day!
Craig: Hmmm, I hope that’s not why the USPS stopped sponsoring their cycling team. What is the most incredible thing that has happened to you during a workout or race?
Rachel: On New Years’ Day 2006, I went for a mid-day swim at La Jolla Shores. I swam parallel to shore since I was alone, just past the breakers. I was very cold, and the water was pretty choppy. I started feeling very lonely and negative thoughts kept working their way in. All of a sudden, I heard this very loud clacking noise under the water. Confused, I looked up to see what it was. A pod of 6 or 7 dolphins had swam just a few meters away from me and were checking me out. It was as if they were saying, “Hey there! Everything okay? You look like you could use some company.” They seemed so kind and peaceful; I felt warm and protected. The current was pulling me towards them, and I was worried I would unwittingly invade their space. As soon as the thought passed through my mind, they began swimming out to sea and within seconds, they had disappeared. I realized how silly my concern had been; they are such incredible, graceful swimmers. Ever since then, my love for swimming in the ocean has deepened.
Craig: What races would you like to do in the future?
Rachel: Right now, I’m training for my first real marathon, the Nike Women’s San Francisco Marathon, October 19th. In addition, I can’t wait for my next Ironman. I am trying for Ironman Canada in 2009 but those slots are highly coveted so I’m trying to use some tricks up my sleeves to get in. Right now, I really want to focus on marathons and ironman-distance races since those distances feel the easiest for my body—long and slow. In the future, I would really love to do an Ultra Marathon. I absolutely love distance running and feel a strange calling for a 50- or 100-mile run. But I realize this is not a rational desire.
Craig: What do you do for a living?
Rachel: I’m a research scientist in the cardiovascular and obesity field. Right now, I’m doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the Scripps Research Institute. I study the connection between inflammation and immunity in heart disease. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in men and women in the U.S. I wonder how many cases could be preventable through healthy lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise. Since my career requires me to be acutely aware of how the rising trend of obesity is impacting people in our country, I have been further motivated to adopt the triathlon lifestyle.
Craig: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working, training, or racing?
Rachel: I love animals and spend my free time with my two pet bunnies, Babs and Taz. They’re great pets for recovery! I used to be more active in animal rescue and would like to get more involved again in the future. I also love to paint and write. In addition, I love anything that gets me outdoors. There’s nothing better than a mellow hike on local trails on a recovery day.
Craig: Rachel, thank you so much for sharing your story. You add a lot to the Tri Club and our local community. We are lucky to have you on our team!
You can check out Rachel’s blog at www.amateurtrigirl.blogspot.com.