“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that features pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com.
Julie Moss is coming out of retirement – for the third time. Moss is widely credited with “putting Ironman on the map” during a painful display (documented on ABC’s Wide World of Sports) of physical rebellion as her body shut down within yards of a first-place finish at the 1982 Ironman World Championship. The talented redhead, a college student in her first go-round, went on to race on the professional circuit until 1990. This October, Moss and fellow former pro Kathleen McCartney, who passed Moss in the final stretch to claim the Ironman crown 30 years ago, will return to Kona to race again. I caught up with half of this tireless duo during Moss’ recent visit to Boulder for a healthy dose of mountain training time.
“That race was on February 6, 1982,” recalled Moss. “Then they switched it to October, so we got to double dip that year. I did both.”
“Oh, I believed all my press!” she continued, describing how she fared in her follow-up Kona appearance. “I thought I was going to win the thing. I went over there and blew up on the run and came in 14th I think.”
After retiring as a pro, Moss enjoyed a break from the sport, then returned in 1997 as an age-group athlete. She took another break and returned again in 2003. “As my friends like to remind me,” said Moss, “I was famous for saying, ‘I’ll never race as an age-grouper!’ Well, you know those age-groupers are amazing athletes. That was definitely not a step down at all. It was all I could muster to hold my own.”
Moss’ return to Kona in October will mark the first time she’s set foot on the island since the 2003 race. “I’ve often thought I’d like to return to Kona to watch the race, but I know it’s much harder emotionally to be a spectator than to participate,” explained Moss. “As a spectator you can only imagine what your loved one or friend is going through and are powerless to help. Returning to Kona as a participant means you are going to the show and your race is your focus. You can use the energy of the crowd to empower you.”
And while Moss let her focus on the pro prize purse fade more than two decades ago, her inspiration to race in 2012 came from her 1982 rival, who she now counts as a close friend. “Kathleen talked me into it!” said Moss, excited to share in the 30th anniversary celebration of McCartney’s win. “She was committed to going back, so I started to meet with her once a week to do a ride and we started to do things socially together. At some point I thought: Wouldn’t it be wild if I actually got in shape just supporting her effort to go back? It was just a passing thought.”
McCartney gave Moss a friendly but fierce nudge, letting her know that the window of opportunity would soon close on VIP athlete invitations. “Well, then I didn’t want an opportunity taken away from me, so I committed,” said Moss. “It felt a little premature, but now I’m really happy with my decision.”
Moss was not entirely confident that either woman would be granted a start. “I thought Kathleen was being a little naïve, calling up to ask whether she could race just because she won. Would they even want her back? Well, they sure did. She got the most amazing reception from Diana Bertsch [the race director]. Then I had to pick up the phone, and I was really kind of intimidated. I expected to be told, ‘Yeah, we remember you, but….’ But again it was this amazing reception from Diana. It felt like a great big hug!”
As for her Ironman preparation, Moss is curious yet confident in her approach. “I definitely ask a couple questions of each of the amazing pro triathletes I have access to here in Boulder. But I have a general feeling of what it takes to get this job done. I’ve been pretty successful in the last few rounds, in that I managed to get up there on that stage. And I’m packing an outfit for the stage!”
Moss’ time in Boulder is meant to lay the groundwork for a strong bike split. “You know, they say it’s altitude training, but I say it’s just wide open road training. It’s so motivating to get on your bike here!” said Moss. “I feel like I’m just about to get into the meat and potatoes of my program. That’s kind of what Colorado is about – getting the bike base established, so then I can go home to San Diego and start hitting those long swims and building up that long run, and then the biking will be up to speed with all of that.”
“Soon it will be all about packing in as many miles as I can,” continued Moss. “My body in the past has handled a lot of miles, though I don’t know if that’s going to hold true. But one thing that I bring to the table now is a strength and flexibility I didn’t possess. That’s because of the yoga teacher training that I’ve just finished. I’m blown away at how I’m handling all this, from having let everything go. So it’s pretty fun.”
The feisty yet matter-of-fact Kona contender expresses nothing but pride when stating her age. “My birthday is October 15th. Since the USAT rules officially call me 54, I’m glad I’ll actually be 54 or very close to that on race day!” proclaimed Moss.
While Moss seems as youthful as ever – perhaps even more so than when she first competed, due to her newfound focus on yoga and flexibility – the triathlon industry has evolved significantly since her first foray into the sport. “In 1982 we ate bananas and oranges from the aid stations and rode with PB&J sandwiches stuffed into our back pockets,” laughed Moss. “The sport has changed light years with improvements in nutrition and aerodynamics. I wouldn’t consider racing Kona now without my Fuel Belt loaded up with Gatorade and GU. In the past, I resisted every bit of technical help along the way! But obviously I want any advantage I can get and I’m thrilled with Cannondale for providing me with a gorgeous Slice. It’s literally one slice of the pie that I don’t have to worry about. The bike is great and is so comfortable in the areo TT position.”
Moss hopes to gain more from her return to Kona than simply another finisher’s medal. “I’ve started with such a good base of the maintenance required to keep your body strong. This is all coming about pretty organically, and if it stopped feeling natural then I would have to really rethink it. I’m eating well. I’m getting really good sleep. I hope I can incorporate all this swimming, biking and running into my life in a way that feels more like a hobby, a lifestyle, instead of something that I cram in every 10 years toward racing Ironman.”
Asked what she most looks forward to this year in Kona, Moss indeed sounds more like a yoga master than a hard-driving endurance athlete:
“I’m looking forward to being present – being really present throughout the day and especially on that run. Hopefully not having pain that would force me out of being present! Acknowledging that the miles are going by, and feeling a flow. Feeling like it’s moving along and that I better pay attention and enjoy it, because it’s going by fast. I humbly acknowledge that the women in my age group have all qualified to be there and it will be a privilege to race alongside them. I’m excited to see how I stack up. And of course it will be fantastic to come down the finish line on Alii Drive. I’m looking forward to seeing Kathleen come across the line. I’m excited to have my son, Mats Allen, there to greet me. And maybe to seeing the clock register a time that is in the same zip code as nine years ago. That would be the icing on the cake. Once I cross the line, then I’ll look up and say, ‘Oh! Not bad!’ Or else, ‘Oops! That was a little off!’”