Once a stand-out on the ITU circuit, 34-year-old Liz Blatchford now has her focus now firmly fixed on triathlon’s holy grail.
British-born, Australian-raised and once a stand-out on the ITU circuit, 34-year-old Liz Blatchford turned to long-course racing after the sting of controversially being left off of Great Britain’s 2012 Olympic team. She cut a quick swath of redemption, claiming a handful of Ironman 70.3 wins en route to victory at her debut Ironman (Cairns 2013). Next, Blatchford was fourth on the podium at Ironman Mont-Tremblant, punching her ticket to Kona, where she raced her way to third despite a penalty for tossing a water bottle outside a discard zone. Along with her long-time love, husband Glen Murray, Blatchford splits her time between Boulder, Colo. and Australia’s Gold Coast, with her focus now firmly fixed on triathlon’s holy grail.
TM: Looking back at your 2013 season, you had a heck of a lot of podium time for an iron-rookie. What are some of the thoughts and emotions that come to mind when you think of each of your three Ironman races? Let’s take them one at a time…
LB: Surprise! Relief to be finished. Just sheer excitement. I’d been sort of scared of making the distance and not knowing what sort of whole new level of pain I was going to put myself through. So to finish my first and know that I’m an Ironman and all that was a pretty incredible feeling. I think winning almost came second to that, but it added to the excitement. I was overwhelmed by the awesomeness of it.
LB: I probably had a harder day in Tremblant than in Cairns. I was fitter for it, so I pushed harder and I blew up harder. Crossing the line there, I was slightly frustrated that I was fourth and it was very close between second, third and myself. But in saying that, the purpose for that race was to gain enough points to get to Kona. So I had the slight frustration but I thought: OK, that’s fine. I did what I needed to do, now time to move on and focus on Kona.
Ironman World Championship?
LB: Kona was incredible! As the race unfolded I was getting more excited. I was in a bike pack and looking around me and, as you do, weighing people’s strengths and looking at the girls who could run. Not that I’d run particularly fast in the two Ironman’s before Kona, but I thought: Yeah, I could get top 10 here. That was a goal for me and something that I thought I’d be pretty happy with. And then I stupidly threw my bottle at the wrong spot and got a penalty. I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been. I wanted to hit myself in the head! I got off the bike in fifth and had a four-minute penalty–a long four minutes. But I think I still set off in 10th or thereabouts from T2 and then started picking off girls. And as I moved up into fifth and then fourth and then third, it was this feeling of excitement creeping up inside me. Wow, this is really happening! But I was also trying to keep myself calm. I knew there was still quite a long way to go and I’ve heard about all these epic blowups in Kona. I was thinking I could very well be one of them! So I tried to stay calm and keep doing the things I needed to do–eat and drink and whatever. Running down Palani Road, I think I knew I had third because Yvonne was pretty far behind me. That’s when you hit the crowds, and there’s immense pain in your legs and feet but you forget about all that. It’s just this awesome feeling and everyone’s screaming at you! It’s like they almost lift you up and carry you down Ali’i Drive. I almost felt like I was dreaming. Occasionally I have these dreams before a race–sometimes just that I’ve missed the start or something, but other times that I’ve won the race. They’re these awesome dreams and then I wake up and realize: Ah, I’ve still got to do the race! I was really hoping it wasn’t one of those good dreams.
TM: Did you have that dream about Kona in the lead up?
LB: No, I didn’t actually have any dreams about that race.
TM: Of course we have to talk about your Kona penalty. Post-race, you said that you were caught up in racing and not thinking–and probably a bit tired at that point–when you tossed the bottle. So just for the record, do you recycle and pack your trash in everyday life?
LB: [Laughing] I do! I don’t know what came over me! I was actually disgusted at myself. I was like, A) I just broke the rules and B) I just littered on beautiful Hawaii! There was an official right there–he was with me most of the bike ride. It was so stupid.
TM: When you were in the penalty tent, how did you handle those four minutes? Did you calm yourself and try to regroup, or were you feeling bitter with yourself?
LB: I’d been through those emotions for the last 20 miles on the bike–being angry at myself–and I sort of knew I had to cut that out. I knew I couldn’t completely cut it out, but I had to stop focusing on it, and I knew that a decent result was still within my reach. So once I got to the penalty tent I’d mentally partially dealt with it already. So I just stood there and thought: How can I make the most of this four minutes? There wasn’t much I could do! There was no food or drinks and I didn’t have anything left on my bike to take in with me, so I just stretched. The officials there were lovely–they were really friendly. As it got close to the end of the four-minute penalty, the officials were counting down and I got ready like I was about to do a track start. I was all pumped, like: C’mon, get me out of here! I sprinted out the first two steps and then I was like: Whoa! Legs! And then I resumed the Ironman shuffle.
TM: Have you made any other rookie mistakes in your transition to non-drafting long course racing?
LB: Nothing as costly as that! Just a few little silly things. In Cairns, I didn’t really know what special needs was so I put some spare running shoes in there instead of food. In Koh Samui I dropped all my nutrition in the first 20-kilometers of the bike and didn’t have anything to back up. But I managed to overcome both those things. Nothing quite like throwing a drink bottle and losing four minutes!
TM: Following Kona you compared Ironman to ITU racing, saying, “It’s a different sort of pain, but agony just the same.” How do they compare, specifically?
LB: If you’ve ever done a hard track workout and it’s toward the end of a rep and towards the end of the set and you have that lung-busting, whole-body-lactic feeling where you just want to stop and lie down–that’s ITU. In Ironman, at any given point you’re not breathing that hard, and you’re going a pace that you can maintain for nine hours so the pace isn’t that hard, but it’s just this accumulation of pain in the legs and other things like burning feet and the pain of sitting on your saddle for five hours. And the mental side of Ironman–I mean unless you’re in the last couple of miles on the run, you’ve always got so far to go! It’s not like it’s actually going to be over soon, so you’ve got to break that down and try not to think about how far you have got to go.
TM: Your trip to the Ironman World Championship was your first time ever on the Big Island. What are some things–race-related or otherwise–that struck you about Kona?
LB: Flying in was exciting. You fly in and you see the lava fields and it all becomes very real. You realize that you’re racing on this island that’s very much like the moon, you know? There’s not much shade, and when you get off the plane and the heat and humidity hits you it’s like: Wow, this is going to be hard. Even for me, someone who enjoys the heat, I realized just how hot it is. As people always say, Kona is driven by conditions and how you handle those conditions. I was lucky to spend four weeks there before the race and I think that prepared me really well. Especially with it being my first year, that gave me time to be in that heat and suffer and experience the winds and everything up at Hawi. As it turned out it wasn’t windy on race day, but I was prepared for it to be. Relative to some of the days I rode it wouldn’t have bothered me if there had been some on race day. And then just the whole atmosphere during race week–Ali’i Drive with all the speedo runners and compression and everyone in their race suits–it’s quite a thing, isn’t it? Kona is like this bubble, and you hear people talk about it, and through media it gets spread all over the world, so you’ve seen it, but still it’s actually hard to believe when you’re right there in it.
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TM: You went into Kona somewhat under the radar. Was that helpful in your pre-race preparation?
LB: I was definitely very much under the radar and I didn’t mind it. I didn’t expect any media–compared to the girls that were racing I hadn’t done anything yet. I think you don’t deserve the media until you’ve done something. So I had nothing the whole week before and I thought: This is great. This is to my advantage. I get to relax and prepare how I want. The one and only media commitment I did have was a radio interview on my phone. My parents had just arrived that day so I said, “I’ve got to do this radio interview, Mum and Dad, and after that we can go get some lunch.” So they waited around, and finally the call came–my one and only media commitment–and the caller said, “So sorry Liz, the program’s run over.” I think they had the other British girls on, Rachel and Leanda, and the program had run over, so they said, “We don’t have time for you.” And I was like, “Uh, Mum and Dad. We can go to lunch now.”
TM: What are some other iron-distance races that appeal to you, now that it’s your “thing”?
LB: It feels funny because it was only four months before Kona that I did Cairns, and even the day before the race I was still overwhelmed by Ironman and thinking how far it is. I think even now I still haven’t grasped that I am an Ironman–that it’s my stuff, it’s what I do. But Kona’s definitely my main goal for the next few years. Roth also has some appeal–I’ve heard only good things about that race. And I’m looking at potentially doing an early Ironman in 2014. I haven’t really decided yet but there are some good options out there.
TM: Let’s talk about Glen. How did you guys meet and what was your first date?
LB: We met at a mutual friend’s party. He was living in Melbourne and I was living on the Gold Coast, but he used to do kayak paddling and he was on a training camp with the Australian Institute of Sport. It was a dress up party and he was dressed as Monkey Magic and I was dressed as Roller Girl! For our first date Glen and I went to a Thai restaurant for dinner. I managed to pick out the chili from my dish and later rub my eye, so I wasn’t quite crying but my eye was really watering. I was winking at him a lot, so I think he thought he was in!
TM: Glen travels with you during the race season and works as a beach lifeguard when you’re both home during the Australian summer. He’s your number one support and an integral part of your team. If you were to give him a job description, what would it be?
LB: It’s quite a list! I think being the husband as well, there’s no end to what I actually ask him to do. If it was my coach or somebody else, there are things I would feel a bit too bad about asking them to do, but being my husband–never! He’s a training partner at times, definitely the bike packer, definitely involved with my equipment maintenance and selection and that sort of thing. He gives a pretty good massage when I force that one out of him. He cooks for me every night pretty much, he does the grocery shopping–he’s my everything, really. I’m pretty spoiled. Especially when it comes to carrying the bags. The few times I’ve had to travel without him I’ve been like: Ooh, sore shoulders! [Giggling] And he just knows me so well and knows every aspect of my racing and what I’ve been through over the years. He’s really good at suggesting the races he thinks will suit me. He actually looks at who’s racing and gives me a run down on what all the girls’ strengths are–especially as I moved into Ironman and didn’t really know anyone. It’s not really my thing to research people, but when I’m out training he’ll look online and look at people’s times and tell me what they’re good at so I can be ready!
LB: What are you like in the lead up to a big race–are you calm and relaxed, stressed, high maintenance, or what?
LB: I probably vary between all of the above. Glen’s pretty good at calming me and does as much for me as he can so that life isn’t stressful. But I can be stressed. I think before Kona I didn’t have any expectations of myself–and I don’t think anyone really had any expectations of me either–so that helped leading into that race. But in saying that, being a competitive athlete I naturally want to do well. So I take it seriously, but I also realize that taking yourself too seriously can be detrimental. It’s kind of a fine line, but I’ve been doing triathlon a long time so I know what I need to do to keep myself calm, but also be the best prepared I can be. I probably do get a little high strung at times, but I’m not terrible!
TM: Your ITU career lasted 11 years. Now you’ve launched into a new phase of your triathlon career, so where do you see yourself another 10 or 11 years down the road?
LB: I’m 33 now, so I definitely don’t think I’ll be racing in 10 or 11 years. I mean I totally respect Natascha Badmann–I think that’s absolutely incredible what she does–but it’s definitely not for me. So I would probably be retired by then and hopefully have some kids running around. I have a few ideas of what I want to do after triathlon. I’m considering becoming a schoolteacher, or maybe dong some coaching, but I haven’t exactly decided. But we’ll be living in Australia, close to the beach, and spending some of my spare time surfing.
TM: When your triathlon career is totally wrapped up, how would you like people to describe you? In other words, what sort of legacy do you hope to leave as an athlete?
LB: As much as I’d like people to respect me for what I’ve done on the field and my results, I’d like people to think I’m–it sounds a bit typical, but a good person. A fair competitor and someone who’s a decent role model. Crowie, I think, is an absolute prime example of that. If I could be anything like him, not necessarily in terms of athletic achievement but in the way he represents himself and goes about things, I would love that. I aspire to be like that.
TM: When you were a wee little Liz, what did you imagine being when you grew up?
LB: I’ve kind of always wanted to be an athlete. I got into pool swimming when I was young. I was OK, but I was never particularly good at it–never national level or anything. But I remember in grade six in school when the teacher asked everyone, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I had just started swimming and I said, “I want to be a swimmer, like Kieren Perkins,” because at that time he was world champ or Olympic champ. And the teacher said, “Don’t be silly. Get a real answer.” I was so put out! I remember it to this day.
TM: Do you have any superstitions or good luck charms?
LB: When I was a kid racing surf lifesaving, I used to make lucky slippers. They’d get all of us together on the beach and we’d have to sit for 5-10 minutes before our event, so my best friend and I would make little mounds around our feet with sand and smooth them out. We’d write “Good Luck” or something inspirational on the little mounds and call them our lucky slippers. We’d do it before every event–and when you do these carnivals as a kid you’re doing 10+ events a day! I’ve actually done it a few times over my triathlon career when there’s some sand around. I’ll just make a quick little mound, probably when no one’s looking, and ask for good luck.
TM: Did you do it in Kona?
LB: No–I was kind of late getting into the swim so I didn’t actually do it.
TM: And yet you still had a lucky day! Congratulations on an incredible start to your Ironman career and we look forward to watching what comes next for you.
LB: Thank you!
[Excerpts from this interview appear in the February 2014 issue of Triathlete.]
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