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Faces In The Pack: Kona Qualifier Caroline Lea

The former collegiate soccer player's key to success? Keep it fun and balanced.

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A former collegiate soccer player at UC Berkeley, the California Bay Area triathlete found a new athletic passion when she interned for the organizers of Escape From Alcatraz. Last year, the 30-year-old raced Ironman Canada, where she finished as the first amateur woman and punched her ticket to Kona. Her key to success? Keep it fun and balanced.

I grew up playing soccer because my older brother and sister did, and I just wanted to do anything to hang out with them. It quickly turned into an obsession, and I earned a scholarship to play at UC Berkeley, where I was a four-year starter and a member of the U-21 National Team. Triathlon has been a great competitive outlet for me since I hung up my cleats a few years ago.

While I was at Cal, I had a summer internship with IMG, and we managed the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. The whole experience planted the triathlon seed in my mind. When I saw the athletes emerge from the water and hop on their bikes, I had goosebumps. It was the most intense spectator moment I’d ever experienced, and I immediately knew I would do triathlons one day. It took rehabbing a torn ACL/MCL, retiring from soccer and a couple more years, but I did my first sprint triathlon in 2010 [Santa Barbara]. I didn’t really start training seriously until early 2014, when I decided to sign up for my first full Ironman [Coeur d’Alene].

When I raced Ironman Canada last year, we had a lot happening in our lives. Job transitions, planning a wedding, family illness, the sudden death of a friend. My Kona aspirations had dwindled significantly, but [my husband, my coach and I] decided to give it a go anyway. The weather ended up being horrendous with a downpour for most of the race, but I barely noticed it. I raced my own race, and spent 10-plus hours thinking about so many things beyond triathlon. As I was finishing, I felt a huge weight lifted, my eyes flooded with tears and I felt so incredibly content. I think my lack of obsession over results allowed for my best race yet.

I’m coached by Matt Dixon of Purplepatch Fitness. He manages to bring the perfect amount of humor, intensity and education. He’s helped me be more patient with my training, and helped me to begin to realize my potential. I’m also a member of the Olympic Club Triathlon team in San Francisco. We have a great group that enjoys training together. We do weekend rides, spin class and the occasional run/swim together. My husband is a very talented triathlete, turned (mostly) cyclist. He and his friends are great about letting me tag along for rides.

Usually Mondays are very light with either an easy swim or spin, followed by strength work. Tuesdays and Thursdays, I swim at 5:30 a.m., then run later in the day after work. Wednesdays and Fridays are usually an early morning trainer session in my garage, followed by a run. The weekend is where the real work happens. On Saturdays we usually do a 4–5-hour ride, with the occasional run. On Sundays we do a two-hour swim, followed by a longer, low-intensity run. This usually ends up being about 15-plus hours per week, and—real talk—there are plenty of weeks when I don’t perfectly execute the plan!

I raced Ironman 70.3 Lake Stevens in 2014 and forgot to pack a wetsuit, so we bought an old rental from a local bike shop. It had holes everywhere and cost $30, but there was no way I was doing that swim without a wetsuit—I need all the help I can get.

My goal for triathlon is [to] continue doing it for many years to come, and never feel like I have “peaked,” which is my biggest fear. Even as my times become slower, I never want to feel too stagnant or comfortable. I want to continue to push myself and know that I am racing and training in a smarter, better way as I grow older. Beyond triathlon, I want to have a few kiddos, start my own business and one day venture into ultrarunning.

My go-to recovery meal is a burrito—every time. When I’m trying to be healthier, I mix up a Fitppl smoothie. The cocoa and blueberry is real tasty.

RELATED: A Kona Qualifier Shares Her Pre-Ironman Fueling Strategy

Lea’s Lessons

“There are no secrets and there are no shortcuts,” Lea says. But there are a few pieces of advice that have helped her along the way:

Don’t take it too seriously too quickly. “Ease into the sport,” she says. “Most of us have plenty of stressors in our lives; don’t pile it on by putting too much pressure on results or outcomes.”

Train with people who are better than you. Don’t be afraid to be the slowest in the group—that’s when you’ll build the character you need to push through the tough moments in races, she says. “When it feels hard, or you’re tired, that’s when you make progress.”

Keep it fun(ny). “While my favorite training buddies are some of the most intense people I know, they are also hilarious,” she says. “Going hard is fun so do that, but just make sure you keep a good sense of humor. I want to train with [pro triathlete] Callum Millward one day, just because I know he’d kick my ass and we’d have a damn good time doing it.”

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