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Heather Wurtele: “My Definition of Success Has Changed”

The Canadian is blazing her own trail of success—and it doesn't travel through Kona.

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The Canadian is blazing her own trail of success—and it doesn’t travel through Kona.

For most professional long-course triathletes, October is circled in red on the calendar. The Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, is considered by many to be the pinnacle of achievement in the sport, and even qualifying for the race is considered an honor.

But while everyone else is booking their ticket to Hawaii, Heather Wurtele is looking to get as far away from it as possible. Her October race calendar in 2017, jokingly (but not really) dubbed the “Islands Far From Kona Tour,” was a big departure from the norm: instead of the big dance, she opted for Challenge Family races in Europe. The experience shifted a lot of things for Wurtele, including her definition of success as a triathlete. She hasn’t been seen in a full-distance Ironman since, but that doesn’t mean she’s been sitting around. Fresh off her win at Challenge Geraardsbergen (which she called “so cool, and so painful”) Wurtele chatted with Triathlete to discuss her 2018 season, her renewed perspective on “triathlon-ing,” and why there’s more to racing than Kona. You started your year with by setting a course record at Ironman 70.3 Campeche, defending your title and besting the competition by more than 9 minutes. What was that day like for you?

Heather Wurtele: It was one of those magical races where everything just comes together and you feel strong despite tough conditions. I did a lot of heat acclimation protocols leading up to that one and was very happy to race well with temps well over 30 degrees Celsius. I really like Campeche. It has this wonderful friendly vibe, that comes from genuine excitement over having the race therethe local press was there to interview me when I got off the planeand the historical center of town is lovely. People are out in the parks in the evening, kids are playing. I feel a kind of nostalgia just thinking about it. You’ve followed that up with a few solid performances, including a third place at 70.3 Texas behind Mel Hauschildt and Mirinda Carfrae and a win at Challenge Geraardsbergen in Belgium. How are you feeling about this season so far?

There have been some ups and downs for sure. I was happy with my performance in Texas, felt flat in St. George, raced like a tactical numpty in Samorin [Challenge Family Championship], then put together a solid all-around day to take the win in Geraardsbergen. I really loved the tough course in Belgium. It was so cool, and so painful, to ride up the Muur van Geraardsbergen, with a max grade of 19.5% and rough cobbles, each loop on the bike. The harder the course, the better I seem to do. No doubt partly because the harder it is the more excited I get! I was happy to feel those “I love this stuff!” type feelings again. You do a lot more Challenge Family races than most pros, who tend to favor Ironman events.

Wurtele: I appreciated it when Challenge created The Championship: a big prize money, championship event that wasn’t in the fall when it was already hard enough to try to train for both or choose between 70.3 Worlds and Kona. They also created a European points series that rewarded consistent racing with a 120,000 Euro bonus paid out to the top 5 male and female athletes. I always wanted to have a race season in Europe, so it made sense to do Challenge races.

Provided by Heather Wurtele Why Europe?

Wurtele: It seems like in Europe and Australia, where the overall triathlon culture is healthier, people don’t differentiate between the brands so much, which I appreciate. If it’s a great event, just do it. Ironman has a lot of great races, run by great people, and I’ve made a good living doing their races in North America so I’m not complaining. I just wish triathlon was more of a sustainable lifestyle for people in North America rather than a bucket list, one and done, bragging rights for having finished an Ironman type thing, which it seems to be for many.

When we had an extended training camp in Banyoles, Spain last summer, our balcony overlooked a park and it seemed like there were people out “triathlon-ing” almost every weekend. One time, some people taped off a little course around the park and had relay teams of three, from little kids to older people, swimming in the lake, riding mountain bikes, running laps around the grass. It was awesome. I felt jealous. Like “These people have it figured out!” Triathlon doesn’t have to be a big serious race. It can be something that you do for recreation on a regular basis. One thing that’s interesting about your race schedule is that it seems to be pretty heavy on half-iron races. It’s been a while since you raced a full. Why is that?

Wurtele: I really like the distance, the competitiveness of the racing, and if you look at the prize money for bigger half-iron races, it is better than many full-distance races. When you’re trying to make a living at the sport, and you simply like racing as much as I do, it makes more financial sense to race half-irons. That said, I was pretty keen to race Ironman Lake Placid this year, not to qualify for Kona, but because I like the course, it is a women’s-only pro race, and I miss the full distance a bit. But looking at the recovery window from that, it wouldn’t allow me to put my best foot forward for 70.3 Worlds in South Africa. I could make almost as much money at Santa Rosa 70.3 and get back into training quickly.

A lot of my race decisions come down to simple cost/benefit analysis, with what I really want to do – courses that spark my interest and make me feel passionate about the sport – as another big factor that sometimes outweighs potential earnings. I decided early on that as a professional athlete, I was never going to do a full Ironman if the prize money for the win was only $5000. The fact that the prize money was cut from $12,000 to $5,000 is the reason why I didn’t toe the line for the third edition of Ironman St. George, despite winning the first two years of the race. If someone asked you to do your job for half your current salary you’d laugh. Triathlon is my job. It has definitely sucked that many of the courses I’ve felt most excited about – the hardest ones – have gotten smaller and had less money available but it’s a matter of principle for me. Working that hard for that little is not something I’m willing to do. There seems to be a general sense that Kona is the pinnacle of achievement for long-course triathlonbut we haven’t seen you there since 2016. Do you feel like you’re missing out?

Wurtele: No. I don’t feel that way at all. In fact, last year I was almost surprised by how happy I was to not be in Kona. We jokingly called our fall travels the “Islands far from Kona” tour. We raced Challenge Mallorca, and Challenge Sardinia in October and early November. It was so awesome to see some beautiful new places, race two incredible courses, and end the year on a high note. Frankly, it was a really refreshing change. I wouldn’t trade those experiences for a top 10 finish in Kona.

I’ve finished in the top 15 every time I’ve finished Kona, but that’s still losing money. Kona has broken my heart so many times and when you’re not even breaking even. … I needed to step back from it all. I felt that I either needed to be 100% committed to Kona or out totally. I was gunning for a 70.3 World title and have been proud of my performances there, coming close (3rd, 2nd, 3rd, in 2014, 2015, 2016 respectively), but I was still trying to have a good race in Kona after. It wasn’t the recipe for success on the big island so I decided to skip it altogether last year, rather than sacrificing the other races for Kona. So what does your definition of success in triathlon look like, then?

Wurtele: It’s interesting how this has changed over time. I used to think it was a specific result. A big win. Lots of wins. A world title. All of this stuff is meaningful, but a lot of it is subjective: how people choose to spin it. I’ve won six Ironmans, and 22 half-iron distance races, been on the podium in five world championship events, but I haven’t won a world title, so am I a worse athlete than someone who has a world title but fewer career wins? Are Ironman wins on tough courses more meaningful, or fast ones, or only ones with the best competition, or the most recent?

I get that sport is comparative. Wins, losses, dramatic performances, epic failures, this is all the stuff that makes it entertaining and something we love to do and to follow. I get that I wouldn’t even have the opportunity for an interview like this if I wasn’t as good as I am at triathlon. I’m proud of being a top competitor, consistently, for many years. It means something to show up at a race and be someone that other people feel is a threat for the win. It means a lot to be respected by your peers and known as someone who races fair.

But all the talk about world fastest times, who’s the best athlete ever, PRs, rankings based on ideal course times…all this seems pretty meaningless to me. External rewards are fleeting. Even your own sense of accomplishment is short-lived and sometimes it has nothing to do with winning at all. You need to figure out for yourself what gives it all meaning. Success is nuanced, for sure.

On a final note, I have to say that success for me has been maintaining a happy marriage with my husband Trevor and both sharing the adventure of being professional triathletes together. Even if I never win a world title, looking back on all the memories we’ve made together, I will feel like my career has been a huge success.

Heather and her husband, Trevor