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The reigning 70.3 national champion, Kelly Williamson has spent the past decade climbing the pro ranks and holding tight to her triathlon dreams—by a mere thread at times. Far from an overnight success, Williamson, above all else, is a believer that athletic pedigree can only take you so far—a hard-core work ethic, a lot of self-belief and an unrelenting tenacity are the true marks of a champion. Williamson will next compete at Ironman 70.3 Texas this Sunday, April 7.
If you scan 35-year-old Kelly Williamson’s results page on her website, you’ll notice numerous small asterisks next to her overall finish places and times. Those little stars denote a race-best run, and in 2012, she claimed that distinction five times—at Panama 70.3 (1:16), St. Anthony’s 5150 (34:27), Rev3 Knoxville Olympic (35:12), Hy-Vee 5150 Championships (36:14) and the Ironman World Championship 70.3 (1:23), where she ran through the field and finished second. No doubt, Williamson is one of the most fleet-footed pro women racing today.
But long before she ever identified herself as a runner—which didn’t happen until her college years—Williamson was a swimmer. As a kid growing up in Zionsville, Ind., a tightknit Midwestern town with an old-timey, brick-lined Main Street and population of fewer than 4,000 the year Williamson was born, she spent countless hours at the pool down the street from her childhood home (by age 4 she was enrolled on the local team). The youngest of three girls, Williamson, who says she “didn’t come from parents who are genetic freaks—I’m just a really hard worker,” dabbled in other sports like soccer and gymnastics, but gave those up to swim more competitively, eventually landing on the University of Illinois squad.
“I swam all the long events that nobody wants to do—the mile, 500 free, 400 IM, 200 fly,” recounts Williamson. “I couldn’t outsprint anyone so I had to outlast them. I got the Workhorse Award almost every year at U of I. I’ve always taken the approach that nothing should be given to you. That’s not life. Life is about making things happen.”
On the college team, one workout was 2K in the pool followed by a four-mile run through cow fields. “All the swimmers hated it, but I loved it,” says Williamson. “It was then that I realized I really enjoyed running.”
Although she’d run two years of high school track (the 400 was her event, and only because she didn’t know a thing about track distances the day of signups and said she’d run whatever one lap was), it wasn’t until her swimming began to plateau during her junior year that she really embraced her off-season hobby. When an IT band injury sidelined her from any swimming or running, she hopped on a spin bike.
“Spring came and I thought, ‘I should really be doing this outside,’ so I went and got a road bike,” she recalls. She signed up for a sprint triathlon, won her age group and raced a few more times locally. “I just felt kind of hooked,” she says. “I didn’t want it to be serious—I really liked that it was on my own terms. Nobody was telling me what to do or where to be for my training.”
She raced in 2000 and 2001 as an amateur, “just fun races,” she says. When she did the Muskoka Triathlon—then a 2K swim, 55K bike and 15K run—and finished sixth overall, she began to see her potential in the sport: “Lisa Bentley and some other pros were there, and I thought, ‘Wow, maybe I could be kind of good at this.’” After she placed third at the 2001 age-group nationals, a friend suggested she look into the triathlon program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
“I really did it with feet dragging and was like, ‘I don’t want it to be serious,’ but then I got accepted and just thought it was the kind of thing I couldn’t pass up,” says Williamson, then 24. So she packed up, left her job at a running store and moved to Colorado in January 2002.
Despite early success—USAT named her the 2002 Elite Rookie of the Year and she was the Pan American champion that year—she struggled with living in a dorm setting and having an all-in focus on training and racing. “It just felt really one-dimensional,” says Williamson. She also didn’t love ITU-style racing. (“I was off the back all the time in those races, it was humorous.”) When she got a stress fracture in 2003 and couldn’t compete, she questioned whether she had made the right decision to invest everything in triathlon: “I was like, ‘What else do you have when this type of thing happens?’” She started working at a running store part-time to have more life balance.
For the next four years Williamson “bounced around”—she nursed a broken arm, moved to Austin, Texas, with her boyfriend (now husband/coach) Derick Williamson, whom she met at a bike race a year after moving to Colorado Springs, and continued to train, finishing 16th at the 2007 70.3 world championship. Numerous podium finishes pointed toward an emerging race specialty—the half-Ironman. In 2010 she won both Branson 70.3 and Steelhead 70.3, and was second at the Rev3 Quassy half.
Still, she couldn’t ignore the tug of Ironman. “It took me so long to even partially wrap my head around an Ironman,” says Williamson, who attempted her first Ironman (Canada) in 2009 but symptoms of a gallstone presented themselves on race day and she dropped out on the run. “I don’t know if I’ve mentally really gotten it yet. Ironman presents something so different than anything else. The Hawaii Ironman is a proving ground for a long-distance triathlete.”
She finished the 2010 IM Coeur d’Alene in third (9:39) but realized if she would ever have a chance at winning an Ironman, she’d have to improve her cycling. Substantially. “Everybody just said, ‘You need more time in the saddle,’” she says. “When I first started in the sport I was a great swimmer and a great runner—you wouldn’t think it’d be that hard to pick up the bike, but I couldn’t figure it out.”
At the 70.3 distance, Williamson could compensate for a weaker bike with a stellar swim and blistering run. “I’ve always believed that I was a lot better than what I was doing,” says Williamson. “I’d look at my half-Ironman results and go, ‘OK, I had the second fastest swim, second fastest run and 12th fastest bike—and there were like 12 women in the race—I’ve gotta be better than that.’ I sucked on paper—for a lot of years!”
In 2012 she was runner-up in Vegas at the 70.3 world champs, and posted wins at San Juan, Muncie (on a shortened course), Texas (the U.S. Championship), and was runner-up in Panama.
But the 112 miles of the Ironman bike leg has proven less forgiving. “I’ve had it handed to me in Kona,” she says. Indeed, she’s had a string of disappointing finishes at the Ironman World Championship, most recently finishing 15th at the 2012 race. “Sometimes even a seasoned athlete can finish a major race like Kona and, despite good preparations, just come up empty handed as to ‘why’ [they didn’t have a better performance],” says Williamson. “One thing I was very proud of was that I kept my head down and finished, closing it out with a decent run. After a few weeks of rest and some reflection, I think I was probably tired. I train with power religiously, and my power in Vegas was a bit low. That could have been a sign that the fatigue was starting, and despite hitting key workouts, I was probably a little cooked by the time Kona came.”
She’s not sure if she’ll venture back to the Big Island in October. “Three years ago, I wanted to do an Ironman as I had never done one,” she explains. “Since then, I have done six, raced Kona three times and had my best race at Ironman Texas in 2011 (9:07). My short Ironman career has been far from terrible, but it hasn’t been stellar either. I believe that I’m good enough to compete with anybody, but I know there’s always work to be done and to keep your nose to the grindstone.”
As for the coming season, her goal is simple: “to do what I love—to race, go up against great competition and get faster.” She’ll focus on half-Ironman, 5150s and some Rev3 races, with the big goals as the 70.3 world championship (“I think I can be a world champion”) and Hy-Vee. “I was recently told by someone I greatly respect and admire and who knows this sport inside and out, ‘Kelly, you have too much speed for Kona.’ I took that comment to heart! I love going fast—the allure of seeing how fast and how successful I can be at the Olympic and half-Ironman distances is really strong right now, especially knowing that I’m not getting any younger.”
And, as if marking an asterisk on that thought, Williamson adds: “I figure life is short, why not pursue my passions—and seemingly, my strengths—right now?”
Kelly’s tips for upping your triathlon game
Get stronger on the bike by …
Training with power. “I think the power has been really instrumental in helping me get better on the bike—I’ve been able to quantify my training,” says Williamson. “It’s like running: If you want to run a three-hour marathon you’ve gotta know what pace that is and how to train for that.”
Don’t get injured by …
Being overzealous with your workouts. “I’m pretty conservative with my running especially,” says Williamson. “I’m lucky to hit 50 miles in a week—that’s even when I’m six to eight weeks out from Kona.” She makes rest, recovery and a healthy diet top priorities as well. “It’s a constant process of listening to your body and responding to what it needs.”
Race better by …
Embracing the mental challenge. “I really love the psychology side of the sport,” says Williamson. “It’s all about managing what goes on between your ears. I don’t do well when I put a ton of pressure on myself. Having that desire and drive but using it to fuel your energy and not feel pressure—there’s a really fine line there.”