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10 Questions With Olympian Colleen Quigley After Her Triathlon Debut

Professional-runner-turned-triathlete Colleen Quigley succeeded in earning her tri pro card by breaking the tape at the Tritonman draft-legal triathlon in San Diego. We speak to the newly-minted elite license holder about her race.

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How many multisport athletes won their first tri, ever? How many had their first race in a high-stakes draft-legal event against 50+ triathletes all looking to earn one of three pro cards available to the top three across the line? But also: How many triathletes have been to the Olympics, competed in track and field’s cutthroat Diamond League, and been heralded as one of the top runners in the world—all before they ever stood in the water and heard an airhorn sound the start?

When Colleen Quigley announced, via social media, that she intended to race last weekend’s Tritonman, with the hopes of earning her elite tri license (all while still keeping her sights set on the track for Paris 2024), both the run and tri worlds were abuzz. If that got the Twittersphere spinning, Quigley’s win in the sprint-distance, draft-legal development race (by almost a minute, no less) should set it ablaze.

For those who were afraid Quigley couldn’t swim or bike, her splits in each showed she was certainly in the game (over a minute down from the leaders out of the water and firmly in the second chase pack on the bike), and it should be no surprise that she posted the fastest run of the day by about 1m30s (she ran the 5k in 19:02).

We spoke to the newly minted elite triathlete, two days after her debut victory to hear about her training, her race, her impression of the tri community, and her first penalty in her first race.

RELATED: Triathlete’s Guide To Your First Triathlon

Triathlete: What has your training looked like over the last months? What has been different about it versus running?

Quigley: I have a high level of confidence that [my coach, Greg Mueller] knows what he’s doing, and I can just kind of release the reins to him and not really think very much about, ‘Is this the right thing? Am I doing enough tempo work or enough to to work on the bike or am I getting fast enough? Is my 100 time or my 500 time in the pool good?’ I literally have no idea. And so I was really embracing the not knowing, and I think there’s a lot of freedom in that.

In running, I have a lot of experience. And so it’s easier for me to say, ‘That mile repeat workout was okay.’ Like I used to be able to do my mile repeats at 5:10, and if I only did 5:20, I’d be bummed. On the other hand, if I had a good swim workout, it’s good, because I think it’s good. And I’ve been embracing that. Some people were asking me, ‘How many miles a week were you running?’ I honestly don’t know, I wasn’t counting—kind of intentionally not wanting to get in my own head about the fact that I used to run 80 miles a week, and now it’s not going to be as much.

What’s been new for you in tri training?

The TSS score thing was new to me, I’ve never used that and I never knew what that was before. So that was fun. And I could see it on Training Peaks—how the different scores and fitness scores gradually climb and then plateau because I was having a down week, and then they would climb again for three weeks. And then I would kind of get a plateau. That was cool. But again, I’m not getting too caught up in the numbers or worrying about if I’m doing enough.

RELATED: 8-Week Sprint Triathlon Training Plan For Beginners

How has tri training impacted your running?

The biggest thing for me is just being able to have consistency in the run. I’ve had so many ups and downs in my running training over the past three years that everyone I have been talking to and listening to says, ‘You just need to get some consistent training in.’ And yeah, I know I need consistency, I just couldn’t figure out how to stay healthy. So I think that in and of itself is huge.

And I’ve gotten some decent check-in [runs] along the way: The last tough workout that I did was 10 days out. And it was my first brick session. I had never done any run off the bike before. And so it was time to try that. I did three rounds of 10 minutes on the bike at tempo, and then a mile run at 5k race pace. And so that was like a good way for me to figure out how that was going to feel. And it was actually surprisingly, not that bad. I was running like, 5:20s off the bike feeling really, pretty comfortable. And so I think certain indicators like that are great because I know my running isn’t really taking a hit.

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How did you call upon your extensive track racing background for your first foray into a largely unknown event?

I was drawing similarities between the swim and the steeplechase, which, on its face seems like those two activities could not be more different. But I was really stressing out about the swim going into the race. It’s my least strong event. And open-water swimming is still something that just like mentally, is just so scary to me.

I was talking to my coach about it beforehand, and we came up with a strategy. I was getting overwhelmed with the whole, ‘It’s going to be like, 11 minutes of getting kicked in the face. It’s gonna be horrible.’ The strategy was: Instead of thinking about it like that, let’s just take it one buoy at a time. Just thinking about, ‘Okay, get to the first buoy. Okay, now just get to the second buoy, and just take a right to get to that next buoy.”

That’s actually a trick that I use a lot in the steeplechase, where, if you think about like two miles of 28 hurdles, and seven water jumps you can feel really overwhelmed. You have to focus on each barrier, one at a time. Otherwise, you’ll fall. And so it is kind of treacherous in that way. Like if you get too far ahead of yourself and swim like that, you can just start hyperventilating.

[The two sports] are very different. But I was trying to use some of my tactics from what I know, to carry over and help me into something that was very foreign to me.

Tell us a little bit about the race on Saturday.

I was definitely the most concerned about the swim. It’s most out of my comfort zone. Thank goodness that there was no surf break, as it was in a protected bay. We did a treading water start, the horn blows, and everyone starts going immediately. And I immediately got kicked in the face, and my left goggle got water in it.

Then I got out of the water, and I was 92 seconds back from the leader. That’s a good ways at this distance. But I actually caught up to a bike pack that was a little ways ahead of me, shortly into the first lap, and we were able to work together really well—taking pulls. I was definitely taking long pulls because I could tell I was probably one of the stronger riders in the pack. There’s girls who get to the front and are there for like five seconds, then pull off; can’t do it. And then it got to the point where it was kind of cool, actually working together. And there’s communication happening. and that was kind of fun.

Colleen Quigley wins her first triathlon
(Photo: Zack Goodman)

As soon as I got my shoes on to start running, I actually felt good. I felt like my back wasn’t too tight or anything like that. But I was back in 17th place. That’s pretty far back. But I started rolling people up pretty quick, and I was in first about halfway through the second of three laps of the run. So that run was actually kind of fun.

What surprised you about the race?

I’ve never run after the swim before. I could not see, my vision was so blurry. I kept hoping I wouldn’t fall on my face. It’s kind of a long run up from the water, and that part was kind of scary because I’ve never experienced that before. And I think I was flustered or out of it because of that.

Tell us about the penalty.

I got to my bike and I immediately took my bike off of the rack, without a helmet on, so I leaned it up against my body, and I put my helmet on. And I was like, ‘Oh, I’m definitely gonna get a penalty for that.’ I actually almost forgot to take my penalty because I knew I had gotten one, but in my head I figured I’d worry about that later. So then when we were on the run, I was so focused on catching people that I had forgotten about the penalty. And I’m just not used to penalties. My coach had warned me about the penalty box. But I was just full of adrenaline, and in the moment everything is going so fast and wild.

Colleen Quigley wins her first triathlon
(Photo: Zack Goodman)

I was going towards the finish line, and there was a penalty box right before it, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a penalty box.’ And I looked at the penalty board and it read my number. Just before I got to the finish. And so luckily, I did see it and I pulled over, and the 10 seconds went by really fast. I was looking around the corner to see if there was anyone coming behind me on the run, but I had a big lead. Yeah, that could have been way worse.

How was your experience with other triathletes at the event?

There were three women who were in my race on Saturday who already had their pro cards and had been racing pro. They were so nice to me. One of them, Michelle Magnani, DM’d me saying she was going to be in the same race and asked if I wanted to do a pre meet together—we can ride the course and check out the course together on Friday. We met up with Annie Fuller, who also already has her pro card. So all all three of us rode the course together on Friday.

Michelle was texting me the night before, asking ‘Are you good? Do you need anything? Let me know if you have questions.’ I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, we race against each other tomorrow!’ It was so nice. I couldn’t believe how welcoming they were, and they weren’t trying to intimidate me. They were so nice. I was so impressed with the sportsmanship and the community that I found there. The other women who I competed against were incredible.

Are there any runners-turned-triathletes who inspire you?

Oh, yeah definitely. Number-one personal shout out is Chelsea Sodaro. She’s so sweet. She actually stayed at my house in Flagstaff about a year and a half ago. She was training, getting ready for a race. She had just had her kid, and she was trying to train and Boulder, but the fires were really bad. so someone connected me with her. I had no idea who she was, as she hadn’t won [Kona] yet. I didn’t know that she used to run track and then switched to triathlon. I didn’t know anything. But I met her that way. And then when she won, I reached out to her on the phone to give her some congratulations.

Now that you have your pro card, what’s next?

I’m definitely going to pivot now and focus on track for the rest of the spring and summer. And then we have a World Championships this summer. My ultimate goal is definitely to make Team USA in steeplechase and go to World Champs again. I haven’t made a team in a few years because of injuries. So if I can keep this healthy, consistent training thing going, I hope that I can have a shot at making the team again.

And then I hope to hop in another triathlon in the fall. At the end of August or September, I’ll be done with my track season. I’ll probably take a little break and then try and do a couple triathlons in the fall. We haven’t even looked at races yet, as it kind of depends on how my summer goes and what my options are.

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