14 Questions with Kat Matthews Ahead of Her Return to Racing at Oceanside 70.3
In an exclusive interview, we caught up with Kat Matthews in Boulder, Colorado to find out about her post-collision rehabilitation, big sponsorship changes, and why racing in SoCal is more than just a stopover on her planned return to the pinnacle of the sport.
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Heading into the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii last year, Kat Matthews was a contender. Fresh from being runner-up in St. George in May and becoming the first woman to break the 8-hour barrier for the full iron distance, high expectations for Matthews didn’t just stem from the British army physiotherapist and her team, but a whole host of new fans.
Then everything changed. Blindsided by a car when cycling during her final training block in Texas before traveling to the Big Island, Matthews fractured her skull, back, hip and suffered extensive soft tissue damage. Thankfully, she came away with her life.
Six months later, having made a remarkable recovery, she is preparing for her first race of the season: Ironman 70.3 Oceanside.
In an exclusive interview, we caught up with Matthews as she trained in Boulder to find out about her rehabilitation, brain scans, fitness levels and why racing in SoCal is more than just a stopover on her planned return to the pinnacle of the sport.
Ironman 70.3 Oceanside will be streamed live for free on Outside Watch, beginning at 6 a.m. PT/9 a.m. ET Saturday, April 1. The broadcast will be available on-demand after the finish to all Outside+ members. Become an Outside+ member today and get access to the full streaming library of 70.3 racing any time, on any device.
Triathlete: We can start with an easy opener. How much are you enjoying training and life in the triathlon mecca of Boulder?
Matthews: It’s our first time here, and Boulder in March is really very cold! We’ve probably had half as many days outside as we’ve had on the turbo [trainer], but we knew that before we came, and the training set-up here is excellent.
I’ve met a couple of the local triathletes, and it’s been cool to see their reality compared to how good Boulder looks online. Mostly, I’ve been impressed with the local facilities. Mark and I paid $90 for unlimited access to a 25-meter pool for a month, which is ridiculously cheap compared to the UK.
The environment is friendly and drivers are courteous, but we underestimated the altitude, and the air is so dry. With the jetlag, it took me a while to adjust.
Have you watched the PTO film about your bike crash?
We are given a preview a couple of days before it goes out. The first episode was broadcast when I was training in Lanzarote in January and it gave me a bit of a wobble for a couple of days. I wasn’t able to get my head away from the crash and reliving those moments, and hearing myself talk about it was challenging.
The PTO messaged about the second episode as we were flying out to America, specifically addressing it being a hard watch and suggesting [Kat’s husband] Mark preview it first [it comes with a viewer warning for potentially distressing scenes].
Mark initially showed me the last 2 minutes, which is where I’m saying I’ve got to get on with it. A week later I’ve watched it and I’m glad that it shows a story that feels very honest. But did I find it difficult? Yes.
How much physical, mental or emotional trauma remains from the accident?
Physically, the bones are still healing in the spine, because you can’t completely offload it and you never know how much damage was done. I’m pretty sure the other fractures, the skull, ribs, pelvis and sternum have healed.
Due to my job role potential, the military offered me the chance of a MNRI on my brain. Because I’d lost consciousness, it made sense to check that everything is fine. As you can tell, I’m pretty happy with my cognitive function – I’m still amazed by that – but there have been some episodes in the last couple of months where I’ve overreacted to a situation.
The diagnosis is that I had a moderate rather than mild traumatic brain injury. “Moderate” because of the physical damage to the brain tissue they can see on the scan. It took me another 36 hours to process. I’m OK symptom-wise, so is it relevant? That was a new thing last week.
Someone coined the phrase “intuitive rehabilitation,” and I’ve just had to have faith in my body, and with my physio degree, that I’m doing the right thing.
Psychologically, I don’t think there are currently any side effects to my training or performance coming from the trauma, but life is different: marginally harder but also marginally better. The highs and lows have become slightly exaggerated. Some days are more challenging – perhaps that is a minor element of brain damage – and I’m slightly irrational. Some days life feels like it’s better than it has been and how glorious it is that I get to live.
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When I saw you in Hawaii shortly after the incident, it appeared as if everyone was just staring and asking the same questions. How are people reacting to you?
It was quite funny. I think I had more attention from having had a crash than I did from a good performance. At least, that’s what it felt like at the time.
It sounds a bit selfish and self-centered, but I took a lot of positivity from people really caring in Kona. I think that was a real positive of being there. Had I just gone home it would have been so miserable and much harder.
The general feeling is my close friends are super happy for me and I’m really appreciative of the friendship of the wider triathlon community.
Professional sport is storytelling and entertainment, and while I don’t like the idea of it, there’s a bit of me that feels like my life has become this trauma story. I’m trying to make it sort of irrelevant, hence in my mind I haven’t accepted how it will affect me as an athlete yet. Obviously it will in some way, but I don’t want that to define me.
Do you think crashes between cars and bikes are unavoidable on the roads, or would you like to see practical changes implemented?
It’s a well-worded question. The reason we haven’t got better is because it’s not practical to be better. There is not enough space for bike lanes and the majority of road users are drivers trying to get somewhere, so why would they be courteous to cyclists?
The only practical thing we can do is continue to drive awareness that cyclists are humans. We wouldn’t deliberately drive fast past a pedestrian and then cut them up. So, why do it to cyclists?
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Do you think the last six months have changed you as a person and athlete?
I’m just the same, I think, but I don’t believe this sort of injury can be positive. I don’t buy into this “come back stronger” philosophy. No, it was a significant traumatic event, and with my physio head, I cannot be better having broken my back.
The way I see it is that potentially it’s dented my potential in the sport. But also I don’t think I was anywhere near my potential in 2022. It was my first world champs, I’d only been in the sport [professionally] for three years. I have to think like that, or it would spiral into a negative.
Socially, I think I’m the same person, and again, I take a lot of gratitude from that. Last summer, after St. George and Sub-8, I was struggling a little bit. I was finding training hard and felt stressed. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself before Kona.
Now I’m back in this crazy, happy headspace, where it’s more, “Sweet, I get to ride today, and I get to try and hit these numbers.” I’m back in the progressive stage of training, where every day is getting better and it’s motivating. I’ve seen the other side, so I know it’s not always going to be like this.
I know both you, Mark and Björn [Geesmann, Kat’s coach] all know the magic numbers from training. Can you tell us where you are right now?
My training is as per normal, but my data is down a little bit and I’m lacking a bit of volume and intensity. I can’t believe how quickly my swimming came back given all the issues I had with my back and neck, but I’m putting it down to the work I did in the summer before the accident and being super diligent when I got back into it, using a snorkel and not a pull buoy.
My biking is probably between 10-20 watts less than last year, but my progression is steep compared to a normal preseason and I’m at altitude right now. I’m hoping by the time we get to Texas [North American World Championships, in May] I’m at least on a satisfyingly adequate level compared to last year. Then I’ve still got another five months to be better.
The running intensity isn’t there but my volume is good. Pre-accident, my running resilience was the best it’s ever been, so I don’t know whether there’s some sort of carry over. There are a few question marks that don’t make logical physiological sense but run fitness is fine and there’s no pain.
If it were just me and Mark, we’d be doing threshold sets to try and get some speed, but Björn has been saying: ‘Let’s just run.’ It makes no sense to push it now.
Let’s ask it another way. Year-end PTO-ranked No 1 triathlete, Anne Haug, won Lanzarote 70.3 by 10 minutes just over a week ago. Last year, in the same race, you beat her by 3 1/2 minutes. If you’d been racing last weekend, would you have won?
No. India Lee [who came second] is a great athlete, and I think Anne showed real dominance. I saw it as: “I got beat last year, I’m going to destroy it this year.”
Having left Team BMC at the end of last year, you have lots of new sponsors this season including Huub and Canyon. Is the kit and equipment making you faster?
It would be classic marketing for me to say, “Obviously, yes!” But we shall see.
The background science behind the Huub kit is interesting and exciting [Kat has been testing multiple fabrics to try and establish the fastest custom-made tri suit for her for any given course].
I guess the other big one is the bike. I don’t know if it’s quicker, I haven’t done the physical tests, but what I am absolutely loving, hand-on-heart, is riding the Speedmax. I’ve taken it away on a six-week camp and it doesn’t even cross my mind that I want to ride my road bike.
I thought getting back on a TT bike would be challenging after the accident, but it was like I’d been riding it for years. Climbing feels easy, it’s a super comfortable position, and Canyon’s pro support is incredible.
And the super shoes?
It [the evolution of shoe technology] intrigues me because it’s competition. I’ve always trained in Asics and raced in them for years. There’s no change there, and there’s no change that I want either which is a really nice place to be. I’m using exactly the same shoes, and it’s happy days.
I only wear carbon maybe once or twice before a race to give a better perspective of paces, or because I’m bored, but I train in an old [non-carbon] model because I have so much trust in it.
[Ed note: Kat wears the Asics Novablast in training and Asics Metaspeed Edge+ for racing.]
Do you avoid a lot of carbon-plated action to reduce the risk of injury?
We like to relate injury to a specific thing, but unless there’s a trauma, it’s always a bigger picture. The way the athlete has managed the load, with the shoe as a factor.
Ironman 70.3 Oceanside has some big names on the start-list including Chelsea Sodaro, Paula Findlay and Holly Lawrence. Will you be racing to your current fitness, or head down and giving everything for victory?
It’s a mixture. The overarching feeling – normal for the first race of the season – is the uncertainty of what training numbers will show up in a race.
I’m making sure my nerves are not because of the accident, but because it’s the first race, although I got so nervous before Lanzarote last year, I gave myself a digestive problem and was in bed for a day and a half.
Every athlete will be anxious and that’s why we see a lot of athletes say: “It’s ok, it’s the first race of the season and I’m not that fit.” Whereas actually everyone has committed a lot of hours for the race and it sets us up psychologically for the entire season. There is a big pressure to perform.
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Does the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii remain the No 1 goal for 2023?
Finally, can we have a little less drama in 2023, please?
Is that really what people want?! I’ve learned the hard way, sadly. But yes, how nice would it be to race Oceanside and Texas and then be quiet for five months…and then be great again in October.