Dispatch: Checking In With World Champion Leanda Cave

Despite another season full of injuries, Leanda Cave is keeping her eye on the prize—defending her two world titles.

Photo: Competitive Image

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Living in the triathlon hotspot of Boulder, Colo. you can’t help but bump into triathlon pros on a near daily basis. This week I sat down to coffee with reigning Ironman and 70.3 world champion Leanda Cave–who has relocated to Boulder for the second season in a row–to hear how she’s doing in advance of racing WTC’s three upcoming championship events, Hy-Vee, Vegas and Kona.

Triathlete.com: What’s the latest with you? I know you had to withdraw from an anticipated start at Challenge Roth due to injury, so fill me in on that and how the healing is progressing.

Cave: I had a really big off-season where I pretty much took two months off–not completely, but I’d barely get five-10 hours of training in a week. It was the longest break I’ve had through my career. I’ve been going as a pro now for 13 years, and normally I just take two weeks off. So I started out in mid-January training pretty unfit. But I was also racing very early, with Escape from Alcatraz in early March. And because of that, and then San Juan 70.3, I felt like I had to start getting into shape pretty quickly. I didn’t really get the building blocks of the season under my belt; I just went straight into doing the hard stuff. The long aerobic stuff that starts giving your body the foundation and the strength for the hard stuff–I totally missed it and just went straight into the hard stuff. And that cost me. I started getting this injury at the end of February, going into Alcatraz. I came out of Alcatraz with something, and at that stage I didn’t know it but I had torn my hamstring. I kept training on it, and because I couldn’t physically use my hamstring I was using all the other muscles. And I was doing so much–I mean after Kona I was just doing so much and I really didn’t sit down and evaluate what I needed to do, reassess things and say, “Ok, I need to get this sorted.” I thought it would go away. I think that’s part of an athletes mentality–(A) it’s injury denial and (B) it will go away. And it didn’t! I had to do a 5150 to qualify for Hy-Vee, so in May I raced Columbia, just gritting my teeth the whole way to get through it. Then I knew I needed to do something, so I finally got it looked at by John Ball in Phoenix. He looked at it under the ultrasound and he could see there was a tear in the hamstring. That was already healing at that stage, but all the other stuff that I caused because of the tear–the compensating, the weakness that developed on one side–created a lot of other problems–knee problems, glute problems, back problems. So that’s what I’ve been dealing with since May, and I’m probably one and a half weeks in now that I’ve been pain free. I’ve been in full training for a while, during the treatment phase, but I’ve had to just deal with the pain. I’m still getting treated, but I can now train pain free and it feels amazing!

Triathlete.com: You’ve certainly proven that you’ve had early season injuries before and come back to do incredibly well!

Cave: Yeah. I think last year gave me the perspective, even though I was injured, to keep my eye on the prize. To keep focused on the goal, even though at one point I could barely walk. I just kept doing everything I could do and stayed focused and optimistic. And it’s the same thing this year. Last year reinforced that it was the right thing to do, to not just sit there and write my year off to injury. It’s so easy to do that, but I never lost faith. I think that’s the main thing–just staying on top of everything I can control and doing the best I can. And this year’s no different; it’s just been a little more hectic this year!

Triathlete.com: There certainly must be a lot more demands on your time when you win two world championships.

Cave: Yes. So it’s kind of been nice, actually, that I’ve been able to lay a little bit low, not racing as much. I guess that’s kind of helped.

Triathlete.com: You’re living in Boulder now, where you also spent time last summer. Is this a more permanent home for you now?

Cave: Yeah. I mean I’ve got to sell my home in Tucson and that’s a process, but I’ve got something here and so I’m going to make that switch. I’ll maybe find a small place in Tucson for the winter but I’ll make my main home here.

Triathlete.com: What are three of the top things you like about living in Boulder?

Cave: Climatically it’s really an ideal place in the summer, because it never gets too hot. People complain when it’s in the 90’s or low 100’s, but that’s normal for me coming from Tucson. The fact that you can train any time of day, as a professional athlete it’s kind of what you need to do. You can’t just bang it all out in the morning or the afternoon, you need the rest between the workouts and you need to be able to train all through the day. And you can’t really turn a blind eye to how fit and healthy everyone is here–it’s very motivating. Also the scenery is incredible. I love being up in the mountains, and with the roads all having bike lanes it’s just amazing. And there are so many running trails. Three main things, I don’t know–there are just too many!

Triathlete.com: Is there anything you find challenging about living here?

Cave: Let’s see, what have I griped about? The price of living is very expensive here, but that’s the price you pay to live somewhere that you want to live. Tucson’s a very affordable place to live and I think it served its purpose for a while. It was the best place I could afford to live at the time. There’s also a very unique mentality here among athletes. They kind of want to keep it their little hub, and for any new athletes coming along they kind of want to protect their territory, I guess. So I’ve certainly felt like some athletes here in Boulder who I thought were friends or who I thought were going to be quite good to meet up with have kind of been unwelcoming or just not receptive. And I understand that. I’m not like that myself when I’m in Tucson, but I know that there are certain athletes in Tucson also that sort of protect their turf. But we athletes are very transient–we move around and find what’s best for us–and it’s a free place to live. You can’t stop other athletes from coming in. There’s a reason so many people live here–it’s ideal for training. But I found that last year I was doing the bulk of my training on my own because it seemed that no one really wanted me to be here. In the end I thought: ‘Well sod it! I don’t need people to train with. I need to do the work I need to do to be the best I can be.’ And whether I’m training with other people or not, it’s not going to make a difference to me at the end of the day. I think for some people that does affect them personally, but I’m quite happy being a loner.

RELATED: Leanda Cave Pre-Race At Ironman 70.3 St. George

Triathlete.com: Have you found it a more welcoming environment this year?

Cave: Not really. I mean there are not a whole lot of people saying, “Hey Leanda, do you want to come out and ride with us?” No, I definitely haven’t, but then again it’s different this year with the fact that most people know that Siri’s moved back here [Siri Lindley, Cave’s coach] and she’s got her own group going. So I guess it’s different in that people probably don’t feel the need to shout out.

Triathlete.com: I would assume also that there might be a certain intimidation factor; I mean you did win a couple of big races last year!

Cave: Oh, I take it as a compliment! I just feel like you can look at it negatively or you can look at it as they don’t want to train with me because this is where they know that I’ll get good. And I did–it worked. I try to switch everything in my world that’s negative to a positive. I always turn it around–that’s just my approach to everything. 

Triathlete.com: Speaking of positives, Boulder has a fantastic food scene. Have you found a favorite restaurant?

Cave: I do like Pizzeria Locale, and Frasca next door. The guy who owns that is actually from Flagstaff [Arizona] and we have a lot of mutual friends, so that’s kind of fun. Flagstaff [the restaurant] is also amazing. The view over the city is unbelievable. But mostly I’m in Whole Foods all the time. It’s ideal for someone who’s in and out and doesn’t have time to cook, but wants healthy food. It’s so convenient.

Triathlete.com: Are you a coffee shop person?

Cave: Starbucks is my staple! I love my coffee and I feel that there’s definitely caffeine in the coffee from Starbucks. It seems to work. I mean I’m so resilient to caffeine these days, I need to make sure I have a strong one and I always find I get what I need at Starbucks.

Triathlete.com: How about a favorite Boulder ride and run?

Cave: I love running up at Marshall Mesa. I’m not a big fan of the Reservoir. I find that there are too many people and too many dogs off of leads. It’s dangerous. I know athletes–professional runners, actually–that have tripped on dogs and broken things. Deena Kastor did it one year, as did Paula Radcliffe. So I try and find the quieter trails. With riding I feel like I’ve yet to discover so many roads, but I’m a big fan of just riding up in the mountains. And I don’t like riding on weekends. I like riding when it’s quiet, so I’m always out there on the weekdays as opposed to Saturdays when everyone’s out, not to mention all the tourists driving around.

Triathlete.com: One more question–what do you think is the optimal timing to travel down to race at sea level when you live and train at altitude?

Cave: Scientifically I’m not that knowledgeable about what works and I haven’t tried it a lot because this is only my second season here. I used to train in Flagstaff in Arizona, but I never used to go from there to race. I guess a lot of people either go by the last minute rule where they fly in really last minute, or with the two-week adaptation window, but I think it’s all relative. I’ve spoken to Jack Daniels–he was a lecturer and coach at Northern Arizona University and wrote a lot of books about altitude training–and his concept of training at altitude is different to what lot of the science suggests. He just says it’s a lot harder to hit your intervals at altitude than at sea level. And since that’s essentially what you’re always trying to do, because of that you get fitter. When you go back down it’s easier to hit the intervals. And I have to agree. I don’t have a lot of differences in my blood due to altitude. My hematocrit is 39, whether I’m up high or down low, and there are a lot of athletes like that. But I do think you adapt better the more often you go up–you’re better able to cope with the altitude. Last year it killed me. At five weeks I was like: ‘I’m done!’ I think I’m already up to eight weeks now. It’s just always harder. But I’m here because it’s the environment that’s best suited to train in the summer. The altitude’s just one factor–it’s a bonus.

RELATED: Find Your Long-Course Formula

Look for Cave and other pros in Inside Triathlon’s Fastest Bodies in Triathlon feature in the Sept./Oct. issue, on newsstands Aug. 13.

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