Magic days aren’t easy to come by, especially when it comes to racing Ironman—and even more so when it comes to racing Kona. Yet for Chelsea Sodaro on October 6 on the Big Island, it was one of those days when everything she touched turned to gold. After a swim which she said she spent parts of it “just pretending I was swimming with my girlfriends, that was the kind of relaxed mindset I was in,” and a solid 4:42 bike split that delivered her to T2 about three minutes behind then-race leader Daniela Ryf, Sodaro ran her way to the win with a blazing-fast run split of 2:51:45. It looked like something only Hollywood script writers could dream up: a rookie, 18 months postpartum, rocks up to the biggest race of the year and unleashes an almighty can of whoop-ass on one of the deepest women’s fields we’ve ever seen. And she’s the first American to do so in over a quarter-century; and it’s the first time the pro women have had their own race day. If there was a pre-race request for the drama and excitement levels to be cranked to 100, Sodaro certainly got that memo. But as with most fairytale endings, there were trials along the way.
A Long Path Ahead
When Sodaro and her coach, Dr. Dan Plews began working together in the summer of 2020, Sodaro said their first conversation was an interesting one. “I called him up to say I’d like to move forward working together, but then added that I was six weeks pregnant,” she said. “His response was amazing.”
“I was just really happy for her and wanted to do the best I could to support her,” said Plews. The veteran coach wrote her training program for the first 20 weeks of her pregnancy, partly so they could both get to know each other, and partly so that she would be as fit as possible up until the point where she’d need to stop training.
He said: “I know from my wife’s two pregnancies that no one pregnancy is the same, so I knew it was impossible to have a solid methodical plan for each trimester. Rather it was more about talking to her every day, monitoring HRV, finding out what was happening with morning sickness or her pelvis, and changing things on the fly based on how she was feeling. Some weeks she was super strong, some weeks we really needed to back off.”
At the same time, Sodaro was also one of the first women to benefit from the Professional Triathlon Organization’s (PTO) maternity leave policy, which was first announced in November 2020. It allows female athletes to take up to 15 months off (their pregnancy plus six months post-birth) and maintain an income throughout this period, as well as their position in the PTO rankings (their ranking at the time of getting pregnant is “frozen”).
The maternity leave payment that each female PTO pro receives is determined by their PTO world ranking at the time of getting pregnant, the PTO told Triathlete. In Sodaro’s case, she was ranked 11th, which meant her end-of-year PTO bonus payment had been $25,000. This figure then determined her monthly maternity leave payment ($2,083 per month; $25,000 divided by 12), the PTO said. For a female PTO pro becoming pregnant now, she would be entitled to take her maternity leave payments for a full 15 months, but in Sodaro’s case, she said she only received payments from January 2021 (when the PTO maternity leave policy first came into effect) until August of that year (when she returned to racing at 70.3 Boulder).
“The financial aspect of it was certainly helpful, especially coming off of COVID,” Sodaro said. “But it’s more than that—I think it was such an empowering move by the PTO. It was a statement that they care about female athletes, that they’re really invested in the women’s side of the sport, and they want to see us through the entirety of our careers. I think that’s why it (the maternity leave policy) is so important and groundbreaking. Not everyone needs to choose motherhood, or should, but it’s more about representation, that the women’s side of the sport is here to stay, and the investment is there, and there’s respect and reverence for what we’re trying to do.”
Not everyone needs to choose motherhood, or should, but it’s more about representation, that the women’s side of the sport is here to stay, and the investment is there, and there’s respect and reverence for what we’re trying to do.
After giving birth in March 2021, Sodaro said she returned to easy riding on the trainer within 10 days, she returned to the pool within three weeks, and was back running within six weeks. Plews gave her a deadline of May 1 to return to structured training if she wanted to hit her goal of qualifying for the Collins Cup. “That first week back was 12 hours of training, that felt hard,” she said.
Her advice to new mothers returning to training and racing is to do what feels right for you, which she acknowledges can vary hugely from one person to the next. “Listen to your own body,” she said. “It’s OK, if you have goals, go for it, but if you feel like you’re not ready then don’t push it. It is such an individual thing.”
But it wasn’t all upward trajectory and smooth sailing from there. Even 2022 didn’t begin with the bang she’d hoped. Sodaro was struggling to achieve consistency in her training. She’d had her daughter, Skye, back in March of the previous year, and had quickly jumped back into structured training. Sodaro focused on an initial reach goal of trying to qualify for the inaugural Collins Cup—which she did—thanks to a sixth-place finish at 70.3 Boulder, just five months after giving birth.
After a strong race there, she had high hopes for a top-five finish at 70.3 Worlds, but a stress reaction in her fibula ended her season. She realized that the stress of trying to balance everything—life as an athlete and life as a mom—was leading to her being, as she put it “stressed out of my mind.” With the blessing of her coach, Dr. Dan Plews, they agreed it was best for her to step away from the sport for a month or so, which made all the difference.
Training in 2022 began well for her, she said, but again, she soon found herself “having a hard time balancing a full training load.” After some early season races in 2022, where she never felt she was racing anywhere close to her potential, it was time to go long and switch focus to her Ironman debut in Hamburg, Germany, on June 5. Despite her best efforts, Sodaro said she was “not super consistent” in her training or preparation for that race, often dropping out of every other workout. “Sometimes I would do 20-25 hours a week, but I’d also have weeks where I just couldn’t handle it, and I was taking a day or two off, and maybe doing 16-17 hours a week. Emotionally I was having a hard time, it was hard to be at training camps, hard to be away from home.”
She said her goals for Ironman Hamburg became “increasingly less ambitious” and by the time she reached the start line in Germany it was a case of “just hang on for a Kona spot and get that job done.”
Sodaro got the job done in Hamburg, finishing in 8:36 in second place behind an on-fire Laura Phillip, and at the same time, perhaps the most important thing happened: She started to enjoy it all.
Happiness and Confidence
“I had a great day in Hamburg and I just had a lot of fun racing,” she said. “Overall I loved the experience, I felt like Ironman was my distance, and I was just super motivated. Really it was the first time since having Skye where I felt like I was getting closer to my potential and executing well.”
She followed this up with a strong outing at the PTO Canadian Open in Edmonton that gave her, perhaps most importantly in terms of setting up her Kona victory, a huge confidence booster: “I ran my way onto the podium. It was the first time running where I felt like myself. I was finally seeing numbers in racing that I’d been seeing in training, and I left that race thinking‘I’m in this league and at this level.’ I really needed that race.”
That confidence buoyed much of her Kona preparation and, despite a bout of flu and still “times where I’m questioning my life choices,” Sodaro banked her first big run block since having Skye in the lead into her first Ironman world championship. As a runner with an exceptional pedigree (she won the U.S. 10K road championships in 2012; her PRs include a 4:30 mile, a 15:10 5K, and a 32:05 10K), up until that point she felt she’d never brought her true run class to her triathlon game. What she didn’t know then—and nor did anyone else—was that it would show up (and with some force) come race day in Kona.
Rookie, But Not Really
First-timers rarely, if ever, win on the Big Island, in part because there are so many unknowns that need to be seen and felt. But when you start to look under the hood of this record-breaking performance, this was actually a performance that actually left little to chance and everything to science, preparedness, professionalism, and exceptional race-day execution. When Sodaro stepped off the plane leading into this race it was her sixth time on the island. Previously, she’d been the training partner to top-10 Kona finisher Sarah Piampiano throughout her 2018 and 2019 campaigns, and she’s covered every inch of the race course in training many, many times. In addition to that, in Plews, her coach, she doesn’t just have a super-smart sports scientist (his PhD is in exercise physiology, with a focus on heart-rate variability, or HRV), but also a deeply experienced (and fast) Ironman racer who loves to blend his academic knowledge with real-world experience.
Plews is the proud owner of the current male age-group course record (8:24) in Hawaii (set in 2018) and has published numerous papers on heat acclimation. It’s no surprise, then, that he had his charge spend more than two weeks in Kona in September to maximize her acclimation to heat and humidity without ever inducing more than the right amount of training stress. He said: “We paid very close attention to this (heat acclimation) because that’s such a massive thing in Kona. Your ability to cope with heat stress is worse when you’re fatigued, so you’ve got to be really careful. You’ve got to do enough, but not too much.” HRV monitoring was a key part of this, Plews said, as were daily check-ins.
Another key component of their race-day plan was staying on top of hydration, fueling, and cooling, which included her walking through most of the run course aid stations. She said there was only one time—as she was leaving the Energy Lab—that she started to feel like she was overheating. “At that point I had about a five-minute lead, so I really slowed down in that aid station to take care of myself,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about winning, just staying focused on not overheating.” So if it looked like the rookie leading the race knew exactly what she was doing, it was because she absolutely did.
“The past 18 months have been super trying. I can’t tell you how many times my husband has had to talk me out of quitting the sport."
The Long Path To A Big Moment
Undoubtedly, the journey to becoming Ironman world champion was not an easy one, and, by her own admission, it is one that has challenged her deeply. “The past 18 months have been super trying,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many times my husband has had to talk me out of quitting the sport. I think certain periods of time have been really scary for me from a mental standpoint, I didn’t know if I would ever feel like myself again, but that home stretch on Ali’i Drive, there’s nothing like that.”
She acknowledges that her “magical day” was a combination of being “so well-trained and so well-prepared,” but also having an element of luck. There is, too, of course, the fact that she has a deep history in elite sport and that, although she is new to Ironman racing, she is a veteran of conquering body and mind to achieve peak performance. In the closing miles of the run down Ali’i Drive, she said she recalled a memory of a 5K world championship qualifying race when she was 23. Despite leading the race with only a few meters to go, a momentary lapse of concentration led to her being passed by four competitors—and subsequently missing out on a place on the American team that went to the world championships that year by a half-second. “It’s funny the things that come back to you and the things you pull on when you’ve been doing this for this long,” she said.
As a lifelong athlete with a long resume of both ups and downs—especially in the last two years—Sodaro knows that nothing is given. That no matter how much you might want to fulfill a dream, sometimes the stars don’t align.
“Things have to come together for you,” she said. “As an athlete, you just never know if you’re going to get your moment. There’s no guarantee. So to get my moment like that, well, it was the best way to say thank you to all the people who have been so invested in me. It was really powerful, just really mind blowing. I have to do it again. It was really magical.”