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If you had told Renee Kiley 10 years ago that she would one day be a professional triathlete, she would have put out her cigarette and laughed at you.
“I didn’t even know what a triathlon was back then,” Kiley said. “At the time, I weighed 230 pounds and was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. I hadn’t exercised in over 10 years.”
Though she didn’t have any inclination to be an athlete, she wasn’t opposed to cheering others on in their pursuits. When a friend raced a sprint triathlon in 2013, she gamely went along to yell from the sidelines, even if she did think the swim-bike-run combo was crazy. But her friend progressed through the race, Kiley found herself drawn to the crazy pursuit:
“I remember standing on the sidelines, watching all the competitors,” explained Kiley. “I kept thinking, ‘Wow, everyone looks like they are having so much fun.’ There were people of all different shapes and sizes racing, and the atmosphere at the event was so positive and happy.”
In the days and weeks after the race, Kiley couldn’t stop thinking about what she had witnessed. She wanted to go to another race—this time, as an athlete. “I was so surprised at all the different ages and sizes of people racing, and I thought maybe I could give it a go. It looked like so much fun.”
Spurred by a desire to test the waters of triathlon, Kiley rode a bike for the first time since primary school. It went well enough, so she went to a local pool to see if she still recalled her swimming lessons from high school. When a short run felt less difficult than she had anticipated, she decided to commit to training for a race. By the time she showed up to the start line of her first sprint triathlon in March 2014, she was 40 pounds lighter and eager to graduate from spectator to finisher.
Despite her training, the race was harder than she expected—Kiley walked most of the run, finished in the back of the pack, and felt disappointed with herself from the time the starting gun fired. “I was mortified by how bad I was at triathlon,” said Kiley. Though she was happy to have finished and accomplished her goal, it wasn’t enough. The self-described “high achiever” was determined to improve. She didn’t want to just finish anymore—she wanted to do more and be better.
“I am never satisfied with being average,” said Kiley. “I always want to be the best. For me, it’s all or nothing. So, I committed myself to triathlon very early on and worked very hard.”
Kiley quickly learned that hard work pays off in endurance sport—with every race, she got faster, and with every new training stimulus, she got stronger. In her first-ever Ironman, only one year after her foray into triathlon, Kiley won her age group. In 2015 and 2016, she racked up a string of podium finishes, including an age-group win at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship. In 2017, she qualified for an accepted her professional license, and her rapid ascension has continued. Her goal is to one day be one of the best Ironman triathletes in the world, and a third-place finish at the 2020 Ironman Asia-Pacific Championships suggests she’s well on her way.
And yes, Kiley lost more weight in the process. She also quit smoking. But these lifestyle changes were never the intent. “My journey from the beginning was never about losing weight,” said Kiley. “It was all about trying to complete a triathlon. It started from that lightbulb moment watching a race in 2013. All my decisions from then on were about trying to get better to complete that triathlon, and as a result I started making better choices around food and my lifestyle.”
Kiley believes her triathlon goal had a snowball effect—when she exercised more, she lost weight. She realized the cigarettes were making her workouts harder, so she quit smoking. The more she took care of herself through healthy choices, the better she felt.
“I believe that if you find an exercise or sport you truly love, you will make better choices in all other areas of your life,” Kiley said. “I think so many of us go to the gym or go for a walk each day because we feel like we have to. It’s more like a chore than a passion. When you find something you love, you are excited to get out of bed for it each day. You want to get better at it. It will become a part of your lifestyle. You make new friends, and make better nutrition choices automatically because you feel better and happier.”
As Kiley reflects on her unusual journey to an unexpected career as a professional triathlete, she is most proud of the fact that she set that one goal that changed everything.
“It’s possible to completely change the course of your life if you want it badly enough,” Kiley added. “It is not too late and it is not too hard.”