Mirinda Carfrae: This Year Has Been An Experiment

Mirinda Carfrae talks about recent Ironman initiatives, her Roth win, what motivates her to race to her “absolute limit” and more.

Photo: Lennart Preiss

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We caught up with reigning Ironman world champion Mirinda Carfrae in Boulder to talk about recent Ironman initiatives affecting the pro ranks, her recent Roth win and how it might affect her bid to defend her Kona crown, what motivates her to race to her “absolute limit” and more.

Triathlete.com: A couple days before Ironman Boulder you and a group of fellow pro female triathletes met with Ironman CEO Andrew Messick. What was the discussion and outcome?

MC: Basically what happened was at Ironman Frankfurt they had the All-world athletes start with the pro women, and the pro women started with the pro men, so it was a mass start. It was just an absolute gong show. Liz Blatchford sent out an email and said, ‘This is not okay; we need to have a fair race. We are professional athletes and this is just not fair. Let’s try to get a meeting with WTC.’ She suggested Boulder, which is perfect because a lot of us live in Boulder. We tried to include other prominent female athletes—Meredith Kessler has always been at the forefront of trying to get fair racing for the women for a couple of years now. We asked Paula [Newby-Fraser] to organize a meeting and they went along with it, and we got a meeting. In the room it was myself, Liz Blatchford, Mary Beth Ellis, Rachel Joyce, Cait Snow, Julie Dibens, Jodie Swallow, Leanda Cave and Jenny Fletcher. Tim [O’Donnell] and James [Cunnama] came in to just show that the men were supporting us in wanting a fair race. It is not their battle, but they see what we are having to deal with and they believe it is not fair as well. So we went into the meeting hoping to push change in the regional championship races, specifically, but also across all Ironman events. We had gone in to fight for races outside of Kona, to be more like Kona where we feel like the last two years we have had a fair race. A common issue amongst the pro women is that there will be age-groupers too close to the pro women and they get swept up in big packs, so [pro] women are cycling amongst amateurs like in Brazil where Sara Gross won and she was kind of bullied after because people were telling her that she cheated, but in reality she had nowhere to go. It was a three-lap bike course and it was a mass start, so there is going to be drafting.

What we are asking for—and obviously we realize it is not feasible at a lot of events due to road closures, hours of sunlight in the day, there are so many different obstacles when you put on an Ironman so we understood that—but we were asking for a 5-minute gap from the lead men and 25 minutes to the age groupers, which is what it has been the last two years in Kona. The first thing they told us when we walked in was that we will be starting 5 minutes after the pro men, age-group men will go off 15 minutes after us and age-group women will go off 15 minutes after that. So we were all devastated as soon as they said that.

In the end they compromised and gave us 20 minutes from the age-group men. It was 25 the last few years and they were planning on giving us 15, but we strongly urged them to give us some more time and they pushed it back out to 20 which shows that they are listening and trying to come up with a compromise or a way to give us a fair race as well. They have their reasons that they cannot, but we had some great suggestions that are still being considered for this year in Kona and certainly 2015 and beyond. But in an ideal world we would have a 10-minute separation from the pro men and then 25 minutes from the age-groupers. We are asking to move toward that direction in championship races and also any other Ironman events around the world because we feel that that is the amount of time we need to ensure a fair race. Where we aren’t catching the tail end of the pro men field and amateurs aren’t swimming up into the pro women’s field and biking with our pack. So that is what we are still trying to work towards, but obviously there are some Ironman events that have multi-lap swims so starting age groupers 25 minutes behind us in those races would be chaos as we would be coming around right as we were starting. We would like to just see movement towards a more professional sport for the women.

The second thing we wanted to talk about was even slots for the pro men and the women in Kona, and that is an ongoing conversation. It is more about symbolism—the best women work just as hard as the best men. Granted there are less overall pro women then there are pro men, but at the top level we feel that the 50th woman and man are working equally as hard. They are at least receptive to our ideas and are willing to listen and try to come up with a solution that works.

The third issue, which is not really a women’s issue but there were some women in the group that had had issues this year, was standardized rules across all WTC events. For example, Leanda Cave not wearing her number in Nice and getting a DQ, whereas in all North America events you do not have to wear your number on the bike. It is not just that—there are some WTC events where there is a 7- or 10- or 12-meter drafting rule, and we would just like to see uniform rules across all WTC events. They are well aware of that problem and are trying to work it out.

Triathlete.com: What’s your reaction to the news that Ironman will redistribute pro prize money/points in 2015, effectively reducing the number of pro races?

MC: I think it is a positive change. In recent years there have been so many Ironman events added and now anyone can win an Ironman and it doesn’t mean as much. So I think if you can limit the number of Ironman events and increase the prize money, because honestly I would have loved to see 10 races in the year with really big prize money paying 15 deep. Then have smaller events like Ironman Lake Placid and Wisconsin, put a small prize purse, but just take away the points so entry-level pros can go and do those races. I was reading Kelly Williamson’s blog and she was talking about how there are other opportunities to make money in this sport that you do not have to go and race WTC events. There are other events offering prize money and as a professional you need to realize what your ability is and take the right steps. So, for example when I started the sport I had to pick events where I knew I could get in the top 3 or 5. You would add up how much the flight cost, how much a rental car cost, and how much a hotel cost and figure out what place you needed to get in the race to break even or make money—that is what we all did. It would be like, ‘Okay, I gotta get top 3, and if I don’t get top three I am not eating for the next week,’ and that is how we got better because we had to race well.

I think there are some pro triathletes out there that just think that they are pro so they should be getting paid, but our sport isn’t at that level. I am quoting a lot of Kelly’s blog here. Triathlon is not golf, NFL, baseball—it is tough to make a living in our sport and you need to take the steps and be smart about our business. If you are good enough you will make it. That might be kind of elitist, but that is sports. I think it is a step in the right direction on limiting the number of Ironman events that have pro fields.

RELATED: Ironman Announces Redistribution of Prize Purse Money for 2015

Triathlete.com: It’s no secret that Andrew Messick is irritated by the idea of pros just punching their Kona ticket, and that he feels that, as a professional athlete, you should show up in good form and race at the top of your game because that is respectful to your competitors. What do you think about the current pro validation requirements for Kona?

MC: I absolutely do not agree with validating, I am totally against that. I see no issue in Pete Jacobs taking 11:30 to finish his Ironman. He followed the rules and qualified for Kona, I did the exact same thing in Florida and Andrew mentioned that in our meeting. I said that in Florida I absolutely was stamping my ticket and I was not racing, and he said, ‘Well you did a 9:30, that’s competitive.’ But I was doing exactly what Pete did.

Now they have a new rule that the five winners of the championship events automatically qualify and I said, ‘Okay that is great, absolutely.’ The champion of one of those events should go to Kona and then I said, ‘Would the Kona winner have to validate?’ And they do. So by saying that, they are also saying the championship events are more important than Kona. Andrew actually paused and said, ‘That is something that we will have to look at.’ Their number-one goal should be getting the best athletes in the world to Kona in the best possible shape. I think if you’re a world champion, you have done your homework, you’re a professional and have figured out how to get to that start line in great condition and that is your job. I find it disrespectful that they tell the champion of Kona that they need to go race another Ironman before they get to go back to Kona.  It’s crazy!  I would love to see IM create incentive for us to race rather than just telling us to punch a ticket. WTC is upset that past champions are checking the box rather than truly competing and in their eyes making a mockery of the professional race, quite honestly no past champion (or anyone) wants to just check the box, it goes against everything in our nature and does nothing for the athlete or the sport.  In my opinion if an athlete is forced into this position then there must be an inherent problem with the system.

Another way they could fix the problem is by having a prize purse for the points series. Have a prize purse for the top 10 in the points series so there is a reason to go and hunt for points. Right now you could have the most amount of points in the year and no one cares. All you need to be is in the top 35 to get back to Kona. If there is incentive then the professionals that are business minded and are racing like professionals will say, okay I will win the series, because if I can win the series then I am going to get compensated and that makes sense for me and for my career. That is something I would love to see and obviously that is asking for more money, but I think that that’s a great way to ensure athletes make the decision to race more WTC races—to fight to try and be ranked first in the WTC rankings.

Triahtlete.com: In a recent press conference Andrew expressed his opinion that the burden is on the women to organize and form some kind of representation. He was saying a counter party is needed, and it is your responsibility to come up with a good representative body for the pros to express a collective voice. Is there talk of doing something like that in a really formal way, because he seems to think that, until you organize it is of your own doing when you are not seeing changes you’re asking for.

MC: I guess I agree with that, it is just super hard to try and form one voice among the pro ranks because, as he also mentioned, there are 1,100 pros. I think we need a non-athlete representative who can talk on our behalf, but that might take a while for us to figure out. It is crazy how different some of the opinions are, and we need to try and figure out the majority and go from there. It starts with pro athletes trying to work together and thinking more about the sport and how to improve it for future generations. In 10-20 years, that is when the younger female athletes racing Ironman will have a fair go and that is what we are fighting for. We would love to see it now while we are still racing and we are absolutely pushing for it, but sometimes these things take time.

Triathlete.com: Can you talk about how your preparation for Kona this year has been different because you raced Challenge Roth and if you think there may be some lingering fatigue, or whether it will impact the rest of your Kona training? I know you felt like you needed to shake things up a little bit.

MC: I needed to shake things up mentally. If I continued down the track I was on I probably would have been burnt out in two more years and over the whole thing. But by doing [Roth] I feel like I bought myself a few more years of racing triathlon. But [in terms of how racing Roth will affect Kona performance] honestly your guess is as good as mine. I feel like we have been very smart in our approach, and like I have not over raced. Whether there will be lingering fatigue going into Kona or whether it will make me stronger…another 180K time trial I feel is just going to make me stronger on the bike and I certainly feel strong now. I think the other thing that is awesome is that Siri [Lindley] is my coach and if there is any coach in the world that can watch their athletes and figure out when enough is enough or make sure they’re not overdoing it, it is her. Even if I am at Kona at 90 percent due to fatigue, she will get me to use 100 percent of that 90 percent and that is way more than 80 percent of the girls can do in Kona. So many girls fall short because they over train, they get sick. For the most part I feel like I have been successful in Kona because we have been very smart both in our lead up and taper going into the race. Maybe there will be a little bit of fatigue, but maybe there won’t. This whole year has been an experiment. I know I raced better than I thought I would in Roth. I am starting to hit the mid-30s where female endurance athletes start to really come into their own. Hopefully I can keep continuing to get faster for these next few years, but I don’t have a straight answer for you.

Triathlete.com: So you said that you considered taking a step away from Kona this year, but you sort of realized that at the end of the day, Kona is where it is at for you. It sounds like you are still hungry for that world title and it still holds the appeal like if it was your first?

MC: A lot of people ask me because I have won Kona and have the course record and the run record, ‘What more is there for you to do?’ The answer has always been the same: I feel like I am not at my best yet. I think I will be excited to go back to Kona and see what I can do. Every time I go out for a hard session, I think about Kona and it excites me and pushes me and makes me hungry and excited to go back there and see what I am capable of.

There is nothing like that finish line, and that race is just so hard—emotionally, and obviously physically. Linsey Corbin says that Kona is just something else and it is a whole ‘nother level of pain. It was kind of all I knew because my first Ironman was Kona, so I was like, ‘yeah, it is really hard.’ But going and racing Roth and seeing just how…’easy’ is a wrong word because it is still very hard, but compared to how tough Kona is those other races are like the little sister to what you go through to win Kona. It is a pressure cooker, with expectations, commitments and the race itself throws as many challenges at you as it possibly can.

RELATED PHOTOS: 2014 Challenge Roth

Triathlete.com: You seem to be able to consistently get a top performance out of yourself when it really matters. What is it that allows you to not crack under that kind of pressure? You seem to feed off of it instead of let it paralyze you or be counterproductive.

MC: I never thought that I would be the type of person that would feed off of the pressure. I thought I would be the type of person that would get worn down by it, that it might be too much. But every time I go to Kona it just reminds me how important this race is. In Kona it is worth it to hurt and go to that dark place, because if you can pull it off, it is that one race of the year where all the training and suffering is worth it because if you can win that race it will change your whole life. In a smaller Ironman or half-Ironman event, sometimes I struggle for motivation because I know how much it hurts to win these races and I know where I have to go to get that result. Is it worth it to crush myself for prize money? Obviously you need to do that, but it is harder for me to push myself on those shorter races and more low-key events. Kona is just worth it.

Triathlete.com: Meredith Kessler has famously said that in long course racing you need to learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. In Kona you’re asking so much of yourself and it is a toss of the dice when you just absolutely go for it, so how do you process that in a way that doesnt freak you out?

MC: I think that is why I get so nervous before races—you know there will be points in the race when you are at your absolute limit and I know I will always answer that by pushing through and pushing harder—that is the part that makes you nervous and scared. If the race is tomorrow I know what I have to go through tomorrow and I do not want to have to go there, but I know I will. When the voice in your mind says to stop I know I will always answer with, ‘absolutely not’ and I will always push through it. You know it is going to be painful and tough, but that’s what makes it so rewarding. At the end of the day you can stand tall and say that in your darkest moments you were able to overcome and push through and be successful.

I make myself promises, especially when it comes to the beginning of the marathon, like, ‘this is just three hours of your life.’ Then I tell myself that if I just get through this that I will not have to do anything for a month. I make myself little promises like that. The one thing that helps me the most when I am halfway through the marathon, is I will say, ‘Okay it is only 90 minutes of my whole life and it is worth it.’ Pretty much the entire marathon you are measuring your effort; ‘Am I pushing too hard? Am I eating and drinking and feeling okay?’ Kind of doing that engine check constantly. When you’re still doing that you are in a good place. No matter what, in the last 10 miles that mental aspect just goes away and you cannot process simple facts and you just push.

Triathlete.com: Knowing the target is on you in Kona and that every women in that pro field knows how much time they will need on you getting off the bike to keep you at a safe distance on the run—is that a race dynamic or a pressure that you’ve gotten used to?

MC: Well, I am doing the same thing. I am keeping tabs on them and trying to limit the damage from them. It is not like I am confident that I am going to run a 2:50, absolutely not. I get off the bike and I know it will take a really big effort and it’s ‘lets see what you can do.’ In past years I’ve been the one gaining on people and it gives you more energy and you hear the splits coming down and I think that is a better position to be in than if you’re leading the race and kind of running scared. I am certainly flattered that they are marking me, but I am certainly doing the same to them. I have performed well in the past five years and have been able to get on the podium in Kona, but that doesn’t mean I own the podium.

Triahtlete.com: Are there any women in particular you are really focused on leading into Kona?

MC: Well, there are the usual suspects. Rachel [Joyce] is a massive favorite, Caroline [Steffen] is always there, and I think Meredith is one to watch for sure because she is figuring it out. She has done 50 Ironman events, but she is being very smart in her approach and is a phenomenal athlete; she swims in the front, bikes in the front and then if she can hold it together on the run it is going to be hard to beat her. This year’s race will be a little different from last year in that there will be a front pack, but I think there will also be a second pack because Angela Naeth, Melissa Hauschildt—they swim at about my ability so there are going to be some phenomenal athletes that are not going to be in that front pack. Instead of being 10 girls and then me, there might be 10 girls and then a few of us. Cat Morrison is coming back to Kona this year and is a phenomenal athlete. Mary Beth Ellis, Jody Swallow, Liz Blatchford—there are a lot of fast women and you can sit around and worry about, but it just motivates me more.

RELATED: Mirinda Carfrae’s Advice For Starting A Training Block

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