Rachel Joyce Overcomes Setbacks To Rise Near The Top Of Ironman

Rachel Joyce’s career in triathlon hasn’t been easy, but she’s quietly become one of the top racers on the Ironman circuit.

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Editor’s note: In October, Rachel Joyce finished second at the Ironman World Championships, crossing the line in 8:57:28.

Start listing the super-elite female Ironman athletes in the world. Names like Leanda Cave, Mirinda Carfrae and Caroline Steffen may come to mind. We even surveyed Inside Triathlon readers and asked them to name their favorite pro. Twenty-two women appeared on the list; Rachel Joyce wasn’t one of them. But ask the elite female Ironman pros to create a list of the top Ironwomen, and the name Rachel Joyce will keep coming up. She has earned the respect of those who truly know the difference between good and great, but widespread recognition has eluded Joyce largely because of a long series of misfortunes that have prevented the Brit from displaying her true mettle — most notably prior to the 2012 Ironman World Championship when tonsillitis decimated her pre-race fitness and nearly derailed her ability to reach the start line altogether (rather, she rallied back against her failing body, not only starting the sport’s toughest race but finishing 11th). Still, 35-year-old Joyce boasts a fierce race résumé, with a steady progression toward the Kona podium (as high as fourth in 2011), emphatic victories at Challenge Roth (2012), ITU Long Course World Championship (2011), and Ironman Lanzarote (2011), and more recently a course record-setting Ironman Texas win (2013), where she clocked her third sub-nine-hour iron-distance finish. Indeed, Joyce has proven that, though diminutive and somewhat soft-spoken, her fortitude — both mental and physical — is undeniable.

To delve into the difficulties that have plagued Joyce — and the tactics she’s used to prevail — as well as learn what’s beneath her proper British exterior, we looked through the eyes of her family, friends, boyfriend, coach and fellow athletes — and Rachel herself. What they revealed was a person who is far more than a one-dimensional race machine, yet ready to burst through to the highest ranks of the sport — if the opportunity presents itself.

Setbacks At The Start

Joyce isn’t one for excuses, so we probed to learn the full history of challenges she’s faced.

Joyce: Just as I decided to turn pro [2008] I herniated a disc in my back, causing sciatica. I had to work standing up, couldn’t really train and was in discomfort all the time. The treatment I was getting didn’t help, so that went on for six months until finally an epidural cortisone injection hit the mark. This actually tied in with getting quinsy — probably the beginning of my tonsil woes — and I was in hospital for three days and lost 10 pounds. Next I had the usual lower-leg injuries suffered by swimmers taking up running. Finally, my comeback race was Ironman 70.3 U.K. I raced badly and discovered two days later that I had shingles.

In 2010 I had an accident in T1 at the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, resulting in my bike chainring slicing through my foot and three tendons. I spent a week in hospital, had two operations and was in a cast and on crutches for six weeks. After the rehab I threw myself into training and was maybe a little overzealous. I did a few races but felt absolutely flat — it got to the point where I could barely turn the pedals. I felt so low I thought I was depressed but a blood test showed I was severely anemic. In the six weeks leading into Kona I was still trying to build up my iron stores, and my weekly training didn’t exceed 15 hours. I came fifth in Kona, putting that down to a smart training plan from my then coach Matt Dixon and a commitment by me to believe I could do it.

On to 2012, when I spent a total of 65 days on antibiotics due to my rotten tonsils and was hospitalized twice because of them getting so swollen they restricted my breathing. They flared up again before Kona. I didn’t even notice they were infected, so the infection reached my bronchioles and on Wednesday of race week I had a temperature of 102 and a hacking cough. I had a tonsillectomy in November, and it has only been this year that I realized just how lousy I felt for so much of 2012.

RELATED: Joyce Trains Ahead Of Kona

The Kona Contest

How Joyce handled her withering hopes in 2012, and what it will take to win.

Leanda Cave (reigning Ironman and Ironman 70.3 world champion): Rachel is definitely a contender to win Kona. Absolutely. She’s smart, you know? She’s very disciplined and very calculated with everything she does — and it certainly pays off. She’ll be there this year with 100 percent A game.

Dave Scott (six-time Ironman world champion and Joyce’s coach since January 2013): Let’s just say I’ve seen the other side with a lot of professional triathletes where they don’t have the internal tenacity and incredible willpower to win Kona. Rachel has the characteristics. She has the thunder to do it. I think that among the pros there are certainly a select number who are really going to be the best. She has that potential.

Emma-Kate Lidbury (Ironman 70.3 champion and Joyce’s longtime training partner): Two days out from the race I went to see her at her condo. I was struggling to stay positive for her. Disappointed isn’t the right word for it—I was heartbroken for her. But there she was with her tonsil infection and she was the one saying, “If I can race, then I’m going to race. I’ve got to at least try. Because then I’ll always know that I started and did my best.”

RELATED: Joyce Takes Second At 2013 World Championships

Brett Hedges (Joyce’s boyfriend): She said that she was excited on the start line, so I think she felt at the time she was in the right place. There are pictures of her in the water with Caroline [Steffen] and she’s smiling. But from halfway on the bike her power shows that she obviously didn’t have it. She was very sick, yet she managed to come 11th. She’s ferociously strong physically and mentally, the way she handled that.

Joyce: I felt so rotten in certain parts of that race. Coming back from Hawi I felt like the entire field came past me. Then on the first seven miles of the run I was crying behind my sunglasses. I guess what I’m happy about is that I completely changed my mind-set. I managed to actually kind of enjoy the rest of the race. I encouraged my other competitors and I just thought, “I’ve got another 20 miles to run, so I might as well try to enjoy it. Because if I’m still crying behind my sunglasses it’s not going to get any better!”

Lidbury: The fact that she was so sick and still came 11th is a testament to the person that she is. Put her in there on the right day, and you’re going to see something pretty special.

Laying The Foundation For Success

A few formative moments.

Stephen Joyce (Rachel’s father): In the late ’70s we lived in a company housing colony at a cement plant where I worked north of Mexico City. There were swimming lessons in the colony’s pool for children 3 years old or more; however, the plant production manager, Pedro Nieto, thought children should overcome their fear of water and start swimming earlier. So while Rachel’s older brother was swimming one day with mum and dad proudly watching, Pedro threw Rachel — at 16 months of age — into the pool. Frozen with horror we watched her small arms and legs start paddling from the bottom to the top of the pool to get a breath of air. Soon after she had her first competitive swim — arm-band assisted this time — and the rest is history.

Joyce: When I was at high school we had cross country, and I would beat all the boys except for one. But the football, soccer and basketball were for boys but not for girls. So I petitioned to get a girls’ soccer club. Then it was like, “Oh, I’ve got to go to this — I don’t even like soccer!” But it was my duty to go. Then I got a bee in my bonnet because we weren’t allowed to play cricket — because the balls were very hard. I was like, “If they hit the boys it’s going to hurt just as much!” I went on this complete mission to get a girls’ cricket club. And I don’t like soccer very much, but I hate cricket! So I ended up spending all my lunchtime playing these sports I really hated. Then there was no 1500m track event for the girls — there was only an 800m. I said, “We can run 1500!” Of course, come sports day I had to do the 1500.

Neil White (Joyce’s former boss at the law firm of Taylor Wessing, where Joyce worked as an attorney): Initially when Rachel joined us as a trainee about 10 or 12 years ago, we found her very quiet — even a bit mouse-like — and were concerned that she was not cut out for the rough and tumble of the construction industry. However, during her six months training she impressed us with her determination and commitment. When she qualified [as a solicitor, the British term for lawyer], we thought she might do well in the construction group where these qualities are very important. Our concern remained that she did not seem to be very tough and that she might get pushed around in negotiations. We need not have worried. It quickly became clear that Rachel’s determination was more than that — she was actually as feisty and tough as she appeared to be meek and mild, but she concealed it well. In fact, it turned out to be a positive advantage, as her opponents tended to underestimate her.

RELATED: Joyce Moves Training Base To Boulder

The Fledgling Pro

In 2010, two years into her pro career, Joyce debuted as a member of 2005 Ironman world champion Faris Al-Sultan’s Abu Dhabi Triathlon Team.

Joyce: I was petrified, thinking, “Oh my god, it’s Faris Al-Sultan!” I’m a little bit more confident now, but I was like: “I don’t even think I can ride with these people.” And they’d gotten my name the wrong way ‘round on my bike. It said “Joyce Rachel,” but I didn’t dare say anything.

Andi Boecherer (Ironman 70.3 European champion and Joyce’s former teammate): The first time that I met her, we gathered in front of the hotel with the team in Abu Dhabi. She was very friendly and smiling, but her helmet was a little bit moved to one side and she sat on the bike like a tourist, her knees going outward. I just thought, “Oh my god, she is a total age grouper!” I was kind of doubting Faris’ decision to get Rachel on the team. But then we started the ride and it was soon clear that she had amazing power.

The Fire Inside

Joyce keeps her competitive instincts contained most of the time, but has the ability to switch to reach a rare level of intensity when necessary.

Lidbury: A lot of people say to me, “I can’t understand how Rachel is such a competitor. She’s so nice!” Well yeah, she is that nice, but also every now and then you see little flashes of that fire, that killer instinct. It’s there; it just lies dormant the majority of the time. But it comes out to play when it’s race time, and then there’s no shit. It’s, “I want to win.” The lawyer in her comes out as well: “Here’s the job I have to do. How am I going to do it?” It’s very matter-of-fact.

Joyce: When I was at high school I used to swim competitively, and actually one of the reasons I stopped was that I couldn’t switch off that part of me that was fiercely competitive when I wasn’t swimming. I didn’t like being that way. I didn’t want it to turn me into that sort of person when I was not in the pool. So when I started doing triathlon, almost 10 years later, I was like, “Racing has to always be fun. You can have that part of you, but channel it when you’re in the race or when you’re doing hard training sessions. Otherwise you need to switch it off.”

Julie Dibens (Ironman 70.3 and three-time Xterra world champion): I’ve seen the competitive side of her in training. I know where I’m at with my cycling and I know that if I’m working hard, she’s working hard too — but she won’t give an inch. It’s very similar to when I would ride with Chrissie [Wellington, four-time Ironman world champion] — a similar kind of stubbornness in many ways.

Scott: On the surface she’s really sweet. She has kind of a soft demeanor — she doesn’t seem to have a vile bone in her at all. But she has a hidden streak of venom that percolates to the top. She’s very demanding of herself. Anyone who is trying to be the best, they quite often have that personality trait. They can dig, dig, dig. And when the standards are so high, athletes have a short memory. They don’t recognize that they had a phenomenal workout seven days ago but now they’re a little bit off. All they can think about is, “I’m off.” I’ve seen that trait in her. In some ways I really like it because her standards are extremely high.

RELATED: Breakfast With Rachel Joyce

Tales Of Talent

Joyce’s peers share their perspectives on her athletic prowess.

Cave: Rachel’s kind of stayed under the radar to where people don’t really consider her a threat, but I totally consider her a threat. I’ve raced against her and I know her strengths are very similar to mine. And I know she’s training her ass off, and she’s on damn good form right now. It puts a fire in my behind to get myself into gear.

Dibens: She’s the most underrated female triathlete out there. She was unfortunate last year going into Kona in that she got sick, because I think she was a legitimate winner on the day. I say that from looking at her race results, and also I got to train with her last year and I got to see how strong she is across the board.

Linsey Corbin (three-time Ironman champion): Rachel and I shared a few days training in Arizona this winter. One day we did a fairly long bike ride — where she dropped me in the warm-up, no joke — and then ran an hour on the track. Rachel was so strong all day on the bike. Once we got onto the track, in my head it was chaotic — stinking-hot-as-blazes out and an hour of intervals looking me in the face. This didn’t even faze Rachel. She put her head down, ticked off her miles like a little metronome, never complained once and was strong start to finish. I didn’t even see her drink water.

Boecherer: One time in Lanzarote there was a long stretch where you could see five to 10 kilometers — just a totally straight road. We were riding in front next to each other, and suddenly my legs started to hurt. I looked at my power meter and my power was steadily increasing from 200 watts to 220, 240. I asked Rachel if she was late for dinner or something! She laughed and said, “I can’t ride straight stretches.” She didn’t like it, so she started to power. And what’s incredible, she pushed like 250 watts for 20 minutes.

Corbin: She’s one of the most level-headed athletes I’ve ever met. In Ironman, one of the keys to success is not being too emotional or reading too much into the high and the low points. Rachel finds her pace, locks it in and doesn’t waver a tad. You can never tell if she is struggling or, on the contrary, feeling amazing. She just turns it over and over and over again.

RELATED: Joyce After Kona Runner-Up

A Champion’s Character

How she balances her intensity with humor, her quietness with conviction, her predicaments with positivity and politeness, and her extreme competitiveness with equal compassion.

Lidbury: If it’s a super hard session and requires a lot of concentration, you get that with Rachel but you equally get a lot of laughs. There have been times in the pool when the push-off is in five seconds and she’ll say something and you can’t stop giggling. You have to push off and then you’re just snorting chlorine.

Joyce: While I know I can seem quite quiet at times, with anything I believe strongly about I’m not very good at staying quiet. I did politics in my law study at university [Joyce received her undergraduate degree in law and politics from the University of Birmingham in 2000, and completed her legal practice course at the College of Law in Guildford in 2001], so I really love debate. My dissertation had a feminist thread and that’s something I believe passionately about. Or if I’m in the bus queue in London, for example, and I see someone throw litter on the ground I will say something. I’m that annoying person! “Don’t you see there’s a bin right there?”

Dibens: She’s so British! I kind of make fun of her, because on the emotional side she definitely is guarded. She keeps things in. We were in Phoenix together and we went to see a physical therapist who inflicts a lot of pain. I’m in there screaming and cussing but she wouldn’t make a peep, because you’re not supposed to show emotion or complain about things. He did get her to crack once. She didn’t swear, but she definitely screamed a little bit. She said something like, “I think that’s past my limit.”

RELATED: Behind The Scenes: Joyce’s Triathlete Cover Shoot

Cave: During ITU [Long Course] Worlds [in 2011, when Joyce won] she was passing someone who was a friend of ours, but she didn’t know it was him. Rachel, being the very polite person she is, goes, “On your left! Can you move to the right, please?” She was so polite! He brings this up every time he sees her now.

Lidbury: You can be out riding with Rachel and you’ll be struggling. She’ll turn to you and say, “What was your favorite race last year?” Might not even be that transparent of a question, but before you know it you’re talking about something that lifts you and makes you feel better. You’re in a totally different mind-set than you were five minutes before. That’s a pretty special gift to have.

Katie Joyce (Rachel’s younger sister): She’s definitely a glass-half-full person — probably the glass is always actually full. I mean I look at all the crap that’s happened — she’s intermittently had injuries, and then with the tonsils in Kona it would be so easy to get disheartened. But she doesn’t. She doesn’t wallow about. She just focuses and is super determined about achieving what she wants to achieve — and having the positive attitude to back that up.

Gaining Confidence

Even with an enviable race record, Joyce is still building the self-belief that she belongs on top.

Joyce: I’ve been told, “You’re never going to run quicker than a 3:10.” So that’s like a red flag to a bull. I’m like, “Oh, I think I can.” I guess I’m very determined. I always like to compare myself to the best people, and that’s what I’m always trying to get to. That’s what motivates me. If they can do it, then I believe I can at least work toward that. [Joyce ran a 3:07:27 marathon in May at Ironman Texas.]

Hedges: She’s incredibly humble. She’s actually had to be reminded a few times that she’s a world champion in the ITU. In Lanzarote, they have the Club La Santa Hall of Fame. They wanted to put her in that, and she was a little bit confused by it. She said, “Well Cat Morrison’s in it, but she’s a world champion.” I said to her, “And you are a world champion!”

Joyce: That confidence is something that I have to really work on. It’s something that I’ve kind of developed, mostly in the last 18 months, because I almost had a complete lack of it. I would almost not believe it before a race, but I had a eureka moment where I thought, “If I don’t believe it, it’s never going to happen.” When it really clicked was after Kona in 2011. I came fourth and I was really close to the podium. And I was pleased with my race, but I hadn’t gone into it thinking I could win. When I was analyzing the race I realized, “If you didn’t think it at the beginning, then your mind-set’s not going to change halfway through the race!” So I approached the next season thinking, “I train as hard as these people. I can win these races.”

Mind Over Matter

Joyce shares the key tips she’s gleaned for conquering adversity, before, during and after a race that doesn’t quite go to plan.

When I’ve had interruptions to my preparation going into a race, I of course have moments when I panic about all the training I have missed. But as race day nears, I switch those thoughts off and focus only on what I have done — the sessions that went well and will boost my confidence. I think about the quality of those sessions and not the volume I’ve missed.

Focus on yourself and not what other people are doing. It’s hard to do in an era of social media, but switch off as much as possible. Paying too much attention to others can be detrimental to your confidence.

Remain calm and limit the time allowed for a pity party. Then take action — seek the best advice possible and do everything you can to get to the start line in the best shape you can, given the circumstances.

I toed the line in Kona in 2012 knowing I wasn’t fully healthy but with hope that maybe I could have a good race. I had some of the biggest lows during the end of the bike and beginning of the run — feeling ill and feeling huge waves of disappointment. I learned to change my expectations within the race and by remaining positive I was able to almost enjoy the final stages, and also pull out an OK result.

RELATED: Joyce Wins 2012 Challenge Roth

Avoid dwelling on a single disappointing race. Of course you need to address why the race didn’t go as planned, but remember it is just one race. Resist the urge to judge yourself by that one result. Remember the other more successful races you’ve had to regain some perspective.

When you are on the sidelines it is natural to have doubts about your ability to come back. Confidence takes a knock and it is easy to feel isolated, as you miss out on the social aspects of training, too. Stay in touch with your triathlon community, build up a support network and focus on what you can do to get back to training. Taking positive action will make you feel like you’re on the comeback trail.

This article was originally published in the Sep./Oct. 2013 issue of Inside Triathlon magazine.

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