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On March 4, American pro and 2010 Ironman Canada champion Meredith Kessler took the title at Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain Ironman New Zealand, which was shortened to a half-Ironman and delayed a day due to severe weather. While Kessler, an athlete with Purplepatch Fitness, struggled with nutritional issues (an allergy to sodium citrate) and hot-weather races in 2011, she’s started this year strong and hopes to use the points gained in Taupo toward a spot on the starting line at Kona. We chatted with Kessler (after her long journey home to San Francisco) about racing in New Zealand, her plans for the season and life in the Purplepatch.
Triathlete.com: Why did you choose to race in Taupo?
Kessler: Well, coming off [Ironman] Arizona—Arizona’s my favorite race on the U.S. circuit, and I’ve done it every year and it’s always a great way to end the season. And then I asked my husband, “Looking at the schedules next year, I know you want to go to Australia or New Zealand so let’s decide.” And we really chose Taupo because he could fly-fish, it was an early-season Ironman and there was wine country [Napier]—those were the three main reasons. And I wanted to start off the year with what I thought would be a full Ironman.
Triathlete.com: How was Taupo?
Kessler: It’s a small, friendly town. I was only there five, six days leading up to the race, but you come to know the locals and the people at the cafes. Being from Ohio—that Midwest vibe, where everyone’s so friendly—it was really nice to have that camaraderie there in such a small, foreign—to me—town.
Triathlete.com: When you heard that the race was going to be delayed and shortened, what was going through your head?
Kessler: Well, this is Ironman, right? There’s a lot of outside factors that play a role in swim, bike, running, and weather is probably the No. 1 reason things can change, and you just have to have the same goals you had for the Ironman on a revised course. I was really OK with it, very chi over it. … To come all that way of course and then have no race at all—I was prepared for that option, too. It was like, “You know what? It’s OK. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.” Because I’m telling you, on the race day [Saturday], it was like a ghost town, understandably, because you just hear the winds howling, and I know people would have gotten blown off their bike with the winds that were happening. On Sunday, yeah there were some winds, yeah the water was choppy, but it was no windier, no choppier than any other half-Ironman race. I cannot emphasize enough how amazing—I can’t imagine the obstacles the race organizers and management went in order to get 2,000-plus volunteers to shimmy their weekend plans to a Sunday event. And I know we probably could have done a full weather-wise on Sunday, but it just wasn’t in the cards as far as the manpower to do that. But to be able to race a half was amazing.
Triathlete.com: Can you tell me how the race unfolded for you?
Kessler: Even as a victory, it was by no means a perfect race by any stretch, and I made a lot of mistakes and I had a lot of technical things go wrong. So the swim was obviously super choppy. … Swimming is my favorite of the three but it’s also the one I want to get over with the fastest and get out of there. But I lost my chip—my timing chip—within two minutes—a guy clawed it off me. And within three minutes my goggles snapped off, so thank goodness for the wonderful, clear waters of Taupo, so the swim wasn’t too bad. So I did the swim pretty much without goggles or my timing chip. So when I got out the water, my time online is a little bit inaccurate. … We have a 450-meter run to transition, and then I remember, with my accent, too, they couldn’t understand what I was saying with my numbers, so I was like, “14! 14!” so what seemed like an eternity was only 30, 45 seconds. But we found my transition bag and I put my shoes on, and I’m running, because of all the rain we had—I’m running with my cycling shoes on, so mud is getting in my cleats. And so, comedy of hilarious errors. So I’m picking the dirt out of my cleats as I’m mounting on my bike. And then once I snapped in, I was like, “OK, we’re good. We have made it onto the bike. Life is OK.” And then it was just getting into the groove. It’s a lovely course—it’s pretty much you have one little switchback and then it’s out and back, almost 20 miles, and then turn around and head back home. You’re able, of course, to see where the other girls are. … Then I got onto the run. I’ve been working on my run, trying to get a little speed action. And I certainly didn’t think that was where I would build time into the other lovely girls at all, but it ended up being the case. And it was definitely a shock to win by 8 minutes, but I was so thankful to feel good and the camaraderie out there—with all the fans—was really just first-class.
Triathlete.com: Did the change from a full to a half affect your plan for the season?
Kessler: I bet anyone who raced Ironman New Zealand 70.3 feels a little bit guilty because we did half the work. I won’t sugarcoat that at all—that I almost feel guilty that I got 2,000 points for it and full prize money, and my sponsors are great, and everything was treated like a full, but I did half the work. So you sort of feel a little guilty about that. But in my case, I had already had I think six Ironmans on the schedule. I had already validated my Ironman spot anyway because I’ve done Wisconsin and Arizona. But I still have a lot of races on the season, one of those hopefully being Kona. So I’ll head to Oceanside here and then head up—Ironman St. George will essentially be my first full Ironman of the year now. But I’m keeping my schedule as it was posted earlier. If anything, I guess, I’m only half as trashed as I thought I would be.
Triathlete.com: Maybe even less than that.
Kessler: Exactly—a fourth, I would say.
Triathlete.com: What’s the reasoning behind having so many full Ironmans in your schedule this season?
Kessler: That’s a good question, and of course things always could absolutely change. I wanted to be sure I was entered properly so I didn’t have to make a last-minute decision. So I love St. George, I’ve gone there twice. I’ve gotten second, and then I’ve DNF’ed, passing out at mile 22. That’s just pure redemption. Going back, feeling better, having figured out my sodium issues. And it goes for—I had a double whammy in the start of my season last year—I went to Coeur d’Alene and DNF’ed in Coeur d’Alene as well. Given that those are two of my favorites, I’m going to go back and tackle those. With Matt [Dixon, of Purplepatch Fitness], my coach, in our training, as long as we’re really smart in between the races, it’s like the races are used a huge deposit in fitness, and then you kind of fine-tune in between. It’s taken a lot of years to learn this about me as an athlete, but if I’m smart in between the races, and don’t kind of go to the well too much in terms of volume training and do a little bit more intensity in between races, then I’m much more vibrant to be able to do more Ironman races in a year.
Triathlete.com: Matt has also talked about that warm weather is sometimes tough for you—I know that partly had to do with the sodium issues—but have you come up with game plan for how to battle warmer weather races like Kona this season?
Kessler: Absolutely. So, you’ll see in my schedule, most of the races are cooler except for Kona, like Oceanside will be cool, St. George was an anomaly last year being 95 degrees, same with Canada and Wisconsin—that was crazy because the years before were a lot cooler. But I’m determined—as you know, part of triathlon is swim, bike, run, but then you have this whole other component—the fourth and fifth components are nutrition, on and off the field, and how you perform in the environment the race is in. And it’s amazing to me how some girls can go in and crush it in cold or crush it in 90-plus. So while I prefer the cold I absolutely need to practice more in the heat. Living in San Francisco and training between 50 and 70 degrees isn’t going to help me with Kona training in that heat. I’ll know probably about halfway in the year how the Kona points are doing. And I’m sure I’ll have to go do some heat training somewhere for a week. I like training in the environment I’m in here—I seem to thrive off being by my friends here and my husband, so I don’t like to go away from my home here. But I know that that’s something I’m going to need to do a little bit down the road—as you mentioned—how to cope with the sodium now and heat. I guess since I did Coeur d’Alene—all the races since then, starting with Rev3 Portland all the way up to Ironman Arizona, was a huge learning curve for me in my career to learn about nutrition, as far as sodium for my particular self, because everyone’s different. So having good races since then after having two really terrible races, it was worth the DNFs, 100 percent. Because now every time I cross the line and feel good nutrition-wise, like no issues there, I’m very grateful, whether I’m first or fifth or last.
Triathlete.com: Do you have any changes to your sponsors for 2012?
Kessler: Well, let’s see, I have my same sponsors: Saucony, Clif, Reynolds Wheels. I just signed with Rudy Project, which will be a new helmet and new sunglass sponsor, which I’m really thankful for. And Arctic Ease, which is actually one of my main sponsors now—that’s a cold compression company. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it. Just think Ace bandage, but it’s at room temperature, so it’s not like freezing to put on. And let me tell you I wrapped myself like a mummy on the plane ride home with those suckers. I’m still with Orbea and Orca, and Cycleops. Another new sponsor is Challenge Tires.
Triathlete.com: So are you still working full-time? I know you were your first year of being a pro.
Kessler: My first two seasons I worked full-time at Royal Bank of Canada. I left there almost 10 months ago now. I balanced my dream and my job for a while, until I could make it so that my dream became my job. That’s where I am right now.
Triathlete.com: How long have you been with Matt Dixon and Purplepatch?
Kessler: Almost five years. … It was just Tyler [Stewart] and I for a while, then the Lietos came on. So it’s been really cool to watch him grow from coaching a handful of us to coaching 15 pros, not to mention all the amateurs he coaches and the whole program he does for the community here in San Francisco. He’s got a big job—I don’t know how he does it. And I coach 10 athletes under his umbrella. So everything I’ve learned in order to coach athletes myself, I’ve learned from Matt. So that’s been about maybe almost two years now. So at one point, I was at Royal Bank of Canada, coaching and a pro triathlete. It was a little nutty, so that’s when I took a bird’s-eye view of my life and I was like, “OK, something might need to go.” Because the other thing about me is being a good sister, wife, friend come first, so I don’t like missing out on girls’ dinners, or anything. One thing about me is I don’t feel like I sacrifice anything ever for this sport—I love it and it’s my job and I’m very grateful, but I don’t want to sacrifice any of my life’s things for it. I omitted my 60-hour work and still, to this day, I think, “Goodness me, how did I ever fit that in the picture?” But I’m sure we all think that.