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Kim Schwabenbauer: Behind Her Breakthrough

Kim Schwabenbauer shares the lessons she picked up in her rookie year—and how they’ve helped lift her to a new level in the sport.

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In just her second season as a pro, Kim Schwabenbauer, 34, made major strides last week with a breakthrough third place, 9:10:05 finish at Ironman Melbourne against a stacked field. Here, Schwabenbauer, of Knox, Penn., shares the lessons she picked up in her rookie year—and how they’ve helped lift her to a new level in the sport.

Lesson 1: Race Early—and Take Risks

One major difference from this season compared to year’s past? The timing of her first race out. “After not having the most spectacular day in Kona last October, I was really eager to race again right away,” says Schwabenbauer, of her 22nd place finish at the Ironman World Championship. “But that’s why I have a coach [Jesse Kropelnicki of QT2 Systems]. He convinced me that it made better sense to do some solid training, and start the season earlier in Melbourne as opposed to waiting until May like I did last year.” That move, she says, enabled her to capitalize on her fitness from the QT2 training camp in Clermont, Fla. in February. “I was excited to see how I stacked up early in the season,” says Schwabenbauer. “But at the same time I wasn’t 100 percent sure if I’d be totally recovered from camp, and I was pretty rusty. Sometimes, you just have to race with the unknown.”

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Lesson 2: Nail the Nutrition

As a registered dietician (and a nutrition counselor and triathlon coach to some 20 age-groupers through her company Fuel Your Passion), Schwabenbauer is more familiar with fuel than the average triathlete. Still, she says, it took a few tough races to really dial in her hydration and nutrition plans for Ironman. “I’ve learned recently that one of my major limitations in racing is that I have an extremely high sweat rate, so it’s important for me to hydrate really, really well,” she says, noting she was further boosted by the ideal conditions in Melbourne, where temperatures hovered in the low 60s for most of the race. “I made sure to pay really careful attention and was able to execute my hydration plan perfectly.”

She also used the off-season to address a nagging issue on the run.  “In the past, I’d get this awful pins-and-needles sensation in my feet while I was running. There’d be times when I couldn’t feel them,” she says. “I thought it could be an issue with potassium, so in Melbourne, I just ate bananas like they were going out of style. I was just shouting at the [volunteers], ‘banana, banana!”  It worked, and Schwabenbauer’s 3:01:34 marathon was the fastest of the day—and a lifetime best.

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Lesson 3: Recover Right

While Schwabenbauer has certainly upped her training time since going pro, she’s dedicated even more attention to what she does when she’s not in the pool, on the bike, or on the roads.  “Right off the bat, my coach told me that the difference between pros and age-groupers is not the training, it’s how you take care of yourself in recovery,” she says. This means taking her easy days super seriously—even if she risks being dropped by her training partners. “On a recovery ride, I may do something like 50 to 80 watts. People can’t stand it because they don’t want to ride that slow, but I really need those easy days.” Schwabenbauer has noticed great gains in her fitness since better balancing her hard and easy efforts, as well as implementing more stretching and rolling, wearing NormaTec recovery boots and simply putting her feet up whenever she can.

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Lesson 4: Be Patient

A DNF at last July’s Ironman Lake Placid nearly derailed Schwabenbauer’s pro plans. “I’ve had to work through a lot since then,” she admits. “You have a bad race like that and you question everything. I wasn’t sure if [going pro] was the right move for me.” Continuing to race helped her regain confidence, as has accepting that the learning curve as a newbie pro is quite steep. “When you become a pro triathlete, you put yourself way out there, and you want to do well right away. But it doesn’t always work out that way,” she says. “I had to take a step back and just try to gain as much I could from the sport while evaluating myself as an athlete. I had to learn how to compete at this level.”

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Lesson 5: It’s Not (Always) About the Podium

Schwabenbauer says that although she was intrigued by the glamour of turning pro, she quickly discovered that there’s more to the status than the perks—and the podium. “When your life is centered around this one thing, you have to truly love it, no matter the outcome of a race,” she says. “Yes, I’m thrilled when I have a great race. But what if I went to Melbourne and got a flat instead? There has to be more to it than just that big check.” Instead of placing so much value on performance, Schwabenbauer now approaches racing from a more philosophical approach. “I’ve been able to develop a love and understanding of the sport that goes way beyond the finish line, from the places I get to travel to the incredible people I meet,” she says, adding that this mindset has helped given her a sense of peace and calm pre-race. “I still get scared before a race—I don’t think that will ever change—but more than anything, I’m just really happy to be competing.”

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