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During the summer of 2013, it looked like Danish pro Camilla Pedersen was on her way to a top Kona finish, after she won both the Ironman 70.3 European Championship in Barcelona and the Ironman European Championship in Frankfurt. Then on a training ride a month out from Kona, she crashed her bike while dodging a group of kids. It left her with bleeding on her brain, among other injuries, and doctors were forced to put her into a medically induced coma to give her brain a chance to heal. When she woke up a month later, doctors told her she wouldn’t be able to walk again, but her fierce determination and new outlook on life pushed her defy the odds and get back to training. She started racing again in April 2014, and she earned multiple Ironman 70.3 victories as well as the title of ITU long distance world champion last year. This year, the defending ITU Long Course world champ has her sights set on a top-five finish at Ironman Hawaii and, one day, the Kona crown.
My training is based back home in Denmark, in the town where I was born, grew up.
I swim with the elite swimmers in my town, and I bike with some of the cyclists and other triathletes. But normally one or two—I don’t like going in a group because you have to do your own work, so sitting on wheels—it’s not what I like to do. All the time that I’m out on the bike, I want to do the work because otherwise I feel like I’m wasting my time.
Mentally, I’m still the same—I’m just as strong as before. But I still have some things to work on after the accident, and we’re still on the way up the stairs—step by step—so there’s still a lot of things to work with, but I’m getting closer and closer. … We have to figure out, so why does the body react like this now? It didn’t do that before.
I just really wanted to come back to the Camilla everybody knew and [had] always known. Also from my family, I had the biggest support I could ever imagine. My family was there for me 100 percent all the time, and also people from all around the world—they started a collection for me because they didn’t know if I was going to go get surgery. … And for me, I wouldn’t be able to thank enough for all the help I got from everybody. That’s also why I wanted to come back and show them, as a thank you.
I got a call one day in 2010 from Rasmus Henning, who had created a team of young triathletes. He asked if I wanted to come for a weekend and do some tests. I always trained a lot, but I also needed goals for my training—why do I have 15 spinning classes a week, and why do I go work out at the gym every day? … I said, ‘OK, I will start the new extreme sport with Ironman.’ I’d never run a marathon or never biked on a road bike.
I used to be a swimmer. I was on the national team for juniors, but I stopped swimming in 2002, and then I didn’t swim for eight years. I hated swimming after that—I got too much of it. So for me the hardest part about doing triathlon was that I had to start swimming again. … I used to play ice hockey on the boys’ team for six years. And otherwise I’ve always been active, always loved to do a lot of training and different kinds of sports.
My family thought I was crazy because they were like, ‘Seriously?’ But they always thought I was crazy. I like to use my body because you get to know yourself and your body a lot more when you go through your limits, and that’s what I like. You never really know where the limits there, and you get surprised every time—you actually go over the limit you thought you have.
If I’m not nervous the morning or the evening before a race, then I know I’m not ready. But it’s also important to see some races as a training day. Because if you are nervous in all the races you do, then you won’t be able to perform every time. For me, the important races, you have to be focused on that. And then, on the not-so-important races, see it as a training day. Because in training, you also train hard, it also hurts. So for me, I just like to go out and do races because I enjoy it and it’s a fun day.
I’m a nutritionist myself—I’m educated in that. … I know pretty much what I have to eat and what I must eat the day before and the days up to. But for me, what works is the evening before, if I eat meat, it’s only chicken, but not after around lunchtime before a race. Then I just eat pasta, and no vegetables or stuff like that because it takes time and energy for the body to digest. So it’s pretty simple food up to races, but it’s not always the same.
I love food, I really do. But you also figure out what works and what doesn’t work. So if you go over to your grandparents and eat a lot of sauce and meat and dinner with a lot of fats in it, you can definitely feel it the day after in training—your performance in training is a lot harder. You can’t train as well. So for me, it’s fun. I’m still learning what works the best for me in races. But I also try different things because I’m pretty new in the sport, so what works and what doesn’t work. So for me, that’s also what I like about triathlon—it’s not an easy sport. You not only go out and swim, bike and run. You have to have focus on the nutrition all the way. Did you get enough salts, electrolytes, energy? What works for you is not what works on another, so you have to figure out yourself.
Chrissie Wellington—she was always smiling, and she’s crazy. So she’s a big inspiration for me, like really. She always looked happy, and you could tell that she also did a sport that she loved—not to make money or to be a known person, but because she loves it and she loves the challenge—you could just see it on her face. And that’s kind of the same way I feel—I can’t help smiling even though it hurts.
When you first get into Kona, it’s a lot easier to get the points [to return the following year]. But when you come from the outside, it’s a lot harder when there’s only 30, 35 spots. For me, it’s harder, but yeah, if you’re in Kona and you finish top 14, you already got as many points as winning an Ironman, so you don’t have to do that many races to then come back to Kona. It’s always hard to get in, but what I like about it is they also changed a lot of the rules where now we can only do three Ironmans—you can only collect points from three full Ironmans and only collect points from three half-Ironmans. And I kind of like that because there were also a lot of girls that were there last year that I was like, ‘Seriously?’ Every time I’d done races with them, they were kind of easy to beat, but they’d done so many races that when they finally get to Kona, they’re totally crashed, tired, their body is dead. So for me, it’s tough—of course 50 women, but then you know there’s a lot there that yeah, they just have points enough to be there, but it has to be the best in the world. And I think 35, 30, that’s fine for me. Because then you know that it’s also the best that’s there. It shouldn’t be easy because everybody that goes to Kona should go to Kona to do well, not just to finish number 35 or 30. So they [shouldn’t] want to just go to Kona just to go to Kona—they don’t have the motivation enough.
You just have to enjoy every second of what you’re doing. This is something I’m always thinking about—you only live once. You could be here, and then one second later, you could be gone. So you really have to enjoy life and love what you’re doing; otherwise, don’t waste your time. … It’s a lot of hard hours, but it’s worth it in the end. The day I don’t have the motivation is the day I won’t do triathlon any more.