Kona Spotlight: Defending Champion Leanda Cave Sets Her Sights on Kona
Triathlete Leanda Cave Gains Confidence Going Into KonaSeptember 24, 2013
All photos by Donald Miralle.
This original article, “Out in the Light,” written by Jay Prasuhn, appeared in the August 2012 issue of LAVA Magazine. In it, Prasuhn hones in on what would eventually be a performance breakthrough for Cave, who went on to win the 2013 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas, followed just five weeks later by her first Ironman World Championship title in Hawaii.
The 2007 Hawaii Ironman broadcast by NBC could have been the most damning moment of Leanda Cave’s racing career. As usual, the broadcasters brought in a collection of pros before the race in hopes of picking up a few good sound bites for the show. Great Britain’s Leanda Cave—a rookie to the race five years ago—was a hot prospect and was one of the athletes invited to give a quote.
As they often seem to do for effect, they left out the innocuous to get the shocking. From Cave, NBC captured this gem: “I’m going to win this race.” Quite the statement for a Kona rookie; especially one without a single win at the Ironman distance.
“They took out the part where I said, ‘It may not be tomorrow; it may not be next year; it may be in five years.’ I said it’ll be a work in progress—something that’ll come over time after I learn more about my body and the race’s intricacies. After I just developed. But they didn’t use that part of what I said,” Cave recalls. “I didn’t say it in an arrogant way. I knew what I was saying and believed it when I made that comment.”
Cave would go on to finish eighth in her Big Island debut. Impressive, but certainly not the victory she’d “predicted” on the broadcast. It was, of course, the year Chrissie Wellington began her stranglehold on the women’s race, winning in Kona in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Cave was overshadowed by her countrywoman. She didn’t finish the 2008 race and then placed 21st a year later. Tenth in 2010 was an improvement, but still well down from expectations. Cave was becoming known as the former ITU world champ who shows on TV through the first half of the race before the contenders pass her to take on the real part of the race: the run. A female version of Chris McCormack during his formative Kona years.
Last year, the 34-year-old Cave had one of the most impressive seasons of the year for any professional woman, with wins at Wildflower, Rev3 Knoxville and Ironman 70.3 Miami. But it was all capped by an absolutely brilliant fall campaign. Using her long, lean frame, she strode to a groundbreaking third-place finish in Hawaii, the event that had previously been her Achilles’ heel.
But she wasn’t done after Kona. In an impressive follow-up salvo, Cave finished as the runner-up at the ITU Long Distance World Championship a few weeks later. And just after that, she won her first Ironman title in Arizona in November.
“Leanda has got the back half of the season dialed. You just can’t discount her in the fall races, and by now, you can tell she’s figured out the run,” says Linsey Corbin, who finished second to Cave at Arizona last fall. “I thought, ‘I’m going to get her on the run.’ And I ran a three-hour marathon and she still held me at three or four minutes the whole time. She’s tough. And she’s putting the pieces together.”
After the Ironman Arizona win, Cave drove south on Interstate 10 to her Sonoran desert home nestled in the mountains in Tucson, Arizona. Looking out onto the saguaros that dot the hillsides encompassing Starr Pass, she uncorked a bottle of red, poured a glass, and smiled. Indeed, winning Kona “someday” could happen very soon.
Cave’s early stint of racing in the United States came from a base in San Francisco. But for whatever reason, the fair-skinned Brit found greater allure in the desert climate of Tucson. Apart from being an increasingly popular training ground for triathletes, Cave has found happiness on Tucson’s west side, a place where she plans to open a low-key, athlete-oriented coffee shop once her racing career is finished.
“The kind of place where people can ride up and hang out. But on this side of town,” she says, eyes gleaming at the prospect. “I feel like that’s what’s missing over here. I love photography and have this vision of what I want to create; what the place will look and feel like inside. It’s fun to have this kind of stuff to look forward to. It gives me a good balance.”
[Editor's note: Cave has sinced moved to a new base in Boulder, Colo.]
Last year’s success may well be the product of a simple slip and a pair of cracked ribs sustained early in the season. Just two days into a short camp with her Team Sirius squad, led by fellow former ITU world champ Siri Lindley in Borrego Springs, California, Cave slipped while pulling back the cover on the above-ground pool and cracked two ribs. It set her back several months, and may well have been the key to her scorching fall campaign.
So it’s with little worry that Cave has made a late start to her season this year. She felt subpar during Ironman 70.3 Panama in March, and it led to an illness that forced her to withdraw from both the Abu Dhabi Triathlon and Ironman Melbourne. While the tests were inconclusive, the fatigue and malaise were definite. “I struggled to run 20 minutes,” she says. But with a bit of rest, Cave was back on form, winning the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon for the third time in June. “The broken ribs last year really enabled me to rest and build up my energy—plus you wouldn’t believe how much it pushed my drive to do well in the races I had coming up,” she says. “I wasn’t burned out by the fall. Maybe getting sick earlier this year was a blessing in disguise. Right now, I feel I’m in the right place for this time of year—even better than last year.”
It’s that long view that takes her beyond the woman who came into Ironman saying simply “I’m going to win this race.” Because there’s always a backstory. “In the last five years, I feel like I’ve discovered where I need to be in a race,” she says. “Pacing was big for me. Early on, I looked at the marathon times and felt, ‘Man, that’s slow,’ but I learned quickly that there’s a lot more to Ironman racing than just going out and going hard. I know she had the crash, but last year we were a lot closer to Chrissie,” Cave says. “I’ve learned—the hard way—what is too hard. Racing out front was always my style, but I’ve learned that’s not always the right way.”
And last year’s strong 3:06 marathon provides a level of confidence that will help her live up to her 2007 quote. Out of context and all.
“I always knew it would be a process, but I feel like I’ve undergone a steep learning curve in the last year,” she says. “I know I have to use my swim and bike—those are my weapons—but I know now that you win the race in Kona by being the smartest, not by changing any element of your race.”
And the final key—confidence—is settling into place. A Kona podium and an Ironman win will do that. “I’d never run well in Hawaii ,” Cave says. “But last year has given me the confidence. Knowing that I have the ability to have a good, strong marathon after a 112-mile bike. It’s pretty empowering.”
Certainly, the NBC crew will be requesting her presence again ahead of the Hawaii Ironman. Just don’t expect Cave to bare too much of her soul. The last thing she needs is another prediction. She’ll let her race do the talking this year.
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