This original article by T.J. Murphy appeared in the August 2013 issue of LAVA Magazine. Photos by Donald Miralle.
If balance has been the secret to Meredith Kessler’s breakthrough to elite status in triathlon, she’s not kidding about having to work for it. Kessler, a former investment banker turned Ironman star, is as afraid to miss sending out a birthday card as she is to miss a workout. Given her neighborly manner, she may be an unlikely candidate to win the Hawaii Ironman. But here she comes anyway.
As a high school kid in Columbus, Ohio, Meredith Kessler was a four-sport athlete, accepting an athletic scholarship to Syracuse, New York, where she narrowed it down to two sports: field hockey and track. She graduated in 2000 and spent her graduation money on a tri bike. Then, of course, she jumped into an Ironman.
Her career vectored into investment banking and she worked for RBC Capital Markets. “I loved the job! Loved my boss! Loved the people I managed,” she says. Her training plan was a day-to-day improvisation. Kessler says it went like this: “‘Hmmm. What will I do today? Well, I guess I’ll run 10 miles and swim eight kilometers.’ This was an everyday situation.’” The essential guideline of her impromptu plan was that it rack up 15 to 18 hours per week. It was in 2007 that she met Matt Dixon, a San Francisco-based coach who worked with professional triathletes as well as type-A business executive-triathlon-fanatic types.
Dixon asked Kessler how many Ironmans she had done.
“Twenty,” Kessler replied happily.
“But I’m stuck!” Kessler exclaimed. “I finish them all between 11:25 and 11:35. I want to be good!”
Dixon’s initial thought? “This girl’s crazy.”
With a mix of darkening apprehension and curiosity, Dixon asked to see Kessler’s training plan.
“It was the worst training plan I’d ever seen,” Dixon says flatly. “It was a massive number of hours. It wasn’t training. It was just lots of exercising.”
Although at first he could only take her “half-seriously,” Dixon was interested. “There was a spark in her eye. And the first time we took her out for a group ride, she got dropped. She showed a lot of big passion that day. She had a big smile, and she just never gave up after getting dropped.”
Afterward, Dixon told Kessler, “You’ve got gumption.”
Kessler remembers the ride in Marin county through the aforementioned filter that is the Kessler Attitude Check: “I just wanted to hold on for dear life. I popped like a champagne cork trying to keep up, but it was so great to have that experience!”
Dixon started coaching Kessler, despite the intrinsic concern that 20 Ironmans can drain the legs, if not the mind. In a way, Kessler’s “lots of exercising” plan did put in place a remarkable base. Dixon, per the philosophy he draws from with all of his athletes, drew the emphasis away from sheer volume. He dialed up the percentage of Kessler’s intensity work as well as strength and core work. He had her work on skills. It became apparent to Dixon that one natural gift Kessler was blessed with was an ideal physiological infrastructure for the Ironman.
“She’s the most resilient athlete I’ve ever met,” he says. “She is unmatched in her ability to absorb work.”
Still, Dixon reduced the overall volume and incrementally started work on a long-term plan that included building all the critical skill sets that can make huge differences in long races.
“For example,” Dixon remarks, “she had to be taught how to ride a bike. How to use her gears. Now she’s riding with so much more power.” Looking at how her swimming has progressed, he adds, “Three or four years ago, she was clocking 59-minute swim splits. Now she’s one of the fastest female swimmers in the Ironman, save Amanda Stevens.”
It was in 2010, after winning Ironman Canada, that Kessler’s confidence in the patient progression of Dixon’s epic map got an electric jolt. “It was the first time I realized I could compete as a professional,” she says.
But there’s more work to be done. Dixon talks about how much Chrissie Wellington has raised the bar in the sport for women, and how the Mirinda Carfraes and Leanda Caves have responded.
Racing the very best, Dixon says, will require a kind of work she has only recently been able to do. “Only in 2012 did she have the necessary background to be able to train at a world-class level,” says Dixon.
To perform that work, Kessler applies her systematic multitasking happiness-project approach. Meaning that for the balloon to keep rising, she must not only check off all the boxes when it comes to training, but maintain the business part of her job as a pro triathlete and also fulfill her mandate for social balance. To start, she wakes up at 4:15 or 5 in the morning for a first run.
“Then I eat a fueling breakfast of Bungalow Munch granola and Greek yogurt and then work out, hydrating and fueling through the session,” she says. “If it’s a swim workout day, I head to Velo SF for my cycling class and do a brick running session afterwards. Then I come home and eat a meal of eggs and toast as well as a protein shake. Then it’s off to the computer to work on the business and build the brand, which includes media, social media, devising plans for other ways to earn income, coaching my athletes, catching up on the morning emails and calls, and, of course, family and friends.”
The rest of the day is a mix of errands, coaching classes at Velo SF, more time on the computer, hydrating and recovering, and getting her bike fixed. Her time in front of the computer has also been used to write her book, Life of a Triathlete, due out in August, which she describes as a reflection on how important balance is and also, presumably, some reporting on the challenge of keeping the financial side of being a pro triathlete afloat given the unpredictable nature of race winnings.
The risks and sacrifices involved in going pro, understandably or not, have been part of the sport since the 1980s during the Grapes of Wrath days that Scott Molina once commented on: “Back then you always kept your eyes out for double-coupon days at the grocery store so you could buy all the cereal and milk you could afford so you could eat for the week.” Another thing that hasn’t changed is the critical value of performing well in Kona to support the job and keep the sponsorship dollars rolling in.
“Kona has been tough for me to figure out,” Kessler says. Part of the problem, she explains, is that San Francisco weather, often foggy and cold, is an unfortunate place to prepare for the Big Island heat and humidity. A plan for a Kona training camp nearing race day was in place for 2012 but got scrapped because of Kessler’s injury problems.
A proper acclimation process will surely be a part of the buildup to Kona this fall. For Kessler to get a top-five finish, which Dixon indicates she’s ultimately capable of, she’s going to have to take her marathon up a notch.
“Meredith’s best marathon split is 3:08,” Dixon says. “I think she’s capable of being under three hours off the bike. She hasn’t put it together yet. The key point is: she’s going to have to progress. The women’s race is no longer some strange time trial for the women. There are more tactics, more personalities. Chrissie has been the catalyst for this.”
Despite instincts that seem counter-intuitive to succeeding in championship competition, Dixon believes Kessler has the intangible inner drive to make winning the Hawaii Ironman happen.
“To be honest, I’m not sure if I know what really lights her fire. She has very little to prove. She’s not a me-against-the-world type. She doesn’t hate her competitors. But she has a very intense personal desire to challenge herself. It’s a fire that’s not out of control. She may not have the venom, but she is a fierce competitor. You have to earn the right to think about a world title. Many aspire to it, but Meredith has earned it.”
Dixon recalls seeing a flicker of that fire not long ago, the day that he first brought up the image of chasing victory in the Ironman World Championship.
“I was probably six months too late in talking about it,” he says with a laugh. “She said to me, ‘Well, it’s about time.’”
T.J. Murphy is a five-time Ironman finisher, longtime triathlon journalist and author of Inside the Box. For more professional triathlete profiles, as well as training tips, race photography and gear reviews, subscribe to LAVA Magazine by clicking here.