Continued from LAVA Magazine, October/November 2010: Issue 02, page 160 (subscribe now!)
Australian pros Luke Bell and Kate Major have collectively earned more than seven top-10 finishes at the Ford Ironman World Championship since their debuts in 2002. These two longtime friends sat down to discuss coaching changes, performance slumps, and their thoughts on this year’s race.
Luke Bell: You changed coaches, to Siri (Lindley). What was your reason for changing coaches?
Kate Major: I needed something different, to spice things up. My enthusiasm for the sport was going down a little bit. I just wanted to try something different. It’s going well and I’m enjoying it again, it’s working at least for the enjoyment part, and I’ve had a few good performances in the last few races. It’s finally kicking in now. How about you? You changed coaches and started working with Matt Dixon this year, how’s that going?
Luke: Yeah, I think it was a similar situation. I had a few years of slumps.
When you’re in the race, you think that every moment is that important moment. But outside of the race, it all looks the same.
I had a handle on it, and (triathlon) was a sport that was fun. But there are all these outside pressures, and this job is just work. I think it’s coming to grips with that, and then a few years of a slump. I’m trying to handle that pressure and I ask myself, “Am I doing this for fun? Is this still fun, enjoyable?” I knew it was time for a change. So I decided to start with new coaches. I’ve been working with Matt Dixon, and obviously he’s been working wonders with (Chris) Lieto. It worked wonders with him, he was 38, 39 years of age. I looked at myself, and I was 31. I wanted to last another seven years, and I know that I had to do something to bring the fun back into the sport. What a change.
Kate: I think that’s the hardest thing, coming in and saying, you know, you’ve just done your first real Ironman, but it’s the first you’ve raced in Hawaii. They’re all for you when you’re doing well, but as soon as you fall off people are like, “Ha ha.” And it was a lot of things, I spent too much time on my wedding preparation one year, and no one quite understands what it’s like, unless you’re into it. It’s not a sport where you make huge amounts of money, like other sports, but there still comes (pressure) with it, whether you put it on yourself or it comes from the outside, and it’s hard. You try not to let it get to you, but it does.
Luke: You say you don’t listen to what other people say. You don’t read what’s in the media, and everything. Did you ever let it affect you?
Kate: For a couple of years—or maybe a year or so. I got injured before the last two Hawaii Ironmans, and it didn’t allow me very good preparation for my running because I didn’t run for the five weeks before (the race). But yeah, it gets to you after a while, when things aren’t going well and your training isn’t where you want it to be, and it all just snowballed from there. So it’s like, just give me a break. You need some time to just chill out and get back to yourself.
At the pubs, you hear people giving their two cents worth and saying, oh, there’s such-and-such, you can’t catch him, you can’t beat him, you can’t do this and you can’t do that. I think it’s just a matter of people being more understanding and giving you your time. Everyone goes through phases. And it’s good now. During the last year I’ve really learned a lot about the whole industry and how to tackle it a little bit better. Now I’ve got that enjoyment back, that enjoyment that I had the first three years. I think when you don’t have that it’s really hard to do what we do. It’s not just mental, we have to be up to it physically. If your mental is gone, your physical is barely half there.
Luke: I remember one thing I always used to get frustrated with. It’s as you say—everyone giving their two cents worth. A little bit of knowledge is always dangerous, I guess. People ask you, “Have you still got it?” I know it’s there, it’s been there, and it was there for more than a few years, and even now there’s still that frustration of trying to find a balance. You have a good race, and you think you’ve sorted it. As for myself, I’ve had races in the past where something has gone wrong and I’ll have no explanation for what it is, and I think it’s the frustration of trying to find out what it is. It’s just relearning how to capture that and then bring it back. Then you have that small group of people whom you trust. After a few years people start dropping away, and they don’t stay in contact with you anymore, and you find out who your true friends are. You find out who’s really behind you and who’s really supporting you. I think that’s the key.
One of my friends always described it as the rocking chair theory: at the end of your career, at the end of your life, how many people are going to be there, in a rocking chair, on the deck, having a beer with you, talking about the old times? Realistically, there are only going to be a handful of people who will be there with you. I’m learning to put my trust in those people and block out everyone else. I’ve always been a person who considers the glass half empty, rather than half full. That’s just the person I am, and how I grew up. Trying to get that positive side, rather than looking at something in negative, it’s something that I’ve always struggled with.
Kate: You just need a couple of good breaks, I think. All you need are few good training sessions and races. Then you think, I’ve got my mojo back, it’s there. You just have to put it all together, and that’s the hard part. And I guess that’s why we do what we do.
Luke: It’s also trying to find that big picture. You get so wrapped up in your own little world and it’s hard to see what else is going on. You ask, why is this happening to me? You try and think back and the guys that I came through with, in the early years, when I was 23, 24, 25 years of age, I think the year I came in fifth at Kona, Faris (Al Sultan) came seventh, I’m not sure where Rutger Beke was, but he had been on the podium for one or two years, and all of a sudden they were in the same boat as myself. I think the past two to three years, I think Rutke was struggling a bit in Kona as well. Faris is the same, he struggled to find that form that he had while winning the title. It’s interesting to think, the quick the three of us had and we went into a hole, a bit of a dip, and we’re trying to find that upward swing again.
When you look at Craig (Alexander) when he was my age, and where he is now, that’s worlds apart. I think that’s where I’ve been able to draw the voice, the confidence to realize that the game, although it’s been great, it’s been like a preseason. The real game begins now. You realize in the back of your mind that the good days are still to come. That’s what I try and think about, to keep me going.
Kate: I wonder if your body changes again, from your mid-to late-20s, and then from your late 20s to your early 30s. I wonder if you get a second wind in your (late) 30s when you start getting better. It’s all a mathematical mind game. You’ve got to do the best you can with what you’ve got, and that’s all you can do.
Luke: This year you’ve raced a lot more than normal. How have you handled that? Was it hard to get your head around the new ideas, the new philosophies?
Kate: Actually, for once it wasn’t. Usually I struggle, I don’t listen to people one hundred percent.
Luke: Well, that’s an athlete.
Kate: [laughs] I think I’ve done that all my life. But this time I think I was that fed up. I’ve always had a good feeling about it. If you want to change, you have to commit to it. As the year went on, I found some races where I’d like to go. And (Siri) said,
“Whatever makes you excited, that’s what we’ll do.” I’m up for anything new at the moment—I’m all for it. I know (Siri’s) got it all planned out well, and I’m enjoying it.
Luke: Looking at Kona this year, with the men’s field, how do you reckon it’s changed, the level of competition from where it was when I first started? From my perspective, you used to have a handful of guys who would perform well at the race, and you’re thinking, well, there are five guys that could win this. Then there are another five that could be competition if someone has a bad day.
And now, at any given race, there are 20 guys that could win it. You’re going out there, and it’s a race: You’ve got surges, you’ve got people disintegrating all over the place. You’ve also got guys running the first three miles well under six-minute per mile pace, you’re looking at 5:40 mile pace sometimes. I know Crowie likes to keep it around 5:30s for the first mile or two, with that intimidation factor … What’s it like in the girl’s race?
Kate: I think you have to have patience, but at the same time you do have to take those risks or you’re not going to be in the mix. There’s about 15 to 20 girls now. And a lot of new people coming through that you haven’t heard of. It’s like when Chrissie (Wellington) came through, everyone was like, who is that? And that can happen again. That can happen at any time.
It’s good. It adds some more excitement. You see a new wave come through, like you do in other sports: like Tiger came through for golf, and the Williams sisters in tennis. It’s a cyclical thing.
Luke: Do you still think the regulars, the old regulars, when you filter out the results, the ones who know how to race the race— are still up there?
Kate: Yeah, I think you’ve got a few of them in there … Joanna Lawn, myself except for the past couple of years, Rebekah Keat. Everyone seems to be racing more, increasing speed and fitness; you have people who are still there, who know what they’re capable of. They know how to do it right.
Luke: You think this new wave is coming through, and everyone’s talking up Terenzo (Bozzone), expecting him to blow everyone away and finish in the top three his first year at Kona last year. He did great and but he didn’t come in the top 10. Then you look at someone like Tim DeBoom, everyone had written him off—he’ll be 40 by Hawaii. And you see him chugging along, and he finished sixth. You have this guy who knows how to race the race, how to get his body in shape by then. All of a sudden, he’s chugging in sixth position, and he hadn’t raced that well in years. Now you have guys who have absolutely smashed the 70.3 circuit, but it’s still Hawaii. It’s still different than any other race. At the end of the day, it’s Hawaii, and it seems to just level everyone. You can be flattened pretty damn quick.
Kate: It’s like you said, with Tim DeBoom, having raced it so many times, you get to a situation in a race where your nutrition isn’t working for you, or you’re overheating, or something it not right. You’ve had many years of experience to know what you have to do to get back to where you want to be.
Luke: After I took last year off—a vacation year, really—I went to Hawaii (as a spectator) and I was like, “What’s everyone stressed about? It’s a race. What’s the big deal?” It gave me a whole different perspective going into it this year. It’s weird: you’re friends with everyone and you’re all hanging out but once race week comes, they can walk by and will give you a cold shoulder. Two days ago we’d be sitting together, having a coffee, but now you’re snubbing me? It’s funny how races change people. When you’re in the race, you think that every moment is that important moment. But outside of the race, it all looks the same.