Yesterday I was chatting with a photographer friend, who asked me if I was thinking about moving on from triathlon. I’d already done an iconic full ironman race (Challenge Roth), so what else is left?
It got me thinking. While some people get into the sport just to tick things off their bucket list (“Do a triathlon? Check. Do Ironman? Check. OK I’m done!”), for others it’s about continually challenging ourselves in training and racing. It’s also a (relatively) healthy lifestyle, hobby, addiction, whatever you want to call it, for people who like setting tough goals and achieving them.
I’ve been privileged to get to know some truly world-class triathletes especially through my involvement with MaccaX. One of them is the legendary Belinda Granger who has had a long and successful professional career — over 20 years! She is not only a fierce competitor, but also a wonderful ambassador for the sport. While she announced her retirement early this year, she still has some races to do next year with Sunrise Events, and will always be involved in triathlon particularly since she’s taken on a bigger role as co-head of MaccaX with its founder Chris McCormack.
I have to admit, the reason I wanted to work with Ceepo is that Belinda’s Ceepo bike always looked so flash at the races, and boy can she ride it! I had the chance to pick her brain earlier this year about what it takes to enjoy this sport in the long term.
A version of this blog post appears on MaccaX.com but I really want to share this with all of you KikayRunner.com readers as well.
Noelle: Hi Belinda! Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Your announced retirement at the end of the year created a lot of buzz and while the competitive side of the sport will miss you I’m sure your future plans are no less engaging for you as an athlete and person.
Belinda: I always said that I would probably retire when I hit the big 4-0… but that birthday came and went and I just didn’t feel ready to hang up my running shoes, in fact if anything I was loving the sport more than ever. The pressure to perform and produce great results just wasn’t there anymore. I had nothing to prove to myself (or anyone else for that matter) and as a result, I was going to races and just enjoying them and enjoying myself… lapping up the atmosphere so to speak. Because of this shift in my attitude I also found that I was still racing well… I was and still am competitive.
N: When did you start participating in triathlons (as an age grouper)? What drew you to them?
B: I started racing back when I was in University… way, way back in 1991. I was studying Human Movement (physical education teacher) at Sydney University and I needed a new goal. I wasn’t happy with my level of fitness. I had always been so active (and competitive) throughout High School and I just felt I had let myself slip when I entered uni.
I was introduced to the sport by a friend who had read about it. Straight away I was drawn to it because of the simple fact that it involved 3 different sports… no chance of getting bored! I started with an aquathon (swim/run) and then moved up to the tris. I was absolutely hooked from my very first race and became obsessed with the sport from then. I started with sprint distance races and then very quickly moved up to Olympic Distance and then Half IM distance. I was quite happy to stick with these distances and not move up to the crazy distance of IM.
N: What led you to the decision to turn pro?
B: I set myself goals from the moment I got my first ‘proper’ race bike. I wanted to make the Australian team for the World Olympic Distance champs (I achieved this back in 1993 in Manchester, England). I then wanted to finish top 5 in my age-group at Worlds (I achieved this in 1994 in Wellington).
Next goal was to win my age-group at Worlds (I was 2nd in Cleveland, USA in 1996). This made me even more determined the next year to not only win my age-group but to win the age-group race outright (I achieved this in Perth, WA in 1997).
I had also set myself a goal that once I had won my age-group at a WC then I would look at racing pro. I was lucky that I was in a job (teacher) that allowed me not only a lot of time to train but also gave me plenty of time off so I could head overseas and race. So even though I was racing as a pro I still worked full-time which gave me financial security and allowed me the freedom of racing the way I wanted to race… like a crazy woman. I just went for it every race I did as I had nothing to lose. It was a nice way to race.
Then finally in 2003 Justin and I decided together that it was time for me to resign from my job and become a full-time athlete. I have to admit it was soooo much better being able to devote 100% of my time and energy to my training. In 2004 Justin also resigned from his job and we moved up to Noosa to officially become full-time professional athletes. We have never looked back!
N: How different is training for triathlon as an age grouper, and training for it as a pro?
B: Of course we have more time and energy to devote to training. We obviously train longer hours but more importantly, we get much more recovery time than an age-grouper — I think this is the biggest difference. Whereas an age-group athlete has to rush off to work after their morning session, we get to go home, having a relaxing breakfast and head back to bed if we want to. This extra recovery makes a huge difference as it allows us to back up and smash the next session and then the next session after that.
I have always admired age-groupers who work full time and are still able to devote a good chunk of their time to training. I have been there and it is not easy. You have to be so organised and very motivated. Age-groupers get most of their mileage done over the weekend (we call it the weekend warrior) whereas we get to spread it out across the week.
But it is not all smooth sailing for a pro. It sounds awesome but if you are not self-motivated and don’t stick to your set routine, you can very easily become the world’s best procrastinator. You have to change your mind set as now training is your job… so no matter what the weather or your mood or how you feel you must go out there and do your job every single day of every single week.
N: How do you overcome or prevent being burnt out (physically as well as mentally)?
B: There have been times, usually towards the end of the season, when I do start to feel the wheels are falling off, but usually if I take a couple of easy days or even a few days off completely, I refresh and am able to get back into it again. Most of time it is mental and not physical for me personally. I am definitely a diesel engine… could keep chugging along all year long. Mentally I do get tired… just the constant pressure you put on yourself every day to perform and to improve.
I have always been very balanced — I train hard and I race a lot but I also enjoy life and have no problem letting my hair down after races and during big training blocks. I don’t ever not allow myself certain foods or alcohol. Like a lot of young girls I suffered a bit of an eating disorder when I was younger, but I got through it. I promised myself that I would never again restrict myself from the things I really enjoy.
I honestly believe that my longevity in the sport is a result of this balance I have had throughout my entire career. Of course I am not telling you all to go out and get on the drink every night and eat everything you see… my favourite motto is still ‘everything in moderation’. Because of this I still love the sport just as much as I did when I first started.
N: You took your time before doing your first iron distance race. What advice would you give age groupers who plan on doing an ironman?
B: Ahhh now this is a tricky one. Back in my day you started short and worked your way up to the IM distance, but I know plenty of people who have started with IM. Now personally I would not start with an ironman. I liked working my way up the distances… it was like sprint distance… tick, Olympic Distance… tick, Half IM… tick.
I have to admit though I did stall a bit when it came to ticking the IM box. I just wasn’t convinced it was something I wanted to do. I watched Justin compete at Kona in 1996 and then again 1997… I loved spectating, but if anything, it turned me off wanting to do one even more. Seeing the absolute suffering on people’s faces did not make me think ‘wow I have got to do one of these’.
It took me a few more years before I changed my mind. Finally in 1999 I lined up for my very first IM… so funny to think that now in 2014 I will be lining up for my 50th IM Distance race… who would have thought!
The advice I would give anyone… age-groupers and pros, who are thinking about doing their first IM Distance race — make sure it is something that YOU really want to do and make sure you prepare for it properly. You need to be 100% committed and not just do it because you think you should or because someone else told you to do it.
Completing an IM is an amazing journey and I say journey as it is not just about race day, it is the hours of training that goes into it in the months leading up to the big day. I can tell you that I have never regretted doing any of the IM races I have lined up for… the only regrets I have are for the two that I recorded a DNF for. Not too many people know this but I actually didn’t finish my very first IM (Ironman Australia) in 1999 and then again at Kona in 2009.
I hope to catch up with Belinda at her last few races next year, but most definitely we will both be at Ironman 70.3 in Cebu. Her passion of the sport is infectious and she always reminds me of why I started doing triathlons in the first place. Because I enjoy it — moving, figuring out how to go faster or longer, competing, and knowing I’ve done the best I can on race day.