I had the chance recently to talk Ironman and triathlon with Tri Club member Katrin Szardenings. Katrin has experienced a wide variety of the Ironman courses around the world and I thought you would enjoy getting to know her better.
Craig: How did you get started doing triathlons?
Katrin: I started doing triathlons in 1999 in the Bay area. I was doing a lot of open water swims back then and after an ocean swim (yes, without a wetsuit!), I was talking to this guy at the beach how he was training for the swims and he told me that he was more into triathlons. He said there was a race (Olympic distance) coming up in October, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, that anybody could do and I should give it a try. I thought I would never be able to swim, ride 40 km and then run another 10 km. I had been mostly a swimmer at that time and did some recreational running on weekends, probably never more than 6 miles. Having grown up in Germany, I considered bike riding a means of transportation, not a sport. I used to ride my heavy Holland bike 5 miles to work to beat traffic and that was the extent of my bike training. I didn’t even have a decent bike at that time. But after talking to that guy at the beach, I kept thinking about it and decided to give it a try. So I bought a Trek touring bike and thought $800 was an insane amount of money to spend on a bike, but I thought I could use it later on to go on road trips, if the triathlon thing didn’t work out for me. Of course, I had no idea how to train for it and I had only a couple of weeks left anyway. I remember I rode/ran the course several times and it almost killed me each time, especially the bike ride. I didn’t know anybody who was doing triathlons nor that there was a triathlon club (Silicon Valley Triathlon Club) and was extremely nervous before the race, I mean, really, really nervous. Coming to the transition area, I was asking around what I was supposed to do here and set up my gear. I admired all the people around me who looked so determined and knew what they were doing. Long story short, I finished the race and wanted to do another one to do better. I was hooked. The following summer in 2000, I think I did all short/Olympic distance races that were in the Bay area including Wildflower ½ IM distance and ½ Vineman.
This was all new to me and I tremendously enjoyed being with people who were so active. During that summer, one of my swimmer friends did IM California in Oceanside and when she came back she kept talking about what a great experience it was. That night, when I came back from swim practice, we had a little get together at my house and I had a few margaritas. Before going to bed, I was curious about that IM race my friend had done and checked out their website. There was a “sign up” button. Because I was a little drunk, I didn’t really know what I was doing and clicked on it. I couldn’t believe I could still sign up for it, but I did and when I realized, what I had done, I almost had a heart attack. That is how I got into triathlon.
Craig: Why do you like being a Tri Club member?
Katrin: When you do this sport, it really helps having all the support you can get and being connected to like-minded people. When I moved to San Diego from the Bay area 5 years ago, I didn’t know where the good bike stores were, where to ride and run. The club is a great source for all that information. Through a mutual friend, I met TCSD members Michaela and Klaus who invited me to several events and bike rides and I joined the club. I like the TCSD emails, knowing that there is always somebody out there who might be able to help with advice or information for just about anything. I like to go to the club meetings and got to know to some friends during Craig’s networking dinners. The aquathlons are a lot of fun too! Compared to what we had in the Bay area, this club offers a lot to its members!
Craig: Which Ironman distance races have you done?
Katrin: My first Ironman race was IM California in 2001. I don’t remember my exact time, I just remember it was under 13 hours and I was very happy with that. At the expo at that race, I saw a flyer about an Ironman distance race in Tahiti, the “Aitoman”. Wow, I thought, that sounds like fun. Especially since I hate swimming in a wetsuit. I spoke to the guy who was promoting this, Chris Pierre, and he said he was organizing the whole trip and it would be a great experience. So, I decided to do it in 2002 and finished in something like 12:15. But in this race I was second out of two (three, really, but the other woman quit during the run) and did win some price money. Not bad, huh?
After that, I did the Great Floridian, because somebody (Eric!) in the club was telling me that this would be an absolutely flat bike ride! What a liar! It was my worst ever race, because the bike ride was REALLY HILLY (talking about 6x Torrey Pines-like climbs and rolling hills, hot + humid conditions) and I just about lost it during the run, because it was also hilly, pitch dark, no lights and we had to circle this lake three times in the end. Anyway, my finish time was 12:57, worst ever, I was in tears and just wanted to go home. I didn’t realize, that I had actually finished third in my age group and should have stayed for the ceremony, oh well … Then IM Western Australia in 2004, my fastest race (11:51), with a really flat bike course (but windy and rainy, I guess you can’t have it all).
Last year I did the oldest Ironman distance race in Germany the “Roth Challenge” (12:15). You can tell that I am not fast and when somebody asks me, I usually say ” I am participating”.
Craig: What was your mental state like before your first Ironman? In other words, did you absolutely 100% know you could finish or did you really have doubts?
Katrin: When I sobered up after signing up for my first IM race, I decided I really needed some help for the preparation and training. I joined the Silicon Valley Triathlon Club and started looking around for a coach. There were a lot of ex-professional triathletes available, who already had 300 clients and charged a lot of money for a “one-size-fits-all” program and there was the Team in Training program, but neither one appealed to me. I met a triathlon coach, Patricia, on a bike touring trip I took that summer and I really like her approach to training: everybody is different, has different needs and time constraints. Patricia has been my coach for all my IM races since then and I have never had any injuries and finished all my races.
Before my first IM race, I was certainly nervous, but at the same time I was so ready and excited, I couldn’t wait much longer. I felt I had completed a good training program and after my taper felt really strong. The only concern I always have is that I could have a mechanical problem with my bike. I am really nervous about that. The bike is my weakest leg and having to depend on my bike worries me a lot. I am always so relieved when the bike leg is over and I just have to run. I know I can rely on my body to run. Before the race, I never thought I would not be able to finish, I just thought about how fast I would be. Patricia had me go mentally through the race morning and the race itself several times, it really helped being well prepared. I knew when I would be getting up, what I would have for breakfast and what I would eat during the race. I was also prepared for a fast swim and the fact that everybody and their grandmother would be passing me on the bike. I had practiced all that so many times in my mind and during my long workouts, it was all in my system already.
Craig: Are you a nervous person before big races? If so, how do you manage your nerves?
Katrin: Yes, of course I am nervous, but not nearly as much as some other people. I am nervous about having just a bad day, or bike problems or just not feeling up to it and thinking about how disappointed I would be after all this training and traveling to the place if I couldn’t finish. I try to arrive at the race as late as possible to avoid the people, who keep talking about the race and what they are going to do and are not going to do and what I should do in their opinion, they drive me nuts. I know I have done my best during my preparation, I know what my race strategy will be, what I am going to eat and drink. I also know it is going to be a long, hard day, but I will feel so absolutely great and wonderful when it is all over and I cross the finish line, no matter how fast or slow I will have done it. You know, I am just an average triathlete. As you can tell from my times I am not fast and will never win anything, well, maybe when I am 80 years old and the only one in my age group. The race is not particularly important for me, I actually don’t enjoy it that much, it is the training that I most enjoy and the races give me the focus I need to go through it. During the race I keep telling myself: I can do it, I can do it, I have done it before numerous times during my training rides and runs.
Craig: Tell us about your home stay experience when you did the Ironman in Roth?
Katrin: Last year I did the “Roth Challenge” in Germany. I had to visit my folks in Germany anyway and thought I’d combine that with a race. Roth is a very small town in the southern area of Germany and by the time I was looking for a place to stay, everything within 200 km was booked. I think they were expecting more than 3,000 athletes and their families + friends and the town has only 300+ beds. So, the tourist bureau organizes stays with families who are willing to accommodate athletes at their homes. I got this super kind email from my host family that they already had 5 French triathletes and one other German, but if I was ok sleeping in a small bedroom, they could offer me a place. I called them and they asked me, whether they could pick my up from the airport (Munich! 300 km away!) or from the train station and if there was anything else they could do for me. I was so humbled by their hospitality, I didn’t know what to say. When I got there, the family had a single bedroom for each of us, cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner and did just about anything to make us feel at home. Manfred and Liselotte had three grown up children and have been offering their home to triathletes for this race for several years now. Manfred, who was retired, had been taking cooking lessons and cooked these fabulous meals for us. It couldn’t have been any better in a hotel. Sure enough, they got up at the crack of dawn on race day and were on the course all day, cheering us on, taking pictures etc. They were absolutely incredible. When I left, I wanted to leave them money for food and everything else they had done, but they wouldn’t take it. So I left it on my bed with a thank you note. At Christmas time, I was surprised by a huge box of freshly baked “Nuernberger Lebkuchen” (special German Christmas cookies, that you can buy only in that area, very yummy!) that was shipped overnight by FedEx. They had spent all the money I had left to send me these cookies. They sure made my Christmas!
The race itself was an experience on its own. I have never seen so many people lining the streets to cheer us on. On the bike course, there were many 1 mile or so steep climbs and the spectators were so close and formed a tunnel, so only one cyclist could pass through. They were all yelling and singing and had huge cowbells, I was going up these hills so fast not to disappoint anybody, I couldn’t believe it. The course went through several little villages and every village tried to outdo the other one with what they had put up for the race. It was very touching and certainly helped going through the course. Ah, and the water bottle returns: in Germany, trash is a big issue and so they had put up signs at the bins “Here: you have to dispose of your old water bottle here, otherwise, you will not get a new one”, something like that. The transition bags were made of cloth, so you could wash and re-use them. After the race, the race numbers were all recycled for next year. It was typical German, everything was very well organized and orderly.
Although this race was not put on by Ironman, the support was equal to or better than an Ironman race and it cost only half the price.
Craig: What peculiar or funny things have happened to you during your triathlon career?
Katrin: The most interesting race I have done was certainly the Aitoman Tahiti race. It was on the island of Moorea and they don’t have it anymore. When I did it in 2002, there were only 100 or so athletes doing the long distance. The travel and accommodations were great, but the race was a disaster, I thought. It started out bad: during the pre-race meeting (mostly in French), one woman asked: where are the bathrooms? The race director said :”What bathrooms? No bathrooms!” as this was a ridiculous question to ask. Then we found out, they would have no sports drinks on the course, just water. I didn’t bring any Gatorade with me, because I assumed that would be pretty much standard on any of these races. And there was no store on the island that would carry something like this. Fortunately, there was a fellow triathlete, Steve, who had brought several cans of just about any sports drink on the market. Steve was the most interesting fellow-triathlete I have ever met: he was in his 50s, overweight with a big beer belly and looked as if he had never done a workout in his whole life and he was about to do the Ironman distance. He was very nervous about it, particularly what outfit he should wear for the race. Talking about race preparation! He had brought 10 cycling jerseys, shorts, various suits and all these sports drinks that we benefited from. When we stopped by in the morning of the race, Steve was doing push ups in his room. I said: “Steve, this is not the best time for a workout, the race is today”, but he thought it would be a good way to warm up. He did finish the race (in the blue-green jersey), quite an accomplishment!
On race morning, last instructions were announced in French only, so I had no idea what it was about. The swim was great, no wet suit, clear tropical water and the bike ride consisted of three loops. When I came to the first aid station, they handed me a large water bottle, so I had to dismount my bike, open my bottle and empty the water into it. As I said, there were no sports drinks, just water that got pretty warm during the day. The food they had were bananas, crackers, raisins and coconuts. No sports bars. What nutritional value do coconuts have? Of course, they all meant well, but I was getting pretty hungry after a couple of hours and the bars in my personal needs bag had converted into some hot, sticky glue in the sun, I couldn’t get them out of the wrapper anymore. It was more or less a self-supported race and I don’t think an Ironman race is meant to be self-supported. If I had known, I would have brought more food on my bike, somehow. What really got me was that several of the French athletes knew about it and had their personal support along the course, food and drinks and hung on to the trucks and cars to get some “extra” support. Several aid stations on the run course simply weren’t there, it became a really tough race to run in the heat and not having enough water. Anyway, the race was an experience and taught me to bring everything with me. The trip to Moorea was definitely worth it and really well organized. This is an area I would love to go back to.
Craig: What advice would you pass along to people thinking about doing their first Ironman?
Katrin: I would advise people to stop looking at what other people are doing. Everybody is different and a training plan that works for a pro-athlete might not be the right one for you. I had a friend back in the Bay area, who hired a pro-coach and ended up tired and with shin splints just two weeks before the event. She was overtrained and had nothing left to get her through the race. My coach always says: better slightly undertrained than overtrained!
As with anything else in life, if you put your mind to it, you can do it. It really isn’t that hard to do an Ironman when you have prepared for it. I personally think a sprint triathlon is harder, having to go all out for the entire course wears me out more than an Ironman distance. Another bit of advice: train with people who are at a similar level. It helps with motivation and time passes by much quicker on these long workouts when you are with someone. For me, finding the time for all these workouts and still have time for work and a social life is challenging. It was really bad the first year, but I manage much better now that I am preparing for my 6th race. I like to ride my bike to work, this is how I get my rides in during the week and I run at lunch time. Again, everybody needs to figure out how to fit it in their schedule and not forget to have fun with it.
Craig: What workouts give you the most confidence as you prepare for an Ironman?
Katrin: There are really no particular workouts. I would say consistency is the best preparation for an Ironman. And everybody has different needs. My weakness is cycling, so I need to spend more time riding my bike, doing drills and getting these long rides in. I pretty much stick to my training plan, but when work or sickness gets in the way, my coach helps me to adjust my schedule. When I am supposed to a 90 mile bike ride, I do a 90 mile bike ride and don’t skip the last 10 miles. It is important that you eat and drink during your long workouts what you would eat and drink during the race. I also experimented with things like sunscreen in the beginning. There were brands that were greasy and made me sweat a lot or they stung my eyes. Little things like that can make a big difference when you are finding this out during the race. My coach also has me wear my race gear several times before the event, so you’ll find out any problems with that ahead of time.
Craig: If you could waive your magic wand over the sport, what would you like to see changed in triathlon?
Katrin: Of course, I’d like to see the bike distance shortened in favor of the swim and/or run. But that’s because I am a lousy cyclist. I wish the average athlete wouldn’t get so serious about it. There is really only a handful of athletes who are gifted and are up there on the top, but for the rest of us: relax and have some fun! It would be wonderful to have more races like the Roth Challenge that can put up a great race for less than $300 and still provide all the support you need. I don’t like the monopoly Ironman has gained and frankly, I think their prices are a rip-off. I like the sport for its variety, the workouts don’t get boring and I hope I will keep doing it for a number of years.
Craig: So Ironman Canada is the big trip this year. What races are on your list after that?
Katrin: I like to do a different race in a different country every year. I am tempted by IM New Zealand or maybe Brazil. I have to think about it.
Craig: Thanks for sharing your story with us. Be careful with the margaritas – you might accidentally sign up for all the Ironman races in the same year!
Ironman Canada is the big trip this year. What races are on your list after that? I like to do a different race in a different country every year. I am tempted by IM New Zealand or maybe Brazil. I have to think about it. Thanks for sharing your story with us. Be careful with the margaritas – you might accidentally sign up for all the Ironman races in the same year!