On this edition of The Kona Edge we meet Robyn Hardage from Ottawa. She shares the lessons learned in her Ironman training and how they have helped her gain confidence over the years.
We learn that being adaptable is key in this sport and that a combination of consistency and hard work equals great results which in turn means Kona success. She will be returning to the big island for the third time and in preparation for this one she reveals what changes she has made in her preparations this time round.
BRAD BROWN: We head to Ottawa in Canada now and it’s a great pleasure to welcome our next guest onto the podcast, Robyn Hardage. Robyn welcome, thanks for joining us.
ROBYN HARDAGE: Thanks for calling me.
BRAD BROWN: Robyn, I love chatting about this topic. I’m sure you do too and there’s just something special about triathlon, there’s something special about Ironman. But there’s something truly special about Kona and as we record this you’re getting ready for another visit to the Big Island.
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yes I am, it’s number three, so hopefully I’ve learnt my lessons and can head there with some confidence.
Being adaptable is key in your Ironman training
BRAD BROWN: Do you ever learn lessons? It’s such a long way, we’ve spoken about it quite often here on the podcast before, but it’s pretty difficult to have a perfect race when it comes to Ironman because there are so many factors that go into it and so many things that can go right or wrong on the day.
ROBYN HARDAGE: Definitely, I think one of the best attributes is to be able to adapt to what’s thrown your way during the day. No one will have a perfect day and even if you come out on top, there’s always lessons to learn. Whether it’s nutrition, dealing with the weather, mechanicals, just your mental game too, so being adaptable is key.
BRAD BROWN: I guess that’s probably what keeps us coming back for more?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I think so, yeah, there’s always room for improvement.
BRAD BROWN: Unfortunately!
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah, I think we’d get bored of it if we nailed it every time.
BRAD BROWN: There’d be no fun in that. Let’s take a step back though and look at your athletic endeavors over your life, have you always been pretty active?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Not really, I was a very spastic and uncoordinated skinny kid, glasses and braces. My parents didn’t really know what to do with me, but they threw me into hockey and soccer and I ended up being a pretty good hockey player, ice hockey. So I went on to play varsity at my university and so I guess athletic to a point, but never such that I would kind of excel at this sport, at this level.
BRAD BROWN: Were you competitive playing hockey and soccer, was it just for fun or did you hate losing?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Well soccer was for fun. I was a kid out on the field looking at the flowers and the butterflies, but hockey is where I, it took a couple of years, but I embraced it and I played competitively.
BRAD BROWN: Physical. Ice hockey is not a walk in the park, it’s not staring at flowers. From a physical perspective, pretty tough.
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah, I don’t know, I just enjoyed it, the team sports and I did that until I was about 24.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s be honest, it’s a very Canadian thing to do. I’ve heard rumblings that Canadian kids are born with ice skates on their feet, it’s one of those things.
ROBYN HARDAGE: For sure, I wasn’t the greatest skater. So we built up on that, but yes, I’m blessed to live in Ottawa. We have a Rideau Canal, it’s the longest skateway in the world and it’s just something we do.
BRAD BROWN: Do you still skate today?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah, I do skate. I don’t play hockey anymore, but I do enjoy skating and the odd pickup game with the family. I know, that sounds very Canadian.
BRAD BROWN: I love it and the interest in triathlon, where was that developed?
ROBYN HARDAGE: My last year at university, one of my fellow team mates said: Hey, why don’t you come do a tri-tri, I had no idea. I bought a bike, did the tri-tri and thought, this is kind of fun and just kind of fell into place. I graduated university, stopped playing hockey and took up running and did some duathlon’s and I don’t know, I just fell in love with triathlon.
BRAD BROWN: It’s one thing falling in love with triathlon and it’s another thing falling in love with endurance triathlons and long distance triathlons. That step up, you ask anybody in the world who runs and maybe does the odd fun run or the odd 10km and you tell them you’re a marathon runner and they think you’re amazing. But now all of a sudden you’re doing a sport, there’s a marathon bolt on the backend of it. It’s a huge mindset shift from doing the odd small sprint tri or Olympic tri to making the step up to the longer stuff. Tell me about the thought process that got you to that point?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I dabbled in all of the distances for about five years. I completed some duathlon’s, I did a half Iron distance duathlon, if you want to call it that, but I was always a runner. I was doing marathons and I kept getting injured and I was like, this isn’t fun. I turned 30 in 2011 and I just said, you know, I’m going to do an ultra trail run or I’m going to sign up for an Ironman and it just lucked in that I got a spot online for Lake Placid. And I don’t know, I don’t know why I did it, why I decided to do it. I just felt that I had to do it and I didn’t even know what it was, really. One of my co-workers had done it and I said, oh, if she did it I can do it. So saved up my pennies and there you go!
BRAD BROWN: When you actually realised what you’d gotten yourself in for?
ROBYN HARDAGE: A bit of panic. I joined a triathlon club that did the long spins on the weekend and I could handle the running by myself. But I had no idea about swimming and biking. I had nothing.
BRAD BROWN: It sounds like a bit of a coin toss between the ultra trail run and Ironman. Have you ended up doing an ultra trail or just stuck with Ironman?
ROBYN HARDAGE: No, I just stuck with Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: Any ambitions to go and do that trail at some stage?
Ironman training with consistency pays off handsomely
ROBYN HARDAGE: Not anymore. I’m enjoying the cycling. I love the swimming. I just can’t see running for 6 hours on end or those 24 hours. It doesn’t interest me anymore.
BRAD BROWN: You’re not making me feel any better. I’ve got a 65km ultra trail run coming up in December which I’m petrified for. I’ll take one for the team!
ROBYN HARDAGE: Okay, deal!
BRAD BROWN: When did you realise you were pretty good at this triathlon thing?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I guess in 2012, I kind of shifted my focus and learnt about the sport and the distance and what you had to do to prepare for it. I had raced Lake Placid in 2011 and then a friend of mine and I signed up for Florida in 2012 and I shaved nearly 2 hours off my time. At that point I had qualified for Kona, that was my first Kona qualifying race and it took a while to sink in. But I was like, okay, I think I’m getting the hang of this and I had the aptitude for it.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about shaving 2 hours off the time, that’s phenomenal, what did you do different? Obviously the courses are very different, but what did you do differently in the buildup?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I did some research and kind of had a plan. My first Ironman I just kind of showed up at the race. I didn’t really know, my bike didn’t fit to me, I had no idea about nutrition, any of that stuff. I was just there to be on the start line and hopefully finish. For Florida I learnt a bit more and I put more time on the bike and I trained smarter with the run. And I guess a combination of the consistency and training that really paid off.
BRAD BROWN: Did you go to Florida with the idea, I’m going to try and smash this thing and qualify for Kona? Or was that just a byproduct of the hard work and the great results you got in Florida?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah, definitely a byproduct. I didn’t really know what qualifying meant. So at the end my friends and family were there, they told me I won my age group. I didn’t know what it meant and then it’s like, you can go to Hawaii and I was like, oh, okay. I’ve seen it on TV. I wasn’t fully in the lifestyle yet, so it was all very new and very unknown to me.
BRAD BROWN: You know that half of our audience are now shaking their heads going: I cannot believe this. Some of them have been trying for years to qualify for Kona and you fell into it by accident almost.
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah and I feel bad saying that and I do not take it for granted, but in a way I work hard. But I also, I sort of have some genetics as well. I think I’m blessed to have sort of the athletic genes, although it didn’t appear until later and then amazing support, it just happened. It wasn’t my goal.
BRAD BROWN: What do your parents think of that geeky kid who used to stare at flowers on the soccer field, who is now racing in the World Championships?
ROBYN HARDAGE: My family is very proud. I think my dad shakes his head sometimes thinking of the dorky kid I was and couldn’t hit a ball, or a ball with a bat if my life depended on it. But yeah, somehow I found my niche.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible. Let’s talk about getting the balance right. I think that’s something a lot of age groupers struggle with. Particularly when you have family, you’ve got a job, it’s quite difficult. You work for a living? You’re not a professional athlete I’m taking it. How do you get that balance right?
Hard word = great results =Kona
ROBYN HARDAGE: Like everyone, I’m still learning to make that balance. Because now, more than earlier days, I put a lot of pressure on myself to keep achieving. So I do make mistakes and I will kind of forego going to a social event or a family event and is it worth it? I don’t know. I’m still learning to say, okay, I can miss that workout or not spend as much time on the weekend doing training and spend more time with the family. I’m still learning and I’ve been doing this for five years.
BRAD BROWN: I won’t tell anyone, but have you fallen asleep at work?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I’ve been very close!
BRAD BROWN: I love it. You mentioned genetics and obviously you’re blessed from that point of view. Not all of us are, unfortunately. Do you think genetics plays a massive role or can you outwork good genetics, if you know what I’m saying? If you put in the hard work, is it possible, even if you aren’t blessed with the best genetics?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah, I think so. Because again, part of my success has come from just wanting it. I work hard, I want the results and I want to be proud of myself. Despite being naturally gifted, I still have to work and I think that’s the story for anyone in this sport. When you’re racing, it’s mental as well, just pushing through pain and the suffering or weather or whatever happens to you. And in training as well, I mean those long bike rides, you’re out on a Sunday for 6-7 hours riding your bike, you need the mental strength to push through that stuff. I think that’s more key over kind of being whatever, genetically blessed.
BRAD BROWN: Robyn, I’m so glad you brought that up because that is something and I think anybody who has done multiple Ironman’s. Once you start getting 4,5,6 maybe beyond that, you get to a point where, not that you’re burnt out, but you almost lack that motivation. You talk about those long, lonely cycles in training and you mentioned the hunger of you still wanting this. How do you keep yourself mentally fresh because it’s tough, it’s not easy. I’m not sure if you’ve been through one of those. If you haven’t, I hate to break the news to you, it’s coming, but how do you deal with that?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I’ve definitely experienced the lows of the sport. Almost in tears that I don’t want to go riding or really don’t want to run the run or I just, I don’t want to get up anymore to go to the pool for 6:00am. I’m still learning. Because I still consider myself new to the sport and it’s just taking a step back. Reassessing why you’re doing it. What you get out of it. And just kind of looking at the positives versus the cons of your sport. And if it means taking a week off, then take the week off. Burnout is huge in our sport.
BRAD BROWN: It is, without a doubt. What do you do to switch off? Sometimes you do and also with it being a sport the way it is where it’s these three really big disciplines. If they were stand-alones they would be pretty tough on their own. But it’s almost all consuming that you’re just always thinking about it, even when you’re not training you’re thinking about it, it’s hard. How do you switch off?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I usually have to turn to my better half or my family to put things in perspective for me. I’m not good at doing that alone. Even when I’m sitting at my desk at work I’m like okay, what’s my training for today. What am I doing on the weekend? What did I do last year versus this year. Oh, looking at the race website, it’s all consuming. Getting someone from outside of your bubble to say: Hey Robyn, let’s take a step back, let’s go do something normal.
BRAD BROWN: Normal, what’s normal?
ROBYN HARDAGE: You know, taking the dog to the dog park or going up to the cottage, stuff like that. Having a beer.
BRAD BROWN: That would be nice! Let’s talk about Kona itself, you almost fell into that first one. You’ve been back subsequently. There’s another trip on the near horizon. Obviously your thinking and your knowledge and the research that you’ve done about the Big Island has changed. If I say the word ‘Kona’ to you, what do you think?
Kona – it’s not just a race – it’s part of me
ROBYN HARDAGE: I don’t know. I get this picture in my head of the pier, it gives me goose-bumps. I just think I’ve worked so hard and that’s sort of the reward. But at the same time I’m not just going to go there and just race cause I can. I want to do my best for the day. It’s hard to explain into words when someone says that to me. I don’t know, it’s just this feeling I get. It’s excitement. It’s nervousness. I’m anxious. You don’t know what to expect. It’s different every time.
BRAD BROWN: It’s one of those things that you can’t explain to somebody. Until they’ve raced there, they won’t know that, until they’ve done it.
ROBYN HARDAGE: Definitely, that finish line along Alii Drive, it’s just out of this world. That I’ll never be able to share with someone unless they’ve done it. Just the years’ work, your years’ worth of work and it’s just incredible.
BRAD BROWN: I almost get the sense from you Robyn that the deeper you get into it, the more special it’s become. Often people, their first Ironman for them is this incredible high. And they’re almost chasing other Ironman to recreate that feeling, but I get the sense with you, it hasn’t been like that. The first one was almost like, that was cool. But now the deeper you’ve gotten into things, the more it’s becoming a bigger thing. It’s quite strange, you’re the first person I’ve spoken to that I get that sense from.
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah, I mean for me, it’s not surface, it’s not just a race for me. I discover parts of myself, training, racing, I discover my family, the support, the belief they have in me. It’s not just a sport to me. I don’t want to say it’s a lifestyle, but it’s part of who I am. I identify myself with this and it may sound silly, but it’s this chapter of my life, yeah, I don’t know, it’s emotional I guess. I do miss my first Ironman experience. I miss how everything was so new to me and I had no idea what I was doing but I’ll never recreate it and in a way I don’t want to. Every finish line, every race, every journey to every race is different.
BRAD BROWN: What’s the biggest lesson Ironman has taught you?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I guess just belief in myself. To believe in myself and what I can make my body do and in a way it’s kind of, like when you’re in a race, you sort of see everyone differently. It may sound really corny, but you get to see humanity on a different plane. Everyone is pushing themselves and there are supporters there and there’s so much positivity that it blows my mind every time.
BRAD BROWN: I agree with you and that’s the cool thing too, it’s not just at the front end of the field, it’s for everyone. Everyone has had to overcome something to get there and not just to Kona, but to any Ironman and to finish that race, you’re a winner. It doesn’t matter if you finish in 8 hours or if you finish in 17 hours, you’re a winner.
ROBYN HARDAGE: It’s the same finish line and everyone has been on a journey and so it’s just kind of taught me that yes, you can do whatever you put your mind to.
BRAD BROWN: What are you really struggling with right now?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Right now? It’s a self-confidence thing. I’m injured, so my strength was running, but I’ve had to switch the focus to becoming a biker and just holding on for the run. I feel like a dude.
BRAD BROWN: Welcome to my world! What’s frustrating about that for you? Is it that the run gave you tons of confidence and now that it’s not where it normally is, you’re struggling to wrap your head around that?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah it is, I’m sort of a mid-pack swimmer, a mid-pack biker and then on the run I would reel people in and I always felt good on the run. But I’ve got a hip injury that’s been plaguing me for the past year, so I’ve had to reel in the running. It’s just that your strength is gone. So okay, what can I rely on, well, you have to rely on your strength in all three now, across the board.
BRAD BROWN: Have you seen the other two improve since this cropped up?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Definitely the biking has improved. Swimming, I’m just not a swimmer. So one minute gains are like wow, I got a Gold Medal.
BRAD BROWN: Aren’t you glad the swim’s not last!
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yes, I wouldn’t make it.
BRAD BROWN: I’d bail after the bike, there’s no doubt about that. Robin, as far as goals and what you still want to achieve in the sport, you said Ironman at the moment, it’s this chapter in your life. How many of these things do you think you’ve got in you? Is it a case of you want to be doing this until you’re old and grey? Or this is cool for now and we’ll cross the bridge when we’ve had enough of it?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah, definitely the latter. I’ll do it until it’s not fun anymore. And then I can see doing one every couple of years. But yeah, I don’t know, we’ll see what comes up next and I’ll ride this wave until I can’t.
BRAD BROWN: Do a new one every time you hit a new age group!
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah, that could be an idea…
BRAD BROWN: 35. 40. 45.
ROBYN HARDAGE: That’s an idea.
BRAD BROWN: From a Bucket List race perspective, you’ve obviously got to go to the big dance, what are some of the other big triathlons around the world that you’d like to go to?
Permanent Ironman course so you can train all year round?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I’d definitely like to go to Europe, that circuit is pretty cool. It doesn’t matter where, just explore new places. Meet new people and from what I’ve seen, a lot of the races, the courses look beautiful, so why not give it a go.
BRAD BROWN: In your opinion, the best race in North America?
ROBYN HARDAGE: It’s tough, I don’t want to be biased, but I definitely think it’s Ironman Mont-Tremblant. That place just puts on a great show. The organizers, the volunteers, the venue is just out of this world.
BRAD BROWN: For those who don’t know much about it, tell us a little bit about the course, is it a toughie? Is it fairly flat, is it fast?
ROBYN HARDAGE: It’s hilly with some flat. It’s a ski resort, so in the winter, so it’s the kind of headquarters is at the bottom of the ski hill in a little village. What they’ve done in the area is they’re making a permanent Ironman course. So all year round, well in the summer I guess, there will be a designated bike lane for cyclists who want to come up and train. The run course is always there and the swim course, there’s sort of a little hut on the beach that people training for the race can use for shelter, put their bags and swim out of. They’ve just done a spot on job.
BRAD BROWN: That sounds incredible. You talk about in the summer, that’s one of the challenges as a Canadian, you need to deal with, you have brutal winters. How do you deal with that?
ROBYN HARDAGE: We have a basement with a treadmill and two bikes and yeah, we put on YouTube or Netflix and there you go. It’s not fun, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
BRAD BROWN: Do you find that doing that indoor stuff makes you mentally tougher?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Definitely. I spend a max of three hours on the trainer, that’s my cut-off. But from not being on it, so say outdoor cycling season comes and then it’s raining so you have to go on the trainer, an hour on the trainer feels like 5 hours. It’s crazy how much your mental threshold decreases, but by the end of the winter, 3 hours is nothing. It flies by, but you have to build up, definitely.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the goals for Kona 2016, I don’t want to put you on the spot, but what are you going there with, what are the aspirations?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I’ve talked about this with my coach and I want to have a good, healthy race. Last year I couldn’t eat, my stomach turned on me. So I just want to finish this race healthy and be happy. If that means a top ten then woo-hoo, but I don’t know. I haven’t really set goals or anything. I’m more relaxed this year.
BRAD BROWN: It takes a bit of pressure off?
ROBYN HARDAGE: Yeah, definitely.
BRAD BROWN: What have you changed in the buildup to this one, to the last one?
ROBYN HARDAGE: I think just the pressure I’ve taken off myself has made a huge difference. Last year I really thought that I could do a top five. So I was uptight. I was obsessed with training, with the times, with everything and then I got there and I didn’t enjoy it. My family was there too and I just, it was just too much pressure. So this year I’ve changed that and I feel good about it.
BRAD BROWN: Robyn, it’s been great catching up. I look forward to getting you back on to talk about the individual disciplines, but thank you for sharing your story with us and I really thoroughly enjoyed it and we look forward to catching up again soon.
ROBYN HARDAGE: All right, great, thanks Brad.