9 Time Ironman Kona qualifier, Lisbeth Kenyon, joins us on The Kona Edge today. Lisbeth shares her 25 years Ironman experience with us and her ultimate Ironman goal; being strong and healthy enough to still race Ironman at the age of 70.
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BRAD BROWN: You’re listening to The Kona Edge. Thank you so much for joining us today. I’m Brad Brown and excited to welcome our next guest onto the podcast. Why I love doing this is that I get to chat to different types of people from all around the world, and share their stories.
Today’s guest’s story is pretty special. She’s been around the sport for a long while. She took a long gap between her first couple of Kona appearances, has come back into the sport and consequently is doing phenomenally well.
Racing Kona 9 times
She is a former Age Group World Champion so she knows what it takes to win on the Big Island. She’s been there 9 times. We chat about that on today’s episode as well. It’s a great pleasure to welcome, all the way from Rhode Island in the United States, Lisbeth Kenyon.
We’ll get to that in a moment but I need to ask you a huge favour if I can. One of the things that really helps us grow these podcasts, is reviews and ratings in iTunes. I don’t know how that works. I’m not that clever but I do know that they move the needle. So, the more reviews and the more ratings we get, the better it is. It builds our popularity within iTunes. And the more we get, the more iTunes put our podcast in front of triathletes just like you, around the world.
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Age Group World Champion returns
Let’s get straight into today’s episode and it’s a great pleasure to welcome Lisbeth Kenyon onto The Kona Edge. Lisbeth, welcome. Thank you for joining me today.
LISBETH KENYON: Thank you for having me.
BRAD BROWN: Lisbeth, that’s not an American accent. I hear you’re originally from Norway but you’ve spent a lot of time in the States. It’s quite weird because the last few weeks here on The Kona Edge, we’ve been chatting to a lot of Scandinavians. The sport there is growing pretty quickly. It’s massive in the United States, isn’t it?
LISBETH KENYON: Yes, it is. Certainly, Norway is up and coming. Olympics, we have won so we’re getting there.
Master’s Degree fuels her hunger for Ironman
BRAD BROWN: Yes. Without a doubt. Lisbeth, I was reading up about you. You got into the sport, I don’t want to say late, but you have a brother and sister who are pretty competitive and you weren’t interested in the sport. Tell me how it started that you got into triathlon.
LISBETH KENYON: It’s true. My siblings were very talented athletes and I was not. I was the studios one, I had very good grades in school, but I wasn’t very interested in competing, or not very good. Just swam in high school, never won anything. So, when I was done with my master’s degree at the University of Miami, we actually entered a sprint triathlon that was happening around the corner from where we lived.
I somehow managed to win my age group that day. That just fuelled the fire and I wanted to do more. So, I started training more specifically for it, and I got a better bike. So, that’s how it started. There were so many local sprint triathlons in Miami at that period of time. That’s how I launched myself into it.
BRAD BROWN: I’m not going to give your age away but you’ve been in the sport for a while now. You’ve been around it for a long time.
The secret to the Ironman balance
LISBETH KENYON: Yes. I am 51, or am I 52? I don’t know, but I’m around there. I’ve stopped counting. So, yes, I’ve been in the sport for 25 years, with some breaks for my career and to have children.
BRAD BROWN: I wanted to ask you about the breaks. I know you did take a break and it wasn’t that you weren’t racing. You had been to Kona and then you took a break and had kids. It’s difficult as a mom to race at this level and have a career. To keep those balls in the air is pretty tough. What’s the secret to it?
Minimise Ironman training with greater returns
LISBETH KENYON: You can’t do it all. Something’s got to give at some point or another depending on where you are. In my case I did Hawaii in 1996 and then I basically took 11 years before I came back to the Ironman. For me, I had to take a pretty long break to keep the balance. So, when things stabilised, I was able to do it all. What happened to me, I actually found a coach that allowed me to train a little bit less with a little bit more over return.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about that break and coming back. That’s one thing a lot of people find difficult. Mentally you know what it takes and you almost think you’re better than what you are. After a long break like that you still need to put in the work, and it’s almost like starting over.
Stay active and keep strong when you’re not racing
LISBETH KENYON: Yes, it is. But if you keep active, generally speaking, if you keep strong, it’s really not that bad. It’s not like you’re sat on the couch or you’re inactive. I was very active. I would run a whole lot with a double baby stroller and go to the gym. So, it isn’t so bad if you generally just keep moving.
BRAD BROWN: And running with a stroller makes you strong. I’ve done a few miles with one.
LISBETH KENYON: Yes, it makes you strong. You’re pulling hundreds of pounds really, including the heavy stroller.
BRAD BROWN: Racing without it is quite nice after you’ve done some training with it.
LISBETH KENYON: Yes. I used to go and do some 5k’s with the stroller. It’s very good practice.
Long distance brings out your Ironman strengths
BRAD BROWN: Lisbeth, talk to me about the decision to go long. Your first introduction to the sport was the sprint. You obviously fell in love with it, but what goes into making the decision to go on and do a full distance Ironman?
LISBETH KENYON: For me, I did the sprint in the Olympics. Then I went to Nationals in Chicago in 1995 and by mistake I qualified for Kona. But I didn’t quite know what it was. So, I didn’t take the spot because I didn’t know much about it. Then I looked into it and decided I would qualify in 1996, and I did.
This was back in the day where you qualified at the Olympic distance and I went to Memphis in May. Qualified for the 1996 race and I realised when I started training more distance, I felt that I was better at it. I’m not very quick, and it allowed me to slow down a little bit. I realised that I’m pretty good at just going, going, going. I suspected that I would be better at it, and I was.
Of course, that particular race I knew nothing. My bike was too big. Also, nutrition and hydration, I had no idea what I was doing. I actually ended up with hyponatremia. Basically, they caught me at the finish and carried me out. In that regard I learned a lot.
Race a full distance Ironman before tackling Kona
I decided one day I was going to come back to this and learn how to do it. That was 1996. That is when I took a big break. I knew at some point in my life I was going to come back and make it right.
BRAD BROWN: Lisbeth, that’s interesting because obviously, things have changed a lot in the sport since then. To qualify for the Big Island now, it’s very seldom that you get someone who qualifies that hasn’t raced a full distance. Every now and again you hear of someone who has picked up a spot at a 70.3 and goes on and does their first race in Kona. Going into it like that, not having the experience, do you think it’s better today the way it is? That people have more experience going onto the Big Island than perhaps you did first time out?
LISBETH KENYON: No question about it. Absolutely, I do. It’s for the better now.
BRAD BROWN: It’s got tougher, hasn’t it? The sport has grown a lot. It’s a worldwide phenomenon now and the age groups, you’d think as you get older the age groups would get less competitive, but that’s not the case.
LISBETH KENYON: It’s not the case because we have a long history now. It’s so difficult. The level right now is great. What’s happening in my age group as I grow, we’re getting professional people from other sports coming into our sport. It’s good for the sport. So, as an amateur you get to compete with people who have been in several Olympic distances in different sports, that are coming in. That’s quite good.
Set your Ironman goals long term
BRAD BROWN: Lisbeth, how many of these things do you think you’ve got in you? Obviously, longevity in the sport is a thing that gets spoken about a lot. We’ve chatted about burn out quite a bit over the last few weeks on the podcast. Staying competitive in the sport over a long period of time is tough. It does take its toll. How competitive do you think you can still be in the sport? Are you going to be around as long as you can?
LISBETH KENYON: My ultimate goal is to do Kona when I’m 70. My goal has always been to be in it for a long term. I see some of the new people they have a bucket list. They want to do an Ironman once and it’s on their bucket list. They come in and they train for 10 months, and they train so much. It’s impacting their lives and it’s quite sad actually. It’s very common.
Make your coach a long term investment
I actually think the best thing you can do is get yourself a coach that knows about this when you are new so that it doesn’t impact you so much. A coach allows you to train and you spend a little less time training while getting more return for that training. For me, I did get a coach 8 years ago, and that made a big difference because it’s easy to train a little bit too hard all the time. That’s where the burn out comes.
BRAD BROWN: It’s especially so if you’re competitive and this A-type personality. You almost need someone, not to keep you in check, but to oversee what you’re doing and as you say, not to over train and over race.
Movement, Balance and Strength equal injury free
LISBETH KENYON: Not only that. For example, my coach is a movement expert which has really been a lucky thing for me as I’ve grown older with this. What I do is spend 3 months after the season’s done, only focusing on movement and balance and strength. I think that’s what has actually allowed me to be as durable as I have been. I haven’t ever really been injured.
So, I think it’s more important to spend some time making sure you move well and do these things correctly, and making sure you’re strong. I’m not talking about going to the gym strong. I’m talking super-slow body weight movement exercises that lets you absorb the hard, sport-specific work that you do.
BRAD BROWN: I want to talk a little more about that, but I’ll do that in a moment. Talk to me about the decision to get a coach. You had been in the sport for a while before you got one. What brought that on? Why did you decide to go the coach route?
Trust is a big deal with your coach
LISBETH KENYON: I realised that this particular coach knew more than I did. That was his job. His expertise. I was a pretty strong biker. At first I didn’t trust him with all of the aspects of my training. So, I said, you do the run and the swim and I’ll just do my own bike, because that’s my strength. Naturally, that was my strength because I biked everywhere. Not competitively, but I biked a whole lot growing up.
That just didn’t work out. I would go kill myself in the bike workouts. I used to bike with the bike racers and show up to their criterion practices and I killed myself. In the meantime, he tried to do my specific run workouts and I used to fail them because I wasn’t rested enough. He basically fired me as an athlete saying if I can’t do all of it, I can’t coach you. That’s when I said all right, I’m going to trust you. 8 Years later it’s still a very good relationship.
If you’re not going to sell out totally, don’t do it at all
BRAD BROWN: Trust is a big thing with a coach, isn’t it? You talk about selling out and only half selling out but don’t waste your money. That would be my advice. If you’re not going to sell out totally to a coach, don’t do it at all.
LISBETH KENYON: You have to trust the coach. I see that all the time. I’m running this indoor compu-trainer centre and I see these athletes coming in and they’re absolutely ignoring what the coach told them to do. They’re coming in there and they’re cranking the power up and destroying the next day’s work out that the coach has in store for them. It’s so common.
Allow yourself to train optimally – Listen to your coach
BRAD BROWN: That’s such a good point as well. You can absolutely smash yourself in a training session. It’s not that training session where the damage has been done, it’s the 1 or 2 afterwards where you can’t train optimally. So, it’s important that you do that. Lisbeth, as you’ve been in the sport for a while and you’re getting older year after year, do you change your approach year after year? What have you changed over the years to now?
LISBETH KENYON: Yes definitely. More important, when you’re 20’s, 30’s, even half of your first 40’s, you can really wing it. You have a big margin of error. You can go out there and just wing it. I realised in my latter 40’s that was not the case anymore. That strength, that sort of balance and movement stuff becomes super important. You have to go and take care of that fundamental stuff. I think that’s really important. Also, I need more rest between hard sessions. Recovery is essential much more now than before.
Ironman is not so much about yourself
BRAD BROWN: What’s the biggest life lesson that Ironman has taught you?
LISBETH KENYON: I think not taking yourself so seriously. You spend a lot of time, and it’s a selfish sport. It’s all about you. Just don’t take yourself so seriously. Once your training session is over enjoy and celebrate that you can do it. People come into it super nervous and it’s all about this self-thing, it’s all about yourself. If you go outside of yourself and you look down on yourself, you realise that you’re so lucky to be so healthy to be allowed to be there and that takes the edge off that nervousness. It’s really not about yourself so much.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve been able to achieve a lot in the sport over your career. What are you the most proud of?
Consistency on your Ironman journey
LISBETH KENYON: I am probably most proud of being a role model to my kids and being able to incorporate this stuff while doing all the other things and not being so stringent and strict about it. If you have to miss out or change your week around because other things are more important, you do that. It still works out. Just showing them that consistency along the journey is probably the most important thing.
BRAD BROWN: Have they made any noises that they possibly want to go on and do some of these races as time goes on?
Ironman footprints for your child to follow
LISBETH KENYON: Yes, my oldest kid who is now a freshman in college, did a sprint triathlon when he was 11. He did a sprint like an adult sprint triathlon. We were all behind him to make sure he was safe. But my other 2 kids, no, not at all.
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure it will come. I always joke, I grew up in a household where my dad was an ultra marathoner and I was never going to do it. Now, my brother and I have both done Ironman, we both run ultra marathons. I think you are cursing your children if you do this sport. At some stage in their life they are going to come back and say why did you start doing it? They will come round, I’m sure of that. It’s quite interesting.
We’ve got my dad back, I have to tell you. He was doing ultra marathons and he came to watch my brother and I do a couple of Ironmans. At 67 he decided he was going to do his first one. So, it was payback time for my dad if I have to be honest. Lisbeth, what’s left for you to achieve in the sport? What’s on that goal list of yours?
Going for a 10th Kona achievement
LISBETH KENYON: In a way, I tried to quit this Ironman business. It’s long and lonely training a lot of time. After I won my 2013 race, and of course you auto-qualify when you’re amateurs, so I didn’t have to go and qualify. So, I said to myself I’m going to quit now, it’s enough. How many Ironmans can I possibly do? I didn’t come back and do Kona in 2014 and I thought that’s it, I’m done with that. But I missed it so much.
Watching that 2014 I wished myself there. Then I did 2015. I did 2016. So that’s 9, I might as well do 10. So, I’m going to do 2017. That will be 10. Hopefully I can quit for a while after that. I just love that race so much and I think my ultimate goal, what’s left, is to be healthy enough. To be strong enough to do it as a 70-year-old. If I take another 11-year break so be it. But 70 years, that’s my thing.
BRAD BROWN: I think that’s fantastic. What makes that race so special? You’ve been there so many times and I’ve heard that it gets better and better the more you go. It’s a mystical place. I know you love it otherwise you wouldn’t keep going back year after year. What is it that makes it so unbelievable?
The addiction of racing Kona
LISBETH KENYON: I think it’s just because it’s so hard. I’ve done Norseman and that was super hard but Kona is just hard in a different way. You have these elements that you never know what it’s going to do to you. All that heat. All that wind. It just does something to you and it’s such a feat to be able to just finish this particular one. It’s the stuff that I don’t even like. I don’t like the heat in that way.
Celebrate your health with an Ironman finish
You know the feeling you have afterwards. It’s what you’re going after. For me, it’s evolved into this intimidating thing. Basically, a celebration. You get older. You get wiser. It’s really a celebration of your health.
LISBETH KENYON: Yes, I think so. I felt that I had one of those perfect races in Kona. It all comes together. You’re healthy, your training is going well. You’re tapering well. I love to taper. I love the taper period. Not a lot of people do. I love to taper.
BRAD BROWN: I was built to taper, Lisbeth.
LISBETH KENYON: You just sit back and you have all this time on your hands. You feel the forum coming to you. There’s nothing better. All of these things can just line up. You can do it all right and then use execute if you go out a little slower than what your mind is telling you.
Don’t get in trouble nutritionally and have the perfect race
You can have a perfect race if you don’t get yourself in trouble nutritionally. I had one of those races. It was 2010 and I remember it well. I felt that I could break 10-hours on this day and I ended up 10:01:30. Looking at my Garmin after the race and I had sat at the porta john at the Energy Lab, for 90-seconds.
BRAD BROWN: How many times have you played that moment over in your head since then? It must be a few.
LISBETH KENYON: Should’ve, would’ve. I don’t think I could have done anything better that day. That course record was 45 to 49 and that’s still a course record for that age group. I can’t complain I suppose.
BRAD BROWN: Lisbeth, as far as choosing races, how do you go about choosing the races that work for you to qualify? Obviously, Kona is what it is. You get to race around the country. What do you look for? What suits you?
1 Ironman a year for a better Kona performance
LISBETH KENYON: Something hilly because of my bike. My run isn’t that great so it needs to be a flat run, with a hilly bike. That’s my perfect race. I’ve been lucky enough to auto-qualify a lot of times. When I auto-qualify I don’t go and do another Ironman. I just do quicker stuff. That’s a benefit. Not having to do 2 in 1 year. I think of the years that I only do 1, I have a better Kona.
BRAD BROWN: Lisbeth, the auto-qualify is an interesting one. You mentioned recovery and as you get older that recovery becomes more and more important. I find it interesting that some athletes like to race 3 or 4 full distances a year. You don’t, you find it better if you don’t.
LISBETH KENYON: Yes, much better. I can get into some sprints, some Olympic distances, some half’s. Not too many, but I can do some road races. I find that I do better in an Ironman if I haven’t trained and built for an Ironman already that year.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about your 2017 schedule. What’s on the cards for you in this season?
Going to Kona no matter what
LISBETH KENYON: I don’t even know yet. I know I’m doing Kona and I would love to do Chattanooga. The half Iron worlds which is in Tennessee. I’m trying to figure out where I can go and qualify. It’s difficult for me because I have a kid in college now, and I have 1 child who is graduating from high school. There are so many dates that are not going to work out. So, I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen. All I know is I’m going to Kona.
BRAD BROWN: I’ll put the challenge out there. The 70.3 Worlds in 2018 are in Port Elizabeth where our full distance is held here in South Africa and that would be a great trip as well.
LISBETH KENYON: That would be great.
BRAD BROWN: Put it on your list Lisbeth.
LISBETH KENYON: Yes, South Africa.
BRAD BROWN: It’s been amazing chatting a little bit about your story. I look forward to getting you on to talk about the individual disciplines. We’ll save that for another time. Lisbeth Kenyon, thank you for your time on The Kona Edge today.
LISBETH KENYON: Thank you.
Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).
Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.
He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.
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