The Sarah Thomas Ironman Kona Story


Normal’ish service resumes on The Kona Edge today. We head to Cairns in Australia to catch up with our next guest Sarah Thomas.

On this episode, we discover what drives and motivates Sarah to keep pushing to return again to the Ironman World Championships in Kona. (Read the transcription of our chat here)

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Podcast Transcription:


BRAD BROWN:  Welcome back onto The Kona Edge, I am Brad Brown and we head to Cairns in Australia now to catch up with our next guest and it’s an absolute pleasure to welcome onto the podcast Sarah Thomas. Sarah, welcome onto The Kona Edge, thanks for joining me today.

SARAH THOMAS:  Thank you, thanks for having me.

BRAD BROWN:  Sarah, I’m excited to chat. We’ve chatted to one or two athletes who are based in Cairns and I always joke, there are worse places in the world to live than Cairns. It does have its advantages, but there are one or two disadvantages. One of them is obviously the swim, but we’ll talk about that a little bit later. Cairns is a beautiful part of the world.

SARAH THOMAS:  Yes, it’s really, really lovely, very, very lucky to be based there.

BRAD BROWN:  Sarah, tell me a little bit, that’s not a full-on Aussie accent that I’m hearing. You’re living in Australia but you’re not originally Australian?

SARAH THOMAS:  No, I’m originally from Wales and I’ve been in Australia now for 11 years, I came out with a backpack and basically never went home. It’s been an adventure.

BRAD BROWN:  Very different to Wales, that’s for sure.

SARAH THOMAS:  Yes it is, especially up in Cairns, very different.

BRAD BROWN:  Are you still Welsh or you consider yourself an Aussie?

SARAH THOMAS:  I’ve got dual citizenship so I’m technically half and half.

BRAD BROWN:  Sarah, tell me a little bit about growing up. Were you sporty growing up? Tell me a bit about your sporting background?

SARAH THOMAS:  Yeah, growing up I loved sport. I was interested in all sorts of different sports particularly, I did a bit of athletics, so running and short-distance running like sprints and long jumps were my main things. I played hockey in high school and I actually played Rugby Union in university, so a bit of a diverse background, but yes, it wasn’t until very, very late twenties that I decided to get into triathlon.

BRAD BROWN:  From a competitive perspective, those sports, I mean the athletics, the hockey and the Rugby Union, were you pretty good? I know it’s a tough question to ask someone, but were you competitive, what sort of level did you compete at?

SARAH THOMAS:  I think I was fourth in Wales for long jump at one point when I was a kid. So that was probably the highlight and then in hockey we did pretty well as a team. I think I did probably the equivalent of state hockey and rugby was something that I did in Union and yes, our team did pretty well. I never pursued it individually, but I was probably a little bit small and a bit young to be a good rugby player to be honest.

BRAD BROWN:  What position did you play?

SARAH THOMAS:  I played on the wing and they occasionally moved me into… you know I was basically, “Give me the ball and run” that’s all.

BRAD BROWN:  I love it and I mean obviously there aren’t too many skills in long jump that are going to translate into long distance triathlon.

SARAH THOMAS:  No, probably not. Yes, I think again like it was probably the run up to it, sort of propelled. Yes, I think obviously with triathlon, you know the run is my best leg so I think all of those things have definitely contributed to my ability now with running, but yes, I wish I’d been a [** 0.03.34] as a kid.

BRAD BROWN:  I think the closest you’re going to get from getting benefits from long jump in triathlon if it’s a beat start and you’re running to the water; you’ve probably got a head start on everyone else.

SARAH THOMAS:  I need a head start running into the water because once I get into the water I certainly won’t have a head start.

BRAD BROWN:  Let’s talk about your introduction to triathlon. How did you get involved in the sport?

SARAH THOMAS:  When I was in Wales I’d heard about triathlon and it was always way too cold for me to try anything like that when I was over there and when I got over to Australia I thought, oh, it sounds like a good challenge, it sounds like something I’d really like to do and I was basically was like, okay I’ll just give it a go and I did a sprint distance race just as a one-off and really enjoyed it, but didn’t think too much of it.

And then the following year I signed up for the same race again and this time I decided to do a couple of little warm ups, just local sprint races and then I signed up for my first Olympic distance race and the following year did my first 70.3. So it was a very a gradual introduction to triathlon. I think I did a couple of 70.3s and I ended up qualifying for the world championships which was held on the Sunny Coast in 2016. That’s probably when I started taking triathlon a little bit more seriously rather than it just being more of a social thing and more of a fun thing.

BRAD BROWN:  I think many of us get into the sport that way and all of a sudden this competitiveness wells up inside you that you didn’t know existed and I think triathlon have probably got it right as a sport where there’s a huge competitiveness amongst age groupers. In most other sports if you look at the guys who win and it’s cool, I’m not there, but in triathlon they’re definitely doing something right as a sport. When did you start getting competitive and realizing, you know what, I could start qualifying for things like Worlds 70.3 and then onto Kona later on?

SARAH THOMAS:  I think I’ve always been a very competitive person. So yes, I think that even when I was doing it for fun I was still competitive with the racing. And I’ve always, touch wood, I don’t want anything to go wrong, but I’ve always seemed to race well. You know some people train really well, but don’t race as well. I’ve been quite lucky in the way that perhaps in training I won’t be amazing or stand out, but in races I always seem to be able to race well. So I think that’s my competitiveness that comes through on the actual race day.

I think as far as taking it more seriously I was definitely never expecting to qualify for Sunny Coast in 2016 and when I did I suddenly thought wow, maybe I should really concentrate on this and take it a bit more seriously and not just being a social something that you have two beers afterwards you know, but actually concentrate on it and try to recover properly rather than it being more of just a social thing.

BRAD BROWN:  One thing I love about this podcast is I chat to ordinary everyday people who are pretty good at this sport. You are one of those and you work for a living, it’s not that you do this full time. When you decide to take it seriously that balance is quite difficult to get right. Tell me a little bit about life outside of triathlon, what you do and how do you get the balance right?

SARAH THOMAS:  Yes, it is difficult to balance it once you do start taking it a bit seriously. I’m pretty lucky that I work as a physiotherapist and I work in a private clinic. So I said to my boss I want to be able to train before and after work on most days and I’ve been very lucky that she’s been very good and let me start probably a little bit later than what she would’ve liked and maybe finished a little bit earlier on some days than what she would’ve liked so that I can get my training sessions in, but it’s definitely a huge struggle and a big balancing act trying to fit in training especially when you’re training for something like an Ironman to fit it in around full time work. It’s pretty difficult and you know obviously your social life takes a bit of a blow and you can’t do as many other things because if you’re having to fit in full time work and full time training you don’t have a lot of time for anything else really.

BRAD BROWN:  Yes, absolutely and as far as I know, again I think it’s different for everyone, but for you in a peak training block towards an Ironman or World Champs, how many hours a week do you typically train?

SARAH THOMAS:  I think probably the most I would ever get up to is about 16 or 17 hours a week. I don’t think I’ve ever done more than that. However, I’ve just got myself a coach and that might change. I’ve previously done all my training myself up until probably about two months ago maybe. Up until then I was doing it all myself. My biggest weeks of training would be probably 16, 17 hours, but yes, I don’t know what’s going to happen now.

BRAD BROWN:  That experience at world’s in 2016, is that what lit the fire for you to go further and when Kona came on the radar or was Kona on the radar before then?

SARAH THOMAS:  No, I had always said that I was never going to do a full Ironman. I said it’s too long, I’ll find the training boring, I won’t enjoy and I can’t imagine just being out there for that long, I can’t imagine running 42 after riding 118 hours just like yes, no way, never ever going to do it. And I think it just became apparent with my triathlon that basically the longer I went the better I was at it. So yes, friends of mine, one of my training buddies said, “Okay, I’m going to do the full Ironman next year instead of the half” and I was like, “Oh no, really lady?” and then that kind of planted the seed and I ended up signing up for a full Ironman which was going to be my first time. I was going to be at Cairns 2017, obviously the home race and my partner was racing in New Zealand in the March and I thought to myself, “Well, I’m going to be going to New Zealand to support him, so why don’t I sign up for the race?”

So I think it was about six weeks out from Ironman New Zealand in 2017, I decided to sign up as a practice run for Cairns because I was feeling a bit of pressure you know with the home crowd and everything and I thought, oh, if I don’t have a practice run in New Zealand where no one knows me, no one’s expecting me to do it, because I hadn’t been expecting to do it myself and I thought it would maybe be a good idea. So I did New Zealand in 2017 and I ended up coming third in my age group, which I completely wasn’t expecting at all. Then it kind of backfired because it put even more pressure on me for Cairns because obviously I’d missed out on it that time because there was only one spot in my age group. But luckily for me I did have a really good race at Cairns and won in my age group. So that’s when I qualified for Kona and that was my third Ironman in 2017, went over to Hawaii, so that was good..

BRAD BROWN:  Did you go into that race in Cairns with the goal of qualifying for Kona? Was that the plan?

SARAH THOMAS:  Oh look, I try not to put pressure on myself like that. My goal is always just go out, enjoy it, do the best that I can do on the day and I would never. I mean obviously secretly I knew that – especially after having come in third in New Zealand when I went in – I didn’t feel like I was prepared enough, I went in with no expectation, I felt like I was properly prepared for Cairns. Obviously it’s a home race, I knew the course, I’d done the 70.3 there a couple of times, which is obviously a similar course. So you know I knew that if I had a good race I was in for a [** 0.11.45] in Kona, but I didn’t want to put that pressure on myself. I always just go into a race, let’s just enjoy the day, let’s just see what I can do at the time. I didn’t put it out there that that was my goal, but yes, I guess I did know that if I had a good race I was with a good chance.

BRAD BROWN:  That’s pretty impressive Sarah. From someone saying, “I’m never going through an Ironman to do three Ironman’s in your first year of doing an Ironman, that’s a big step up.

SARAH THOMAS:  Yes, it was pretty big and I’ve promised myself I’ll never do three in one year ever again. So yes, luckily for me last year I just did two.

BRAD BROWN:  Talk to me about that first experience in Kona. It’s pretty special for most people. Was it spectacular for you, did it live up to what it’s hyped to be?

SARAH THOMAS:  Look, the whole experience of going to Hawaii and ginkgo to Kona is just absolutely incredible and I absolutely loved it. I’d been to Hawaii the year prior to that in 2016 to support my partner who was racing and I already knew that I loved it there. So to be able to go back and do it and actually race it myself was absolutely phenomenal so I really enjoyed the whole experience. I actually didn’t really enjoy the day of the race. I just remember thinking to myself, this is awful, there was no point of the race that I thought to myself, I actually really enjoyed that bit. I feel like I struggled the whole way through.

It’s the only race that I’ve had where I didn’t have a great ride. I think I got my nutrition a bit wrong on the bike and I honestly didn’t think I was going to be able to run coming off the bike.

I was in a lot of pain; I was feeling sick and just felt generally terrible. I just thought to myself I’m not going to be able to even run coming out of T2 and anyway just started running slowly and within less than a kilometre I actually started feeling good and had a really good run.

So I don’t know how that happened, but it was something about the bike that day that didn’t like me. I had a horrific ride, felt terrible but yes, I mean the run hurt. I was obviously a hot marathon and it’s quite a challenging course as well. So I wouldn’t say I felt good on the run and I certainly wasn’t expecting to have done the time that I did, but I think I was sixth fastest run spec in my age group or something ridiculous. So afterwards I was really, really pleased with how I went but yes, I just remember thinking the whole way this is awful, this is horrific. But obviously it didn’t deter me enough because I went back last year, so it couldn’t have been that bad.

BRAD BROWN:  But isn’t that so often the case in the endurance world though, Sarah, where in an Olympic or a sprint distance triathlon obviously the race is quite short, so it’s easy – I say it’s easy, it’s not easy, but the odds of you stringing together a perfect race are a lot higher than doing it on a half Ironman or a full Ironman and so often we go through patches in an Ironman where you think to yourself, “Man, this sucks, like why am I doing this. I absolutely hate this”, but you have to push through those points, particularly if you want to be competitive because the truth of the matter is everyone goes through those at some point on race day and it’s how you react to those situations, I think, that dictate how well the race goes at the end of the day. Do you agree with that and what do you do to get you through those patches?

SARAH THOMAS:  Yes, I completely agree with that and I think I went into Ironman with the expectation that I’m going to go through those feelings where you’re like, “What am I doing, I can’t keep going”, but I think if you’re aware of the fact that that’s only going to last for a period of time and then you’re going to come good again, you can keep yourself going in that way that oh, eventually I’m going to come good. And you know it’s happened to me so many times in training where I’ll feel like I actually can’t keep going but then you do somehow keep going and then you eventually come good and you know you can surprise yourself. The number of times it’s happened in training and in races previously I think if you can just dig deep and keep going you’ll eventually, well, hopefully you’ll eventually come good.

But yes, in Kona that time there were many times where I was like I’ve just got to get through this, I’ve just got to keep going and especially on that marathon, I honestly thought I was having a really, really slow run, but then you see people walking alongside of the road and you think well, at least I’m not walking, you know at least I’m just going to keep going and I thought that I was running really slowly. I was trying not to look at my Garmin and I was like I just want to keep going, I just want to get to the finish line. If I don’t walk you know I’m going to get there quicker and yes, I really surprised myself when I looked at my actual marathon time. It was a lot faster than I thought it would be. The way that I was feeling was horrific and I honestly thought it was going to be very embarrassingly slow, but luckily for me it wasn’t.

BRAD BROWN:  Then you mentioned going back last year. So you’ve been twice, top ten finish last year, which I’m pretty sure you’re chuffed about, but two very different races. I read that you were saying it’s like chalk and cheese. It’s difficult to go back to something. Sometimes it’s a feeling of unfinished business, but going into a race where you didn’t have the greatest of performances or personally the way you felt the year before to go and string together performance like you did in Kona last year, that must’ve been pretty satisfying and what was the difference? What do you think you did differently that allowed you to have a better race last year?

SARAH THOMAS:  I guess again going in with no expectations. I mean I thought to myself I don’t think I’m going to have a ride that’s as bad or hopefully I’m not going to have a ride that’s as bad as what it was last year and I think the main difference for me was the conditions. We were really lucky with the conditions in Kona last year. I started at the swim and I was expecting, you know in 2017 it was pretty horrific. I couldn’t get any space so it was people on top of me constantly pretty much the whole way. It was quite violent. There was no space at all on the swim. I just really didn’t’ enjoy the swim at all, so I couldn’t get into a rhythm whereas, I don’t know why, but in 2018 i didn’t have that experience. I felt like I managed to get a rhythm, I managed to get a little bit of space for at least some of it and yes, the swim was a completely different experience really.

Getting onto the bike, I think probably because of the swim that I just felt better on the bike and I managed my nutrition a bit better on the bike than what I had in the previous year and just felt really, really, really, really strong and then on the run I think it wasn’t anywhere near as hot. We didn’t have the wind on the bike, which probably made me feel a bit better as well. I don’t know. I mean obviously I had an extra year of experience and training, so I was probably a little bit more prepared for it.

It wasn’t my first year of doing Ironman any more, but yes, predominantly it just felt like a completely different race for me. I just remember thinking on the bike, when are we going to get the wind, when are we going to get the wind and then we just didn’t and the run was hot because it’s Kona, but it certainly wasn’t as hot as what it had been the year before. just in comparison I just felt so much better and it just felt like a completely different race.

BRAD BROWN:  I was looking at your splits and often you can really see if someone has one discipline that’s quite a bit stronger than the others, but you’re solid in all three. I think you were top 20 out of the water and you just literally made up ground the rest of the day. It’s quite impressive to see. You were joking that you get stronger the longer it is. Have you considered any double Ironman distance races because you could win this thing at that rate?

SARAH THOMAS:  No, I don’t know about that. Oh, no I haven’t considered that and now you’ve put the [** 0.20.15]. I don’t know whether that would be the thing that I would actually want to do to myself, no.

BRAD BROWN:  No, I’m with you. You have to be slightly crazy to do an Ironman, but a double, that’s a different level of crazy I’m afraid.

SARAH THOMAS:  Yes, I don’t know if I can do that to myself. I don’t know, yes, I don’t think so, but then again who knows.

BRAD BROWN:  Yes, you did once say that you were never going to do an Ironman. So let’s – never say never I suppose.

SARAH THOMAS:  Yes, that’s true.

BRAD BROWN:  Sarah tell me, what does it take to qualify for Kona? We have many people that listen to this podcast and they’re just into the sport, they love hearing the stories, but we have quite a few people who try really hard to qualify and they year after year just miss it. What’s the secret? Is there a secret?

SARAH THOMAS:  I think yes, obviously working hard but I see many people that – you know it’s almost like they work too hard and I sometimes feel like saying to people, just be a bit more sensible with your training rather than thinking the more the better. I think if you’re lucky enough to find a coach that really understands you,  that can really pick out what you need to work on and how you need to do it, that’s obviously the best way I think where you’re going to get the best chance at qualifying for something like Kona. But yes, I think many people do go about it the wrong way in my opinion. I think obviously you have to have extreme discipline, extreme determination, but you have to be quite sensible about it as well and I think that’s something that unfortunately many people don’t really get.

BRAD BROWN:  I find it interesting that one of the things you mentioned was the coaching side of it and as you said, you’ve only just recently taken on a coach. What’s taken you so long?

SARAH THOMAS:  Well, I was kind of doing all right on my own I think. I’m pretty opinionated and I’ve always said to myself, basically for me to want to pay someone to coach me I would have to completely 100% trust them and because I have quite strong ideas about things that’s a very difficult thing for me to do and because I was doing all right and I’d see other people take on coaches and do things that sometimes I would not necessarily agree with and then I would end up doing quite well myself not having had anyone coach me. There was just no reason for me to go oh, hang one there’s something going wrong here, I need to get someone to help me because obviously what I’m doing on my own isn’t working because it was working quite well. As I said, I like the fact that I would do the things that I agreed with, that I wanted to do rather than having someone else tell me something that perhaps I wouldn’t have agreed with.

BRAD BROWN:  It hasn’t been long now. What’s the experience been like?

SARAH THOMAS:  I’m just completely loving it, like really enjoying someone telling me what to do and not have to think for myself about each training session. My training previously was pretty much the same week in, week out. I did the same sessions on the same days, week in, week out and after doing that for two years it’s really refreshing to have some different things to do, a bit of a mixture and just to be told just go and do this and just go and do it, you know, it’s like there’s no thought that has to go into it. So yes, I’m really enjoying that and yes, slightly different things to what I have been doing previously as well, which is good. It keeps it fresh and keeps me motivated.

BRAD BROWN:  Obviously taking on a coach now post the last Kona race, I’m guessing that you’re not done with Kona and you have some other ambitions. What’s the plans? What are you hoping to achieve still in your triathlon career?

SARAH THOMAS:  As I said before, I don’t ever really give myself set goals. I don’t ever say okay, this is what I want to achieve this year and in all honesty I’m completely overwhelmed with what I’ve already achieved so far and I never would’ve thought that I could’ve done anything like what I’ve achieved so far. So honestly if that’s as good as it gets and if there is no more then that’s fine, but yes, I mean I’m going to see what happens.

I’ve signed up to race Ironman Cairns again this year. That is the only shot for Kona. There is no backup, so if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen and that’ll be fine, but yes, obviously I’d like to go out and have a good race at Cairns again. I’ve won my age group the last two years there. But you know we’ll see what happens, but basically I just want to go out and enjoy it and do the best that I can do on the day and if that means Kona, that means Kona and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t, but yes, I think there’s hopefully a good chance that I will have a good year and yes, just see what happens.

BRAD BROWN:  I’m quietly chuckling to myself and it’s like this with endurance. People say, “I’m never going to do that” and here’s you who said you’re never going to do an Ironman and you’re going back for another one and if Kona happens it happens. What’s the attraction to the long stuff? There’s an attraction to do one, but there’s something that keeps you coming back for more. What do you think that is, Sarah?

SARAH THOMAS:  I think it’s because I’m doing quite well at it to be honest. You know if I wasn’t doing as well I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want to just keep flogging myself, but yes, I think to me it’s let’s see what I can do. It’s because I’ve already achieved more than I ever thought I could and why not keep going with it and just ride the wave?

BRAD BROWN:  And what keeps you interested? I think many people come into the sport and I’ve said this before in the podcast, they burst onto the scene and they’re gung-ho about this triathlon and Ironman thing. You see them for a season or two and then they go. They burn themselves out and they’re gone. What are you doing to keep yourself fresh, invigorated and loving the sport because you obviously do?

SARAH THOMAS:  Yes, I think perhaps it comes back to maybe something I touched on earlier with the training thing. I think some people just think more is more and you’ve just got to go as hard as you possibly can and do as much training as you possibly can and I don’t agree with that. I think that having – you know probably I’m a little bit more chilled out in my approach to it perhaps than some people and I think that that has helped with a bit more longevity rather than just going, this is what I want to achieve.

It’s good to have goals, but sometimes if you keep setting goals for yourself that sometimes you don’t meet then that can be demotivating maybe. But yes, I think perhaps if you’re flogging yourself all the time because you want to achieve something and you don’t achieve it then you’re going to get fed up with continually just pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing and not maybe getting where you think you should from what you’re putting into it. Whereas, I don’t know, I kind of feel like I’m perhaps yes, I guess a bit more laid back about it all. I’m not sure, maybe.

BRAD BROWN:  You’re probably also well placed as a physiotherapist because you probably see the effects of flogging yourself to death and dealing with athletes who do push themselves over the edge. I think that’s also one of the things that frustrates a lot of people is they push really hard, they break down and then they try to come back too quickly, break down again and that frustration burns them out. I’m sure you’ve seen that quite a bit as a physio.

SARAH THOMAS:  Yes, I’ve seen a lot of that and also there are different ways of looking at injuries and things and I tend to sometimes disagree with the opinions of other physios and I tend to take a bit more of a holistic and biopsychosocial approach to treatment rather than just strictly biomedical stuff and I think I’m pretty lucky in the way that I’ve perhaps been able to manage injuries and niggles and things because of that, whereas yes, I think the way that perhaps maybe more traditionally or the way that strengthening conditioning type approach would go is that I don’t know if I completely agree with the way that some injuries are managed, perhaps should we say.

BRAD BROWN:  Absolutely. Especially in endurance sport because you can do some serious damage if you don’t’ do things properly, but I’m no medical practitioner and I’m not going to dish out medical advice here, that’s for sure. Sarah, it’s been great catching up. I look forward to talking about the individual disciplines and some of the things you’ve done to improve them over time, but we’ll save that for another day. Thanks for your time on The Kona Edge today.

SARAH THOMAS:  Thank you.

About Us

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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