Do you dream of qualifying for Ironman World Championship on the big island of Kona but you’re faced with physical challenges? On this episode of The Kona Edge, we chat to someone who has been involved in the sport for some years now and started by racing at Kona then turned pro but faced challenges along her way to the top. Liza Rachetta shares her journey with us and tells how she won her battle through perseverance.
BRAD BROWN: Liza, welcome onto The Kona Edge, it’s great to have you with us, you join us from the Gold Coast in Australia. It’s not where you’re based, you’re down under for a big cycle tour that’s coming up and we’ll chat about that in a moment as well, but welcome onto the podcast, thanks for your time today.
LIZA RACHETTA: Thank you, happy to be here.
BRAD BROWN: Liza, you raced in Kona in 2015 and we’re going to get into your journey, how it all started in triathlon, but the sport’s been part of your life for a long time. I often chat to many age groupers and they’re fairly new into the sport, but you’ve been around triathlon for many years.
LIZA RACHETTA: I actually have, quite a bit. I got into it just after college, around 1997.
BRAD BROWN: So you’ve seen some major changes in this, what would you say is the biggest change in triathlon since then to now?
LIZA RACHETTA: I think the biggest change I’ve seen, it’s not just for, like those elite athletes, kind of like myself who have been in racing events their whole life, but really a lot of it is age groupers and people out to achieve a goal and set something, maybe eventually even change their life and get into, which is really fantastic and maybe years ago this is how marathons kind of were just finishing the race, getting through it and it’s got such a wide outreach now.
BRAD BROWN: Looking back, if I told you at the start of your career, your athletic career, you would have achieved what you’ve achieved to now, what would you have told me?
LIZA RACHETTA: No way, no, absolutely not. I thought maybe do something like this once or twice.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve basically turned it into a career for you, not so much on the triathlon side of things, but you’ve discovered you’re a pretty good cyclist and you’ve managed to make a living out of that over the years.
LIZA RACHETTA: Yeah, in fact, what’s very interest is my husband pointed out the other day, when I turned professional in 2004, I only raced about 3 years before I actually technically retired due to health issues and coming back as an older athlete, that I’ve been in the sport almost twice as long.
BRAD BROWN: That’s pretty incredible. Getting to the top of any sport takes a lot of hard work, but staying there and staying there for as long as you have, that’s something you must be pretty proud of.
LIZA RACHETTA: I am pretty proud of it. They say it’s like an old wine, I get better with age, so I like to look at it as, you also get so much smarter and you learn the importance of quality in your training versus quantity.
BRAD BROWN: It’s funny, that’s probably one of the biggest things that keep coming out of these chats that I have, particularly with age groupers is, people are stressed for time and everyone is and it’s not just a matter of how much you do, but how you do it and that’s probably more important.
LIZA RACHETTA: Right, definitely.
BRAD BROWN: Liza, when did you realize you had some athletic ability? Growing up as a kid, were you fairly active and were you competitive? Were you always trying to win things? How did you go as a kid?
LIZA RACHETTA: You know, I was fairly competitive as a kid and I didn’t always win certain events, whether it be swimming, I was actually a very good downhill ski racer, but the one thing that I found important is that my parents never pushed me in any particular sport or any direction.
They basically let me choose where my passion was and again, I wasn’t a fantastic swimmer when I started, but I was one of those athletes that just really was dedicated and put the time into the training.
BRAD BROWN: As far as taking cycling seriously, when did you realize you actually had some ability on the bike and this could be something serious?
LIZA RACHETTA: I’d probably say it took me a few years to sort of get into the sport, learn about, it’s always a learning process with tactics and ability and honestly, I would still say that with training and learning, how I can perform the best in cycling still actually goes on nearly every race I do.
My role in the professional scene is more of a domestique, so to be honest with you, I’m the sort of one that helps those elite time trialists or those elite climbers get to where they need to be in the race.
BRAD BROWN: You’re the work horse in that team and a lot of the success of the team, and we talk about team and cycling, you think it’s an individual sport, but it’s not, it’s essentially a team sport, which I find quite funny because there’s an interesting contradiction between professional cycling and being in a team as opposed to racing Ironman where it’s you against someone else, but there’s no drafting, there’s no helping.
Do you enjoy both aspects of it, which do you prefer?
LIZA RACHETTA: This is a very common question, I do enjoy both aspects. I really like the team environment in cycling, but at the same time, going into triathlon later in my year allows me to just sort of switch gears and almost like, it’s almost like cross training for the upcoming season.
I can sort of control my environment, my racing, my training and then when I come to let’s say February or March with the team, I’m really energized and I’m ready to be around my team mates and put in the work.
Balancing your Ironman training and work
BRAD BROWN: How do you get that balance right? That’s one thing as well that age groupers struggle with, particularly working a full day and then having to train. Yours is a slightly different situation because people think, oh, I’d love to be a professional athlete, but there’s almost no switching off for you.
It’s always the sport, even though it’s slightly different, it’s cycling, how do you juggle that balance of training to be part of a professional cycling team, but then also to be a world class age grouper qualifying for, or chasing titles and qualifying and racing in Kona?
LIZA RACHETTA: Yeah, even better question. That does become very important that I balance and juggle, not only both those sports, but I have a coaching business that I run and so it’s very important for me to stay in touch closely with my athletes and their events and their races.
Again, it’s not taking me away from cycling or triathlon, that’s my work as well, but I do try to take some mental time. I think when I’m out training and I just process, thinking about both my work and my training and to be honest with you, how fortunate I am, I think I go back to eight years ago when I was diagnosed with my arthritis and to be able to do what I’m doing every single day I remind myself how grateful and fortunate I am because there’s those people out there that, whether they be unhealthy or unable, they can’t do that.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk overcoming challenges. You mentioned that arthritis. I wanted to delve into that as well. For someone who is fit and healthy to be sort of diagnosed with something like that, must be, I don’t want to use the word ‘catastrophic’, but it must be a huge thing, tell us the story about getting diagnosed and what the symptoms were and what you were thinking at the time?
Chasing Ironman titles and overcoming physical challenges
LIZA RACHETTA: So, probably back in late 2006 I noticed a drop in my strength and just consistency and I still had signed on with the team for 2007 based out of Berrien in California and I moved there and literally every day I’d go out for my rides and we’d go up a climb.
I’d start about one minute, feel good and then all of a sudden it was like lactic acid just building in my muscles and I had absolutely no power and no energy, but I could always manage to hang on or position myself when the races were flat and I could draft, but I just couldn’t put out any sustainable power.
Over the months I realized I’d be waking up in the middle of the night, my ankle, my wrists, some part of my body would swell up and I just assumed I needed to ice it and I didn’t really know why and unfortunately the worst thing is I kept racing, took a few months, finally went to the doctor, they did a blood panel and I was given the diagnosis and this was pretty much the end of the season and yeah, devastation.
I certainly just took a step back and I thought, I might not even be able to ever run 3km.
My doctor told me you’d never be participating at the elite level again and I can keep riding my bike and doing things that feel good, but any weight type bearing exercise, probably not a good idea.
As you can imagine, being active my whole life, I was quite upset, but I didn’t stop riding my bike. However, I also went and did sort of the worst thing and that was I started working more, which created more stress and stress definitely is a trigger of any disease that’s auto immune.
It took me years, probably 3-4 years to sort of start to adjust my lifestyle so that I could get more sleep, I could improve my diet, I could continue exercising, but really monitoring how much I did and how the symptoms were and I also got on an anti-inflammatory type medication that helped with that as well.
When I really started to come back into the sport of cycling, was through my husband and going back to Europe and seeing if I could actually race at the highest level and you know, I didn’t have any amazing performances. I hung in there, but just the fact that I could train and race at that level, to me meant I’m not done.
BRAD BROWN: Bouncing back from something like that. There must have been times where you’re sitting and you’re just in despair and you think this is it. How do you as an athlete bounce back? Some are obviously bigger than others, but when you’re in that moment, it feels like it’s life changing, how do you bounce back from something like that?
LIZA RACHETTA: I think a key thing is having an emotional support system of friends and family around you and not, to be honest with you, I did a little bit of research and then it just got me more and more depressed, so I continued to figure out what things in my life that were positive that I could continue to do and maybe it would improve and basically that’s the case.
All my blood tests have improved in the last 5 years and things really obviously turned around for the better.
BRAD BROWN: It’s an incredible story. Let’s touch on your Kona performance last year if we can, I mentioned you’ve been around the sport a long time, but your first experience of Kona was back in the late 90’s. You’ve been a few times, it’s starting to become old hat, isn’t it?
LIZA RACHETTA: Somewhat, I definitely know the environment, the course, everything, yeah.
BRAD BROWN: What keeps you coming back?
LIZA RACHETTA: I think the enthusiasm of all the athletes and that you’re racing basically the best of the best throughout the world and being on that playing field on that day, there’s really nothing like it.
There’s nothing like hearing that cannon go off. Now it goes off a few times, and starting the day and all the work that you’ve done leading up to it, it’s actually, when you start that race, it’s a relief because you’ve made it to the start line, hopefully you’re healthy and you’re ready to see what you can do on the day.
BRAD BROWN: We all sort of remember our first Ironman and what that experience is like. I haven’t been lucky enough to experience racing in Kona, but you probably remember your first experience on the Big Island. Is it sill as special every time you go?
Ironman Kona – The magic of the big island
LIZA RACHETTA: To be honest, yeah, I think it’s important to remember how special it is. The first time, it definitely was amazing, but I’ve also seen the race change from 1999 to this last year and each year there’s always something different that really inspires me.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s touch on this year’s race, you finished 2nd in your age group, as far as the race itself goes, would you say it was one of your better performances or is there unfinished business on that island?
LIZA RACHETTA: Oh yeah, I always think, I’m hard on myself, I always think I can improve. In fact, I made it through the bike okay until about mile one hundred and this was the first year that I ever had some mild cramping sensations.
I typically have pretty decent nutrition throughout the race but I’m not sure if you know, this year was just a bit hotter and I really felt that effect on the bike and I had enough hydration, but maybe just a little bit not enough sodium. So I was really careful and got a bit more electrolytes and sodium in me the last ten miles or so and I actually sat down for longer than normal in the transition to kind of absorb that and get ready for the run.
But I ran faster in my qualifying race in Cozumel in November, so I actually, you know, I know that’s probably been one of my weaker areas of the three. I really think I can improve on my run.
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting, do you feel pressure in an Ironman event, obviously with your background being a very strong cyclist and having raced on pro teams for many years, do you feel that pressure coming in, that almost people are looking at you and expecting you to absolutely smash the bike course and having the best bike splits?
LIZA RACHETTA: Yeah, in fact when I came back in 2012 I had an okay bike, but nothing amazing and my coach at the time was a little bit shocked that I didn’t have this incredible bike and I sort of had to remind them, I’m not a time trialist, that’s not my specialty.
But, I have been able to work on it over time and it has gotten better and people do think you’re going to have this amazing bike, let’s be honest with you, they say the full Ironman race really doesn’t start until mile 80 and that is definitely if not later, a factor, because you can be a good cyclist, but if you don’t fuel and use your nutrition properly, you’re going to have a tough way back from the turnaround the last 30 miles.
BRAD BROWN: Have you got things pretty much dialed in from a training perspective and nutrition and strategy perspective? You’ve been doing this for a while, do you still try things out and test things, or are you pretty satisfied with what you do and you stick to that and see how it goes?
The importance of planning recovery time
LIZA RACHETTA: That’s one of my favorite parts about the last three years since I’ve really come back into the sport and being a coach is, I’m always training and trying a few new things, not obviously on the day of the race, but leading up to it I really like to have the nutrition to where I look forward to eating what I have with me on the bike and the run. And my bike position might change a little bit and the training itself, yeah, that definitely evolves, it changes.
Not only as you age, but sort of what your body might respond to better. Some people might respond to volume better, some people might respond to speed work better.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about the changes, particularly from an aging body perspective. I think that’s one thing that triathletes really struggle with is they tend to get faster and faster but then age starts catching up and performances start slipping. How does one deal with that?
LIZA RACHETTA: You know, one of the best things that’s actually free is sleep and I am a big believer in getting enough recovery and sleep, not only after a session, but days that you have maybe off work or off training.
This is an area that I find a lot of people, especially if they’re working at a high level position or job, they tend to be maybe a little bit more night owls and during the week, maybe not getting quite enough sleep and that, to me, if you’re setting some goals up for 2016, definitely trying to increase those hours and have them be hours that you’re sleeping, getting into the deep REM sleep. That’s one area.
Another area as well is, just eating healthy and having proper nutrition. I know a number of people realize, okay, I’ve done a hard session, I can just go and eat whatever, but it’s basically just like putting bad fuel into your car, it’s not going to run as well after a while.
BRAD BROWN: You might be able to get away with it once or twice, but the long term compounding effect of both that nutrition and the sleep, it can do serious damage in the long run.
LIZA RACHETTA: Yeah, for sure.
BRAD BROWN: Liza, looking at the time you spent with the pro cycling team and often people say, oh, pro athletes have got it a lot easier than age groupers because they’re essentially getting paid to rest, it’s not that they’re getting paid to train, do you think that having that background, being part of the pro team has been an advantage to you as an age group triathlete, or has it been a disadvantage?
LIZA RACHETTA: I think it has been an advantage. The atmosphere of the teams I’ve been on, I’ve been very fortunate, it’s quite positive and you all of a sudden have people that are encouraging and happy for you when you do do well.
But you also have to remember, like you said, just being a pro athlete, you don’t necessarily, those hours and that extra time you have, there’s also a very high rate of depression. I know in professional cycling there is and I’m sure a lot of other sports, but having the pressure to perform, be at your best, a lot of times really takes its toll on athletes throughout a season and multiple seasons.
BRAD BROWN: It’s so funny you say that because I see that quite often with age group triathletes, particularly the younger guys and girls who perform really well in age group ranks and they decide they’re going to turn pro as triathletes and it’s almost like, all of a sudden they’ve got all this extra time on their hands and they don’t tend to perform as well.
Would you recommend people err on the side of caution before turning pro as a triathlete, maybe stick it out in the age group ranks, even if it’s a part time job, just to keep something outside of the sport to keep you engaged, that you’re not just over thinking and over analyzing things all the time?
LIZA RACHETTA: Yeah, you know what, everyone is different, so in terms of their response to the lifestyle and that transition, I think if they have experience for many years as an athlete in other sports, they might be able to handle that a bit better, but I could see the transition being quite tough.
I know when I got into pro cycling I had those exact problems. Here I had all the time in the world, but I actually didn’t have a lot of money, so one of the first things I did was I cancelled my coach and cancelled things that were actually very necessary to my health and my training and my happiness and I find that’s very important. You’ve got to have that, to me it’s that work/life/family balance.
You may be quite a bit busier, but you need to learn how to multi task and that’s simply what I do. I’m lucky enough, I can set my own work hours, so I can work that around my training, but I don’t have a lot of free time and I really need to balance that time carefully.
Do you really need a coach to achieve your Kona dream?
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about coaching and the importance of coaching. You run a coaching business yourself, but as an athlete, I see a few athletes, up to age group World Championship levels self-coaching, do you think it’s important to have a coach or can you wing this thing and do it on your own?
LIZA RACHETTA: I think if you have enough experience you can do it on your own. There are, like you said, a number of fantastic self-coached athletes. I personally don’t want to be responsible for my own training. I like to hand it over.
BRAD BROWN: Why is that? Can I jump in Liza, why is that?
LIZA RACHETTA: Yeah, I don’t trust myself and to be honest, that’s exactly what took me out of the sport in 1999. I was training myself, I had 7 weeks between Ironman Canada where I qualified and Ironman Hawaii and I was 25 at the time.
I was amped up and I just thought I needed to train harder and more for the Worlds and I had so much pain and I had no idea why I had this pain in my knee and a year and a half, to be honest, figure it out and finally ended up getting surgery on it.
That was the best lesson for me as an athlete that I should not be in control of my training. Since then, pretty much, I’ve had a coach and I’ve been fortunate the last 10 years to actually have the same coach. I find it’s critical, most athletes, they know themselves better oftentimes than the coach, but if you have a long-term development relationship with your coach, I find that being, I’m even at more of an advantage because my coach knows just how to give me the right amount of training to get the best results out of me.
BRAD BROWN: What should someone look for in a coach?
LIZA RACHETTA: I think an extensive question at the beginning, in terms of finding if they have the right type of relationship that’s going to fit with their needs is pretty important.
I have a couple, I use training peaks, I’m one of those certified coaches, I’m also an Ironman University certified coach. In the beginning, in setting up sort of expectations of your coach and of the athlete, they have to be pretty parallel and it will take some time to sort of get that, it’s sort of like a relationship.
You have to grow along with your athlete and it’s pretty exciting when you do see a lot of the breakthrough workouts and breakthrough performances.
BRAD BROWN: How rewarding is that for you from a coaching perspective, seeing people along that journey and seeing them start out and setting goals, whether it be to complete a sprint triathlon or an Olympic distance or possibly an Ironman or possibly qualified race in Kona, how rewarding is that for you, seeing those dreams and goals coming into fruition?
LIZA RACHETTA: I have to say it’s incredibly way more rewarding than my own racing and that’s what just motivates me, literally, every day, to get up.
It could actually, I think factor into a lot of what helps me in my training, is I have all these athletes out there working hard, putting in the time in the swim, bike and run and seeing them cross the finish line or do the PR’s, it just gives me goose bumps because I’m able to work with these people and this sport might be changing their life.
BRAD BROWN: Talking of the sport changing lives, if you weren’t doing this, what do you reckon you would have been doing?
LIZA RACHETTA: If I wasn’t doing triathlons?
BRAD BROWN: If you weren’t cycling and you weren’t into triathlon, what do you think you’d be doing for a living?
LIZA RACHETTA: That’s a good question, I’m not actually sure. I would probably still be in some form of a fitness environment, with my arthritis, it’s hard to say.
I’ve been very interested in specializing in strength training, but I personally am not able to do a lot of heavy lifting, so that’s kind of out of the question, but I’m sure I’d still be in some kind of environment that had to do with teaching.
BRAD BROWN: As far as what you still want to achieve in the sport of triathlon, what’s still on the list?
LIZA RACHETTA: I definitely have an interest in experiencing, I’m not sure of racing, but a number of the courses around the world that are very popular, like Ironman New Zealand, Ironman Coeur d’Alene.
There’s some that have been around a long, long time and I find, as a coach, it’s very important to have, not only the training leading up those races, but the actual course conditions and temperature and how the races play out on those specific courses.
BRAD BROWN: Looking at the cycling side of things, coming up, as we’re recording this, you’re in Australia, you’re actually based in California, but you’re in Australia at the moment for the 2016 Tour Down Under, are there still things you want to achieve in professional cycling that you haven’t yet achieved?
LIZA RACHETTA: You know, I’ve been fortunate there where I’ve done nearly as many races as I’d like to do and my goal until I finish professional cycling, is actually to be helping those developing and up and coming riders gain experience and achieve wins and victories in their races.
I was fortunate enough to be here for the beginning of the year for Ballarat, had a wonderful criterium team that I guess rode on and one of those riders won the Australian Criterium Championship just this last week and to be honest, I’m not her coach, I’m just a friend and was a team mate, but she thanked me for helping her in those criteriums and it maybe could have helped her at some point win that race.
To me that’s just incredibly rewarding, so to continue, because the developing riders and younger riders coming into the sport, they have many years in front of them and the knowledge of racing in the US and racing in Europe for the UCI races, it takes a lot of time to really perform well at that level.
BRAD BROWN: Liza, you’ve also been around women’s cycling for a while. I asked you earlier how the sport of triathlon has changed, but women’s cycling has changed over, I don’t want to say over the last decade, over the last few years. It’s really starting to grow and getting the recognition it deserves.
LIZA RACHETTA: Yeah, it’s evolving tremendously and this will be the first year in 2016 that the women have their own world tour and the races as well in the UCI level are more organized and getting more respect and more exposure.
When I did this women’s Tour Down Under in 2010, there was a number of criteriums and they were sort of off-site and they weren’t even actually connected with the actual Tour Down Under men’s race, but this coming Saturday, we actually have our presentation the same night as the men’s and that is definitely a sign that things are changing for the better.
BRAD BROWN: It is great news. I’ve got a couple of friends who race on the international circuit and I follow women’s cycling pretty closely and it’s exciting. I think it is well deserved and about time too.
I think it’s great and congratulations to you as well for the role that you’ve played in it. I think you’ve mentored a lot of young cyclists and proved that you can stick around for a while.
LIZA RACHETTA: Yeah.
BRAD BROWN: Liza, I want to thank you for your time today on The Kona Edge. I look forward to welcoming you back to chat, just a little bit about the various disciplines and some of the things you’ve done to get better over the years and improve your performance, but we’ll save that for another time, much appreciated.
LIZA RACHETTA: Sure, thank you so much.