What started on a whim has turned into a love affair of epic proportions for med student Federica de Nicola. Hailing from Milan in Italy Federica share her passion for the Ironman and the sport of triathlon. This is her story.
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BRAD BROWN: We head to Milan, in Italy now, and it’s a great pleasure to welcome Federica de Nicola onto the podcast.
Federica, welcome onto The Kona Edge. Thanks for joining us today.
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Thank you Brad.
BRAD BROWN: Federica, I’m super excited to have you on. You’re the first Italian that we’ve got onto the podcast so hopefully the first of many.
Tell me a little bit about your journey into the sport. You haven’t been around triathlon for that long. It’s only been a few years that you’ve been in the sport now if I’m correct.
With an awful race you will be happy to finish
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Yes, that’s correct, I started just 3 years ago and I was totally new to it. I don’t come from any of these 3 sports. It started as a bet and I enrolled in an Ironman 70.3 just to finish it and be the first among my friends and I participated and finished it in 6 hours, I had an awful race but I was so happy to be a finisher that I fell in love with the sport and started to train seriously to improve my abilities and become better and better.
BRAD BROWN: I love that fact, and Federica was there wine involved in this bet?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: No, it was my ex-boyfriend and I wanted to finish it before him. So it was a great win for me.
BRAD BROWN: Fantastic. Federica from a sporting background perspective, have you always been fairly active?
Apply your competitive nature in triathlon
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Yes, but just to keep fit. I was not ever competitive; I just ran in the park and didn’t do any competitive races. Nothing serious. But triathlon changed that part of me because now I’m very competitive.
BRAD BROWN: Were you competitive in other parts of your life? Growing up, academically when you were studying, were you trying to be first? Did you have a competitive streak in you?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Yes, definitely. In high school I competed in the national translation competition of ancient Latin and Greek and I was the Italian champion. That is another kind of competition.
BRAD BROWN: But it’s still the competitiveness and by the sounds of it you’ve taken that competitive nature that’s always been in you and applied it to triathlon.
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Yes, that’s true. I just changed the kind of competition.
BRAD BROWN: Federica, what do you do for a living? Work wise, what do you do?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: I’m a medical student so I have a long way to go still. I’m only 24 and medicine usually takes 6 years plus the residency. So I’ll be ready to work around 30 years old. It’s a long way.
BRAD BROWN: Where do you get the time to train and study? If you’re in med school it’s not an easy course to be doing. You must be good at time management.
Altering study schedules to get your training in
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Yes, definitely. I usually wake up at 5 o’clock every day and start the day with a swim session. Last year I used to go to university every day so I had less time to train. This year I talked to my professors and they accepted to let me have a different frequency at university so I just go when I have to do exams. I’ll be ready to graduate in 7 years instead of 6. But that’s a great thing for me because I can train and manage my time in a different way and have time to rest. So I can study from home and train throughout the whole day. That’s basically my routine.
BRAD BROWN: Federica, that first half Ironman that you did, you said you finished in 6 hours which in your mind isn’t a great time. Was it on that day that you decided I like this, I want to get fast and I want to get better?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Not on that day. That day I just fell in love with the sport. Then I started to train with a team and I started to be competitive with my team mates, I wanted to be better than them and I wanted to win something.
So I found a coach and I asked him to get me to the 70.3 World Championships. In 2015 I enrolled in Ironman 70.3 Barcelona and I took the slot for the 70.3 Ironman World Championships. That year I was sixth in my age group so it was a great achievement for me.
Triathlon journey really starts after qualifying for Kona
At the end of that year I decided it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to do something more and I wanted to take part in an Ironman. So at the end of the year I enrolled in Ironman Cozumel and I arrived at the finish line really tired. I was completely destroyed from the race but it was the best feeling I’ve ever felt in my life and I qualified for Kona. That was the start of my real triathlon journey.
BRAD BROWN: That is amazing. Did you go to that first Ironman in Cozumel, knowing that you wanted to get a Kona slot, was that the goal? Or knowing that you hadn’t been that distance before, you just wanted to finish and see how you went? How did you approach it?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: In the beginning, it was that I just wanted to finish Ironman Cozumel in the November and understand how the distance is different from the 70.3 and then next year I will try to take the slot. But I kept it really cool and I arrived at the finish line in 10:50 which was not a bad time in my opinion and I took the slot. So I thought ok, that’s my race, that’s my distance. I’ll take it as a sign.
The following year I wanted to do another Ironman because I didn’t want to go to Kona with just one Ironman on my shoulders. So I enrolled in Ironman France. That was my favourite race because it is really hilly and there is long climbs in there and I love climbs on the bike. I was first in my age group and thirtieth overall. That was a great achievement for me and it was great training for Kona.
Giving your all and finishing second at Ironman Kona
Then I went to Kona and I gave it my all but I died on the last 10k’s of the run and I was first in my age group up to 30km where I died and arrived at the finish line second. Hopefully this year I won’t die at 30km and manage to do better.
BRAD BROWN: What made Kona so tough that last stretch on the run? Looking back now, what do you think it was?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: It was too hilly for me. I was prepared on the bike for the hills and the wind and the hot and humid weather. But I didn’t think the run was so hilly. My muscles just couldn’t stand it.
BRAD BROWN: As far as preparations from that Ironman to this year, obviously the goal is to go back in 2017. Are you doing anything differently? Have you changed much about the way you are training?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: I’m doing more strength exercises in the 3 disciplines. I have never been very strong as I was just keeping fit so my muscles weren’t very developed. Then I started going to the gym twice a week. During my weekly training I have a specific strength session in the swim, the bike and the run. In the swim I use a lot of paddles and things. On the bike I always do slow frequency repetitions; they are one of my favourite workouts. And on the run I use the treadmill with a 3% incline and I run at a fast pace for 30 seconds. Run for 30 seconds and stop for 30 seconds and that’s really a great exercise for your calves. These 3 training sessions are really improving my training.
Training on hills to improve Ironman performance
BRAD BROWN: Federica, let’s talk about the experience of racing in Kona and being prepared. Italy, I don’t know too much about Milan to be honest. But I know from watching cycling particularly in Europe and the Giro d’Italia, it’s not the flattest of places. Yes there are parts that are flat but as far as the cycling and the routes that you would generally ride, you mentioned you like the hills. You fancied the Nice course and that Ironman Nice course is pretty tough, that cycle is hard. Do you get to ride lots of hills around where you live?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Actually, Milan is the flattest part of Italy. During the weekends I usually take the car and go to the lakes. There are 2 big lakes close to Milan that are 1 hour away. That is Lake Maggiore and Lake Como. The Como Lake is pretty famous around the world I think.
My long bike session is usually going around the whole lake and around the lake there are many mountains and hills, so you can have different climbs with different inclines. But also flat rides around the lake.
It’s a good place to ride and biking comes easy because there are good places and good panorama, so it’s definitely my favourite.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me a little bit about the triathlon scene in Italy. Like I said, I know cycling is pretty big. Triathlon, is it growing?
Ironman stories attract the locals
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Triathlon is really growing. We have 2 Ironman events in Italy now. That is Ironman Italy that will take place for the first time in September and the half Ironman Italy that took place last week. Short course triathlon is pretty popular but there are not many people who actually practise for it.
There are more Ironman that go around the world and leave the experience of Ironman as a story or as something to attract them. But the sad thing I would say is that triathlon is not really popular among the national sports. So the federation is not well known and there are not many sponsors. We are looking abroad to feel comfortable with this. We are trying to have a bigger movement but it’s not so easy. But it will come in the next few years.
BRAD BROWN: Federica, what was it that made you fall in love with the sport, after that 70.3? What do you love about the sport of triathlon and particularly Ironman?
The unique gratification of Ironman
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: I love 2 things the most. The first thing is that you can’t predict the race because it’s such a long race that anything can happen. So you can have a plan and stick to a plan. You have to have a plan of course, because it’s a long journey. You can’t just say ok, I’ll do my Ironman today. There are so many different conditions that involve your health, the weather, and mechanics in your bike that anything can happen before the finish line.
The other thing that I love is you really prepare for this journey and the fact that you live the experience throughout the journey, are really rewarding at the finish line. At the finish line it’s you with your experience and you say ok, I did this and it’s all my work. So the gratification is something unique in my opinion.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, and particularly in this day and age where everything is about immediate gratification. Whereas training for an Ironman, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes months and if you put the right training in and you do the hard work, race day is a celebration for all the hard work that you’ve done. A reward where you get to celebrate the months and months of hard work you’ve put in.
Set another target when Ironman disappointment strikes
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Yes, exactly that it is. It’s something you say ok I worked hard, I sacrificed a lot of time, a lot of energy but it was worth it. And when it’s not worth it, it’s delusional. The only delusion I had was in South Africa this year. I was prepared, I was in top shape. But then I got a flat on the bike and I lost like 20 minutes on the bike and I didn’t have the result I expected. That was awful. It was such a delusion that all my work didn’t pay off. But that is part of Ironman as I was saying before. The fascinating thing is that you can’t predict what is going to happen on race day. So you have to deal with that and just look for the next race.
BRAD BROWN: How do you deal with disappointment? By the sounds of it, you almost burst onto the scene. You qualified for Kona at your first attempt at an Ironman. But like you say, at Ironman South Africa this year you had a disappointment. How do you deal with it from a mental perspective? What do you say to yourself to not beat yourself up that something like that does happen that is out of your control?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: My reaction was I’m enrolling in Ironman Lanzarote one month later. I told myself that I was ready, I was going to smash it and no matter what, I was going to Kona. It worked for me because I had another target and I was working hard for it and at Lanzarote I took the slot for Kona again. So I think having another target is a good thing to deal with the stress and the disappointment.
Ironman Kona treats you like a hero
BRAD BROWN: You’ve been to Kona before, you’re going again. What is it that is so special about Kona? What is the attraction?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Kona is something unique itself. The whole of race week is a sort of triathlon party. You feel like a hero. They make you feel like a hero. Everywhere you go, you have your Kona bracelet and the people are staring at you and make you feel like you did something extraordinary. The whole Kailua Kona village is becoming a sort of giant expo and you go around the streets and everybody is giving you free things or gifts and there is an atmosphere that is so special. If you have never been there you can’t really understand what it is like being there.
Race day is something extraordinary. The day before, when you go to the transition zone, they make you feel like you are the most important athlete in the world. You have volunteers helping you. Taking care of your bike, taking care of you. Explaining everything. Giving you all the advice and all the information you will need for race day. You are among many athletes who are in the same position. There is a general excitement everywhere you go and it’s something fantastic because you are sharing your journey with other people that are sharing the same passion and come from all around the world to experience this in Hawaii, so it’s wow and it’s extraordinary.
BRAD BROWN: Federica, your first one you mentioned you sort of blew up on the run and hung on for second. You are going back this year obviously with the ambition to win. That’s the plan.
Getting your mental Ironman game on
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Yes, of course that’s the plan. But as it happened in South Africa I can’t predict what will happen on race day but of course I’m training hard to improve my placement. That’s the aim.
BRAD BROWN: What’s the biggest lesson that Ironman has taught you, the biggest life lesson?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Hard work pays off may be something that you can take from Ironman. But the thing, in my opinion, that is most important is determination. Because Ironman is mostly a mental game.
You can train hard, you can be the fastest on the bike, the fastest on the run, and the best swimmer in the world but if you are not dealing with your mental games you won’t win any race in my opinion. Because there are many moments during the race in which you want to stop. Just listen to your body because it’s complaining, asking you to stop the pain. But if you have good motivation, great determination, you will deal with it and you will keep on going. So it’s really the thing that your mental games are bringing you to your target more than your body and the physical preparation.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about your mental challenges and how you get over them. Everyone talks about the 3 disciplines, the swim, the bike and the run. But you are right; it is such a mental game. What are some of the things that you do to mentally prepare yourself and also to mentally make yourself stronger? But then also, on race day when you are struggling, to get yourself out of those deep holes and the dark patches, mentally?
Visualisation prepares you for a good Ironman performance
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Before the race I do a lot of visualisation. So, I make sure I know the course so that I can imagine myself during the course and imagine all the possible situations. I think if I get a flat here, I’ll do this. If I have cramps in this place I’ll do that. Because on race day you aren’t that ready to think of plan B. You have to have a certain amount of motivation in the beginning, so I make sure to prepare myself in advance.
Then on race day, as I said before I’m really competitive, I think about all the other girls that are against me and I think why can’t I be better than them? There’s no reason I can’t be better than them so I keep pushing as hard as I can.
A couple of months ago I read an interview of Sebastian Kehl and I read a phrase that became my mantra and that is; if it’s hurting me it’s killing them. So, every time I’m struggling I think if it’s hurting me it’s killing them. And I keep on going and I think it will be worth it.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, I think it’s fantastic. Federica, we’ve got a lot of triathletes who are just starting out in the sport that listens to this podcast. What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in the sport and thinking of possibly doing their first Ironman?
Is motivation enough to get you to the Ironman finish line?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: The first thing is have fun during training. If you are not having fun while you are training, you won’t get there. Because if you are struggling you just won’t make it because your motivation won’t be enough. You will be frustrated and it won’t be worth it.
The second thing is don’t be so lonely. Everybody says that Ironman is a one sided journey and I agree with that but that is only on race day. During the preparation you have to share your journey with your family and with your friends. With your coach and with your teammates. I think this is really important to improve yourself and also learn something from the others experiences.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned your coach. Did you get a coach straight away when you first started in the sport? Or did you, after that 70.3 decide you know what I want to get better at this, I need to get help?
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: No. After the 70.3 I decided I needed some help and having an external eye on what you are doing is fundamental in my opinion. Because the risk of doing too much or to lose sight of what you are doing is really high.
So it’s really important to me to have a coach that tells me I have to rest or ok, now it’s time to push.
BRAD BROWN: You obviously have that ambition to head back to Ironman Kona in 2017 and win, but what do you still want to achieve in the sport? Beyond Kona 2017, what do you want to achieve?
Setting the benchmark to turn pro
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: This year the great test is for me to see if I can get somewhere further in the sport. Not just to be a good age grouper. I only started in the sport in 2014 but in 3 years I have really improved.
So, this year if I can achieve some great results in the overall, not just in my age group, I can think of besting for next year. And thinking of my studies as well, just slow them down so that I can manage to be a pro.
If this year I see that I had my peak performance last year and I won’t improve any better, I will keep going to be a good age grouper and keep on with my studies. And maybe do something that will be a sort of physician, coach, athlete. I don’t know where it will go.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the coach that you mentioned, what do you look for in an Ironman coach? What is important to you?
The purpose of your Ironman coach
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: I don’t really need a coach that motivates me because I have a lot of motivation myself. But I need a coach that tells me what to do specifically, scientifically during training. Because not coming from any of the sports I lack a lot of abilities in the swim, in the bike and in the run.
I need a person who tells me the right way to do things. The things I have to look for during training and during the race.
The other important thing is that my coach has to be close to me in my opinion. I live in Milan and my coach lives in Milan and I see him about 4 times a week. So it’s really important that your coach sees you. Sees your improvements and sees you also psychologically so that he can understand if you are tired, if you are not training well because you have something on your mind. Or you are improving because you are in a good mood, etc.
BRAD BROWN: Fantastic. Well Federica thank you so much for joining us on this episode of The Kona Edge. I look forward to chatting to you about the individual disciplines but we will save that for another time. Thanks for your time today.
FEDERICA DE NICOLA: Thanks a lot Brad. It was a pleasure.
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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