On this edition of The Kona Edge we head to Melbourne Australia to learn more about Lesley West and her journey to Ironman Kona. We chat about how she transitioned from netball to triathlons as well as what her first Ironman experience was like on the Big Island.
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BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge, my name is Brad Brown; it’s good to be with you. Thank you so much for listening and downloading this podcast and we head to Melbourne in Australia now to catch up with our next guest, Lesley West. Lesley, welcome onto the podcast, thanks for joining me.
LESLEY WEST: Hi Brad, thanks for having me.
BRAD BROWN: Lesley, it’s great to have you on and that was one sentence, straight away I can tell that’s not an Australian accent, where are you originally from? You’re not Aussie.
LESLEY WEST: Well, technically I’m not Aussie although I am now a citizen. No, I’m from Glasgow, born and bred.
BRAD BROWN: Scotland, vastly different to Melbourne, Australia?
LESLEY WEST: Yes, very different, very different weather, which is pretty much why we upped and moved. I did make my way gradually south through England and ended up in London for a few years and then we made the big move across.
BRAD BROWN: No looking back, obviously climate-wise you can’t compare.
LESLEY WEST: No, that’s it, and the lifestyle, just the outdoors and just very different. Miss family and friends at home, obviously and Scotland will always be home-home, but for now Melbourne, certainly yeah is home.
BRAD BROWN: As far as Australia goes, I mean Melbourne, I know I’m probably going to alienate half of our Australian listeners, but Melbourne is the sporting capital. There’s just so much outside of triathlon that goes on in Melbourne. I think of the Aussie Open tennis, there’s so much that happens in Melbourne isn’t it?
LESLEY WEST: There’s loads, obviously Aussie Rules is a big part of Aussie life and there’s just always something, if you wanted to go and watch anything or people to run with or just so many people just always out and about, regardless of the weather really, even though we get a bit of rain.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to say, we were talking before we started recording. You said you’re getting a bit soft after six years in Australia, you’re now heading out with arm warmers and leg warmers, there’s no ways you’d ever be able to run, swim, bike if you had to go back to Scotland.
LESLEY WEST: If I went home and still wanted to do triathlon, I guarantee almost everything would be indoors. Our concept of what is cold is definitely very different now.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Tell me about your sporting background; have you always been sporty growing up, where do you come from?
LESLEY WEST: Yeah, my background was in netball. My mom played, my sisters played, I grew up with it from a fairly young age, probably seven or eight and just always enjoyed out and about, running around, always good at PE, really enjoyed it, but didn’t really do any other sport other than that. Grew up with it, kept playing netball to a fairly decent level, played age group national level. Scotland aren’t really known for their netball and expertise, but I made my way up the ranks and played up until I moved to Australia really.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the transition into triathlon, netball, obviously it’s a team sport and triathlon not so much, particularly the long stuff, the long drafting, was it a difficult transition for you?
LESLEY WEST: No, not really. Basically what happened, I was playing, I was doing a lot of netball back in London and we were moving out to Australia and the big dream was, I’m going to the home of netball, this will be brilliant, I’ll find a team and a club. I just found it really difficult in Melbourne where I wasn’t quite good enough to play at state level and the level below that seemed to be a lot of social or if you didn’t already know people, it was quite hard to get in on that club level which was disappointing because I’d had this big hope of keeping on playing.
I actually couldn’t swim. I’d been terrified of water pretty much my whole life and it always just annoyed me. It wasn’t I’m determined to get over this; I just found it really irritating. I had this irrational fear of water, so decided that the best way to get over it was to just give triathlon a go or I’d give it a go and then find a coach and actually learn to swim. I did that within a few months of us moving to Australia. I quickly immersed myself in the community and with my club and so those people then became my friends and family around us.
BRAD BROWN: I find it interesting that you went the triathlon route. I understand the swimming, there’s a huge swimming culture in Australia, why triathlon and not stand-alone swimming?
LESLEY WEST: I genuinely could not swim a stroke, so I couldn’t rely on that. I don’t know, there’s something about it, I think running has always come naturally to me and obviously years of netball, I’ve got an incredibly high cadence when I run, which I put down to my years of netball. I did a little bit of commute and then I just had seen this thing called triathlon and thought, that sounds pretty good but I’m going to have to get over this fear of water. It was intrigue really. I certainly didn’t expect to be a couple of years down the line and it’s all encompassing part time job type of thing.
BRAD BROWN: How long ago was that, that’s five/six years ago?
LESLEY WEST: Yeah, five/six years ago.
BRAD BROWN: It’s all been pretty recent, it’s not that you’ve been around the sport for a long, long time?
LESLEY WEST: Not at all and even now we joke that I remember in my first season, like I said to you, I had a club and a squad right away, so that was what I knew and I just remembered everyone, there was a bunch of people going to this place in Hawaii doing this thing called Ironman and I just remember being really confused because I thought we did triathlon. I couldn’t work out where this Ironman thing was that they were doing. I’m like, oh, is that something different because I thought we were a triathlon club, but I had zero idea. I kind of knew about the Brownlee’s because being around the UK and the Olympics and stuff but that was all I knew. Yeah, I’ve just fully absorbed myself in it.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve obviously fallen in love with it, the first one didn’t go too badly, tell me about that first one?
LESLEY WEST: The first one, we were laughing about this. It was actually almost six years ago this weekend and I did have, it was basically a mini try. It was 300m swim, 10km bike and I think a 3km run and I think I was something like 45th in my age group out of the water, I can’t remember what I did on the bike, but I managed to run my way into 7th, which I was pretty happy about. At that point it was okay, this is pretty good because I get to pass people. I was so far back out of the water but I got to run past everyone. I don’t know, then I thought, I could definitely get better at this and that was it. I sort of tried to find a club and yeah, threw myself right into it.
BRAD BROWN: It’s amazing the psychological benefit of being a weaker swimmer as opposed to being a weaker runner and passing people as opposed to being passed, that plays a huge thing, particularly when you go longer.
LESLEY WEST: Oh, huge, 100%. I remember doing one race on a local tri circuit and I think this was before I’d done any long course and something had obviously gone wrong but actually gone right. I think I came off the bike in the lead in my age group and all of a sudden I was like, I don’t know what to do because I’m usually chasing someone and now I’m being chased and I don’t know how to handle this and I just ran, did what I could, it was 5km but it was totally different psychological feeling of being chased rather than I’m always chasing people.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me about the move to long course. It’s one thing doing shorter triathlons but deciding to go half Ironman distance, full Ironman distance, that’s a totally different beast.
LESLEY WEST: Yeah, so I did the Duathlon Worlds in 2015 in Adelaide and then people were talking about Ballarat 70.3 which was in the December. I don’t know, I think I just, I realized that I really enjoyed going for long rides and I liked doing the long runs. We’d sort of worked out that I was never going to be a fast swimmer, but I could get a pace I could pretty much hold onto, but I just enjoyed the thought of going out and riding for four, five, six hours or doing those long runs. So, decided oh yeah, I’ll give Ballarat a go and interestingly, it was part of the qualifying year for Sunny Coast Worlds in 2016.
All the big guns started coming out because of course everybody wanted to qualify for the home World Champs. I had no idea even at that point what’s this World Champs thing, I didn’t really know what I was doing. Yeah, decided to give Ballarat a go, so that was my first 70.3, so that was December 2015. Really enjoyed it but made a bunch of rookie errors on nutrition and pacing and lost my timing chip and everything that could happen just went wrong, but it was great fun.
BRAD BROWN: Isn’t that always the case though with the longer ones, everything never goes 100% right, there’s always something you can improve on and I think that’s part of what keeps us coming back for more.
LESLEY WEST: I agree because I think once you get to that point, and I think the race I did after that, that was the December and the February I did Geelong and the thing that made me go, wait a minute, I’ve made these mistakes, I reckon I can fix them for next time. You fix those things or you aim to fix those things and then there’s something else. For those sorts of A Type personalities as well, I think you’re never going to be quite satisfied. You do, you’re always going, I can do this a bit better or sort out something. I think it does come down to how you then deal with those things on race day but also afterwards.
BRAD BROWN: Have you always been competitive, I mean on the netball side of things have you always wanted to –
LESLEY WEST: Yeah.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think that is key to being successful at Ironman and particularly racing on the Big Island?
LESLEY WEST: Yes, but what I always say, I think there’s also, I’m going to say yes but [** 0.11.00] competitiveness or mindset and the ability to tap into a mindset. Yes, I’ve always been competitive. If I lied and said no and people that know me heard this, they would call me out on it! I also am competitive with myself as much as anything, but the way I always see it, am I always quicker than other people physically? I don’t know, but I have an ability to sort of push myself that little bit more and really work hard and tap into that mental, the mental side of it. I think you can train yourself to do it, but obviously I think some people have that naturally and maybe others not so much, which can come through as being competitive.
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting you say that because I think that also can come from environments that you grow up in. Not that you had a tough childhood or that sort of thing but growing up in harsher conditions, I think may also cultivate that in someone. I know this is probably a difficult question to answer but obviously Scotland is not, from a conditions point of view, it’s a tough place to grow up in. It’s harsh, weather-wise, do you think some of it could have come from there?
LESLEY WEST: I don’t know, I did indoor sport, I didn’t really play outdoor sports, other than playing football, as in soccer, there aren’t that many sports that people do outdoors, which is a shame and it’s one of the things that brought us to Melbourne, is that lifestyle. I don’t know. I think it’s funny because my mom will sort of, I think being serious and she’ll say, “I don’t know where you get your competitive streak from.” You sort of look and go really? You! I’ve got nephews back home and they’re competitive, they’re little, they love to run, they play football, they’re pretty competitive, so clearly there is something in the family that filters down.
BRAD BROWN: I’ve got a daughter who is like that, my youngest and everything is a race, like everything! She hates losing, she’s going to be an absolute monster if she ever gets into sport later on, but it’s funny, some people are born with it, some people obviously try and cultivate it, but either you have it or you don’t, I sort of agree with that. What are some of the things that you, strategies that you employ in times in a race where it’s tough and everyone is hurting? Let’s be honest, Ironman isn’t easy, you go through patches where it hurts and you need to push on or if you back off you’re not going to get the results you’re chasing. What do you do to push on?
LESLEY WEST: I think for me, sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it’s a bad thing. Because I’m always kind of chasing, by the time I come out of the water, whether I realize it or not, there’s something in me pushing me along to try to make up for the lost time. Then there’s partly that, I’ve passed all these people, I can’t let up now because then they’ll think I’ve blown up or they’ll go, well, you shouldn’t have gone so hard to start with. There’s kind of that, when to pass someone and I’m thinking, I’d better not let them pass me again. I think elements of that and then it’s just, I think I’ve just learned that I’ve got that little bit more and breaking things down into chunks, especially on the run, I think, and that for me is just breaking it down into chunks, whether or not it’s mentally going, well, just get to the next aid station and starting to reason with myself.
If you get to the next aid station, you can maybe walk for a little bit or whatever, it depends on the race day. I just know that if I get to finish and I haven’t pushed myself as hard as I can, then I’ll be disappointed, regardless of whether someone has beaten me or I’m the top or I’m the bottom, it doesn’t matter, it’s knowing that I’ve drained every last bit out of me. If I haven’t done it, I know I’ll be disappointed.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about the move to Ironman and particularly the focus on Kona; talk me through that and that process?
LESLEY WEST: It didn’t quite go to plan, the road to my first Ironman. I decided in about April 2017, so two years ago now, I decided I wanted to do WA, so Busselton in the December. I was going back to Scotland and I was doing Edinburgh half in the July and then we decided that would be a great time, spoke to my coach and he agreed, yes, I was ready for this. I think what we’d seen was that, like I said, I’m not a fast swimmer and I can run pretty quick, but where I really come into my own was I have an ability to hold that pacing. We thought, look, I’ll be pretty good at that stronger, where you need the strength.
Yeah, so the plan was for first Ironman, December 2017, build, everything going really well, we were tracking well, it was a great squad of us and then all of a sudden three weeks out, I had a stress fracture in my femur. Three weeks out from race day, game over, I’m on crutches, it doesn’t happen. I was devastated, to say the least. That in itself was mentally really tough because I was so ready for it. As it turned out, that was the year that the swim was cancelled because a shark was spotted partway through, so probably not the worst thing anyway. Well, for me it would have been good because I can’t swim, it wouldn’t have been the ideal situation to get there.
Instead it was a case of rehab, had a great doctor on my side, did my rehab to the T and it’s interesting even that, people say to me, I started with 30 seconds run, 90 seconds walk and 10x and that was my session. People were saying, “I bet you do more,” but no, I played by the rules. There wasn’t a second more, there wasn’t a second less, it was precisely. That is what got me through. That was this time last year, 2018 I had started back running and was back to, had done a lot of riding and we’d decided I was ready to do Cairns.
Basically did Cairns 2018, last year and that was my first one and managed to win my age group and get my spot, my lucky spot to Kona.
BRAD BROWN: That’s amazing, was that the plan, was it to go and to do well enough to get a slot to Kona or was it a case of, we won and we have to go?
LESLEY WEST: I wouldn’t say it’s the plan, but I think we knew, none of us talked about it as such, I didn’t talk about it with my coach or really even my husband. We knew what my ability was in each of the three legs. We knew that I race hard, so I race much harder than I train which is better than the other way around. We know that I know how to race well and that if I pulled it off, I had the potential to do really well. What I found out afterwards was that my coach said, he basically fully expected me to basically do what I did! It wasn’t the aim but we knew that if I pulled it off then I would get a spot, but it was just, came down to, at the end of the day, this is my first one, I’ve had a rocky buildup to it, just go out there and do what you can, learn from that. That was sort of the expectation.
BRAD BROWN: We talk about the difference of climate from Scotland to Melbourne, the difference Scotland to Kona is worlds apart, you can’t get two more opposite. How did you deal with that? Obviously you’d been in Australia a few years, so it wasn’t straight coming out of Scotland but it must still be tough racing there.
LESLEY WEST: Yeah and I mean we came straight out of Melbourne winter, which was pretty cold. There was one ride, I qualified Cairns, I qualified with one of my squad mates which was just amazing and we did a lot of our training together and we’re very similar, so that was great. There was a ride we did up in the hills, at one point it hit -2, -3 degrees, it was cold. Then four weeks later there you are in Hawaii. It was hard. We built in a few, I wouldn’t call it heat chamber sessions, at home in the room with the heating on, with the drier going on a wind trainer for 30 minutes but that was pretty much all I could really do for it. Then just went out there, I think we were there about 11 days before to try and acclimatize as much as possible.
BRAD BROWN: The experience as a whole? Has the bug bitten now that you just want to keep going back or is it, we ticked that box?
LESLEY WEST: No, I want to go back. We love Hawaii anyway, my husband and I, we went there on our honeymoon, we’d gone in 2016 to watch Kona, then went back last year, we love Hawaii! No, the drive is definitely there, like you said, there’s always things that don’t go right and whilst I had a good race in Kona and I think especially for a first timer, it was a good race, but there are lists and lists of things I’d do differently or want to change or improve on. No, I’d love to go back. I haven’t done another race since and I won’t ahead of this year’s Kona, mainly because I have no money left, because it bankrupts you! I think I’d really like to go back and give it another good shot.
BRAD BROWN: What are some of the things you’d like to do differently or improve on?
LESLEY WEST: I think just it’s my pacing a little bit, like I said, I’m always playing catch-up and whether I realize it or not, is it a fault? I don’t know, we haven’t quite worked it out yet. I went a little bit hard, I also dropped my bike nutrition going down Kuakini, so within about 10km of the bike I had dropped five or six gels. Unfortunately I did the rest of the bike on not very much, so little things, but I think also, I did absorb it. I don’t think I let it get to me but you just come back with more experience, just some little things that you pick up on.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about life outside of triathlon, what do you do for a living? How do you get the balance right?
LESLEY WEST: I work in marketing analytics. I’m a statistician by background and I’ve been working in marketing/media/consulting for the past 10+ years. Balance, I don’t know what that is!
BRAD BROWN: Is there such a thing?
LESLEY WEST: Yeah, I’ve never heard of this thing! To be honest with you, training does take up a lot of my time, but I love it. The way I see it, and I remember people before, we said, “When do you see your friends?” I go, I see my friends every single training session. I see my friends more there than I would otherwise. It just the little things and going for coffee and actually on a two week end of season break, at the moment, so that I can build through for the rest of the year. It’s just doing the, I don’t know, just enjoying the small things, spending time with my husband who interestingly, has just taken up triathlon for the first time, even though he vowed he was never doing it! Yeah, that brings something different into the house as well.
BRAD BROWN: He sounds like he’s pretty supportive and you have to have, if you don’t have a partner who is active in the sport, you need that support, particularly if you’re going to go all the way to Kona.
LESLEY WEST: A 100%, I couldn’t ask for more support. I think he came from a fairly high level sporting background as well and so we’ve both always been fairly independent in wanting to achieve different things in sport or just general life. We’re fairly independent, which helps, but now he goes, as long as I get a good holiday out of it, that’s fine. It became known as; it was the ‘glamor races.’ Apparently Kona does count, that’s fine, he’ll go back there! It makes such a difference and having supportive friends, like I say, I’ve made some great friends through our squad and you might be competitive with people on the course, but they’re some of my best friends off, which just helps so much.
BRAD BROWN: How much of your success do you think is simply down to hard work, how much of it is genetics and how much of it is luck?
LESLEY WEST: I think genetics, yeah, there is some there. I’m fairly naturally athletic. My mom was a PE teacher, we’ve always been active, so yeah, I do think there’s elements of, definitely elements of genetics, but I think if you were to ask anyone who knows me and sees how hard I train, so much of it comes down to hard work, especially from the swimming. I’m not exaggerating when I say I couldn’t swim a stroke five or six years ago, just consistent hard work. I think you need to have both luck, is it luck when things go right on race day? Maybe, you create your own luck? I don’t know about the luck thing
BRAD BROWN: It’s interesting, Gary Player, the South African golfer, he used to say, the harder you work, the luckier you get and it sounds like that’s something –
LESLEY WEST: Yeah, I think he’s probably right, that’s probably, I don’t think many people within triathlon would look at it that somebody has been lucky because I think everybody who is in it knows how hard people have to work to get the Kona spot or just to finish. It’s not always about being at that top end, it’s hard work and people put it in and I think there’s a lot of respect across the whole triathlon community, for anybody who completes any distance of race.
BRAD BROWN: What’s the secret to qualifying for Kona? Is there a secret or is it just hard work?
LESLEY WEST: For me it’s having a coach who knows what they’re doing. My coach is a former pro himself, has coached many people to Kona, so for me it’s a coach, it’s having those people around you. It’s hard work, consistency. Consistency for me is the one key element and by consistency it’s repeatedly turning up to every session you’re meant to be at. It’s making sure that you’re at every swim squad, you’re at every run squad, paying attention to the little things, the diet, the nutrition, just all those things, they do all build up and they come together.
BRAD BROWN: It’s little things that if you think about it, if you leave one out now it’s not going to make too much of a difference, but the cumulative effect of missing the odd session or not watching what you’re eating or drinking, those things add up and compound and the flip side of that is true as well. When you don’t miss sessions and you are eating well, that also compounds on the positive side.
LESLEY WEST: I think that’s it, but also just enjoying what you do. Like I say, I don’t think Ironman is for everyone, if somebody doesn’t enjoy going and doing four or five hour rides, then probably Ironman isn’t for you. I think there is a lot of, that that’s the ultimate goal. I don’t think it has to be for everyone, but I think if you enjoy the process and it sounds clichéd, that whole enjoying the process, but I do think it’s true. If you enjoy those long rides, long runs, going out the house at 5:30 on a Saturday morning and not getting home until 3:00pm, if you enjoy it, then that’s what makes it much more bearable and it makes getting there, I think even that bit sweeter, when you get that race finish you want because you know you’ve worked hard for it, so it’s an achievement.
BRAD BROWN: I was having this conversation with a friend of mine who is doing his first Ironman this coming weekend and he’s absolutely terrified. He’s petrified. He’s done the work, I’ve seen his training, I know what he’s done and he’ll only know this after the fact but I always say that an Ironman is the reward for the hard work you’ve put in. It’s such a cool day, it’s great fun and as much as it’s daunting and scary the distances you have to do, for me the daunting bit is the actual six months to a year before that race, that makes it really hard.
LESLEY WEST: I agree, it’s interesting because I remember on the morning of Cairns putting my wetsuit on and it’s probably one of the calmest I’ve felt before the race. I think I just knew I had done everything. I had ticked every single box, so it literally was a case of, whatever happens today happens. I can only control what I can control and I had full faith in the programme I had and everything else, so yeah, I was completely calm. It was like all right, I’ve done harder sessions it feels like, than what I’m about to do, that turned out not to be true! It was the hardest day, but I went in feeling prepared and fully ready mentally for it as well.
BRAD BROWN: Toughest question of our chat today, I come to you, I’ve got a contract for one of the professional netball teams in Australia but the condition is you have to give up triathlon, would you go back to netball?
LESLEY WEST: No, my netball days are done, plus I’m five foot three, so there’s no way I’m getting a game for any team in Australia! No, I’m perfectly happy where I am, as are probably my knees and my ankles or my fingers and everything else that used to get hurt with it.
BRAD BROWN: Just to wrap up Lesley, are you going to be around the sport forever? Are you going to be one of those people who are going to be chasing podium finishes in your 80s?
LESLEY WEST: I’d like to think so. I really hope I’m around for a while. Within our club, within our squad, we’ve got a guy, I think Kenny moves up to maybe 75 to 79 this year and he’s won World Championships. We’ve got other people who are moms, who are dads and they’ve come and they’ve gone, but they’ve still sort of remained around. Those people to me are the ones that I look to as going, no, it’s not just for now. Even if you take a step back at any point, it’s still always there and I think that’s what I like about the sport. You can do it at any age and other sports that have a bit of a lifetime, these ones, no, they keep going.
BRAD BROWN: Good to hear. Lesley, it’s been great catching up, I look forward to talk about the individual disciplines and particularly your swim and what you’ve done to get better over time, but we’ll save that for next week, thanks for your time on The Kona Edge today.
LESLEY WEST: Great, 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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