Meghan Fillnow transitioned to the sport of triathlon after playing competitive tennis for many years. Meghan and Brad chat extensively about what it takes mentally to be a competitive Ironman Age Grouper.
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BRAD BROWN: We head to North Carolina now. One of my favourite places on the planet to catch up with our next guest. A great pleasure to welcome onto The Kona Edge, Meghan Fillnow.
Meghan welcome onto The Kona Edge. Thanks for joining us.
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Thanks for having me Brad.
Training in a beautiful city makes life sweet
BRAD BROWN: Meghan, I’m super excited. North Carolina is a beautiful, beautiful place. Tell us a little bit about your life in North Carolina, in Charlotte. It’s a special place to live.
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Yes, I love North Carolina. I’ve been here for quite some time. I grew up in Pennsylvania and then I moved to South Carolina in high school to train in the tennis academy. And then I went to college in North Carolina and have been there for quite some time. I moved away for a little to go to grad school and then I taught third grade back in Hilton Head. But I love living in Charlotte and it’s a great place to train, for sure, to pursue my Ironman passion. It’s been awesome.
BRAD BROWN: From a climate perspective for people who don’t know much about North Carolina, it doesn’t get brutally hot in the summer. It can get warm but it’s not as bad as it does down south, or further south like Florida. But it also doesn’t get terribly cold, maybe as Chicago would, if I’m correct.
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Yes. One of my favourite things about North Carolina is you have the 4-seasons. So, the falls are beautiful. The nice colourful leaves and we have usually a snowfall or two in the winter, but it’s not bad and it’s actually just kind of fun. The whole community shuts down because we’re not really equipped to handle this snow. It just doesn’t last long and then the springs are lovely. The summers actually do get really hot and humid. Today it’s going to be about 90 degrees Fahrenheit this evening. I would say the temperature is kind of erratic. It was cool last week and then it really goes high. I like it though.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about sports. You mentioned growing up and playing a bit of tennis. You were pretty competitive as a youngster. How did you get into the sport of tennis? Do you still play? Is it still a passion of yours?
Time constraints create a passion for running
MEGHAN FILLNOW: As a young girl I had a twin sister and an older brother and we were all 3 super active. We did basketball, soccer, softball, gymnastics and tennis. And I started playing tennis again and took over a decade break, but one of our friends is on this tennis team and she asked my sister and I to play. So, I’m getting back into it slowly, and it has been fun but I ended up going to Hilton Head to train at a tennis academy in high school.
I quit all my other sports and just pursued that one. Then played tennis in college, and then when I was in grad school I only had an hour a day so I started running. I loved to run and that became my new passion, and I got into marathons. I hit my goals there and I wanted a new challenge and that’s how I jumped into triathlon.
BRAD BROWN: Growing up in a family with the siblings as you did, you mentioned a twin sister and a brother. I’m one of 3 as well so I know what it’s like in a family with lots of kids. It’s pretty competitive at the best of times. Do you think your competitive spirit was bred early on in your life?
Siblings nurture your competitive spirit
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Yes. Definitely. I had an older brother who was such a good role model. He was super active and he liked to challenge my sister and I. He would always give us these easy ways to make it competitive for him because obviously he was better at everything than us. Then having a twin sister it was super competitive.
Everyone would compare us and people would always ask who’s the better tennis player, things like that. It’s kind of annoying. Society’s perception of twins so that was definitely a challenge during my teenage years. But I think ultimately it brought the best out of each one of us and it helped us to reach new heights. So, ultimately it’s good but it’s definitely challenging.
BRAD BROWN: So who is the better tennis player?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Well, my sister played number one in college and I played number 3 until my senior year I played for we had this great freshman come in and actually we were cross-training between basketball and I fractured my wrist. I fractured my wrist about 8 times. Through just random bike accidents or just accident skills, that kind of thing. She’s working pretty hard training for a triathlon so maybe I can whip up on her.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to say, who is the better triathlete, because I know she’s into the sport as well.
MEGHAN FILLNOW: My sister, it’s okay though. I’m over it.
Spectating at a triathlon inspires you
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about your journey into the sport. You mentioned taking up running and falling in love with that sport and then running marathons. Where did your introduction to triathlon come from?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: When I was in college, I was studying abroad in Australia and I met this friend who was going to do a triathlon. He was like, you’ve got to do it with me and I had no idea what a triathlon was and he really piqued my interest in the sport but I didn’t do it unfortunately. But then when I was living in Hilton Head, South Carolina, my twin sister started doing triathlon and she loved it. Then when I moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, we were living in the same city and she just really piqued my interest in the sport and then I was dating a guy at the time who was involved in triathlon.
Can you achieve a triathlon when failing at a swim test?
So, I bought a road bike and tried to learn how to stay on a bike. It was crazy. I remember in college we were going on this family vacation to Jamaica and we were going to go scuba diving. Taking just an introductory dive but first we had to pass this basic swim test. And my twin sister and I nearly failed the swim test. So we’ve come a long way.
BRAD BROWN: That’s awesome. I absolutely love that. We’ll chat about the swim a little bit later on though. There’s one thing doing a triathlon and making the step up to an Ironman. It’s like running a 5k and then jumping to a marathon. It is a huge progression. When did the thought of possibly doing an Ironman first come into your mind?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: I went to watch my first Ironman with the guy that I was dating. He was doing an Ironman and I was like, this is crazy. I would never do this. He had a horrible day. He got sick, he couldn’t finish, he was really sad. He was in the med tent and my sister was there as she was going to race Ironman Florida that following year. So she volunteered and I was like, are you sure you want to do this? This is crazy. And so anyway she ventured into it and she was super successful and loved it.
Draw inspiration from an amazing event
And I was still adamant about I was never going to do an Ironman. But eventually I did a half Ironman and then a couple of years later I was cheering for her at Ironman Austria. And she actually set the Ironman Immature Ironman record there and I was just super inspired by her and all the Germans were so much fun. The atmosphere was amazing and I was very inspired. And I was like, okay, I think I want to give this a go. So, I signed up for Ironman New York City in 2012 and since then I’ve just enjoyed every Ironman.
BRAD BROWN: It’s so funny because I think a lot of people have that progression. Where they think you know what this is stupid. There’s no way that you should be doing that much in one day. No one should be doing that. And it’s the same when you start running. When you run your first 5k you think why would anyone want to run 10k, it’s just too far. Then you run your 10, then you go you know what, maybe a half marathon, I can do a half marathon.
And that’s the sort of progression and it’s a mental thing. I don’t want to say it’s a decision but that’s what it boils down to. That almost is playing it down, but how much of it would you say is a mental thing? Like a decision where the line is drawn in the sand and you go you know what I’m going to do this?
The mental progression to your first Ironman
MEGHAN FILLNOW: I think it’s so much a mental thing because you can do so much more than you think you can. Just revamping your mind-set and everything. Even back in college I ended up running cross-country for a year because my sister was doing it as well. I remember that summer before my senior year, I was like you’re psycho. Why would you run 10 miles? Who would run 10 miles?
BRAD BROWN: Why would you want to?
Commit to the desire
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Exactly. And then that summer I started doing it and loving it. I think it’s just with your mind-set and also taking it one step at a time and gradually progressing. Also, you have to have a level of commitment and everything. So, I think it’s all a combination of having the commitment and also having that desire and trusting yourself that you can do more than you think you can.
BRAD BROWN: In that build up to your first one, did you get help or did you try and figure things out for yourself? Obviously coming from a tennis background and competitive tennis, you knew the value of having a coach. Did you get help straight out, did you find a coach?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Yes. I definitely need help because I’m very structured and I like to have a big audacious goal and I needed a plan to get there. And so, my sister actually, is my coach and it’s pretty awesome. Because she knows me so well and she does a great job with me.
Your first Ironman goal – is it to finish or to qualify for Kona?
BRAD BROWN: What was the goal on that first one? You talk about having a big audacious goal. Was just finishing the goal? Or did you set specifics?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: My goal was just to finish the day, actually. I didn’t have time goals because I didn’t know what that day entailed at all. My sister qualified for Kona in her debut Ironman so that was in the back of my head but I really didn’t think I would be able to do it. I didn’t even think ‘I’m almost finished’. I just wasn’t sure I would be able to finish the whole Ironman. I didn’t have very specific goals at all. It was more just getting through the day.
BRAD BROWN: And how did that first one go?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: It was good. We were almost not going to swim in the Hudson River because there was disgusting septic tanks, but somehow we ended up being able to swim. My sister said if I had been able to see what I looked like I would have passed out. I had black muck all over me. The swim was in a current. I’m not a good swimmer but my swim was like 49 minutes. It was disgustingly fast because of the current.
A unique Ironman sets the tone
The bike was awesome. And the run, we had to run up this hill called Dyckman Hill that they said makes Heartbreak Hill in Boston like a pancake. We had to do that multiple times and we had run up steps on the bridges. It was a very unique Ironman but I had nothing to compare it to and I loved every moment of it. And I ended up finishing 2nd in my age group and qualified for Kona by about 80 seconds. I felt so bad for the girl that was number 3 because she was so nice when we talked after the race. We became friends and now she’s qualified for Kona a couple of times. It was a great adventure.
BRAD BROWN: I was going to say that you didn’t feel that bad that you let that slot roll down, did you?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Well, kind of.
BRAD BROWN: I love it. I absolutely love it. That New York race, I remember when it was first announced. You talk about unique races; I don’t think there are many places in the world as unique as that. You mentioned the Hudson River, obviously not the cleanest of places and that race not happening any more. But I think just to be able to have said that you’ve done Ironman New York, that’s special.
MEGHAN FILLNOW: It was yes. And I didn’t know it would be the only one in time.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about Kona and the thought of racing on the Big Island. Coming from that competitive background. You’re competitive, there’s something special about the Ironman World Championships. If I say the word Kona, what’s the emotion that evokes?
Visit Kona before you race it
MEGHAN FILLNOW: I would say it’s pretty upbeat and monumental and indescribable, and hot and windy. I don’t really dig all the hype about Kona. It is very intimidating and I’m still thankful that I was able to go there a couple of times before I actually raced it because my sister raced there and she podiumed both times as an amateur. So it’s just neat to experience it before actually racing it. You go to the island and you see all the best triathletes in the world and all their training partners and they’re just killing. If you let it all get to your head you just feel that you’re not equipped to be there and you don’t deserve to be there.
Mentally you have to be very strong. Race day, the swim has improved a lot. This past year, now they divide up the males and the females. Actually I think it’s a 2.4 course. They feel a 4 is a little over. But it’s so intimidating even before you start swimming, you’re doggy paddling for a while. It’s ridiculous how aggressive it is, even before you do a swim stroke. I was getting clobbered before I even started swimming. Girls were pushing you and I was like, this is ridiculous, we have a long Ironman. Why are we fighting over our position? Very intimidating.
And then the bike is brutal with the winds and the heat. But you just have to grind it out. I enjoy it, I like to get tough, fight it out and bring on the winds. I’m a bigger athlete. I’m not super skinny and so I think that’s good with Kona because the strength is good so you’re not getting blown off the bike. The first time I did it I literally got blown from the bike. Legitimately it can be very scary.
Respect that fear of Kona
The run, there is really nothing else like it. Running those first 10 miles on Alii Drive is awesome with all the people cheering and the ocean right there. A lot of people go out way too fast on that section. I just make sure I take it chilled and make sure I don’t go out too fast and then you go up Pulani. This is where the race starts because then you’re up on that Queen K for miles and miles heading into the Energy Lab. It’s pretty desolate out there. There’s not that many people cheering for you and so that’s where the race really begins and it’s about how mentally tough you are out there and staying hydrated.
I loved Kona, I loved the way that it makes you see how tough you really are and how you have to just bounce back because there will be things that happen that you have not planned for.
BRAD BROWN: Yes. Totally out of your control. Meghan, you mentioned the feeling of being intimidated on the Big Island. And when you arrived there and there’s all these racing snakes. When you qualified, whatever race you qualified, you were in the top 2% of that field. You’re a big deal there’s no two-ways about it. But you arrive on the Big Island and everyone is in that bracket.
Dealing with the craziness of Kona
How do you deal with that? I don’t want to call it an imposter syndrome because I think a lot of age groupers that I chat to feel that way. They feel like I don’t belong here. This is just crazy. How did I end up here? How do you deal with that and not let it get to you?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Through all my whole life I’ve struggled with confidence and I’ve not had much confidence. It’s always been something that I’ve had to overcome and deal with. I guess race week, instead of being intimidated and feeling like I don’t belong here, a lot of times I don’t participate in everything and I’m not running around Kona so much. I just stay calm as best as I can. Last year I had my Timex team mates there. We had 18 people racing and that was awesome. We had a fun dinner together and we would do some of our workouts together. So that was helpful.
What makes a good player great?
I like to read a lot of books. I’m such a dork, I’m an introvert. I’d read about mental toughness books and that helps calm me race week and I just try to continue to have a positive mind-set. If I have a negative thought I try to turn it around with a positive thought. I think it’s a lot of positive self-talk. And not comparing yourself to other people. Like you said, if you’ve earned your spot here and everything so knowing that and just realising that I’m just going to do the best I can and not really worry about anyone else or anything else.
BRAD BROWN: I’m so glad you brought up the mind-set side of it. It’s funny, I’m chatting to you and we spoke about your tennis background. But I’m of the opinion, and it’s not just tennis, I think you could probably apply this to lots of sport, but the margins of ability at the top level of most sports, and let’s use tennis as an example. If you look at somebody like Serena Williams as opposed to Agnieszka Radwanska as an example. They’re both great tennis players and on the day they can probably each beat each other. There’s no doubt about that, but it’s their mental ability that separates them, I think. I’m no expert but I would say what makes a good player great, is how they control their belief and the mental side of their performance.
Cultivate a positive mind-set
Do you think the same applies in triathlon, particularly in Ironman where it is a long distance? Anyone can fudge a sprint or an Olympic distance. And yes, you have to be good to win but when you start talking about Ironman distance where you have to be good for that long, the mental game becomes a massive factor.
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Oh I think the mental game for Ironman is a massive factor. It’s interesting to see the people who are at the top, obviously they have the physical abilities but there are people just up at the top that can’t break to the top. They could even be physically stronger than those, but it’s just that mental tenacity that ultimately makes the difference.
Stay in the moment to get through Kona
I’m not really good with practice. When I’m training it’s hard for me to hit my watts, or it’s hard for me to hit shorter paces. I’m just like how am I going to do this for an Ironman for 26 miles or something. But there’s just something that happens race day that I turn it up a gear and I think a lot of it is just that mental toughness and digging deep and being comfortable getting uncomfortable. Knowing that there’s going to be stuff that happens during the day and you can’t let that define your race.
You just have to stay in the moment and adapt and regroup and see what’s the next best thing I can do and how can I keep fighting instead of giving up. I feel like so many people just throw the race away with one incident.
BRAD BROWN: Do you think a lot of your mental fortitude came from playing competitive tennis at college level?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: I think so, for sure. Tennis is such a mental sport. You are out there on your own and you can really be down and you can come back and win. And that’s happened. So, I think just having that and knowing how important the mental side of things is has really helped with my triathlon. In tennis I didn’t have the super beautiful strokes. I just got to the level that I was because I had that athleticism and I had the mental strength. And I used that with triathlon. I don’t have the prettiest swim technique or anything like that but I think I just know how to grind it out and fight.
Mental strength is part of your training
BRAD BROWN: I think that is such a good quality to have and I think a lot of athletes beat themselves up because maybe they weren’t born with the right genes. But from a mental perspective that’s something anyone can cultivate. Having the ability, physical ability, to race fast is great. But you can be as fast as you want, if you’re mentally weak when it starts hurting you’re going to back off. But you can develop that strength mentally that allows you to push through those tough patches.
MEGHAN FILLNOW: I agree completely. That’s something that people neglect to work on but it’s key for sure.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about in training you think to yourself how did I get here. Are there certain exercises and things that you do that you think help you now. Like things that you do now in training to build that mental strength?
Read topical books to help you cope
MEGHAN FILLNOW: I love to read a lot so I read a lot of mental toughness books so that is helpful. And I think with my mind-set when I’m training, I really try to practice the mental toughness on some of those harder workouts. Whether it’s getting on auto-pilot and turning off my brain so I’m not having any negative thoughts, it’s all just neutral. Or whether it’s coming up with a simple mantra, that kind of thing. Just different things during training because you need to practice it just a little bit, so it can come out on race day.
BRAD BROWN: What are some of the things that you do to dig yourself out of those holes, those dark patches? We all get them and again, I think that’s the difference between a good athlete and a great athlete is, someone hits one of those bad patches and they can push their way through and break through that barrier. What are some of the things you do in the race when it’s hurting, when you really are hating yourself and wondering and questioning your sanity? What do you do to bounce back?
Stay calm through those dark patches
MEGHAN FILLNOW: It depends on the circumstance. Sometimes I just stay in the moment. For instance, in my Ironman Texas I was on mile 20-ish on the bike and I was coming out of a water stop and my front wheel went over a water bottle and then I flipped off the bike and crashed. And there are like medics, medics, ER. I’m like, I’m okay, and I’m fine. I just need a bike mechanic and they couldn’t fix my bike. That’s my weakness, my portable mechanical skills and I tried to fix it but to no avail. And faithfully the mechanic was able to come and rescue me.
So instead of letting that blow up my race, I was just like, this is just a tiny little piece of my long day and so I didn’t dwell on it. And as soon as I got back pedalling, fresh start, getting going. Sometimes you just need to focus on the whole day, the grand day as a whole. Just be like this is just a tiny piece of the day, like I’m not going to let this define me or crush me. So that’s helpful.
Don’t allow setbacks to define your race day performance
And then other times I just try to take it 1 stroke, 1 pedal, 1 stride at a time. Because it can get overwhelming if you’re on mile 80 of the bike and you’re like, oh my goodness, I’ve still got 32 miles and then I still have to run a marathon. It’s just like how do you get through that. So just kind of let me get to the next water stop and all that. I think that helps me for sure.
BRAD BROWN: Meghan, knowing what you know now about the sport and you’ve been around it for a few years now. If you could go back and talk to yourself when you started out, what would you tell yourself? What would you do differently? What advice would you give yourself?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: That is a great question. You have me stumped.
How the Power meter helped my Ironman performance
I’ve always just enjoyed it and stayed pretty balanced but I would say, and this is a little thing, but I’d say to get a Power meter from the beginning, not from the complete beginning because you don’t even know if you will like this sport. But once I started enjoying this sport and knowing that I wanted to pursue it, probably getting the Power meter would have been really helpful because I trained a lot by feel which is great. But there’s something about having that Power meter where you know your exact watts that you’re trying to maintain and hit. It just helps with having specific watts to hit. I think that really helped.
BRAD BROWN: What’s still to achieve in the sport? What do you still want to do?
MEGHAN FILLNOW: I’m going to Kona this year again and I really hope my twin sister can qualify as a pro. That would be amazing to be able to race with her there and I would like to do better than I did last year at Kona. My lifetime goal is to be able to go under 10-hours. My last few Ironman’s are all like 10:10, 10:11, 10:07, so I’m at that spot. We’ll see if I can break that one day.
BRAD BROWN: You’re analytical. Where are those 10/11 minutes going to come from? You obviously have an idea. What are you working on? Where do you need to find that time?
Train the combination of disciplines
MEGHAN FILLNOW: I think it would be a good combination of everything, all the disciplines. And the transitions which I never practice so I can be saving a couple of minutes there. Then if I can swim a few minutes faster. My run is my strength but I feel like that’s where I haven’t been making the gains like I’d like to so I think if I can pick up that run that would be great. Because over the past I’ve made gains in the bike, and then the swim so I think coming from the run would be good.
BRAD BROWN: And taking that Hudson River current with you. I’m sure that would help.
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Maybe if I chose an Ironman with a current that would be a really good helpful way to get under 10.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Well Meghan it’s been great catching up. Thanks for joining us on the Kona Edge today. I look forward to chatting about the individual disciplines and digging a bit deeper there. And finding out what you do and how you do it to get better. But we’ll save that for another day. Thanks for your time.
MEGHAN FILLNOW: Awesome. Thanks Brad.
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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