Australia’s Jody Gilchrist finished 4th in her age group at the 2015 Ironman World Championships in Kona and we caught up with her on this edition of the Kona Edge.
BRAD BROWN: Joining us here on The Kona Edge, all the way from Melbourne, Australia is Jody Gilchrist. Jody, welcome onto the podcast, thanks for taking the time to chat to us today.
JODY GILCHRIST: Thank you, I’m very privileged to be asked, thanks.
BRAD BROWN: Jody, no privilege, you’ve done the hard work to get here, you’ve qualified, you’ve raced on the Big Island and we’re going to get into that in a lot more detail today, but I wanted to find out, where did your fascination with triathlons start?
JODY GILCHRIST: I’ve been a distance runner my whole life and I used to train with triathletes in the late 80’s, did a bit of cross training with them, riding a bike and they were in my run squad and I dabbled in some team events with them and probably did, less than five short course triathlons at the time, but I was watching Wide World of Sports over here and they used to cover Kona and I was quite fascinated by the length of the one day endurance events. So, I’d always had it in the back of my mind to try it one day, but as a runner, I knew what sort of commitment was involved, just to be a good runner.
So I thought it’s clearly going to be a big job. I just kind of put it off and years and years went by and then I started triathlon, committed to it in about 2007 and did short course and my first Ironman in 2010, on my own, more of a Bucket List and to see how I would go at it Busselton in Western Australia.
BRAD BROWN: All right, and when did you start really, again, considering Kona as an option or as a goal, something to aspire to?
When does Ironman Kona become an option?
JODY GILCHRIST: Yeah, well, as I said, I did Busselton and I came, I think 20th out of about 30 in my age group and I was kind of a bit, oh, I think I can do better than that, that feeling after a race is like, oh, if I could do this better, etc, so the next time I decided was in 2012, but I knew I needed to get help from someone with Ironman experience because I have always been a good trainer and ticking the boxes, so to speak, so I employed Xavier Coppock from TEAM TRi Coaching and he’d been to the Big Island a few times by the time I’d met him. So, I knew he had the experience and could guide me in the right direction.
We started together December 2012 and our first race was Cairns 2013. For me, it wasn’t the target race, the race I was considering as my goal race was Melbourne 2014 when I would age up into the next category, which as an older athlete, that has a massive advantage. So, the Cairns for me, in my mind, was just to see how I was tracking towards Melbourne. I’d put together a really good prep and he was pretty confident that I would qualify for Kona there. Didn’t tell me that, so I had no real pressure on me and I ended up winning my age group. That’s in the June and I went to Kona in 2013 as my first time.
BRAD BROWN: Brilliant, how many times have you been back to Kona now?
JODY GILCHRIST: I’ve raced there in 2014 and I did qualify in Melbourne, like I wanted to, so that was in the March and I went back to Kona in October and then last year I qualified at Ironman Australia and that got me into Kona for last year and then I backed up really quickly after Kona, five weeks later at Ironman Malaysia and managed to win my age group there, so I’m heading back to the Big Island this year for my 4th visit.
BRAD BROWN: I love it! Let’s touch on your running background because often I chat to very competitive age groupers and they either come from a very competitive swimming, a very competitive biking or running background, how competitive were you as a runner and what sort of distances were you doing at your peak?
Where do Ironman Kona Age Groupers start?
JODY GILCHRIST: Okay, for running, I would have been a, sorry, I know you’re from South Africa, so I was a state level runner, so I would represent my state at the Australian Championships and it would be anything from 800m through to 3000m on the track, as a junior, all the way through high school.
Then I started moving into road racing, so 10km and cross country after school and I played a bit of soccer, but I was never the best. I was just a decent quality runner, which I think is really important in Ironman to be strong at the back end of the race and I think that has served me really well. I tend to have either the fastest or within the top 5 run split of all the athletes.
BRAD BROWN: How competitive are you? Do you hate losing?
JODY GILCHRIST: No, I don’t hate losing, but I love winning! I just think if you lose, particularly for me, I put everything I can into the preparation, being a full time worker and I do a little bit of coaching on the side, I really value the time training, so I make the most of it. If I’m beaten on the day, there’s somebody better, that’s just how it is for me, but it doesn’t stop me trying to improve.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the biking and the swimming, coming from a competitive running background, did you find that difficult to pick up or did it come quite easily?
JODY GILCHRIST: The swimming I’ve always been around water, but never as a swimmer, living on an island and on the coast and a great climate, you’re often at the beach and I was even involved in the Surf Club, but I wasn’t a great swimmer and my times still reflect, it is my weakest leg by far.
For instance at Kona last year, of the top five woman, I was 12 minutes behind the next slowest, so I’ve got a lot of work to do on the swim and I’m trying very hard at that. With the cycling, I think is just, cause I think swimming is so technical, and then with the cycling, I believe it’s just time, time on the bike really that you need to put in. I am getting better each year with the bike because of that, getting more strength and endurance.
Small margins equal big gains at Ironman Kona
BRAD BROWN: That must excite you, particularly on the swim, if you look, I was looking at your splits and I don’t know why I didn’t pick that up, but that’s huge, 12 minutes that you’re giving up at the start of the race. You can make that back fairly easily in the water – I say fairly easily, at the front end of the field it’s not that easy, but I think it’s probably easy to make up 12 minutes in the swim as opposed to on the run at that level.
JODY GILCHRIST: Yeah, just Kona last year, cause it’s the freshest race in my mind and my best performance by far on the Big Island, getting a 4th place which I’m pretty sure you understand over there, they give out top five for the podium, so that was huge for me. It makes me quite emotional thinking about it now, what a big deal that is.
I was the third fastest runner, I think, so I could probably make up a bit more on the bike and the run, but it’s what I’m losing on the swim, as you say, they’re 5-10km up the road by the time I get out of the water, so I need to really bridge that gap.
BRAD BROWN: I personally don’t believe there’s anything such as an easy age group and you’re in a pretty tough one and just looking at those results, I’ve got them in front of me. Colleen de Reuck, who’s racing under the US flag, who won your age group in Kona last year, she’s actually South African and you talk about good runners, she’s an Olympian. She represented South Africa at the Olympics with the marathon.
JODY GILCHRIST: Absolutely.
BRAD BROWN: I’m not sure if you’re aware of that. I mean she’s a great runner and you weren’t that far behind her on overall time-wise, you must be pretty proud of that performance.
JODY GILCHRIST: Oh, for sure! Colleen, I am well aware of who Colleen is and she’s a lovely person and like you say, she’s a brilliant runner, a four time Olympian, which is incredible, but she still has to swim and bike like the rest of us and she out-swam and out-biked me as well. If you’re good enough to compete, then you just compete against who turns up on the day.
BRAD BROWN: Kona has obviously become a big part of your life and goals and aspirations, if I say the word ‘Kona’, what do you think?
What does Kona meant to you?
JODY GILCHRIST: Dreams, I’d love to go back and have a better performance each time that I go there. It makes me quite emotional, it’s the only race that I’ve ever felt like this about, so much history involved in the sport, the best amateurs and the best age groupers. It’s a rare event triathlon where we get to have that opportunity to run down the road with Olympians and professional athletes, it’s incredible, but it’s also a beautiful place.
The people fully embrace the race, they welcome you, you’re treated like a superstar when you get there. The locals congratulate you and wish you luck and they’re really generous with their island, sharing it with us all.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve raced it at fairly high level from a running perspective. You mentioned racing on the same course at the same time as the best triathletes in the world, both professional and age groupers, you mentioned Olympians, do you almost need to pinch yourself? Do you think ‘how did I end up here?’
JODY GILCHRIST: So often and it was only four months ago and I have a little wooden bowl now in my house and I look at it, like how the hell did that get in here. I truly do thank my coach for seeing my ability and setting the right program for me.
I’ve had a few injuries along the way that we’ve adapted different types of training to fit around them and yet I’m still able to come up on race day and race well. So, even though a lot of the time I’m not doing the running that I want to get to the level that I want on race day, it’s got me to race day fit, so rather than breaking down prior, which often happens with age groupers because we don’t get a lot of opportunity for recovery and I think that’s the big difference with athletes that maybe not work or are professional, is the recovery time they get, it assists in their preparation a lot more.
BRAD BROWN: Jody, you mentioned your coach in that first Ironman in Cairns where you didn’t believe you would qualify, but he did, how big a role does belief and believing in yourself play in a sport like triathlon and getting to Kona? He obviously believed in you before you maybe did, do you think it plays a massive role in, not just getting to your first Ironman, but racing hard enough to qualify for Kona?
JODY GILCHRIST: Oh, 100%. I think when I hit the lead at Cairns, knowing that I have a strong run background, I backed myself then, I was like, no one is going to catch me here now, this is mine, but just kept my head and continued on with the pace that I was at. I didn’t do anything silly, just got the job done, but from then on, I thought okay, we have got a good thing going on here, good coach, good relationship. I’ve got great support at home, my employer looks after me with time off for races, so I don’t have any obstacles.
It’s all up to me on race day and with all that support, I think that, as you say, gives you an incredible confidence and knowing that you have done it as well, that it’s possible. The second time I qualified cause usually in my age group there’s only one ever slot, so you have to win, but a championship race like your South African race or Ironman Melbourne, there were two slots in my age group and I did come second when I raced in 2014, so even though I didn’t win, I was still able to qualify and have the confidence that my race would be good enough. I honestly believe that you have to back yourself and believe that it is possible.
Getting a coach is vital to Ironman Kona success
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned your coach and how incredible that journey has been, with all your running and competitive running, I’m guessing that you’ve been coached throughout your athletic career, how important is it to do this with a coach and not try and figure it out on your own?
JODY GILCHRIST: I think it’s critical, personally, for me, and most people because I’m pretty sure you’ve done Ironman too and you know when you’re tired, what your mind does. It plays tricks, oh, I can’t do it, this and that, but if you’ve got a program and someone to talk to and bounce off a few feelings, so they know the right words to say to you to encourage you or give you a little nudge when you’re feeling a bit lazy, I think it’s completely valuable.
As a junior, I had a coach from when I was 12 years old, so I know the value of it and I really appreciate having them beside me when I’m doing the hard stuff, especially.
BRAD BROWN: What do you personally look for in a coach?
JODY GILCHRIST: As a child you don’t really have a choice usually, your parents choose them for you, but for me, as an adult, I wanted somebody that was, that I got along with, somebody with experience, track record. Somebody who understands your lifestyle and there’s a balance, not one program fits all. I guess that’s probably it. I do like him to be at races. It’s not essential, but I think it’s nice to have him there and he goes around to most of the races on the circuit, so it’s good for me.
BRAD BROWN: Awesome, Jody, as far as that support system and just getting the balance right, of being a competitive age grouper, but still having all aspects of your life semi-normal. I don’t know if there is such a thing when you are training for an Ironman, you do get very out of balance, how do you manage that juggling act of trying to be a competitive age grouper, but still working.
You’ve got a personal life, how do you get that balancing act and juggling act right?
JODY GILCHRIST: Well, I have some very understanding friends and family who realize when Ironman comes around, there’s probably going to be three months that I’m totally dedicated to it. I try to make sure my training is either between home and work or out the front door. I don’t like to venture too far away where travel time is cutting into my life.
If I, for instance sometimes I commute to work as part of my training and run off the bike when I get here, if I’m going to a swim squad, I make sure it’s on the way to work, so it limits all that excess travel time. I try to do a lot of pre-cooking and planning meals on the weekends, for the week and get all my domestics done on the weekend as well because I think during the week, with morning and afternoon training on both days, you pretty well eat dinner and go to bed cause you’re up again so early.
BRAD BROWN: Two things I got out of there. The first one is obviously planning and making sure that everything is the way it should be, and like a week in advance or whether it be two weeks in advance, whatever it is that works for you, but the second thing that I picked up as well, that you have banks, you mentioned three months that your friends and family know when you’re focusing, you’re in the zone and that’s it.
Do you think it’s important to have those waves where you’re in it and then, not walk away, but where you’re focusing on something else, so that you’re not consumed by Ironman 24/7 365 days a year.
Switch off to stay fresh in your Ironman preparation
JODY GILCHRIST: For me, 100%. I have four weeks off straight after an Ironman and I do all my catch ups with friends and family and the only exception to that was from Kona into Malaysia this year, which was a bit of a change for me because I think the four weeks off is like my annual leave from the Ironman and it lets my mind refresh and my body recover. Not that I don’t have a drink or anything like that, but I don’t have to worry about getting up at 4:30 in the morning, so I can have two glasses of wine instead of just half a glass with dinner.
BRAD BROWN: You get to hang out on the dark side for a little bit.
JODY GILCHRIST: Yeah and go to the theatre and sporting events. I live in Melbourne and it’s the sport capital of the world right now. The Australian Open is on, so I’d love to go and catch a session at the tennis.
BRAD BROWN: It is an incredible city, it’s very sporty and very conducive to training for a triathlon. Just the city itself, people are very active and it’s always, I’m guessing, pretty easy to find people to go out and train with?
Giving it back to the Ironman community
JODY GILCHRIST: Absolutely, there’s so many good triathletes here and just last weekend I volunteered at Triathlon Pink, which is an all-female event for newbies and it raises money and awareness for breast cancer.
Giving a little bit back, my whole squad, at my triathlon club, so TEAM Tri Coaching volunteered at the race, so it’s good to watch new people and look back on your triathlon career and see how far you’ve come, it’s very humbling.
BRAD BROWN: What a great event. Jody, as far as looking at racing on the Big Island as well, you’ve been there a few times now, you’ve obviously learnt a couple of lessons, maybe some harder than others, what would you say the biggest lesson is that racing in Kona has taught you, that you use anywhere, not just in triathlon?
JODY GILCHRIST: I guess conditions, I’m okay in the heat and the humidity, I don’t seem to suffer as much as other people, but I have noticed some really good age group athletes do find coming, especially from Australia where we’re coming out of winter, into Kona, it is a big shock.
We, in our squad, try to get there as early as possible, to acclimatize, I think that’s really valuable and shouldn’t be under-estimated, the impact of the conditions over there. The wind on Kona in 2014, absolutely frightened the life out of me! I’ve never been so frightened on the bike coming down from Harvey as I was that day. People were being blown off the side of the road, men being cartwheeled down on their bikes, I was so scared. My bike time that year was terrible because I was sitting up on the hood so much because I was too frightened to be in the arrow position.
I think racing-wise, non-wetsuit swims are really difficult for weak swimmers, so I’m really trying hard to improve that aspect of my race because Kona is never going to be a wetsuit swim, so I have to get used to it. It’s a lot hillier course than people realize, especially the bike, I think it’s a bit over 2000m elevation gain, which is hillier than any of the races here in Australia. I think that surprises some people.
BRAD BROWN: What do you absolutely love about that island? Outside of Ironman, you obviously spend a bit of time there, what do you love to do, just to kick back on that island and, not forget about why you’re there, but to take your mind off things?
JODY GILCHRIST: I think when I go there, I don’t, unfortunately, have a lot of time to stay afterwards, but obviously the weather is magnificent, the ocean on the doorstep, the sea life is incredible, there’s turtles swimming around, dolphins, it’s just beautiful.
It’s called the Big Island and I’ve had quite a few opportunities to drive to little beaches and other towns on the island, which is nice, in between training sessions because when I go there, like last year I spent 4 weeks there, but three and a half of it were before the race, so I managed to do all my big training days over there, like my last two big weeks and then went into taper.
It was nice to do all that in the heat and the conditions and then be able to go and put your feet up under a palm tree and just relax and read a book.
BRAD BROWN: Nice. Jody, a lot of age groupers will listen to that and go, gee, what do you do for a living? I can’t take a month off to go and prep for a race and essentially race. What do you do for a living?
JODY GILCHRIST: I’m a workforce planner for the Australian government and we get four weeks annual leave a year, but part of the conditions are that we can take it at half pay, so that’s what I do. Instead of going on leave without pay or something like that, I just extend the leave period and take it at half rate.
BRAD BROWN: It’s a great place to spend your annual leave, is the Big Island. Is there anything that you do, in the week before Kona, in the buildup, to get yourself ready mentally and physically, just so you know you’re in the right place and you’re ready to race?
The build-up to Ironman Kona
JODY GILCHRIST: For sure, I try, as hard as it is, because it is a really amazing place, but I really try to keep off my feet in the last week. Because the village is quite small, you don’t usually hire a car, you do a lot of walking around to the shops and to the swim and just down for lunch or something like that. I try to limit that and I try to stay away from all the hype, because it is quite draining, energy-wise and there’s functions on, morning, noon and night, if you wanted to.
I think if you want to go there and have a good race that you need to limit that. For me, personally, that’s what works.
BRAD BROWN: Then approaching the race itself, you’ve done it a few times now, you know what to expect, talk me through your strategy in Hawaii, in Kona, from a race perspective, how do you go into a race from the swim, into the bike and into the run?
JODY GILCHRIST: I carbo load the day before, I’m hydrating really well in electrolytes a few days before and on race morning. They number you in the morning, it’s quite a ceremony, it’s really cool and then you go off to prepare your bike, it really is the same sort of arrangement as most other races.
Then you catch up with your friends and I try to get off my feet, again, I’ll sit down because there’s quite a bit of time between when you get your numbering to the female race start cause as you know, the age groupers have been split and the women are last, so you’ve got to stay off your feet.
Then traditionally in Kona there’s a current pushing against you as you come in, so once I’ve entered the water and the gun goes off, I try to race as hard as I can out to the boat before the turnaround because it always is a little bit harder coming back. So I want to try and get the best time I can.
Then it’s a long run around the pier to grab your bike, the volunteers are fantastic, as always at Ironman events and treat you and look after you really well there.
Grab the bike, I try and get some nutrition in and liquid, again, you ride around town for about 10km before you head out onto the Queen K and then I just settle down into my rhythm and I don’t ride on heart rate or Power or even speed, I just go how I feel. I just push as hard as I think feels right and it has got quite a lot of long climbs and the area that’s usually most exposed is around Waikoloa, which is about 40km out of town. So you can usually gauge however you’ll be like, if the trade winds are up around there.
Then once you get up to Harvey, it’s a fair climb up to there and if you come around the corner at Kawaihae, which is at about the 50-60km mark from town, if you can see white caps on the ocean from there, you know it’s going to be windy for the ride up to Harvey and then I’m nervous is there’s white caps because I’m pretty light on being a female Ironman athlete, so you’re just hanging on for grim death coming down there.
Then heading back into town, I’m just trying to stay on top of my nutrition, I ride at about average, in an Ironman, about 30 km/h, so at this stage I’m probably, depending on the winds, keeping an eye on the pace, making sure it’s not falling away too much as I’m tiring. Then over the last hill into town where you can see the airport tower, it’s about 20km to go, so you start thinking about the run and how you’re feeling and making sure you stick to your nutrition plan, especially in the back end of the bike.
Then into transition and like everybody, get off the bike thinking, oh my goodness, how am I going to run a marathon the way my legs are feeling, but by the time you get out of T2, you’re ready to go.
On the marathon it’s a slight uphill up Pualani, you don’t go all the way to the top, it’s just like the bottom, about a 5th of the hill and then you turn right and head out along Alii Drive.
Control your pace on the Ironman Kona run
Along there is really, you’ve got to be really careful not to overrun that, because the crowd is amazing. They’re really going berserk, it’s like nothing I’ve ever raced at before. You really need to control the pace there because you can get carried away with everybody cheering you. I’m constantly looking at my watch to make sure I’m in the right km/h that I want to be.
Again, early on in the marathon, for me, I’m probably fortunately, I would say, in that when I get off the bike, it’s later in the afternoon, so it’s not as hot running. I think that is quite good. Lots and lots of nutrition, making sure I’ve got plenty of electrolytes at every aid station. I wear a fuel belt and I carry gels with me, so I’m sipping gels just before every aid station and grabbing sponges and putting it under my tri suit in places I think will cool me.
Then you come back into town and you’ve got about 25km to go and that’s the hardest part of an Ironman, I’m sure everybody would agree. The back end of the marathon, but at Kona you have to go up Pualani and then a few K along the Queen K they stop spectators, so it’s a very lonely back half of the marathon. You’re running out to the Energy Lab and there’s only aid station people who are fabulous, but there’s big gaps in between where you’re basically on your own and the mind games starts taking over, whether you should walk or not walk! Then down into the Energy Lab which is a bit of a dip down, pick up special needs, come back out up there and usually by the time I’m coming out of the Energy Lab, the sun is starting to set, so it’s really quite beautiful.
Looking over to your right, with the sun setting, but I’d love to finish one day in the daylight. If conditions were perfect, it might happen for me one day.
Then as you get to about 5km out of town, that’s when the spectators are back, you go back into the spectator area, so a lot more people around and making you feel uplifted and then when you get to the top of Pualani, I think it’s about a mile to go, about 1500m and that’s downhill and it’s really, really buzzy, it’s so good.
BRAD BROWN: Talk us through going around that final stretch and onto the carpet. It’s one thing experiencing an Ironman finish, but it’s something totally different experiencing an Ironman Kona finish.
JODY GILCHRIST: Yeah, so as you come down Pualani, you take a left onto the Kuakini Highway, which is just for a short section and then, I think it’s Hualalai, it’s into Uncle Billy’s corner, which is on the corner of Alii Drive, Uncle Billy’s is a hotel, so as soon as you turn there, you’ve probably got about half a km to go and the music is pumping, you can hear Mike Reilly calling in people and then it’s so bright and there’s camera’s going off and you can hear drones above you and your family and friends are around because you’ve organized prior where they’ll be. You’re looking for them and people screaming out your name cause you wear your bib with your name on it, it’s so exciting.
It’s just so loud, I don’t know how rock stars do it, whether they have any hearing or not, but this year that I just completed, I actually was chasing, so it was a completely different Ironman experience to what I’ve had before because I was absolutely shot when I got to the ramp and I thought I was going to fall over, since I hit the ramp, my legs gave way, but I was pretty well wrecked by the time I crossed the finish line this year.
BRAD BROWN: I love that! That was probably one of the best descriptions of that course that I’ve heard, Jody, thanks for sharing that with us, that was incredible. I was sitting here with goose bumps and I wasn’t even racing, so thank you for that.
JODY GILCHRIST: Okay.
BRAD BROWN: Jody, I’m going to get you back onto The Kona Edge to chat a little bit about what you do from a swimming and biking and running perspective and we’ll also just touch on nutrition as well, but we’ll save that for another time. I want to thank you for your time today here on the podcast, we look forward to catching up again.
JODY GILCHRIST: Thank you, my pleasure.