On this edition of The Kona Edge we meet Ellen Hart who is a phenomenal athlete. She shares her successes winning 5 World Championship titles in 50 days as well as her struggle with her eating disorder and in later years, her battle to overcome injuries. She speaks openly and from the heart and has an incredible story to tell.
BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto this edition of The Kona Edge and what an honour to have our next guest on the show. We head all the way to Denver in Colorado and I can tell you, she’s an absolute machine, a multiple Ironman age group World Champion and we’ll dig into her history because she was phenomenal. She still is a great runner, although battling with a bit of injury, but what a pleasure to welcome onto the podcast Ellen Hart. Ellen, thanks for joining us today, it’s good to have you on.
ELLEN HART: Thank you so much Brad for having me.
BRAD BROWN: Ellen, I’m so excited because your athletic career spans a number of decades and you’ve done some amazing things over the years. Your story is incredible and I can’t wait to share it and you don’t come traditionally from a triathlon background, you come from a running background. You, at your peak, you raced Olympic trials, you unfortunately never made it onto the Olympic team, but you were a pretty decent track athlete in your day.
My greatest love – my Ironman run
ELLEN HART: Thanks Brad and running is truly my first and greatest love in terms of an athletic endeavor, but even more varied than just being a runner coming into triathlon, I also played basketball. I loved basketball, I played varsity basketball at college level and varsity soccer at the college level and then a few other sports here and there. But track was always kind of there and I was very interested in running when I was in middle school, probably13-14, those ages and then ended up playing team sports for most of high school and college. And then my junior year in college I ran the Boston Marathon because I was going to Harvard and it’s right there and I just, I loved it.
I thought it was such a cool thing and then the next year decided I was going to actually train for it, but then I got into track, so I ran track for Harvard my senior year, well, the whole time, but my senior year concentrating on the longer distances and ran the 10km at Nationals. And that was an Olympic year and ran US Nationals and then Olympic trials, but it was 1980, the year of Moscow and we didn’t go and so I finished 3rd in the Olympic trials in the 10km, but it was an exhibition event, for a team that didn’t go to the Olympics. I can’t even say I was really that close to making the Olympic team, but it was still a thrill.
BRAD BROWN: Would you say that’s been one of your biggest athletic regrets is that you never got to go to an Olympics?
ELLEN HART: Definitely because when I was a little girl I had certain dreams and as we all do and then we learn to make sense of those dreams and to have backup dreams because one can say, oh, if you’re willing to work really hard you can reach your dreams. Well, sometimes, but sometimes not. I did everything I could and there were a few obstacles that I was not able to overcome.
I had a serious eating disorder for much of the time that I was an elite runner and that just really destroyed my body and my self-confidence. When I showed up at the start line at the Olympic trials in 1984, I really wasn’t my best self and not very many people get a second chance. But I really, I’m just so incredibly grateful that I’ve had a second chance to try and be the best athlete that I can be. Even though it’s at a later stage of my life because I never thought in a million years that I would still be competitive at age 58. And truly, at age 58 I can do certain things that I couldn’t have done when I was 25 because of my eating disorder and my body was really compromised and very weak, such that I really had to give up running completely.
I’m very sorry that I didn’t make an Olympic team, it still thrills me no end and actually there is one instance this year that reminded me about where, I mean one of those dreams that a lot of kids have is getting on the podium. The top step of the podium and hearing your National Anthem being played for you and for the performance that you were able to give and I raced in Cuba in February and it was a very small triathlon and I’m good, but I’m not that good, to win a triathlon overall. But this was really small and I did end up winning. So the next day at the awards ceremony I really didn’t know what the format was, but the award was this beautiful sculpture by a Cuban artist and then I’m kind of overwhelmed, trying to get down off the podium and they said ‘Well, now for the National Anthem.’ I got to stand there in Havana, Cuba and listen to my National Anthem being played.
Somebody in the crowd had a little flag, so it wasn’t exactly the dream of being at the Olympics, but it was just, there are ways that you’re given, I don’t know, experiences and gifts that you never expected and they’re sometimes even all the more precious. Never made the Olympic team, but life goes on.
BRAD BROWN: What a cool story, I love that. Ellen, you’ve obviously been very open about your eating disorder, there’s been a movie made about you and that story as well, so it is very well documented. It’s something, funnily enough, that I’ve spoken to a couple of athletes about over the years, particularly triathletes and it is a problem, at high level sport, that athletes do develop eating disorders. I don’t want to say it’s common, but it’s not uncommon.
ELLEN HART: It’s not uncommon and you’re really right and you’re very brave to even just bring that up because a lot of people don’t want to deal with that. Probably little dark secret in high level sports and 90% of eating disorders are in women, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any in men and that there’s something about, I mean running for sure. But also triathlon because there’s a certain type, a perfectionist type, a Type A, that wants to do really well and can push yourself really hard and be very disciplined. And so sometimes food kind of gets into that category and it can. Depending on genetic predisposition, depending on environmental triggers, it can go from a very strict diet into an obsession, or a compulsion or an eating disorder. And I know that mine was as much an addiction as anybody else who has struggled with alcohol/drugs, any other substance.
The problem with athletics and eating disorder is that, and I’m not saying it’s easy, but you some day might get to the point where you can give up alcohol or cigarettes or drugs or whatever, but you can’t give up food and so rather than being, as they say, abstinent, you can’t, cause you die.
Nourish yourself in your Ironman nutrition strategy
So you have to develop sort of strategies for dealing with food and a health from the inside that’s not, at least for me, that’s not so structured or dependent on this very food at this time or this number of calories. I mean I think we’re going to talk about some nutrition things later and one of the really important aspects for me is that I can’t get too compulsive or I can’t get too obsessive about it because then that triggers that old way of dealing with food and dealing with emotions and dealing with a lot of things and not only do I not want to go there, but I just can’t go there and so I’m really happy to say that I’ve been really healthy for like probably around 12 years.
It was interesting, I had a little struggle in 2011 when somebody, it’s what I heard, I don’t know exactly what he said but he said, you basically didn’t win that race because you’re 10 pounds heavier than the woman that won. And even at the time I knew that wasn’t true but it triggered something and it stuck and I haven’t been bulimic in a very long time, but think I under-nourished myself that year in a way that was just really unhealthy. And when you’re trying to do triathlon, when there’s so much stress on your body and so much time that you have to put in. And then the event of an Ironman itself, which is just so totally exhausting for your body, to not be able to nourish yourself properly is a really big problem.
I’m happy to say that I’m really healthy now, it’s always a little tricky when I get injured because I’m not working out as much. Then there’s a little voice inside that says, then you shouldn’t eat, but I have learnt over the years that part of my job as an athlete and a person is to stay healthy. And so I use all of my resources to stay healthy and I guess I’m a little bit proud of myself, but I’m also just really grateful that I have a second chance in the whole athletics and eating area.
BRAD BROWN: It’s so tough and I don’t want to harp on it, but I think it’s such an important message to bring home that as you say, it’s an addiction, it’s like alcoholism or a drug addiction, the only difference is, it’s not taboo. I say it’s not taboo, yes, an eating disorder is not great, but the food itself is not taboo and I think that’s probably what makes it even harder to overcome is that is something that we all have to do to survive and I’m saying this because it’s something that I struggle with too. You say 90% of women, I’m definitely, I know that I have issues when it comes to food. I come from a very overweight background and I’ve lost a third of my bodyweight to do an Ironman, but it’s a massive, massive issue.
ELLEN HART: It is and I think you’re right touching on the shame and the isolation that goes with it, but also it’s not illegal and for some of us that are Type A and we want to please people and we want to be the good girl and good kid, that’s the substance that we choose to deal with emotional discomfort and lots of other issues.
As you said, it’s not the food itself, but when you combine the themes of nutrition and high performance, or even just long endurance events, that I think there are some of us that really get in trouble and need to guard. I also think it’s a message that we need to give, there are a lot more youth coming into the sport and it’s a message we need to give to youth that there’s not one body type that wins a triathlon and there’s not one single weight that’s appropriate for you or for you at any particular time in your life, that there’s a lot of fluidity and that the performance and the training drives the weight. If you trust your body, then it’s likely that you will be at the right weight for you, whereas so many of us think, oh, I have to be at this weight and you pick some arbitrary number. I have to be at this weight to be able to compete at a high level. In my opinion that’s just not true.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely, Ellen, let’s switch to your athletic endeavor and how you made the transition from running into triathlon, how did that come about, that you ended up making that move?
ELLEN HART: When I was, I think between 45-47, I was doing Masters running but I was getting hurt a lot and I had a very intractable case of plantar fasciitis and I just really couldn’t run for a long time and my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband gave me a bike for my 45th birthday and that was kind of the start of it. He thought that we could ride together, which was a nice idea and he was also really sweet in thinking that maybe I wouldn’t beat myself up as much with the injuries and everything. Once I got on that bike and realised, hmm, you could ride this bike really fast and there are races. Even when I still had the plantar fasciitis, I think I did three triathlons in 2006 and I just limped through the run because I hadn’t been doing any running, but one of them I managed to come in somewhere such that I got the email saying that I had qualified for US nationals.
US nationals and I thought, oh, well, why don’t we do that and I paid my money. So, then by the next year my foot was better but I had paid my money so I thought, okay, let’s just go and see how it is and I still remember when my sweetie and I got to the hotel and there were these people warming up in the parking lot and they had these aero helmets and they had outfits and they had cool bikes and other stuff and I’m just kind of, you know, the country cousin showing up for a little weekend entertainment and it was National Championships and we did really, really well. We finished 5th and won a spot on the US team to both Hamburg and to Vancouver. That was 2007.
Then I was just totally hooked, I got to wear that USA uniform and I was good at something and my foot was better and then when I could run it was so much fun to like, you know, track down people on the run, you know how that is. That was how it started and then I just went to my first Ironman event in 2008 in the summer and I won it.
It was a 70.3, but it was, at the time, it gave out spots for both 70.3 World Championships and Kona World Championships and so I thought, okay, I want to do one Ironman, one time, once in my life, one and done and I thought, okay, I’ll take both of those slots. The 70.3 was in Clearwater and the Ironman was in Kona and so I thought that was going to be my one and done. I think what it did, in reality, was make me realise, or just opened my eyes to other possibilities that there were in the sport and that I really loved it and that there were things that I was learning as an athlete and as a person that were really exciting and so yeah, I would say by 2008 I was pretty hooked on it.
I ran the Ironman in 2008 and that was my first Ironman ever, the Kona Ironman, the World Championships, that was my first Ironman ever. I had never done a deep water start, I had never ridden 112 miles in my life. I think I had swum 2.4 miles once and I hadn’t put it all together, hadn’t done a marathon in 20 years. Oh no, that’s not true, I had actually done a couple of marathons a few years earlier, but still it was unchartered territory all over the place, not to mention the rather extreme climatic and geographic features of Kona where I’d never been to Kona before. So kind of step off the plane and I think, oh my and the night before I was just sort of a basket case thinking, oh gee, what have I gotten myself into, I just don’t think I can do this.
Yeah, I showed up and actually got third in my age group for my first Ironman and my first Kona World Championship and then I thought, well, I think I’ve learnt a lot, but my learning curve, I really should put that to use in the future. Then one became two and now every year I say this is my last one and this will be, this is my last one this year. Listen to me, trust me – and this is number ten. That will be 8 at Kona and two others, so Kona is kind of my favourite there.
BRAD BROWN: Does your husband regret buying you that bicycle?
ELLEN HART: I think he does, because even if that bicycle were somewhat on the expensive side, it’s nothing compared to what we’ve got over the last ten years together. He is incredible and I know this just in the abstract, but also in comparison because I was married before and I was not in a relationship that was particularly supportive of my athletics. Rob has just been unbelievable and I just don’t think you can do this without support and he’s just, he’s supportive of my workouts, he’s supportive of racing and he comes to most of my, the bigger races and he’s always there, every step of the way.
I sometimes think it’s harder for him than for me because you know what it’s like at Kona, it’s hot out there and the poor spectator has to stand around waiting, waiting for that one time that you’re coming past the corner that he/she is standing on. Anyway, he’s just been really unbelievably wonderful and I can’t, like last year, I had a really good year in terms of a lot of wins of championships and when people would say it, it’s not that I was just claiming it, but I had to really be straight forward and just say, I was really lucky and I had a lot of help and not everybody has those two things and the luck, people say the harder you work the luckier you are, okay, blah-blah-blah, but just take the weather. I perform better in warm weather and there were three of those five World Championships that could have been crummy weather and all five of them were really beautiful weather, so that’s just plain old luck.
I’m babbling on here, so let’s get back to you Brad.
BRAD BROWN: Ellen, I think it’s amazing, that first experience in Kona, I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone whose first Ironman was on the Big Island. Can you remember what it was like finishing that because doing an Ironman is a massive step up from say racing 10 000m on the track. I’m not saying one is harder than the other, but it’s a much longer time period that you’re out there. How did you feel finishing your first one cause I mean I think we all remember our first Ironman and it’s difficult to forget that experience.
ELLEN HART: It did register in some parts of my brain as incredible, the meaning of incredible , not to be believed. I couldn’t really get my head around it when I looked at it in terms of the distance and the numbers and looked at it all together as one piece and so it wasn’t really until about 23 miles of the marathon that I realised I was going to make it because it was unchartered territory. I didn’t know what was going to happen and I had certainly seen and read and done some research and like bad things can happen in that race!
I just wasn’t at all sure that I was going to make it and so, but coming down Alii Drive, especially, yeah, coming down Alii Drive is one of the sweetest spots, I have to believe. It’s just unbelievable when you’ve put in that amount of work to get there and you know that every single person at that race has a story and has a reason to be there and every single one of those people has earned his/her way and that you get to participate and the noise, the birds and the people yelling and the music, the cacophony of coming down that last stretch, whether it’s this high 80 degree weather and humid and you get little goose bumps and I saw my husband, my boyfriend at the time and I saw him and we got to do a high-five and in that big old crowd I still found him. And it was just that we had accomplished something that we set out to do and we worked really hard at it and we had some good luck and we supported each other and we did something really cool that we can remember for a long time and that nobody can take that experience away.
The first one is definitely really special. The second one was even more special in a different way. After the first one I thought, I really have to put all this learning curve to use, so let’s try one more. In 2009 I earned a spot but I had a stress fracture, so it was 2010 and my boyfriend had proposed to me, so we were getting married at the end of the year. So there was that on the horizon, which was kind of a nice backdrop. My son came and he was just a little guy at the time, but he and Rob just had a fabulous time when I was out, cycling away in the lava fields and I saw them both at the end of the race, but every place I could have possibly seen them, they were there. They were on every single corner where it was feasible and they had my sister on the phone at one point and just the energy and the love coming through them and winning races is really great, it’s fun, it’s one of my favourite things to do, but to get to share it with people that you love is just, I mean another whole level and it’s just the best. I had won. I was my usual pathetic, like 15th or 20th out of the water and then moved up to, I don’t know, probably 6th or 8th after the bike, I don’t actually remember, but I do remember, I was 18 minutes behind on the run and I thought, okay, I can do this and I did.
One of my good friends here from Denver was 3rd that year, so it was just a really lovely day and evening and night. Not to diminish how difficult it was, but I’ve told my son that it’s never going to be that good again, so you don’t really have to come out there and sweat away all day. That was cool, but it also set the scene for the next year because I missed the course record by 19 seconds and that was only my 2nd Ironman ever, because I qualified again at a 70.3 and I thought, 19 seconds, gee, that’s one trip to the bathroom or something and so I kind of wanted to come back and get that, but I don’t know, in the 8 years I’ve done, I’ve done it 7 years, I’ve gotten a 3rd place and then I got three 2nd places and three 1st places. Seven out of seven I’ve been on the top three steps of the podium which is a nice solid record. But I still, to this day, don’t think I’ve quite gotten it right.
That’s the draw and then this year, I was so sure last year was my last one, but they send you the email and by then you’re like all rested and you’re thinking, you know, that was really fun, why don’t I do it again, so then you send in your money, you sign up and there you are. I need to get this foot healed so I can get back to doing some running and get to those races at the end of the season.
BRAD BROWN: I guess that’s one of the problems with an Ironman, it’s because it’s such a long time, there’s always something you can do better, but let’s talk about those injuries Ellen. You have battled with injuries over your career, we’re also not getting younger, talk to me about that and dealing with a body that, I don’t want to say is failing you, but is not reacting the way it did maybe when you were racing at the highest level on the track and that sort of thing, how do you deal with that?
Dealing with the disappointment of injury
ELLEN HART: It’s very disappointing, you’re spot on Brad, it’s really disappointing because I see myself as a runner and with the concessions that I’ve had to make to injuries and just to aging, I don’t run the way I used to run and so what I need to do is use the brain part of me instead of the feelings part of me and just try and put it in different contexts. That’s one of the best things about this sport is the age group delineations, I’m 58, but I’m going to be 60 in two years, that’s something to look forward to, so I get a new age group. I have to take more recovery, I think there are a couple of things that have come into play and there are factors for both of them, but I might be just getting soft and lazy, but I do sleep more and I do occasionally take a nap and I eat a little bit differently.
I think when you’re young, and particularly with my fraught background with food, you think one calorie is one calorie, calories in, calories out, I don’t think that way anymore. I think that there’s food and a food plan that really helps my body with training and recovery more than others. I was a big sugar person because sugar has no fat, and I was pretty fat phobic and I would just, truly, I could put a spoon into the sugar bowl and be happy with a spoon full of sugar, but handfuls of jelly beans and just a lot of straight sugar and I don’t really think that that is the best thing for me now. I think that I really need a variety of nutrients and that there are foods that give me a lot more in terms of, sometimes even in terms of taste and satiety, than the foods that I ate just to kind of get by and get some calories in so I could do what I wanted to do. I don’t have a rigid plan. I don’t like red meat that much, so I don’t eat it that much but I would have to say that I have a little bit of, like frozen yoghurt or low fat ice cream a couple of times a week, so I’m not rigid, but there’s less straight carbohydrates and I’ve never been big of fried food. I just feel like that’s a lot, I don’t like it that much, but it’s a lot of extra stuff to get to what is really going to fuel your body.
It’s been a work in progress but in terms of aging, I’ve stopped looking back at every, if I’d done say the Boulder 70.3 seven times, I stopped looking back at my older times because I went as hard as I could then and I go as hard as I can now and the statistics don’t make me feel any better about myself. Ditto with, I’m sort of an old school kind of training person and I work with a very high tech coach, Neil Henderson is an awesome coach. He coaches pros and cyclists, he just has this like stable of really incredible pros and cyclists and what-not and then he has me over there on the side and I think the first time I came in, we were talking about Power meters and what-not and I said, I don’t do tech and he looks at me like I’m from some foreign plant, like in this day and age you don’t do tech? I think that’s part of what keeps me afloat though because if I have a workout and I can see the numbers and my brains says: failure-failure-failure – Ellen you’re not trying hard enough, Ellen, you’re not working hard enough, Ellen you’re not good enough, because those numbers are telling you you’re not good enough, that’s not really any fun for me.
Put the fun into your Ironman training
This is not my livelihood and the Olympics, that ship sailed a long time ago, so in the end I do this for fun and for fulfillment and the numbers don’t really help. For ageing, I try not to compare myself with Ellen from a previous chapter in life in lots of ways. We all move along and hopefully grow to a somewhat better person in terms of life experiences and I try not to look back and say, oh Ellen, you just blew your whole shot at the Olympics because you had that eating disorder. I try not to dwell on those kinds of specifics and kind of just move forward. Ageing is fun.
BRAD BROWN: Speaking of moving forward, you’re obviously very goal driven and have been ambitious over your athletic career, what do you still want to achieve and bear in mind, you’ve told me, you’re never doing another Ironman again…
ELLEN HART: I want to hit that Ironman just right this year and I don’t know exactly by what means but last year, and this is just what somebody wrote, it wasn’t what I came up with but I did win five World Championships in 50 days. I mean I won the, the first one was Austria, 70.3 and then the two in Chicago, the Olympic and the Sprint and then Kona and then 8 days after Kona, what made me think that was a great idea to fly to Australia to do a duathlon where you have to hit the road running, but anyway, I won the World Duathlon title. So five World Championships in 50 days, most people say, quit while you’re ahead, the person around here is John, he quit after he won the Super Bowl, he quit after he won the Super Bowl, so like why don’t you just quit, but I feel as if I’m still learning and I’m still growing, as I said, as a person and as an athlete and there are places that I go in training and in races that I don’t go any other way, any other method.
There’s a physical component, for sure. There’s a psychological component, mental and there’s also a spiritual place. I know that sounds kind of touchy feely and I don’t like to ever step on anybody’s religious toes, but there’s something, to me really spiritual about being able to use the gifts that I was given to achieve something and to work really hard and then to be able to put it together on race day and no race day is ever the same as any other race day in terms of conditions or how you feel or the training coming up to it, but to just hang in there.
There are always really, really miserable, difficult parts and then there are just parts that shine like the sun and are golden and exhilarating and beautiful and one of the analogies or one of the images that I use is that you wake up on race morning, it’s usually dark, but there’s nothing really there yet and it’s your chance to be an artist or be a dancer or perform on your stage and there’s something, you have created something by the end of the day that wasn’t there before and it’s a whole slew of innumerable factors. It’s how you treat the volunteers, how you treat your competitors, how you deal with pain. How you deal with the rules of the game and that’s something that I still really enjoy and I suppose that’s the key in terms of what I want to accomplish. Neil Henderson and I sat down after last season and we kind of looked at each other and said, well, never going to have a year like that again. He encouraged me to think about what I still wanted to do in the sport of triathlon. And then to also think about what I might be sad about 10 years from now, about giving up because of the time and the commitment that triathlon takes. And I mean I spent a lot of time thinking about both of those and I think that the enjoyment factor is still there.
On Saturday the Boulder 70.3, I couldn’t run and it was a hot day, I love that course, I love that race, I love racing in Boulder and I knew I couldn’t race and so I didn’t even put my shoes in transition so I wouldn’t be tempted, but I still got to do the swim and the bike and it was just a sparklingly beautiful day out there and you could see the snow covered mountains in the distance and the fields. It was just so beautiful and I was really enjoying myself and I actually had a PR on the bike part, partly because I didn’t have to run I suppose, but I was just really enjoying it. When you know that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and you don’t have to really ask questions like why and maybe I should be home or maybe I should be doing this and that, you just know, it’s just sort of there and it’s that internal peace that you’re really doing what you’re supposed to be doing. What do I still want to gain? I’m not sure what I still want to gain, I want to just see what this year holds and I’m not ready to give up my favourite activity with many of my favourite people.
BRAD BROWN: I love that, Ellen, I’m going to leave it there, I want to chat to you about the disciplines, but we’ll save that for another time. Thank you so much for your time here on The Kona Edge today, it’s been a little slice of heaven chatting to you. I love your spirit, I love what you’ve achieved and I can’t wait to see what you can still achieve. And if I had to bet some money on it, I think by the time you hit 80, you’re still going to be doing these things.
ELLEN HART: Thanks Brad, it was a pleasure talking with you, thanks so much for having me.