We head to New Zealand for the very first time on this edition of The Kona Edge to catch up with age grouper Natalie Gaskin. After spectating for many years at the Ironman World Championships supporting her husband, Natalie began her journey to Kona qualification. This is her story.
BRAD BROWN: Well, for the first time ever we head to the land of the long white clouds and it’s a pleasure to head to Wellington, New Zealand, where we’re joined by age grouper, Natalie Gaskin. Welcome Natalie, thanks for joining us today, good to have you on.
NATALIE GASKIN: Thank you Brad, my pleasure.
BRAD BROWN: First Kiwi on The Kona Edge, I’m quite disappointed it took us that long.
NATALIE GASKIN: I feel very privileged, I wasn’t aware, I heard you interview a few of the Australians who came over to our local race inTaupo this year, so it’s good to see you’ve got a Kiwi on now.
BRAD BROWN: I thought it was time we go across the ditch and chat to someone in New Zealand. Welcome, it’s good to have you on.
Natalie, you’ve been around the sport of triathlon for a while, you’ve had some major ups, you’ve had some major downs, and we’re going to touch on that today. Let’s just go way back and talk about where your journey into triathlon started. How did it all begin for you?
Starting out as a short course athlete at school led to greater things for Natalie
NATALIE GASKIN: Well, growing up, through high school in New Zealand, I ran a little bit on the track, but I was mostly a short course athlete, I used to run 400m and 400m hurdles. Got a little bit of a run background and end of high school I was a bit of an injured runner for a few years and then I went off to law school, which kept me pretty busy for six or seven years. Kept fit in the gym and those sorts of things, but after I finished my studies and started working, I got into a bit of running. Just local 5km races, those sorts of things and then eventually thought I’d start a bit of triathlon and went to the local races. Just did all the short course ones and yeah, pretty much started from there. I would class myself as a real age grouper, I do have a bit of a run background, but nothing too serious, that’s how it all started for me.
BRAD BROWN: And an age grouper with a real job!
NATALIE GASKIN: That’s right, a real job, I would class my job as a real one, quite a few hours, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
BRAD BROWN: That balancing act is really tough, particularly if you are working fulltime and that’s what you have to do and we were chatting before we started recording, about what it takes to train for an Ironman, when you are working fulltime and particularly this time of the year when we’re recording, heading into winter, it does come with its own set of challenges?
NATALIE GASKIN: That’s right, it certainly does require good time management, which I think I’ve managed to master, but it’s very rewarding and in a lot of ways, it gives you a bit of a release from your day job and something else to focus on as well.
Manage your time efficiently for Ironman training and get to experience Kona
BRAD BROWN: Natalie, it’s funny you mention time management because it’s the first time that that’s actually, those two words have come up on the podcast and funnily enough, it’s something that comes up often on emails that I get from listeners of this podcast. It’s something that people struggle with. What’s the key, in your opinion, to good time management and being able to juggle and keep all the balls in the air, so to speak?
NATALIE GASKIN: It’s something I’ve spent a long time thinking about and we’ll talk about what happened to me last year a little bit later I imagine, but pretty much it’s all about being efficient with your time. You’ve got to prioritize what you do need to do.
It’s not necessarily about how many hours you can train, it’s what you can do with your time available. Certainly there are sacrifices you’re going to have to make, if you want to do an Ironman but it is achievable, it’s just being really smart with your time and knowing what you need to put your time into and that’s everything in life, your family, your work, your training and I like to think I’ve successfully managed to juggle those different aspects, but my husband might have different things to say!
BRAD BROWN: We’ll have to get him on in another session. Let’s talk about the move, you mentioned you started off on the shorter distances, but let’s talk about the move to doing an Ironman. For a lot of people, the distance is just mind-boggling and to try and wrap your head around that, can you remember when you first started contemplating doing a fullIronman, what was going through your mind?
NATALIE GASKIN: Actually, my husband is a bit of a triathlete as well, so he started doing Ironman before me, so I’d supported him at quite a few Ironman races, including Hawaii and then after a while I thought, it’s actually getting a bit boring being on the sidelines all the time. I’d done a few half Ironman’s by that stage, so I thought I’d do my first Ironman. My first Ironman was 2011, in New Zealand and it rained all day. It didn’t stop raining at all, it was a real challenge, but I loved every minute and I’ve been back to the south since, so yeah.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me a bit about that race, I’ve seen pictures, it’s on my list of races I have to do and funnily enough, we’ve got next door neighbors, I say they used to be next door neighbors, they lived next door to us in South Africa many years ago and they’ve actually immigrated to New Zealand and they own a resort on the lake where Ironman New Zealand takes place, so it looks like an incredible race.
Enjoy the scenic views while doing what you love
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah, it’s a scenic race, it’s a beautiful lake swim, we get variable conditions in Taupo, so it’s not always fantastic. This year we had a great day but we’ve had some adverse weather conditions as well.
A beautiful lake swim, I just love swimming in the lake, there’s nowhere else like it for me and then bike rides undulating, so it’s a good challenging cycle course. We have pretty big chips on our roads in New Zealand, so it’s not smooth roads, but that’s all right, you definitely do feel you’re having a solid day out there. And then the run is along the foreshore of the lake as well, which is pretty nice and it’s undulating as well.
It is a testing course, it’s certainly not one of the easier courses on the circuit, but I think it’s a pretty fair course and certainly there’s a lot of people that come back every year. We have a lot of overseas competitors who come along as well, so other people must enjoy it as well.
BRAD BROWN: And to call it ‘pretty’ would probably be an understatement.
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah, it is scenic, we’re pretty lucky in New Zealand. Sometimes we take it for granted, but it’s pretty scenic, I think.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about doing that first one. How did that first one go, was it what you expected, was it harder than you thought it was going to be? Did you absolutely love it? You obviously loved it because you went back for more.
Train mentally as much as you train physically
NATALIE GASKIN: I did, I think physically it was obviously hard, but what I hadn’t perhaps quite appreciated was the mental ups and downs that you experience during the day, that there were going to be hard patches and you just had to endure and it would come right again, but I don’t think you know that necessarily in your first race.
I knew to a certain extent what I was going to be in for physically, but the mental side of it was a little bit different and I think the fact it was my first race, so I wasn’t really in the mindset of racing, it was more a personal thing that I wanted to get through and that was probably the first time I had that mindset of racing, for a little while, because I’d been sort of reasonably competitive over the shorter distances, but yeah, so it did teach me quite a lot about the mental challenges. That feeling, coming down the finish line, I just don’t think there’s anything quite like it and it’s addictive.
BRAD BROWN: It is, it’s difficult to describe that and for someone who has never done an Ironman and experienced that, it’s hard to put into words what that’s actually like. I’ve done a few of these things myself and I still can’t put it into words, what it means to cross and run down that carpet.
NATALIE GASKIN: That’s right, I love heading back down to the finish line after races and seeing people finish and what I love is that look of the pure enjoyment and happiness in people’s faces and you don’t know any of these people, but you just feel so happy for them.
An emotional and special place…
You don’t often see people that happy in general life, so there certainly is something about that finish line, it’s a special place.
BRAD BROWN: It’s crazy and funnily enough, I’ve never actually shared this on the podcast, but I was lucky enough a few years ago to announce at an Ironman and it is the most incredible thing. I worked alongside Paul Kaye, who does obviously Ironman South Africa here and he does many races around the globe and it was the most emotional day of my life. I recall going back to my hotel room afterwards and it felt like somebody had died. I had been on this high for so long, just sharing in everyone’s joy, knowing what it was like, cause I had done it before, and it was incredible. I take my hat off to someone like Paul who does it week in and week out, I don’t know how he does it, but gee, it’s an incredible feeling.
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah, indeed.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about when the penny dropped that you decided you wanted to race in Kona. You mentioned you had been to Kona before with your hubby and had experienced it, when did you decide that you want to go and race on the Big Island?
NATALIE GASKIN: My first Ironman, although I wasn’t perhaps in a racing mode, I did pretty well, I think I went 10:48 in my first Ironman, I was thinking, everything went well, maybe about 11 hours, but I wasn’t sure and I wasn’t too far off qualifying in my first one. Yeah, after that I decided, my husband went back to race in 2011, so after that I thought, let’s see what happens and yeah, it took me a couple of years before I qualified. I got pretty close a couple of times.
It’s pretty competitive down in New Zealand to qualify in the women’s age groups, so I was pretty happy once I did nail a spot in 2014 for the first time.
BRAD BROWN: Describe that feeling to me? Finishing your first Ironman is special, but landing your first qualifying spot must also be quite special?
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah, I qualified at the Asia Pacific 70.3 Champs in 2014, which was in Auckland for me, I really did have a fantastic race that day. I was the first overall amateur in that race and I think I was 6th or 7th female overall, including the pros and it was just one of those races where I probably only had a couple of races like that in my life and everything just went to plan, it just felt easy the whole way.
The swim was just easy, the bike was just, everything, my Power numbers were great and then the run, I just managed to hold my pace and I was certainly pretty emotional when I finished because I didn’t know that I would need to win my age group to get a Kona spot, which I did sort of have in mind for that race, but yeah, that was pretty special.
Then knowing that I could then go and race Ironman New Zealand and didn’t have to worry about the Kona spot because I already had it, that certainly was emotional.
A competitor – not a spectator – an amazing experience
BRAD BROWN: Heading to the Island, going as a competitor, compared to a spectator, must be pretty different too?
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah indeed, so my husband had raced in Kona three times, so I’d been over three times beforehand, so I did know the course a little, but racing your first time is certainly different to spectating. 2014 was a pretty windy year on the Big Island, there were a few people that got blown off their bikes which I saw, so it wasn’t great to be a slightly smaller athlete, you would have done a bit better if you were a bit bigger on that day, but yes, I can say I had the full Kona experience.
I had the cross winds, I had the heat and even though it was tough over there, I loved it and I did learn a lot and I’m pretty excited to be going back this year.
BRAD BROWN: I’m sure, let’s talk about that first race experience and how things went. Did it go according to plan? You mentioned it’s challenging training in the southern hemisphere through winter for a race that’s obviously a lot hotter conditions, they’re very different, so how did things go on race day?
NATALIE GASKIN: I had a pretty good swim, the swim it went. It’s fantastic swimming over in Kona. I quite enjoy swimming without a wetsuit, so that didn’t bother me too much and that was actually the first year where woman had a separate start from male competitors. I’m a reasonably strong swimmer, so I got away in a group of, it might have been about 10-15 women and we had a fantastic swim out to the first buoy. Turning around it was a bit of a mess because we had to swim through all the men who had started 10 minutes in front of us, so that was a little bit of an interesting experience, swimming over a few men and they weren’t too happy about that, but that’s all right.
Then the bike, there’s nothing like the first 10k’s in Kona, everyone is just going mad. I’ve never seen people bike so fast and you just, there’s people overtaking from all directions and being a strong female swimmer, all those guys you came past, are coming back past you and yeah, my bike was all right. It was pretty windy, so I did get blown around a bit. I did learn a lot about being able to persevere and get through that bike on a tough day.
Didn’t all go according to plan, probably didn’t take on quite enough fluid and then yeah, the run was challenging, but yeah, great to get through it.
2nd Time round gets you better prepared
BRAD BROWN: Natalie, do you go into that first one with any expectations? Like you said, you’re fairly competitive, but going onto the Big Island for the first time, how did you approach it? Did you go, I want to experience this and just get as much out of it as I can, or did you go in there with some ambition to possibly get a podium or how did you approach it?
NATALIE GASKIN: I probably approached it a little like my first Ironman, I’d always planned that I would want to go back again, so first time around, I did want to enjoy and learn a lot from it and I feel like I did. I probably didn’t go into it with probably quite that racing mindset, but I feel like I did learn everything that I wanted to from that day. I feel a lot better prepared going back.
When disappointment strikes don’t pressurise yourself
BRAD BROWN: A year later you qualified once again in New Zealand, you decide you’re going to take the slot and then things happened that, as an athlete, often do. You also mentioned a bit earlier you’re a bit of an injury prone athlete growing up, but you picked up a pretty serious injury following your second qualification, tell us a bit about that.
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah, I qualified again at Ironman New Zealand in March 2015, had a little bit of a break from training afterwards and then got back into things and then round about this time last year I was having a few issues with my hip and eventually found out that I had a stress fracture at the top of my femur.
Yeah, that meant a pretty long lay-off and I’ve got a good team of medical professionals in Wellington who look after me, so got some really good advice, but it just meant there wasn’t going to be enough time to get any training done, to be able to even just participate on the Big Island. I did have a thought that at one stage maybe I could go and just do the swim or try and get around the bike course, but in the end, it was likely I was going to do more damage to myself and I had aspirations to want to come back.
Yeah, it was a disappointing year. I ended up going over and having a holiday over there and watching the race, we had friends competing, it was pretty tough being on the sidelines when you knew that you should be out there racing, but I got through it and then yeah, was able to start doing a little bit of training in October, actually, while I was over in Hawaii, nothing major, just mostly run/walking and a little bit of cycling. Yeah, I managed to rehab myself pretty well and came back with a good performance this year.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s touch on how difficult it is to bounce back and the disappointment of qualifying. You had a pretty decent Ironman New Zealand last year where you qualified, you must have felt pretty good out of that and thought, we raced Kona last year just to experience it, but it’s game on in 2015, it must have been hugely disappointing.
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah, it was very disappointing. It was interesting, I had felt a little bit of self-imposed pressure after Taupo last year and training wasn’t going as I had hoped that it would go. I was also pretty busy with my professional life, in terms of my day job, so I did probably have quite a lot of stress in my life and through the process of being injured, it gives you a lot of time to think about why things happen and I was able to reflect and think, why am I doing this sport, what do I want to get out of it. It did change me quite a lot as an athlete in a lot of positive ways, so it’s really tough to be injured, especially when you’re someone who has really exercised for most of your life.
There hasn’t really been any large period where I haven’t been able to exercise, so to only be able to swim was tough. Yeah, it is really difficult for an athlete and probably my work colleagues were not too happy to be spending as much time with me. I did put in a few more billable hours at the office, which was a good thing to do as well, but yeah, I’m determined that I will not be getting injured this year, that’s for sure.
BRAD BROWN: Natalie, what’s the biggest lesson you learnt out of that period of recovering from that stress fracture?
There is value in the lesson of being injured
NATALIE GASKIN: I think one of the things was, I was probably always an athlete who could train quite a lot of hours, even though I do have a day job, I would get up early and train and I could train in the evenings. I’d do long sessions on the weekend and it wasn’t always, I probably wasn’t great at recognizing when I was tired and when I needed that recovery. When I actually first got injured, I did try to keep doing a little bit of cycling, initially, but I just really wasn’t healing at all. My hip wasn’t getting any better, so it wasn’t actually until the point where I stopped and I let go of everything that I started to get better. One of the big lessons for me was, how important it is to recovery cause I think as a working athlete, you’re so busy trying to fit everything in, you also need to recognize when you actually need to stop and take that time off as well.
So that was probably the biggest thing I learnt, it’s not all about how many hours you can train, it’s about the right kind of training at the right times.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s move forward to Ironman New Zealand this year, 2016, obviously coming off a major injury like that, and having a big break, did you know your form would be as good as it was going into that race, were you pretty comfortable or was it again going into the unknown, don’t know quite how your body is going to handle the stresses of another Ironman?
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah, so actually after, when I came back from injury late last year, I decided to get Bevan McKinnon who is a coach in New Zealand, to look after me and guide me through. We decided that I’d raced the Taupo 70.3 in December, using ‘race’ very loosely, because I hadn’t done very much running.
I was able to do enough cycling and I was pretty confident of my cycling over 90km and my swimming was obviously fine but I had to run/walk the run in the 70.3, which was a new experience for me. I got through that and was actually able to pick up a slot for the 70.3 Champs in Mooloolaba later this year, I think I came second in my age group, so that was really just about seeing where my cycling was and hopefully giving me a little bit of confidence that I could get through the run without any issues, even though I had to still take walk breaks every 20 minutes.
Under Bevan’s guidance I pushed on and was able to get in some good training, not as much running as I had historically done and Bevan can probably confirm that I was always complaining that I needed to be doing more running, but yeah I was probably a little bit apprehensive about exactly where my run form was.
I did manage to get my cycling up well, but Bevan was confident that I was going to have a good race. I was probably still a little bit nervous because it was loose volume that I’d been used to, but yeah, it obviously went pretty well. In the end, it was a fantastic day.
The power of believing in yourself
BRAD BROWN: It must have been a pretty cool feeling landing that qualification spot again, particularly if you think about what’s gone on in the previous year. Landing your first one must be pretty special, but this year’s one must have been up there.
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah, it was incredibly satisfying. I had the advantage of going up an age group this year, which is always nice to be the young person in the age group and I had a great swim, so I led the amateur race out of the water and then I had a couple of young girls who came past me on the bike. But I just rode to my plan and then on the run, it wasn’t my fastest Ironman marathon, but I was only actually six minutes, I think, off my best time. So considering the run volume I’d done, it was a really good run and if anything, I probably didn’t quite back myself to run that well and Bevan probably thinks I had a few more minutes in me and I will just have to make sure that happens in Hawaii, so yeah, it was great.
BRAD BROWN: You say it wasn’t your best Ironman marathon, your splits weren’t half bad, what were the splits for the race this year?
NATALIE GASKIN: Still overall it was a PB for me, which was great. My swim was 52, my bike was 5:26 and then the run was 3:35, so 10:01, just a minute off going sub 10.
BRAD BROWN: How bleak were you that you missed the sub 10?
NATALIE GASKIN: I wasn’t too bothered at the time, I was just so pleased about how well the race had gone, but now, a couple of months later, you sort of think, did I back myself because I probably didn’t quite have that killer instinct, that if I had had, I may have been able to push that little bit harder. That’s all right, you need to have something else to aim for, and in some ways, it gives you something else to push for.
BRAD BROWN: The carrot is there. Let’s talk about prepping for Kona 2016 and what you’re doing differently. You mentioned Bevan, is your approach very different to our first approach to going to the island? What’s the game plan from here on till Kona 2016?
Try a different plan going forward
NATALIE GASKIN: Certainly there is a bit of a different plan. Main thing is to try and improve my cycling a little bit more, just so I’m a bit more competitive on the bike. I just started a big bike block last week, which has been going pretty well so far, ask me in a few more weeks how I feel about it. But hopefully I’ll be able to cycle a little bit better than I did in Taupo, when I get to Hawaii and I’m pretty lucky.
I also have a friend, Stacey Simms who is an exercise physiologist who is going to help me with my heat adaptation, so training through winter, there are a few things which we’re going to try and do, which means when I land in Kona I’ll be ready to go.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about the team. You’ve mentioned you’ve got a very strong support system around you of good medical practitioners, coach, obviously your hubby is very supportive as well, how important would you say that is?
NATALIE GASKIN: Oh, I think having a team around you who is supportive is just incredibly important. It is an individual sport, but you really do need that team there to help you out and to give you confidence as well. For me it’s a really important thing.
If you believe it you can achieve it
BRAD BROWN: Somebody listening to this who has never been to the Big Island, who is a fairly competitive age grouper, but struggling to qualify, what advice would you give them? Why do you love Ironman and why do you love Kona so much?
NATALIE GASKIN: I really do love Ironman and I do love Hawaii, so this will be my second time racing, but I’ll be my 6th trip back to the Big Island and there’s something quite magical about it.
It’s really hard, it’s not an easy place to race an Ironman, it’s a crazy place to race an Ironman, but I wouldn’t have it any other way, I love racing in those tough conditions and I just feel like it’s something I thrive on. So, I think if you’re thereabouts, if you keep trying and being sensible about what races you’re going to do and training, getting that support system right, you really can qualify, I think, if you put enough into it and if it’s important enough to you.
BRAD BROWN: Natalie, like you say, you’ve been to the island many times, six times now. Some insider tips, somebody possibly going who is racing for the first time, let’s give them some advice on the best places to stay if you want to be out of the way or how do you approach it? Do you like being in the middle of the action, in the thick of things, or do you like a bit of quiet time?
NATALIE GASKIN: We’re pretty lucky, we have a place where we stay most years, which is a couple of miles down from the pier. It’s great to be able to soak up that atmosphere. This year I’ll be doing things a bit differently, so I won’t be on my feet at the expo, doing all those sorts of things.
I feel like I’ve done those things enough times, so yeah, this time I’ll be having a bit of down time and just focusing on what I need to do come race day, but it’s great to be able to participate in them and that’s the fantastic thing about actually going to the race and being a supporter, is that you can spend as much time as you want participating in all the other activities, which are there.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about the mental side of an Ironman and you spoke a little bit earlier about the ups and the downs in a race, how do you deal with those sort of things? What do you do mentally to prepare yourself for an Ironman and then during the race itself, to keep yourself motivated and fired up that you still want this thing?
We all go through patches where we say to ourselves, we’re never ever, ever going to do this again!
Fill your mind with confidence
NATALIE GASKIN: Yeah, so that’s something I did think about quite a lot heading into Ironman this year. I spend a lot of time really, almost playing a video to myself as to how the race was going to play out and what was going to happen at certain stages of the race. For me, it just sort of calmed me down, the days before the race. I didn’t get too hyped up, I was really relaxed heading into Ironman this year, which I think is important.
You know, you do need that nervous energy, a little bit, but it’s also important to keep calm. I think if you can really be assured as to, if you’ve done all the work, really, it’s going to go right on race day and having that belief, I probably didn’t quite back myself enough at Ironman New Zealand this year, coming back from the injury. I had a few doubts, but actually having that confidence is something really important. It’s just all about working out the strategies that work for you, to get yourself there essentially.
BRAD BROWN: What do you still want to achieve in the sport?
NATALIE GASKIN: I need to nail that sub 10, that’s for sure and I do have aspirations of heading to Hawaii and being on the podium this year. I think my performance in Taupo, if I do everything right, then I should be able to get there.
So, yeah, I do have some big aspirations, I think, they’re the big two for me, making sure I go sub 10 and then also podium in Hawaii.
BRAD BROWN: We look forward to following your progress. I think it’s going to be an amazing journey and often when you do taste disappointment and the bitterness of that, the success and the sweetness is just that much better.
You’ve had a pretty rough year and a bit, and things are on the up, I can’t wait to see how you go in Kona 2016.
NATALIE GASKIN: That’s great, yeah, I’m really excited about it and I do think that I’ve got a lot more improvement to come as well, which is exciting.
Taupo was a great result, but it didn’t go perfectly, so for me, it’s really satisfying to know there’s still more to come.
BRAD BROWN: Fantastic, Natalie Gaskin joining us here on The Kona Edge. Thank you so much for your time and we look forward to chatting again soon.
NATALIE GASKIN: Thanks so much Brad.
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