Qualifying for Kona – The Annchen Clarke Ironman World Championships Story
We head to Amsterdam in the Netherlands to catch up with Age Grouper Triathlete Annchen Clarke about her dream of qualifying for Kona and racing the Ironman World Championships. What did it take to get there and why it matters.
Swim faster without spending more time in the water
Discover the 4 most common swim killers and how to fix them so that you can shave minutes off your swim time.
BRAD BROWN: Welcome onto the show today. Annchen Clarke, Annchen welcome onto The Kona Edge. It’s nice to have you. You’re in Amsterdam, we’re in Johannesburg in South Africa as we’re recording this, how’s Amsterdam as we speak?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: Autumn is here, I went for a run this evening and the autumn leaves are out
BRAD BROWN: I was going to say, is that a good thing or a bad thing?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: Well, the autumn colours are nice, but darkness is settling in fast at the moment.
BRAD BROWN: I guess that’s one of the joys of living in Europe and particularly going through winter in Europe. I’m going to touch on training out of season with regards to racing on a different hemisphere and how tough that is. First though, let’s delve a little bit into your background and particularly in triathlon.
We’ll chat lots about qualifying for Kona but before we get started, what does Kona mean to you?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: It’s such a dream come true. I sacrificed a lot, but if I had to choose again, I would do it all over again.
Way before the thought of qualifying for Kona was there
BRAD BROWN: You sacrificed a lot and we’ll touch on that later, but I think it’s an Ironman thing, it’s not just a Kona thing. When racing an Ironman, you put so much time and effort into the training that race day is almost a reward for all the hard work you’ve put in.
ANNCHEN CLARKE: For me, Ironman made me feel invincible. I felt like I could conquer the world and I’m sure a lot of people say the same.
BRAD BROWN: Annchen, where did your journey into triathlon begin?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: I come from a running background, I’ve been running ever since I can remember. As a teen I was doing track and field. I basically spent all my teens on podiums for 800m, 1500m, 3000m and cross country.
Swimming was nonexistent. It was barely a survival skill and I’d never ridden a bike. I never even owned a bike when I was a kid. At university I think I had one for about two seconds. I didn’t know how to ride and was too embarrassed to figure out how. So that didn’t last.
Where the Ironman triathlon journey began
Then I think in 2008 a friend tried to get me to do a little women’s triathlon with her, but it was even shorter than a sprint distance and I was like, this is ridiculous to do such a short race, so I didn’t actually do that race and I entered a sprint triathlon just outside London, in England.
I still didn’t know how to ride a bike. I didn’t own one, so I borrowed a bike. It was a canary yellow mountain bike and off I went.
I think I came off the bike going uphill cause I got a fright from a car passing, I think I got a lot of sniggers from people looking at this because triathletes are all gear and I looked like an idiot on this mountain bike.
Two guys heckled me when they came past me, saying, ‘do you still need to get to the run yet?’ The fire in my belly kicked in and I spent the next bit of the race chasing them down.
I caught them halfway on the 5km sprint, heckled them back and yeah, that’s where the addiction started.
BRAD BROWN: You’re obviously very competitive and racing as a runner and those sort of shorter to middle distance races has obviously bred something into you that you love the chase, you love the feeling of competing and getting onto a podium.
How competitive do you need to be when qualifying for Kona
How important is it to have that built into you when qualifying for Kona?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: You definitely need that fire in your belly when qualifying for Kona. It takes you through, especially endurance racing, it gets you through the dark moments. I think that fire is bigger than filling, okay, I don’t want to carry on, which is always mind over matter.
Your body is telling you, you need to stop and your mind keeps you going. I think having that competitiveness just helps you push that bit harder. I don’t think I’ve ever raced a race that I didn’t finish, maybe it’s the stubbornness in me, but I like to succeed in everything I do. Maybe it’s the competitiveness in me.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned the first one was a sprint triathlon, when did the decision come and how was that decision made to step up to not just a half Ironman distance, but to the big one?
Stepping up from half Ironman distance to full Ironman distance triathlon
ANNCHEN CLARKE: So, I doubled in the short once, I had no idea what I was doing. All I did was download Ironman training programs from websites.
At the time I was working all over Europe in corporate with very long hours.
I couldn’t really fit in more than what you could do full sprint distance triathlons. Then in 2012, I climbed the corporate ladder and I felt I had broken through. After that I felt like I needed a new challenge. Something 4 times as big as I think is possible of doing and naturally that had to be an Ironman triathlon. So I decided I’d first try a half Ironman.
I needed somewhere warm. Being South African. I was still in England at the time, I decided to do Brazil half Ironman. Up until that point I was doing all my training on my own because I was working in Stockholm and working in London at the same time, managing two projects.
I couldn’t join triathlon clubs, I didn’t have training buddies, so still didn’t really know what I was doing. But I did get myself a coach, which helped a lot. Then at the same time I also entered Ironman South Africa the following year.
After I did that half Ironman in Brazil, I think at that time it was just to get under 6 hours. I had no idea how long this race was going to take me and I actually came 4th for my age group. I didn’t know anything about slot allocations and Ironman world champs.
The first thought of Qualifying for Kona
There was a bunch of Argentinian guys saying look, we think you’re going to get a slot, make sure you have the money. I didn’t even know what they were talking about but I actually get a slot on roll down for half Ironman world champs Las Vegas.
I didn’t have the money, but that put the extra fire in my belly. That’s when I started thinking about stuff like qualifying for Kona and the Ironman World Champs. That was when I started reading about qualifying for Kona more.
BRAD BROWN: As far as the training goes, you say you found training programs online and you figured it out for yourself. When did you make the conscious decision to actually get a coach and get some help. To really push hard when it comes to qualifying for Kona?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: So, for my first Ironman, Ironman South Africa, I got a coach. She was also an age grouper. She too raced in Vegas and was actually also my physio in London.
So, she coached me through my first Ironman, but at that time I was still very much in a high demanding job. I said look, I need to do this Ironman with the least amount of hours I can do it and still be competitive.
Risking it all when qualifying for Kona
I felt like I was competitive, but for me it wasn’t enough, I needed more and after I did my first Ironman, I quit my corporate job. My career path was one step away from partner and people said I was crazy. The plan was to go to Ironman Kona.
I took 9 months off work but I need someone that has done Ironman Kona many times and knows what it takes when it comes to qualifying for Kona.
That was when I contacted Raynard Tissink. At that point I’d already moved back to South Africa. I’m sure the South African triathlete circle didn’t know me back then because I wasn’t known in South Africa, coming from abroad.
I contacted them and said, ‘I need you to when it comes to Qualifying for Kona’ and I’m sure he must have thought ‘who is this girl?’. She’s nobody, thinking she can qualify for Kona. But he looked at me and he said to me ‘you’re obviously very determined.’
I think what it takes, get yourself a coach, get yourself a coach that knows what it takes when it comes to qualifying for Kona.
Get a coach who knows what goes into qualifying for Kona
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned Raynard said you were obviously determined and you had made the decision that you were going to Ironman Kona. How much of getting to Ironman Kona was making that decision.
You packed in your job and you really focused as an age grouper working on qualifying for Kona. Do you think that was half the battle won, making that decision?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: Absolutely! I think for me, coming from project management, it all works the same. You pick a date when you want to do it I picked a date, I decided I wanted to be at Ironman Kona by the following year, 2014.
I started making a plan on how I’m going to get there. First, I picked the coach and then I got him to do the program for me. All I needed to do was to follow the stacks. Follow the program. I’m very determined, so I followed everything Raynard told me to a T.
Sell out completely when qualifying for Kona
BRAD BROWN: I think that’s a very important lesson there Annchen. People will spend a lot of money, effort and time to find a coach and work with a coach. When the coach suggests they do something, they second-guess those decisions and do their own thing.
How much of it was a case of Raynard was telling you to do something that you thought, Raynard is crazy. But he obviously knows better, I’m going to do it. Did you ever think, I can’t do this, maybe there’s a better way to do it?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: I think every coach has got their own style. I think it’s the same way as when you get someone for any sort of advice.You can’t start following one Ironman nutritional plan and then another Ironman nutritional plan.
You start getting lost in all the advice you get. When you pick a coach, you need to believe in your coach and your coach needs to believe in you. That’s the recipe for success when qualifying for Kona.
BRAD BROWN: Would you say that getting a coach, that you buy into the same philosophy as that coach, was the biggest and most important thing you did in your journey to get to Kona?
A big part of getting to Ironman Kona
ANNCHEN CLARKE: That’s definitely one part. I think the other part is obviously you need to want to put in the hard work and I was very determined. For me it definitely helped packing in the job because I tend to be a high energy person. I try to fit in too many things in 24 hours where I had time.
Raynard is a high volume coach. Taking the 9 months off of work, I was able to eat properly, fit in the time to sleep properly. I would literally get up, train, come home, eat breakfast, sleep a couple of hours and then do the same thing all over again. I think for me the biggest difference it made was the fact that I was getting the proper sleep in.
BRAD BROWN: Rest is a big thing. You mention the hard work and earlier on you spoke about the sacrifice it takes to get to Ironman Kona. Tell us a little bit about the amount of work you had to put in in the buildup to Ironman Kona. The work it takes with regards to qualifying for Kona and getting that slot?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: Yeah, I put all my eggs in one basket when I decided I want to do it the following year. After packing in the job, I had setbacks.
I started having Achilles problems. For the whole of October/November/December, I couldn’t run. I didn’t do one bit of running. Instead I was aqua jogging and I was spending time on the anti gravity treadmill with Raynard in the Velocity Centre.
When the dream of qualifying for Kona starts slipping away
You can see slowly your dream slipping away and it was one week before half Ironman South Africa and I still wasn’t running.
I then went to see a very renowned physio in Cape Town. She told me I needed to take 4 months off and my body was completely out of alignment. She told me to forget racing that year.
After that I called Raynard. His advice was to just go and race half Ironman South Africa. I made the decision to follow his advice and I think I ran one six kilometer run before half Ironman South Africa.
I went and did the race, but I was broken by the end of it. In the end it was enough to get a slot on roll down slot for the half ironman World Champs. That was when I made the decision to ignore the physios and myself back running.
Again, my Ironman Kona dream would have been ruined if I’d followed the physios advice and didn’t listen to the coach.
Luckily I managed to get through it and the Ironman Kona dream was still alive.
When qualifying for Kona – things fall into place
After taking the half Ironman world championships slot, I’d had 9 months off work and I still very much wanted the slot for Ironman Kona. I wasn’t sure how I was going to fund it all.
While I was still trying to figure out how the hell I was going do it, I got a phone call from Amsterdam with a job offer. They were pushing me to start the beginning of February. I knew if I could get at least another month of hard training in in South Africa, maybe I could push this job until March.
It wasn’t ideal but three weeks before Ironman South Africa I moved to Amsterdam. I moved in winter and had no training buddies. I didn’t know the training ground, but it was a risk I had to take because I still wanted to fund this Kona dream. So I did it and pulled it all off.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about that time that you spent in Amsterdam ahead of Ironman South Africa.
You mentioned the weather was slightly different to what you were used to back in South Africa. What advice would you give to someone who is training for an Ironman or half Ironman in a different hemisphere? So, they live in the northern hemisphere, they’re planning on doing an Ironman or half Ironman in the southern hemisphere or vice versa.
Training for an Ironman when no one else is
Maybe somebody from the southern hemisphere. They’re going to race a race, whether it be Ironman Kona or one of the European or north American Ironman’s. It’s difficult, particularly when everyone else around you is not training where you’re training for this goal race. How difficult is it to stay motivated and do the work that needs to be done?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: Yeah, and I spent some time, it was many years ago, working in Iceland. I was training there for a winter. The Icelandic always said to me, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.
I guess that stuck and that helped me pull through. I was like, there’s no such thing as bad weather, you just need the proper gear. You need the proper gear going into a winter. I suffer in the cold, but yes, I arrived in Amsterdam and literally built my bike on a Saturday.
From there I started cycling north and got horribly lost. On my way back I was freezing my ass off and it was about then I realized I was not going to get back before dark. It was a race against the darkness. I was about 20km outside of Amsterdam when it went dark and I was on some bike path. Luckily I found a bus stop and luckily convinced the bus driver to take me back to Amsterdam.
Pushing through the suffering when you’re qualifying for Kona
BRAD BROWN: I love it, what a cool story. Annchen, let’s talk about Ironman race day itself. The day you were qualifying for Kona. Ironman is a long day for most people and even if you’re out there for 8 or 9 or 10 hours, or 17 hours. It’s a long day generally compared to most things that people do.
Everyone goes through patches where they really struggle and they go through dark times. I’m sure you did too on Ironman race day. What do you do to dig yourself out of one of those holes? How do you keep pushing really hard when you’re suffering but you still want to achieve your Ironman goal?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: In the build up to an Ironman or half Ironman, I’m the kind of person that always tries to see everyone. I don’t find it easy to be selfish. To prepare for a race like Ironman or a half Ironman, you need to be selfish.
You need to focus, you need to visualize and for Ironman South Africa last year I told my family, I don’t want them to be there. I told friends I don’t want them to be there, I even told my then current boyfriend, I don’t want him to be there.
He actually left me because of it!
Be single minded when qualifying for Kona
I knew that if I want to do it, I needed the focus. More importantly, I needed to focus on me. For me, I think, that was my best prep I could have done because I just focused on me. There were no distractions. A lot of people might thrive on the support they might get from others, I find it a bit of a distraction.
That’s number one onto number two. Through the dark moments, I think you visualize it. Visualization is so important for a long day like an Ironman and half Ironman.
You visualize how you get yourself through those moments. When I really can’t get myself out of that black hole, is I find distraction in talking to other athletes and hearing their stories. I try and find out about them, it helps get me through that 5 minutes and then you’re through it.
BRAD BROWN: I think you raise an important point, you talk about the 5 minutes of tough. As much as we love feeling good in a race like Ironman or a half ironman, you know that that’s never going to last forever. That applies to the bad patches too, don’t last forever either.
You’ve just got to keep pushing through, know that it will come to an end, you’ve just got to keep on keeping on.
Just keep moving
ANNCHEN CLARKE: Yes, you need to keep moving. It’s the same as what you apply in planning. Steady and consistent in racing, you just need to consistently and steadily keep moving.
BRAD BROWN: Annchen, you mentioned that you almost felt a bit selfish going into that race and focusing on you. Ironman can be a very selfish and self-absorbed activity. Some of the sacrifices from a personal life perspective, you mentioned you and your boyfriend breaking up around the time as well.
It’s not easy to get that balance right. What advice would you give to people and I know it’s difficult because I don’t think anybody does get it right? From the lessons you’ve learnt, is there anything you would do differently, anything you would change around that side of things?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: No, I think last year I needed that. I’m just the kind of person that’s not naturally selfish, so I find it incredibly hard. For me, last year, I moved away from everyone I knew. When I arrived in Amsterdam, I didn’t know anyone here and I kind of kept to myself. I stayed away from relationships cause I realized if I want to do this successfully and focus on my training.
Time management when qualifying for Kona
Feeling guilty towards anyone for going for a 6 hour training and coming back and being tired and getting into bed is not something I wanted. I still haven’t figured out how you do the balance with family and kids. This year I feel like I’ve tried to get a lot more balance, but yeah, it’s tricky.
I think for some people they find it easier to balance it, because the trade-off is being on your own. You don’t have the support whereas when you have family and kids, you do have some form of support. Forr me, the guilt factor of going off and being selfish, takes away a bit more. So, I chose purposely to do it myself.
BRAD BROWN: It’s definitely not easy. You mentioned the visualization when things are getting tough in a race and working through those dark patches. Did you think about being in Kona in those dark patches during Ironman South Africa? Or was that something you did after qualifying for Kona? In the months leading up to Ironman Kona, during training for that, was that where you visulaized it?
The role of visualization when qualifying for Kona
ANNCHEN CLARKE: For me I always say you need to see beyond the finish line. My visualization was always beyond the finish line of Ironman South Africa, that being Ironman Kona. So for Kona I had to see beyond that finish line.
I actually booked my trip via San Francisco back and my visualization stretched as far as the Golden Gate Bridge. For me it was like the new chapter in life. It’s very important to see beyond that finish line.
BRAD BROWN: Talk to me about the experience at Ironman Kona. You’ve put in the hard work to not only train for a race like Ironman South Africa but you’ve got your qualification spot. Then you’ve done the training for Ironman Kona itself. For most people who do an Ironman in whatever city it is, you arrive and are pretty intimated by the amount of racing snakes around you.
I’m sure it’s no different on Kona, it’s probably worse because it’s all the best athletes in the world. Tell me a little bit about that feeling, when you first arrived in Hawaii and what was going through your mind?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: My journey was a little bit longer than that. I spent a month out in Canada preparing for half Ironman World Champs and I just had the most amazing time training.
That was also a very good buildup to Ironman Kona. Similarly for Ironman Kona, I had a month out in Kona preparing for the race. I kind of arrived before all the madness started. Luckily I settled into island life before all the racing snakes and their gear arrived.
Ironman Kona is intimidating
It is rather intimidating. Everybody is stronger, fitter, leaner, meaner, better gear. By then I felt like I was settled in, so I was like, this is my island before it had actually started. So I had an amazing time leading up to Kona.
For me it was quite an epic journey. The only unfortunate thing was I arrived, if you can have such a thing, the hot rock is bloody hot and I arrived in the middle of a heat wave and I was still doing a big training block on arrival. I think it took my energies a bit. I don’t know if I do Kona again, if I would spend a month out there, especially it being that hot and it might take away some of your energy leading up to the race.
What is special about Ironman Kona?
BRAD BROWN: What did you love about the island? Did it live up to expectation? You’d obviously had an idea in your mind of what it was going to be like, was it exactly as you thought it would be?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: It was that and everything more. You hear from so many people this magic island it’s really hard to explain it to anyone unless you’ve been there. The craziness, the madness, the buildup and the athletes. As a group of South Africans, we all connected before everyone was arriving. It was really such a special group of people. It was a very special memorable journey.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve spoken about the gear a few times in our chat and how intimidating it can be. Gear is important, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. Obviously the better the gear you have, the better you can perform. You’ve still got to do the work though. What’s the one bit of gear that you use that you couldn’t survive without?
The gear you love when qualifying for Kona
ANNCHEN CLARKE: I don’t know, coming from a running background, my running shoes are my everything. I don’t think I’ve been anywhere on the planet without my running shoes. You know, most people are married to their bikes, but for me, it’s my running shoes.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about the importance of the run. So often people will tell you, you’re not going to win an Ironman in the swim, but you can lose it. The bike is pretty important, the run is pretty important. Coming from a running background, would you say the run is the most important?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: I used to, when I started out, my swim was okay and my bike was shocking. I have shocking bike handling skills. Usually I did the fastest to second fastest run split. Over time I got a lot stronger on the bike. I purely got stronger by just bum on seat riding my bike.
I started racing a lot harder on the bike, so it didn’t feel like my running improved that much in comparison to my biking. You could lose the race on the bike, you could lose the race on the run It’s all about keeping your head.
BRAD BROWN: Now that you’ve been to Ironman Kona, has the bug bitten or is it out of your system? Is it a place you want to go back to? Do you have unfinished business on the island?
Unfinished business on the big island
ANNCHEN CLARKE: I definitely have unfinished business on the island. My race day didn’t turn out, what I felt like I deserved, but that’s the journey I needed to take. You learn sometimes so much from failure. I actually had a disastrous day, so I feel like I’ve got unfinished business with the island.
BRAD BROWN: It’s funny that you say that Annchen, you learn lots out of failure. I think you’re right and sometimes you learn more out of failure than you do out of success. What are some of the big lessons you learnt out of that day on the island?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: The biggest thing, it’s such a buildup and all the sacrifices I made. I moved three different countries. Initially I moved from England to South Africa to take 9 months off. I then moved to Amsterdam and started fresh again. That was to try and get the money to get to Ironman Kona.
I probably pissed off a lot of people along the way by being a lot more selfish than I normally would be. Then you end up not having the day you feel like you deserve. Everything went wrong, from the swim to the bike. I had gear failure, I was sick on the run and something in me changed.
Avoiding the glow sticks at Ironman Kona
Being someone who is highly competitive, I always feel like I want to be my best. I realized during the run that you make all these sacrifices to have the ultimate day and then everything goes wrong. It’s so important to enjoy the journey there, because you could always end up not having the day you were hoping for. I ended up having so much fun on that run.
At race briefing the night before they were saying, if you’re entering the Energy Lab after darkness, you should have a glowstick with you or you should be running with a torch. I was like, for crying out loud, this is World Champs, nobody wants to be racing after dark. Funnily enough I remember I was coming into the Energy Lab and the sun started setting.
While I was running, talking to these two guys next to me. I think there was a guy with a prosthetic leg as well. I was like, here we go, they started handing out glow sticks and as I was running in darkness. Until then, I’d never seen such blackness in my life
Get to hear the stories
You couldn’t even see if the person in front of you was male, female, old, young, all you could see is this glow stick.
I was literally running from glow stick to glow stick and hearing people’s story. Everyone’s story was, “I’m not having the day I was meant to have” because obviously these people had qualified somewhere to get to this race. The put a lot of effort in getting there and not having the day they were hoping for.
Just hearing their stories made me think, I guess so many people save for their pension one day and work their entire life and get to old age and are too old and too cranky to enjoy that pension that they saved. I think it was the same for me in Kona,
Enjoy the process of qualifying for Kona
I realized how important it is to enjoy every step of the way, which I did. You need enjoy all the moments in between and not just put everything into the race and then you don’t end up having the day you were hoping for.
BRAD BROWN: Annchen, I’ve absolutely loved chatting to you and thank you so much for sharing your story. I look forward to hearing when you do get to go back, I know you’re one for making decisions and drawing a line in the sand, have you made that decision when you’re going back yet?
ANNCHEN CLARKE: No, I think it’s moved on by 2 years. I feel like I need to get some balance in other aspects of my life, so for the moment, it’s getting balance again, maybe in a couple of years.
BRAD BROWN: Brilliant stuff, Annchen Clarke, thank you so much for joining us on The Kona Edge, thank you so much, we look forward to catching up again soon.
ANNCHEN CLARKE: Thank you 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.
If you'd like to advertise on The Kona Edge, download our rate card.
If you'd like to find out more about becoming a Patron of The Kona Edge, click here.