On this edition of The Kona Edge we head to a sheep farm in rural Oxfordshire to catch up with Kona qualifier Rachel Hallam. Rachel shares the challenges she has had to overcome while working on her family’s farm and what it takes to qualify for triathlon’s big dance on the big island.
BRAD BROWN: Well, we head to Oxfordshire now in the UK and it’s the first time I’ve ever spoken to a sheep farmer on The Kona Edge and it’s a great pleasure to welcome Rachel Hallam on. Rachel welcome, nice to have you.
RACHEL HALLAM: Hey Brad, yeah, thanks for talking to me, good to hear you too.
BRAD BROWN: Rachel, we chat to, it’s amazing, a lot of the age groupers that I chat to have like a sports science background or they’re coaching and that’s how they fund their triathlon addiction. You’re a sheep farmer, there can’t be too many age groupers racing at the level you’re racing at who are sheep farmers.
RACHEL HALLAM: Probably not Brad, no, to be fair. A little different, I do get a few frowns when I say what my job is, yeah.
BRAD BROWN: I think that’s why I love doing what I’m doing Rachel is I just get to chat to so many different types of people and there’s no, there’s no magic formula. I’m starting to learn that you know what, you have to do this outside of triathlon, if you want to race and qualify for Kona, it’s the habits, it’s not necessarily the way you fund the triathlon that counts.
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely, yeah, it’s all about mindset really, I think if you want something badly enough, you do whatever it takes around work and family etc to do the hardy hards really, yeah.
BRAD BROWN: Rachel, let’s take a step back and look at where it all started for you, from a triathlon perspective, have you always been pretty sporty, were you sporty growing up, what did you enjoy doing?
Triathlon of a different nature…
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah, I obviously live on a farm, always been an outdoorsy type and always been involved in sport. My father is a big sports fan, a bit of rugby/cricket man to be fair, so I actually started my sporty life playing team sports, rugby and hockey, those sorts of things, always running around the farm, chasing sheep. My rugby training was tackling sheep on the farm, it was back in the day, but I’ve always done a lot of running, we never went on holidays as children, so my dad built us a 10m swimming pool in the back garden, so I’ve always swum a little bit and me and my brother used to do little triathlons around the farm. We’d set out the pool, do a little swim in the pool, grab the mountain bikes, go for a little jaunt around the farm and then head off on a little run. So yeah, as a kid we sort of always, we’ve really been active.
BRAD BROWN: When did the triathlon or the formalization of triathlon come in to be, for you?
RACHEL HALLAM: I guess I started at my end of sort of university days. I’d been playing rugby quite seriously, up until that point, played high standard and then I sort of got a little bit disillusioned with it, I guess and started doing a lot of running, really and then yeah, entered a charity triathlon and didn’t look back really. Joined a local tri club, Oxford Tri here and yeah, I loved it from ever since then.
BRAD BROWN: Rachel, triathlon in the UK has really exploded and I don’t want to say in the last couple of years, it’s been a while now where it’s been on a really steady growth curve. What do you reckon is the cause of that?
City slickers looking for a different golf with Ironman challenge?
RACHEL HALLAM: It’s a question you know Brad, actually, to be fair, I guess it’s cycling and triathlon, it almost seems like the new golf for a lot of city slickers and that sort of thing, but then also you’ve got people who just want to get out there and have fun and enjoy it and there’s so much to be gained from triathlon. It’s not just talking about your elites, you’re talking about anyone can just pick up a bike and go for a ride, jump in the lake, go for a swim and running, it’s accessible really and it’s a good challenge.
BRAD BROWN: You mentioned you played rugby fairly competitively, at a good level, you had a brother on the farm, I could imagine it was very competitive growing up.
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely, yeah, we used to play cricket in the back garden, breaking a few windows in mum’s house, there was always a competitive edge there, my brother and I.
BRAD BROWN: Do you hate losing?
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely, yeah, as my brother will tell you, yeah.
BRAD BROWN: Has he taken up triathlon at all?
RACHEL HALLAM: He does a lot of running actually. He lives in New Zealand these days, he’s a vet out in New Zealand, so he does a lot of outdoor activities and stuff there, but he’s a lanky runner, he loves it.
BRAD BROWN: Are you still better than him?
RACHEL HALLAM: Of course, yeah!
BRAD BROWN: I love it! Let’s talk about when you decided to start taking this sport seriously? Three sports, it’s not easy to juggle, we mentioned the farming and I want to touch on that quite extensively too because that’s one thing where people really struggle, is the time management side of things. When you started taking it seriously, did you harbor ambitions of going as far as you have in the sport?
RACHEL HALLAM: Well, you know, being a competitive person, I always want to push myself to be the best I can be, so yeah, I guess you’re always aspiring to be best more than you are at the moment and obviously with Kona being the ultimate, that’s a driver really. My competitiveness always seems to come out, even in training and things like that.
BRAD BROWN: Where was that seed first planted Rachel? Kona, it’s a long way from the sheep farm.
RACHEL HALLAM: Very much so. Even when I started triathlon about eight years ago, I vowed I’d probably never do an Ironman, but no, recently, in recent times, I’ve got to know quite a few people who have been more involved with Ironman or been inspired by them really, I guess, and it was like, if they can do it, why can’t I, it’s the challenge I guess.
Ironman pushes you beyond your limits
BRAD BROWN: Can you remember the thought process, deciding to do your first Ironman because it doesn’t matter where you go around the world, if you run a marathon, people think you’re amazing, now all of a sudden you’re running a marathon on the back of 180km bike and a 3.8km swim, it’s a huge thing. Can you remember the thought process that you had to like convince yourself that you actually want to do this thing?
RACHEL HALLAM: I guess it was a couple of years ago when I was following the world champs, I was following it on live stream and so forth over here and the internet and it was like, yeah, I could do that, let’s plan and try and do it, so it was yeah, a couple of years ago really when I first thought about doing it.
BRAD BROWN: What was the first one you entered?
RACHEL HALLAM: Bolton last year.
BRAD BROWN: And your experience in the buildup to it, as a novice, I think often we under-estimate how tough it’s actually going to be.
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely, I was daunted, I’m not going to lie. I was daunted and I think that was a good thing because then if you are scared, you don’t go so hard and blow up on the bike, which I think a lot of people draw positive from that and have a good first outing, I think in an Ironman because they are a little bit daunted and they hold back a little, I think.
BRAD BROWN: Was that your experience?
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah, literally, I knew I’d have a strong swim, so I put some effort in in the swim and go pretty hard for that and then just hold back a bit on the bike and try to get to the end of the bike thinking you can do another ten miles or so and easily be comfortable coming off the bike, was my mantra really, I guess, I had in my head, to hold back.
BRAD BROWN: That first one is quite a toughie from a mental perspective, especially when you get off the bike because you are, you’re tired and you’re fatigued, even though you feel like you can go further, then you’ve got to try and wrap your head around running 26 miles off the back end of that. How did you feel when you got off the bike on your first one?
The mental aspect of the Ironman run
RACHEL HALLAM: My transitions were terrible, I sat there trying to contemplate what I’ve got ahead of me, being used to doing sprint Olympic transitions, it was like sitting there for a while, putting my socks and shoes on, thinking hmm, right, you’re going to do a marathon now.
BRAD BROWN: Have a bit of a picnic in T2.
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah, literally.
BRAD BROWN: I love it. My times were exactly the same Rachel. My brother still takes the mickey out of me, he’s like, what did you do in there, what took so long?
RACHEL HALLAM: I know, my husband was the same, he was shouting at me, where have you been, what have you been doing as I ran out the tent.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about getting the balance right from a work perspective. I chat to many age groupers who work in this industry, so they might be coaching to fund it or they’re in sports science, so it’s very in line with the sport itself. Yours is very different, as a sheep farmer, it’s not like you also are on set hours so you can clock in at 8:00, clock out at 5:00 and do what you need to do around there. How do you get that balance right cause it must be tough?
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely, at the end of the day, if you want it badly enough, you make the time for it and you plan your time accordingly. I’ve got a good relationship with my coach, Mark Livesey from Exhale and yeah, we sort of, I guess we work together and we plan our week and so forth and then I also have a good relationship with my dad who I guess is my boss on the farm, so when I’ve got a window, I make sure I use that window.
Sneaking in those training hours in the middle of the night
If I’ve got a couple of hours, I make sure I’m efficient with my time. If it means getting on the turbo, and that’s more efficient time-wise, I’ll do that instead of faffing around trying to get out for a long ride or so forth. It’s just basically utilizing the time available and even if that means doing lambing or what have you, when I’m on a night shift, if I’ve got a quiet period, I’ll get on the turbo for an hour or so in the middle of the night, but needs must.
BRAD BROWN: Yeah, it’s interesting you say that, sneaking them in where you can, I’m taking it that most of your training you do on your own because –
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely.
BRAD BROWN: Your work environment is not aligned with guys and girls who have 8:00 to 5:00, if that makes sense.
RACHEL HALLAM: That’s right, I think you’ve got to be very driven. Obviously a lot of athletes do train on their own, but some people take heart from training with a group. I’m a driven person, so I don’t lack the motivation to get out at 4:00 or 5:00 to go training, that’s never been an issue. I think that helps, my mentality really.
BRAD BROWN: Do you sometimes wish that you did have that, that you could go out at 4:00 in the morning when the alarm goes off and it’s cold and possibly raining out and you go, you know what, I really don’t feel like doing this, but knowing that there might be 4 or 5 people waiting for you, do you sometimes wish you had that?
RACHEL HALLAM: No, because I think I’ve got that inner drive that’s sort of like, if I miss a session or because I turn around and roll over and catch a snooze or so forth, it’s there in the back of my mind, it’s hanging over me. I don’t need that sort of, that external motivation from others. I think I’m driven enough and I think, I guess I’m lucky in that sense that I am driven enough by my goals within the sport.
BRAD BROWN: I’m guessing and I’m presuming here what you do for a living too is pretty physical?
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah.
BRAD BROWN: It’s not a case of you pushing papers behind a desk, how do you deal with that Rachel? I mean you’re putting in tough sessions in training, on the bike or a run or in the pool, and then you need to, there’s no real time to relax and recover from those.
Functional strength training – the new word
RACHEL HALLAM: No, it’s making use of when I can relax and recover, to do that and it’s fuelling correctly as well, I guess I eat like a horse. I’m never a couple of hours without eating because obviously I’m on my feet a lot of the time and doing physical work. Especially like lambing periods, shearing sheep the last couple of weeks and what have you, that’s been pretty crazy, but we sort of build it in. It’s functional strength training really, it’s part of the training I guess, it makes me strong.
BRAD BROWN: I’m having a good giggle, functional strength training, I’ve never heard shearing a sheep as functional sheep training, but I quite like it. It might be the new big thing.
RACHEL HALLAM: You should come and give it a go Brad, I tell you what, it’ll have you swimming strong, that’s for sure.
BRAD BROWN: Give us a normal day in the life of Rachel Hallam, on the farm, from a training perspective, and a work perspective, what do you go through in a day?
RACHEL HALLAM: Normal, what’s normal? Okay, well normally, it depends on the time of year very much so, we have obviously busier times in the year than others. So at the moment we’re just coming out of the most busy period. So I’ll be up at the crack of dawn, walking around the sheep, we have to check around the sheep every day, twice a day. Just to make sure they’re healthy and so forth, cause they’re bringing up the lambs at the moment, so we have to check everything’s okay and then I’ll try and get in the pool for 6:00, if I can. A lot of the week day mornings I’ll try and get an early swim in, come home, have some breakfast, then go and do the days chores, depending on what needs doing and then again, it really is very much every day is very different. You almost have to think on your feet, right. If I’ve got a window now, I’ll go and get some training in, or I’ll go, that job needs doing, so I’ll get those jobs done and then train in the evening. It’s, yeah, if that kind of makes sense.
BRAD BROWN: It’s incredible to me Rachel. Do you get, in a situation like this, one of the things that I’ve picked up with many of the age groupers that I chat to, is many of them are busy and they’re successful in whatever they do for a living and they really need to plan their lives and look at a week and go, okay, this is where I can train. Even though you are on the farm and you are working, can you plan your day to day, a week in advance or is it a case of, you know what, all of a sudden it’s quiet for an hour, I need to hop on the trainer and it’s now.
RACHEL HALLAM: Literally that, yeah, literally that Brad. It’s usually day to day, cause if something comes up on the farm, a crisis or something on the farm, or we’ve got something that needs, desperately needs doing, I sort of have to drop everything and the farm has to take priority. The animals, they have to be looked after.
BRAD BROWN: That is phenomenal. Rachel, you also mention you coming from a farm perspective, you’re coming out of one of your busier periods, or the busiest periods of the year. You’ve also just come off a race, so you’re not only busy work-wise, but you’re racing at the same time.
Racing Ironman Lanzarote with a great result
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah, I guess I’m not really race fit as yet, but I’m fit enough. We did Lanzarote a couple of weeks ago, so that was good, I enjoyed that.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about that performance. You enjoyed it, you had a pretty decent day out didn’t you?
RACHEL HALLAM: To be fair, yeah, I can’t complain really. Yeah, I won the age group race overall for the women, so I was pretty stoked with that and I think coach was happy too, so we can’t complain really.
BRAD BROWN: It’s incredible, I’m just blown away by what you do for a living and how you manage to train and keep all the balls in the air, so to speak. Let’s talk about your actual Kona experience and like I said, Kona is a million miles from what you do day to day. It must be a very different experience and something that, I don’t want to say it’s way out there, but it must be a really nice release for you to get away from everything in a place like that.
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah, it is rather, I’m lucky, my parents were able to cover the farm that sort of time of year. It’s usually our quietest time, so it was pretty exciting really, to go on a plane. We don’t go on holiday that often, so it was a massive trip around the world, here we come.
Yeah, then got to Kona and it was like wow, this is a bit different. Initially it was obviously very hot and so forth, we weren’t used to that coming from a British climate, but it was almost very surreal, I guess. Obviously people who have been to Kona realize you’re almost in a bit of a bubble really and I guess, I sometimes I think I maybe got a little bit over awed by that this year when I went out there as well, because it was so different to what I’m used to and yeah, it’s an interesting one, that’s for sure.
BRAD BROWN: It’s quite nice they put it in October when things are quite quiet on the farm.
RACHEL HALLAM: It’s perfect for me in that sense, yeah, I’ve just got to work harder all the other times of the year to try and get the qualification for it really.
BRAD BROWN: The climate must be an interesting one because it’s funny, a lot of the age groupers that I chat to from the UK, it’s something that they do struggle with. You raced in Lanzarote this year, which is a bit warmer than possibly Bolton and Whales and conditions probably more aligned to what you would experience in Kona. Are there certain things that you do to get yourself ready and is there a way to get yourself ready and prepared physically for what awaits on the Big Island?
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah, good question, that was one of the intentions, reasons for doing Lanzarote, was to try and get a race that’s sort of near enough, similar kinds of conditions. Windy, hot and humid, a little bit more than we’re used to here because I think conditions really did take their toll on me last year. That was one of the reasons for trying to do Lanzarote. Obviously went out for a few days, I’d a long weekend in Lanzarote beforehand which was quite handy for acclimatization.
Mental preparation is key to get you through Kona
BRAD BROWN: As far as racing last year in Kona, you’d qualified, you did what you needed to get there, was it a rude awakening being on that island? You’d obviously spoken to people who had raced before. Mark who we’ve chatted to on The Kona Edge before, he’s got experience of being there, he must have told you what it was like. But can you prepare yourself before you actually get there or is it a case of once you get there, you go hang on a sec, I wasn’t expecting this?
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah you know, as I was saying, I didn’t think I prepared well enough last year as far as mentally, what to expect out there and also the conditions. You read different thoughts on the process, I guess people sitting in their bathrooms with the taps running doing turbo training sessions and that to acclimatize to the heat or going to heat chambers and doing it that way. I think you’ve got to get out there early as well, that’s definitely one thing I learnt. You need to get out there 10 days or so, 8-10 days, depending on how you cope with travel, to get out there and experience some hard training out there at the same time.
BRAD BROWN: Are you doing that differently this year compared to last year, is that what the plan is for 2016?
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah, I think I’ll know what to expect this year, which is good. Obviously the first time you go it either goes one way or the other. I think you either have a good race or you completely meltdown, but yeah, I know what to expect. I hopefully know better how to prepare myself. I spoke to various people and what they’ve done and taken snippets and I think yeah, will have a better frame of mind this year, I think.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about arriving on the Big Island for the first time. That’s something that I also pick up from a lot of athletes, it’s almost overwhelming, you look around and it’s just these cut bodies and racing snakes wherever you look. You’re obviously pretty good at what you do, but were you intimidated when you arrived on the Big Island?
RACHEL HALLAM: You can’t help not be intimidated. I think as a competitive person myself, I sort of look at other people and think, she looks fast and fit and what have you, but then, at the end of the day, you read articles saying that people who are lean and super skinny don’t race well in places like Kona. You have to take that on board and look at yourself and draw positives from what you’ve done so far in the season, your training and how successful you’ve been to get there. You are one of these people, you’ve earned the right to be part of it, so you shouldn’t feel, I guess, down about yourself or anything like that. You’ve earned the right to be there and you should be positive about it really.
BRAD BROWN: That must be a pretty intense feeling as well, knowing that you’re there, against the best in the world. How did that feel when you’d arrived and lining up and getting into the water ahead of the start, it must be pretty surreal, you almost want to pinch yourself and go, how did I end up here.
RACHEL HALLAM: Literally, as soon as you start treading water at the start line, we were a little bit delayed last year, the women’s race and it was like you’re looking around thinking, come on, this is it, this is the World Champs, this is Kona, this is Hawaii, you’re there and you’ve earned the right to be there. Now’s the time to show it really, I guess, is what you’ve got to think to yourself. It’s exciting, you can’t not be nervous or what have you, it’s part of it, it’s mad.
BRAD BROWN: Tell me a little bit about your race last year, talk me through how it went.
Don’t waste your Kona experience due to the adrenalin rush
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah, I had a good swim, came out 2nd in my age group, coming out the swim, probably swam a bit too hard maybe, I basically got excited and went for it really. It was pretty chopping, worse thing for us was going through all the slower age group men on the turnaround point because it just got into carnage there.
Exited the water, heart was racing, flew out on the bike and I was like hmmm, my stomach didn’t feel right. I probably went too hard the first half an hour or so on the bike, probably ingested a bit too much salt water and tried getting some nutrition in me and it came straight back up again. For the proceeding sort of 112 miles on the bike couldn’t keep any nutrition down, I was struggling really. I think it was a combination of everything really, the heat, going too hard too soon, salt water etc, just getting too excited, I guess, with the situation and then proceeded to go backwards from about then on really, mile 80 the wheels came off, it was a long walk.
BRAD BROWN: Don’t even talk about long walks, I did Ironman South Africa this year with a back injury and I did no run training in the buildup to it and I walked the entire marathon. I know all about long walks, don’t worry about that.
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely, yeah.
BRAD BROWN: It’s not fun.
RACHEL HALLAM: No.
BRAD BROWN: It sounds fun, walking a marathon, no, there’s nothing fun about it.
RACHEL HALLAM: It’s a long way.
BRAD BROWN: Rachel, was it frustrating, knowing that the work that you’d put in to qualify and then to get to Kona, was it frustrating not getting the result you wanted on race day?
Putting it right when it went so wrong
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely, but again, you turn it over and say you had a bad race, everyone has a bad race, no one has a perfect race all the time, you’ve got to draw the motivation from that race, you’ve had a bad race, right, what are you going to do to put it right, get back out there next year and have the race that you know you’re capable of, is my thoughts really on the whole thing.
BRAD BROWN: Does that fire you up even more now knowing what happened last year –
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely.
BRAD BROWN: It wasn’t a case of you were just up the road at Bolton and you can go back easily, it’s a long way to go to Kona and you’ve got a point to prove, you’re going back there on a mission this year.
RACHEL HALLAM: Absolutely, sort of sat in the awards ceremony watching everything going on and I was like, right, I’ve got to get back out there next year, I’ve got to do myself justice.
BRAD BROWN: What’s the goal for 2016?
RACHEL HALLAM: Goodness me, obviously now I’ve got my qualification in the bank, try and remain injury free and have a good buildup to Kona and try and have a race I know I can be, I guess proud of really, out there. That’s the goal and see where that lands me I guess.
BRAD BROWN: Are you feeling the pressure?
RACHEL HALLAM: No, no, pressure is a funny thing. Because I’m internally driven, it’s only pressure on myself. I know I can’t have a worse race than last year, put it that way!
BRAD BROWN: That’s the upside. How do your parents and your husband feel about your triathlon exploits, they must be pretty proud of what you’ve achieved?
RACHEL HALLAM: Yeah, I think my husband is pretty proud, he sometimes complains about the situation, but then doesn’t everyone a little bit? No, he’s obviously very proud, although I think he was a bit annoyed about my performance in Kona last year, had that disappointed look when I was walking, it was not good, but no, my parents, I think they’re proud, they don’t really understand triathlon, they think we’re a bit mad, they would prefer me to still be playing rugby perhaps, but I think deep down they are proud.
BRAD BROWN: Do you miss the rugby? You mentioned you were a bit disillusioned, so you gave it up, do you miss it?
After the rugby – Ironman is a more exciting challenge
RACHEL HALLAM: I don’t miss getting beaten up, to be fair, put it that way. No, you move on, life moves on, you move on to different things. I see some of my friends that are still playing rugby for England now and they’ve done some amazing efforts, the England women’s rugby team, they’re outstanding, but it’s exciting what I’m doing as well.
BRAD BROWN: What level did you play at Rachel?
RACHEL HALLAM: I played England age groups, played up to sort of England standard, so yeah.
BRAD BROWN: I had a chat with Jo Coombe, she played for Whales and I asked her this question, I’m going to ask you the same question, what’s harder, 80 minutes of international level rugby or an Ironman, what’s physically harder?
RACHEL HALLAM: Ironman, definitely. I could say a week’s sheep shearing is even harder, put it that way.
BRAD BROWN: I love it. Rachel, it’s been great catching up. I look forward to delve into the individual disciplines and finding what you’ve done to get better, but I love sharing your story.
I think it’s going to inspire a lot of people cause many people look at age groupers and they go oh, I could never do that cause I work hard and I work erratic hours, but –
RACHEL HALLAM: Rubbish.
BRAD BROWN: Yeah, that’s exactly it, you’ve broken the mold and proved that it is possible doing something very different out there and I think your story is incredible.
RACHEL HALLAM: Thanks Brad, been good to talk to you too.