On this edition of The Kona Edge we chat to Steph Corker in Vancouver. She shares her inspiring Ironman journey with us today. Despite of having a really busy schedule, Steph she still has a burning passion to train and to race her fullest potential. Her story is inspirational and we are given a glimpse of why she remains so motivated.
BRAD BROWN: We head to Vancouver in Canada and it’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the podcast Steph Corker. Steph welcome, thanks for joining us today.
STEPH CORKER: Thanks Brad, honored to be here.
BRAD BROWN: Steph, it’s an exciting time in your life. As we record this, you’re 10 days away from leaving for Kona. But between now and then, you’re getting married, so you’ve got a lot on your plate right now.
STEPH CORKER: Yeah, special start lines I like to say, special start lines!
BRAD BROWN: I was going to ask you, what have you done differently to Kona this year than you did last year, but planning a wedding is probably one of them!
STEPH CORKER: No kidding, planning a wedding was one of them. I actually qualified for Kona this year, last summer at one of the first 2016 qualifying races and so I knew actually when I was racing Kona last year, that I had already qualified for this year. And my man and I went to Maui in February and we had an awesome week of training and riding our bikes. We went up [inaudible 0.01.05] and then he proposed and I just, love wins and he really wanted to get married in the fall and this was the right time to do it. We’re getting married two weeks before my third trip to the Big Island.
BRAD BROWN: That’s fantastic and I think it’s also a good point that, you know what, sometimes you have to live too. It can’t all just be triathlon and Ironman, you’ve got to get on with your life in between it as well.
STEPH CORKER: Absolutely.
Getting the balance right in life
BRAD BROWN: That’s one of the big struggles, is getting that balance right with regards to racing and being as good as you can be as an athlete, but also balancing work and life and family and the rest.
STEPH CORKER: Yeah, it’s no joke! There’s no real other way to say it.
BRAD BROWN: How do you balance that? You’ve got a business and I want to touch on that too because I love what you’ve done with your athletic career and your career-career, if you want to put it that way, but how do you get the balance right? Do you feel you’ve got a handle on it or is it something you do struggle with?
STEPH CORKER: I would say that I do feel like I have a handle on it. I would say it’s not to say there aren’t tough days and there’s still, every morning is an early morning. My brother and I run a people consulting business based here in Vancouver and we’ve been doing this together for the last two years. I like to say for the last two years and the last eight Ironman and part of the choice to create a consulting business was to really craft a life that would allow me to do everything that I love. And I think really, I see this all the time, not to be cliché, but how you do anything is how you do everything and my wish is that people would understand that everything is a choice, and you can choose the job or the commute or the stress or you can choose to figure out how you want to make it work. I just think I won’t be at this stage of my, dare I say athletic career forever, and I really wanted to give it a go and see what I could do and that meant making some choices with both my career and my family life etc.
BRAD BROWN: Never say never. I saw the 70 year olds went at each other in Kona last year, so I don’t think it ever goes away.
STEPH CORKER: No kidding!
BRAD BROWN: Steph, let’s talk about the business. I love the fact that you’ve almost put your athletic fingerprint on it, so to speak. The payoff line of the business is Heartbeat Strategies, for companies who care. It’s very athletic and it’s very health conscious and I love that. Like you say, crafting a life allows you to do the things that you love, that’s really important.
STEPH CORKER: It is really important. To be totally honest with you, Matt, my brother and I, my business partner, we both spent 6 and 7 years at Lululemon Athletica, which is a yoga apparel company headquartered out of Vancouver and we were there for some pretty instrumental growth. We joined in the very early days and that experience gave us many awesome things and one of the things it gave us was the understanding of the intersection of our health and our business. And what I saw was that when people were responsible for their health, they came to work as a better version of themselves or rather the best version of themselves. And it’s a very sensitive topic and I’m not sure if it’s a conservative Canadian approach or what, but how you treat your body is how you treat your business and I really believe that if you can’t take care of your own health, how can you take care of the health of an organisation. And no one wants to talk about it because you know what, it’s much easier to eat those cupcakes and not go for a run at lunch than it is to be the person to put your neck out and say no, health matters. Really, we’re passionate about working for remarkable leaders and leaders who are making a difference and we are quite unapologetic about the fact that you need to sweat the details and sweat in your life.
BRAD BROWN: Poor health is also a sign of things not going right. We’re not supposed to be in poor health. So it’s a key indicator, if your health is lagging and lacking, it’s probably a symptom of another part of your life that’s the same.
STEPH CORKER: Yeah, I think there’s something beautiful when you can bring your whole self to work. I think there’s something beautiful where there doesn’t need to be an intersection or rather a lack of an intersection of who you are before work as to who you are at work. And yet I don’t think it’s an active conversation of hey, CFO, it looks like you need to take better care of yourself, what can we do to help? Those conversations don’t happen all the time.
14 Ironman in the bag and still going strong
BRAD BROWN: Unfortunately and I think they should, but let’s look at your career into the sport of triathlon, you’ve done lots of these things. I think you finished 13 Ironman. Where did your love for triathlon evolve from?
STEPH CORKER: Well, I grew up as a competitive swimmer. I also grew up as a chubby little kid and it never really fazed me. I loved sport, I loved my team mates, I loved getting out there. I loved the routine and commitment and I was never that excellent by any means but I always tried really hard and had a lot of fun.
I would oogle and ogle over the triathletes that would come and swim with us and I just thought swim practice was great, but after swim practice then they put their shoes on and would go for a run and I was like, my word, these triathletes, they are quite something. I’m from Toronto, on the East Coast of Canada and when I moved to the West Coast, I realized that this is definitely a way of life and slowly I did my first marathon in about, I think 4:30 hours and I just kept going, because it was things I really liked to do and I’ve actually just finished my 14th Ironman. It was Ironman Canada in Whistler and to be honest Brad, it’s not only a dream come true, it’s just a life that I never ever would have imagined.
Even the last four years, I’ve raced a ton. I’ve had some terrible races and I’ve had some awesome memories and it’s really been quite organic and to be honest, I still look back and I’m quite surprised.
BRAD BROWN: Why Ironman? There’s lots of different challenges you can do, you don’t have to do endurance stuff, but why the long stuff and why particularly Ironman?
STEPH CORKER: Great question, why Ironman… I think there’s a reality that it’s three things that I really love, that’s for sure. My favourite way to spend a day is on a bike and if I’m on a bike climbing a mountain with people I love, that’s the best thing ever.
I think there’s a combination of doing something I really love and the other piece Brad, I don’t feel like I’ve really raced to my full potential yet. I think there’s some more left, I think I’ve had some pretty good races and yet I’ve been working very closely with my coach, Jasper Blake, for the last few years and I’m really convinced that there’s some better results to be had and so to your point, why not something else. One of my core values is ‘ruthless focus’ and I’m ruthlessly focused on this Ironman dream of really racing to my potential and I keep telling my coach: We’re not done with this yet, we’ve got more to go.
BRAD BROWN: You talk about improving and there’s a better performance in you, I guess that’s one of the down sides with Ironman. Because it’s such a long race, so much can go right. But so much can go wrong too and it’s very difficult to string together an 8, 9, 10, 11 hour Ironman that is perfect. You can do it in a sprint or an Olympic, but when it comes to the longer ones, it’s a lot more difficult.
STEPH CORKER: Yeah and I was hesitant to say that because as quickly as I am to say that, what defines your best performance and I think, is it placing, is it time on the clock, is it how you feel when you cross the finish line? I think those things could be rather ambiguous and the reality is that based on some of my training results, if I can call it that. I think that I have a little bit more room to push myself on race day and that’s what I hope to be able to execute in Kona this year.
BRAD BROWN: It sounds awesome. Steph, you mentioned you’d come from that competitive swimming background, you’d run a marathon and had done some stuff, but you’ve sort of made the shift into Ironman. Do you remember the thought process when you decided to enter your first one? It’s daunting, you tell anyone in the world you’ve run a marathon, they think you’re fantastic and that’s incredible but to go and run a marathon after a 180km bike and swimming 3.8km, is a totally different kettle of fish.
STEPH CORKER: Well, a few things. One, being from the East Coast of Canada, Ironman is just something you watch on TV. It was not something we grew up with in any sort of close proximity by any means. When I moved, the day that I moved across the country was the week of Ironman Canada, when it was in a little town called Penticton and I was on a flight with a bunch of Iron wives who were flying over to support their husbands that were racing. And I remember just the buzz and excitement of everyone on the plane and I actually drove to Penticton to watch the race and I was such an Iron fan. I mean Brad, I just thought these humans were remarkable, truly, truly remarkable and I think one of the plus sides about being in Vancouver is it’s really easy to find a tribe and a group of people that are really passionate about this. So I think that makes a difference, when you’re in a community hub and my best friends race and we train together. So I think you’re a bit of a reflection of your community for sure.
BRAD BROWN: How important is it to find that tribe and people you relate to within the sport? I chat to a lot of people and some from really far-out places who literally do this thing on their own. I know what it means to me to have a group to train with and friends to go out with when you don’t really feel like going out, but what does it mean to you and why is it important?
My tribe is my everything
STEPH CORKER: As you say this, the first thing that comes to mind, it’s my everything. I’m not going to the Olympics. I’m doing something that I really love and I think that everything is better together and I get that there’s schools of thought that the race day is a very lonely day and you need to be okay to be out on your own and I get that. Yet I think this is one life, we have one life to live, you might as well have a ton of fun doing whatever you’re going to do and to be honest, I have found with the right community and the right training partners, they really push me and I’ll rarely do a track run workout on my own and having people that push you is, I think, how we get better. I would say the only cautionary point to a tribe is make sure that they’re the right energy for you. Make sure that you have a shared mindset, I think there’s a time and a place for negativity and it certainly isn’t in my triathlon tribe. I think it’s a lot of fun to go through the highs and the lows together.
We’ll all have great races and maybe not so great races along the way and yeah. The other thing I would say about Vancouver is, it’s known to rain a lot in Vancouver and I like to say that our goals are not weather dependent and it’s a lot easier to get out the door when it’s dark and raining and cold, if you know you’re going to meet someone and you’re going to share that sweet misery together. My tribe is my everything. I really value all of them. They’re remarkable, they’re very positive, we all have audacious and awesome goals and especially in the month of September. After everyone’s off season, unless you’re headed to the Big Island, I do everything I can to make sure that I have a buddy for the final workouts.
BRAD BROWN: How many of your tribe are heading to Kona this year?
STEPH CORKER: You can’t ask that! Unfortunately I was the only one who qualified. There were some other very close calls and some awesome relentless performances but unfortunately I’ll be the only one racing. That said, I have a huge tribe of friends and family that are coming to support and they call themselves the ‘Iron Tribe.’ My brother started this actually and he’s been to every race that I’ve done and I tell you Brad, go on Instagram and hashtag Iron Tribe and you will see the best cheering crew ever!
BRAD BROWN: That’s spectacular. Steph, talk to me about keeping motivation up and you mentioned the positivity and within your training group, the negativity, that’s not the time for it, but now that you’ve done 14 of these things and I don’t know if it’s just me, but I sort of get the feeling that a lot of people, once they’ve done their first one, they’ve got over the high of that. To get motivated through your first one and get out to train is easy, the second one you want to get better, so it’s just as easy to go out and train. But once you’ve done a few of these things, it starts to become harder and harder to get out of the door in the morning when it’s cold and like you say, wet and rainy. What do you do to stay motivated, having done so many of these things that you’ve done now?
STEPH CORKER: You know, I get asked that question quite a lot and it stumps me because I really feel like motivation can only come from within and the moment we’re looking for external motivation or external validation, it all kind of goes to the wayside, it all goes to pot.
It’s not to say there aren’t tough days and that’s not to say there aren’t even tough weeks and I would say that my inner circle is very small. I think gravity is real, so negativity is a real force that keeps us down and I have a few key people that I hold really closely and really dear to my heart and on the tough days they’re the ones that I’m going to reach out to.
I think the biggest piece in all of this is my relationship with my coach, Jasper Blake and Jasper and I don’t live in the same city, yet we have a really excellent relationship. We’ve just figured out how to make the relationship work, not in the same city and I think there’s a lot of power in taking one day of rest and maybe two days of rest and just rejuvenating your spirit and then getting back on the horse and getting back to it.
I suppose it just all comes down to knowing what you want and if you know what you want, then are you up for doing what it will take to get what you want and really, I don’t think people lack motivation, I think people may lack the focus on knowing what they want, or at least that’s what I found. I know what I want and I might have a tough day, but I’m willing to do whatever it will take to get what I want, so you know, keep going.
Burnout comes at the cost of not managing the important things
BRAD BROWN: The truth is, Ironman isn’t easy, if it was easy, everyone would have an Ironman medal. They’d be handing them out and that’s not the case. We do it because we love it and like you say, you’ve got to do what it takes. Burnout, it’s a real thing, it’s something a lot of people struggle with. Is it something you’ve grappled with at all in your Ironman career?
STEPH CORKER: You know, you ask me these questions right now, 10 days out from Kona and I’m like, burnout, what’s burnout? Not at all! If you ask me ten days after Kona where my bike is still packed away in my bike bag, then that might be a very real thing but yeah, I think undeniably at the end of a season, it’s time for an off season, that’s for sure and I look forward to an off season.
I’m really excited about the other things that I get to do. I think that’s great. But I think, again, it’s best if we don’t live in extremes. It’s not like I’m not living my best life all year long and so it’s not that as soon as an off season hits I have all this, I guess all these things that I need to make up for or burnout happens when we’ve taken something too deep of an extreme.
I think it’s important to keep it in some form, balance, and if nothing else, when I say that, I mean I think it’s important that you balance your own hormones and your own energy levels all year long and burnout comes at the cost of not managing those things.
BRAD BROWN: Without a doubt. What’s the biggest life lesson Ironman has taught you?
STEPH CORKER: Biggest life lesson, there’s probably two. The first one really, probably the lesson from training is the power of ruthless focus. It translates into business, for sure, when you want to get in workouts and you want to get in grocery shopping and you want to get in a date night with your man and you want to get in running a business, you think how do I do all of this and I can do it if I’m ruthlessly focused. And I think that’s part of the journey of getting to the start line and along with ruthless focus I think there’s undeniably something so beautiful about resilience and I say that the best place to learn resiliency is mile 20 on the run of an Ironman and that’s something I really appreciate.
BRAD BROWN: You learn so much about yourself in those dark places don’t you?
STEPH CORKER: Absolutely.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk about being in the sport for a while now, if you could go back and talk to the Steph Corker who was just starting out in the sport, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself?
STEPH CORKER: You know, I would want her to know that what will happen 4-5 years from now will be beyond your wildest dreams, but not let her know what that would look like. There’s something so beautiful and a surprise that happens and I guess crossing finish lines now almost two hours faster than where I started doing Ironman. When I started doing Ironman, I was like 30th in my age group, definitely down there, this past summer I won my first Ironman, so that’s kind of cool, yet I think the old version of Steph would just need to know to just keep at it, you’ll have fun.
Every race is the opportunity to do your very best
BRAD BROWN: Steph, how competitive were you as a kid growing up? You mentioned you swam competitively, but you also said you were the chubby kid, were you very competitive growing up?
STEPH CORKER: I guess it’s all in how you define competitive because I really wanted to be great, I just wasn’t ever that fast, I wasn’t at the top of it by any means and I loved setting goals and I loved putting in the work and those felt like qualities of somebody who wanted to be competitive, but I wasn’t going to the Olympic trials and I wasn’t finaling at nationals or those sorts of things but I was a decent swimmer and I really loved the opportunity to race Brad. Opportunity to race to me just felt like such a privilege to be honest, knowing that you got to stand on a starting block and the gun was going to go and when the gun went, you had this opportunity to do your very best. I loved that and I think that’s translated over into Ironman now, to be honest.
BRAD BROWN: I think that’s one thing I love about Ironman too, for someone like yourself who is competitive within the age groups, but there’s so much to race for, even if you’re not necessarily competitive within an age group, there’s always something or someone that you’re chasing and you’re always striving to be better and I think that’s what I love about the sport.
STEPH CORKER: Absolutely.
BRAD BROWN: As far as your soon to be husband, what’s his take on this Ironman thing, is he into it as well? I know you mentioned that he rides a bit, is he also into triathlon?
STEPH CORKER: He’s not into triathlon, he actually is, I like to say a more mature, therefore more successful entrepreneur and he has been running a business for ten years and that actually had him travelling quite a bit around the world. He doesn’t travel as much anymore, but that was certainly a big part of his life and he is an awesome cyclist and an awesome runner and we’ll ride and run together quite a bit. He definitely doesn’t have ambitions of doing Ironman, despite people asking him all the time. We actually fell in love at Ironman Hawaii in 2012, so after my first Ironman race and he really has been the ultimate Iron fan and a huge supporter of the lifestyle during our time together.
BRAD BROWN: And I think a lot has to be said for Iron supporters because I’ve watched a few, I think it’s harder to watch them than to actually do them.
STEPH CORKER: I could not agree more.
BRAD BROWN: It’s one thing being on your feet for that many hours during a race, but when you’re literally standing and watching other people do it, it’s really tough. Ultimate goals in the sport, I know you said you’re chasing the perfect performance and hopefully it comes at Kona in 2016, but what do you still want to achieve in Ironman?
STEPH CORKER: Is this going live, is this public? How about I say it’s less of a perfect performance and it’s more of a race to my full potential. I would like to race to my full potential in Kona and I do have some dreams still tucked away in my heart and I think I’ll need to keep racing for a few more years to let those come to life. They will involve some new races, I think I’d like to take on Challenge Roth next year, so some new start lines, but what I do know for sure is that this will be my last race on the Big Island as an amateur.
BRAD BROWN: I like that. Ironman is tough, it’s hard on the body, it definitely takes its toll, you’ve done a few of these now, 14/15 once you’ve done Kona 2016, how many more of these long ones do you think you’ve still got in your body?
STEPH CORKER: Hopefully a lot! I don’t know, I don’t think of it in terms of numbers. I think our bodies are amazing, highly capable machines and I definitely want to honor that, so for as long as my body will allow me to do Ironman, it’s my distance of choice, I think it’s what I’m best at, I don’t have a ton of top end speed and even 70.3’s are becoming so fast and so competitive and I think I might have an opportunity to just, if I can say gut it out, then I think that’s where I shine. I’m not sure, I never thought I would have done 15 of these, so I think every one after this will be something special.
BRAD BROWN: As far as races go, you’ve done 14 now, coming up to 15, what’s been your favourite course you’ve raced so far and you mentioned Challenge Roth, what other races are on the Bucket List, so to speak?
STEPH CORKER: For future races or the favourite ones I’ve raced?
BRAD BROWN: Both actually.
STEPH CORKER: Okay favourite races to date, it’s pretty hard to top Ironman Canada, home turf. I’ve had some terrible races and obviously my best race to date was this summer. So racing at home is really special and Ironman Hawaii, you can’t beat that place, it’s the ultimate. Those would probably be my two favourite Ironman distance races and going forward, I’m not totally sure 0ther than Challenge Roth. To be honest Brad, I’m trying really hard to not go into auto Triple A type triathlete mode and cram my 2017 calendar just yet. I’d like to finish off my last race of the year and then start to dream about the next year, so I have some ideas, but nothing’s carved out yet.
BRAD BROWN: It’s going to be important to enjoy that first year of marriage as well.
STEPH CORKER: Right, first year of marriage with a bike in tow.
The things that make Kona special
BRAD BROWN: Kona, you mentioned how great and special it is. If I say the word ‘Kona’ what do you think?
STEPH CORKER: Queen K. I think of the Queen K but more specifically I just think of the sizzling pavement on the Queen K. The heat on that island is magical.
BRAD BROWN: What makes Kona so special? It’s got this aura about it, doesn’t it?
STEPH CORKER: Yes, I think it truly encompasses the word ‘Aloha.’ I think there’s a certain Aloha energy on the Big Island that’s really magical and yes, of course, when Ironman comes to town, it’s quite the spectacle. And I think seeing arguably the fittest people in the world all gathered together and gutted out on the day is a piece of art.
Beyond that, I think Kona, it’s the place of dreams, it’s the place people watch on TV and it plants the seed of what if I could and racing there is, I haven’t raced everywhere in the world, but I’d like to think arguably one of the toughest places to race in the world and it’s a level playing field. You all show up and you all fight the headwinds and battle the humidity together, so there’s a lot about that that I think, it brings out your true character.
BRAD BROWN: You say it’s one of the toughest places in the world to race, it’s also the opportunity to race in those conditions, against the best in the world and there’s nowhere else you can do that, other than at Kona.
STEPH CORKER: That’s true. For the other races that might be tougher, which perhaps there definitely are, there might not be the same competitive field that shows up on that day, so yeah, of course that makes it very special.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. Steph Corker, it’s been awesome hearing your story, thank you so much for joining us here on The Kona Edge today, much appreciated.
Best of luck for Kona 2016, safe travels and I hope the wedding goes according to plan and it’s everything you wished for.
STEPH CORKER: Thanks Brad, appreciate it.
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