A performance to be proud of
Something pretty amazing happened last weekend at the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii.
One of our athletes – Emily Loughnan was crowned the 25-29 age group Ironman World Champion, not only that she won the overall female age group Ironman World Champion title. To say I was bursting with pride would be an understatement because I was there to witness it. Her time of 9hours 44mins was nearly 22mins faster than the 2nd place girl in her age category and 14mins faster than the closest female age grouper.
It’s a unique story that deserves to be told of a triathlon novice who became a World Champion.
Where it all began
4 years ago I met Emily in Acton Park in West London where she was teaching a run technique session to a group of my female athletes. The ladies had been raving about this young Australian girl who had a natural gift for physiotherapy, pilates, running and run coaching. I sat there and watched her for a while and couldn’t have been more impressed, she was articulate, intelligent and full of passion for teaching running. She also had a commanding presence and an athletic physicality that intrigued me.
Little Loughers (left) – a champion in the making
We got talking and I immediately liked her, but I also sensed in her through further conversations that there was something missing. There seemed to be a big hole in her athletic life that she felt had been left completely unfulfilled. Emily has been a great runner in her younger years but for many reasons ended up burned out, over-trained and completely disillusioned with competitive running. She lost focus and direction for many years but deep down still yearned to find that sporting fulfillment she so desired.
Planting the seed
From my perspective I sensed there was something special here that could potentially be developed, but it needed an incredibly subtle approach. Especially because she had been scarred by previous experiences.
One of my first questions I asked her was…”can you swim?”
Fortunately being an Aussie, she could, so I thought it would interesting to see what would happen if I could entice her into my swim squads. There was no mention of triathlon yet, I just wanted her to come and be part of my squads and then build from there. It all started with a swim video session to refine her stroke, it was clear she had huge potential in her swim. She then joined my squads, had fun and reveled in a new challenge that was so different from just pure running.
The physicality, focus, determination and talent she showed during those swim squads sessions were evident for all to see and she went from strength to strength. She was an un-polished diamond and if developed in the right way I just knew she could be world-class. The only slight issue was she had never ridden a bike, but for now it was a one step at a time.
Emily’s travelling time then came to an end and she moved back to Perth, Australia. It was then I told her about Paul Newsome’s brilliant Swim Smooth squads which were on her doorstep. I made subtle references to triathlon and ‘giving it a go’ for a bit of fun, essentially planting a seed that I hoped would grow. Emily isn’t a girl who can be pushed into anything if she doesn’t feel ready, so it was about giving her the space to do it in her own time and on her own terms.
Fortunately that seed grew and Emily joined Paul’s squads and bought a bike. She then entered a few smaller races and did really well. Her confidence, self-belief and enjoyment of the sport started to grow so I just continued to make subtle suggestions as to where she could take it next. This gave her the freedom to start to carve her own path back into competitive sport where having fun was her top priority. It was also the perfect opportunity for her to right the wrongs of the past.
After quite a few shorter race successes in 2014 Emily decided to step up the distance and raced her first 70.3. At Busselton 70.3 Emily placed 3rd in her age category in 4:37:48, a terrific performance. This started to show her the potential she had and she became hungry for more.
The following year I suggested that she try and qualify for the 70.3 World Champs, which were in Austria that year. She then went back to Busselton 70.3 and won her age group in 4:26:23 gaining automatic qualification.
Emily then produced a stunning performance at the 70.3 Worlds to finish 2nd in her age category on a course that really didn’t suit her limited biking experience. It was during a discussion post race that I suggested to her that she was ready to do her first Ironman. I just knew deep inside that this was the right moment, little did she know that the race I had in mind was only 10 weeks later at Ironman Western Australia. I remember clearly the look on her face when I suggested this; I think she said something along the lines of “are you crazy?!”
It would be safe to say that thought of it terrified the life out of her.
But something stirred within her and she trusted my judgment, moments later her credit card came out and she entered the race. 10 weeks later she went 9hrs 53mins in her first Ironman and won her age group to qualify for the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii for 2016. I remember the commentator’s comments at the end of the race went something along the lines of – “if she could bike properly she could be dangerous”.
There was an important psychological reason for doing this first Ironman so soon. Her goal for 2016 would be to win her age group at the 70.3 World Champs in Mooloolaba, Australia. As an Aussie girl this would add greater pressure and meaning to do well, every athlete dreams of winning a World Championship crown in their own country. So rather than place all the emphasis on this one race, she now had 2 World Championships races to focus on, this way the focus wasn’t all on that one big race in Australia.
I also wanted her to open her ‘Kona account’ because I truly believed she could win there one day too. But first she he needed to gain experience on the course and see how she handled the brutal conditions. It’s a race you need to get hardened too and this takes time to develop. Rarely has anyone gone there and won the first time, you have to serve your apprenticeship.
Emily then went back to Busselton 70.3 in May 2016 and had a rude awakening, she placed 2nd in her age category in her fastest time to date going 4:15:52. She still gained qualification for the 70.3 worlds but so very nearly missed out. It was just the wake up call she needed because I had been nagging her to death about her run pacing; this is exactly where she had lost the race by just seconds. The first 20mins were always too fast with her slowing considerably towards the end. She was by her own admission a girl that liked to just run as hard as she could for as long as she could.
We then set a path in her run training to help her to control her pace in the first 20mins of her run. I told her the pace she needed to hit and we repeated this over and over again after some pretty hard turbo sessions until she got it right.
The good news is it worked. At the 70.3 Worlds in Mooloolaba she came off the bike 6mins down on the leaders but then overturned this deficit this to run 12mins faster than 2nd place and 8mins faster than 3rd place to take the win by 4mins in 4:40:46. On an amazingly emotional day she won her first 70.3 World Championship title with run pacing that was a coaches dream.
Then it was just the small matter of the Ironman World Champs in Hawaii in just 5 weeks time. We placed the emphasis on having fun, gaining experience and treating it as a new adventure.
As I have alluded to previously Kona is a race like no other. The conditions are brutal; the extreme heat, humidity and wind is indescribable unless you’ve experienced it. Talent and fitness means nothing if you can’t handle the conditions. That’s why our primary focus centered on having a good all round race experience by respecting the course and conditions. I always believed if she proved to herself she could handle the conditions she could comeback and win the following year.
The girl did brilliantly to finish 3rd in her age category in 10:06:33 despite some mechanical issues on the bike. In doing so she proved she could handle the hype, the conditions and anything else that was thrown at her.
2017 would all be out going back there to find a performance she could be proud of.
We chose Ironman New Zealand to try and get her qualification slot for Kona in 2017. The reason being is the race was early, relatively close to her and would give us a great opportunity to have plenty of time to recover post race before placing all of her training emphasis on Hawaii. We needed her fresh for Hawaii and splitting the year like this made total sense.
Emily won her age group in 9:56:39 and her flights to The Big Island were booked.
In an email to Emily before we started this key build to the Ironman World Championships I outlined 5 key areas for total commitment and change. These areas focussed heavily on adding a whole new approach to biking, running, strength work and recovery. Mentally and physically she needed to be challenged more than she had ever been challenged before. We had to look at what was missing and what could be improved. The training would then be developed in a highly specific way to match the demands of the Kona course. This would all be backed up by quality feedback and ongoing communication as the training block evolved.
It’s how she addressed these areas that ultimately helped shape the champion she has become. She took the bait and ran with it and was prepared go to some pretty uncomfortable places to make those changes. This helped build a mental toughness in that would help her handle anything on race day.
Never once did we talk about winning or times, it was completely process driven. The winning was a result of the decisions and actions she made throughout the training process. It was the sum of the smaller parts coming together to make the whole.
The 4 months leading into Kona was some of the best, most consistent training I have ever seen Emily do. Although 4 weeks out she did get ill which resulted in her having to take a whole week off training. The same thing happened before she became 70.3 World Champion in 2016. You don’t need a perfect build up to achieve peak performance, far from it. You just need to be sensible and prioritise getting healthy again, experience had taught her this so she didn’t panic (well not totally anyway!).
The physical and mental challenges she had to over come in training were immense. We also slightly de-emphasized the swim part of her training because there was so much to gain on the bike, reducing this to just 2 swims per week (1 x hard Red Mist squad swim & 1 x easy endurance swim). This was so we could add more biking and give her body more recovery time (we only added a 3rd speed endurance swim in the 4 weeks leading into the race). It was a risk we took but it worked like a dream because she halved her swim training from the previous year and pretty much swam the same swim time and positionally finished higher.
Some of the bike and turbo sessions were brutal, but it was what was needed to take it her physical and mental toughness to a whole new level. But the girl did what needed to be done and reaped the rewards of it on race day; she turned herself into a biking machine.
Emily headed out to Kona 2 weeks before the race; I followed a few days later. The real hard work had already been done so we were just focussed on adding the finishing touches to help her prepare for the specific demands of the course and the environment. We focussed our attentions on course familiarity, gentle acclimatisation and building added strength on the bike and run course. Most importantly we focussed on terrain management; knowing how, when and where to expend energy or hold a reserve. This is crucial on a course like Kona because it’s all too easy to get carried away and completely blow up. The course demands respect and strategy like no other because of the heat and wind, you need to be able to adapt to what the conditions throw at you on race day.
What was immediately clear was she was in the best shape I have ever seen her in; there was a strength and assuredness that I hadn’t seen before. There was also a steely focus combined with controlled intensity that told me she was completely mentally in the right place. She couldn’t have been more ready, now she just needed a bit of luck on race day.
If 2016 was the race to gain experience and respect the course, 2017 was all about putting Emily’s stamp on it in only the way she can. This time there would be no fear of the unknown because she had already proved to herself she had what it took to race well on this course. It was all about racing much closer to the edge.
Emily swam beautifully and well within herself to be within touching distance of the leaders. Never have I seen such an unfair race with so many of the top female swimmers having to navigate a course through thousands of weaker male swimmers. She did what she needed to do and got out safely and was quickly out onto the bike. Swim time – 58:33.
She then put in the biking performance of a lifetime on a day when it mattered most. For someone who had never biked until 4 years previous she put in the 3rd fastest female age group bike time of the day and out biked many of the female pro’s. She also biked 5:15:29 compared to 5:37:36 in 2016 on what was a tougher day. I couldn’t be more proud because we focussed so heavily on developing this in training, I set the bar high and she more than delivered. I also believe she has only just started to scratch the surface of what she will be capable of on the bike in the near future with this added boost to her confidence.
At this point in the race Emily had a 9-minute lead as she headed out onto the run. I saw her at about mile 2 and she looked terrific, a little too good in fact! Because she was running way faster than race pace but didn’t realise it at the time. Her race pace was in fact 3hr 10min marathon pace but she ran the first 3miles at 2hr 55min marathon pace then the next 4 miles at 3 hour marathon pace. It wasn’t until nearly 8 miles in that she was on her true race pace. I’m actually amazed she managed to hold on as her run splits got slower and slower. Many would have completely blown up due to over pacing the early part of the run on what was a brutally hot and humid day.
It is also testament to the conditions that while Emily was getting slower she was actually increasing her lead. The conditions were taking its toll behind her and everyone was slowing dramatically, the heat was unbearable even as a supporter! I told her she had a big lead at mile 12 and the girl dug deep before heading out onto the Queen K towards the Natural Energy Lab. A notoriously, hot, baron part of the course that has crushed so many dreams over the years.
As the splits came in she kept increasing her lead, it was then I realised she was not just winning her age category but she was also leading the whole age group race and she was beating many of the top female pro’s.
With only a couple of miles to go I realised the girl was about to do it, when she crossed the finish line she was nearly 22mins ahead of 2nd place and 14mins ahead of the closest female age grouper and 22nd overall including the female pro’s. She was then crowned overall female age group World Champion.
Her run time of 3:25 was some way off what we know she can do but it’s something to work on for next time. I don’t doubt with better pacing she would have been closer to her 3hr 10min target.
What made it even more special was the moment we realised she was going to win they allowed me into the finish line to present her with her Hawaiian beaded Lei. It was a moment that I’m sure the two of us will never forget. I have never felt more proud to see her so happy in that moment.
When I think back to where this journey started 4 years ago I am reminded of something Emily wrote in a blog about running (click here to read her brilliant Kenyan running experience blog):
“I know that I have never reached my potential in sport and I don’t ever want to look back on my life journey with regrets. It is my hope in the shadow of a dream that in the near future, I will be prepared to make sacrifices and find the fulfillment in sport that I yearn for”.
In a blog I wrote about her before she headed back to Australia, I said:
“Thanks for sharing Emily and even bigger thanks for the work you’ve done with my athletes. You will be very much missed by all of us. You don’t consider yourself a world-class athlete but that’s just your unassuming nature, if you ever made the transition to triathlon, which I hope you do – I think you could be world-class”.
Well Emily Loughnan, on Saturday 14th October 2017 that dream started to come true and you became an Ironman World Champion.
No more deserves this accolade more because it has been achieved with through hard work, true grit and an immense amount of determination.
Everyone that knows Emily will rejoice in this performance because of the amazing person she is, she is an all round champion in every sense of the word.
Her motivation for this was entirely intrinsically motivated. It’s never been about the glory, the adulation, the medals or the trophies for this girl, it never has been or ever will be. For her it is just about a burning desire to be the best person and athlete she can possibly be. In doing so she inspires many others along the way.
The day out there was brutal; there is no question that this is the toughest race in the world due to the conditions. It tests an athlete like no other so to be able to rise to the top against the best of the best just shows her class. It was one of those rare days when it all came together; it was a day I will never forget.
We went in search of a performance to be proud of and Loughers well and truly found it.