So you’re an Olympic silver medallist and World Champion in the sport of rowing, then decide to take up cycling to become double World Champion and Olympic Champion. Then what?
Well, if you’re Rebecca Romero, you decide to enter yourself into one of the toughest endurance challenges on the planet – the Ironman.
This July, the 32-year-old will take on the Ironman UK and swim 2.4 miles (3.86 km), cycle 112 miles (180.25 km) and run a marathon of 26.2 miles (42.2 km) in Bolton.
We caught up with the versatile athlete following her first triathlon challenge, the half-distance Ironman 70.3 Mallorca, to chat cycling, London 2012 and to ask, above anything else, why?!
With your incredible successes (Rebecca became the first British athlete and only the second woman in history to medal in two different sports, rowing and cycling), why this, why now?
Well I stepped down from cycling last year but felt a little bit lost that I’d had a lot of setbacks and misfortune with my Olympics plans going to nothing. At the time I stepped down from the team I was really enjoying training and enjoying the concept of working towards something and getting better. I needed a project, to work towards a sporting goal, and accomplish something that would finish in the summer. So I picked the Ironman – I don’t know why!
I’ve been surrounded by quite a few triathletes and my boyfriend has done one before and wanted to do another one, so I saw the Ironman as a challenge. Take the triathlon – I was pretty sure I’d have been able to cobble something together pretty quickly and do an Olympic distance triathlon, but for the Ironman, what appealed to me was the fact that even the individual disciplines broken down and done separately, there’s no way that I’d be able to do any of those without a big chunk of training. For me it’s the extreme ultimate endurance sporting challenge, and so iconic. What appealed is that I can’t do it and I set that target of seven months of training and at that point I have to be able to get through the actual event.
You completed your first half Ironman, the Ironman 70.3 Mallorca, in 5:17:34 and said it was better than expected – did you have a time in mind?
I think a good respectable half Ironman time is six hours, so I knew that I should be able to do that. Going five and a half hours was my top end, I thought that would be amazing if I could get that time. I was cautious on the timing – I wasn’t really sure what condition I was in. I think I surprised myself because I wasn’t going to race it really hard and as flat-out as I could, I wanted it to be an experience of doing a triathlon, stringing the events back to back, so I was chuffed. In actual fact I crossed the finish line and the time said 5:27 and I was ecstatic because I thought I’d gone under five and a half and then I was reminded that my age group wave set off ten minutes after the start time so it was actually 5:17 so it was amazing!
I paced it really well because quite a few people struggled on the run but I actually ran a PB so it was really good to go through that experience and get some confidence. I feel that I almost need to set the bar a bit higher for the full Ironman but again, I just don’t know. It was so warm and sunny in Mallorca and I just drive on having the heat and the sunshine… in Bolton in the UK for the Ironman – it could be freezing and pouring down with rain – I won’t do well in conditions like that!
When considering your next step, were you tempted to take up another Olympic sport or was it a conscious decision to choose something different?
Possibly yes, it might have been. For me the Ironman is a personal challenge. I mean yes, it’s a race in a way, but in the first instance it’s ‘can you actually train and complete the distance’ and then it’s ‘can you set yourself a time target to achieve’. It’s more a personal challenge rather than the medal standard or world class standard and I think it’s the variety of the three disciplines that I love.
How are you finding training and balancing the three disciplines?
I’m finding it’s unique, it’s a much easier way mentally to be able to train because if you’re training for one discipline and you’ve got to do it every day and that’s your one focus it gets hard and repetitive but having the three disciplines is really nice and breaks it up.
Swimming and running were completely new sports for you – how have you found that?
I could swim but not well at all. I really cannot do front crawl and that really is the stroke you need to master if you’re going to do the swim in the cut off time. I was starting from a bad point swimming wise so that was quite daunting. It was a case of, I know I can learn quickly, so breaking it down and persevering. That’s coming along pretty well.
I started doing a bit of running in November, doing about ten minutes at a time, and I struggled with that – I was really that bad! I’d avoided running for most of my life but again that’s slowly but surely getting there. I’m being really diligent over stretching and preparation – making sure my body builds up nice and slowly building a good foundation, that’s the most important thing.
Then there’s the cycling and obviously there’s big pressure there. I found that I was focusing so much on the swimming and running to get that up to scratch that I neglected the cycling so I recently got back on the bike and realised that’s slipped back so I’ve been focusing more on that.
The biggest thing about triathlon is that there’s never enough time – constantly there will be one that you’re playing catch up with and trying to maintain that balance. Half the battle is being smart with your training and I’m enjoying that aspect. The other good thing for the Ironman is that you have to have a training plan and a pacing strategy for your actual race but just as critical to that is nutrition – you have to get a good nutrition strategy going on for the race and train for that as well. A lot of athletes that have the physical ability to do well can let themselves down because they don’t have the nutrition to fuel their body. That’s an added dimension.
Which is your favourite and least favourite discipline?
I can’t say that I actually enjoy the cycling because I don’t enjoy sitting on a bike for that long! That’s going to be the hardest thing. I’m really enjoying the running, surprisingly. I’ve taken to it and am really enjoying it. I’m most fearful of the swim because of the length of it but I just need to get the practice in. I’m sure that once I get the experience I’ll overcome that.
Let’s move on to your main target – the Ironman UK in Bolton in July. Do you have a finish time in mind for that?
I’ve looked at around six hours for the bike, four hours for the run and then one and a quarter for the swim with transition times, so maybe 11 and a quarter hours overall, maybe a little bit more. Anything faster than that would be a massive achievement. Who knows – it could all go horribly wrong! It’s a long day – a real exciting experience and very different to any of the competitive stuff I’ve done so far.
How about after the Ironman? Future plans?
I want to have a good experience in Bolton and be happy to leave it at that. I was looking to round off my athletic career in the summer of 2012. I’m not going for this flat out, I’m not training for it full time. At the moment I’m juggling studying for an MSc with other work commitments but in the long term after this Ironman I’d like to get my business set up – performance consultancy. I’d like to get a performance centre set up to offer sports consultancy to amateur athletes. Just to pass on all the experience and knowledge that I have had as an elite athlete. There’s absolutely no reason why the every day athlete can’t apply that to their own training to get the most out of themselves and achieve their dreams and ambitions.
Although heartbreaking at the time, are you now looking forward to the fact that you can enjoy the London Games as a spectator, having already completed your own challenge?
Yes definitely. I was obviously really disappointed but I just look at it in that these things happen I can’t change it. I’m really fortunate for the good run I had in my rowing career and then in cycling I achieved amazing things. It happens, when you’re involved in sport for that long you’re going to have good times and bad times. Obviously it’s unfortunate that it ended the way it did, but then I knew other opportunities would open up and I’d get involved in other things.
I’m happy and excited about doing Ironman so I’m pleased in a way it’s turned out like this. I guess that means I’ve dealt with it well and it’s not really an issue any more. On a positive side I get to not have to be an athlete at the Games where it’s intense and stressful and you don’t get to experience any of it because you’re in your own bubble. So to just relax, watch a spectacular home Olympic Games and share in the achievements of Team GB and the rest of the world’s athletes.
Jessica Whittington, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine
Rebecca Romero is a ZEROD sponsored athlete