What would you ask a professional athlete?

In April, I asked the runners at Go Run a question:

“If you had the opportunity to chat to a professional athlete, what questions would you ask them?”  

I had an awesome response, with some great questions. I think as recreational athletes we are often fascinated by the habits and lives of professionals.  How many hours do they train?  Do they do strength training?  Who are their idols?  What do they eat?  Do they drink alcohol?

It’s not very often you get the opportunity to chat to professional sports people and ask these types of questions, so when Vanessa Murray, a professional Ironman triathlete from New Zealand agreed to sit down at the end of April and chat with me over a juicy burger in Albert Park, I was really excited! 

Vanessa is a beginner in the professional Ironman game but has started off with a bang!  Last weekend she came 4th pro female in Challenge Taiwan and in early March came 10th pro female at Ironman New Zealand, running a 3:24 marathon in the process.  She is coached by Xavier Coppock at TEAM Tri Coaching and lives in Melbourne with her fiancé Shaun.  

I chatted to her about her triathlon beginnings, how her running has improved from 2 hour half marathon to 3:24 marathon in an Ironman, and what particular foods she enjoys most after training (a favourite topic of mine!)  Thanks for the questions guys, here is our chat…..  Enjoy!

Q. So... How did you get into this weird and wonderful sport of Ironman triathlon?

Vanessa: Well, I’ve got a competitive swimming background and I used to run for fitness but I wasn’t particularly good at it. When I was younger I started going on short runs with Dad and as I got older when most of my friends were off playing netball on a Saturday morning, I would be off down to the local Harriers club with a friend where we would do cross-country running races, although my results were always fairly average.  I did enjoy running though and in my adult years I would regularly run – I had a 10km loop I used to do and dabbled in the occasional half marathon – running around the 2hr mark. 

When I met my partner Shaun, he introduced me to triathlon. He had done a few Ironman races and he ended up buying me my first road bike so that I could have a crack at a tri. I was so scared of the bike!  It is such a daunting thing getting on the bike, dealing with traffic, clipping in, clipping out and just all of those things that everyone makes look so easy!  I remember when I first told Shaun that I used to swim competitively and we went to the local pool one day and he was like, “Oh man, you can swim!” – I think part of him was a bit shocked, so it was nice to be quicker than him at something!

My first race was the local Panasonic Sprint Triathlon, back home in Auckland.  I had done a bit of training but I was still petrified of the bike leg (mostly of getting a flat tyre and being unable to change it!), so I made Shaun (who wasn’t racing), wait near the beginning of the bike course for me on his bike so that he could ride with me. The funny thing is this doesn’t really seem that long ago! And there began my relationship with triathlon…. I did a few sprint triathlons before venturing into Olympic distance, half Ironman and eventually Ironman.

Q. Was there something in particular that made you think, “OK, I can actually make this work on a professional level?”

Vanessa: I did half Ironman distance races for a number of years with the idea that I would like to do Ironman New Zealand as my first full Ironman. However my Ironman journey was re-directed somewhat when I won the 25-29 age group race at Ironman 70.3 Auckland back in 2013.  As the winner I was awarded an Ironman World Championship spot (the winner of every age-group received this opportunity which I don’t think happens these days in many of the half Ironman distances races). 

So all of a sudden a Kona slot had landed on my lap and I remember thinking “I’ve only done a half Ironman, I am not sure I deserve this!”, but pretty much everyone around me was telling me I would be crazy not to jump on the opportunity. I remember having a fair few missed phone calls from my coach post-race making sure I was going to take the spot!  I surprised myself at Kona.  I did the hard yards with training and realised that I had the work ethic and pure grit that is required to succeed in the sport of Ironman. 

After Kona and the races that followed I got to a level of age group racing that I was really proud of, I was getting consistent podium results and was loving the sport more than ever and that is when the thought of going professional started to creep in. 

Q. How long after your first triathlon did you guys head to Kona?

Vanessa: My very first triathlon was back in November 2009 and my debut at Ironman in Kona was October 2013, so just 4 years later.

Q. Did you actually know the value of going to Kona?

Vanessa: Definitely! I surrounded myself with people that lived and breathed triathlon.  I know how much most Ironman athletes strive to get there and how much it means to those who do.  I knew that there would be no guarantees that the opportunity would arise again, so I jumped on it.  It must have been meant to be as following Kona I actually injured my Achilles tendon and wasn’t able to race Ironman NZ in 2014, which was originally my plan for my Ironman debut.  There are never any guarantees…..

Q. Do you have a preference in terms of swim, bike, run?

Vanessa: The swimming comes easiest to me and the cycling I’ve really grown to love. What’s great with cycling is that if you put in the work, you see the results!  Time on the bike is key!  Running I have had to work really hard on, but boy is it worth it when you see those times coming down.  For me, I could not swim for 2-3 weeks and likely not lose much, however total different story with cycling and running!  Consistency is critical!

Q. Now that you’re a professional, do you feel like a beginner again?  Does it bring back any memories of what it feels like to be a beginner?

Vanessa: Yeah it does in a way!  You feel like the newbie for sure.  At Ironman New Zealand, I knew I was in good shape but you still don’t know how you are going to go when up against some of the top names in the game.  I was completely happy to slip under the radar.  I tried really hard not to let the pedigree of athletes racing overwhelm me, but I also had a whole lot of respect for them out on that course.  Xavier had helped me prepare mentally though so I felt really ready to focus on myself and what I needed to do out there. Xavier had said to me in the lead up “you will get passed on the bike” (with so many super strong girls who can ride FAST), so when they came past me, I was prepared for it, it didn’t fluster me and I had Xavier’s voice in my head, “just stick to the race plan”. 

Q.  OK. A lot of people struggle when they’re beginning with pacing and by the sounds of it, during the marathon in New Zealand, you had to work quite hard in your own head to keep yourself in check?

Vanessa: Yes for sure. One of the biggest learnings I have taken from Xaiver so far is around pacing on the run. I finished the bike leg at Ironman NZ just behind Kate Bevilaqua, but she soon shot off from me in those initial stages of the run.  I had drilled in my Ironman run pace so much that I didn’t even think of going with her.  Maybe one day I might be able to run a marathon at that pace, but not now. I had done a lot of strength work and a lot of Ironman race pace running, so for me it was all about, dialling in my race pace and sticking to it.  I have also recently learnt to run slow in training!! I have learnt that if you actually run slow/easy when you are told to, you have that much more energy/pace when you get to your hard sessions – funny that! 

Q. What sort of advice would you give somebody that’s just starting running about easy running? Also, tell me what pace you do your easy running.

Vanessa: Easy running is different for everyone and for myself can vary from day to day, depending on how much training load I have in the legs. I think most people would be surprised at how slow some of even the fastest runners out there would run their easy runs at.  For me, my easy probably sits between 5.20-5.30/km pace, but can also be slower after big events such as Ironman NZ, where easy was more like 5.40/km.  My long 2-3 hour runs are usually around 5.30/km pace and these runs are often done in the hills to build strength. Closer to race, I move to the flat for my long runs to start to drill in the specific pacing work.  For example, these sessions might have a warm up, some up tempo 4.10/km pace work, some easy, followed by the Ironman pace running, before the warm down. 

Q. Do you generally try negative split your running?

Vanessa: I do like to if I can, this is often the aim in training, but I haven’t yet mastered this in an Ironman marathon!

Q.  What are the sorts of things that you’re telling yourself as you’re doing your long runs? 

Vanessa: Lately all my thinking has been around my arms!  Xavier has had me really focused on my arm movements, keeping them high with short movements, which in turn has helped me shorten my stride (as I am naturally a big over-strider!).  For every run session I did leading up to Ironman NZ, Xavier would be behind me yelling – Your arms! Your arms! Your arms!  I think this made a massive difference on race day in NZ – it has really been a major player in allowing me to improve my run. It’s funny too because Ironman NZ is probably the first decent run photos I have ended up with too! Normally my legs and arms are all over the show – so there is a little proof the running technique is on the improve.

Q. So, it’s raining outside. We’re in the beginning of a Melbourne winter. One of the questions that the guys were asking me was, “How does somebody like that who actually trained so much keep motivated when the weather is s*** and it’s dark in the morning and evening?

Vanessa: It is definitely harder!  There are definitely mornings where all you want to do is stay in bed! But for me, I would much rather get my main session of the day done early before work and then know that it is done and in the bank.  Most days I have more than one session to do but for anyone training for a run who has just the one session to get in a day, I would say get up, get it done early, then enjoy your down time on the couch in the evening!  I am a big one for ticking boxes and I hate missing a session (hello type A personality!). Also in the really yuck weather I think to myself that some people will stay inside today and miss there session/s, so I prefer to get out there and maybe get a wee advantage over those who took the sleep in!

Q. Do you prefer training in the morning or in the evening?

Vanessa: Morning traditionally. But now I get both!  I remember when I got my first program from Xavier and it was double run day on a Sunday.  I was like, “What?!” – but I have really benefited from these days so now I look forward to the satisfaction of getting them in the bank each week.  Also it has its benefits in that on a Sunday afternoon, I would usually just blob post training and I may have been guilty of eating a few too many snacks, so the second run saves me a little from this being well aware that anything I eat needs to sit well in my stomach on the second run. 

Q. Is there anybody out there who inspired you to do what you do today, Are there people that you really look at and think, wow you’re amazing?

Vanessa: Honestly, the people that probably inspire me the most are the everyday Joe’s. The Ironman finish line is where the inspiration is at.  I get inspired by the person who lost 30kg’s and had never swum, ridden or ran in their life and now they’re an Ironman!  When I’m in a deep, dark hole out on a long run or out on a long ride, I think “you know what?, if they can do it, you can do it, suck it up!”. These people inspire me more than someone who has had amazing athletic ability their whole life. So many people who do an Ironman have overcome something huge to get to the start line and for me that is inspiration. 

Q. So what’s next on the horizon for you? 

Vanessa: After Challenge Taiwan, I will take a little bit of a break to get married (!!) and I will sit down with Xavier and plan out the second half of the year.  I will likely do a couple of half Ironman distance races along with another full closer to the end of the year. 

Q. Do you ever do races that aren’t triathlons?

Vanessa: I used to, especially over winter. I used to do pure running events but haven’t in quite a while. It would definitely be something I would consider in the future if it was something that added value to my Ironman training and racing.  The last straight running race I did was Huntly Half Marathon back in New Zealand almost a year ago now!  I was pretty nervous before this one because it didn’t start with a swim!

Q. How do you deal with the fact that you’ve got to run a marathon after 180km on a bike and 3.8km in the water? 

Vanessa: I break it all down! When I’m on the bike I am literally focused on the bike.  I’m aware that I’m going to have to run but I really just try and race in the moment, while keeping smart and sticking to my race plan.  At Ironman NZ, I broke the run down into laps (there were 3 x laps) as it can be quite daunting to think of the whole 42.2km!  It is also great to have things to look forward to – for me it was Shaun at a certain point on the side-line, or where all my friends were standing along the way. And let’s not forget I was busy thinking about my arms!

Q. I’m curious about what stats you use.  Do you use perceived effort, heart rate etc or are you all over the gadgets and gizmos?

Vanessa: I am definitely not a gadget person!  I used to use heart rate with my old running coach but these days everything is based on perceived effort.  I am guilty of looking at my watch probably far too much, but if I am out for an easy run, I really try not to and just run off feel. I use my watch for my pace specific sessions for sure.   

I think it’s important for anyone getting into running to know that you have good runs and you have bad runs.  They can’t all be great!  Last weekend running in the You Yangs here in Melbourne, I just felt so good out there.  I wasn’t looking at my watch and time just flew by.  Whereas the week before, I felt every second of my run!   It’s the bad runs though that make you appreciate the good ones!

Q. Obviously you get a lot of ups and downs, how do you not beat yourself up about the bad sessions?

Vanessa: Yeah, it’s funny, if I’ve had a couple of bad runs in a row, I will come in the door and say to Shaun “the next one has got to be a good one!”. The reality is you can’t always feel great, especially when you throw work, family and general life into the mix. My advice, consistency is key, get out there, get the session in, you’ll feel better for it and in time you will see the rewards! 

Q. So… One of the people I asked for a question, was my dad. He’s in his sixties and still pretty fit.  So he said to ask you whether you think people like him can do an Ironman? 

Vanessa: Without doubt, yes! You obviously need to put the time in and do the hard yards training, but once you have the fitness I would say 80% is mental!  I am pretty mentally tough and without a doubt I think this has got me to where I am in the sport. I don’t give up! I think most people don’t realise how much of a mental game Ironman is.  If you go in mentally prepared and of course physically prepared, it’s amazing what your body can do.  

Q.  A couple of people were interested in what you do for recovery. So do you have any regimes? Are you strict or not?

Vanessa: I have a great relationship with the roller at home!!! I try to do at least 20 minutes of stretching and roller most days, usually just before bed. Obviously some days you have less time than others, but even squeezing in 5 or 10 minutes of stretching can be of benefit. I also have amazing sponsors who look after me – I spend a chunk of time at the end of each week at FLUID HEALTH where I use the athlete recovery lounge – spending time in the ice bath, infrared sauna and recovery boots.  This is also where I get a massage once a week.  I also visit INSTINCTIVE CHIROPRACTIC once a week to ensure everything is in alignment and working as it should be.  

Q. Ok. Once you’ve done your training, once you’ve done your recovery, you’ve hit the roller, you’re in agony, what do you eat? What’s your guilty pleasures?

Vanessa: I have a pretty healthy diet, with meat and vegetables etc. But I also love food and believe in everything in moderation! So after a massive training session, like a six-hour ride and run session – the go to meal is bacon and eggs along with a chocolate milkshake! Then later in the afternoon there is always a trip to the local café for coffee and one of their amazing butterbean cookies!

Q.  I would just end up with a few chocolate milkshakes I suspect!  Do you have a favourite chocolate at all?

Vanessa: Lindt here in Australia and back home in New Zealand it used to be Whittaker's ... I prefer milk chocolate but usually eat the dark stuff knowing it is maybe a little better for me and I am less likely to want to eat the entire block!

Q.  What about the booze?  Do you stay away from it?

Vanessa: I know many athletes do, but I guess I have always taken the view that a little bit of everything is ok. I am not a massive drinker – I could hardly be with the volume of training.  But I do enjoy a glass of wine most nights with dinner. I won’t have more than two drinks these days but it is a nice way to relax after a day of work and a couple of solid training sessions.  It’s nice to sit down and relax and enjoy some down-time with the future hubby, glass of wine in hand. 

Q. What is something that you’ve added into your training that you needed to be convinced of? And perhaps you were a bit wary of at first. 

Vanessa: I wouldn’t say it was a ‘what’, more a ‘why’. Before I started training with Xavier I thought I was running a lot.  But he added in little runs, more often. So most days I am double running even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like much i.e. just 15mins off the bike. But then by the time you add that run to your other run, it adds up quickly! At first, I was a little concerned how my body would cope with the volume, but with the correct amount of recovery and doing each session how it should be done (i.e. the easy EASY), it is amazing what your body can cope with and the gains you can make. 

Q. So how many times do you run per week when you’re in the middle of a decent block of training, even if it only 10 minutes?

Vanessa: Last week I ran close to 90km – made up of double run Tuesday, run Wednesday, double run Thursday, Saturday and double run Sunday – so eight runs all up.  The shortest was 20mins and the longest 2.5hours. Before Ironman New Zealand a typical Sunday of running would be 3hrs in the morning followed by 30mins in the afternoon. 

Well that’s about it, I think!  Congrats again on a great result in New Zealand and thanks for taking the time to meet up and chat.  It’s fascinating to hear about pro life and how you go about your business.  Thanks!

Check out Vanessa’s website and sponsors here and check out the TEAM Tri Coaching website for more info on her coach Xavier, who gets a few honourable mentions in the interview!