By Dana Willett
This morning Jen Findley and I were honored to attend a very special WITSUP Brunch in a foothills mansion high above the cacophony of the Kona Race Week activities at sea level.
An annual event celebrating women in triathlon, the sold out Witsup Kona Brunch featured triathlon legends Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae and Rachel “Joycey” Joyce, moderated by WITSUP “Chief,” Stef “Steffie” Hansen (who is quick to note, one may only address her by this moniker if you are an IRONMAN World Champion). This is the “fourth or fifth” year of the event (and one we will not miss in the future).
Sponsors Cervelo and Ceramic Speed were well represented with signage and prize drawing giveaways.
Our plates piled high with delicacies prepared by Stef’s “chef” husband Brett, we settled in to luxurious chairs as she opened the casual Q&A session by introducing “Two of the most wanted athletes in the world,” Rinny and Rachel.
Stef introduced Rachel, pointing out that the Boulder-based pro completed three IRONMAN races in just ten weeks (including winning IRONMAN Boulder!) after giving birth to her first child, Archie, just 13 months ago.
Rinny was next, asked about what it was like to be in Kona and not be racing: “Izzy is taking most of the focus – it’s very different being here without the anxiety of racing, and just supporting Tim (O’Donnell).”
It was then Rinny’s turn to ask Stef a question… In her trademark feisty and spirited way, Rinny asked Stef point blank if she plans to have kids. Once the room settled down after some barbs and an eruption of laughter, Stef admitted she’d “never been embarrassed on stage.” She then turned serious: “I find the subject fascinating because it’s a dilemma for athletes – age groupers or pros – pregnancy affects sponsor relationships, requires a break from training and racing; it’s one of the biggest challenges in being a pro triathlete, and any working professional. It concerns me – what would happen with WITSUP? I’m not ready to compromise that. Not now. Eventually. But not until it can be my number one priority.”
There were many murmurs of agreement from the attentive audience, most of whom were women, some Kona athletes and some not, and a good smattering of supportive men.
“Moving on,” Stef commanded, slyly changing the subject. She asked Rinny what it has been like “getting back in shape after having a kid.”
Rinny responded that so far she’s had just two runs and two swims – and, she “pulled out sore” after 20 minutes on the run. “It’s gonna be tough,” she said, succinctly.
Rachel responded to the same question, saying, “It taught me patience. I remember my first swim – I was completely exhausted after just 1500 meters – it was so different from being so in shape before. I had to switch my mindset to looking forward, instead of back. I couldn’t rush it. I had to focus on, ‘I’m better than I was last week.’
She continued, “It was hard work, especially the core strength. When I stood at the start line of my first race back I thought, ‘Wow, six months ago I was only walking around the block. You have to take baby steps. Don’t rush it.”
Stef then asked, “It’s similar to injury, then, taking it day by day, right?”
Rachel responded, saying it is similar to injury in that you need to look forward at your progress, and not wishing you were back to where you were before. Then she added, “You have all that, plus breastfeeding. Your body’s main function is to support another human. And the physical changes, like wondering, ‘when will my stomach stop jiggling?’ I felt like my legs weren’t attached to my top half – there was no ‘pop.’ It’s a foreign feeling. My body felt disconnected getting back into training. You have to be patient.”
Rinny was then asked if the past 6-7 weeks since Izzy was born have been similar to the rest she usually takes after Kona. Rinny replied dryly, “Well, this has been 6 or 7 weeks of doing nothing, and also I had a human come out of me.” The room erupted.
She continued, “My core is lost after having to make way for all the expansion. But I’m sitting here listening and trying to take lessons from what Rachel said. I’ll look ahead. Next year I want to be back here and be a contender.”
Stef paused dramatically, and commented, “The best contraception is talking with you two.”
The discussion then turned to race day strategies. Stef asked, “How do you switch off your usual ‘nice’ personalities to “terminator” mode on race day?”
Rinny responded, saying, “When I started (as a pro) I struggled with my friendships with competitors, how to manage that. But I learned that when gun goes off it’s a war… you must be no one’s friend.”
Stef and Rachel joined in with some barbs, Stef saying, “The smack talk is starting now.” Rinny responded, “This year it’s ok because I’m just watching … but next year – looking at Rachel -all bets are off.”
Rachel commented, “You have to think of it that they’re just people I want to be ahead of – I’m very single-minded. It doesn’t matter whether you’re friends or not.”
Nodding agreement, Rinny added, “At that point in the race (during the run) we’re all suffering, so you feel bad. You want to say “sorry- but I’m going on ahead of you.”
The conversation went on to cover advice for the strong Queen K cross-winds (“Trust your bike – it was designed for the wind – try to relax into it”), descending from Hawi (Rinny: “Put it in the biggest ring and go for it!”), and Race Week nerves (Rinny: “I want that – it shows the race matters to you;” Rachel: “If I didn’t feel nervous I’d wonder what was wrong”).
And then the Hot Topic: For pro women after having a baby, they have to do so many races in order to get points for Kona… there is no current carry over or accommodation for maternity leave…
Rachel noted, “We want to have the best women and men racing in Kona. We need to work back from that. Despite fitness before giving birth, it just takes a long time (to get back in shape). We need to look at other sports and consider how to take maternity leave. It’s very complex – we need a statistician to sort rankings, and look at the possibility of carrying over points from the prior year.”
Rachel continues, “There isn’t an easy answer. Women need to not rush back and risk injury – we need to accommodate that.”
Agreeing, Rinny added, “We want the best athletes in their best form – whether it’s a point system or whatever. There are lots of different ideas, and we need to look seriously at the rules.”
Stef concluded the topic saying, “We need a better solution – there’s not a perfect solution, but there is a better way.”
After some talk about finding your “zone” on the Kona run (Rachel says, “The blanker and freer you can keep your mind the better… think about rhythm, nutrition, form”) and a possible 2-day race formula for Kona, like 70.3 worlds in Chattanooga (both women were in favor of it “to showcase the women’s race properly”), the discussion turned more philosophical.
If not triathlon, then what career would you want to pursue?
Rinny explained she studied physiology and kinesiology in college, and she would likely pursue those fields. Rachel, a former lawyer said, “I definitely like the law, but I’m not sure I’d go back to a law firm.”
And, finally, the most memorable moment over time on the Big Island?
“Winning in 2013 ,” Rinny answered without hesitation. “I had won in 2010 and then I had a couple of not-great years. Winning in 2013 validated that it wasn’t a fluke – the day flew by went perfectly. And it was also pretty special because Tim came in 5th. It was the most memorable.”
(Stef pointed out that they were engaged, noting the famous photo of Rinny jumping into Tim’s arms, laughing and saying “you needed the money for the wedding, right?”)
Rachel found her first time at Kona as the most memorable. “I didn’t yet identify as a pro triathlete – I felt out of depth.
I came 6th that year – I came in 4th off the bike, and I heard Greg Welch saying, ‘I think we’re going to see this one go backward…’ I thought, I’ll show you. It was so memorable. It was not my best race, but it ewas the start of a proper pro career.
Predictions for the pro field on Saturday? Rinny was quick to say, “I’ll answer that. I’d pick Rachel or Daniella for one and two, and then Heather (Jackson) or my dark horse pick – Lucy Charles. She’s my dark horse.”
Be sure to check out the WITSUP website for all the “Wahine Warrior” videos of Kona pro women!