It’s Only The Beginning
Michelle Leister (nee Leason) is not your typical Ironman ‘newbie’. Introduced to the sport by one the greats – Kathleen McCartney – she makes swimming look easy; she’s known to out-ride most of the guys she trains with and when injury-free she not only manages to outrun most of her age group but some of the female pros too. And she does all of this with a smile plastered across her face, making Ironman look easy … and fun! She has only competed in two Ironman events so far – Ironman Cairns where she now holds the female age-group course record and the Ironman World Championship in Kona – but there is more to come from this phenomenal age-grouper – this is only the beginning.
Australian Triathlete (AT): Tell us a bit about your story. How and when did you discover triathlon?
Michelle Leister (ML): Prior to triathlon I was a competitive division one rower for four years at the University of California, Berkeley, where I studied public health.
Ironman events have been on my radar since meeting my close uni friend’s mum, Kathleen McCartney, at rowing practice during my freshman year. Kath spoke to us about her journey through Ironman and her victory in 1982 beating Julie Moss within yards of the finish. I was immediately inspired and set myself a goal to one day compete in the Ironman World Championship.
In 2015 my now-husband and I moved to Melbourne for his work. Before moving I stumbled across some Ironman Melbourne videos and thought to myself, “This is my chance!” Unfortunately, Ironman Melbourne was discontinued that year. I called Kath before moving and spoke to her about the idea of me competing in an Ironman. She believed in me from the very start and even had a tri bike waiting for me in her garage – the Cannondale slice, which I raced both my Ironman races on. She motivated me to find a triathlon team in Melbourne and start training right away. We ended that first phone conversation with a goal – to one day compete in the Ironman World Championship together.
AT: You’ve had some quick success in triathlon. What is it thay makes you so successful in this sport?
ML: Most importantly I am blessed to have an extremely supportive husband and family who have believed in me from the very start. The build to an Ironman is truly a group effort.
Having inspirational role models and mentors in my life – I watched my mum battle breast cancer in high school. I have learned from her to take the challenges life throws at you head on and to never give up. My mentor, Kath has shown me how to maintain a positive attitude through the good and bad times.
I give my rowing background and coaches credit for the success I’ve had in triathlon – my rowing coaches and teammates taught me to push beyond my limits. I learned to fight through pain and leave nothing behind. I’m also incredily blessed to have a good engine [VO2] for this sport.
My competitive spirit has always pushed me to reach for the stars and believe that anything is possible. Also, my passion for nutrition and healthy eating has been huge in my success.
AT: You combine training with study. How do you fit everything in? How do you maintain balance?
ML: If you’re truly passionate about something, you will find the time to make it work. Pursuing a Masters Degree has allowed me to put more into triathlon. In terms of managing, I try to schedule my studies around the big training sessions.
AT: Describe your typical training day.
ML: Every day is different. A typical training day in the lead to an Ironman will consist of two interval sessions 1-1.5 hours each. I usually like to break up studying/classes with training sessions, which I’m incredibly blessed to have the luxury of doing. My first training session will be mid-morning and the next late afternoon. Between sessions, you will find me studying, in class, or eating. I am very passionate about healthy food and cooking new recipes. In the evenings you will find me experimenting with different foods and prepping meals for the week. I try to get to bed by 9:30pm every night. Sleep is absolutely essential to my success.
AT: You qualified for the Ironman World Championships at Ironman Cairns in 2017 – you were the first age grouper across the line in a phenomenal time of 9:50:56, breaking the age group female course record by 10 minutes, and you were the 12th female overall (beating some of the female pros). Talk us through that race, which also happened to be your first Ironman.
ML: I was extremely lucky in this race. The conditions really worked for me. It was an exceptionally cool day for Cairns. My coach was worried about how my body would handle the heat and humidity because of my exceptionally high sweat rate and sodium loss measured in a sweat test just before the race. We planned accordingly for this with a specific nutrition and sodium replacement race plan, and my coach put together splits based on my numbers in training.
Male and female age groupers started together at Ironman Cairns and I planned to stick with a teammate who had comparable swim splits in training. He also had experience with pacing, which stopped me from going too hard in the swim. I came out of the water in a time of 00:59:35 and felt great.
T1 was really fast and I remember having a bit of a low coming out of transition. My body felt good but the thought of riding 180km followed by a marathon was incredibly intimidating. I split up the ride into four segments and had set splits/times to hold for each segment. This made the time go by much quicker. It was like a game trying to hold the numbers and coming through each segment hitting the targets was the most satisfying feeling giving me an extra kick of energy for the next leg.
I came off the bike in 5:15:26 and was ecstatic that I was holding my set numbers and still feeling good. Out of T2, I found out for the first time where I stood in the race. My coach shouted out to me that there was one age grouper (in my age group) ahead by four minutes. When I heard this my fight or flight reflexes kicked in. I picked up the pace until I passed her about four kilometres into the run. The work had been done, now it was time to settle into my pace and enjoy my first full marathon run.
The run was split up into three equal distant laps. I held a consistent pace the entire way, not stopping once. I remember at one point, halfway through the run course passing a female pro. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was capable of this in my first ever Ironman. This gave me the confidence I needed to hold my splits and charge through that finish line.
The home stretch was extremely emotional. I’m not a big crier but I lost it in the last 10km; my emotions were a result of the months of hard work leading up to this event and knowing that I had it in the bag. I charged across the finish line and fell into my husband’s arms, crying uncontrollably. I had conquered Ironman, and to top it off I had qualified for Kona.
AT: One of my favourite images of you at Ironman Cairns is the one you posted of all your borrowed gear – very similar to four-time Ironman World Champion, Chrissie Wellington’s start in the sport.
ML: (Laughs) Yes, I had a lot of borrowed gear. No one warned me about how expensive this sport is. If it weren’t for the incredible people around me who saw potential from the start I would not have had this success right away. As mentioned earlier, my bike was a hand-me-down from Kathleen McCartney and had already been around the Kona course twice. For both races, my race wheels were loaned from extremely generous teammates. My shoes were my mum’s old mountain biking clip-ins. To top things off, the drink bottle holders were also borrowed from a training buddy. It was a group effort to get me across that line.
AT: What was the journey to Kona like? What did you learn?
ML: The time before Kona was a whirlwind. Two weeks after Ironman Cairns my husband and I got married and had a month honeymoon in Europe. When I came back, the training was quick, lonely and painful. I came back to Melbourne out of shape, injured from Ironman Cairns and with only two months until Kona! Two of my training buddies in the build to Cairns also qualified for Kona but had a different schedule for their build. They flew to heat train in Thailand for the build and I was left alone for many of my long rides, which I struggled with immensely. Being a novice on the bike, riding solo for those distances gave me anxiety and I struggled with motivation. I missed having my training buddies with me. This made the build to Kona a lot more mentally tough than Cairns. I had to force myself to get the distance in on the bike. To make matters worse, I had an overuse knee injury, which prevented me from running for most of the build. I learned that no build is the same, and situations often don’t work in your favour. But I think that these circumstances make you stronger as an athlete and person.
AT: OK – on to the race. Talk us through your day. What were your highs/lows? How did you push through the tough times? Were there any standout moments?
ML: The alarm went off at 3:45am. I had my normal breakfast – two eggs, toast, and an avocado with an extra large side of nerves. Next, I geared up and carried on with my normal pre-race ritual: I played ‘Turn down for what’ on full volume and danced like there was no one around – unfortunately I was not alone, my poor parents had never seen such moves out of their only daughter.
The sun was still down when I rocked up to the course but the town felt alive with the swarm of athletes checking in. I did my normal bike check and then walked by the fenced in pro area, watching the worlds best doing the same thing as me. Daniela Ryf was pumping her tyres. Patrick Lange was wiping down his frame.
Fast forward to the swim start – the pros took off, followed by age group men and then we were up. The Hawaiian drums playing in the background made it seem as though we were about to go to war. Before the cannon went off, trying to defend my position in front was one of the scariest parts of the whole race. It felt like I was being pulled down by other eager age groupers wanting the front position. With hundreds of people around me, there was barely enough space to tread water and stay afloat. I was out of breath before even beginning the swim! Once the cannon went off I was able to move away from the crowd and settle into a good pace.
I came out of the swim in the time I wanted – one hour. T1 was pretty slow but I didn’t think about it too much. I got on the bike and took the first part of the bike as a recovery spin before heading down the Queen K. About an hour into the bike I started feeling something funny in my stomach but I didn’t let this bother me too much. The temperature reached 31°C with 86 per cent humidity on the ride. The lava rock on either side of the road absorbed this heat, making the perceived temperature feel even hotter. I was prepared for the headwinds and climb to Hawi, so it wasn’t too bad. I remembered something that Kath had said to me from Natasha Badmann’s speech in 1998: “When I’m cycling into the strong headwind in Kona I just imagine that I’m a bird – soaring – and I spread my wings and the power of the winds lifts me up and gives me strength and speed.”
The journey back home was fun, I was hitting my numbers and able to coast a bit with the tailwinds. My stomach, however, continued to feel funny and I knew something was up. I finished the bike in 5:37:42. Hopping off the bike in T2 was tough. It was the first time I stretched out since the swim and immediately the cramping revealed itself. In the first kilometre of the race, I was ready to pull out, the pain was so bad and I had no idea how I was going to finish a marathon. I saw my family and couldn’t hold in the emotions. My coach caught up with me and knew I was in trouble. We decided to ditch the nutrition plan, as my stomach wasn’t working and start drinking only coke at every aid station. I waited for the coke to start working but my body wasn’t responding to it. The cramping persisted and became worse throughout the run. I was running just to make it to the next aid station and the next, and so on, the entire race. Once at the aid stations I would walk, stop, dump ice over my head and down my shirt, stretch out – which temporarily dulled the cramping – and then force myself to continue moving forward.
With 10km to go, I was keeled over on the side of the road trying to dull the cramping. A man came up next to me and encouraged me to keep going. He told me he was a 10x Ironman World Championship finisher and this was also not his day, but that we would finish together. This man saw I was in trouble and decided to stick with me as we rotated between running and walking the remainder of the race. He told me stories the whole way to get my mind off the pain. He put up with my moans and tears, and moments of doubt. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to thank him after the race, and I was too delirious to retain his name. But to me, this experience defines the Ironman World Championship.It took every ounce of mental and physical strength to finish the run, and no matter the result, I’m thrilled that I was able to get myself across the line.
AT: What’s next for you?
ML: I’m in the process of figuring that out.
I will most likely continue as an age group athlete for the next year and then, depending on how I do, see what other opportunities I can pursue in triathlon.