Mid-Pack Racer to IRONMAN Glory
Have you ever wondered what it takes to go from being a back-to-mid pack racer to top of the pack? Have you ever wondered what it takes to achieve your biggest triathlon goals? AT’s Margaret Mielczarek chats with top age grouper, Andrew Perry about what it takes to do this, while qualifying for the pinnacle of the sport – the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii – along the way.
Australian Triathlete (AT): Describe yourself in three words.
Andrew Perry (AP): Determined, focused and competitive
AT: Tell us a bit about your story. What was life like prior to triathlon?
AP: Before triathlon, I was mainly into cycling and not too much else. I played a little bit of sport through school, but nothing serious or at a competitive level. Like a lot of others, I went through a very unhealthy period in my uni days being overweight and having little-to-no interest in fitness and exercise. At first, I got into cycling as a way to get out of these bad habits and to try to regain some fitness, as at the time it was the only form of exercise I really enjoyed doing. Eventually found triathlon as a great way to challenge myself.
AT: Tell us more about discovering triathlon. How and when did you discover the sport?
AP: I started getting into triathlons around 2010 when I competed in my first Noosa Triathlon. Prior to this I had cycled on/off for a couple of years but wanted to have a go at triathlon. I started out in Olympic distance for the first few years but really wanted the next challenge, which lead me to Ironman 70.3 events initially and then eventually to Ironman. However, when I first got into triathlon, I had no idea how to train for these races and I’d often go out and train with no structure, and then wondered why I wasn’t improving.
I had always thought about doing Ironman so I signed up for Ironman Melbourne in 2015, and by signing up early I was therefore committed to doing it. I had always wondered if I could get through an Ironman so I decided if I was going to actually prepare for it properly I knew I needed to get some coaching. This led me to T:Zero Multisport. I signed up with Richard Thompson who helped guide me through this journey and this was the best thing I could have done for my training. Going in with no expectations but to get over that finish line, I had a great day out at Ironman Melbourne in my first attempt. I clearly enjoyed the challenge way too much because I’ve been hooked ever since! (Laughs)
AT: Yeah, it’s a very addictive sport (laughs). So, why triathlon?
AP: At first I got into triathlon to keep fit and have an exercise or training goal to aim for. This gradually progressed to me wanting to see what I could get out of myself as I moved up the distances from Sprint, Olympic to Ironman.
I love the challenge of seeing how hard or for how long I can push my body over distances I would have thought were stupid back when I started getting into the sport. It’s amazing what you start to consider ‘normal’ once you start training for an Ironman!
AT: You’ve had quite the journey in triathlon (according to your coach it was a “humble start”) but after being a mid-pack racer you quickly climbed the ranks (you came first at Ironman Malaysia, which is awesome!). What do you attribute your success in triathlon to?
AP: For many years when I first took up triathlon I was really happy just getting to the finish line and simply hoping for a personal best (PB). I was finishing Ironman 70.3 races anywhere between 5-5.5 hours, and Olympic distance races around the 02:40:00 plus mark. And there was nothing wrong with this, I was really happy with it, in fact! However, for quite a while I wasn’t improving and was getting disappointed with my performances because I knew I could do better. I also wanted a bigger challenge and to see how much more I could get out of myself if I had an epic goal to chase. I knew I had so much more potential, as my training was never consistent or appropriately split between the disciplines. I know for myself I always favoured cycling when training and this inevitably meant swimming and running took a backseat, as did strength/core sessions, which would never have got done.
What I believe my success has come down to is changing this approach completely and signing up with a coach, and sticking to a structured training plan. It’s meant that I’ve had a consistent structure to follow and the right balance across all disciplines. Combined with this are the countless hours of training and hard work that’s gone into getting disciplines up to a reasonable level to be competitive. I have no doubt that without this guidance I would not have had the recent success that I’ve had. Having a goal to chase and work towards is also a major factor, but it has to be a goal that you really want – something that gets you out of bed every morning.
Getting the age group win and Kona qualification in Malaysia was an amazing experience and one of the best parts of this success was simply seeing the results of all the hard work I had put into training over the years.
AT: You combine training with work/family/social life. How do you fit everything in? How do you maintain balance?
AP: I work as Revenue Manager for a large Consumer Healthcare company in Brisbane. It’s a busy role full of numbers and spreadsheets, so training is a welcome distraction and outlet outside of work. Getting a good work/life balance is also really important to me and I find when I’ve got the balance right, I’m more productive at work anyway.
I also really believe that you can fit into your day whatever you are passionate about and what’s important to you. It then becomes about planning and prioritisation to fit everything in. Ultimately you can find the time for what you really want to do (no matter what it is, be it training, work, social life etc.).
AT: Describe your typical training day – what does a day in the life of Andrew look like?
AP: A typical day is very busy trying to fit everything in! A normal workday in the two to three months before a major race generally involves both a morning and evening training session with work squeezed into the hours somewhere in the middle. Then the weekends, like a lot of people, are for the long ride and run days. Typically however during the work week my days are generally split up as either bike/run days or swim/strength days.
AT: OK, so you qualified for the Ironman World Championships at Ironman Malaysia– you finished first in your age group, 30-34, in a time of 9:35:42. That’s pretty phenomenal. Talk us through that race.
AP: Ironman Malaysia was an epic day and I am so happy with the result! After chasing a goal for so long it was amazing to finish the race with that incredible result; achieving the age group win and second age grouper overall has taken a little while to sink in. What is really pleasing is seeing the hard work I’ve put into training over the last few years really pay off in this race. I managed to put together a really consistent effort across the day, in what were really tough conditions.
The swim was a two-lap non-wetsuit swim with a rolling start, so getting a good position on the start line was important. I controlled my effort in the swim really well and, compared to previous races, exited the water a fair way up the field, which helped set up for a great day. The additional work we had done in the pool over winter meant I was much stronger in the water and felt relatively fresh getting into T1 ready for the long day ahead on the bike and run.
Heading into the race I was really looking forward to the challenge this bike course would bring – it had a large amount of climbing including a few quite sharp hills on the back end of each lap. Pacing was critical on the bike in the humidity and it was so important not to burn all my energy on the first lap. Coming round on the second lap the weather really started to heat up and I was passing a lot of other athletes and was pleased to get into T2 first in my age group! This was awesome knowing where I was placed and that I had put together a really strong bike leg.
The run was always going to be tough but I had a pacing plan I was determined to follow. However, inevitably the heat and humidity of Malaysia caught up with me throughout the back end of the run leg. It was a real test to be able to hold my pace while trying to use the aid stations to keep my core temperature under control. My run time was not what I had trained towards but I was pleased to manage the conditions as best I could on the day.
Crossing the line as the Age Group Champion and knowing I had secured the Kona qualification was amazing. I couldn’t believe it, it has taken some time for what I have achieved to really sink in.
AT: With your goal at Ironman Malaysia being to qualify for Kona, in the weeks leading up to and during the race did you have any moments of doubt?
AP: After finishing my first Ironman in Melbourne in 2015, my goal since that point has been to build my fitness to become fast enough to qualify for Kona. I entered Ironman Malaysia as my fourth Ironman race with the primary goal of qualifying for Kona.
Absolutely, during the final build weeks doubt crossed my mind at times after some training sessions that didn’t exactly go as planned or as well as I wanted. While these moments did cast doubt, I made sure I didn’t let it affect me for too long and rather refocused on nailing the next session. What’s done is done and it’s more important to look forward at that point.
During the race, little things did go wrong but I tried not to waste energy on worrying about it. I wasn’t focussed on thinking: “Kona qualification.” My aim was nailing the race plan and if that meant I qualified then it was an amazing day. Once race day comes there’s not much more you can do other than executing the plan you set out across the day and it wasn’t until the last part of the run that it really sunk in that getting that slot was a real possibility.
AT: Why did you pick an overseas race to try to qualify for Kona? What was the thought process behind that?
AP: In 2015, when I set the goal of trying to qualify for Kona, Ironman New Zealand 2017 was to be the goal race to aim for qualification at. I spent 2016 progressively building my training load and fitness across the disciplines to get to a point that I would be truly competitive. Looking back, taking this year out was a great decision. I had a really great day at Ironman New Zealand; however, it wasn’t quite good enough to gain that Kona qualification.
After this race, my coach and I took stock and worked through what went right and what could be improved, and agreed that we should target an Ironman at the end of 2017 as another qualification opportunity. Essentially, the plan was to carry through and to improve on the fitness and form I’d built for New Zealand while working on what would make a difference to my overall performance.
Targeting a race at the end of 2017 basically left two options within relatively easy travel from Brisbane, being either Busselton or Malaysia. Having already raced at Busselton in 2015, I wasn’t super keen to head back there just yet; rather I wanted to try a new course in a new location. And with Asia so accessible from Australia, Malaysia was the race I decided to target. I really liked the idea of the true challenge that Malaysia offered – the heat, humidity and a very honest, hilly bike course. It obviously ended up being a great decision!
AT: Talk us through your journey towards Ironman Malaysia. How did you prepare and what did you learn?
AP: In the lead up to Malaysia there wasn’t a whole lot different work done on the bike and run areas compared to my last build for Ironman New Zealand. Instead, we approached it as another progression and a further building on the fitness. The major difference in training was putting considerably more time into my swim leg over winter to improve my technique and get stronger in the water. This paid huge dividends come race day where I managed to put together a swim leg that was 10+ minutes faster in this non-wetsuit swim than my last Ironman race. I also put more emphasis on strength and mobility work.
The build towards Ironman Malaysia reinforced that this sport takes patience and consistency, to build that strength and endurance you need on race day. I was seeing improvements in my training numbers in the months leading up to race day, but staying healthy in the process means you have to be patient and build progressively.
More specifically, just for what the Malaysian climate was going to throw at me, I did a fair amount of heat acclimatisation work to get used to the intense humidity that would be there on race day. This involved doing long runs in warm clothing, indoor bike sessions on the trainer and some treadmill running with no fans. I very quickly realised how much fluid I was losing in these conditions and it became evident how critical hydration and nutrition was going to be in that humidity.
AT: You’ve qualified for Kona 2018 quite early in the season. Are you getting straight back into training for Kona or will you be taking a break? What are your plans for the season, leading into Kona?
AP: For the next month or so it will be all about recovery and taking it a bit easier. I respond best to active recovery rather than doing nothing, so that will be the approach, but it won’t be overly structured. It’s going to be a big year ahead so it’s important to recharge and recover properly. While right now we haven’t locked down a race plan, most likely the year ahead will involve racing an Ironman 70.3 and likely an Ironman at some stage too, with the aim being to be in the best form by October.
AT: Given that you qualified so early, are you worried at all about burnout or overtraining leading into Kona? How will you manage that?
AP: Qualifying for Kona so early in the season I actually see as an advantage in preparing for the next season. We are able to plan races over the next 10 months in the lead up to October knowing for certain that Hawaii will be the absolute priority race. It also allows me the additional time to continue my progression and build with the appropriate level of rest and recovery throughout the year.
AT: Have you been to The Big Island before?
AP: I’ve been to Hawaii but only to Oahu, and not the Big Island. I’m really looking forward to seeing everything you read about and see from afar come October every year!
AT: What are your goals and expectations leading into Kona?
AP: My goal is to nail the race – what that means, right now I don’t know! What I do want to do, however, is to have the best, most consistent performance that I am capable of come October 2018. There is plenty of time between now and October for me to improve and build my endurance, so I’ll probably reassess a specific goal for the race closer to the time.
As it’s going to be my first time racing in Kona, I’m really looking forward to just experiencing the race (sounds stupidly cliché doesn’t it?). And then if I’m fortunate enough to have a subsequent attempt at Kona down the track it would be great to go there fitter and faster, and then see what happens.
AT: What are you most looking forward to in Kona?
AP: I’m looking forward to racing the very the best in the world, and to be on the course at the same time as the best pros in the word. It will be awesome to be part of a race that is the absolute pinnacle of this sport, and a race so many people dream of racing. I’m also keen to see what race week brings and to enjoy the atmosphere in Kona in the lead-up.
AT: What’s your biggest piece of advice to other people wanting to get into the sport? What is your advice to athletes wanting to qualify for Kona?
AP: I really believe you need to be consistent and you need to have patience.
Be consistent in training – it’s the key to getting fitter and stronger, no matter what amount of time you can dedicate to training each week. Just maintaining that consistency is so important. For me, consistency has been my biggest improvement factor over the past couple of years. If you can stay consistent for a considerable period of time, after that, anything is possible.
You also need to be patient, especially if you are new to the sport. It takes a long time to build strength and endurance, and it may at times seem like you’re not getting quicker or improving as rapidly as you might have wanted, but eventually, everything clicks and it does come together. Also, don’t underestimate the power of recovery – in particular, sleep. It’s amazing the progression you can see and feel in training after coming off an easier week post a solid training block.
Finally, you need to have a goal to chase. Something you think is unachievable but something that you want so badly regardless of how hard you think it is. If you don’t ever try, you’ll never really know what you are truly capable of. When I set the goal of one day qualifying for Kona, it seemed like something that was unachievable at that time. But sometimes these are the best type of goals and if you want it bad enough the results will come, and the hard work pays off.
One thing you can’t live without … Coffee
If not triathlon … Cycling
When not training … I’m having a coffee somewhere
A guilty pleasure … Caramel
Bucket list race … Kona
Athlete you admire … Craig Alexander
Person that inspires you … Lionel Sanders – his mental determination and approach to be the best
Most embarrassing moment in training and racing … In my early days, I was training at the cycling crit track when someone told me that I’d be a whole lot faster if I shaved my pins and dropped a few pounds
When I say Kona, you say … Finally!
Images: Supplied by Andrew Perry