A Re-Joyceful Return
After having a baby less than a year ago, one of the most successful female triathletes around is back and proving to be better than ever. In just her first Ironman since her second place finish, in Kona, in 2015, Great Britain’s Rachel Joyce fought her way to the win earlier this year at Ironman Boulder. As her fitness and racing form continues to emerge, Joyce is keeping the road to the Big Island on her racing radar as she enjoys her comeback as a new mum.
My first Kona race was in 2009 as a professional, and it was definitely a surreal experience at the time. I had read so much about Kona, and I was almost intimidated by it. I didn’t know any of the other pro’s besides Chrissie (Wellington). I didn’t know her as a Pro Triathlete but as a friend from when we’d been at the same university. I remember thinking everyone looked so fit. I so nearly went into the race beaten before the gun had gone off as I spent race week thinking I wouldn’t be able to compete with all of these big names like Leanda Cave, Sam McGlone, and Mirinda Carfrae. I almost beat myself up the week before. A few days before the race, I finally realised, it’s just another race all I had to do is swim, bike, and run as fast as I could, and that’s when I started enjoying the process a bit more.
I always felt I was better suited to race the full distance triathlons. After I had taken up triathlon, Kona became a dream of mine, so I was really motivated to get there. I missed out by one spot, back when you got slots based on your overall placement, in both Ironman Florida and Ironman South Africa, so I was determined to crack it. I got lucky on my third try and got my spot at Ironman Lanzarote in 2009.
I didn’t know how I would match up to all of these athletes I had read about. In 2009, I remember so clearly coming off the bike in fourth, and I was thinking, “What the heck?” At that point, I hadn’t cracked the run in an Ironman, so I figured everyone was going to come past me on the run, but I just broke that marathon down into 10-minute segments. I couldn’t believe it when I ran down the finisher’s shoot in the sixth position. It took a long time for that to sink in.
About five weeks after Archie was born, I had an itch to come back to training. I started swimming again and felt unfit, tired and my core was shot to pieces.A lot of people might think sixth isn’t a big deal. For me it is one of my favourite Kona memories because, just one year earlier, I was contracting for a law firm, I had no money and I fully expected to go back to work after Kona. I think I had about $100 in my bank account when I got to Kona that year! It clicked at that moment that I could make it as a professional triathlete. It was also especially memorable because my parents had come out to watch me race as well.
Kona is like an Ironman x 100 because triathletes take over Kona and you can’t switch off from it. Everyone’s in the best shape of their lives. At that point, I had never seen Palani or the Queen K, or the Energy Lab. I remember Macca (Chris McCormack) saying you could literally melt in the Energy Lab. However, when I was actually in the race, I realised it was just another piece of pavement I needed to run through. Kona lived up to the hype and excitement while at the same time, it is just another race.
Now I had to prove I was not just a one-hit-wonder. At the beginning of 2010, I badly injured my foot running through transition at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Triathlon. My chain ring sliced straight through three tendons in my foot as I was running to the bike mount line. I spent a week in an Abu Dhabi hospital, six weeks in a cast, and when I was finally ready to race in July, I found out I was anaemic, probably because I tried to come back too quickly. I still felt like I had a lot to prove. I had convinced myself that sixth in Kona had just been a fluke, that other people had had a bad day.
My training had been terrible going into Kona in 2010. I remember sitting with, my then coach, Matt Dixon, three days out of Kona and telling him I wanted to improve my placement from the year before and get fifth. I think he almost spat his coffee out because I had a rather unorthodox prep. In the end, I did come fifth. My feeling coming over the finish line was very different to the previous year – I was proud I had made the best of what I had, and I was relieved to have justified my place on the Abu Dhabi Triathlon Team.
Towards the end of 2015, while I still loved triathlon and felt privileged to call it my career, emotionally, I started to feel like I was trading off my chances to have a family. Kona 2014 wasn’t my favourite race on the island. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was in such good shape, but I didn’t feel like I performed to my best. I ended up third, which is fine, but I was frustrated with myself, as I knew I hadn’t handled the pressure and that cost me a good opportunity at the win.
When I went to Kona in 2015, enjoying it was a major part of it for me because I perform better when I am in a good headspace. I enjoyed race week, and I think I actually smiled during the race. I didn’t win, and my race wasn’t perfect. There were mistakes, but I felt like I kept it together and was happy to finish second. After the race, I knew we were ready to start trying for a family. I pretty much whispered it to Brett at the finish line. It was definitely a turning point in my career.
Being pregnant wasn’t always easy, but on the whole, I did enjoy being pregnant. I enjoyed not having to train to a schedule. I know some women really miss racing, but I never felt that way.
I embraced where I was. It seems like a waste to wish you were doing something else when something so amazing is happening. I was reluctant to say I was definitely coming back to racing as I had no idea how being a mum would impact my motivation to compete. However, I knew that if I did, this was the perfect opportunity to take a mental break and not make myself do anything. I just did what I wanted.
I didn’t want to make the decision to come back to triathlon when I didn’t know what life with a baby would be like. I kept fit and active because I love being active – it’s part of who I am. In those early days with Archie, I knew the last thing I wanted to do was be stressing out about training. I went into those days determined not to worry about a training schedule and just took it one day at a time. I am so glad I did it that way because I have fond memories of those early days as a mum. They were so tiring, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed them so much if I was thinking about the training I was missing.
About five weeks after Archie was born, I had an itch to come back to training. I started swimming again and felt unfit, tired, and my core was shot to pieces. It also felt wonderful to be exercisingagain. In those first two or three months. I really just wanted to feel fit and strong again. That’s a part of who I am, so that was the first step. I think around November or December, I started to feel like I could possibly come back to training, but I still didn’t have a set schedule.
I hadn’t planned a race at that point, but I could see my fitness was getting to a point where I could imagine getting to a starting line. By January of 2017, I decided I needed to get into a routine, and I asked Julie and Matt Bottrill to build me more of a program. When I got to Ironman 70.3 Oceanside, I knew I was still a long way from having proper race fitness, but I wanted to see exactly
where I was.
There are so many ways havingArchie has impacted my triathlon career. I am much more organised for sure. Any parent knows that you have to plan because kids are the centre of our world. I have to plan for childcare, naps, and feedings. I probably train 10-20 percent less than I used to before Archie, but my sessions are very focused, and I am happy I am getting the work in.
It wasn’t until after I raced Oceanside that I started thinking about racing my first full, Ironman Boulder. It is a hometown race for me, and I realised that it would be logistically easy. I also like that challenge and planning with my coaches how I would prepare for Ironman Boulder. I liked the challenge.
I didn’t want to come back to racing and be mediocre.The thought of qualifying for Kona started to creep into my head a couple of weeks before Ironman Boulder. I started to wonder how many points I needed to make it, which was when I put myself on the start list for Ironman Frankfurt, thinking maybe I could do a quick turn around and get some points. I decided to stop thinking ahead and put those thoughts to the side and focus on enjoying and, hopefully, winning Boulder.
I liked the fact that Heather Jackson came to race Boulder because I knew she is someone on a good Ironman roll since her podium in Kona in 2016. I suppose in the back of my mind I was thinking if I want to be competitive in Kona, I would need to give Heather a good race. I am proud of Ironman Boulder and very thankful to have the support I have from Brett, my family, my coaches, and my training buddies. I didn’t want to come back to racing and be mediocre. At the very least, I wanted to get back to where I used to be and be better.
I have always sought out the big races. Oceanside and St. George had some of the current best over that distance, so my results may look fairly mediocre, but I like racing the best. After Boulder, Brett and I chatted about me making a run for Kona. I feel like I can be in very good shape by October, so I want to throw my hat in the ring. I want to be there. I hope to do well at Ironman Canada and get some more points to solidify my qualification.
If I make it to Kona this year, it will definitely be different for me. I was chatting to Julie the other day and told her I know it takes a lot to get to Kona in a good place. I am spending those mental pennies carefully. I kept things light in my Ironman Boulder training and plan on doing the same going into Canada. Kona training will be another level. It’s going to take a lot, not just for me, but for my family. Brett’s going to have to put in a lot of effort, and we can’t start that kind of training now. Brett’s always wanted to go to Whistler, and it’s a beautiful, honest course. It seemed like a no-brainer to choose to race there.
In previous years, Kona has been my priority, but now my family is more important. If I qualify, I know it’s going to be much more challenging as far as juggling life and training. I know I will need to get my Kona training in around Archie and Brett, which I see as a positive impact on my training. It might make it more challenging, but as I said, I like challenges.
Kona training will be another level. It’s going to take a lot, not just for me, but for my family.
I have never done a Kona where Rinny (Mirinda Carfrae) hasn’t been there. We both did our first Kona race in 2009 – that’s just one of the ways it will be different this year. I think it’s brilliant that Jodie (Swallow), Liz (Blatchford), Rinny, Meredith (Kessler) and Mary Beth (Ellis) are all pregnant this year – what a great example that a woman’s career isn’t over after they have had a baby. I feel like I am going to be one of the few of the old guards still racing and I will be surrounded by the next generation, but I am hoping to represent!
I loved watching Kona at home with Archie last year. There wasn’t a part of me that wished I was in the race. It was interesting because as I watched it, I saw the race dynamics, and I could see things that you can’t see while you’re in the race. I could see where some people were strong or where others fell away. I think what it showed me is that the people who race their own race come out well.
I love and hate the pressure of Kona. I hate waiting the two days before the race. As soon as the cannon goes off, you’re just in it and you know it’s your chance. I love all of the work that goes into it and that you have just one day to leave it all out there.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KORUPT VISION