Kelly Williamson came into her own in 2010 with wins at the Steelhead and Branson 70.3s and the Austin Olympic-distance Triathlon as well as 3rd places at the Lonestar 70.3 national championship, Rev3 Knoxville Olympic distance and in her Ironman debut at Coeur d’Alene. But the race that truly marked her as world class was her 2nd place finish to the world’s most dominant 70.3 competitor Mirinda Carfrae at Rev 3 Quassy half Ironman. That's because Williamson beat long time ITU star and current Ironman New Zealand champion Samantha Warriner, two-time Abu Dhabi and 2009 Ironman 70.3 World Champion Julie Dibens and 2008 Ironman 70.3 World Championship runner-up Mary Beth Ellis at the star-studded Connecticut race.
After a 15th place in her Kona debut, Williamson crashed hard at the Miami 70.3 race and called her 2010 season to a close. The question staring at the 33-year-old, 9th-year pro was what could she do for an encore in 2011? The Austin, Texas native with the killer run (a 1:16:59 at the Houston half marathon in January) started out the year with a bang, winning the Rev 3 Costa Rica Olympic distance and the San Juan 70.3. Then racing luck left her undaunted after 5th place finishes at the California 70.3 and Galveston 70.3. She is looking forward to Ironman Texas in May and a improving her 9:36 time at Kona.
Slowtwitch: Did you start this season too fast?
Kelly Williamson: Heck no. I took a really solid break after last year. I had a good debut at Kona in 15th place. But I was disappointed that I didn’t run faster than 3:11 there.
ST: You have any idea how good that run was not so long ago at Kona? It was 10th fastest in 2011. But it would have been 2nd best in 1995, 2nd best in 1996, 3rd best in 1997, 3rd best in 1998, 5th best in 1999, and 4th best in 2000. And 2nd best in 2006!
Kelly: The thing is I was looked at it critically. I thought, ‘Man 3:11:04 is not going to cut it now!’ I am very, very critical. It was good but I played it a little safe. I had a horrendous swim [57:23] and a decent bike [5:22:40] and a decent run [3:11:04]. And three weeks later I thought I had recovered enough to have a good run at Miami 70.3. But I crashed my bike pretty badly and I did something very, very stupid – which was to get up and finish out of stubbornness.
ST: How bad was it?
Kelly: I hit a pothole and went over the bars with my bike. The rear derailleur was smashed into the wheel. I stopped about 30 minutes and got checked out. They said ‘Your vitals are fine.’ Here I am being stubborn so I said ‘Yeah!’ I haven’t been off the back and DNF’d all year long, so I’ll just be gutsy here. Very, very stupid. Needless to say it was a very rough finish [4:59].
ST: How much time did you take off to recover?
Kelly: I took a good two months of downtime. My husband Derick and I and our dog Amico -- named after out favorite pizza and beer place in Salida, Colorado -- took a 3-week trip in a car over Christmas. We left Austin and went to Oklahoma, Indiana, Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama and back to Austin. We covered 4,000 miles and we visited parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents and my best friend. We took our bikes with us and rode them here and there – I had a physical outlet so I wouldn’t go crazy. When we came back January 5th I said ‘I am going to train hard.’
ST: What did you focus on?
Kelly: I had a good two and a half week run focus preparing for the Houston half marathon, which was serving as the national championship. I was very honored to be in the field, because you are looking at the best US runners. I finished 19th. Technically I ran 1:16:59. Officially it was 1:17 flat. But it was a chip time.
ST: What is your best half marathon in a triathlon?
Kelly: I ran a low 1:18. I think I run better off the bike than I do an open half marathon.
ST: How much training and how sharp were you on the bike when you won your first two races this year?
Kelly: I did not ramp up my bike training over the winter. I see people in Austin who do these long rides in December. But I didn’t spend more than an hour on the trainer, which is considered short. I also did some weight work in my downtime. So, I think I gained fitness from last year. And I think I am seeing that now. I do not train for easy volume, I am very specific with intensity. I do quality, quality training.
ST: So why did you have such great races at Costa Rica and San Juan?
Kelly: I had fitness in Costa Rica, but it was a shorter race and not as deep a field. San Juan was my first 70.3 in six months and I was a bit nervous. I wondered, ‘Where am I? Do I have the fitness?’
ST: How did the race go in San Juan?
Kelly : I had a solid swim [26:34]. Nothing spectacular. Thirty seconds back of the fastest women [including Nina Kraft but none of the other top 10 finishers]. Twenty miles into the bike, I thought ‘This is not your day.’ I felt pretty mediocre. I got passed by a few girls. It was warm but not compared to Austin. I think I got really pissed off and about Mile 35 I told myself, ‘Don’t let this one go. You still got this.’ Somehow I turned the corner and after mile 40 I felt super strong coming in those last 20 miles.
ST: Why did this happen?
Kelly: I think I have done some good volume in my cycling after the Houston half marathon. And I did a 110-mile ride a week before San Juan. So that is huge. When you are a weaker cyclist like me, and when you start to put in this volume…
ST: Used to be a weaker cyclist.
Kelly: Hopefully, not any more. I reaped the benefits of the increased volume. That’s what allowed me to turn that corner. Typically I would start to fade at Mile 40 or 45. But now I felt better and I came off the bike in 5th and I knew it was far from over. I had confidence in my running. I knew I had the potential to run into the top few places - if not better. On the run I was excited because it was hilly, which is a lot like Austin. That’s my kind of course.
ST: Could you target anyone ahead of you?
Kelly: I couldn’t see anybody at first. But in transition they were playing Paradise City by Guns and Roses and I was thinking, ‘Hell yeah!’ I got all excited when they told me I was three minutes down. I thought ‘I can handle that.’
ST: You had to pass some big talent -- Kate Major, Magali Tisseyre -- and hold off really great runners like Caitlin Snow and Desiree Ficker. I would have bet you’d come in 3rd. And I would have lost. If you beat Mirinda Carfrae at Oceanside, I’ll pay you $100. You can buy the margaritas.
Kelly: Oceanside has a tough bike which is good for me. I like the hills. You never know -- anything can happen.
ST: Who did you pass last at San Juan?
Kelly: I got to the fort section of San Juan. It was probably 3 miles in and I saw a pack of women and they were all together. Kate Major, Magali and someone else…
ST: Those two can run…
Kelly: I was able to pass them and I went from 5th to 2nd. Then I had the ITU girl – Margaret Shapiro. She had dropped everybody but I was able to catch her and pass her at Mile 6. Then I led the last 40 minutes.
ST: What happened after San Juan?
Kelly: I was 5th at California and 5th at Galveston. Those results were not where I wanted to be and I was hard on myself afterward. But when I look back, those races weren’t so bad.
ST: You started fast and finished fast at California. What led you to finish 5th after two big wins?
Kelly: California wasn't a bad race. I had been out front in the swim [her 25:52 was second only to Dede Griesbauer] but I dropped back when I had a crazy mix-up in the first transition. I slipped and dropped the bike and when I tried to push it forward, the front wheel would not move. The skewer knocked the brake on. I got it pretty clear, and I think it didn’t rub on the flats. But whenever I stood up on a climb, the brakes rubbed the wheel. I debated stopping and fixing it. In any case, it was frustrating to lose momentum on the climbs. It is what it is. I made the second best run [1:19:54 to Carfrae’s 1:18:25]. I felt very good and made up time, so it was not all bad. I gave it all I had.
ST: Then you raced Texas 70.3 at Galveston just one week later.
Kelly: It was a new thing for me -- racing 70.3s back to back. I guess everyone who competes at the distance does that at some point. Again I struggled on the bike. I was pretty upset when several women were passing me like I was sitting still. But after the fact I was proud of myself for rallying from 15th to 5th. My bike split there was 2:28 about 5-10 minutes behind the top women. Then Catriona [Morrison] ran 1:18:18 and I ran 1:18:20 – it was a very, very good run for me.
ST: Looking back, what do you think abouty this season so far?
Kelly: That was good to have some really good races early on. After that, I don't know if I can call them bad. I think it is good to realize that you have to be on your game, you have to be on to compete these days. With those strong fields, I have to minimize my weaknesses. It was pretty hard to get 5th places. All things considered I was proud of the way I started my season.
ST: Are you optimistic going forward to Ironman Texas in The Woodlands in mid-May?
Kelly: I know better results will come with getting stronger on the bike. And then I can put out a 3 hour marathon with less fatigue coming off the bike.
ST: What will be your goal race this year? Kona? Or the Ironman 70.3 World Championship at Lake Las Vegas?
Kelly: Hawaii is the goal. Because Ironman for me is still very new. I have just done two of them and I have some definite improvements to make. I could be a lot better.
ST: But perhaps Las Vegas could suit you better now?
Kelly: I want to do better at Hawaii. But Las Vegas could really favor me because it is hilly and it is hard. It’s like a Quassy and I had a great race at Rev3 Quassy last year [2nd to Mirinda Carfrae by 5:31 in 4:29. Williamson also beat certified half Ironman stars Samantha Warriner and Julie Dibens] I do think that, next to Hawaii, Vegas is the one I’d like to do focus on.
ST: You were in the resident athlete program at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs from 2002-2005. Did you like short course, draft legal racing?
Kelly: No. I started well and won the Pan Championship in 2002 as a rookie. I got injured in 2003 with a stress fracture in the tibia. My body – I was a swimmer and when I came to triathlon I was running too much at first.
ST: Why did that happen?
Kelly: I just think that I didn’t grow up a runner. I grew up a swimmer in high school at Zionsville, Indiana and was an NCAA swimmer at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. I only got in because I was a swimmer. At my best, I swam the 1650 [mile] in just under 17 minutes. Anyway, I did ITU for my first years in triathlon [2002 to 2005] until I had a big bike crash in ’05 at Denver. I broke my arm in several places and had to have rods inserted in my radius and ulna.
ST: Scars are sexy. Did that help you land Derick?
Derick Williamson: We were already together.
ST: That sealed the deal.
Kelly: I have a lot of scars. But I didn’t enjoy the drafting. I didn’t enjoy the intensity. I like to get in my own world out there and just go.
ST: You really arrived last year. And it looks like you underlined that fact with your early season wins.
Kelly: It’s nothing earth shattering. I am a testament to a lot of years of hard work and perseverance. That's it. I’ve stuck to it a long time. I am OK with that. I’ve just plugged away and I’ve enjoyed it.
ST: How did you get through the hard times?
Kelly: Derick has been so supportive. And there were years when I didn’t make any money. I think the saving grace was I always worked. I always had a part time job.
ST: What were some of your jobs?
Kelly: I’ve worked in Colorado Springs and Austin. I coach age group athletes and I’ve worked part time in a running shoe store. I always try to keep a balance. I haven’t said to myself I am a pro triathlete and I’m going to make money all my money as a pro triathlete. I’ve never said that.
ST: Did that balance help you keep the faith in your own talent?
Kelly: I think it is kind of s cliché. But I always believed I was better than what I was doing in triathlon. I started with good swimming. And the running came naturally. So I thought the cycling has to click some day. And I do believe it.
ST: When was it hard to believe?
Kelly: Two years ago, I biked 20 minutes slower than Natasha Badmann [at Eagleman [2:16 to 2:36] I know she is Natasha. But 20 minutes? That is a lot. It was bad day on the bike, But my bike has gotten better. That is what I think has allowed me to be in the top 3 so much lately. I don’t lose contact on the bike like I used to. So, good! We will see.
ST: Dream time: If everything went right at Kona, how far up the ladder could you rise this time?
Kelly: I was 15th last year. I shoot really big so I want to try for a top 5. That’s what I’m aiming for. I think I am getting stronger on the bike. I think I’ve learned a lot in the past year at Ironman. And, I’m sorry, but if you are a 1:18 or 1:20 runner off the bike at the half Ironman, you have to go faster than 3:11 for the marathon. So I know my Ironman run needs to step up. If things keep going in the right direction, my 9:36 at Kona can come down to a 9:20. I think if I shoot for that, it can happen. But I have to have a good race at Ironman Texas first. [in May]
ST: Mirinda Carfrae had a fantastic first Ironman. But she was 20 minutes back of superstar Chrissie Wellington in 2009. Last year, even if Superwoman had been in the race, Mirinda definitely would be in the same area code. So it is possible to move up and improve.
Kelly: Both would go sub-nine.
ST: And some day, so can you.