Kendra Lee had no idea where she stood with the pros at Ironman Canada and certainly had no part in the fierce discussions that followed regarding whether an amateur taking off in another wave who posted the fastest time could fairly be regarded as "winning" the overall title.
Lee was too busy traveling home to Denver to get back to her nursing job and serving four straight 12-hour shifts - a normal workload she serves virtually every week while she trains 20-plus hours a week for demanding Ironman and 70.3 races. Lee shocked many with her 9:44:58 time at the 30th anniversary Ironman Canada which not only won her the overall amateur title but also was 69 seconds faster than top pro Gillian Clayton.
Lee, who is 32, has been improving fast under the guidance of coach Brandon Del Campo, posting a 13th overall woman and first in 30-34 at Vineman 70.3, and 12th overall woman and 2nd in 30-34 at Kansas 70.3 this season.
Lee was born in Bellevue, Washington in 1980 and she was raised in Woodinville, Washington in the early part of her life. After her father took a job transfer in the ‘90s, her family moved to Jamestown, North Dakota. She graduated from high school in 1999 and then enrolled at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota to pursue a degree in nursing.
Slowtwitch: How did where you grew up help make you who you are?
Kendra Lee: My older sister (four years) and I were blessed to have parents who enjoyed exploring and traveling to new places. Living in Washington, I have fond memories of taking the ferry to the San Juan Islands. We explored the beach from sunrise to sunset, and I LOVED the ocean, crabbing and eating seafood. When we relocated to Jamestown, North Dakota, a town of about 16,000, we found that small town gave us the opportunity to try a new sport or activity each season! I participated in athletics, band, student council, girl scouts, and photography to name a few. We spent our summers traveling to various tournaments and our winters indoors playing sports or playing music. That was pretty much it, as the Midwest has two seasons (HOT summers and COLD winters!)
ST: Tell us about your mother and father?
Kendra: My parents, first off, are British, and they met while working for NATO in Norway and immigrated in 1968 to the United States. My father was an aerospace engineer and my mother was a social worker. My parents were extremely supportive of anything that I pursued. My dad played soccer competitively and he shared his talents in developing my soccer skills. I thank my Mom for sending me to swimming lessons on those COLD summer mornings, and for tolerating my stubbornness! Best of all, my parents were accepting and loving in all that my sister and I ever did and that’s what allowed us to be successful.
ST: Tell us about your siblings?
Kendra: My older sister Heather and I were both active and we competed in very different sports. Although I’m short, 5’4, my sister is nearly 5’10. She was an awesome swimmer, volleyball and track star who went on to compete in college as a heptathlete. She was a great jumper. I on the other hand was not! I stuck to running -- minimal coordination required!
ST: What sports did you love when you were young?
Kendra: All kinds! That was the beauty of living in a smaller community you could dabble in almost everything and find your niche. I played basketball in the fall, volleyball in the winter, ran track in the spring and soccer in the summer. I especially enjoyed team sports because I enjoyed working with others.
ST: What sports did you love most and why? How good were you?
Kendra: I appreciated each sport, but I loved soccer the most. My dad and I played a lot of soccer together and that helped me win the Gatorade High School Player of the Year for North Dakota and as a result I was offered a soccer scholarship at Concordia College where I played soccer and ran track in Division III MIAC. I think I have some soccer records (well maybe top three now) for most points, goals and assists in a season and I made the All-Conference MIAC teams. I was pretty slow in Track and Field. I did it mainly to stay in shape for soccer.
ST: Growing up, were there any medical, or life setbacks that tested you character?
Kendra: For sure. At 14, I was diagnosed with scoliosis, but by the age of 17 it became so severe that I had to undergo an extensive spinal fusion. As a result, the majority of my thoracic spine was fused with two titanium rods, a few handfuls of bolts and grafted bone from my hip. I was told I might lose a lot of flexibility and function, yet I was pretty determined to not let it get in my way. Although difficult, I had to temporarily retire from athletics. Thankfully it allowed me to pursue other interests and gain different perspectives and appreciation.
ST: If so what did you learn?
Kendra: Mark Twain says it best, “Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.”
ST: What sorts of people did you look up to?
Kendra: I look up to all sorts of people, in all areas of life. It would be a LONG list if I tried. Most of all, I look up to people who make me happy. Individuals who choose (that’s right, we have a choice!) to live their life with purpose, PASSION, integrity, and most of all kindness of heart. We are all given one life, one body and most importantly, one soul – the one aspect we should not compromise. I give respect and admire those who dare to LIVE!
ST: What field of work did you go to?
Kendra: I’ve always been intrigued by the human anatomy, but it wasn’t until my spinal fusion that I truly realized how instrumental nurses were in providing patient care. I found my niche in caring for others and have been nurse for nearly ten years. As nurses, we care for patients and families during a time of great vulnerability and have the unique opportunity to provide compassion and give them OUR strength when they may feel weak. I take pride in being a nurse, and can definitely say that I’ve developed a true appreciation for the human body, both physically and emotionally.
ST: Where did you move to for work?
Kendra: After graduating from college in 2003 I relocated to Denver. I work with a wonderful team of people within a 60 bed, emergency department. We are one of the busiest departments in Denver and we are almost always “running” with a variety of mishaps! Occasionally I think, “Man! If I can make it through this twelve hour shift, I can certainly do an Ironman!”
ST: When did you become interested in triathlon and why?
Kendra: About five years ago, I realized that training for marathons and logging a lot of miles was too much for my back. I remember a spinal doctor told me, “All this impact, is just not good for you.” I thought, huh? Maybe I’ll add some variety and try some swimming and biking. Plus, I loved to swim, bike and run as a child. I also have to give a shout out to my good friend, Bill. If not for his darn persistence, I wouldn’t be racing. He kept on trying to get me to sign up for my first triathlon until I finally just said, “FINE!” Little did I know I would love it
ST: What was your first race and how did it go?
Kendra: Steamboat Springs in August of 2007. I felt so nervous because I only swam a few meters in the pool beforehand. I recall going to the pool late after work one day before my race to get a few confidence builder laps in. It was fun! I swam half of it on by back and somehow managed to trip and fall TWICE…yes I know…on the run. I can be such a klutz.
ST: What was the toughest thing to learn about triathlon?
Kendra: Probably managing the idea of doing everything in ONE race! I’ve come to realize that I’m kind of average at all three and not GREAT at any. So trying to gain strength in the individual disciplines has been a fun journey. Last but not least, I need help to improve my “Coffee break” transitions! Best of all is there is SO much to learn. I’m steadily learning how to listen to my body and prepare it for racing, mentally and physically.
ST: What was your first successful triathlon?
Kendra: Ironman Cozumel was my first Ironman and that was a feat in itself! I think the longest ride I did prior to that race was maybe 80 miles. Needless to say, I was happy to make it through, regardless of my time.
ST: What was the first race that led you to think you might be really good?
Kendra: Since committing to triathlon more seriously two years ago, each race has been a steady progression of improvement. I feel like this season has been personally successful since I have attained the goals I set early this year. Ironman Canada would take this one.
ST: Who are among your closest tri friends?
Kendra: We are blessed living in Colorado since it has such a large triathlon community. It is rare if you can’t find someone to swim, bike or run with. Some of my best friendships have come from triathlon, in particular, my relationship with Grant Bovee. I met him over two years ago, and I couldn’t imagine my life without him. I spend a lot of my time training with Grant as he also races competitively. We understand each other, well most times at least and we have really built a solid foundation for ourselves. Also, I love all of my training buddies (you know who you are) and do what we enjoy…TOGETHER!
ST: Who was your first tri coach?
Kendra: Brandon Del Campo graciously took me under his wing about two years ago when I met him through my boyfriend, Grant. We have a unique partnership/friendship and I believe we share a great respect for one another. From the very beginning, Brandon has preached patience and balance within our training. He teaches us that racing is part of the journey, part of the FUN and a great barometer for where we are and where we’re going. Brandon has been a wonderful mentor and his philosophy reminds me this passage; “It may be that the most important mastery we achieve is not the mastery of a particular skill or particular piece of knowledge, but rather the mastery of the patience and persistence that learning requires.”
My primary coach is still Brandon Del Campo, but this year, Grant and I branched out in search of specific swim coaching. Since February, we’ve worked with Nick Levine at Open Water Coaching and we’ve been able to shave a few minutes off of our times this year!
ST: Your improvement the last two years is striking. Can you pick out a few races and describe what was your biggest challenge in each?
Kendra: I started the sport to meet people and stay active. My original intent was never to be competitive! It was a complete surprise that I qualified for Kona at Ironman Louisville in 2010. Racing Kona six weeks later was probably one of my biggest challenges. Mentally I had already signed off for the season so it was hard to turn around and keep training. Plus I wasn’t in nearly good shape back then. This all happened around the same time I met my boyfriend, Grant, who introduced me to Brandon. Fortunately Brandon was generous enough to help out up to Kona and kept me on track. After my first Kona, I felt like I was starting from the beginning yet with a more competitive perspective. Since then, I feel like every race has allowed me to learn from my mishaps.
ST: Which of those recent races gave you the most confidence?
Kendra: Vineman 70.3 because my run was finally there getting off the bike. Earlier in the season I was suffering from a dropped metatarsal head and bunions on one of my races and some general fatigue with another. I knew deep down that I had a decent run in me, but struggled at times with getting it all together. With a lot of patience, it all paid off and came together at Vineman, which gave me more confidence going into Canada.
ST: From what I could surmise given your results, this was your best race ever. Do you agree or disagree and why?
Kendra: Agree! Working with Brandon has always been about building slowly and planning ahead. Each race is a progression from the last. I’m extremely ecstatic about my race at Canada, but I knew going into it that I was capable of racing to the level I did. t was really nice to have the hard work pay off!
ST: Tell us how your race developed?
Kendra: I swam all the way near Grant and we actually got out of the water next to each other! The overall pace was a bit slower than expected, but I felt fresh getting out and eager to get on the bike course.
This was probably my first Ironman where I actually focused on my power wattage to gauge my overall ride quality. I rode the first half of the course pretty conservatively. It was a bit difficult watching people pass me on the earlier climbs (since I LOVE to climb!), but I knew it would pay off later. After Richter Pass, I steadily plugged away and enjoyed the scenery. Before I knew it, I reached the out and back at mile 75, I felt strong and confident I had plenty of gas in the tank on the way back to Penticton.
ST: In any Ironman there are high and lows. What were your toughest moments?
Kendra: I experienced some tough moments at the beginning of the run. After Vineman 70.3, I was having some knee issues. As a result, I had to scale back my running to a bare minimum for the three weeks leading up to the race and I had some insecurities for sure. Still, I was able to push through and thankfully the pain went away. I had low spots between miles 17-20 as my feet -- stupid bunions! -- were acting up. I told myself, ‘You can walk up some of the hills as your reward, but once you’re near the top, it’s GO time!’”
ST: Was Brandon there? If not, did you have anyone there to give you splits?
Kendra: Unfortunately not. Maybe some day Brandon can. But even if he was there, he wouldn’t tell me splits. He would just tell me to focus on what is going on right now and keep pushing. When he rides the mountain bike on my interval runs he won’t let me wear a watch and keeps all the splits to himself. When it is all done, he will let me look at them. It drives me nuts! Our parents were out on the course but we only saw them once or twice; I didn’t have anyone giving me splits.
ST: What were your goals for this race?
Kendra: To win or place top three overall amateur, win my age group and possibly squeeze in under 10 hours.
ST: Why did you pick Ironman Canada?
Kendra: Beautiful course, great reputation for race support and logistics, one loop bike course with diversity. Race climate similar to Colorado.
ST: What was the most beautiful thing you saw on race day?
Kendra: Grant waiting for me at the finish after his AMAZING RACE!! along with our wonderful parents! During the race, everything looks the same. I’m working hard.
ST: What was the most discouraging?
Kendra: Almost losing my special needs on the bike and crashing! Brandon worries that I am going to crash all the time. I am getting better and he won’t talk to me when we descend!
ST: There was a lot of discussion about your distinction of posting a faster time than all the pro women. What did you think when you heard?
Kendra: Wow! Did I really just win overall? Everything? Brandon told me after the race that he knew I would. Again, he withholds all this information beforehand!
ST: How proud were you when you realized you posted the fastest time of all women in the 30th edition of this famous race?
Kendra: Proud yes. Surprised absolutely. Brandon simply said “I almost told you so.”
ST: I know it is not your issue at all. But what advantages and disadvantages do you surmise you faced as an age grouper starting 15 minutes back of the pros?
Kendra: I think there can be arguments made either way. At the end of the day I believe I went out with my own goals and didn’t think about where I was in relation to the pros. Point is, I raced under the conditions I prepared for and did what I set out to do. I’ll do the same when I race in the professional field.
ST: Since you were so far ahead of your amateur competitors, did you slow down near the end to make sure you didn’t blow up?
Kendra: No! I just kept focusing on the moment. Anything can happen, and it’s not over until it’s over. Sure I may have had a good lead, but I never took it for granted. I had a personal goal of going under 10 hours and I just kept trying to stay nice and steady. I told myself, “Just make it back to town and then you’ll be okay.” The crowd support and volunteers carried me through the last few miles for sure!
ST: What did your coach say to you?
Kendra: “You just won Ironman Canada, I told you so….” Even though he withheld it! He was so happy for BOTH of us!
ST: What have your friends and family said?
Kendra: They are overwhelmingly supportive and kind. I have YET to respond to all of them – but I am SO blessed to have such an amazing following, they inspire ME! Triathlon is an individual sport on race day, yet it wouldn’t be possible otherwise without the encouragement of others. I am thankful for all the great people I have met through this sport and the journeys I have shared with them. I especially would like to thank Kompetitive Edge for their support and for believing in us from the very beginning. They are the BEST multisport shop period. For keeping our bodies healthy and in tune, great thanks to the team at Symmetry Massage in Denver for all of their expertise. To Powerbar and Infinit, if it wasn’t for you, I would probably turn into a pile of mush in training and race day, Thanks for keeping my engine running
ST: Did you share any words with Gillian, the top pro, at the awards banquet?
Kendra: Unfortunately not, but I hope to in the future! She gave a nice acceptance speech and was very kind and honorable to me. She had a great day herself and she should be proud of her accomplishment.
ST: Are you amused, appalled or indifferent to the passionate comments made on the forums arguing who was the overall women’s winner and whether or not it was two separate races?
Kendra: Somewhat amused, surprised and mostly indifferent to be honest. It’s not the first time an amateur has placed above the professionals. Drew Scott just posted a faster time than Michael Lovato at Lubbock. Circumstances on that day at Canada aligned in my favor and it was pretty exciting to pull off the fastest women’s time. So many elements of the event could be discussed, but that’s not what is important to me. The sport is becoming increasingly more competitive and I do think an elite amateur wave is appropriate. Maybe, as Brandon has said, you might have a mass swim start in the lower point races.
ST: Will you go pro?
Kendra: I am going to take my pro card because it is the next logical step. Will I improve? We will find out and I am pleased and respect that I have the opportunity to race in that field. It’s exciting and a bit nerve wracking.
ST: Wow. Four shifts upon your return. What is your job and where do you work?
Kendra: Exempla Lutheran Hospital Emergency Room. Sixty beds, LOTS of variety and people! And why do I choose to work in a place that NEVER closes? Still trying to figure that one out. Brandon says my job is a blessing in disguise. I won’t ever be over trained and it forces me to manage my time.
ST: How sore are you?
Kendra: Phew, my legs aren’t too bad, but MAN, my mental capacity is shot after answering all these questions!