Meredith Kessler spent nearly a decade pursuing her love of Ironman triathlon as an independent amateur who worked her way from the 12-hour plus level to just under 10 hours on a diet of four Ironman races a year. But when she signed on four years ago with triathlon coach and fellow San Franciscan Matt Dixon at his Purplepatch Fitness – headquartered at the Velo SF workout center – her rise has been spectacular.
In late 2009, after two and a half years with Dixon’s group, she decided to turn pro at the age of 32. In 2010, Kessler finished second to good friend Heather Wurtele at Ironman St. George and second to fellow Purplepatch Fitness athlete Linsey Corbin at Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Her ascendance into the first rank of Ironman athletes was signaled by her win at Ironman Canada in a time of 9:13:46, 3:31 ahead of Wurtele. While fulfilling a dream of winning an Ironman she had when she started up with coach Matt Dixon, her performance was a well-balanced 49:26 swim, 5:09:33 bike and 3:10:14 run that signaled even greater things in her future.
While her fitness and race readiness continued to improve and raised her hopes for an even better 2011, her first two races this year met with surprising setbacks that she overcame and got back on track with a win at the Rev3 Portland half Ironman. Kessler offered her take on her triathlon career and life over a caramel macchiato around the corner from Velo SF at a San Francisco Starbucks.
Slowtwitch: After your spectacular professional debut last year including a win at Ironman Canada, you had a two scary setbacks to start 2011. What happened at St. George and Coeur d’Alene?
Meredith Kessler: Now that I’ve recovered and things have settled back to normal, I can say those two races were a good learning experience. What happened is I experienced two very wrong extremes of race day salt consumption, one after the other.
ST: Start with St. George, where you were defending runner-up.
Meredith: In St. George I was dehydrated and I didn’t have enough sodium in me. It finally did me in on Mile 22 of the run. I was in second behind Heather [Wurtele] and with 4 miles to go, obviously I would have walked it in. I was well prepared and very fit and was ready for a great race. So nothing was getting me off that course except that I passed out and I was pulled off and taken to the emergency room in an ambulance. I had 6 IVs.
ST: What prompted this meltdown?
Meredith: My first thought was that I train in 55 degree coolness, then I go and race in 95. And I didn’t play my cards right with sodium and it bit me in the behind.
ST: What did you do about sodium that day?
Meredith: If things were perfectly planned, I would have taken exactly the right amount of sodium on the bike. I felt great on the swim and the bike. I was so into the bike and it was so hilly and I hit my nutrition perfectly. But I didn’t have enough sodium, so when I got to the run and it was like ‘Uh Oh! Something’s not right here!’ I was picking salt tablets up off the ground and trying ‘em but it was too late. I couldn’t save myself.
ST: You signed up to defend your second place finish at Coeur d’Alene, which is historically equally hot. So what did you do to prepare?
Meredith: I spent five weeks between St. George and Coeur d’Alene figuring that out. I recovered and went to Coeur d’Alene and this time I did too much sodium.
Meredith: I did a pre load with sodium citrate. I found out later that my kidneys can’t handle that. I’ve raced on dehydrated kidneys my whole life and never compensated so heavily. Everyone is different. So and so can take three salt tablets an hour. But as I discovered after seeing doctors after this race, if I added that much sodium I would die. Literally. I blame myself because I could have done more due diligence and testing before racing on it. I just didn’t want to happen what happened in St. George.
ST: You overcompensated -- and what happened to you physically?
Meredith: After one loop of the swim, I was feeling really dizzy. I could not breathe. I made it through the second loop much slower than I normally swim so I knew something was off. When I got out of the water I fell down because I was so dizzy and I was breathing really heavily. When I got on the bike I thought ‘It’ll settle. It’ll settle. Nutrition, Nutrition.’ But when I got on the bike and started drinking stuff with sodium in it, it just crushed me. It was textbook -- everything that was supposed to happen when your kidneys reject sodium happened to me. I looked down and my hands were swelling up like a cartoon character. I could not make a fist. I looked like the Marshmellow Puff Man. My eyes became slits. Then I knew everything was wrong. I was pulled off the course. My family was there telling me, ‘Cut it! Cut it!’
ST: This sounds more serious than the first incident. What did you do for treatment?
Meredith: We didn’t go to the hospital at first. We went back to the condo. My husband Aaron and my best friends from college were all there because we had planned to take a vacation in Montana after the race. And Hillary Biscay came over, too. Her fiancé [Maik Twelsiek] got second at the race, but she still came to my condo. ‘Oh my God, Meredith! You are starting to swell up like the Elephant Man! We have a crisis situation. We have to go to the ER.’ Her home stay was an ER nurse and she brought the ER nurse over and we went to the closest emergency room. The doctor there gave me medicine to cure the swelling, which didn’t help. It got worse. I woke up the next day and I am not joking, my face was out to here! I didn’t recognize me. My regular weight is 128 but at that point I weighed 145. I was about 20 pounds more than usual. I swelled up by 20 pounds due to over consumption of sodium. My friends went white water rafting while I stayed in bed looking like a bloated Marshmellow Man.
ST: Sounds scary.
Meredith: It was scary. Of course this didn’t make my mother and mother in law happy that I was planning to race as soon as possible. The good news though is that I improved and saw daylight in Montana. When we got back to San Francisco, it was like I had deflated. I was so skinny I thought ‘Wow! The body is so weird.’ And then I decided to do Portland. I was told later. Did you understand? You could have gone into a coma and died.’
ST: What did your doctors at home say about the danger and how it might affect you in the next race?
Meredith: I saw three doctors. They all said ‘Meredith, you cannot have that type of sodium. Whatever you were taking it is like deathly to you, to your body type. Other people can drink sodium citrate before and they are fine. But you can’t.’
ST: So how did you gather yourself to race in Portland two weeks after your second salt-related disaster?
Meredith: I was in bed until Thursday the week after Coeur d’Alene. I told my family ‘You guys have got to understand. I felt like a million bucks before Coeur d’Alene. I was so fit. I tried something new on race week. Now we know not to do that. I should not preload to try to get sodium in me. I should have recognized the symptoms. Before that race, I was swelling. My wetsuit felt tight. And I no longer had those symptoms.
ST: So looking forward, what was the doctors’ damage assessment and prognosis if you raced?
Meredith: I talked to my doctor at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. He looked at my labs after St. George and he said, ‘Don’t worry. You can still have kids. Your kidneys haven’t failed. You just can’t have sodium.’ Not even one-eighth of what I took.
ST: What was your goal in doing Portland after all this trauma?
Meredith: I went in there smiling. I had 2 DNFs – my first two DNFs after 40 Ironman races since I started as an amateur in 2000. I thought it will take a lot more than this to break me. For any caliber athlete, DNFs are tough. So I really wanted to go to Portland and do the best I could. And I was delighted with the result.
ST: What did you do to prepare for Portland?
Meredith: I really wasn't out of training that long. At Ironman Coeur d’Alene that Sunday I did a 2.4 mile swim and 70 miles on the bike. Then I did nothing Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Thursday I ran 8 miles. Friday I did nothing and I slept. Then Saturday I remember I came to Tyler Stewart's indoor cycling class at Velo SF. Then I was back at it Sunday and I hit it again Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. On Thursday and Friday, I traveled to Portland.
ST: To what degree you were worried that you might not come back?
Meredith: It is funny. I finally watched the Rev 3 recap show. If you watch that and see my interview at the end, I am fighting tears -- in a good way. I wanted to prove to no one but myself that I could still do this.. That my body could do this. That I still have it. It just goes to show that the body is resilient. I just kept telling myself these were are two flukes that happened. Two extreme incidents. And that I learned that I
have to dial the sodium back.
ST: How was the field at Portland?
Meredith: It was a real strong field including Kate Major, Bree Wee, Malaika Homo and Amanda Lovato. Any race in which Kate Major or Bree Wee are there, you will have top swim, bike and runs. They are consistent athletes. They are good at all three modalities. They are not simply cyclists, or runners. They are good at all three.
ST: How did the race go?
Meredith: I’ve never led a race from start to finish. It was really surreal. I led by a minute after the swim. (26 minutes). And then I built maybe 4 or 5 minutes on the bike (2:20). And then I did 1:23 on the run and I won by about 7 minutes.
ST: What were your first sports?
Meredith: My little sister Kelsey and I grew up playing sports. It was our entire childhood and we loved it. We played on travel soccer teams and were on club swimming teams from a very early age. In high school, I was a 4-sport athlete playing field hockey, swimming, track & lacrosse. I enjoyed high school so much and feel so lucky to still have my 7 best friends from high school in my life!
ST: Tell us about your parents?
Meredith: My parents are Keith and Debbie Keeran, who continue to live in Columbus, Ohio. My dado is an engineer and my mom was a teacher for 20 years and now is Director of Admissions at The Columbus Academy. My mom was a cheerleader and my dado is a golfer! They loveddddd watching us play sports and are supportive with all of our athletic endeavors.
ST: Tell us about your very handsome and supportive husband?
Meredith: I married my high school sweetheart, Aaron, and we just celebrated our third wedding anniversary! My mom was his first grade teacher...cute! Our parents are great friends as well. So cool!
ST: What sports did you do in college?
Meredith: In 2000, I played field hockey at Syracuse University on scholarship. Since I knew I would have the rest of my life to play individual sports like running and triathlon, I wanted to play a team sport..
ST: Syracuse has a lot of famous sports-related alumni?
Meredith: Yes! Sports announcer Bob Costas. Basketball coach Jim Boeheim. Football and lacrosse star Jim Brown. Quarterback Donovan McNabb was in my class, and he played for the Philadelphia Eagles.
ST: How did you get started in triathlon?
Meredith: Two weeks after I graduated I bought a bike and entered an Ironman. I did that bike in 8 hours! CHUCKLES But my swim and run were very similar, and pretty good. It was 21 year old legs on the run. And I was a high school swimmer, so my Ironman swim has always been 49 to 52 on a good day. I’ve done 4 Ironmans a year since then. My best time as amateur was maybe 9:50.
ST: That is a full menu of Ironman races as an amateur. But your performance as a new pro seems to have eclipsed all that. What were you doing in that decade after college where you were an amateur triathlete?
Meredith: My degree was in nutrition and hospitality management. I worked for the Ritz Carlton for four years where I managed a team of young women. I enjoyed that company very much. Then I worked for an investment bank - Royal Bank of Canada – and I only left that job in April.
ST: So what changed and got you to a professional level in triathlon?
Meredith: I was tired of waking up every day and wondering: What am I gonna do every day? A 6k swim? 10,0000 meter run? Whatever it is. Then I found Velo SF. I thought this is what I need. I don’t want to ride my bike 7 hours every day. My family doesn’t do that. My husband doesn’t do that. My friends don’t do that. I wanted quality over quantity in my training. Family, friends and life come first. I love Ironman -- but I didn’t want Ironman to define me. I live near the San Francisco Giants ballpark and Matt Dixon offered cycling sessions nearby at Velo SF, as well as triathlon coaching with his Purplepatch Fitness. So four years ago I went to Velo SF and started with Matt and I have trained with Matt ever since.
ST: What about Matt Dixon and Purplepatch Fitness worked for you\?
Meredith: It was just a good connection from the get go. He asked me ‘What do you want to do with this Ironman sport?’ I said, ‘Well I’d love to win an Ironman some day. That would be great.’ It was funny. I was 28 at the time and he still had faith in me. So now that I just turned 33, my career is just entering my prime. I think women hit their peak in endurance sports in their 30s and for me there is plenty of time. So it is really good. He has faith in me and it’s a great fit.
ST: What works so well for you with Matt’s training?
Meredith: He knows I only train about 17 hours a week. I like a controlled environment. I don’t like farting around. I like to get in and know I will get in some good hard work in a defined period of time. I just like to really be in a controlled environment where I am doing defined numbers. I just really like his methods and I coach under his umbrella which is really rewarding. I like his philosophy of quality versus quantity. It does not mean you never go out and ride 100 miles. Because you do.
ST: Doe it involve careful; tapering and peaking?
Meredith: It’s about doing certain effort. That can be even 2 days before a race. Opening up the engine and finding speed in your legs. We do a lot of that. People always ask are you tapering with 3 weeks to go? But two days before a race we are riding 90 minutes and with efforts in there. It keeps our bodies energized and alive and vibrant.
ST: You say you like a controlled environment – including some crucial indoor cycling sessions. Does that mean you stick to a plan come what may? Or is there some observation and adaptation involved?
Meredith: Matt also really listens to his athletes. So I don’t get a plan that is written in stone six weeks out. I get a plan, then we adjust according to however I am feeling.
ST: It seems that Matt is reasonable but fiery? Are there ever any small clashes of spirited athlete and coach?
Meredith: Honestly I have to tell you I don’t think I have one clash with Matt. I am sure he has them from time to time with some athletes. Well, when we began to work together, I think I know a moment like that. The first thing he says to me is ‘You have to have the courage to follow the plan.’ At times it is hard to have the courage to follow the plan. So, that means not tagging on an extra 2k swim or tagging on an extra 30 minute jog. In our first days if I came in tired to class, he would ask me ‘Did you follow the plan?’ I admitted I might have tagged on an extra little thing. So if I had to have one clash that would be it. Also, when I was working,, when I thought I might not get a chance to work in the planned swim workout on a Monday, I thought ‘Oh I’ll work it into Tuesday’s workouts.’ I learned quickly that that would be wrong. Now I find the courage to follow the plan. And now I drill that into the athletes I coach. Because all these people are Type A personalities and they have to learn ‘If you miss it yesterday, don't add it tomorrow.’ The people who work with Matt all learn this . We have this saying ‘Daddy knows.’
ST: Do you work out with some of Matt Dixon’s other Purplepatch athletes?
Meredith: Linsey Corbin is in Missoula and I am in San Francisco. But when she is in town we of course train together. And Matt Lieto. And Rachel Joyce when she comes in from England. We obviously train together. She is a lovely person. And James Cotter, Rob Johnson and Jesse Thomas.
ST: Was Jesse’s win at Wildflower a surprise to Matt or his athletes?
Meredith: No. Matt knew he has it in him. And Jesse just got 4th at Rev3 Portland. He can outrun anybody and he is so young.
ST: How close have you come to a 100 percent purple patch moment?
Meredith: Definitely at Rev3. I smiled from the start to finish. And I was just thinking the whole time ‘This is what purple patch feels like.’ Especially after two DNFs it was so nice to feel it again because I felt it when I won Canada and when I finished second at St. George and Coeur d’Alene last year. I hadn’t felt it this year at all, so that finish at Rev3 was really rewarding.
ST: What was the silliest misinterpretation of the term purple patch you’ve heard?
Meredith: People look at us sometimes as a cult. ‘What the hell does purple patch mean? Does it mean you are purple and live in a patch? ‘ I tell them, ‘No, it is an area of excellence that is achieved through sustained hard and disciplined work. It is noun is what it is.