Leanda Cave won the 2002 ITU Olympic distance World Championship and the 2007 ITU long distance World Championship but her road to Ironman mastery has taken a while. From her 8th and 10th place finishes at Ironman Hawaii in 2007 and 2010, her 2nd and 3rd place finishes at Ironman Arizona in 2008 and 2010, and her 4th, 3rd, and 2nd place progression at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in 2006, 2007 and 2010, she admits with all due humility to learning many lessons about long course racing.
In the past year, those lessons seem to have born fruit as she placed 3rd at the Ironman World Championship, won Ironman Arizona in 8:49:00 while breaking 3 hours on the run, and won the Ironman 70.3 World Champion in Las Vegas last month after suffering through early season setbacks due to a virus and a tweaked back. Buoyed by these results and the positive mental approach of her coach, Siri Lindley, Cave now has the confidence of a co-favorite coming into the Ironman World Championship.
Cave was interviewed by telephone from her training base in Kona.
Slowtwitch: You finished off 2011 with many races in a short time and some of your best performances – your 3rd place at Kona and your 8:49 win with a sub-3 hour marathon at Ironman Arizona. This year started OK with a 4th at Ironman 70.3 Panama – and then you were hit with a series of troubles.
Leanda Cave: You may not realize it at the time, but I think these things happen for a reason. I came into this season in great shape and felt like a million bucks but things happened to put the brakes on me.
ST: When did you decide not to start Abu Dhabi and why?
Leanda: When I finished Panama 70.3 and traveled back, I recovered a little slowly. I am usually able to train the day after a race but this time it took 2 or 3 weeks. When I got to Abu Dhabi [in March], I could barely run 20 minutes the day before the race. Afterwards I spent 3 or 4 weeks recovering and could not do a thing.
ST: What was wrong at Abu Dhabi?
Leanda: I am pretty convinced that I had a virus. Quite a few people contacted me after the race and asked ‘What did you have?’ I have the same symptoms.’ Paul Amey had it too. I was tested for various things but doctors could not pin it down. I was given a few standardized tests, but they concluded it was not too serious.
ST: What next?
Leanda: I tried to bounce back at Wildflower and that went OK. I got 4th. Another four weeks after that I did Alcatraz and won it [for the 4th time]. Then I decided to take some time off and went to hike in Yosemite to get my head straight. I don’t regret it, but I should have been a little smarter about getting my body recovered after racing again.
ST: When did the back problems hit?
Leanda: Ten days after Alcatraz, I was preparing for Galveston 70.3 and it was my last hard brick before I was to fly out to the race. I felt a sharp pain in my back muscle when I got off the bike. So I saw a really good chiropractor who had just moved back to Tucson who worked very, very hard to get me in shape and he helped me a lot.
ST: Were you surprised to win with such a good time at Ironman Arizona last November ?
Leanda: It was unexpected and came after a bunch of races at the end of last season. My goal was just to run a 3 hour marathon and I didn't have any specific idea about my overall time. I had no idea the overall time would go so quick.
ST: How did you recover so well?
Leanda: Yeah my body is amazing. It surprises me how it can recover and give me all when I ask it to. If I treat it with respect as I should it and do everything I possibly can to get in very best shape, it gives me what I want. In Arizona, as far as I was concerned, I had already started off the 2012 season and did it just to qualify for Kona. I went to Arizona like I went to Vegas this year with no expectations going in and had two of my best races ever. When there is no pressure and when you go into a race under the radar – it‘s a blessing.
ST: Did your Ironman Arizona win in 8:49:00 coming after your 3rd place at Kona give you the confidence to think you can win on the biggest day – at Kona?
Leanda: I think last year Kona was grit your teeth and go. Then to back it up and do well at Arizona was big. After that, I think people had to say that Leanda is an Ironman now. I also think I had a pretty good accumulation of long races and that allowed me to come third at Hawaii and back it up. Those two races gave me a lot of confidence.
ST: What is the key to unlocking your confidence in this quest to evolve from an Olympic distance World Champion to an Ironman World Championship contender?
Leanda: Mark Allen said to me a few years ago at the Kona after party ‘All you need is confidence.’ It’s one thing to know you’ve done the training and another to have done all the training and have done really well. So those two races at the end of last year allowed me to actually believe I can do it at every Ironman I race.
ST: How long did it take you to get to this place?
Leanda: I remember after racing my second Ironman I asked Belinda Granger ‘Does this ever get any easier?’ She said ‘No.’ I thought, ‘No? Oh great! She has done 33 Ironmans! This is the worst feeling in my life to know it won’t get any easier.’ So I was left with the thought that all I can do is to just learn to race the distance. That you have to learn a lot about yourself and your body.
ST: How tough has it been to switch from Olympic distance to Ironman?
Leanda: My learning curve has been quite steep and long. I had to consider things I had never done and learn by trial and error. I am a trial and error girl and I think I learn a lot from all my errors.
ST: When you start to do the distance it was rough. But can you now say you enjoy it?
Leanda: The distance was painful, long and foreboding. It takes a significant amount of time to learn the Ironman. There is so much that must be done mentally and physically. The body takes a while to get over that, to adapt to it, and to enable you to bear the pain.
ST: How does the pain in an Ironman compare to the OIympic distance?
Leanda: After the Olympic distance, I had to learn the Ironman pain threshold. I had to learn to put myself in it and accept it. Where I am now with the Ironman is that I know what I can tolerate and I can do it again and again. Up to Arizona I kind of didn't know where I was. But now I feel like I know what I have to face to achieve my goals. And I feel I am mentally ready.
ST: Do you still fear the Ironman distance?
Leanda: I would not say fear any more. That is just the result of being in the sport so long. Now I'm acclimated to it. And I have now learned to control that fear. It is just another day at the office for me. I feel we all go through so many ups and downs in any race. And the longer you go, the longer the race, the deeper the lows and higher highs.
ST: How do you go about accepting the pain over nine hours?
Leanda: My method of accepting is to realize whatever happens, I can’t give more than 100 percent. That’s how it goes every race. There are times you have a conversation with yourself while fighting hard to stay focused and stay within the race. There is something in my head that says ‘Stop! You’re in so much pain!’ Or you go too hard and at some point you say to yourself ‘Stop listening!’ You tell that voice to stop annoying me and you just ignore that voice.
ST: Do you have a decision to make to continue through the pain every race?
Leanda: In the last miles of the race, when the voice is at the door knocking in my head, you tell yourself, ‘Don’t go there.’ The truth is, we all go there – but the best in the sport find some way to ignore those negative thoughts and to not put them into play. You can’t help it, they will inevitably visit you because your brain is designed to keep you alive – the fight or flight response is built into all of us. But how well you go depends on how you respond. When you are dialed in you can say to the voice that tempts you to quit to just stop it.
ST: So do you enjoy racing Ironman?
Leanda: I love racing. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. If I didn’t love it, I simply wouldn’t do it. Definitely you put your body through hell every day in training so you can race and win. But there is a happy medium where you put yourself in a place where you can determine how hard to push yourself. On your best days, you can keep it to a certain level and very much control how people respond to you.
ST: So do you key off others or just to yourself?
Leanda: I think you see it in every race how we all respond to those signals. I like to be in the one in control of a race, to control how they all respond to you. But even when you are not the one in control and you respond, it is fun. And that is how you play and have fun in every race.
ST: Do you think your tall, lean physique gives you little margin for error in a race which rewards strength like Kona? Might it be a handicap in Kona which demands so much strength?
Leanda: Muscles cause injury – the more muscles you have, the more mass, the more pounding, and the more impact. I think I have excellent power to weight because the less muscle mass you have, it makes for a very good ratio. It works for me. In terms of getting injuries, I really think my muscles are so small in comparison to other athletes in other sports. Consequently I have less residual fatigue. And that enables me to recover quicker and allows my muscles to remain supple. Powerful athletes look amazingly beautiful. Some of them have muscles bulging out. But I’d say that makes for a lot tougher time getting over a hard workout. I can recover quickly and train every day. If I had exactly the same muscle mass as other athletes, it might take me a few days longer to recover.
ST: What has been the biggest thing that your coach Siri Lindley has done for you?
Leanda: Siri encouraged confidence to come out in me. I feel I'm coachable. That is, I can be coached by a lot of people and maybe have same results. But Siri has a mental approach that has enabled me to become more confident athlete over time. She says a million little things. But there are certain things she says to me that are very unique and stick in my head. Many things she says to other athletes do not do much for me. But she has a great understanding of athletes and how they respond to different clues. I think it is just a mental coach approach which Siri deals in with me and with a lot of athletes over time that gives us the advantage.
ST: Some coaches take the short term approach and work their athletes to the breaking point. What about Siri?
Leanda: I feel that a lot of athletes’ bodies break over the long run. I don’t want to give up the sport too soon. Siri allows me to keep the sport fun and exciting with the mental side. It keeps the body fresh and keeps the sport exciting and keeps it fun. I always feel what I get to do every as a pro triathlete is a blessing and that is why I am able to keep doing it for a living. I keep my enthusiasm up and up again over the years. It’s never just another day at the office.
ST: When will you know your triathlon days are over?
Eventually, that day will come when I am pretty much done mentally and physically. But Siri’s mental approach and attitude really helps me stay with the sport. Now I do not feel I am enjoying it any less.
ST: How did you have such a good day at Las Vegas after a disappointing 15th at Hy-Vee?
Leanda: I raced the weekend before Las Vegas in Hy-Vee and my asthma affected me there. I had not been staying on my medication on a regular basis and my training in Boulder had been going brilliantly and so I went into Hy-Vee pretty confident. I was psyched about racing. But when I was warming up before the race at Hy-Vee, I did not feel great. I came from Boulder from dry to humid heat – a very typical scenario to trigger asthma.
ST: Were you surprised?
Leanda: Yes. At Hy-Vee I just felt off pace – it felt like I was not going anywhere. I came to the conclusion that, that it was the asthma and I was way off of what I am capable of doing. So I went in to Las Vegas not confident at all and a bit worried I would have the asthma again and would have the same reaction.
ST: What did you do about that?
Leanda: The week before I was very careful with my asthma. My attitude was that I was going to do the race and I felt excited about giving it all I had.
ST: So how did it go?
Leanda: Obviously I had a really good day. In the swim, I stayed on Kelly Williamson’s feet and it went very well. [Cave was 2nd out of the water, 41 seconds after Jodie Swallow and 2 seconds ahead of Williamson] At Hy-Vee, I came out of the water feeling really frustrated. But in Las Vegas I got on the bike and didn’t think I was doing anything amazing. I just must have been feeling good. It was cold when we started but I got warm midway through but I wasn’t gaining very quickly. It seemed it took me ages to catch Jodie Swallow. When she was in range, I put in a really strong 2k effort to catch her. Then when I did catch her I went behind her again and thought ‘God, this is so slow.’ So I took the lead and started a climb and realized I am riding very well! I didn't know how for ahead I was until I reached the turnaround and found I was way up the road. Before the race it never occurred to me that I might take the bike prime. But when I saw Heather Jackson, I thought ‘Wow! Maybe I’ll get to bike prime.’
ST: So your fitness had improved measurably in the month since Boulder 70.3 where you came off the bike in the lead but faded to 3rd?
Leanda: In terms of fitness, I was still trying to get fit then. Yeah, I’d say I definitely gained fitness from Boulder to Vegas.
ST: Were you worried all those good runners would be coming after you on the run?
Leanda: I was waiting for all of them. That was a pretty tough thing to anticipate. In my mind I was seeing how long I could stay out front.
ST: Were you paying attention to the rest of the field?
Leanda: Yes, I was completely aware of the field. I have raced every 70.3 World Championship and I felt that this was definitely the strongest field.
ST: Did the switch from Clearwater flat to the tough hills of Las Vegas favor you?
Leanda: With all the climbing in Vegas, there is no way anyone can get the advantage of a draft or anything like it because there are so many ups and downs and winds. It’s really a fair course.
ST: Is Las Vegas your favorite course?
Leanda: I don't know if I would say my favorite course. But anyone who is strong on the bike and run can win it. It is one of my favorites. I had a pretty average race there last year [6th].
ST: Were you particularly focused on Las Vegas and trying to win your third World Championship after ITU Olympic distance Worlds in 2002 and the ITU Long Distance World Championship in 2007?
Leanda: It wasn't foremost in my head like my race focus on Kona. It was not like I was going in to trying to win the World Championship. I was trying to race the best I could.
ST: Does your 3rd place at Kona last year and this win at Las Vegas give you a feeling you now have the ability to win at Kona?
Leanda: I feel I am definitely in the strongest position I’ve been to win at Kona. It has taken a while to get to the place where I am now. I am mentally stronger than I have ever been. Yeah, this is the first time I feel that competitors and experts have taken me seriously as a threat to win the race.
ST: Will this newfound confidence change how you will race Kona?
Leanda: I feel people look at me as a serious threat, but again that did not change anything. It will not change how I will race.
ST: Did Chrissie Wellington’s recent dominance take away the belief and the hope that you and many others might win Kona?
Leanda: In the past, yeah, most of us thought Chrissie will win. But this year it will be a little more open. I feel it will be an exciting race, because there isn’t one dominant force. And of the strong favorites, a few of us have not raced each other much this year. So I think there will be some surprises and I think there is a little mystery behind the women’s race.
ST: How has your coach Siri Lindley made the most difference?
Leanda: Everyone who has been around her squad knows she says “Believe!” a lot. That is one of the things that clicks with me -- and with many of her athletes. And, for me, when she says ‘Believe,’ at the same time that translates to “Stop doubting yourself.” The mindset now is ‘Why do you think you will come in anything less than third?’ A lot of athletes look to the start list and count back to the place where they think they will finish. That’s one thing I don’t do. Siri has instilled in me the belief that I am one of strongest to race in Kona.
ST: What did you think before this year?
Leanda: I never doubted that I can win there. But various things held me back. I feel that I finally figured out what things in my mind were holding me back. As I said earlier, I learned from the mistakes I made and those lessons sharpened my perception of what I need to do, how hard I need to go and how much pain I need to go through. The process has been more of an awakening, and not so much belief. I’ve always believed in myself. But I see much more clearly now what Ironman is and what it requires. I am starting to see the fine details.