From the time she was born 33 years ago, Rachel Joyce had a motor – better say a life force – that would not quit. Born during her family’s stay in Mexico City and growing up in the small town of Woodbridge in East Anglia, her mother Jane drove Rachel her to gymnastics, ballet, tap dance, ice skating, and swimming – anything, so it seemed, to harness that energy and get her tired enough to sleep. In high school, she joined the Ipswich Swimming Club. Coached and inspired by champion swimmer Karen Pickering, Rachel competed nationally before burning out on the sport at 17.
At the University of Birmingham, she joined the swim team -- which had a more casual approach to competition and a seriously fun-loving social aspect. Which coincidentally attracted fellow Birmingham student Chrissie Wellington, and the two future champions forged a casual friendship before either of them became serious triathletes.
While pursuing an undergraduate degree in politics, Rachel applied to the College of Law at Guildford and after graduating she went to work for the London firm of Taylor Wessing LLP.
For five years after graduation, she worked long hours as a solicitor. For her health and sanity, she squeezed in time to swim while arriving at work at 8 in the morning and leaving after midnight.
Eventually, she branched out from swimming (including a stint as a pacer for a friend’s 2004 English Channel crossing) to try the London marathon, where she posted an impressive time. Then she did some cycle touring, including a ride around New Zealand.
By 2005, triathlon beckoned (long after a brief try during her university days). Joyce won her first crack at the half Iron distance, then won her age group and was 10th overall at the inaugural Ironman 70.3 UK. The next year, she finished 12th overall and won her age group at the 2006 Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Florida. And thereupon she was sidelined for most of 2007 due to some swimmer-to-triathlete overuse injuries. By the end of 2008, she had recovered well enough to place 6th at Ironman 70.3 UK and 5th at Ironman Florida.
She started 2009 like a house afire with a 3rd at Ironman South Africa. Then a 2nd at Ironman Lanzarote qualified her for Kona, where she broke into the spotlight with a 6th place finish.
High hopes for 2010 seemed dashed when she sliced a foot on her chain ring in a transition accident at Abu Dhabi and she spent the better part of two months in a cast. By the end of the year, new coach Matt Dixon guided her back to health and fitness and a 5th place finish at Kona.
Anticipating an even better performance at Ironman Arizona, her year ended as it started -- with a DNF -- when an age grouper crashed into her at an aid station.
This year proved to be her coming out party as a legitimate, first-rank Ironman threat. She was runner-up at South Africa, won at Lanzarote, and took a near-podium 4th at Kona followed by a resounding win this month at the ITU Long Distance World Championship in Henderson, Nevada.
Slowtwitch spoke to Joyce in Boulder, Colorado as she flew in for a bike fit at Retul headquarters on 30th Street before returning home to London.
Slowtwitch: With the swim canceled and the competitors starting with a time trial bike 5 seconds apart, how did your race at ITU long distance worlds develop?
Rachel Joyce: I was the last girl to go off. Which is the opposite of how my Ironman races usually start. Normally I would expect to be at the front after the swim. I think I was probably two and a half minutes behind the first women to go off.
ST: You had just come off losing a race-long duel with fellow Brit Leanda Cave for the final spot on the podium in Hawaii. And at Henderson you started right behind her. Any tense feelings?
Rachel: No. Before the race I was with Leanda all week. We were having such great time. We were both pretty relaxed and just kidding around. But when the race started, I was 5 seconds behind her from the go. I thought, ‘This is going to be like Kona all over again.’
ST: Buckle up for another battle?
Rachel: From the start of the bike, both of us had a go at losing the other. But even if the elastic between us stretched, it never actually snapped. She’d run really well at Kona [3:06 to Joyce’s 3:09] and I didn’t want to be coming off the bike with her. That would make for a tough run.
ST: For some people the swim is a relaxing warm up to the bike and run. But this was water 55 degrees -- and colder air -- 36 degrees! Would you have preferred they allowed the pros to swim?
Rachel: I have a little bit of a history of swimming in cold water. I was a buddy swimmer for a friend of mine, Katherine Mearman, who swam the English Channel in 2004. That is the hardest thing I’ve ever witnessed. It makes Ironman look easy. I was in the boat and [rules stipulated that] I couldn’t get in with her until six hours had passed. By the time, I was allowed to get into the water, it was a bit of a relief. I would get in for an hour then I would have to get out for an hour. I probably swam about 4 hours total. It was 17 degrees Celsius – wetsuits forbidden. [62.6 degrees Fahrenheit] Later I did the cold water swim championships in Tooting Bec Lido near London. We only swam 25 meters and the water temperature was 3 degrees Celsius. After that, my cold water swimming days were over.
ST: You rode a long way with Leanda in Henderson?
Rachel: Yeah we were kind of to-ing and fro-ing. We were pretty evenly matched and neither of us were having any luck breaking away. CHUCKLES.
ST: How much of the race in Kona were you close with Leanda?
Rachel: In Kona, we came off the swim together and we rode most of it together. At one point, after we got back on the Queen K [about Mile 70], I stretched to a lead. Then about 20 miles later, she came past again and we rode the rest of the bike together.
ST: So it came down to the run?
Rachel: Leanda got a gap on me almost immediately. I think I managed to narrow that to about 45 seconds at one point. But she beat me by 3 minutes at the end.
ST: What were your toughest moments in Kona?
Rachel: I felt very comfortable in the swim and I was good and strong on the bike. But as soon as I started the run on Alii Drive, I felt terrible. While I didn’t have an injury going into Kona, my hamstrings felt very tight when I started the run and I walked up the hill at Palani. After that, my legs started to come good -- but then I started to have stomach trouble.
ST: You still managed to run 3:09.
Rachel: When I was running, I was running well. But I had quite a few gastrointestinal stops. Mentally I thought if I can switch focus away from the pain, I can keep going. I don’t think I said a word the entire marathon. Near the end, I passed Caroline Steffen for 4th. But ultimately I was disappointed with my run.
ST: You didn’t run to your capability?
Rachel: Yes. But that is what racing’s about. Everyone has things they are dealing with on race day. It’s about who deals with them best. There were a lot of girls out there who were dealing with troubles.
ST: How did your race in Henderson play out?
Rachel: Conditions were good for a strong bike and that made us all push it really, really hard. Leanda and I first caught a New Zealander [Janine Sax] and Erika Csomor. Then Leanda went in front and, as we moved into traffic, she got away a bit. When we came to the second out-and-back section [at miles 30 to 52], I moved back in front. We probably mixed it up a bit for a while.
ST: When did you make your move on her?
Rachel: I planned to really put my foot down on that last section on the bike [from Mile 55 to 75]. I figured that the back end of the ride had been tough. We had finished climbs they called the Three Sisters. They were short but were 15 percent grades. After that, there was a long false flat uphill on the way back. My hope was that people would be tired by that point and I would be able to pull back some time. So I really put a lot of effort into that last 10-15 miles -- and that is where I dropped Leanda.
ST: Did she fight back?
Rachel: I saw Leanda’s shadow coming up and I thought she was going to overtake me again. I remember thinking, “There is just no getting rid of her!” CHUCKLES But then I went for it and didn’t see her again.
ST: There were more women ahead at the end of the bike.
Rachel: After that, I caught Malaika Homo, who was riding really strong. It took a big effort to catch her. Then I caught Meredith Kessler, my teammate with Purple Patch Fitness and coach Matt Dixon. It was nice to see her. She’s a wonderful person and a great athlete.
ST: Did you share a word or two with Meredith – unlike your pain-filled silence in Kona?
Rachel: It was a technical part of the course and she was right behind me. I didn't want to hold her up, so I said, “Sorry, I am taking corners like a granny.” Then we rode the last 5 or 10 miles into transition together.
ST: Did you still think you could win? Caroline Steffen, the defending champion, was well ahead and you were two minutes behind Nikki Butterfield.
Rachel: I was having one of those great days. When I got into the run, I felt really good and fresh and I was running pretty quickly. When I came out of the transition area, Joe Gambles [who eventually finished second to Jordan Rapp] was starting his second loop and we ran the first 3 miles together. I think he was not too happy about that and finally he went ahead.
ST: How hard did you push starting the run?
Rachel: I was running 6 minute miles, which was fast for me. I think I went through the first 10k in 36 or 37 minutes. At that point I was thinking I had 20k to go and it would be tough. I made it through 13 miles at 1:22 or 1:23.
ST: Jordan Rapp said that people hurt their quads on the ride and when you hit the downhills on the run, a lot of people were tired and vulnerable.
Rachel: Definitely, that was my tactic. I felt good climbing the hills. On the long downhill I was keeping relaxed and opening my hips and letting my legs go. Right there, just as I went to pass Nikki Butterfield, I started cramping. I thought if I keep things relaxed I could see my way through this.
ST: You had to be mentally tough at that point. What kept you going?
Rachel: I was getting lot of encouragement from British age groupers. I have to offer a big thank you to them. They were just awesome.
ST: What happens when you hear such cheering?
Rachel: I think it lifts you mentally, and you also get an adrenaline buzz. Mentally I never had any low points. I felt I’d recovered from Kona, it was all was going well and I could see I was running faster than Nikki. When I finally got to Caroline [Steffen] near the end of the second loop [of four on the run], I went right by.
ST: You passed her at Kona with a few meters to go. Déjà vu in Henderson?
Rachel: Caroline had another good day through the bike. But she didn’t have a good day on the run. And it was my kind of run.
ST: What does it mean to you to be a world champion -- and the 5th British woman in 6 years to win this championship?
Rachel: It is my biggest win. It is obviously not Hawaii, but I am very pleased to be able to put together a good race against a quality field when it mattered. I also liked the distance. I was glad I didn’t have another 10k to run.
ST: How did you get the confidence to win a world title?
Rachel: When I first started working with Matt Dixon, it took me a long time to get confident. I never really felt I belonged.
ST: Any moments of doubt with Matt?
Rachel: Not about working with Matt. It was all about what I could achieve. He told me I could be a champion. But I wasn’t sure I could believe what he was telling me. The first year  when I came 6th in Kona, I didn’t let myself believe I belonged. Even last year when I finished 5th, I didn’t feel that I belonged with the top women. Only this year did I consider myself at home among the best.
ST: Which comes first, confidence or physical improvement?
Rachel: Obviously mentally and physically it is all very connected. I would not be able to achieve the best results unless I believed I could do it. Up to this point, in my mind, I put limitations to what I could do.
ST: What was your mindset coming into ITU Long Distance worlds?
Rachel: I believed I could win it. And it showed when I was starting the run from behind. It didn’t faze me. I knew I could run well enough to win. I didn’t see this as an obstacle. I was raring to go and looking forward to the challenge of catching them. I was having fun. It was bit of a revelation -- I hadn’t felt that way in a race before. And of course it helps when your legs are feeling good!
THE PATH TO HER CALLING
ST: How did you transform from a lawyer to a triathlete?
Rachel: When I moved to London in 2002, I joined a swimming club. It was a good way to make friends. I had always loved sports even when I gave up swimming. And while swimming at University was more social, I was swimming faster than I had in high school [Her PRs are 2:10 in the 200 free and 27 seconds in the 50 free].
ST: When did you tackle other sports that made up triathlon?
Rache:l I ran the London Marathon for charity when I was at the college of law. I was thinking I was going to run 3:30 -- and I ran 3:02.
ST: How did you do that?
Rachel: I have no idea. I had never done a running race, but I did train hard for it. I never timed my miles. I just went out Sunday mornings for my long runs and I thought if I can run for three hours, I can run three and a half. I must have been running more quickly than I thought because I negative split the marathon. My friends in my running club said “You could be quite good.” Next thing, I bought a bike and did some cycle touring and rode round New Zealand.
About this time I set my sights on doing my first half Ironman at Stoke-on-Trent. A friend of mine was injured so I took her place -- and I won it.
ST: Where did they send the check?
Rachel: I think I got a pullover or a jumper. I entered another half at the end of the year. The first one had been so easy I thought ‘Oh this will be a cinch.’ But the 2005 UK 70.3 was a much tougher course.
ST: It’s brutal now.
Rachel: It was at Longleaf, before they moved it to Wales, but it was still a hard course. I completely bonked on the bike and I told myself I could stop once I was on the run. But on the run I actually moved into first place [in her age group. Her 5:31 placed her 1st in 25-29, 3rd amateur and 10th overall]. That’s where I qualified for the 70.3 World Championship in 2006.
ST: What did you do to prepare?
Rachel: I had to get better at biking so I joined the Serpentine Triathlon Club. I was really annoying. I always put myself in the fast group CHUCKLES. I thought if want to be better I have to ride with better people. I would get back from these Sunday rides feeling dead, but it worked. I wanted to keep moving forward, so I got my first coach. Richard Jones. He organized my training and it made a massive difference at Clearwater. [Joyce finished 12th overall, 4th age grouper and 1st in 25-29 in 4:25:01 – 12 minutes back of the winner, Samantha McGlone]. I was excited to keep improving, but then I had a setback.
ST: What happened?
Rachel: After Clearwater, I lost most of 2007 and 2008 to injury. My swimming background gave me a really big engine and I wanted to run all the time but I took on too much volume too soon. I had a herniated disc in my back and sciatica, which took a long time to recover. Plus I was working long hours and I wasn’t focusing on nutrition or recovery. Your body breaks down.
ST: How did you do when you came back?
Rachel: In November 2008. I finished 5th at Ironman Florida in 9:37. I went back to work after that, but I was thinking, ‘I can do better.’ I did Ironman South Africa early in 2009 in practically the same time -- but I came 3rd,
ST: Got a few checks, too?
Rachel: It was enough to get me to the next race. Then I was second to Bella Bayliss at Lanzarote and qualified for Hawaii. I was coaching myself, but I decided I needed a cycling coach and started to work with Helen Carter. I got a power meter and I really worked on my cycling over the summer.
ST: What did you expect at Kona?
Rachel: I secretly wanted to come in the top 10. But when I came off the bike in 4th position, I couldn't believe it. I didn’t run well, but still I got 6th.
ST: When did you start working with Matt Dixon? And what did he do for you?
Rachel: We started right after Hawaii 2009. But before he had much chance to work with me, I sliced open my foot at Abu Dhabi in March. I was running through transition with my bike and my bike skidded out and my foot got caught in the chain ring. It was horrible. I had six weeks in a cast and it effectively meant that my 2010 season, where I wanted to build on my top 10 at Kona, was down the drain before it started.
ST: What did Matt prescribe?
Rachel: He made me focus on recovery and consistent training and he got me through a very difficult year.
ST: But you did race Kona and finished 5th.
Rachel: I recovered and kind of saved the year with a good performance. I went to Ironman Arizona a month later hoping to do better. But I was knocked off my bike by an age group athlete at an aid station. Adrenaline kept me going a while, but eventually it hurt too much and I had to quit.
REFLECTING ON HER TITLE
ST: In the past six years, five British women -- Bella Bayliss, Chrissie Wellington, Leanda Cave, Jodie Swallow and you -- have won the ITU Long Distance World Championship. Why do so many women from Great Britain do so well in long distance triathlon?
Rachel: When the best in the world are from your own country, you can see what you have to do to compete at the highest level. It drives you when you see it’s no longer good enough to run a 3:10 marathon at Kona. You have to run slightly under 3 hours. It focuses your mind in training. If I want to be the best, I know this is what I have to do.
ST: Do you get more attention from sponsors and magazines now?
Rachel: It is coming. You know, even though I had a great Kona, I am still only the third woman from our country. You have to fight pretty hard to get noticed in the United Kingdom.
ST: Do you ever imagine beating Chrissie Wellington straight up?
Rachel: I think it is necessary to imagine. Yeah, I dream about it. But it isn’t going to happen quickly. I am not sure I am there yet. But I haven’t given up hope. I am consistently getting better and better. I just need to keep that consistency.
ST: What do you think her performances have meant to women in sport?
Rachel: You don’t get people like Chrissie very often. I think she is inspirational -- like Paula Radcliffe and Kelly Holmes [a British runner who won gold in the 800 and 1500 meters at the Athens Olympics]. She has raised the profile of women in all sports. I think Chrissie's achievements encourage all of us to stretch our limits.