Emma-Kate Lidbury had a breakthrough year in 2011 with three Ironman 70.3 wins but ran into tough times in 2012 in which she suffered two bike crash injuries which took several months of recuperation. This year, she started with a 4th place at Escape From Alcatraz, then suffered a dislocated shoulder which forced her to withdraw from Oceanside. And at that point, despite big gains she had made training with Matt Dixon and some members of his purplepatch squad in Southern California, she had reason to wonder if her 2012 bad luck streak was back.
Happily, Lidbury followed with impressive Ironman 70.3 wins at Texas and Kansas and a 2nd at Raleigh. These performances .gave her renewed confidence that she might finally crack the podium at her season’s goal race - the Ironman 70.3 World Championship - after two disappointing outings at the challenging Las Vegas course.
Slowtwitch: Twenty months ago, you were coming off a breakthrough 2011 season in which you won Mallorca 70.3, UK 70.3, and Augusta 70.3 but had a disappointing IM 70.3 Worlds in Las Vegas in which you finished 8th after a 4-minute drafting penalty. This year you just beat a tough field at Texas 70.3 and at Kansas 70.3. Based on results (and skipping 2012), there seems to be very little difference. What are we missing?
Emma-Kate Lidbury: 2012 was quite a tough year in which I lost a lot of training time, so picking up now where I left off back in 2011 was easier said than done. I had teamed up with coach Matt Dixon and his purplepatch squad in Christmas 2011 and had a brilliant winter’s training with Rachel Joyce in January/February 2012. Going into my first peak race of 2012 an attempt to defend my title at 70.3 Mallorca – I was in the form of my life. A crash coming into T2 meant the race was less than perfect. Although I went on to win, I needed three stitches in my right knee at the end of the race and that injury would ultimately sideline me until July. On one of my first training rides back in the saddle in July, I got caught in a typically British summer storm. One moment I was descending in the rain, the next I was being taken to hospital by a passing motorist. I’d hit a giant pothole hard and flew over the handlebars. I recovered quickly enough to be able to race at Vegas, but suffered a mechanical there. I couldn’t quite believe it! A frustrating year.
ST: In most of 2011, you were based primarily in Great Britain, had a nice online sponsor, were coached by good friend and talented Ironman Mark Stenning, and had a great boyfriend who served as a “training partner, adviser, mechanic, cook and masseur all rolled into one.” What’s changed?
Emma-Kate: Absolutely everything. My life now bears no resemblance to how it was back then. The past six months have been massive for me. I relocated to the US in January this year and now call Santa Monica home. I have a US visa which allows me to live in the US until 2018. At the end of November last year, my main sponsor informed me that they were letting all of their athletes go from January onwards. It meant I lost roughly 85 per cent of my income in one meeting. The future looked bleak and I was uncertain whether I would continue racing in 2012. Just a few weeks before all of this, my boyfriend and I split after eight years together. We remain great friends - although it means there are vacancies open for mechanic, cook and masseur ;) Fortunately for me, Matt steered me through this storm with terrific guidance. When he told me he thought moving to the US would be the very best thing for me and my racing, I listened. Just before Christmas I booked the flight to LAX, but I was scared about leaving the life I knew behind me. There were many times when I told him I wouldn’t be coming. There were many times when he told me: “Eccles, get the F on that plane!” I boarded the flight on January 13th this year. Since January 14th, my life has been better than ever. Things are really starting to come together. I have recently signed a new title sponsorship with Anthem Media Group which will see me assisting with their new employee wellness program. I also have the continued support of long term sponsors, Morris Owen Chartered Accountants and telecoms firm Virtua, from my home town in the UK. Working closely with sponsors and building long term partnerships is incredibly important to me.
ST: What parts of your game did Matt Dixon address first and what did he have you do about them?
Emma-Kate: Although we agreed it was my run which ultimately needed the most work, we set about working on my swim first. Matt believed that, as a strong biker who was usually just adrift of the front swim pack, if I could make myself a firm front pack swimmer then it would change the entire race dynamic for me. It would allow me to exert more control on the race from the bike. This is still, in many ways, a work in progress, but we are getting there. It was one of the reasons why I moved to Santa Monica so I could work so closely with swim coach Gerry Rodrigues at Tower 26. He and Matt work closely together and Gerry has become like a second Matt for me.
ST: Which 2013 race has boosted your confidence the most and why?
Emma-Kate: Ironman 70.3 Texas. I hoped to be able to take on racers like Kelly Williamson and Caitlin Snow and I did. [At Texas, Lidbury’s sizzling 2:19:14 bike split put 8 to 9 minutes on Snow and Williamson. Lidbury’s 1:24:43 run gave back 6:27 to Williamson and 5 minutes to Snow and left her with a 2:12 winning margin on Williamson and 3:46 ahead on Snow]
ST: What did he do about your run to cut your average 70.3 half marathon run from 1:28, which you were running in 2011, to 1:24, which you are running now?
Emma-Kate: Much of that is confidence. A lot of that is consistency. When I first started working with Matt I was running three times a week. When I initially told him that, I heard a thud over the Skype call. It was him falling off his chair in shock. “Eccles, how can you get faster if you barely run?” he asked. We gradually built up my run frequency so I was running five or more times a week. I have also done a lot of strength work in the past few months here in Santa Monica with a PT called Chris Pogson. Suddenly my glutes and hamstrings are doing what they should be doing! All of these things are beginning to make a difference. We are just at the start of the journey, though.
ST: Your ace in 2011 was your bike. Have you left it alone? Or what can Matt Dixon do to improve it?
Emma-Kate: No, we’ve not left it alone. It remains my strongest weapon, but it’s one that can and needs to become just a shade stronger. I’m still not riding as strongly as I potentially can, but am getting there. Matt and I agree it needs a little fine-tuning, which we will continue doing over the summer in the build to Vegas. Riding for extended intervals at race pace watts and above will likely be the direction we take things. I’m loving riding my Felt DA1 and hope to continue working with Jim Felt. I have a great partnership with Smart ENVE Wheels too and will be in the wind tunnel this summer with Simon Smart, the British Formula 1 aerodynamics engineer who works with ENVE wheels. I’m also fortunate to have great support from PowerTap, Rudy Project, ISM Saddles and Speedfil Hydration. It’s good to be clocking fastest bike splits with the help of these guys.
ST: I see in your blog and Matt’s comments that you overcame a lot of injuries. By my count, there were two bad bike crashes in 2012 and a bad post-workout poolside injury this March. What effect all this misfortune has had on you?
Emma-Kate: I’ve touched on almost all of those above, with the exception of the post-workout poolside incident. That involved a shoulder dislocation and a rather painful trip to Santa Monica ER with Coach Gerry. It happened the week before 70.3 Oceanside so meant I had to sit that out. But it wasn’t all bad: I raced Texas two weeks later instead and won! It also meant I found Chris Pogson and it is the reason I work so hard at PT now and will continue to do so.
ST: I sensed in 2011 that you were a true Brit who loved your country and were happy to base your training there near your mum and friends. What impelled you to move to the LA area? Obviously, it has become haven for many famed Brits including artist David Hockney, soccer god David Beckham (for a bit), actors like Michael Caine and Hugh Grant and tons of others [some estimates place 200,000 British in a greater metro population of 10 million]. So this is not an unusual migration. But what led you to the City of Angels?
Emma-Kate: I am still a true Brit and always will be! In summer 2011, purplepatch was hosting a training camp just north of LA. I’d barely spent any face time with Matt, it had all been via Skype, so I thought it would be good to go. In a bid to mitigate the effects of jetlag pre-camp, we agreed it would be good for me to travel to LA in advance and spend some time training in Santa Monica with some of the other purplepatch pros who live there. It meant I got to swim with Gerry and the Tower 26 crew. I loved it. I instantly felt at home. I would spend three months in the US that summer and ended my trip in Santa Monica in October too. By the time I was due to fly back to London in October I was fairly certain that I could be very happy living in LA. It planted a seed that would ultimately lead to me leaving the UK in January. So much of my training back home in the UK had been done solo and it had been zapping me of my mojo. Matt and I agreed I could only ever go so far as an athlete living in the UK. I was good, but if I wanted to be great then the US was the place to be.
ST: It seems that some of your best improvement came with training with Rachel Joyce in Boulder over the summers. Will you continue? Or have you found a better situation training in Santa Monica? If so, who are your bike training partners? Your swim training crew? And who might you run with?
Emma-Kate: I trained with Rachel last summer in Boulder and we had a great time. We had also trained together in winter 2011 and winter 2010 in the Canary Islands. We are good at getting the best from each other and are great friends who always have a giggle, no matter what kind of hellish workout Matt used to throw our way. Rachel is a class act who has definitely inspired me and helped me improve. I won’t be in Boulder this summer, I’ll stay in Santa Monica, but we remain close friends. My main training partner here in Santa Monica is fellow purplepatch pro Sarah Piampiano. Put it this way - we’re such good buddies that Sarah’s boyfriend James actually says there are three of us in their relationship. We do almost all of our rides and runs together. My swimming is always done with the Tower 26 crew. Gerry is, without doubt, the best swim coach I have worked with. He gets the best from me every single workout and I know the longer I work with him the better I will become.
ST: What is better about training with a squad?
Emma-Kate: Everything! I am a born competitor. I cannot stand to be beaten. Put me in a pool on my own and I can swim so-so. Put me in a pool with others and I want to beat them all. Ditto bike and run workouts. So far, this has had huge performance gains for me and I am confident it will continue to.
ST: You have done very well up to now. But things have gone badly at the biggest races – Ironman 70.3 Worlds [10th and 7th] and at Abu Dhabi 8th and 13th], where a rider of your talent should be closer to the $50,000 top prize. How well do you think you can do at Vegas?
Emma-Kate: I can do extremely well; I just need to get all of my ducks in a row. And I will.
ST: Melissa Hauschildt and Leanda Cave have won Las Vegas. How well have you done against them in races? And have your comparative performances encouraged you to think you might beat them and win there?
Emma-Kate: So far this season I’ve come out on top on each occasion I’ve raced Leanda. With Melissa, last season she beat me convincingly every time we raced. I need to exert more dominance on the bike and sharpen my run in order to battle well with her. She is a great racer and person.
ST: How much better can you run in the 70.3 races? How much better than your current standard of 1:24 must you run to win the big ones?
Emma-Kate: Those 1:24s need to come down further still. I think I need to be running closer to 1:20/1:21 to be in with a shout of the big ones.
ST: Have your crashes that took away much of your 2012 season delayed your debut at the Ironman distance?
Emma-Kate: Oh no. Certainly not. My debut at the Ironman distance could be permanently delayed. I still vividly recall watching my good friend Andi Bocherer race Kona in 2011. He had asked me to give him splits at the business end of the race out on the Queen K. Seeing all of those boys really in the hurt box in that hot, humid, desolate hell has forever scarred me. Andi did brilliantly that day and placed 8th, but we still joke that I may always remain a 70.3 racer as a result! While I still feel I have a lot to achieve at the half distance, I will not race a full.
ST: Does Matt think you have Ironman greatness in your future?
Emma-Kate: We are all about 70.3 right now. To be honest, the thought of running a marathon terrifies me.
ST: Tell us some of the joys of life in Santa Monica? Your fave cafés? Where do you go to amuse yourself?
Emma-Kate: I absolutely love living by the ocean. Every single time I drive along PCH I do a little fist pump and think: “Yessssssssssssssssss! I LIVE here!” I am a huge coffee addict and so the best cafes have found me. I love Caffe Luxxe and Primo Passo on Montana and am a complete ice cream fanatic. When I first moved here Sarah P and I would go to a local ice cream parlour called Sweet Rose so often that we ended up drawing up some strict guidelines: No Sweet Rose unless you win a P-500 race, place top 3 at a P-750 race or top 5 at a P-1500 race. Needless to say, when I won Texas and Kansas (P-500 races), she was the first to text me to congratulate me. Not because she was pleased with the result, but because she wanted to cash in her ice cream tokens:)
ST: Have you found any Santa Monica pubs to play darts and scarf down some Brit-style fish and chips to stave off homesickness?
Emma-Kate: True to Brit stereotype, I am a big beer drinker (icy cold, not warm though) but save this for the off season. So, as yet, I’ve not frequented any of the Santa Monica Brit pubs for beer, darts and fish and chips. Watch out, October!
ST: Many people still think LA is all heartless concrete parking lots, soul-killing traffic jams, and horrible choking smog. Some cannot imagine there are nice places to swim bike and run. What is the reality?
Emma-Kate: I was one of those people when I first came here to train last summer. And then I discovered places like Latigo, Mulholland and Encinal to ride. The riding here is out of this world. I love it! Once you get used to riding the first few miles on PCH, you’re fine. I also love the running here. I do a lot of my running on the beach path or on the trails and it’s great. Granted, the traffic is soul killing, but there is always an element of compromise wherever you live. The perks hugely outweigh the traffic. It has felt like home since the moment I arrived.
ST: Why is Santa Monica better for you than Boulder, San Diego, Bend, Austin or Clermont, Florida? Why is it better than the Canary Islands?
Emma-Kate: While I am working on being a better swimmer, there is no better place than being here with Gerry. And combine this with all the other factors – the purplepatch pros who live and train here, the sunshine, the beach, the friends – then, for me, there is no better place. In all of those other places I could only tick some of the above boxes. In Santa Monica, I can tick them all. Sometimes you just get a feeling about a place. From the very first time I dove into the pool at Tower 26, I instantly felt it. I just instantly felt at home. The gut feeling was too strong to ignore. When I fall in love with a place, I guess I fall deep!
ST: Have you truly found the place that fits you the best? Or is this simply a marriage of tri-convenience?
Emma-Kate: I think I’ve found the place that fits me best. I can’t see me moving any time soon. I’ve told my family back in the UK: if you want me, you know where you can find me! I was emailing with Yvonne Van Vlerken a few weeks ago and she asked: “Are you in love? Is there a new man? You sound too happy!” There’s no new love; I’m happy flying solo. I guessed I’ve just found the place where I’m meant to be and it makes me very happy.
ST: What have you learned about yourself since November 2011?
Emma-Kate: That I can count on me. That I can believe in myself. That I am strong and independent and can do things solo. When the S hits the fan, I can come up smelling of roses. I never realised that before. It will still take a little time to sink in and translate to my triathlon performance, but ultimately it is going to make me one hell of a racer. This was always lacking before.
ST: Whose pro tri career has given you the most inspiration? Is there any pro triathlete whose journey seems similar to yours and from whom you draw encouragement?
Emma-Kate: Belinda Granger was the first girl whom I encountered as a pro who I really thought: “That’s the way to do it”. She has – and continues to – inspire me a great deal on and off the race course. So, too, have all of the British women who have done such a great job of setting the long distance race circuit on fire: Chrissie [Wellington], Rachel [Joyce], Leanda [Cave], Julie [Dibens], Jodie [Swallow], Cat [Morrison]. The Brits have such strength in depth. It is impossible not to be inspired by these girls. You see what they have achieved and you think: I want a bit of that for myself. It makes you hungry.
ST: Mad props for your last two wins and many thanks for taking the time to apply your wit to this interview.