Brit Susie Cheetham (née Hignett) finished 6th at the GoPro Ironman World Championship in Kona and 7th at 70.3 Worlds in Zell am See this year, but as she dumped her day job and is now fully devoted to triathlon we can expect to see even more from her in the future.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time.
Susie Cheetham: No problem, great to chat.
ST: Has your body recovered from that Kona effort?
Susie: It’s hard to tell. I haven’t been in a hurry to get back in training. I’ve been ticking over with a few easy sessions as I still have one last race this weekend, but I haven’t really tested it. I guess I probably won’t know until I race this weekend. I really enjoy doing one last race of the season with no pressure, as it’s come after a good result I don't feel the need to go into it in great shape. Hopefully I’m recovered and I can carry over fitness from Kona.
ST: When did you arrive in Hawaii to get ready for the big day?
Susie: I arrived 13 days before. Initially when booking the flight I thought it was plenty of time, but in the lead up to the race I realized I was actually one of the last pros to get there, especially the pros coming from cooler climates. I still think it was enough time for me, any more and I think I would have lost out on some key training in the UK and also probably would have got quite bored. Any less and I don’t think I would have been acclimatized. The timing meant I could leave home with all of my key training done.
ST: Was the atmosphere leading up to the race what you expected?
Susie: It was great to see it from a racing perspective. I’ve been watching Kona since 2011 when I first got into triathlon, so it was quite odd seeing it from the other side! The atmosphere was great but I tried to stay away from town as much as possible. Too much triathlon chat pre race would just make me really nervous. It was the biggest race I’ve done and that was quite clear when you went into town, there were a lot of anxious A type personalities!
ST: Were you able to partake in any pre race activities or did you opt to be a hermit in your place?
Susie: I was definitely the hermit type! I’m really quite clumsy and have tendency to break things on race week if I’m not careful! I had put so much into this race and knew I was really fit. I was so desperate for that to be reflected on race day that as soon as I got there I was keeping a fairly low profile. It may have been a little early though, after a week I had pretty bad cabin fever. The Tuesday before the race I just wanted to get it done!
ST: Was there much pressure on you or did the media mostly focus on other Brit athletes there?
Susie: No, I think I was quite lucky. The only pressure I had was the pressure I put on myself. That was plenty! I think that was a real advantage for me. I could just focus on my own preparation.
ST: Talk about race the race day.
Susie: Race day was fairly hectic and went so fast right from transition. The swim was great for me. I’ve made gains in the pool this year but they haven’t really reflected in races as I seem to be faster than the group I used to swim with and slower than the group ahead. I got on good toes and exited the water two minutes forty seconds down on the lead. This immediately lifted the pressure, as I didn’t need to smash the bike to make up lost time. I rode fairly conservatively, very aware that I was a rookie and also that a lot of people over bike in Kona. I knew I was fit and I wanted to be in the position where I could use my run and not blow up. If I’d worked harder on the bike I may not have been able to take advantage of my strongest discipline.
I had been planning on biking off power but it didn’t work for some reason right from the start so I really did have to go off feel. I was a little nervous about coming out of the swim in a pack and having to bike in a pace line. Although there are advantages to that, I get quite nervous about draft zones and I think that stress can tire you. As it happened I biked alone the whole race, I passed a couple but then got passed by a couple of stronger cyclists that I didn’t feel I wanted to bike with.
Going into the run was super hot, everyone says it was hotter than normal but to be honest I had built it up to be a hot race so didn’t expect anything else. It did mean that from very early on I wasn’t running what I expected to be running, pace-wise. It was disappointing, but then I realized everyone was running slowly and I was making up time. I think if you speak to anyone that raced they’re not happy with their run and I think that and the fact that none of the girls went under three hours for the marathon reflects how tough the conditions were.
ST: Among the top finishers, your bike segment was the slowest. Is it fair to say that that is where you still have the most space to improve?
Susie: Absolutely. It’s great to have a good result but have an area that stands out with room for improvement. Although part of my race plan was to bike conservatively, I know I can improve on my bike for next year. Having said that, I went into this race targeting a top ten position so biking the 16th fastest bike split, although outside the top ten, I was quietly confident that with my run form I would be able to run into the top ten.
ST: Is anyone working with you in terms of bike fit and prowess?
Susie: My husband coaches me and we continue to make small improvements. Every year I have made good progression and we’ve always said that as long as I continue to progress we won’t stress about finding a new coach. Our knowledge and experience in cycling is probably our weakest across the three disciplines, but it’s something we are working on getting some input on. He is really good with the swim side of things and has managed to get me from doggy paddling in 2011 to coming out of the swim pack at Kona two minutes down on the leaders. I think that’s something he can be quite proud of. The running side of things I think we have covered from my experience of running before triathlon.
ST: Earlier this summer you were 7th at 70.3 Worlds in Zell am See. Did that race find you well?
Susie: Yes and no! I was fit going into 70.3 Worlds and effectively the end result was one I was satisfied with. However, I got a frustrating penalty on the bike for overtaking and cutting in to soon. Apparently the girl behind had to brake and it was considered dangerous, so dangerous that they gave me a 5-minute penalty at 85km. I watched all the girls I had overtaken at 5km come past me one by one. I think I started the run in 18th or something! I was quite despondent for the first half as I figured making up time would be difficult, but in the second half I began to work my way up into a top ten, something that spurred me on. I went into Kona knowing that my result at Zell am See was a strong one, although I can’t tell where I would have been without the penalty I knew it would have been my strongest result and reflected well on where my fitness was.
ST: I guess in Zell you also learned that you are able overcome a setback.
Susie: I think it’s a really important lesson in long distance racing. Very rarely do people have perfect races. If you’re having a bad day, it’s more than likely someone else is having a worse day and if you push to the end, more than likely you’ll be positively surprised with the outcome.
ST: Will you pass more carefully moving forward?
Susie: I was very conscious of it in Kona, that’s why I was nervous about coming out of the swim in a group. I didn’t need to be as I was on my own and only passed two girls. I have been speaking to Ironman to get more clarity on it though as I’m still not 100% sure on what is considered dangerous versus normal passing.
ST: Mont Tremblant the year prior was your first 70.3 World appearance, and you managed to finish 12th.
Susie: Yes. At the time this was reflective on where I was as a triathlete. I was still working full time in a proper job and was a completely different athlete to where I am now. I know some people say it’s not worth racing World Champs if you’re out of the top ten, but for me it was important for my progression and a good investment in time and money. Placing 12th leaves you out of the prize money and I came away with a big hole in my wallet! I think it’s worthwhile racing the best competition so you know where you are and what gains you need to make to improve. There are so many races now you can’t really tell where you are until you race the World Champs.
ST: Does that mean you punted that proper job?
Susie: Yes! I really enjoyed my job but it was difficult to combine both and do well at both. It got to the stage where I was so tired and wasn’t really doing either well. I was also doing a 2-hour commute at the end and it just wasn’t sustainable. I’d definitely say I’m a nicer person after leaving my job. The last year of training, racing, and working I was a fairly grumpy person!
ST: 2014 was also the year for your first Ironman race.
Susie: The Ironman was a bit of a bonus race for me. I spent the year doing 70.3 races but had considered racing a bonus Ironman at the end of the year. I knew that if it went well and I enjoyed it, it would allow me to start building some points for Kona 2015. After Mont Tremblant I had enough time to get in two weeks of panic Ironman training!
ST: You kind of fell into triathlon in 2011, because of a boyfriend who trained for an Ironman, but prior to that you were mostly a runner. What were some of your run PR times?
Susie: Yes, I ran track and cross-country but I was always injured and frustrated that I wasn’t achieving my potential. In between injuries I managed PR’s of 9:15 for 3000m, 16:04 for 5000m and 1hour 15min. for the half marathon. I won English Schools 3000m and competed in European Cross Country and 5000m in the U23 European Champs.
ST: The man who introduced you to triathlon, is his last name Cheetham?
Susie: Yes! Who’d have thought I’d marry him after he introduced me to such a painful sport!!
ST: Have you surpassed him?
Susie: It didn’t take long - he soon gave up after he couldn’t keep up! Being completely honest there’s no way I would be able to do it without him. It really is a team effort. I joke that he’s my team coach, masseur, physiotherapist, psychologist, and mechanic. He puts up with a lot, all alongside his day job.
ST: Talk about your sponsors.
Susie: Orca have been great to me and believed in me from the start. Something I will always be grateful for. As an improving swimmer, I need all the help I can get and they give me what I need to do that. Ekoi provide me with a helmet that is really comfortable and cool, something that was important in Kona. Some of the helmets I have tried cook your head in the heat, so I was quite grateful for it. Falco are great bikes and certainly get a lot of attention with the beam design. It was quite interesting to see so many beam bikes out in Kona, they’re clearly doing something right.
ST: What running shoes do you use?
Susie: I use Saucony Kinvara for training and Saucony Fast Twitch for racing. They really have been key to my progression. I’ve struggled for years with Achilles and Plantar Fascia issues, but have got to the stage where I can manage them and train consistently. Both pairs of trainers and racers are part of what has allowed me to do this and get the consistency I need to really nail my run in Ironman and Half Ironman racing.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Susie: Future plans for me will be similar to last year. I will focus on Kona and start my racing at South Africa 70.3, as it also means we can visit Rob’s family for Christmas. I will do an early season Ironman as I don’t need much now to qualify for 2016, but like the idea of going into Kona relatively fresh again. Possibly Ironman South Africa as it’s like a home race for me as half my family live in South Africa, but I’d also like to try a new one and see a new place.
You can follow Susie Cheetham via Twitter at @susiecheetham