A few words with Beth Gerdes

Last summer American pro triathlete Beth Gerdes gave birth to baby Wynne McKenzie and has since had some very solid results including a 5th place at the Ironman Asia Pacific Championships in Melbourne, Australia. We had a few words with her about the last year and what is still to come.

Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Beth.

Beth Gerdes: No, thank you! I’m trying to rest a bit after Ironman Melbourne, so this is keeping me off the roads.

ST: May 29, 2014

Beth: My daughter Wynne was born. It was the most painful day of my life and the best day of my life all rolled into one.

ST: How much has little Wynne changed your world, and the one of Luke [McKenzie]?

Beth: It’s safe to say that everything has changed and nothing has changed for both of us. Everything has changed in the fact that our lives now revolve around this little person and taking care of her. At the end of the day she is our #1 priority. Nothing has changed in the fact that we didn’t alter how we approach life and chase our dreams. Training and travel were never put on hold for Wynne because it was too difficult or inconvenient. From the beginning, we just made it work. I resumed my race goals pretty quickly after she was born. Wynne has also been traveling with us since day 1. Ok, we didn’t actually take our first trip until she was 4 weeks old, so day 28 or so. So far she has been to 5 continents and 11 countries. She is only 10 months old, but it’s fair to say she’s more well-traveled than many American adults.

ST: During the pregnancy, how late were you able to train and how was that experience?

Beth: I exercised throughout my pregnancy. I don’t use the word “train” because I didn’t approach my workouts with any specific goals or objectives other than to maintain general fitness. I really enjoyed exercising without having to achieve certain goals and found that I enjoy staying fit just for fitness-sake and general well-being. I typically worked out about 2 hours per day (Two 1-hour sessions), but took frequent days off whenever I was busy or tired. I didn’t personally feel that long or intense workouts were in mine or the baby’s best interest. A typical week (all the way through 41 weeks when I delivered) was: 5 masters swims totaling 15,000-18,000yds/week (in a lane with a base pace 15-seconds slower than I typically swim), 3 to 4 easy runs with friends totaling 12 -20-ish miles per week, 2 to 3 spin classes or trainer rides (mostly spin classes because I enjoy them), and 2 functional strength sessions each week at Rehab United Sports Performance Center. I think the strength sessions especially were key to my returning to form fairly quickly postpartum and avoiding injury. I really enjoyed all of it except the running actually. From the beginning, I had to pee all of the time when I ran, so a 45-minute run would include about 3 bathroom stops. Near the end, I continued to run almost stubbornly because I had already made it so far I didn’t want to give in. It wasn’t comfortable, but I felt maintaining even a little bit of “running” would help me return more quickly post-baby. Not sure if that’s research-based (pretty sure it’s not).

ST: Once Wynne was born, how soon after did you start swimming, biking and cycling?

Beth: I took 16 days fully off because that’s what Sarah Haskins did. Hah! Funny but true. I read her blog and thought I’d do what she did because there really are no guidelines for elite athletes. After that, I started very easy swimming and biking (which both felt great) and walking intensely uphill, which I guess is called hiking. I began running after maybe 4 weeks (which didn’t feel so great). Doctor’s recommendations are to wait 6 weeks to exercise. I’m not recommending what I did to anyone because I probably rushed it a bit, so it’s important to listen to your own body and your own doctor.

ST: What did your doctor say to you?

Beth: They tell nearly everyone in the hospital the same thing - wait 6 weeks to exercise. Then, your postpartum check-up is not until 6 weeks. I just did what felt right for me and then at my 6-week checkup I was honest with my doctor and she was not concerned due to my prior activity level, etc. I’m not saying my choices were right, I’m just being honest.

ST: In July you left the US for a big European vacation with Luke, baby Wynne and Luke’s sister Jacque. Did it feel a bit like the National Lampoons movie?

Beth: When you travel across the world with two athletes with bicycles and all the baby gear you can imagine and a 5-week old baby, it becomes pretty comical, especially the first time. We actually had to load up a trailer behind our SUV to fit all of our gear when we went to the airport. I imagine the flight check-in folks loved us.

ST: What was your favorite memory of that trip?

Beth: What trip? Hah. Seriously, a lot of that trip was a blur to me. I was seriously sleep deprived, trying to care for my new baby in several foreign countries and trying to resume Ironman training. It wasn’t pretty but I was determined to make it work and luckily had the help of Luke’s sister, Jacque. Wynne flew in her first private jet en route to the Tour de France, my first time too, which was a pretty cool memory. Another great one was climbing the Le Tourmalet on the same day as the Tour de France, though I wouldn’t have said so at the time because it was so painful! I was 25 pounds more than I weigh now and ended up riding a 70-mile day including Le Tourmalet only about 8 weeks postpartum. It was brutal, but amazing, and Luke climbed up by my side [he was recovering from Challenge Roth], which was awesome and encouraging.

ST: When you followed Luke’s race in Roth, did it tickle you to want to race there?

Beth: Roth was absolutely incredible but everyone already knows that. I really want to do well in Kona one year so that I cross that off my list because Roth is next on the list for sure! I rode one lap of the bike course with Luke and loved it. The run there is also fast and the spectators truly make that event. If I haven’t gone under 9 hours in an Ironman by next year, I’m going to Roth to give it a go.

ST: For you, I think the first big race back was Ironman western Australia where you finished 4th. And I believe that found you well.

Beth: My first big race back was actually Ironman Malaysia when I was just shy of 4 months postpartum. I’m glad you didn’t remember that one, because the point was to fly under the radar as my fitness was still a work-in-progress. I was definitely undercooked in Malaysia, but I wanted to race to gauge my fitness, hopefully get some KPR points, and let my sponsors know I was serious about returning to racing. Malaysia is a brutal race with lots of hills and incredible heat, so I knew I could just race at a moderate “survival” pace and still hopefully do okay. I placed 5th, but it was not a shining moment in my Ironman career. I did, however, get a good reality check of where I was at, and it pointed to increasing my bike endurance and run speed. I focused on both of those over the next two months before Ironman Western Australia 2014 and had dramatic improvements during that time. In WA, I placed just one spot better (4th), but had a fantastic race in a strong field of 30 pro women. I went 9:04, including a 2:58 run split which was a new run course record, so yes, IMWA found me well. Mostly, it gave me confidence that I was indeed not “wasting” my time training for triathlon as I had to sacrifice some time with Wynne to achieve those goals. I really struggled with the “Is this worth it?” thoughts over the first six months. IMWA really focused me for 2015 and I have new goals and aspirations that I never thought were possible before. After WA, I really invested in myself and my goals, namely, in babysitting! We hire a babysitter 4 to 5 mornings per week so that Luke & I can both focus on training. Before WA, this felt frivolous, but after, I realized that it’s an important investment if Luke & I both want to do our best in our sport.

ST: Rumor has it that Luke was a great helper during that Australia trip.

Beth: So true! If Luke hangs up his triathlon career anytime soon, he surely can be a professional sherpa. I was lucky that Luke was in his off-season after his final race of 2014 (Challenge Phuket), so he was really focused on helping me, and that meant a lot. Luke prepared my bike and followed me in the car on my pre-race rides. On race day, he woke up at 4 and made me gluten free pancakes and then he & Wynne followed me all day long, giving splits and encouragement. Luke is my coach as well as my partner, so he is really involved with my training and racing. I think he actually gets more nervous for me before races than he does for himself.

ST: 2015 started for you in Pucon. But that apparently had not been scheduled originally.

Beth: Signing up for a race that you know is just a few weeks after a scheduled break is always a gamble. I wanted to take 2 weeks off after IMWA in December, and then Pucon was in mid-January. We also visited my family in Philadelphia over Christmas, so didn't have optimal training when I was easing back in. However, I knew some of my 2014 fitness would carry over and hearing about Pucon from past competitors was enough to make me say yes. Pucon, Chile is an amazing and beautiful part of the world. The course is tough, especially the very hilly run. I had a decent race, but nothing super sparkly, and came 5th.

ST: More recently you raced the Ironman Asia Pacific Championships in Melbourne, Australia with very tough competition and finished 5th. Where does that result rank for you?

Beth: Are you as sick as I am about hearing about all my great races that end up in 4th and 5th places? Hah. No, it’s an indication of the strength and depth of the women’s fields these days. Many years, my 9:05 in Melbourne would have placed me at least on the podium, but w had a star-studded field this year and I was glad to line up against world class competition like Caroline Steffen, Mel Hauschildt, Mirinda Carfrae, Yvonne Van Vlerken and many others. I think my 5th at Melbourne is possibly my best result-to-date, given that it is one of 5 regional Championship events in the world. I had my first-ever sub-5 hr bike split which was a big personal win for me. Thanks also to coach Luke, my Endura skinsuit, my new Scott Plasma 5 and Enve wheels combo for making me strong & aero.

ST: Your run was a race best 3:05:56. Was that what you expected?

Beth: It’s interesting that I had the fastest run of the day because it honestly felt horrible and often as if I was running up and down on the spot. I had Mirinda Carfrae running about 100 meters behind me for a good 15 miles, which you can imagine is a bit intimidating. I did not feel like myself on that run and honestly had expected better. I secretly wanted to run around 2:55 and think that with favorable conditions that would be possible in Melbourne. For me, I just didn’t have that ease and spark on race day. I was sick with Salmonella two weeks out from the race and was in bed for an entire week. Until Monday of race week, I wasn’t sure if I would make the start line. A little bit of me thinks that that fine-tuned feeling was lost in that week in bed, but I guess I’ll be able to find out in my next race!

ST: So what is next?

Beth: We have an exciting spring planned. We came back home to San Diego after Ironman Melbourne and will train here and at the Island House in Nassau, Bahamas over the next few weeks. After that, we head to St. George 70.3, where both Luke & I are racing. After St. George, we head back to Australia in early June for Ironman Cairns. I currently am ranked 14th in the KPR with 4515 points. That would be about 1000 more points than I would need to qualify for Kona if I was a man. However, with only 35 slots available for women compared to 50 for men, I still need to improve my KPR points to have a hope at qualifying, so I am really focused on Ironman Cairns. Following Cairns will be a big break and then hopefully a long, steady Kona build-up.

ST: What is your view on the Pro equality to Kona and what in your opinion is the right amount of Pros?

Beth: This is a hard subject for me to approach objectively because my position makes me about as subjective as they come, so I apologize if some of this is personal but maybe it helps to see an N=1 situation.

First, I believe in equality. Period. If I must elaborate even though it’s 2015, I believe that women truly deserve 50 spots at the world championships like their male counterparts. Currently, we are forced to race more than the men as you can see in that I still need to do another Ironman, but if I was a man I would be safe with my current points. In addition there are so many side effects to having just 35 women. For example, smaller 2000pt races are getting weaker female fields because our hand is forced to the 4000 points races if we are Kona hopeful and many non-Kona hopefuls are choosing to Challenge and WTC. This is because even winning two 2000 point Ironman events would not be nearly enough to qualify for Kona as a woman but it would be fine for a man. Personally, I now believe that I am good enough to line up with the best women in the world on that start line, but now, going 9:04 and 9:05 in my last two Ironmans and being in the mix in those races with podium finishers at Kona is not enough to get you there. I still have to race another Ironman after three solid Ironman results, all within the top 5 including a Championship race. I don’t believe I would be just “filler” on the Kona start line as some are making women 35-50 feel we would be.

The counter argument is that there are more male pros than female pros. This very true, but I believe the talent in the top third of the women’s field is very similar to the men’s. We can’t help it if more men, who aren’t a factor at the end of the day, sign up to get their pro card. I have looked at results from the last three WTC races: Ironman Melbourne, Ironman South Africa, and Oceanside 70.3. In all three races, the 10th placed women was equal (or smaller!) percentage off the winner’s time as the men. This indicates depth. The women’s race is evolving and Ironman has a chance to really promote women in sport and equality.

At the end of the day, I love Ironman and I’m choosing to play this game. In fact, I have not yet raced a Challenge event or a Rev 3, but that will change at some point and I’m excited to broaden my horizons. I recognize that I could take myself out of the “Kona” game at any time, but I have seen too many women already do this because of the current state-of-play and that is sad to me! I want to see the talent at Kona grow, not decrease. I just hope that the brand I have loved and supported from my start as an age-grouper makes me proud sooner than later.

I know you, Herbert, wrote about maybe 35/35 or 40/40, but I am strongly 50/50. Apparently (I didn’t fact check), three of last year’s male top 10 in Kona came from slots 36-50, so they are clearly a factor and should be there. I also wouldn’t want to have to see the men over racing as many of the women who didn’t place top 15 in Kona the year before must. If the tail end of the women’s field ends up not being a factor in Kona this year, it’s probably due to over-racing, not a lack of talent. I know the women 36-50 would be a factor too. Heck, if Chrissie Wellington had the KPR the first year when she won Kona, she wouldn’t have even been on the start line because winning Ironman Korea wouldn’t have been nearly enough points to squeeze in. Or, to get on the start line she would have raced (and probably won) three Ironman races and showed up fried at Kona. Ok, maybe not Chrissie, but most normal people!

I also hear that space on the pier is a limiting factor for the absolute number of participants. What if we all think outside the box in a win-win-win situation? What about placing a “pro zone” transition off the pier, say outside King Kam? It could be set up for cool media coverage etc. WTC gets more slots on the pier, sponsors and fans and media get more access to a pro race hotspot, and pros get equality. BAM.

ST: What do you think needs to happen to make it a reality?

Beth: I am really not sure. I feel like it would be an easy decision to make for WTC and I think the reasons to give 50 spots far outweigh the cons. And I think it should be now! We still have 6 months to Kona, it’s time.

ST: Again thanks, but this time for your patience and the open responses.

Beth: No worries, mate.