A tale of two seasons

The difference was only from third place to first, but Flora Duffy had to become a different triathlete to win the XTERRA World Championship this year. Considering the illness [anemia] and injury [stress fracture] she was fighting and her lack of XTERRA experience, her bronze medal at Maui in 2013 was akin to a miracle. But in order to climb two more places to the top of the XTERRA world, a fully healthy Duffy had a lot of work ahead of her.

It certainly was worth it. While she was honored to make two Olympic starts, those days at Beijing and London were disappointing. Her world title at Maui was a childhood dream come true.

ST: Congratulations on your win at XTERRA Maui? How important is it?

Flora: It is a world championship. Obviously that puts it pretty high up on the scale of events.

ST: It has been around for 19 years. Champions from outside XTERRA include Mike Pigg, Conrad Stoltz, Eneko Llanos, Hamish Carter and Javier Gomez among the men and Michellie Jones, Julie Dibens and Nicky Samuels among the women. How prestigious is it?

Flora: Very. Obviously a lot of triathlon greats have taken part and won.

Slowtwitch: No parades or anything like that for you in Bermuda? I hear people are pretty understated and polite in Bermuda?

Flora Duffy: Yeah they are classy. It’s kind of a good thing. When I am walking around if I have a dress on or if I am dressed casually people will look at me and not recognize me. But if I am in my tri suit, they will recognize me.

ST: When a world famous athlete like Maria Sharapova goes out in the streets of New York, paparazzi will create havoc trying to get shots.

Flora: Bermuda is not like that. When major big celebrities come to the island, people don’t care. That is why we attract so visitors. Bermuda is full is nice quaint polite people. They let you go on with your own business. And they go on with their own business.

ST: Triathlon is low key. Unlucky as to money. But lucky in regards to lack of big egos and lots of down-to-earth participants and fans. In triathlon, your $20,000 XTERRA prize is a big payoff. On the other hand, it doesn’t go very far in modern life?

Flora: No it doesn’t. But I am lucky. It is just me I am supporting. I’m not married. I don’t have kids. So that takes the pressure off. And I live pretty simply here in Boulder. Obviously I like to buy nice organic fresh food – that is expensive. But other than that, I like to keep my life pretty simple.

ST: I’d like you to examine how far you have come since last year in XTERRA. In terms of numbers, it’s just been 3rd to 1st at the World Championship in Maui. But it’s been a world of difference in terms of the condition you were in last year – in just your second XTERRA race.

Flora: Last year was a really difficult year for me in triathlon. I barely raced and I wasn't training as much for sure. I finished up my studies in social studies and sociology at CU at the end of May. So I pushed racing back until after I’d finished school and wrapped that up.

ST: Not much racing and training compared to 2012?

Flora: Not compared to the previous summer when I had Olympic focus. So last year June rolled around and I think I did two races and they went fairly well. I did a World Cup at Edmonton and I was top 10 [7th]. I thought ‘That's great. It is a North American race and it can attract quite a few top athletes.’ So I was pleased with that.

ST: They usually have a good field?

Flora: Yes. Paula Findlay was still dealing with injuries, but Kirsten Sweetland was just coming back into form. In July I did Boulder Peak, which went pretty well [4th behind Lisa Norden, Nicky Samuels and Lauren Goss]. Then the following weekend I did XTERRA Beaver Creek so I could qualify for Maui. That is when things went bad. I hadn’t quite recovered from Boulder Peak and I didn’t realize racing at altitude takes so much out of you. I got 6th at Beaver Creek. I barely survived that race and vowed I’d never do another XTERRA.

ST: When did you start to fade at Beaver Creek in 2013?

Flora: Two kilometers into the bike. I wasn't so bad. I just didn't have the usual power that I do. But that can be attributed to so many things. You are racing at 8,000 feet and higher. I was on a mountain bike which I don’t usually ride. I am climbing massive mountains. So I thought this is just how I race at 8,000 feet. But after that race, I was really struggling. I had blood tests done and discovered I was really anemic. That took me to the end of July. Then I took three weeks off and just did some very light training.

ST: How did you feel?

Flora: Emotionally I was all over the place. I wasn't motivated. It took two iron IVs to bring me back. Then I started taking a proper iron supplement. I really needed to chill out from intense training. So towards the end of August, I started ramping things back up again. And then after one track session at the first week of September, I was cooling down and - Boom! I suffered a stress fracture in my foot. Never had anything like that before. Total surprise. I was in denial for a week.

ST: Was your anemia a signal that your body was overstressed?

Flora: Yeah something was not right there. Of course in hindsight you pick up on this. But in the middle of it, you think, ‘Oh no. I am fine.’

ST: By them Maui was your only goal. But it was too late to take much time off before Maui?

Flora: That was 7 weeks out from Maui. A week after I had the stress fracture - I was set to go to London for the Grand Final. But I had to pull out of that because my foot was in a boot.

ST: How did you deal after that?

Flora: I took six weeks off running to make sure it could properly heal. I could still swim and ride. Neal [Henderson] was my coach at that time and we are very lucky here in Boulder. He has great connections. When we found out I was anemic I immediately started treatment with some of the best specialists here. And when I hurt my foot, immediately saw somebody and they diagnosed it and told me what to do.

ST: How did your goals change?

Flora: At that point I thought, ‘OK, Maui is not really a big goal for me. I am going to let this heal properly. I am not rushing back into training. I don’t want to keep setting myself back and sacrifice my preparations for 2014. So didn’t run for six weeks. Then maybe 10 days before Maui I started to do a little running - like 2 minutes running, 4 minutes walking. One minute running, four minutes walking. I could still swim and bike. No running – but Neal allowed me to go hiking.

ST: How did hiking affect you?

Flora: Hiking was good. I would hike the Sanitas trail in Boulder which is pretty steep, even if you are going slow. Maui is a strength run and hiking contributed a little bit.

ST: What were your expectations?

Flora: In 2013 - very low. I had only raced four times that year. So I thought, ‘I’ve already booked this flight. It’s a good race. I want to come back next year. It was kind of a recon trip. Couple of friends are out there. It's Maui. Let's go!’ Last year, I knew with my swim and my general riding ability I thought I’d make top 10. But I was very uncertain how I would cope on the run.

ST: Who was your supporting cast?

Flora: [My coaches] Neal [Henderson] and Grant [Holicky] were there. And their wives and a couple others in my training group and a lot of Boulder people were there.

ST: As a Bermudian, you aren’t afraid of the heat?

Flora: I like the heat and the humidity. That was not an issue. I just went into it with an open mind. I wasn't really worried about the competition or my performance. I was more concerned about making it around the bike course without crashing.

ST: How much had you been riding a mountain bike? I have seen people with I have the greatest respect for – like Richard Murray and Sebastian Kienle – who have some mountain bike skills – do very badly on race day in Maui.

Flora: I've been riding a mountain bike pretty sporadically until 2013. In 2013, I rode it a lot more - particularly in August and September. So I was confident in my skills. Although I ride much better now, back then I was fine to get around that course. But there were tricky sections, and I was crashing a lot in pre-rides. I decided I didn’t want to do this in the race. But it just happens – it goes with mountain biking. Even the best crash in pre-riding. In the race, you hit something slightly wrong at high speed and you’re on the ground.

ST: How did your race develop at Maui in 2013?

Flora: It went surprisingly well. I had a great swim - I am strong swimmer anyway – and I exited the water first female with Nicky Samuels was 20 seconds behind. When we got on the bike, Nicky passed me pretty early on. She was riding super strong that year. I wasn't - I was a bit heavier than I am now and that counts against you as a climber. I simply wasn’t in the shape I need to be. But I rode well and I was in second pretty much the entire bike ride

ST: Were you mentally reassessing as the race developed and you were doing surprisingly well?

Flora: When I got to second place, it was still so early in the bike I just focused on myself, not my position. I did not worry about anyone else. I was riding well and, at about mile 10, Lesley Paterson and Barbara Riveros caught me. We rode together a few miles and on the final climb I dropped them both and went into the technical last five miles clear and put some more time into them.

ST: Why were you a better climber at that point than those two power-to-weight ratio stars? Even when you weight was not ideal?

Flora: I don't think I am a better climber. I think they were suffering a bit more than me because they didn’t have as good a swim. Barbara is a good swimmer. But that is not where Lesley’s strengths lay. So I think Lesley ran the first half of the bike course super hard and I guess I was riding pretty conservatively within myself and thus had more strength on that last climb. I am more of a strength athlete, and so I could maintain my pace.

ST: So you focused on technique issues about where you stood were not in the forefront?

Flora: I knew where I was. Obviously I was trying to go as fast as I could to maintain position. But it wasn’t like I had to.

ST: Did you know the course well? Did you know where to be careful and where to push?

Flora: I knew a few of the danger spots on the course and took those like sections carefully. But the last five miles was really technical. It is more twisty and turny. Obviously a lot of that perception has to do with how comfortable you are on the bike, moving it around and getting it into the corner. You can get ready for a corner. But it is just a matter of how much speed you can carry.

ST: Do you have much of a choice how hard to push it on the downhills?

Flora: You stay within your ability. So I came into T2 in second. I knew I had Barbara and Lesley behind me going into the run.

ST: Where were they?

Flora: No idea how far back. But I knew they were close. We were close together just five miles ago. So and then obviously they’re very strong runners and I had done very little running. So I went into the run feeling pretty good. But it was more that I was just excited to be running. Then I ran fairly well as Lesley was slowly catching me.

ST: When did you start to hear where she was?

Flora: I never heard splits – there was nowhere to see where she was at. I only saw her when I got on to the beach [with 500 yards to go]. I looked back and I saw Lesley. By that point, I was absolutely dead. I think nutrition wise I didn’t get it quite right. It was a much longer race than I am used to.

ST: Why did you hold on so long with so little run training? And when did you run out of gas?

Flora: It was that extra hour. It really got to me. I needed extra conditioning but I hadn’t trained at the volume I should have. And I hadn't had the racing experience that year. So I think my body just needed every little bit of form and talent that was within and use it all. I just fell short a little bit - less than a kilometer to go.

ST: Where did Lesley pass you?

Flora: Oh my gosh! Maybe 50 meters to go. It was really close. I was stumbling down the beach and Lesley was charging. I fought to the end when we came on the grass with 50 meters to go she came by me. I had nothing left to fight back. Nothing.

ST: No time for a pat on the back saying nice race?

Flora: No no no. Afterwards, yeah. She said congrats. She was really shocked at how well I did; I don't think she expected Nicky or me to race that well. So that was about it.

ST: Was the 2014 Maui course more technical than it was set up this year?

Flora: It was much tougher this year. Way more technical.

ST: How hard is it to master XTERRA racing?

Flora: After doing my first XTERRA at Beaver Creek. I saw how hard XTERRA was and how many details go into it. Like what bike you are riding, what wheels you are riding, what tires you are using, and what tire pressure you are riding. Those details matter so much in your performance. It is a whole new world.

ST: Who advised you on all the details?

Flora: I started training with Dan [Hugo], and Brad [Weiss] his training partner. They focus on XTERRA and obviously they helped me out a ton. They switched me from a 29er to a 27.5 frame and luckily I was with Scott bikes and they were happy to send me their 27.5 mountain bike – which was great. It fits me much better. They also let me know the importance of tires. Going into 2014 and racing the whole XTERRA season, now I know the importance of having correct, light tires and having a light fork and all of those details. I am way more in tune with bike setup.

ST: How important was that knowledge to your 2014 season?

Flora: Coming into 2014 my bike was perfect. It was super light. It was dialed exactly how I wanted it. And I understood the importance behind it and the difference it could make. So I had a big learning curve working for me.

ST: When did you make the choice to do almost all XTERRA USA races?

Flora: When I spent the South African summer in Stellenbosch.

ST: Why do you like to train there during the northern hemisphere winter?

Flora: It’s a fantastic country. It’s summertime there and it’s warm. They have a great trails. Stellenbosch is a great little town. I love the people there; there are many great triathletes there. It is perfect. Tim Don spent time there. Will Clarke has spent time there. Jodie Swallow has trained there with James Cunnama. Of course Dan [Hugo] and Brad [Weiss] are there. I went there initially to train with them. So that kind of led me in the XTERRA direction. And then we rode a lot of mountain bikes through the summer because the riding there is so great.

ST: How did that help you?

Flora: That is a tough question. I always ride with Dan and Brad and they fly by me all the time. So I didn’t know how well I was doing. They would tell me I was riding well, but it is hard to believe. ‘OK. Yeah. Whatever. I never see you guys on the descents.’ So I guess I kind of knew. But I didn’t understand how much better I had gotten until I did my first race in the U.S. in Las Vegas.

ST: But you won XTERRA South Africa? Do you discount that?

Flora: I did win XTERRA South Africa. And that is actually a really technical course. So I rode that very well. The way I looked at it, the competition wasn’t as strong there for the women. I thought, ‘OK, this is good.’ But when I came to the US and raced and beat all the US girls who do this every year... I knew I had improved.

ST: Why did you choose to do the US XTERRA Tour?

Flora: I decided to do the US XTERRA series after XTERRA South Africa. I looked at the dates and figured I could fit them in around World Cup and WTC races. So I went to Las Vegas and did the first race in April and won by quite a large margin. That boosted my confidence. And so from April on, Maui became my big goal after finishing 3rd last year.

ST: How did your XTERRA racing affect your ITU racing plus or minus?

Flora: It made me stronger on the bike and stronger on the run. I am not running as fast. But strength-wise I've improved. So indirectly it is helping. Next year when I concentrate on the details you need to master ITU racing, it should be fine. In XTERRA you are up and down. You are on the gas, off the gas, which is the same for ITU. So they go hand in hand. And I am still swimming just as well. But ITU swimming is very specific. There are 60 girls on that start line. There is a lot of thrashing and ,,,

ST: It is an anaerobic drag race to the first buoy?

Flora: Yeah. So I am a little rusty on that. But that is OK. Those are details I can easily improve.

ST: How do you evaluate your 2014 ITU results?

Flora: Nothing special - but solid. I did the Chicago WTS - one of the bigger ones - and the Grand Final at Edmonton. They were fine. I did top 20 with a bad swim in both. Usually I am in the front pack all the time. I missed it in both, so that really changes your race. But I was very happy to come top 20. I did Miami South Beach the first of the Life Time series and I was 4th. It is pretty hard to beat Alicia Kaye, Sarah Haskins and Helle Frederiksen when they are fit and ready to go. So I was fine with 4th. And I was 8th at the Commonwealth Games [ahead of Nicky Samuels, Ashleigh Gentle, Kate McIlroy and Kate Roberts]

ST: Maybe 2014 is the year midway within the Olympic quad when it is important not to peak too early?

Flora: I do not want to peak now. It is just building. The ITU season is very intense. You travel a lot and it can be very draining. So it was nice to avoid that.

ST: You had a light ITU schedule?

Flora: Overall I raced a lot. I did cut down on ITU races [3] but filled it in with XTERRAs [8] and a few non drafting races.

ST: The German woman Kathrin Mueller had a very good year in cool and rainy European races. And she beat you at Cross Triathlon Worlds. She was a logical co-favorite. Nicky Samuels was the defending champion in Maui and did better in most ITU racing than you did. How would you evaluate your chances going into Maui?

Flora: I was quietly confident, given my XTERRA racing this year. I improved so much skill-wise on the mountain bike and I was far stronger on my run. [At the XTERRA USA Championship, Duffy’s race-best run was 3:39 better than runner-up Barbara Riveros and 6:31 better than Lesley Paterson] Before Maui, I was in really good shape. I really focused on it. I knew the nutrition I needed to take in. I knew I was climbing way better than last year. I was healthier and lighter because I had been training hard.

ST: How many pounds less?

Flora: I don’t know. I am not a pound counter. So I couldn’t tell you. I knew Nicky would be very tough because she is a strong cyclist and a great swimmer and runner. But Maui has enough technical aspects so I knew I could get some time on her.

ST: How did your race start?

Flora: I managed to get a fair amount of time on the swim and the bike legs. I came on to the run with a 3 and half minutes lead. And that was good because I had that crash at Mile 7.

ST: What caused the crash?

Flora: It happened at the steepest most technical part. Single track. There are some roots and after the rains this week, it was still wet and muddy. I was just hit a root wrong.

ST: Lucky that crash did not knock you out?

Flora: Yep. I flopped over the handlebars, into the bushes and landed on my head as the bike fell on top of me. At first I was disoriented and wasn't sure I could go on.

ST: How did you recover?

Flora: I had not crashed all year and it caught me off guard. It took me a few moments to gather myself. Then I had to deal with a mechanical issue – my chain got caught between the frame and the cassette, so I had to pull it out. Fortunately, no women passed me.

ST: Why did you hold everyone off this year?

Flora: This year my fitness is incomparably better. And I learned to take in enough nutrition and hydration to avoid the bonk I suffered last year as Lesley Paterson passed me near the finish.

ST: How will you adjust your schedule this coming year?

Flora: I will do a lot more ITU races. The focus will be on that. Then I will do XTERRA at the end of the year, once the ITU season is wrapped up. There will be plenty of time between that last WTS race and Maui to get on my mountain bike and do some more specific work.

ST: What you did this year can translate to ITU racing next year?

Flora: I think I am a bit stronger on the bike now. That helps. I am a stronger runner endurance wise. XTERRA helped me there. So I just need to focus on my speed and fine tune all that. A lot of what it's helped is my confidence. It is boosted after you know winning a world title and winning a series. That has boosted it.

ST: You won the XTERRA US series – so do you take satisfaction that you did not just get lucky on one day?

Flora: Yeah. It is pretty cool. I will definitely take that into next year.

ST: Your swim is always good. If you focus on that you will be back in the front pack again. And your bike will keep you there. And your run might get you some podiums?

Flora: My run has always been my weaker part. I will focus a bit more on my run and understand a bit more what it takes to perform well in ITU races.