For Americans who have only a vague idea of British headliners, Emma-Kate Lidbury has been mistaken for Princess Diana (voice and looks). Perhaps she will have an even tougher time establishing her unique identity in the world of long distance triathlon as she is the latest in a long line of women from the United Kingdom to take victories in Ironman 70.3 and longer arenas.
But it only takes a few moments of conversation to realize that Emma-Kate is smart and funny, a one of a kind personality with a bright future in her chosen sport – in which she is yet another late bloomer who has made her first big breakthrough at the age of 31.
This interview started at the Slowtwitch Kona party this October – where Lidbury was taking it all in as a spectator. It concluded with some further questions and answers via email from her home in Great Britain.
Slowtwitch: Most hyphenated names are last names. Why Emma-Kate?
Emma-Kate Lidbury: My mum liked Emma, my dad Kate and neither wanted to back down, so I got the hyphenated first name – and all of that stubbornness! Very few people actually call me Emma-Kate. I’m almost always ‘EK’, ‘Eek’ or ‘Lidders’. I’ve never been Emma.
ST: Jane Austen might have understood being torn in two directions. But she likely preferred Emma. So where is home?
Emma-Kate: Oxford, England. I’ve lived here for the past six years but am originally from a small town called Cricklade in Wiltshire, southwest England. I lived there until heading off to Loughborough University, which is one of the big sports universities here in England – sport has always been a big part of my life.
ST: What did you study?
Emma-Kate: I studied for joint honors in English and Sports Science.
ST: Your favorite novelist?
Emma-Kate: Probably F. Scott Fitzgerald. I just reread Gatsby actually. I love it! I spent August through to early November in the States, so I really got back into all the American literature which I loved as a student. I like the 1920s and 1930s guys like John Dos Passos [USA Trilogy, Manhattan Transfer and his stream of consciousness innovation]. I like that whole era, the Lost Generation. And latter day guys like Tom Wolfe. I’ve had my head in a few books of late so that’s been keeping me busy the last few weeks.
ST: After University?
Emma-Kate: I went on to graduate school at Cardiff University where I studied journalism and then spent the next five years working as a journalist, mostly at regional newspapers. I still write and I still love the whole journalism/media world.
ST: How did you get into triathlon?
Emma-Kate: It is only because of journalism that I got into triathlon.
ST: How did that happen?
Emma-Kate: It's a great tale actually. I was one of the ‘healthier’ looking reporters at the Oxford Mail and Times back in 2005. They were sponsoring the inaugural Blenheim Triathlon, which takes place at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, [birthplace of Winston Churchill] and they wanted a reporter to do the race.
ST: What sports had you done before?
Emma-Kate: I was a competitive swimmer as a youngster.
ST: Which was an excellent base to become a triathlete?
Emma-Kate: It was a great start. I had ridden a bike as a kid, but never anything serious, just a few skids and wheelies. And I’d done a bit of jogging but certainly wasn’t a runner. The swim background came in really handy - I winged it for everything else and I loved it.
ST: What have been your best performances in this sport?
Emma-Kate: They all came this year. It’s been a breakthrough season: I won 70.3 Mallorca and then four weeks later won 70.3 UK. I was 8th at the 70.3 World Championships in Vegas and then a fortnight later won 70.3 Augusta. It’s been a great year and there’s still one race to go – 70.3 Phuket on December 4.
ST: The UK half is a very tough course.
Emma-Kate: It is brutal - classically British. The weather, the landscape, the whole race weekend is one great adventure.
ST: It’s in Wimbleball – which sounds right out of the Harry Potter books. And it's rumored to be a mysterious place.
Emma-Kate: It certainly is. The lack of cell phone coverage lends to its mystery. I know it frustrates you guys trying to write same day stories from afar. LAUGHS
ST: Then recently you raced the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Las Vegas and placed 8th.
Emma-Kate: Yes, I was in great shape for that race. Unfortunately a four-minute drafting penalty cost me a higher placing, but it gave me great confidence to know I’m right up there. I was 10th last year at Clearwater and 10th in Abu Dhabi this year, which was my long course debut, so I’ve had a strong year.
ST: There is not much money in the sport - at first. How do you keep afloat?
Emma-Kate: You’re right – there isn’t! I am fortunate to have some good sponsors on board who have helped me ever since I was racing as an age grouper. My main sponsor is the online bike and triathlon retailer Wiggle. They ship to 80 countries worldwide and are growing at a rapid rate. I am very grateful to have such loyal sponsors. I’m also sponsored by a local accountancy firm, Morris Owen, and a telecoms firm, Virtua.
ST: What were your best performances as an amateur?
Emma-Kate: I won the European Age Group Championships (overall and the 25-29 age group) in Portugal in 2008 and was second overall amateur in the 2008 ITU World Championship in Vancouver. In 2007, I won the bronze medal in my age group at the ITU Worlds in Hamburg. It’s been a great journey from age grouper to pro.
ST: How did you endure the arctic waters in Vancouver?
Emma-Kate: Yes, horrible! I won’t forget that swim in a hurry. That is still the coldest, most horrible swim ever.
ST: Who is the lucky boyfriend?
Emma-Kate: Ian Osborne – a triathlete himself and tri journalist/photographer. I am lucky to have a partner who is so understanding of triathlon. He is my training partner, adviser, mechanic, cook and masseur all rolled into one. No contract -- but there is plenty of work for him…
ST: Have you been inspired during your stay in Kona to move up in distance next year?
Emma-Kate: Yes. I was riding on the Queen K and wondering -- will next year be too soon?
ST: Do your wins this year give you confidence to move ahead?
Emma-Kate: The wins this year have set me up rather nicely. I'm thinking about stepping up maybe next year - or the year after.
ST: What do your parents think about your profession?
Emma-Kate: My dad Michael, an electrical engineer, a huge sports fan – rugby player, squash player, but only recreationally -- died eight years ago. He would love what I'm doing now. I was very close to him. He got me into swimming and would take me to the pool at all hours of the day. My mum Jayne is one of my biggest supporters. She loves triathlon and the fact that I am doing what I love. Her advice is 'Do what makes you happy.' So, since I took part in that first race as a journalist, she saw just how much I was enthused by it, how much it set me alive, and ever since she has nurtured and supported me at every step. I have two younger sisters – Helen and Susie – and we’re all very close.
ST: Growing up, what were some setbacks/tough times you had to overcome and how did you go about it?
Emma-Kate: I was very fortunate to have a brilliant childhood and great start in life. My parents encouraged me to take part in as many different activities as possible and I was bright academically. I learnt a lot about life through competitive swimming. The toughest times came aged 22 when my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly from a heart attack.
ST: What did you learn from it?
Emma-Kate: There is always hope. And that I’m stronger than I’d ever realised.
ST: Does anyone in the sporting world inspire you?
Emma-Kate: Chrissie is the obvious choice and the first person who springs to mind, but there are a lot of girls out there who I can’t help but be inspired by. Chrissie and I both raced at the 2006 ITU Worlds when she won the overall age group title. I was 8th in the age group that day and can remember her blitzing passed me on the bike. What she has done since then is nothing short of phenomenal.
ST: Really there are a lot of excellent British women now in long course triathlon. They rule. What has their dominance meant to you?
Emma-Kate: Yes! Leanda, Julie, Jodie, Rachel, Cat Morrison. I've trained a lot with Rachel and have learned a lot from her. It’s awesome to see her getting the recognition she deserves. It is great to come from a hotbed of talent where everybody is improving. I spent some time training with Cat and Rachel this summer and it was a great insight into what it takes to be a truly world class Ironman athlete. I was seriously impressed.
ST: Of the swim, bike or run, which is your ace in the hole and which one needs the most work?
Emma-Kate: Coming into triathlon, my swimming was definitely the strongest but I’d say now it’s my bike, although there’s still plenty of room for improvement there. My run [right now she averages 1:27 to 1:29 for the half marathon] is the discipline which needs the most work. It improved a lot this season but I am still a long way from my full potential.
ST: Which leg of the triathlon has the best prospects for the future and why?
Emma-Kate: Probably my bike, but my run is also a big work in progress too. My biking is strong but it wasn’t my focus this year, so with some specific, focused work I think I’ll see significant improvements.
ST: What about your first triathlon left you so exhilarated and sure you
Emma-Kate: It reawakened the competitor in me which had laid dormant since my competitive swimming days and just made me feel so alive. I immediately wanted to do it again – get stronger, faster, fitter. The racer in me came back in an instant.
ST: Talk about your first breakthrough race which revealed that you were capable of racing with the best in the sport?
Emma-Kate: Although my real breakthrough results have come this year, I think my first breakthrough race was probably 70.3 UK in 2010 when I led the race and held off the defending champion Bella Bayliss until the closing stages of the run. [EKL’s 25:45 swim and 2:52:20 bike gave her a 1:14 lead at T2 – then her 1:33:40 run gave back 4:03 to Bayliss] Leading the race for so long but ultimately losing made me even hungrier for victory and helped fuel the fire for my 2011 season.
ST: What did your UK 70.3 and Mallorca and Augusta 70.3 wins mean to you?
Emma-Kate: A lot! Mallorca was great – it was my first 70.3 title and almost came as a bit of a surprise. I knew I was in great shape and believed I could win, so it was brilliant to have it all come together. Winning UK 70.3 possibly meant even more because I’d come so close to winning it the year before. [In 2011, she held off fast–closing Irish newcomer Eimear Mullan by 39 seconds] I surprised myself with my reaction as I ran down the finish chute to take the win – I was totally psyched for that race! The win in Augusta [where her 4:19:31 finish topped Amanda Lovato by 6:17] was brilliant – it helped lift me after the frustrations of Vegas and gave my confidence a huge boost. It was also great to get a win in the US where I’m still a new face on the scene.
ST: Which performance, regardless of how you finished, are you most proud of?
Emma-Kate: Perhaps 70.3 UK this year. It was a very close race and there were plenty of times when. if it hadn’t have been for some serious self-belief and self-talk, then I wouldn’t have come away with the title. I came out of T2 in second place four minutes back [of Simone Benz] , ran myself up to 1st but was then caught and had to do some serious running to get back into the lead. Great racing!
ST: What other sports do you watch and why do they intrigue you?
Emma-Kate: I used to be a big football (soccer) fan but my love for the game has diminished rapidly. Premiership football in England has been ruined by money. I still follow my local teams but it’s been years since I went to a match. I love watching rugby union, basketball, athletics, netball – in fact, there are few sports I don’t enjoy watching. And watching cricket on TV is always good for an afternoon nap ;-)
ST: What makes you most proud of being a citizen of the UK?
Emma-Kate: It’s funny, it was only being away from home in the US for 10 weeks or so this year which made me realise how proud I am to be British. I love our stoicism, sense of humour, odd national dishes (think fish and chips or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding) and our “funny” accents. Someone in Kona told me I sounded like Princess Diana, which still makes me chuckle.
ST: What issues in modern life concern you the most?
Emma-Kate: Childhood obesity and the demise of competition and physical activity in schools. Since when did it become OK to grow up in front of video games? I realise not everyone wants their children to be sports stars, but I think more needs to be done to prevent a generation growing up to lead very unhealthy and unfulfilled lives.
ST: Of all you have seen and done in triathlon, is there something that made you laugh most heartily?
Emma-Kate: Probably quite a few things from the post-race party at Clearwater last year, but that’s a whole other story…
ST: Who is your most influential coach /adviser and why?
Emma-Kate: A good friend and talented Ironman, Mark Stenning, has been my coach/mentor for the past couple of years and he has really helped me develop from age grouper to pro. I have recently teamed up with Matt Dixon and his Purplepatch Fitness squad, so I am very excited to be joining Matt’s team and believe together we can really take my performance to the next level. We’ll begin working together once I return from Laguna Phuket.
ST: What is your favorite thing to do with a day off?
Emma-Kate: Go to my favourite coffee shop in Oxford, put my feet up, read the newspaper, mess about on Twitter and generally just switch off. Then when I’m suitably recharged I’ll go to see my three-year-old nephew Alex who is a complete handful and always wants to have running races with his Auntie EK.
ST: What was your biggest mistake - in sport or life?
Emma-Kate: Not pinching Andreas Raelert’s butt when I was stood on the podium with him at 70.3 Mallorca ;-)
ST: What is your most important target next year in triathlon?
Emma-Kate: Vegas baby!