On the throttle with Kona superstar Ruth Purbrook

Ruth Purbrook's season almost ended after a collision with a car earlier this summer, but with grit and determination she came back to grab the top overall female age group spot at the IRONMAN World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. I had a few words with her after that superb effort.

Ruth Purbrook: No problem, thank you for having me.

ST: You were the top female amateur in Kona and that is quite an achievement in such a loaded field. Did you receive a big welcome home upon your return?

Ruth: I have had so much support from my friends and family, however arriving home on Thursday afternoon and being straight back into the office on Friday I haven’t had much time to celebrate yet. However, I have lots of celebrations booked in with friends and family over the next few weeks, so looking forward to catching up with everyone!

ST: What is actually your day job?

Ruth: I work for Lloyds Banking Group, as an Executive Assistant to the Chief Information Officer (who runs all of the Group’s IT and Payments), which basically involves a range of things from preparing presentations, people related issues, strategy and random issues that come up. It is an intense job, and I work on average 55-60 hours a week, sometimes up to 70 hours depending on what is going on.

ST: How do you find time to train?

Ruth: I am lucky in that I am a morning person, so I am up bring and early (4.30am – 4.45am) to squeeze a session in before getting to work, and most days I will have an evening session as well. I am pretty organized, and I don’t tend to do much during the week other than work and train, leaving most socializing to the weekends (or combining with training with friends). I think it is easy to make time for something if you prioritize it, although I don’t have the added complication of children, so one less commitment to fit in!

ST: Describe a heavy training week leading up to Kona.

Ruth: Four weeks before Kona I had a 22.5 hour training week. Unlike last year I was not doing huge swim volume, as had only been back swimming for a couple of weeks post my collarbone surgery. So the week looked like:
- Monday – 2.5k tech swim in the morning, recovery turbo in the evening (had a big weekend of training)
- Tuesday – 3.8k endurance swim in the morning, 1 hour endurance run in the evening
- Wednesday – 3k threshold swim in the morning, 2 hour turbo with sweet spot intervals in the evening
- Thursday – 2 hour easy ride in the morning, 1 hour interval run in the heat chamber in the evening
- Friday – 3.8k threshold swim in the morning, 80 minutes turbo interval session in the heat chamber in the evening
- Saturday – 6 hour endurance ride
- Sunday – 1 hour bike with 30 minutes at IM race pace straight into 2.5hour run with tempo intervals

ST: I believe your first Ironman event was in 2017 in Lanzarote.

Ruth: Yes – I picked Lanzarote as my first IM as I wanted one where there weren’t big draft packs on the bike, to take advantage of being a strong biker. Lanzarote was a bit of a disaster though! I was sick straight out of the swim, and had to make a few stops on the bike to go to the toilet, and had a serious bonk around 140k. The run I was hopping between portaloos, and it was generally a pretty miserable experience. I was 3rd in my age group but fortunately got my Kona slot as the lady in 1st place already had one, and 2nd place didn’t want it. Fortunately my first Kona was really good fun. I didn’t have any expectations - I just wanted a better Ironman than Lanzarote. So to come away with 3rd place was a pretty awesome result. This gave me the hunger to go back and win. So I qualified in 2018 and managed to win my age group and was 3rd overall.

ST: How does the Lanzarote course compare to Kona?

Ruth: Lanzarote does have some similarities to Kona, but some key differences! The swim is usually wetsuit, and whilst it can be quite choppy in the sea, you don’t get the same swells that you can get in Kona. Onto the bike and Lanzarote is similar to Kona only in that it is usually reasonably hot and windy. The year I did it we had headwind for around 60k, which then switched round when we turned at the top of the island and we had headwind on the way back as well! This is similar to Kona in that you get some nice cross tailwinds coming down Hawi, but as you turn back onto the Queen K these usually switch back to being a headwind – which can be demoralizing! Lanzarote has some longer climbs and drags to Kona, and overall much more climbing, as well as some pretty terrible road surfaces - which you don’t get in Kona. The run also has some similarities in that it is usually very hot, but the Lanzarote run is flat, and you have more sections where you get good crowd support. One of the main challenges of the run in Kona is how long the stretches are where spectators aren’t allowed, so mentally this is really tough. And the biggest difference is the humidity – whilst both can be hot, Kona is always pretty humid which adds an extra element of difficulty.

ST: You had a big setback earlier this summer.

Ruth: Yes – having had a stress reaction earlier in the season, I was looking forward to a good build into Kona post Challenge Roth. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks after Roth a car turned across a couple of friends and I whilst we were out cycling, and I broke my collarbone. I waited 10 days for surgery, and there were 4 weeks where I was not able to raise my arm above shoulder height. With the swim being my weakness, not being able to swim definitely worried me! However I was able to get back onto Zwift 2 days after surgery, and fortunately running was ok after about a week, so I managed to get back into training after a couple of weeks of just moving a bit.

ST: It appears that you managed just fine despite what could have been the end of your season, or your life.

Ruth: Yes – one of the key takeaways has been that sometimes enforced rest is pretty good for you, and that it is also possible to build your fitness back pretty quickly if you have a good base. I also had amazing support from family and training partners – with people coming to turbo and run with me to keep me motivated, as well as providing a good supply of chocolate! My surgeon and physio were also brilliant, and helped get me back quickly without pushing too hard.

ST: Is chocolate your vice?

Ruth: Chocolate is definitely one of my vices, alongside wine and gin! I am a big believer in having treats though, and I don’t tend to restrict myself diet wise other than generally eating very healthily with the support of Alan Murchison, and having a few chocolate and wine treats here and there.

ST: Earlier you mentioned swimming being your weakness. What are you doing to address this?

Ruth: One of my constraints has been fitting in more swimming around work, so I will be using my sabbatical in January to do a real swim focus and just up my volume. I will also try and swim more with some proper swim squads, as I saw some good improvements from doing a regular Monday session with a group of fast swimmers.

ST: Describe a really hard swim workout please.

Ruth: Probably the hardest one I do is with the swim squad I mentioned above, which is pretty simple. 600m warmup, then 8 x 400m off 6.15. I usually just managed 333m (33m pool) so I get some actual rest, although I use how many I can hang on for 400m as my barometer for how the swim is going!

ST: Talk about you Kona race.

Ruth: The race itself all went pretty smoothly. I was surprised that the wave start actually seemed quite a lot better in terms of spreading the field out. I thought it would feel worse for the women, but actually it was easier to swim through the men, and there was more space on the bike. So a few packs of around 30 people as opposed to the previous packs of hundreds! So the swim was fairly good, I found some good feet to drag me around, and came out in 1.01, which is 2 minutes faster than the previous 2 years! Out onto the bike and I just felt good. Fortunately there was some wind, so I was able to take advantage of being so aero. I thought I was probably having a pretty good day when I caught one of my guy friends on the bike coming back from Hawi. I had no idea where I was position wise, but thought I must be pretty up there. Coming onto the run, I set off way too fast but was just trying to run at a comfortable pace and restrain myself a bit. I got my first proper split about 2k into the run, where I was told I had a lead of 10 minutes. Given the year before I was run down from an overall age group perspective from a 5 minute gap I knew I couldn’t be cocky and just had to keep moving. I felt pretty comfortable on the run until around 33k, when the legs fell off a bit. Fortunately I bumped into someone to run with, and he managed to keep me going when I tried to walk through the aid stations, and keep a good rhythm up the whole way back. Coming over the finish line was pretty special, having worked so hard all year towards that goal, and thinking that it had almost been taken away by the driver. To be able to achieve the age group win was pretty special.

ST: Describe your bike setup.

Ruth: I am very lucky in that Specialized provided the Zwift Academy team with the Shiv disc TT bike, which is so fast! I had a bike fit with Matt Bottrill so have changed the front end to have 40 degrees aerobars for a higher hand position, and his custom armrest that is all one piece. I had a 55 chain ring on the front so I could deal with the cross winds coming back from Hawi, and we were fitted with Ceramic Speed OSPW and chain in the week leading up to the race. I was running the Specialized tubeless tires which were super smooth.

ST: Have you been to the wind tunnel?

Ruth: Yes – back in April when we had our team camp in San Francisco we visited the Specialized headquarters and had some time in their Win Tunnel. This was so interesting to see the difference that some minor changes can make, such as shrugging your shoulders, different helmets or just shifting the position a little bit.

ST: What about your running shoes?

Ruth: I do all my training in a variety of On Trainers, from their more cushioned shoes to the flatter racing shoes depending on the terrain I am running on or the kind of session I am doing. I have done my last couple of races in the Nike Next %, which I was a bit dubious about, but having heard good things from friends who are pure runners I gave them a shot, and so far they have given me a ½ marathon and marathon PR, so they must be doing something good for me!

ST: I don’t think you were the only athlete in Kona with those shoes.

Ruth: No! It was the same at 70.3 World Champs, a sea of bright green on the run course! They do seem to be genuinely fast shoes, and I’m sure the other brands will be developing similar shoes pretty soon!

ST: Word has it that you had a lot of support through that Zwift setup.

Ruth: This year getting onto the Zwift Academy has been the most amazing experience. We have all the best kit - full Zwift set up from Wahoo, the Specialized Shiv disc bike, TT helmet and shoes, Roka swim skin and wetsuit, and Science in Sport nutrition. We have had such great support from everyone, and having Tim Don and Sarah True as mentors has also been really helpful, getting all sorts of tips and advice from them. Most of the team flew out 2 weeks before the race, so we had lots of fun training together prior to the race. Zwift sorted out athlete accommodation and the whole experience was like being a VIP - our food was cooked for us, we were driven to places like the energy lab to run there, and generally didn’t have to do very much other than our training and relaxing!

ST: What is next for you?

Ruth: So I am very excited that I have got work to sign off going on sabbatical in January, and I will take my pro license and compete as a pro next year. I was initially unsure what I would target, but given my result this year I think I will aim to go to Kona next year as a pro, but let’s see what happens! I know the pro race will feel completely different, and that I need to make some big improvements on the swim and run to be competitive, so the challenge will be doing that and keeping it fun!

ST: When you move to Pro will that impact your relationship with the Zwift Academy?

Ruth: So the Zwift Academy was only a contract up to Kona this year, so going pro doesn’t impact that, as we are no longer part of the Academy. However the support we received this year and the contacts we made have put me in a better position than I would have been in terms of having some initial conversations with brands.

ST: Is there anything else we should know?

Ruth: I guess the only thing I would add is that you shouldn’t be afraid to set yourself ambitious goals – if you put the hard work in consistently then you can achieve great results.

All images © Jeff Thoren / Zwift