The High Flying Women of Zwift's Academy Triathlon Team

Before the start canon even blasted in Kona, the Zwift Academy Tri program had already accomplished it's stated goal of qualifying all eight of it's selected age group athletes to the starting line of the IRONMAN World Championships.

While the four men performed solidly, led by Germany's Phillip Herber (8:55:15 and 4th 30-34 AG), they were overshadowed by the remarkable races executed by their women teammates.

Great Britain's Ruth Purbrook earned top honors as the overall female age group finisher in 9:20:06 and our very own Herbert Krabel interviewed her earlier in the week.

Less than 20 minutes after Purbrook crossed the line, her pint-sized South African teammate, Natia Van Heerden, finished as the third overall amateur woman and tops in the 25-29 age group in 9:39:20.

In only her third ever triathlon, Maggie Walsh, gritted out a runner-up finish in the 35-39 age group relinquishing her lead in the late stages of the marathon to eventual winner Jana Richtrova.

Uncertain she would even be able to run on race day due to a stress fracture in her heel, Canadian Yvonne Timewell yo-yo'd throughout the day with Bermuda's Karen Smith, earning a hard-fought third place in the 50-54 category.

We caught up with these incredible women to hear about their Kona experience.

Slowtwitch: How did race day go for you?

Yvonne: Going into the race I wasn't feeling 100% confident as I was dealing with a stress fracture in my heel for eight weeks. I had substituted my run workouts for water running. Also, arriving on the island I developed a nasty chest cold, but luckily race day was at the tail end of it. So I had a lot of things going through my mind! The swim is my weakest discipline so when I exited the water in one piece that was a success. I had so much fun on the bike with all the Kona elements dealt to us. My new Specialized Shiv Disc was simply a machine and I felt great all day on the bike. Getting off the bike I was in fifth position and was worried about my foot! Would it hold up, would I injury it again, can I do this? I ended running into third position. Wow, water running does work! Just elated with my result and the rest of the Specialized Zwift Academy Tri Team results!

Natia: Reflecting on the race, I think the conditions were rather mild compared to what I was expecting. The run was definitely much cooler than usual thanks to the cloud cover. I loved the support along the course from volunteers, spectators and friends and the whole world championship experience was very special.

Slowtwitch: Did you have any important workouts you did on a regular basis in your training to lead into race day?

Yvonne: Looking back at my training, my Tuesday Time Trials up Alp du Zwift was my strength fitness gauge. I love hills and was trying to break 50 minutes, which I finally did! Nursing the injury, I was doing a lot of water running, and did four weekends of 2.5 hour water runs! That was mentally hard, luckily one of the water runs was in Okanagan Lake.

Natia: I think consistency in my training plays a huge part in my success. But if I have to choose sessions it would be a lot of over gear turbo sessions I think twice per week which has built my bike strength as well as long threshold sessions on the turbo. I do 90% of my riding on the turbo, including my long rides. And key run sessions would be Thursday’s interval sessions after a hard bike session the morning. The run intervals are usually around 1k or 2k reps.

Maggie: I don't know if there were any particular workouts that stood out as super important, more just the accumulation of weeks and months of consistent work. If I had to pick, I'd say my last big trainer session which was 5 hours with 3 rounds of 30 minutes at 90-percent FTP, 20 minutes at 85-percent FTP, and 10 minutes at 85-percent FTP as big gear cadence. I also had a couple big swim sessions in the final month.

Slowtwitch: Did you make any big mistakes on race day?

Yvonne: I have been working on my swim a lot, so at the start of the race I started up front with the girls I can swim with now. Unfortunately, I didn't sight much at the start and at one point I thought I was leading because no one was around me. I stopped to look and I had completely gone the opposite direction! Lesson learned.

Natia: I definitely had too many carbs during the race, though not sure exactly where yet, and paid for it the last 10k of the run. So, I have that data now and will look at it again and make some changes for my next race. As a result, I could definitely have had a better run so I am a little sad about that. I lost time at special needs on the bike as well, so I’d want to smooth that out too.

Maggie: I tend to learn a lot every race because I've done so few. Transitions are always on my list of areas to improve and that was no different in Kona. They were pretty bad. The bike as well, just learning to actually race my bike over 112 miles. I find that I tend to start daydreaming out there and lose focus so figuring out how I can break down the 112 miles to maintain focus will be important moving forward.

Slowtwitch: Was there any added motivation knowing you had teammates out there on course?

Yvonne: With the new wave starts, I started last, so to see the my Zwift Academy teammates coming back from Hawi was definitely motivating. To see Levi (editor's note: Levi Hauwert finished in 8:57:06 for 6th in the 30-34 division) in one of the top positions on the bike as I was heading into Hawi was an instant recharge for me. The camaraderie within the team was great, while everyone was executing their own races, we all took the time to give a high five or a "ride on" when we crossed paths on the bike or run. Got to love that!

Natia: Ah man, that was incredible! I saw Johan from Specialized just before I entered transition on race morning and he gave me a big wave. I found Sarah (True) as I was exiting and gave her a big hug. Going up Hawi it was easy to spot the guys flying down and one of them gave me a big cheer. On the run, Ruth and I were cheering and high-fiving each other. It was just so much fun! We had Tim (Don) and the other Zwift Academy staff members scattered out on the course cheering for us. It really made the day a little easier and so special.

Maggie: Being part of the team was a great experience, truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. As someone who is still relatively new to the sport, it was great to have access to a handful of experienced athletes to learn from. The support we received was amazing. Zwift, Specialized, ROKA, Science In Sport, and Wahoo, all top notch brands, and I can't say enough about the people behind the brands. Being on the team added to the thrill of racing in Kona. Obviously the kits and bikes were bright so it was easy to spot everyone on the course. Giving head nods and high fives along the way really made it feel like you weren't out there suffering alone. Zwift did an amazing job of picking a great group of athletes. Beyond great athletes, they're all great people and I really wanted everyone to do well and was always excited to see everyone out on the course to cheer them on.

Slowtwitch: What does it mean to earn a podium spot in your age-group in Kona?

Yvonne: I put a lot of pressure on myself this year to try and get on the podium, but coming into the race off an injury was not helping my confidence, which is a weakness of mine. The Zwift Academy staff knew I was injured and assured me there was no pressure from the team so just absolutely thrilled I took a spot on the podium. I could barely walk the next day. Water running didn't prepare me for all the pavement pounding, but I can assure you it prepared me for this race!

Natia: I am very proud of myself for persevering after my five failed attempts to qualify for Kona over the last three years. Coming out on top was just the cherry on top. I am very excited about my result as it shows how much I have improved as an athlete, and I am excited to see what else I can do in the next few years.

Slowtwitch: What did you learn this past year that you will be able to take with you in your future triathlon journey? What will you miss the most?

Yvonne: The biggest improvement for me was my bike position. Having the opportunity to visit the Specialized wind tunnel in Morgan Hill showed me that I needed to look at a better aero position. The Specialized Shiv Disc has such a convenient cockpit, so it was easy to gradually change to achieve the best position for me. Also, it was such a privilege having Tim Don and Sarah True as our mentors. They shared a great wealth of knowledge with us. They both are truly incredible and unique characters that I was able to share a lot of laughs with.
It will be hard not seeing everyone as some great friendships developed. I am trying to convince a few of them to race at Ironman Penticton next year!

Natia: I learned a great deal about bikes and different components! I was pretty clueless! I think the biggest help was from Specialized and being able to race on the Specialized S-works Shiv Disc. I needed guidance with my position and aerodynamics which we sorted out by having Retül fittings done, metabolic and wind tunnel testing at Specialized HQ. I used to be 30 minutes back coming off the bike at all my previous IRONMAN races, so the changes have made a big difference.

Zwift made our trip to Kona effortless. They absorbed most of our stress so that we could focus on the race. Without the team and partners I don’t think would have been as well prepared. That will be missed!

Maggie: The perseverance and dedication to the sport each one of my teammates has is truly admirable. I think we'll all keep in touch and our WhatsApp group will live on. I'm just excited to see where everyone goes from here and root for them!

Slowtwitch: Have you considered if a push to Kona will be in your 2020 plans?

Yvonne: I have told a bunch of friends last year after Kona I was retiring from the sport! I have signed up for IRONMAN Canada back in Penticton, however I might defer this entry. I would like to get healthy and rest my foot until it is 100%. Going fullsend for the last two years with a family and work, well, I need a rest. However, rest isn't sitting on the couch, I have to keep up to my family who are very active in gravel racing and mountain bike racing. As a long term goal, I'd like to come back to Kona when I age up perhaps.

Natia: I will sit down with my coach next week to discuss 2020 and going forward. We spoke a bit about taking my pro card, but we were waiting to see how I did in Kona before making a final decision. I have a few fun end-of-season races coming up but nothing too serious.
I’ll definitely race IRONMAN African Champs again as it’s a home race for me. And I might join a few fellow teammates athletes at Challenge Roth. I definitely want to return to Kona, but as a pro, and give it a shot for that top step! I’ll give myself a few years though.

Maggie: At this point, I'm thinking of doing an Ironman this summer to hopefully snag another Kona slot. I feel like I have some unfinished business on that island.

Do you aspire to race in Kona? The Zwift Academy Tri program currently has almost 27,000 signed up for one of the six available spots for the 2020 program. Click here to find out if you've met the requirements.

All images by Jeff Thoren / Zwift