Christine Hoffmann was the top female age group athlete at Ironman Arizona in 9:47:57, but she initially was not meant to race there and had another major event looming large just a few days later.
The Ironman World Championships were meant to be the season ending event, but things did not go as planned on that day and thus she decided to race Ironman Arizona - 5 days before her wedding day.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Christine.
Christine Hoffmann: Thank you for having me. I love when you feature amateurs as I really feel like I can relate for the most part. So it feels like an honor to be the one featured! My husband James Haycraft may or may not spend a lot of time on Slowtwitch, so I feel as though I am crashing his world a little bit. I can only hope he has a good reputation on the forums! True story: James has four close friends he made from this forum; they have a group text that never dies, and I consult with them on all my equipment choices. They are brutally honest and highly opinionated.
ST: I guess that means you do not frequent the forums, or you may have spotted your husband.
Christine: I do actively search the forums for specific things such as advice on race destination or logistics. Or after a race if I felt like the bike course was particularly drafty or the distance seemed off I will check the forums to see if it is an active topic and if others can verify what I was thinking. Otherwise I feel like I am encroaching on his space so try to stay out and not lurk. I do get alerted by friends by things he might say that are funny, things that mention me, or if he was being particularly antagonistic.
ST: You actually have been very busy since Ironman Arizona.
Christine: Yes, busy feels like an understatement in retrospect. But it is true that I did get on a plane the day after IMAZ to fly to Charlotte, NC where I got married just 5 days after the race. On top of that, I have been swamped with work as this is a very busy time of year for us and my vacation days are scarce as I have raced quite a bit this year. As most age groupers can attest, life sometimes feels like juggling many balls in the air at the same time so it seems fitting to cap off the season with an extremely chaotic week. Let me tell you: packing for an Ironman and wedding at the same time is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone! Nothing like making sure your wedding week clothing does not get mixed in with dirty bike shoes or race nutrition.
ST: The wedding however was planned and Ironman Arizona was a late addition to your schedule.
Christine: It was. We intentionally planned the wedding a few weeks after Kona so I could take a minute to recover and then get to Charlotte (from Tucson where we live) to help my mom and sister, who were planning the wedding, with last minute wedding needs. When I came out of the med tent in Kona after an extremely disappointing race, the first thing James said to me was “if you want to do Ironman Arizona I am on board.” Initially, my gut reaction was NO WAY. I had sworn off Ironman before I even got through the finisher chute at Kona. But then the days went by and I couldn’t let go of the fact that I trained so hard for that race and I had a ton of fitness that wouldn’t be expressed the way we had hoped. My coach David Tilbury-Davis, who I have been working with for the past two years, said he felt like I could knock it out of the park if I decided to do it but there was a lot a lot of life stuff going on that needed to be considered. It took me a few down weeks to see how I recovered and if I could mentally wrap my head around getting through another Ironman distance in a matter of weeks. I spent that time doing unstructured training like mountain biking and jumping into friends run workouts and I ate a fair number of donuts, my favorite off-season treat. I only did one weekend of “just in case” longer workouts two weeks out from IMAZ to test the waters, which were comprised of a 3-hour trainer ride and a 12 mile run the next day.
Soon after that I decided I was feeling mentally and physical recovered, so I decided to give it a shot without telling too many people so the outside pressure was minimized. Luckily, I have a very good friend who is the Director for Smile Train Team Empower, an official Ironman charity partner whose mission is to help raise funds and awareness for children with clefts in the developing world. Smile Train had slots for the race, and as an alumni of the program, I was able to get into the sold out race very last minute. If I could plug Smile Train for a second, this is an amazing group that - in addition to raising funds and awareness for an important cause - provides amazing support on race day for athletes and their families including a tent at the swim start with private bathrooms, hot breakfast, foam rollers, sun screen, and anything else you may need on race morning. Never mind the cheers on the course. I understand 2019 IMAZ is almost sold out so I would highly recommend any folks interested in the race to check them out – early bird $3,500 fundraising minimum includes the race entry itself and a whole lot of VIP support on race day! I often find myself feeling like my triathlon pursuit is an extremely selfish thing so being able to combine it with fundraising efforts for children in need of cleft palate surgery is really rewarding in my experience.
ST: Talk about Kona.
Christine: Kona was a tough day for me. Race day brought us very mild conditions, which I think threw a lot of people off their plan a bit, myself included. The swim was great for me – I swam a 1:05 which is my fastest IM swim to date, which I attribute to catching some feet and sticking on them, in addition to improved swim fitness. When I got on the bike, I felt great and with the favorable conditions, felt like I was flying compared to the first time I did this race in 2016. It was tough to navigate through a bunch of athletes the first 30 miles, but it started to thin out as I got closer to Hawi. During this time I was taking in a bunch of water, in addition to my electrolyte drink, and think I just started to overload my stomach. I overestimated the amount of water I needed on the day, especially for such mild conditions, and by mile 80, I was having a hard time keeping it all down and knew I would be in for a tough day after that. I rolled into transition clocking a 5:10 bike, but on the day my bike should have been closer to 5 or under 5 given initial planned wattage, and the fact that there were no winds and there were points we had generous cloud coverage. I started out the run feeling terrible and by the time I hit Palani, had pulled over to the side of the road to get sick, which continued the next 8 miles. From there, I was walking/running to the finish. There was a huge piece of me that wanted to pull out of the race, but I’ve always tried to finish what I start so DNF-ing does not become a habit. Plus, my family had traveled from the East Coast to cheer me on so I felt like I owed it to them and to James to finish. I ended up in the med tent after with hyponatremia and a good lesson in Ironman nutrition.
ST: Going into the race how did you feel?
Christine: My whole season was geared towards peaking for this race. After a disappointing shot at Kona in 2016, I was set on figuring out how to nail it in 2018. I did several half ironman distances in the spring and early summer with the goal of getting extremely fit only for Oct 13th. It was hard showing up to some of these early season races knowing I wasn’t in perfect half ironman shape but I was able to justify it with the opportunity to practice race mindset, nutrition and transitions. I had a great build going into Kona and felt very fit and even did a fair amount of humidity training. Although it is very hot in Tucson during Kona build months, it is very dry compared to Hawaii. David and I decided to mimic race conditions by splitting up long rides: half outdoor, second half on the trainer with no AC and a large humidifier pumping. The room would get up to 87 degrees and 85% humid which gave me a great opportunity to mimic my nutrition and hydration plan for both bike and run on the treadmill. These rides were tough. James would come in the room after I spent three hours riding in it and walk out in shock as the swamp air overwhelmed him. It was a physical and mental challenge to get through some of those. I also dabbled in some bike racing and group riding during the lead up, which gave me confidence for descending very fast down Hawi. Mentally and physically, I felt very prepared to take on Kona.
ST: What did you think was possible?
Christine: On a good day, I felt podium was well within my reach. I podium-ed at 70.3 Worlds in 2017 with 2nd place AG finish and became fixated on the Ironman World Championship podium after that point.
ST: I think there was a bottle panic on race morning.
Christine: Oh boy. For someone who packs everything for a race from aero press coffee maker to an air-conditioned mattress pad, this was dramatic. When I arrived at transition race morning, it hit me like a ton of bricks that I didn’t have my front aero bottle with me. I didn’t just leave it behind in the vacation rental, I left it behind in Tucson. I went into a complete panic because I convinced myself that this was an integral part in my ability to get in enough liquids on the bike. I found James and suckered him into walking to the expo to see if anyone could help. The expo was very much closed since it was barely 6 in the morning and so we texted our friend Ben Hoffman from Tucson to see if he could help. I knew he wasn’t racing because of an unfortunate injury but remembered seeing social media posts of him with his bike, so was hoping I could take some parts of his front hydration. I don’t think he answered initially and I pleaded with James to call him and wake him up. I was out of my mind. But Ben and Kelsey showed up not too long after with a bottle cage, helped me to calm down , and off I went to the tech tent to get zip ties for my new bottle cage. The irony of this whole saga is that over hydration essentially blew up my race. But their willingness to come out and help me race morning highlights what is so awesome about this sport: from pros to age groupers we are all in it together and there is a ton of comradery between racers of all levels on and off the course.
ST: What did your family say when they learned about the Arizona race 5 days before the wedding?
Christine: I wish I could say my family was surprised, but they know it is not like me to leave something like this alone. I just think the fact that the wedding was 5 days removed from Ironman was a bit concerning given risk for bike crash or Kona level sun burns, and intensity of schedule in the days that would follow the race. My family is heavily involved in Cross Fit at the same box in Charlotte so they can relate to the need for redemption after a failed attempt and general exercise craziness mixed with a healthy serving of competitive spirit. I am just lucky my sister and mother agreed to basically do everything for the wedding so all we really had to do in the end was show up. I was the antithesis of bridezilla. I’ll never forget the extreme lengths they went to make it a special day for us. Family support and encouragement is a big part of my triathlon journey and experience.
ST: Talk about your day?
Christine: Arizona was a good day. We could not have asked for a better day weather wise, even if that meant swimming in 60-degree water and having numb feet for the long, long transition to our bikes. The bike was mild as far as wind, so it was a fast bike. It was my first time going under 5 hours, which was exciting. That was a goal of mine last year when I did Arizona, but came up short by about 2 minutes. The bike course is extremely crowded, so I knew I needed to keep my head up pretty much the entire time if I was going to walk away without any mishaps to report. In fact a fellow competitor and AG-er that I’ve looked up to for a few years now went down on the bike at a turnaround and had to pull out. The race is great but crowded bike is one of the bigger downsides. My nutrition went well on the bike – I learned from Kona and went with my electrolyte drink with just sips of water here and there – and got off the bike keeping it all down. The run was tough and after about 8 miles I knew I had some lingering fatigue from Kona, but I had built up enough of a lead in those miles that I could hang on for the amateur win as long as I didn’t stop or completely blow up. It was a really cool day. I had a lot of my close friends plus James out on the course cheering me on which made it extra special.
ST: How did you celebrate?
Christine: We tried to focus on good recovery post race given the impending wedding so nothing too crazy. We did get to meet up with our good friends from Tucson later in the evening– Jesse Vondracek and his wife Amy and their new baby– to recap some of the race. Jesse had a breakthrough in the male pro race with a sub 3 run and we were very happy for him.
ST: You came to triathlon relatively late after briefly shining brightly at Timberman in 2007. But back then it was simply too expensive?
Christine: Yes. In the midst of semi casual marathons and run training, a friend convinced me to sign up for a half-iron distance race called Timberman within driving distance of NYC where I was living at the time. I trained with a group called TriLife and had the time of my life training for 5 months with them. I was in my early 20’s and it was early in my working career so tried to find starter equipment on the cheap. I raced on a Cannondale Synapse with clip on aero bars and wore a used road helmet. I was so oblivious to the whole thing. I won my AG at that race but I don’t think I realized the significance. I was overwhelmed at the time by the cost of being a triathlete in the big city when it came to purchasing equipment, coaching, pool and gym access, race fees, travel etc. and decided to focus on running instead to see just how far I could go with it.
ST: How did running find you?
Christine: I picked up running after college as a stress reliever while I was living with three roommates and working in NYC. New York Road Runners had a race almost every weekend in Central Park. At the time you could just walk up and sign up same day so it was a casual weekend hobby at first. I did a 5k, 10k, then it snowballed to my first marathon where I qualified for Boston. I got a coach who taught me everything I know about running and later progressed to some faster times such as 2:54 marathon in NYC and 1:18 half marathon in Houston. At one point I felt I was in shape to run something in the realm of Olympic Trials Qualifier but could never stay healthy enough to get to the start line to do it. That’s when I turned back towards triathlon – I was sick of being injured, and as a 30th birthday present to myself I signed up for Ironman Louisville with some friends.
ST: In 2015 you returned to triathlon and grabbed a Kona spot in your first Ironman. Were you at all surprised or did you think that might be possible.
Christine: After I signed up, I reached out to one of the coaches who helped me with that triathlon back in my early 20’s. His name is Earl Walton and he owns a trainer studio in NYC called Tailwind. I sat down and told Earl I wanted to qualify for Kona in my first Ironman, and he said heck yes let’s do it. Earl did a great job getting me to Louisville fit and ready for that race even though I had such limited experience with the bike and almost no swim technique. I ran a 3:14 off the bike that race and I think I smiled almost the whole day. It is still one of my favorite triathlon memories to date.
ST: I think you mostly train indoors. Is that mostly a temperature issue or a timing issue?
Christine: It is mostly timing. I work remotely for my company from my house, but I am still very much on an 8-5 type schedule with calls all day so can’t stray too far other than to get something to eat in my kitchen. David is a smart-quality not dumb-quantity guy and training indoors on the trainer and treadmill allows me to get in focused, effective sessions without any waste. Plus it allows me to be more efficient in my daily life allowing for things like getting a healthy amount of sleep and recovery, which has led to some really consistent training with no illness or injury to report in the last two years. I really appreciate that David has helped me to find a nice balance between work, training, and life. It has allowed me to consistently race at a top amateur level, but also remain very engaged in my job and personal relationships, which is very important to me.
ST: And do you use any programs such as Zwift etc?
Christine: I do use Zwift for the bike. I love knowing I’m not the only one sitting in my house going hard on the trainer, and love when my friends pop up from all over the country! Nothing like some virtual races with friends.
ST: But you do ride outside too.
Christine: Yes, I do outdoor rides on the weekend and sometimes during the week. Part of the reason we moved to Tucson from the East coast, outside of just wanting a neat life experience, was to take advantage of the amazing riding. I absolutely love to ride Mt. Lemmon, Kit Peak, Madera Canyon, Mt. Graham, etc as it seems as though the options are endless for tough mountain rides. There is also plenty of flattish aero bar riding. In general drivers are very courteous in Tucson and the infrastructure of the city really supports safe bike riding as a commuter, hobbyist, or enthusiast. This past season I also started participating in one of Tucson’s famous group rides: the Tuesday shootout, which was a great way for me to gain some fitness, confidence, and bike handling skills. There were times I thought I would have to pull off to the side of the road to get sick because I was riding so hard just to stay on wheels. I know group riding is intimidating, but I highly recommend it to any triathlete who has a road bike and is looking to advance bike fitness and skills.
ST: How do you divide up your training?
Christine: I typically do a session in the morning before work around 6:30 am and a session after work around 5:30pm. In the summer I am out of bed more like 4:30am because it is simply too hot to run any later. If I can double up and get them done before work I am happy, but I know its best broken up when I am rested and fueled for that second workout. A typical day looks like a hard 90-minute trainer ride with intervals and a PM swim with 10x descending 200’s or 300’s. Sometimes even 400’s. As I said, David is a quality not quantity guy so I am typically digging deep for most sessions and not able to organize many chatty casual sessions with friends.
ST: What is next for you?
Christine: Well, I did not take my Kona spot at Arizona. I want to be sure when I go back, my nutrition is sorted and I am truly excited to race on the Big Island. My big goal for 2019 is to do well at Ironman Lake Placid. This has been a bucket list race for me since living in NYC and having a ton of friends that would go up and race every year. The course is well suited for my strengths and doesn’t emphasize any of my weaknesses so I am looking forward to finally tackling it. I will sprinkle in some half iron distances in the lead up and then maybe finish out the year with IMAZ to see if I can grab a qualifying spot for Kona 2020. The hard part of declining Kona spots is you never know when you’ll be lucky enough to qualify again. Fun fact, James organized a dog training lesson for our new rescue German Shepherd the morning after Arizona this year before our flight back east so I couldn’t even be tempted to go claim my spot. He knows I love my dog too much to turn down the opportunity to see her before we flew out for the wedding. For the next few weeks, I plan to enjoy some mountain biking, walking my dog and husband, and some donuts.
I often get asked why I don’t elect to take my pro card. Truth is that I would love to, but my open water swim is still very much a weakness and it is something I’ve wanted to improve before potentially making the step.
ST: You likely made someone else happy with that step of not accepting the Kona slot.
Christine: Yes I hope so. I tried to track her down the night before on social media but couldn’t find her. I wanted to make sure she was going to awards if she did in fact want to go to Kona.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Christine: I am just extremely grateful to everyone who has contributed to my journey in triathlon thus far from Trilife and Tailwind in NYC to my coach David Tilbury Davis and friends, family and colleagues who have contributed advice, equipment, words of support, and more. James deserves a special shout out, because he rides the highs and lows every day, and still agreed to marry me.