Emma Pooley is best known for her road cycling and time trial results, but this former runner competed in triathlon before she was famous. Pooley who won the 2010 UCI TT World Championships and competed for the British team in the Olympics in both the road race and the TT, is focusing this year on finishing her PhD in geotechnical engineering at ETH Zürich, but is dabbling a bit in triathlon this year. The petite Brit won the Swissman Extreme Triathlon earlier this year and just finished 5th at Ironman Switzerland.
Slowtwitch: Emma, you just raced Ironman Switzerland – how did that go for you?
Emma Pooley: Not as well as I had hoped actually. I was disappointed in my time, but I ended up with some pretty bad stomach problems. I swallowed a lot of water during the swim and had stomach cramps the whole bike and run – pretty badly on the run. I couldn’t really eat that much and I couldn’t eat anything on the run. In some ways disappointed, but I would give myself a 10 for effort because it was really painful and I did not stop early. It was a hard day but I really enjoyed it anyway despite the pain.
It was great to have so many people out watching - it was crazy. Most of the races I do in cycling we don’t get many supporters out on the road. But it was just crazy at the Zürich Ironman, it was an absolutely amazing atmosphere.
ST: Also quite different from the Swissman experience we would suspect.
Emma: Totally different type of racing. Swissman is just the most beautiful race, but it was quite lonely because you race on your own the whole time. It has the same distance but it feels like a much longer day out. It is also therefor much more relaxed. A few minutes here or there, go to the bathroom or tie your shoelaces up again - it all doesn’t matter. A few minutes at Zürich Ironman does make a difference, and did make a difference.
ST: Back to those spectators in Zürich.
Emma: Zürich was pretty overwhelming for me. It felt like the Olympics with people everywhere. It was really, really cool. And a great thing about Zürich was there were loads of people that I know who were cheering for me, but not only for me, cheering for everyone. That was really nice.
ST: What bike were you riding in Zurich and did you ride the same bike at Swissman?
Emma: At Ironman Zürich I used my BMC TT01 and for Swissman my BMC road race bike RM01. Because the bike course was so mountainous, I decided comfort on the climbs and descents was more important than aerodynamic advantage. On both bikes I use Rotor Q-Rings, that's important to me.
ST: We know you competed in triathlon before you raced with such success in road cycling, but what brought you back to racing triathlon now?
Emma: I wanted a bit of change. I came from triathlon but I wasn’t very good. I was a runner who got injured and did some cycling for cross training and then tried a bit of triathlon. I thought I was taking it seriously but I was really just an all right age grouper. I didn’t have any idea what the elite sport was like really and it just got me into cycling. In cycling I got lucky and had no idea how long the road would take to be an Elite, but I got there in the end. But now I wanted to have a year with less cycling, because I have to - because of my PhD thesis. So I am on a smaller team and they said that they don’t mind if I am doing some triathlon events. I still love swimming and running and wanted to maybe do a sport where there weren’t as many expectations. So I could maybe do a race like the Zürich Ironman and just see how it went and enjoy the sport for itself. Enjoy the process - without worrying about the outcome. Because in cycling now there are some expectations on me.
ST: Do you really think there are no expectations of you when you race a triathlon?
Emma: I guess I should have had the fastest bike split on Sunday and I am a bit disappointed that I didn’t, but that is the only expectation. But I actually have some excuse ready. Not only did I have stomach issues and had to stop to go to the toilet, but because swimming is my weakest discipline that means you are in amongst some of the age group men. It makes it a lot harder on the bike leg with the non-drafting rules and when they pass and you have to let them go. I got a bit frustrated on the bike I have to say. I need to work on my swimming so I don’t get involved in the fight among the age group men.
ST: Because of the scenario you are describing, several Pro women have asked to get a larger head start in front of the age group men.
Emma: I did hear that suggested but I don’t know that much about triathlon to dream to get involved in that argument. But to me it seemed that some of the age group guys knew what the rules were and knew when the marshals were there and when the marshals weren’t there. In my opinion you race to the rules whether someone is watching or not and I did not want to draft. It means if someone comes past you – you slow down and let that person go and if someone is on that wheel you let them go as well. Then you go ‘ok I just let 10 people pass me because they were all riding together and now I have to slow down and pass them all again because they have slowed down.’ I think if it had been a much hillier bike course it would have been much easier as I am stronger on the climbs than I am on the flats. But also they are riding in the middle of the road or overtaking you and then stop pedaling to drink water. So I am thinking ‘if you are going to have a drink do it before you overtake me!’
ST: Did that mean you had to use too many power spikes on the bike to get past these people or were you able to stay within yourself?
Emma: That was actually fine because that is how I ride, and because of road racing the change in power is rather easy for me. I likely don’t train enough all at one constant power. But it is frustrating when you have to slow down to let them go and it feels a bit of a leapfrog game, plus I don't particularly like people drafting of me.
ST: We actually noticed a picture of German Pro Kristin Möller racing Ironman Frankfurt with quite a few age group men on her tail. But she is tiny like you and the tall guys behind her likely actually got very little draft.
Emma: Yeah, why bother.
ST: So what is next for you?
Emma: It really is just all about PhD now. It has been the focus of the year but I have been a bit distracted by racing. So I am mostly concentrating on the PhD and finishing stuff.
ST: So where are you in the process?
ST: How much longer to go?
Emma: That is not a good question, but it is likely the autumn sometime. I don’t know exactly because it isn’t up to me, it is up to my supervisors and my examiners, and I don’t get to choose the date when I will have the exam. I have to submit a draft and they decide when the exam is.
ST: So in the coming year will you pursue cycling or use your PhD to make money?
Emma: I have to decide that but haven’t it yet. I would love to race promptly again, but I have to see if I can get a contract again with another team.
ST: I guess it doesn’t matter how big your passion is for racing, if there is no money around the decision might be made for you.
Emma: Exactly, I am 30-years old and need to start saving some money. I have an education and a degree and I have to make a living at some point. I am lucky in cycling that I get paid enough to live off, unlike a lot of people, so I am not complaining. Maybe next year I can find that contract, but I have not raced that much and haven’t got any UCI points. So If I can’t I will get a normal job, but I won’t stop cycling and running because I love them both.
ST: That then allows you to race whatever you want, for example the Inferno Triathlon.
Emma: Exactly, I would love to do that one. It is a real luxury to race and train fulltime. It has been hard to go back to work fulltime, I don’t have time to train a let alone recover and sleeping maybe 5 hours a night is normal. It is a different level and it is hard to perform at a very high level when you are working full time.
ST: That is how many age groupers feel.
Emma: I know - I have been there. I was working fulltime until 2007 and then worked part time in 2008. They only years I was full time, full time racing and training was 2010, 2011 and 2012. I know what it is like and I don’t know how some of the age groupers are doing it. There are some incredible performances at the Ironman level.
ST: Well, we have held you long enough and will let you go. Hopefully you will get in a ride before the end of the day.
Emma: I actually rode to work today and have a really nice 25k ride to work through the Swiss countryside each day.
ST: On that note, have a great day and thanks for the chat.
Emma: Thank you.
Emma has been busy with Chrissie Wellington, Kathryn Bertine and Marianne Vos to to petition Tour de France organizers ASO to add a women's tour alongside the men's event and over 87,000 signatures have already been collected.