Up close with Rachel McBride

Rachel McBride recently won the 70.3 Austin, but this fast Canadian is not just about swimming, biking and running. She has two masters degrees in genetics, has played the cello on an international stage and has a few interesting tattoos.

Slowtwitch: Thanks for the chat.

Rachel: I’m very happy for the opportunity!

ST: Are you glad this season is in the books?

Rachel: Well yes and no. Finally getting to race after 5 months off and then winning that race got me pretty fired up to keep the momentum going. It’s a little frustrating to have to wait until next year before I compete again! However while dealing with my injury, I was still training pretty consistently in the water and on the bike. It has also been a pretty emotionally draining season for many reasons. I’m definitely feeling like I need a little breather to regroup before jumping into 2013. It’s a good time for me to focus on getting my run fitness back up to par as well.

ST: How much improvement do you think is possible for the run?

Rachel: I basically took about 4 months off running altogether this summer, aside from the occasional pool run. Last season I was running much faster, and we were only just starting to see my half marathon-off-the-bike potential. So yes, lots of room to grow on the run front.

ST: At Leadman you and a few others ended up going off course. Do you blame the race organization or yourself?

Rachel: Well that’s a loaded question! I don’t feel the need to assign blame to anyone, really. Ultimately it is up to the athlete to know the course. Those are the rules, and I fully support them. Could I have done more pre-race to understand where I needed to go? Yes, definitely. However, the fact that there were several other competitors who made the wrong turn, indicates that there may have been more the organizers could’ve done to help us understand. I think it was a big learning experience from both sides. It’s an incredible race and venue – I certainly look forward to heading back to Bend in 2013 to tackle it again!

ST: That race format and those distances should suit you well.

Rachel: I’m really loving the long bike format races like Abu Dhabi and Leadman. My coach Bjoern Ossenbrink tells me to just go and grind it out. That’s one of my biggest strengths – staying focused and strong for hours on end. It’s an incredible feeling to hit the 200km mark after hours of pain, with a huge grin on my face, and still have a lot left in the tank. I hope to see a lot more swim-bike heavy tris on the race circuit in the next years. It’s definitely my specialty at this point in my career!

ST: We actually met initially in Abu Dhabi.

Rachel: Right, with my cycling ability and strong mental fortitude, Abu Dhabi seemed like a perfect challenge. Not only is the location in the United Arab Emirates and the course itself unique, but the competition is world class. I knew it was going to be an incredible opportunity to really see what I could do against some of the sport’s top long course athletes.

ST: At that event it was actually your bike that took a different path to the final destination.

Rachel: Yes, my bike didn’t make my connection on the way to Abu Dhabi. With only one flight every 24 hours, it was a very long wait with fingers crossed it was on the next plane! I was actually surprisingly calm though – there was really nothing I could do about it, so it was pointless to waste energy stressing. The race organizers were really helpful and in the evening before the race found me an ersatz bike, just in case mine didn’t show up. The mechanics on site helped me eyeball the fit and tuned it up for the morning of. No time for a test ride though!

ST: And not much time for sleep.

Rachel: You can say that again – I slept for at most 3 hours total that night, starting in about 15-30 minute increments between phone calls from the concierge updating me on the status of my bike’s possible whereabouts. When it finally arrived, of course I then had to unpack and build it. I ended up with about 2 hours of solid sleep before my alarm went off for breakfast. Not the most ideal pre-race rest, but the adrenaline and excitement of race morning sure got me going despite all that!

ST: Will you return to Abu Dhabi?

Rachel: I would absolutely love to return to the city and the race. After getting my nutrition dialed for this format and with the unique ability I know I have for these distances, I believe I can have a solid race in Abu Dhabi this coming March. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.

ST: Oceanside went much smoother.

Rachel: Oceanside was a fantastic race for me. I was coming off a month-long training camp down in San Diego and was feeling incredibly strong on the bike. Riding into T2 in second with a solid gap against some of the top women in the circuit was incredible. I was pretty darn happy with my performance. Not too difficult to tell with the huge grin I had on my face on course!

ST: Were you upbeat at that time for the season ahead?

Rachel: Absolutely. It was a fantastic start to my second season as a pro. I was feeling a lot more confident with the race experience from last season and such a good result at Ironman 70.3 World Champs.

ST: So what happened?

Rachel: Long story short, after healing a stress fracture in my foot over the winter, the bones in that foot are sitting a bit differently. When I started running and racing again this past spring, I was still getting some soreness in my foot. It took a while to figure out exactly what was going on and how to deal with it. A few X-rays and bone scans later, we found a stress reaction occurring in another bone due to how my foot was hitting the ground when I ran.

My amazing medical team got things pretty nailed down by changing my gait, shoes and orthotics, strengthening some muscle instabilities through physiotherapy, and reset my whole body fascia with Rolfing. It feels amazing to be back on track and starting to run fast again…and win races!

ST: How did you deal with being out of commission?

Rachel: Well, that’s the wonderful thing about triathlon – I couldn’t run, but I could still cycle and swim! It was a great time to focus on continuing to building my swim and bike fitness. I also took some training trips into the Canadian wilderness and spent quality time with my family. My dad and I actually did a local half iron race as a relay in July. That was a pretty special experience for the both of us. He pulled off a sub-2 hour half marathon (at 70 years of age!), and we won our division. He was pretty psyched to be on the podium for the first time in his life! I’m secretly trying to turn my family into triathletes.

ST: Is your dad hooked now?

Rachel: Not quite – my parents have always been big runners, but getting them on a bike and in the water is a bit of a challenge. Dad did do a little riding around Vancouver on his new folding bicycle this summer, so you never know!

ST: After Leadman you went to Austin and it looks like you put that frustration out of the system there.

Rachel: I was very confident heading into Austin. At Leadman – my first race in 5 months - I really got a taste of where my race fitness was. I had zero training break after that, and Coach Bjoern put me through a pretty tough training block straight away. A well-executed half marathon 2 weeks before Austin showed me I had built some pretty solid run endurance in a short period of time.

I go into every race with the intent to win. This time I really had nothing to lose, knowing my off-season was looming in the not-so-distant future. Time was running out to secure a result that properly reflected the fitness and ability I knew I had.

ST: At what point of the race did you know that this was going to be a good one.

Rachel: I was feeling pretty amazing from the gun, but I think it really clicked for me when I took the lead well before the halfway mark on the bike. I had flown by my competitors and knew I had a good chunk of time to keep the pace up into T2. I had no idea how big my gap was until the final few kilometers of the race, but I just focused on having a solid run for myself. What an incredible feeling to come into that arena and break the tape for my first Ironman 70.3 Champion title.

ST: Did you get a new tattoo in Austin in honor of that win?

Rachel: Hah, I’m often tempted to get a little something in some of the cities I travel to, especially one as funky as Austin, but I’ve never done it. I usually put a lot of thought into my tattoos, so such spontaneity might never happen honestly.

ST: What is your oldest tattoo and how did it all get started?

Rachel: My first tattoo is a dragon on my left shoulder I got in Berlin shortly after I turned 18. I’m not really sure how I decided to get a tattoo in the first place. I had always been a pretty creative soul. It just felt like a natural way of expressing myself. Of course once I got that first one, I had already started to plan my next 5….
It’s tricky to get tattooed as a triathlete though, because tattoos are not supposed to get wet or exposed to the sun until healed. I rarely have a two week period where I’m not sweating or in the pool!

ST: It must have been a while then since you got your last one.

Rachel: Yes, I guess it’s been over two years ago if I think about it - a white Art Nouveau wing tattoo on my foot by my friend David Glantz in Toronto. I’ve got several more planned already. It’s just a matter of finding the time and the money! Needless to say, you never want to be cheap about something that’s going to be on your body for the rest of your life.

ST: Talk to us about you playing the cello.

Rachel: I started playing cello when I was 9. The McBride family story is that the school music teacher actually called my parents to try and convince me to play the violin for some reason. I hated the violin – apparently because “it screeched in my ear.” I was trained classically on the cello until I hit university. Then I started experimenting more with improv, rock and performance art. My cello has taken me all over the US, Canada and Europe - playing in various bands and dance groups. I was a member of the Toronto-based band Picastro for many years and composed and performed the solo cello score of a one-man show. I was also in what would best be described as a ‘shock rock’ performance band called BMX that combined circus sideshow stunts with mangled cover tunes of anything from the Sesame Street theme song to Ice Ice Baby. It was hilarious. At some point I considered pursuing cello performance as a career, but ultimately chose more scientific studies. If I hadn’t left the music scene to focus on genetics, I likely would have never become an athlete and discovered triathlon!

ST: Do you still perform?

Rachel: Not as much as I’d like. I have performed at some open-mic nights with a few local musician friends and played with Picastro the last time they rolled through Vancouver. Unfortunately the nightlife of a musician does not jive well with that of the early-rising athlete. Priorities always shift in life, and my cello is unfortunately one thing that has taken the back burner over the past several years. However I’ve actually jumped back into the classical world and started rehearsing a trio and duet with some of my triathlon teammates. I’m hoping to organize a local triathlete talent show in the New Year.

ST: Gina Crawford actually plays violin in the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, and there are other Pros with musical skills along those lines.

Rachel: Wow, that’s awesome! I had no idea. It’s fascinating to learn about the alternate lives of other Pros on the circuit.

ST: All well on the sponsor front?

Rachel: Well my win in Austin has definitely salvaged a lot in terms of sponsorship potential for 2013. There are some pretty exciting opportunities in the works for next year. I’m lucky to have some very special sponsors who really believe in me and stick with me through thick and thin. It’s wonderful to be surrounded by such support!

ST: Anything else we should know?

Rachel: I also have two Masters degrees in Genetics and am a Canadian board-certified Genetic Counsellor, though I don’t work in the field currently. I do work casually/part time in sexual health education, counseling and advocacy at Options for Sexual Health, Canada's largest non-profit provider of sexual health services, and as a personal care assistant for a physician who is quadriplegic.