Charlotte-based professional triathlete and coach Kelly Fillnow crashed on a cruiser bike while spectating and supporting athletes at 70.3 North Carolina and that meant the end of her season. The injuries sustained were much worse than she thought and then came COVID-19. We had a chat with her about the accident, racing, training and much more.
Slowtwitch: Thank you so much for your time.
Kelly Fillnow: My pleasure, I am honored to have the chance to chat with you.
ST: I believe your last race was IRONMAN Chattanooga in September 2019 and you finished 4th there.
Kelly: Yes, that is correct. It was a brutally hot and humid day - I miss that suffering.
ST: What about the race itself?
Kelly: I had a good swim and came out of the water in 7th. Pretty quick on the bike I made my way into fourth place and stayed there the remainder of the day. I had a decent bike (effort) but kept throwing up. I was a bit worried about how that run would go! Angela (Naeth) and Lisa (Roberts) were pretty far up the road on the run. The run was mere survival and who slows down the least. With the heat index, it was 105 and insanely humid. I managed to hold my position and finish pretty strong considering the conditions.
ST: Your 2019 season however ended with a pretty severe injury. Can you take us back to that time and tell us what happened?
Kelly: It certainly ended unexpectedly! I went to NC 70.3 to watch my athletes and twin sister, Meghan, compete. I was on the far side of the course cheering for my athletes, and then I realized I needed to hurry back to the finish if I wanted to make it in time to see my sister break the tape. I missed her age group win at IRONMAN Chattanooga 70.3 because I was stuck on course with a double flat, then missed her IRONMAN Maryland win due to IRONMAN Chattanooga, so I did not want to miss another one. In retrospect, I was going too fast on my cruiser bike and was looking at the racers and not at the road in front of me. I crashed on the railroad which resulted in a bad concussion, a torn ACL, MPFL, MFL, and meniscus. Needless to say, I missed yet another one of my sister’s finishes and the remaining races on my calendar.
ST: A cruiser bike? Wow, I expected a different story. Maybe a skydiving accident.
Kelly: It would make for a much better story if I was descending a mountain at 50 mph or better yet, cliff jumping and deep water soloing.
ST: How long did you think you would be out at that time?
Kelly: I was frustrated by the prospect of not being able to run for a few days, since I was planning on racing Waco 70.3 and Los Cabos 70.3 the next two weekends. When I could barely walk that next day, I went to see a physician. I remained optimistic after an x-ray, but the physician recommended an MRI for better clarity. The MRI revealed the worst-case scenario. Since I needed a partial meniscectomy, that would delay running even more.
ST: At what point did you realize that it might take longer to return to racing?
Kelly: I had no clue about the gravity of my injury and the extent of the recovery process. I had surgery on November 6th and my naive plan was to race Chattanooga 70.3 in May. Once I established that goal, I changed my mindset to making recovery my sport. I had to fight daily for a positive mindset and remind myself that this accident was happening for me, not to me. I focused on staying in the present, because I was so far off from my former athlete self that it was laughable. My first time biking it took me ten minutes to make a single revolution. For weeks I could only bike at 20 watts. My first athletic goal was to beat my most recent 10K time in a mile walk. I failed by 11 minutes. When my surgeon cleared me to run at the 5-month mark, my body was not ready to run. My physical therapists saw me run and we decided that I needed to gain more strength as I had way too much atrophy in my left leg. I did not want to admit that I was not ready to race, because I needed that hope to give me purpose for each day. I finally allowed myself to be okay with changing my timeline. I knew I could finish a race, but I did not want to race merely to finish. I wanted to show up race ready, at my absolute best. I was far from that.
ST: I think the timing of events in 2020 were also not helpful. I think just when you were able to return to the pool, the pools shut down because of COVID-19.
Kelly: Yes, as soon as my surgeon cleared me to swim without my buoy, the pools closed! Swimming was my saving grace because it made me feel like an athlete. I improved my swim, which is my major limiter. So as soon as COVID-19 hit, I was unable to swim, run, and see my physical therapists. I was going to physical therapy 6+ hours each week, so it definitely set me back physically, but even more so mentally.
ST: Where are you now regarding being healthy and regaining fitness?
Kelly: I am super happy with my swim progress, even with the time away from the pool with COVID-19. But otherwise, I am pretty tough on myself, and I would say I am not yet where I want to be, especially running-wise. Prior to my injury, I never really thought about my run stride, I just relied on my natural ability. My injury caused major proprioception deficits, so I had to relearn how to walk and run again. Since I started from scratch, I learned how to run more efficiently. I still have atrophy in my left leg, but the days of my leg not showing up for a workout have been fewer and farther between. My knee feels far from normal, but I feel strong. Daily physical therapy has really helped strengthen my glutes and gained my quad strength back. I am getting some speed back, but I am not all the way there. For instance, last week I did 3x1 mile with 75 second rest & 10x 10” hill sprints. I ran 5:46, 5:50, then the third mile I totally bonked. On the sprints, I started off powerful, then my body told me it was done. That workout is a good indication of where I am currently.
ST: Maybe not exactly where you would like to be but surely an improvement.
Kelly: Definitely an improvement from that initial 1 mile walk in 46+ minutes. Though, I struggle celebrating or even seeing the improvement and how far I have come. I constantly compare myself to the athlete I was before surgery; I will never be the same. My physical therapists always say I will become stronger as a result of this. But when you are in the trenches, it is hard to trust that. This painful experience may be exactly what I need to stop complacency and be the kind of mental alchemy I need to breakthrough. In my last race, I was content staying in fourth place all day instead of taking a risk and potentially pushing to a podium. We don’t grow when we remain complacent. Now I know what it means to be gritty, to struggle still, yet keep pushing forward and not give up.
ST: Is all your bike and running training done outside, or do you do anything inside too?
Kelly: I am back doing some hard trainer workouts so I can focus on my power. My sister purchased a sweet treadmill during COVID-19 just in case we had a super strict stay-at-home order. But for the first five months postop I was 100% inside getting vitamin D deficient, so I am enjoying being outside as much as possible.
ST: Talk about your coaching. How big of a group are you currently mentoring?
Kelly: I started my coaching business back in 2012. We work with triathletes, runners, lifestyle athletes, and even a couple of military guys. I have an amazing team of coaches. We maintain between 80-90 athletes.
ST: Who is we?
Kelly: Each coach has their own unique style, but we all share a constant love of learning. Liz Marcil is our running coach, she was my team captain when I snuck in an extra year of NCAA eligibility at Duke. She competed in the 2008 Olympic Trials in the 3k Steeplechase (9:51 PR) and ran personal bests of 16:24 5K, 9:15 3k, and 4:38 1600m (4:44 Mile) in college. She coached collegiately at Duke and TCU before getting her MBA at Wake Forest. Currently, she also works as a strategy consultant at the bank. She has an incredible passion for coaching and connects really well with our high school runners because she has great insight into the collegiate process. Jenn Stanton focuses on triathletes and is a fabulous swim coach too. She started triathlon as a 17 year old, so has a very long history in the sport! She still races in all distances, and even podiumed in her debut IRONMAN 70.3. Meghan Fillnow, like Jenn, comes from a teaching background. She coaches both runners and triathletes. She connects well with each athlete and leaves no stone unturned. She also still competes. She has won multiple 70.3 events, an IRONMAN, and finished on the podium at Kona.
ST: Have there been any changes to the coaching scenario because of COVID-19?
Kelly: Fortunately, we have maintained our athlete base, and even gained a few new ones during these crazy times. I think a lot of that stems from our team atmosphere. Our athletes support each other no matter where they are in their journey. We constantly emphasize that the skills they are learning through their daily sweat equity are preparing them for life even more than the actual finish line. Another focus for us has been learning how to pivot while navigating the needs of the individual athletes with endless race cancelations. Some athletes see the delayed races for their advantage! Endurance sport rewards consistent training over the long haul, so they see the delay in racing as an opportunity to become even better when race day happens. Other athletes thirst for competition, and that is their only driving force to train. The virtual races inspire those type of athletes. Other athletes are completely stressed and need training to be fun with exciting adventures. As coaches, it is our job to figure out how we can keep athletes thriving, not merely surviving. I like to ask our athletes to take an enneagram test, so we can have greater insight into their internal motivations.
ST: Are most of these athletes within reach or are they spread out across the country?
Kelly: The majority of our athletes are within an hour of Charlotte, NC, but we also have athletes scattered throughout the country.
ST: Although Meghan and you are working under the same Fillnow Coaching group you two seem to have a friendly rivalry. Is that a fair statement?
Kelly: Yes, she is a fabulous coach! Growing up we were really competitive. I did not like when she finished ahead of me on the gymnastics podium or read more books than I did! Some of my most painful athletic memories were when we met each other in tennis tournaments. That was not fun! However, we made each other better. I would not be where I am today if it was not for Meghan. Now we compete in different categories, so it is nice not to actually compete against each other when we race.
ST: What about coaching rivalries? Your athletes facing each other?
Kelly: We set up some relay teams at our big team 70.3 and let’s just say it was quite competitive. We also do a beer mile every few months, and I am obviously not going to give any advice to Meghan’s athletes. One of my athletes has the state master’s record in the donut run and I did not share our winning strategy until after he dominated.
ST: Could you tell us about your athletic background and when and how you found triathlon?
Kelly: I grew up playing basketball, soccer, softball, tennis, and was also a gymnast. In high school I focused solely on tennis and played college tennis at Davidson. Freshman year I placed second in the annual Cake Race, which is a fun tradition where the town creates delicious cakes for race prizes. I wanted the best cake, so I ran really hard. After that race, the cross country coach asked me to run. I had no interest at the time. Running was too painful. I knew cake would not be at each finish line. However, I started running for fun with one of my tennis teammates and began enjoying it. Instead of going abroad junior fall I ended up running cross country. After I graduated, I delayed getting into the real world, and extended my eligibility to run one more season of cross country and my first season of track. I thought that concluded my athletic career. At the age of 25, I was over working out without any purpose. Two guys I lifted with asked if I wanted to race a triathlon in six weeks. Clueless as to what a triathlon entailed, I said sure. I never looked back.
ST: You have raced various races abroad and maybe you can tell us why you go to Ironman Austria as an example versus just staying here in the USA?
Kelly: I have raced all around the world. The last couple of years I raced in England, France, Austria, Lanzarote, Canada, Mexico and Taiwan. I love seeing the world through sport. Triathlon has enabled me to experience different cultures in a way I never imagined. These experiences have far greater value now with how the world has changed in the last six months.
ST: I fully agree, but many seem to choose the path of least resistance. And traveling abroad is not only a financial issue, but also requires adapting to new things and maybe stepping outside the comfort zone.
Kelly: You can say that again. There are some basic luxuries we take for granted here in the US, like toilet paper and toilets above the ground. Staying inside my comfort zone is not for me because there is no growth there. I pretty much march to the beat of my own drum and enjoy taking on challenges. It can be scary traveling across the world solo, but I have met some amazing people I am still connected with to this day. It may not be the most financially responsible decision, but I make it work. Sometimes I get lucky with incredibly generous opportunities. I did IRONMAN Vichy with one of my friends and afterwards we traveled to Nice. My athlete has an extremely magnanimous uncle with an estate in Nice. He gave us his Porsche for the week and mentioned he left a couple basic essentials. I thought that meant a loaf of bread and milk. It turned out, we had enough fresh meats, cheeses, vegetables, fruits, breads, and desserts for an entire month, not the week we were staying. Let’s just say I ate a lot.
ST: That sounds like quite the experience for sure. Which events are still on your bucket list?
Kelly: IRONMAN Coeur d’Alene, Canada (Penticton), Mont Tremblant, and your SwimRun event.
ST: With no races on the horizon currently, how do you motivate yourself?
Kelly: Since I am back to feeling like a triathlete once again, I truly see each workout as a gift. That gift had been taken away. I have enjoyed doing crazy adventures on my bike. The last three weekends I climbed Mt. Mitchell (the highest peak east of the Mississippi), hit the beautiful roads surrounding Beech Mountain, and did a fun ride in Brevard with 7500+ feet of climbing, mainly all in the first 34 miles. I am also doing a weekly hard run workout with my sister and my training partner, Paula. I missed that for sixth months! I am loving the chance to lean into the discomfort and feel pain and suffering once again! It’s certainly easier to be motivated for those epic workouts. But the epic workouts are not where extraordinary breakthroughs happen. It is in the ordinary, seemingly mundane daily grind that over time creates the results. On many days I am not motivated to do my umpteenth standing fire hydrant, or yet another balance exercise to regain proprioception. Yet I still do it. I don’t rely on motivation to get the work done. In the same way, I don’t need to be motivated to brush my teeth every day. I just do it. The work gets done because I know that what I do today helps to make me better tomorrow, regardless of motivation. My long-term determination to reach my best self, helps me do the work.
ST: What is next?
Kelly: I may actually race next month in a local sprint triathlon that will have zero touch points! We are also doing a friendly male vs female competition with our athletes, and hopefully I can help the females beat the guys.