The afternoon sun is relentless on the Queen Ka’ahumanu highway in Kona, Hawaii. It’s 10 October 2015 and two of the greatest long-course athletes never to have tasted Ironman world championship-winning glory are experiencing a case of Kona déja-vu. Germany’s Andreas Raelert is on his way to posting a 2:50hr marathon to give eventual winner Jan Frodeno a scare, and finish second for the third time in Hawaii. Further back along the hallowed tarmac, Britain’s Rachel Joyce has overcome a “tri-suit malfunction” to fight her way into second for her third consecutive Kona podium.
While Raelert has his fastest Iron (7:41:33) of all time title from Challenge Roth in 2011, Joyce’s stellar career (including wins at Ironman Lanzarote and Challenge Roth) has come to be defined by her consistency and heartbreaking near misses at the ultimate long-course showdown in Kona. A record that’s seen her finish 6th, 5th, 4th, 11th (with tonsillitis), 2nd, 3rd and 2nd as records have tumbled during a golden age for women’s long-course triathlon.
Cut from the light of Hawaii to a grim Willesden Junction trading estate in December and the 37-year-old Joyce, on her annual UK visit, has just dropped the news that this season marks her final tilt at Ironman world champs glory. “2016 will be my last shot at Hawaii,” says the Boulder-based Brit between studio cover shots. “After this year I’ll be ready not to make Kona the pure focus of my year. I’m not getting any younger. There are other things I want to do with my life.”
Those other things include encouraging female equality and participation in triathlon, the rights of pro athletes and empowering developing nation uptake. With her years at the top of tri and background as a successful construction lawyer, there are few better people to change the face of the sport as we know it for the better.
Rachel in training
Following her cover shoot for 220, the next time we talk to Joyce is after January’s second-place finish at Chile’s Ironman 70.3 Pucon, one of the world’s most beautiful races. A snowy Christmas in Boulder, Colorado, with Brit boyfriend Brett and their labrador hasn’t changed that stance on Kona and this season marking her final assault on the top step of Hawaii. So how will Joyce – one of the strongest all-round swim, bike, runners in the sport – target Hawaii success come the 40th edition on Saturday 8 October?
“Every year in Hawaii is different, so I’d be bored if I replicated last year completely, so we (with Brit coach Julie Dibens) have changed my race schedule for 2016. I’m not racing an Ironman until Lake Placid in July. This means I can do more 70.3s and race more in the early part of the season, and then build more slowly to Ironman fitness. From there, I’ll use it as a springboard to prepare for Kona.
“I want to be doing races that I don’t normally do,” adds Joyce. “Placid is one of the tougher courses. There’s a danger on the Ironman circuit that they’re getting a bit watered down but this is an honest course. That’s part of the appeal to me.”
Even if she came back after her initial zipper issues in Hawaii, Joyce still finished 13mins adrift of Ironman’s formidable new superstar, Daniela Ryf, in October. So will 2016 be spent on Ryf-watch, analysing every swim stroke, pedal rotation and run stride of the award-gobbling Swiss athlete? Joyce’s response is something we all can apply to our own age-group rivalries…
“It’s part of my job to see what my competition are doing each year, but I’m not going to be looking at how she races and adjust my training. The way to get the best out of yourself is to train in the best way for you. Following and training like other people is a fast track to disaster. I always focus on me but keeping an eye out for what my competition is doing, and that’s not just Daniela. I know she was so dominant last year and definitely the one with the big target on her back, but there are lots of other people coming through.”
As the crew of art editors, snappers and uni students 220 took to our cover shoot observed, Joyce is, simply, one of the nicest pro athletes you can meet. And this in a sport of likeable, articulate and generous pro racers. The chilly photo shoot is handled with aplomb and she isn’t afraid to poke fun at herself or share an empanada or pão de queijo (Brazilian cheesy balls) with assorted new friends. But, viewing from the outside, has this affability come at a cost to Hawaii glory? Daniela Ryf’s ‘Angry Bird’ moniker is an apt description of her race-day persona while, behind the smiles, Chrissie Wellington’s utter ruthlessness maintained that unbeaten Ironman streak.
“I think anyone who trains with me knows that, when it’s race time, I’m extremely competitive. I don’t need to make myself angry. In fact, I race best when I’m in a happy place, and so when it comes to race time there’s a switch and it’s all about me going as fast as I can. I don’t have to start beating my chest. There’s a competitive switch that
Continue reading our interview with Rachel Joyce (2/3)