>It’s fairly easy to be impressed with professional triathletes. I mean, let’s face it…their job is to do what for most of us is a hobby. They get to swimbikerun all the time. They are super fast. They get to go to exotic places to race and train. They meet the rich and famous. They have huge entourages. OK, perhaps some of that isn’t true.
Nevertheless, when I look at the work that some of the professionals do, I’m utterly amazed. Take for example Hillary Biscay. A quick review of her race resume shows that over the past nine years, Hillary has raced in 46 Ironman distance races. That’s an average of 5 per year. In some years, she’s raced 7 Iron races. To me, that’s unbelievable.
Hillary came to triathlon with an outstanding pedigree in swimming. She was a top-flight swimmer at the University of Southern California, and even competed in the 2000 US Olympic Trials in the 200 Breaststroke. Her swimming background is demonstrated most every time she enters a race; at her two most recent races she completed the swim in just over 53 minutes each (coming out of the water third at IMKY and first at IMWI)
Now, sit back and enjoy this week’s “Ten Questions With…Hillary Biscay.
TM: Like lots of professional triathletes (both ITU and long course), you started out as a competitive swimmer. There has been a lot written about the transferability of success in the pool to success in triathlon. Why do you think there’s that connection?
HB: I think that former elite-level swimmers have success in triathlon because we enter this sport with the discipline to do the work that triathlon success requires—especially the long, mind-numbing hours required for ironman. We are talking about athletes who spent four hours each day during college staring at a black line on the bottom of a pool! When our alarm clocks went off at 4 am or 5am, getting up was not an option. It was get up, or lose your scholarship. We come to triathlon with this mentality, not to mention a huge aerobic base from those years of training.
TM: You swam in the 2000 Olympic trials in the breaststroke. How would you compare that setting to what you face each time you toe the line at an IM, in terms of pressure, hoopla, pre-race nerves, etc?
HB: Refreshingly, there isn’t much comparison: the Olympic Trials was off the charts on the scale of pressure-cookers! In fact, many of my teammates who were fortunate enough to compete in the Olympics described the US Trials as the more nerve-wracking of the two experiences. I think part of the difference for me is that I am now a lot better at handling pressure, but in a way, a 9-10 hour race is easier for me to wrap my head around because I know I can make a mistake or two and in the end still have a good day. In a 2.5-minute swimming race, you make one small error—gliding too long into a turn, for example, and that is the difference between a good and bad race. I did not handle that kind of pressure well at all. I could train the house down, but my head failed me on many important occasions.
TM: To say that you’re a prolific racer is an understatement. In each of the past five years (including this year), you’ve averaged 6-8 Ironman races. You’ve talked before (in other interviews) about how you’ve trained to a point where racing an IM isn’t a shock to your body. I’m not sure many age-groupers get that concept. Could you elaborate?
HB: Don’t get me wrong: I still feel pretty average for a couple to a few days after an ironman. But my recovery time has improved dramatically from when I started the sport. After my first ironman, my mom literally had to pull me out of bed the next morning—and that was after I had allowed thirty minutes for the Advil to take effect! That kind of soreness no longer happens to me. Like many newbies, I assume, I had probably done the bare-minimum in terms of preparation; that plus sheer guts got me through that first ironman in one piece, but my body was in shock.
Even as a first-year pro in 2005, I tried to race two ironmans a month apart and the second one was really ugly. I still didn’t have the kind of volume or intensity in my training on a daily basis to prepare my body for this kind of challenge. The next year, though, I was able to race 6 ironmans and finish in the top five in all of them. But I was also doing training days that were just as hard as those racing days as part of “normal” training weeks—not necessarily ironman-length, but in terms of degree of difficulty they were almost on a par. I think it was the cumulative effect of years of training and racing and then really upping the ante on the training side that got me ready for this kind of racing.
TM: Given your race schedule and penchant to train hard, how do you avoid injury – both big & nagging?
HB: I have been very fortunate that my body has held up really well. I think for most people, the run is the biggest source of injury, and after breaking my hip due to a stress fracture in 2004, I changed my running style to an efficient, low-impact shuffle. It isn’t glamorous, but it keeps my legs healthy through some very high-volume training and racing. I also think that my body stays healthy because I am not afraid to eat! This means that I don’t look like a skinny runner—as much as I sometimes wish I could come back with the body of a 14-year-old boy—but I think that giving my body lots of fuel keeps me from getting injured because I am physically strong.
TM: You made dramatic improvements in your IM race time over the years. Your initial race was 12:29 (great first effort for most folks), but quickly dropped your time. So far, you’ve got 19 races under 10 hours, with a PR of 9:24. Two linked questions – how did you gain such significant improvement in your times, and how much faster do you think you can go?
HB: Times are not something I worry too much about; I don’t judge my improvement based on the times on the clock. Sure, fast times are fun, but fast times at the iron-distance are in a large part found by racing the fast courses, and those are often not the ones that best suit me. My PR is a 9:24 at the notoriously-fast Challenge Roth, and that was a good race, but my 9:47 at Ironman Wisconsin in 2008 was probably my best performance to date.
That said, clearly I have progressed from that first 12;29 at Ironman Florida. It did not happen overnight, but rather was the result of steady improvement that I earned by steadily increasing my level of dedication to this sport year after year. Saying “yes” to the alarm clock day after day, month after month, and year after year –just getting the work done consistently—yields progress.
TM: Aside from Wisconsin (which you won in 2008), what’s your favorite race venue and why?
HB: I can tell you that even after having a very poor performance in Madison this past weekend, it really is my favorite race. After that, there are so many great ones: I love Coeur d’Alene and Lake Placid and Ironman Brasil. They all have great spirit; I love everything Brasilian, and Coeur d’Alene and Lake Placid are beautiful locations with great communities behind the events. Hawaii is also really special because of its history and tradition; it’s a week that I always look forward to!
TM: There’s a select group of top-tier women racing IM, so it’s clear as to whom your main competition is. That said, do you have any burning rivalries with any of your peers?
HB: Honestly, not really! So many of my best friends are the girls that I compete against; I think this is possible because ironman is such a long and hard day that for most of it you are racing against yourself, testing your own mental and physical limits. It is more about that than who is running against me on the day. Plus, I think that what we do for a living is so out-of-the-ordinary that it is almost impossible for anyone else besides these women to really understand; so these friendships really are essential!
TM: WTC introduced several rule changes this year that impacts pros. How will these rule change the way you approach training and racing?
HB: We are now (as of September 1) under the “new rules, part two.” Kona-qualifying will now be based on a points system, which will not change the way that I race because I already race a bunch of ironmans throughout the year. I actually do anticipate changing my training and racing a bit beginning at the end of this season, but it will not be motivated by the new points system. Rather, I think some change is in order because I have now spent five years training the same way, and at a certain point , the effectiveness wears off. I need to find a new kind of stimulus to take that next step forward.
TM: What impact do you see the new Kona rules having on non-WTC races, such as the Challenge series, Rev3, B2B, etc? Will pros still want to race those races?
HB: That is a great question. Because we cannot be sure how this new points system will play out, it is hard to predict how people will respond to it and how it will affect people’s race choices. Next year is a very big question mark in terms of professional racing.
TM: What’s your biggest non-swimbikerun hobby?
HB: Playing coach to some age-group triathletes! I love this challenge; each one is a puzzle for me to figure out, and I feel very privileged to share each one’s journey towards his or her goals in this sport.
Check out Hillary’s website here!
I hope you’re enjoying the “Ten Questions With…” series. If you’ve got ideas for who you’d like to see interviewed, please share them! Thanks so much for reading!