Thursday, September 19, 2013

Ironman 70.3 World Champion Emily Sherrard

As many of you are aware, the Ironman 70.3 World Championships (swim 1.2 mi/ bike 56 mi/ run 13.1 mi) was recently held in Las Vegas, with Germany's Sebastian Kienle and Australia's Melissa Hauschildt winning in convincing fashion. I considered interviewing a pro from the event, but decided it would be more interesting and fun to talk with an age group (amateur) world champion. I kind of expected whoever I interviewed to be a complete triathlon die hard, eating, breathing, and sleeping the sport, without much time for anything else. Nothing wrong with that, just saying we're talking about the best amateurs in the world here. What I found in talking with New Jersey native and F2529 World Champ Emily Sherrard, however, was really surprising. For starters, she's relatively new to triathlon, and is a 3rd year medical student... she was literally on call during our call! Among other things, it was great to talk with her about her experience in Vegas and how she balances triathlon and life. Thanks for the time, Emily! 

First of all, congrats! Did you have any friends/family in Vegas to watch, and what did you do to celebrate? Are you still on cloud 9?

I had a great support crew in Vegas, including my coach, my boyfriend, and my boyfriend’s parents, who I met for the first time at the airport before the race. Unfortunately my parents weren't able to make it… my mom’s a doctor, and she was on call over the weekend. I was fortunate to also have some Breakaway Racing teammates from Philadelphia racing with me. To celebrate I went to the awards banquet, then to the post-race Wattie Ink party, which a friend got me an invite to. I guess I am still on cloud 9…it’s surreal, and I’m still shocked to be honest! It hasn’t really set in yet. This was only my second 70.3 ever, and my goal was just to put together a good race. No words can describe how it felt to win!

Where did you qualify and what other races did you do this year?

I qualified at the Syracuse 70.3 in June, but really had an awful day. It was a new distance for me, and I messed up my nutrition. All I took in was two GUs on the bike, and I bonked about 38 miles in. Halfway through the run I was so dehydrated, and I needed two IVs after the race. I was rather disappointed to say the least, but it gave me added motivation for Vegas. As for other races, I did the New Jersey State triathlon in July and was the overall female winner there. That was two weeks into my school year, and the race was a complete afterthought… I thought of it as a good training day. For example, I didn't use my race wheels, not wanting to bother. That race was a big step for me in getting me mentally prepared for Vegas, and a confidence boost that I could balance school and triathlon. I also was fortunate to win New Jersey’s Devilman in May and Wilkes Barre in August.

What were your expectations going into Vegas? Were you intimidated at all, being the 70.3 World Championships?

I made some changes after Syracuse, joining a local masters swim team and getting in longer rides, doing 5-6 80+ milers. Training was coming together and I thought I could race well, but I definitely wasn’t expecting to win. I was a little intimidated, mainly because I hadn't performed well at the 70.3 distance in my previous attempt. Syracuse was 90+ degrees and humid, and as I mentioned, not a great day. I also wasn’t aware of my competition beforehand, going in with an “ignorance is bliss” approach. I was more happy to be there and happy to be racing. Winning was not my goal.

What were your thoughts on the course, and was the weather/climate a factor coming from the east coast?

I really liked the bike course. I'm smaller, so a hillier course tends to suits me. The rain changed the game for sure, with a heavy mist during the swim and steady rain for all but the last bit of the bike. It was wet! Being in the Vegas desert, no one was prepared for that. The sun finally came out on the run. I hadn't familiarized myself with the run course, and it was pretty brutal. Three loops with lots of hills, but it still wasn’t as bad as Syracuse. It was great to have all the spectators out on the course. It’s much harder if there's no one out there cheering, easier to get in my head. It was really energizing to have so many people cheering you on. The climate was pretty much a non-factor, not nearly as much as it could have been. It was actually a little humid with the rain, but not as hot as Syracuse. By all accounts the weather was a much bigger factor last year.

Looking at the results, you were 3rd in your age group starting the run, ~10 min down on the leader. Were you aware of your position throughout the race? At what point did it sink in that you were going to be an age group World Champ?

I wasn’t aware of my position, it was so hard to follow. My coach tried to follow for me, but it was tough to get info. There were big packs on the bike, multiple waves, and many people’s numbers and age had washed off in the rain. That said, knowing wouldn't have changed how I approached the run. I didn't even know when I finished the race. I found my coach 10 min after finishing and he told me, and I just started crying. That was the first time I’ve ever cried tears of joy in my life! It was just so unexpected. I had to open IronTrac myself to confirm, just to be sure!

Was your strategy to try to save something for the run, or to just let it rip from the start? On a scale from 1-10 how hard would you say you pushed on the swim and the bike?

I usually like to go as hard as I can on the swim and bike, relying on my running background to carry me through. That said, at Vegas I didn't want to go too deep into my threshold, making sure I had something left for the run. I had a solid swim and bike, but they weren't reflective of my times in training. I think this played in my favor in the end. I have a tendency to lose focus at times on the swim… I’d say a 6. The bike was a 7 or 8 overall, but once it stopped raining I probably pushed about as hard as I could for the last 10-12 miles.

What’s your background and how did you get into triathlon?

Swimming was my first real sport. I swam on my local club team every summer from ages 7-18, and on my high school team my freshman year. I gave it up for several years until I got into triathlon. I played various other sports growing up before running cross country my junior year of high school. From that point on it was pretty much all running. I went on to run track and cross country at Duke, with my main focus being the 1500m on the track. I liked track better, cross country was too long (editor’s note: says the Ironman 70.3 World Champ). I kind of always knew I wanted to do triathlons, with my swim/run background. My first year of med school I would get out of class and not know what to do with myself. I was so used to getting out of class and going to practice, and now there was this void in my life. I started training for triathlons, just doing what I felt like on a daily basis, and started having success. I won my age group at a triathlon in Philadelphia and also at the New Jersey State triathlon last year. I started working with Todd Lippin last summer, who had coached a fellow runner I knew from New Jersey. I ran into him at a bike shop… I had a flat and didn’t know how to fix it! From there I started doing track workouts with the Breakaway team, which led to really training for triathlons. It was a track workout that got me hooked again… it had been two years, and I had been like a fish out of water that whole time.

How have you been able to pick up biking so quickly?

I didn't really feel comfortable on a bike for about 7 months. Over time I’ve worked with Todd, done CompuTrainer classes, and started learning how to ride hard. I have a good cardiovascular engine, and I’ve always been pretty strong, which has helped accelerate my training on the bike. CompuTrainer classes in addition to training with power since May have been huge for my riding. Pushing hard on the bike is different than pushing hard in running, and I’m still trying to figure it out. There’s definitely room for improvement.

Where are you studying, and what type of medicine do you want to practice? Have you always wanted to be a doctor?

I’m at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. Right now I’m leaning towards primary care and family medicine. My mom and grandfather also went to Jefferson, and I’m proud to be a part of that legacy. My mom loves her career, and she inspired me to follow in her footsteps. Ever since my freshman year of high school I knew this was the path I wanted to take.

What’s a typical week for you, balancing med school and training? Do you have an established schedule or do you have to be flexible? What swim/bike/run volumes do you try to get in each week?

There’s not really a typical week, my schedule is very unpredictable. I rarely know when I’ll be done on a given day, but it usually works out to get some training in. I try to swim with masters Mon/Thurs/Sun, get a long ride in Sat, a long run Sun, and a track workout Wed. I try to fit it in, but it’s funny to look back at my training and see how it fluctuates.

Overall it’s worked out though, and I’ve tried to make the best of the situation. Training isn’t perfect for anybody, and if you have that expectation you’re going to be disappointed. At times it’s stressful, but at the end of the day I put in the best work I can and that's all I can do. I try for 8-10k in the water, 80-120 miles on the bike, and 20-30 miles of
 running, but it varies a lot.

Following this huge win, what’s next for you?

I’ll be a little more run focused over the next two months and will run the Philadelphia half marathon on Nov. 15. I have two important med school rotations, surgery and obgyn, from Nov-Feb, so my training may suffer a bit. School is my #1 priority, and triathlon is what I do on the side. So many people have said “so now are you gonna do Kona?” My boyfriend qualified for Kona this year, and seeing the training he’s putting in, I don’t know if I have the time. Triathlon is what I do to keep me sane, but my threshold of sanity might be surpassed by training for an Ironman! Maybe in the future, but for now 70.3 and olympic are great distances for me. I may even have to step back and do sprints next year… we'll see how demanding things get with school. 

Word on the street is that doctors tend to make a penny or two more than professional triathletes. Hypothetically speaking, if the money were the same would you take a crack at going pro?

Knowing I’d have my career in medicine to fall back on so to speak, I would definitely give it a crack. I say that, but I also know that I do better both athletically and academically when I'm juggling multiple things… when my eggs aren’t all in one basket. I’m very goal oriented, but I do better when I have multiple goals in multiple areas of my life. I don’t like to get too focused on one thing so that it becomes stressful. At the end of the day triathlon is fun for me.

Follow Emily on Twitter  @EmSher1

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