Interview with a World Champion

Laura: When did it first become a goal for you to want to win a world championship?

Julie: I could answer this 2 ways: the realistic way and the honest way. Literally the first time I did an Ironman I was just happy to finish. I thought, “all I want to do is just get to Kona.” And then I caught myself thinking “fuck that, if I’m going to get there, I want to get to the top of that step in Kona.” 

But then I went to Kona for the first time and I had to reel that back in. So suddenly it was really clear to me that that was – I don’t want to say unattainable – but that’s a big hairy ass goal. I don’t even know if I can go there. So I think the goal has been there but I realized there were so many steps in between and I needed to focus on what each of those steps was going to take before I could even look at the big hairy goal.

L: So what was the first realistic step?

J: After my first Ironman, I went with “I just want to qualify for Kona.” Just get to Hawaii and race in Hawaii. 

L: How long did it take you from your first Ironman to qualifying for Kona?

J: A year. I did Ironman Coeur d’Alene, then I raced Wisconsin after that and missed it by 1 slot, then went back to Coeur d’Alene the next year and that’s when I got my spot. I went to Kona that year thinking I could probably get on the podium. Then I passed out at mile 8 on the run and don’t remember the rest of the race. So that’s when I had to rethink that a little bit.

L: So when would you say that you were ready start working towards winning a world championship as a realistic goal?

J: It took me 10 years. The problem was almost every time I went to that race I would fall flat on my face so hard that I had to keep it out there, but I realized that it wasn’t going to be a linear process. I kind of had an idea that when it came together – I didn’t know if I would win but I knew I would be close to it. I knew that the moving pieces had to come together.

L: Where do you think the desire to achieve the highest possible goal in our sport comes from? Can you identify something about yourself that makes you want to reach for that?

J: You know, I came from a sport where if someone was in front of me, I wasn’t winning. It’s that drive to be in front of that next person. So I don’t know, it’s always been a part of me. Early on in swimming, I was racing the person in the lane next to me even if they didn’t know it. 

L: Would you describe it as a chip on your shoulder?

J: No. I love the people I race against. I’m never going to get the energy to go harder or faster out of anger or spite of anybody. It’s definitely about how hard I can push myself and what I can do to myself. The only thing when I think of people in front of me is that I just have to suffer harder and longer than they do and then I’ll get the results I want. That’s not a process goal but that’s where my head goes in those situations. What is the next thing I can do that the next person out there isn’t willing or able to do.

L: So along this 10 year journey, was there anything along the way that you thought you could get away with not sacrificing? For example, having a strict schedule or eating a certain way, etc?

J: I don’t think there was anything specific but every year that I wasn’t getting closer to that goal, something else had to change. I would think, “ok I’m already doing all the training that my coach gives me, so what else do we have here?” And I would think, “hmm maybe those extra glasses of wine don’t make sense when I’m in big training.” Or l’d get after a strength training block next time, where even though I was doing it before, I wasn’t fully invested. So it was about cleaning up my diet, cutting the drinking when the serious training starts, not skimping on the mobility or strength, and all those little 10-15 minute things a day. There had to be no more cutting corners or slacking.  

L: What about the social aspect? I think balancing training and time with friends is something that people have a hard time with. Did you have anything like that to work through?

J: No, because I like to go to bed at 8:00, so I curate my own social life around that. I curated my career: when I started in triathlon, I knew I was going to have to work remotely in order to achieve my goals. My social life is often in the pool, on the bike, and running. So I don’t feel like I turn down a lot of invitations because the people I hang with are doing what I’m doing. I know for a lot of people that’s a huge sacrifice, but I am actually really happy in that space because I’m training, I’m tired, I’m going to bed, and if something happens past 7, I’m just out. 

L: I know you think really highly of your coach, Marilyn Chychota. What are some specific ways that you think that she contributes to your success?

J: I’m really into focusing on the competition – what they’re doing, what’s going to happen. And she always says it doesn’t matter who’s out there. I know that’s right from a coaching standpoint. You know, control what you can control. So she’s worked with me a lot in breaking down the race of how to stay in my own head about what I’m doing, where I’m doing it, and practicing that. I’ve gotten 2 emails before big races that were so positive and direct, like, “don’t fuck around, take a risk, and suffer.” And sometimes you just need to hear that. Her level of confidence is really high in me and she gives me that confidence.

L: You do really well with high volume training so you’re basically trashed the whole build up to a big Ironman event. I know that Marilyn helps you stay focused, but do you have any points where you freak out about training or how things are going? And how does Marilyn work through that with you?

J: She gives me what I call permission to fail. She probably wouldn’t describe it that way. Every workout is not meant to hit, but as long as I do my best, we achieve what it is. So she gets in there with the big picture because I get stuck in the minutiae of those 6×1 miles off the bike – #4 and #5 were 18 seconds off – and she doesn’t even entertain that thought. She’s also very responsive. When I just break down, like I fail a workout so badly it’s not even recognizable, she pulls the plug. Part of that is hard for me because when she pulls the plug, I think, “OMG you think I should be able to do this and I can’t.” And she just says that’s not how it works. 

That’s the value of working with someone for a number of years. There are times when I’ll say I’m literally so tired that I don’t know if I can do this run. Then she’ll say, :you can do that run.” And then I say “ok” and sometimes the run goes amazing and sometimes it doesn’t. She doesn’t always say surrender every time I wave the flag. Sometimes she says, “yea you’re tired, it’s hard, do it anyway.” 

L: I’d like to talk about your experience while racing. We all have different ways of motivating ourselves: for example, some people are doing calculations or counting down intervals, breaking it into smaller chunks. Do you do any of that? Do you get super focused and in the zone?

J: I think I learned how to compartmentalize better than anything. I literally never go to what is going to happen that day. So the 3 hours we were waiting to start the swim in St. George, I just kept thinking, “ok, 1.2 mile swim.” The mental piece doesn’t get hard for me until the run. On the bike it is just, “ok we’re going up, now we’re going down, now here’s the wind, etc.” It’s a lot of just ticking off miles.

L: So you’re super present then. You’re never thinking down the road.

J: Never. I’m always checking in with how am I feeling, how’s my nutrition, hydration, and you know when you get to mile 80 and 90 and your legs feel like shit, it doesn’t bother me because it’s almost like I’m going to roll into my driveway and be done. The first time it gets challenging is when I get off the bike and hand it off. It’s that “OMG am I going to feel like I’m going to want to take a nap and do the giraffe wobble?” That’s where the anxiety can start to creep in because that’s a tell. So then on the run generally the first couple miles are ok, then it starts to become “holy shit” so I count miles in my head over and over 1, 1, 1, 1, then as soon as I hit the aid station I start counting 2, 2, 2, 2.

L: Oh wow so is that something that you do in order to stay focused on the present? 

J: Yep and then I can tell when I start getting tired because I start to tap my fingers. It’s a way to redirect where my brain is. Then I’ll start counting steps: 1-100 then down again. Then as it gets harder I start counting to 50, and then when things are really on the rails, I count to 10. 

L: I don’t know if I’d be able to count to 50 in a race.

J: Well I’m sure I’m like 38, 59, 64… I think I count to 50 or 100 but who knows.

L: Yea ok, it’s just something to keep your brain busy. 

J: And I’ve learned over the years. I have a tool box of mental gymnastics. So if one thing isn’t working, I’ll think, “ok who do I see in front of me – can I stay in pace with that person? Can I catch up with that person?” Then I start thinking about the aid station. I like to pretend it’s this amazing buffet. And that occupies my brain until I get there. So part of the reason I think I’m so tired is because I feel like my brain is working all the time. 

L: It sounds like it. 

J: When I start to get to the halfway point, I am jamming so hard to not think this is only halfway. Once I get to 14, I think ok I’m almost to 16 and that’s 10 miles. 10 miles is nothing.

L: So would you say you’re not really “in the zone?” 

J: When I raced Oceanside, I did feel that. I felt great, I was racing well, I remember thinking, “oh wow my watch just beeped!” That was the zone. So I have been in that. Not at St. George. It was more like, “my garmin is broken, it’s not beeping, (even though there’s no aid station) – OMG they must have moved the mile sign!” So there’s the zone and then there’s survival.

L: How much would you say that you follow your race plan and how much would you say that you’re making adjustments throughout the race? 

J: Oh I follow my race plan. The swim is the swim. The swim is the only time I’m in the zone. I just put my head down and go. I’m really meticulous on the bike because otherwise I will ride too hard. I’m so excited in that part of the race so I’m constantly paying attention to that. And I’ve learned for nutrition, I just have to follow what I’ve laid out because the later I get in the race, when I don’t follow it, either I’m blacking out or I have no idea what I’m eating and drinking. And the run – I don’t know who follows a pace plan on the run in an Ironman. We all write it down and dream about it but it’s about finding a pace and settling in. If it’s a half, I really have to reign it in on the first 3 miles but then my legs find their pace and that’s what it’s going to be like that day. And I kind of feel like it’s the same for an Ironman. Very rarely am I at mile 4 of an Ironman and I say “wow I really have to dial it back because I feel like i could go so much faster.” So for as data driven as I am, once I get past the first couple miles on the run, your body just finds it. I mean heart rate – forget it – my heart rate is just everywhere. So it’s more about the nutrition: what do I need to be doing.

L: I feel that way about the run too, and the run is my thing. I still write it down and dream about it, but it’s not a plan, it’s more just a thought that makes me happy to think about. 

Were there any stories that you used to tell yourself, for example, “I’m not a runner” or “I’m not good at a particular thing” that you had to reframe in order to have a breakthrough in any particular area?

J: Well I’ve been trying to work on my run since my 3rd Ironman which was my fastest run ever. In my brain, I’m just a crappy runner. I’d think, “if I can do this on the run, then I can get what I want.” It was a coach of mine that said you don’t have to be the best runner out there. And the likelihood of that happening is probably slim so let’s be honest about it. If you can swim the way you swim and then bike the way you bike, you’ll have enough of a delta to just need to be a solid runner. I used to gauge all of my races on the run. I would think the race sucked ( even though I won my age group and I’m going to Kona) if  my run was terrible. It took me a long time to realize I don’t have to be a great runner. I have to be a solid runner but I don’t have to be a great runner, and I think that was a turning point in believing in what I can do, especially as I’m getting older and my run is getting slower (as is everyone else’s). I can still hold on to my swim and bike almost in the way that it has been since I started racing. So if I can maintain that, then that gives me even more of a delta. I used to say, “survive the run,” but I don’t do that anymore.  I just need to be a strong and steady runner and I can achieve what I want to achieve. 

L: Got it. So it sounds like the reframe is not that it’s ok if you’re a bad runner, but changing the binary of good vs. bad to being strong and steady, which is controllable. You need the right language to be able to talk about what you do. 

J: Right, and I look at the women in my age group who are really good runners and then they blow up and they’re walking, so maybe they’re going to have an incredible run and crush it but maybe they’re going to blow up. 

L: Maybe they need to learn how to be strong and steady too

J: Right!

L: What does embracing the darkness on the race course mean to you?

J: I think it happens in every race. It’s when I get to that point of it being painful but sustainable. I feel like when I tip into that darkness, that’s almost my happy place. I may not look happy but I know that I can hang out in that space for a really long time.

L: I think there’s fear in that place for a lot of people –

J: Oh no, I wouldn’t say it’s fear, it’s when things are just sideways. But that’s not embracing the darkness. I look at that as giving into the darkness. To me, embracing the darkness is when I’m in  this dark hard miserable place and I’m like “ok, I can do this.” So I love a race when that doesn’t happen – 

L: Do you? I don’t know if I would even have a good time if that didn’t happen.

J: I felt that way at Oceanside. I had a great race, I really did. But I finished feeling like (unamused face) – I didn’t have more to give but I felt like because I wasn’t in that space that maybe that’s not racing.

L: Yes, I agree with that.

J: And that’s where I watch other people and they’re like “this is so hard” and I’m like yep, it is (sadistic smile face)!

L: One of the things we’ve always placed at the forefront of NYX is inclusion and recognizing everyone’s goals as equally important. That’s why we stay all the way to the end of Ironmans – we believe that what we’re all working on is just as valid as what everyone else is working on. So that being our message and you saying you want to be the best in the world, that requires a certain humility to come out and say that. How does that work for you and how does it balance with being able to say this is what I want and also to your athletes – your goals are just as important as my goals.

J: It’s funny, it never crosses my mind. What I do in my world and my training and racing is so different from coaching. But I think that was one of the things I loved so much about triathlon after coming up through swimming where everyone had to be fast, and if you weren’t, you got cut. Suddenly there’s this world of endurance where everyone can have big scary goals but they’re very individual to them. So when I think about that, I kind of feel like we’re all the same. Especially when I have the opportunity to race on a course with my athletes – we’re all trying to be the best that we can be that day and it doesn’t matter where you are in the race. If you have goals that match your intentions, that’s what makes triathlon really what it is. I sometimes feel uncomfortable – it took me a long time to ever even vocalize that goal other than in my house. I would never say it because it felt like, “who says that?” So it’s weird. Whatever your goal is, it’s an important goal that we work towards together so regardless of what you do on that day, people should be just as happy as I felt on my day if they put into the race what they could. That’s what I love about coaching more than anything. I don’t care if you came in at 10.5 hours or 16.5 hours, the elation at the finish line is exactly the same.

L: Along those lines, often when we see someone accomplishing big awesome things in the world, we can be tempted to say that they make it look easy. And you know, to an outsider maybe it does look easy. What would you say is inherent about you that puts you in this category of people accomplishing these big goals? Is it your natural talent? Is it actually easy for you? What’s different about you that this is your goal and this is the level that you’ve gotten to?

J: You have to say we’ve all gotten to this earth with a certain amount of talent. We all do not start at the same place. So I recognize that and I recognize that I’ve got some athleticism that’s built into me. But it took a while to figure out where that was because I tried a lot of things. I tried to play soccer and was encouraged to stick with swimming. I wanted to do other things and I sucked at them. I was also not the swimmer with instant success. I was 12 when I got moved up into the group called the seniors and my coach told me that I was going to have to work harder than this person, this person, this person because I’m just not as talented. So I’ve spent my whole swimming career not feeling like I had any talent but I was willing to stay after and do  extra. So I learned very early to do all these extra things that would bring me on par with people who would skip out and go to the showers. Early in triathlon, I didn’t know what I had to work with. It  could have been like soccer. But it didn’t take long to realize, “ok I can probably be reasonably good at this.” But I just slipped back into what I knew from swimming: that I’m going to have to work as hard or harder as anybody I know to achieve the goals I want to achieve. I’ve never had any goals in swimming or anything else that have just happened. Like, “OMG I never expected that and I qualified for NCAA’s!” It was just grind and grind and grind and then get faster by 2/100’s of a second. I also came from a brutally hard sport where we would train for hours. There was no water or gatorade, so I would drink the pool water. It was not uncommon to vomit in the gutter and keep going. So that was the mentality.

L: Would you say that the brutality of that sport fit your personality? Did you think, “yea we just go to practice and vomit and it’s a good time?” 

J: I didn’t even know any better. I just thought that that’s what sport was. I remember the first time out of college I went running and I was like oh we don’t go all out until we fall on the ground? Of course we had a ton of fun but the training was just relentless, and it was never enough. There was no reason to ever stop or back off. So I learned the hard way in triathlon. You can’t take a water mammal and put them on the land and do the same thing. In swimming things don’t break. When you do that running, the number of fractures and things I had happen in training – things hurt really badly all the time.

L: I would think that it wouldn’t be mentally sustainable to treat training that way – to be able to push yourself so hard all the time.

J: Well I had to learn a lot. There was a time and a place for that. My first coach in triathlon was an amazing teacher and he was like, “no you don’t get on the bike and go all out every time until you die.” I would just go and die, go and die, go and die. He invested a lot in me. He’d get on the bike and show me what it was like to ride my bike easy. So I had to relearn how to “sport.” And it didn’t take long once I figured it out. I got my head around it so when it was time to go hard, it was a familiar space.

L: So compared to college, only going hard and vomiting once a week was probably pretty nice!

Let’s end with what’s next. After you won St. George, you were really happy – you won a world championship! On the surface people might think sure, that makes sense that you’d be happy after winning a world championship. But there’s a whole thing in sports and in life where right after you achieve a big goal, there’s a let down. There are stories of people winning olympic medals, then getting off the podium and their first thought is, “now what do I do?” Did you feel any of that?

J: No because in my twisted brain there’s still one more step: the world championship in Kona. While this was a brutally hard race and all these other things, of all the times I dared to let myself imagine or visualize it, it was never going through a round-about, then an out-and-back, and running to the St. George finish line. So I’d love to be able to have that conversation in October and think, “now what?” But I still feel like there’s unfinished business.

L: Say you win Kona in October. Do you imagine that you just keep going after that?

J: I don’t know. Regardless of what happens, there are so many other goals and things I want to do. I will never be a competitive gravel racer because I’m terrible at it but it’s so incredibly fun. I want to put some effort and focus into that, but who knows. I don’t think I’d walk off from Kona and say “ok I’m done with triathlon.” But I think it would give me the permission and bandwidth to explore some other things. Whether I win or don’t win, I’m going to do that anyway so it’s part of the balance and the process. 

For more excerpts from Julie’s Day, check out the following articles:

Precision Hydration’s Case Study on Julie’s Race Nutrition and Hydration

San Diego Union Tribune on Racing and Coaching

The Coast News on Stiff-Arming Pain to Become a World Champion

NYX Endurance

Our mission is to develop an endurance community that empowers each member towards both individual and collective potential. At NYX Endurance, we believe in the relentless pursuit of better. We believe there is no success without suffering. There is no progress without perseverance. There is no light without darkness. #embracethedarkness