When a 6x World Champ Meets a First-time Racer: Sika Henry’s road to IRONMAN Kona

My introduction to the sport of triathlon was an unexpected one. Even though I grew up swimming and was a Track & Field athlete in college (primarily focused on the High Jump), I never envisioned myself participating in endurance sports. In fact, I didn’t even like to run the mile in high school! But one bucket list item – completing a marathon – turned into a passion, and I became hooked.

Participating in local 5Ks and half marathons became a monthly hobby of mine for a few years, until I went through a devastating break up. For weeks I became a hermit and dealt with a bought of depression. Luckily fate intervened and I saw an ad for a local triathlon – the Tidewater Sprint. I signed up on a whim and only had two weeks to buy a bike, reintroduce myself to swimming, and learn how to transition from swim to bike and bike to run.

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I will always remember my first triathlon in 2013. I competed in a Speedo, rode a mountain bike in sneakers, and nearly walked the entire run. I came in close to last place! But I didn’t care. I found it exhilarating and wanted to see how much faster I could get.

Doing structured training, which included two to three weekly swims and bike rides in addition to running, took my cardio to a new level. I went from not being able to break 20 minutes in a 5K to running low 18s and surprising myself with back-to-back marathon wins, as well as a win at the local sprint triathlon that introduced me to the sport! 

As I became more involved in triathlon my personal goals got bigger, as did my passion for increasing diversity. I learned that only 0.5% of African Americans participate in the sport, approximately 70% of African Americans lack basic swimming skills, and black children drown at a rate three times higher than white children. Even though my ultimate goal is to earn a pro card, I hope that any success I achieve in this sport will inspire others to participate; or at the very least encourage them to develop a lifesaving skill – swimming.

My journey so far has come with many highs: competing at the IRONMAN® 70.3 World Championships, breaking 1:30 in the half marathon run at IRONMAN® 70.3 Atlantic City, and making the podium at each IRONMAN® 70.3 race I competed in last year. It has also come with its share of lows: a bike crash in April that left me with a broken nose, over 40 stitches to my face, and severe road rash on various parts of my body. Luckily with the help of my amazing support system – family, friends, coach (Jonathan Caron), and my team at HOKA – I have been able to bounce back swiftly.

One of the highlights of my year so far was being given the opportunity to work one-on-one in Boulder, CO with IRONMAN® legend Dave Scott. We worked on seated climbs and out of saddle climbing techniques, proper arm carriage while running (especially when fatigue sets in), and techniques to engage my glutes and transverse abdominus. I also learned how to use swim chords for the first time!

Lucky for me, my season doesn’t end yet. It’s just getting started. I will be competing at the IRONMAN® World Championships in Kona next month. The race that Dave Scott has won 6 times! As we approach the race, I had the chance to interview Dave about how to approach my first full IRONMAN® at Kona this year. I am very fortunate to have him as a resource as I head to the big island to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 mile, and run 26.2 miles. After hearing his advice, Dave asked me three questions that helped me feel more confident as I approach race day. 

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SIKA: How do you handle nerves, especially at a race like the IRONMAN® World Championships? 

DAVE: To fight race nerves, it’s important to maintain routine, know the course and be confident.

What does this mean?

  1. Maintain the same weekly routine. Use the same days to work out and insert “like” intensities so you can feel your body respond just like your workouts.  Also, maintain the same evening routine. Do you listen to music? Answer a few emails ? It’s also essential to maintain the same food intake – just like a training week! 
  2. Have a mental road map of the course.  Knowing the subtle nuances of the course allows you to break the race into segments. These are not equidistant. For example, the opening 4.7 miles is challenging for everyone.  Climbing up the back-side of Palani Hill, sharp turn at the bottom, climbing again and finishing off the final 800 meters going up the 5 – 9 % grade of Palani does not allow a good rhythm. So, recognize the outset ,and more importantly have a plan to ride this short segment
  3. Do a physical inventory throughout the race. When you swim take slow big breaths, relax your face, neck, shoulders arms during the recovery.  On the bike, take smooth pedal strokes and periodically LOOK at your legs— talk to them! Start at the top of your head and again, calm your non-working parts down. The energy is in your glutes and quads! 
  4. Find a mantra. Fear of the unknown or fear of failing can be squelched by reciting simple phrases or words before the race and during.  

SIKA: You’re bound to hit rough patches in a race. Especially one as long as an IRONMAN®. What do you tell yourself or think about to keep going? 

DAVE: One phrase that is helpful is “Do what you can do at the moment”.  The grammar is incorrect but the message is just be present and go over the physical control that I mentioned above. Phrases or words that allow you to flow or relax are key.  Fluid, smooth, slow breaths in and out of your nose will also control your parasympathetic nervous system which is calming and reducing anxiety.  

SIKA: I think most high performing athletes are pretty hard on themselves. When your performance at a race doesn’t meet your expectations, how do you handle the disappointment? 

DAVE: I’m not planning on this outcome for you, Sika! I always ask my athletes even in the face of  a disastrous race, “What did you do well?”. I start the moment they wake up and dissect their day. It’s important to stay positive even after disappointment.

Now, here are three questions Dave asked me to help me assess my own preparedness going into this race. Answering these helped me feel confident and ready to take on the day. If you have a big race coming up, I would encourage you to take the time to answer these questions for yourself!

DAVE: What do you focus on that makes you feel confident going into this race?

SIKA: I draw confidence from the hard workouts I pushed through during my most recent block of training. There were times when every part of me wanted to stop. Knowing that I was capable of finishing 100+ mile rides and hard 16-mile runs gives me confidence that I can keep going when things get tough. I also worked with a strength conditioning coach for the first time this year. I plan to focus on the gains I made on the bike as well as in the weight room to give me confidence going into this race.

DAVE: What do you recognize as your weaknesses going into this race and how will you keep them from getting the best of you?

SIKA: I tend to suffer from pre-race anxiety, which can leave me exhausted heading into a race. The mind controls the body so I know how important a positive mindset is heading into a big race like the IRONMAN(R) World Championships. Knowing that this is a weakness of mine, I have made a conscious effort to focus on the things I have control over – nutrition, rest, recovery. 

Being an athlete that tends to struggle more mentally than physically means that I have to make a conscious effort to turn off the negative thoughts. This is something I practiced quite often during workouts this year. I plan to rely on my positive queue words and phrases to help me on race day.

 DAVE: What are your three biggest goals going into this race?

SIKA: Since this is my first time tackling such a huge race like the IRONMAN® World Championships, my first goal is to stick to MY race plan, which means focusing on myself and not what other competitors are doing. My second goal is to have fun! I think this is a tremendous opportunity I’ve been given. I want to cherish it. I’m looking forward to swimming in Kailua Bay, riding on the Queen K, and running down Alii Drive. My third goal is to finish. I have no time or place goals. If I stick to my plan, give it everything I have, and cross the finish line, I will be happy.

Sika will be racing at IRONMAN® Kona in the HOKA Carbon X. Follow her journey to become the first African American female triathlete with a pro card here.

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The Kona couple

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“Mercedes and I work together like peanut butter and jelly. We get each other up every morning and help each other out when we’re down or need a hand. We know each others goals and we would do anything to help each other reach them. Even if it’s a simple slap on the butt or a cup of coffee to get out of the door. Having Mercedes as a training partner is really fun because we both have many things in common, and of course some differences. We both get to be silly with each other and joke around a lot. But when training does get serious she helps me by shouting out swim and run splits and hold a donut at the finish of a long day of biking. It is also inspiring and motivating to watch your significant other grow as a better athlete and person.” – HOKA Fan Dan Gampon

Turia Pitt’s Success at Kona

I really feel so bloody proud of myself! Kona was so brutal, and I’m totally ecstatic to have finished. It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve taken on – the wild heat, the humidity, the powerful crosswinds that almost push your bike off course.

It was far from the perfect race – the heat got to me, I couldn’t keep any food or drink down, I battled a headwind for 90 km… so much of the day did not go as planned and I had to dig deep and then keep on digging, even when I was certain there was nothing left to give.

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Over the fourteen and a half hours of my race, I battled these conflicting thoughts. It was like every lesson about overcoming pain and challenging myself came out to be tested. I had moments of sheer euphoria and intense pain. I compared myself to others on the race and I wanted to give up more times than I’d probably like to admit.

But then I’d find a way to come back to myself and focus on the path ahead of me. It was in those moments that the race became achievable.

It’s interesting because the theme of this World Championship was Kupa’a – a Hawaiian word that means being steadfast and focused, being true to your journey and your surroundings. I heard Mark Allen, six-time World Champion, speak about Kupa’a last week. He spoke about turning your focus away from the other competitors so that you can remain steady and focused on your own race. He spoke about being loyal to what surrounds you – accepting the heat and the wind and embracing that as part of the experience.

So, for every challenge, for every moment I wanted to give in and give up, I came back to kupa’a.

It’s not like there was this one big decision to just be focused the whole time. It was this back and forth struggle between negative distraction and positive progress all day.

I think that’s why I’m so proud of myself. Not because it was a perfect race or a personal best, because it was neither. I’m proud because I kept fighting to have kupa’a. I fought all the way to that finish line and that feels damn good.

Meet HOKA Athlete Heather Jackson

HOKA athlete Heather Jackson made her IRONMAN Kona debut just last year, yet she finished as the top American female. She placed 5th overall, making a huge come back on the run leg of the race. This time around, Heather is a favorite to head to the podium. She has proven her dominance in the 70.3 distance since switching from Princeton hockey player to pro triathlete, winning IRONMAN 70.3 Coeur D’Alene and IRONMAN 70.3 Oceanside twice. Heather’s training focus transitioned to the full IRONMAN distance this year, and her eyes are set on a big win at Kona.

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Heather is easy to spot on the course. If you don’t catch her Pink inspired hair cut (her favorite music artist), distinctive tattoos, or HOKA Clayton racing shoes, you can be sure to see her rocking a Wattie Ink speedsuit. Wattie Ink is co-owned by Heather and her husband Sean Watkins, who she feels lucky to have as her top supporter, training partner, and manager.

One of our favorite parts about Heather is how she dreams big in all aspects of her life, and seems endlessly interested in mastering new things. She says that if she wasn’t a triathlete, she would attempt to be a pro snowboarder. Leave it to the triathlete to be great at every sport she tries! However, Heather can also admit her short comings, claiming she would be a rock star performing with Pink if she wasn’t tone deaf. For now, she’ll settle for being one of the fiercest competitors in triathlon, and fitting in some quality rest time while she’s not training. Specifically, sitting on the couch with an ice cold IPA and laughing at kitten videos.

HOKA ONE ONE wishes the best of luck to Heather and our other athletes competing at Kona, including Kevin Collington, Luke McKenzie, and Leanda Cave.

 

 

 

Turia Pitt: A Burn Survivor’s Journey to Kona

After I was trapped in a grassfire whilst competing in a 100km ultra marathon over 5 years ago, I had to rebuild my whole life. Learning how to walk, talk, eat and dress myself again were all major achievements.

I’d always loved running and being super active. My self-esteem was wrapped up with what my body could do, so it was pretty rough to deal with. I remember the doctors told me I’d never run again, and I remember thinking “Oh yeah? I’ll show you – I’m gonna do an IRONMAN one day. I didn’t even know what an Ironman entailed, but I knew it was this incredible physical and mental challenge, and if I could do it, I could prove to myself that I was fitter, faster and stronger than before the fire.

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Every day my Mum and my partner Michael would come into the hospital and get me out of bed saying “come on Turia, time for your IRONMAN training”. Even if it was a short walk down the corridor or taking on a few stairs, it was always a step closer to that big goal. Throughout my recovery, I’ve stayed focused on that goal. Initially of course I had to get back to a base level of fitness, starting with longer walks and rides.

Initially I could only run 10 meters. Then 20 meters. And then 100 meters. Over several months I built up to around 400 meters and it was a bit of a turning point in my recovery. I remember thinking ‘if I can run again, what else can I do that they told me I couldn’t?” I felt like the rest of my world started opening up again.

Eventually those runs turned into half-marathons and in 2014, I decided it was time to start training specifically for IRONMAN. After finishing my first IRONMAN in Port Macquarie, Australia in May I was just filled with absolute elation. I remember just feeling so thrilled and really grateful to be able to prove to myself that I can achieve anything I set my mind to.

When I found out I’d been invited to compete at IRONMAN Kona, I felt equal parts totally pumped and completely terrified! It’s going to be a massively hectic challenge, but I’m as ready as I’ll ever be to give it my best shot.