Last week Dutch triathlete Els Visser shared a first-hand account of what happened when the small boat she was travelling in during a trip to Indonesia sank in the middle of the night and how, after she survived, her ‘life’s too short’ philosophy led her to take up triathlon.
In today’s Q&A, I put some questions to the HOKA ONE ONE athlete (who has just qualified for Kona after coming 5th at IRONMAN Cairns!) about her training, the after-effects of her shipwreck experience and her goals for the future.
You’re still pretty new to triathlon. Out of swim-bike-run is there a discipline you like the least or need to work harder at?
As I am so young and a newbie in the sport, there is room for improvement in all three disciplines. This feels like an advantage for me. Every time I’m learning something new, it’s a great feeling to get stronger every time. It’s very motivating. I’m curious to know how far I can go before reaching a ‘plateau phase’. My favourite sessions are those in which I surprise myself with my performance. I also like the really tough training – although not during the session! However, afterwards I can laugh about it and then I am very happy that I ticked the box as it makes me feel stronger. I don’t have a favourite discipline as I like them all. It’s all about the combination in triathlon that makes it so special.
Triathlon requires you to swim in open water – has your experience in Indonesia led to any anxiety around open water?
Yes, it has. I’m not very keen on swimming in the ocean anymore, especially when the water is rough and the waves are high. Sometimes I can’t get through the waves because I’m too anxious, but when the water is calm and flat I don’t have any problems. Also, I have had a race this year where we started in the very early morning when it was still dark. I wasn’t able to navigate very well and I didn’t feel very comfortable.
Sometimes the accident crosses my mind during races, but I’m trying to block this as quickly as possible and focus on what I should do. I don’t want to fight it. It’s something I accept and that way it helps me each time to get stronger and be grateful again that I am still here. It’s part of my life and who I am. I also have a little tattoo on the inside of my left ankle of a symbol which means: to live – to survive – to be alive. I had a great life before and lived it, then I had to fight it to survive and now I’m grateful to be still alive.
Is your training based around a particular ethos or weekly goal?
We train a lot by feeling. I am not training on heart rate or power. Most of the time, my coach tells me the time and intensity (based on feeling) of the session. I like it because this is how I can learn to understand my body. The intensity and volume of the training is dependent on the season. For instance, at the beginning of this year I had a swim block and did a lot of swimming compared to cycling and running. At the moment we are building up the bike and run volume.
For me, it’s most important that I can trust my coach and that he is giving me the sessions which are best to help me improve. I didn’t study to become a triathlete coach and I also don’t have a lot of experience as a triathlete. Every day I’m learning more and I get more insights into the sport. I need a coach who can teach me what is best for me. I’m very happy and grateful that I found Cameron (Watt, Els’ coach) who has a lot of experience and knowledge about triathlon training. Also, it’s important for me to have a coach with whom I can share everything, such as personal issues or other things that bother me. Besides, he has a squad with many high level athletes who I can train with and who can help me improve. For me, it’s the best environment for me to develop myself and I couldn’t wish for anything better.
What does a typical day in your life look like right now?
Most days we have three sessions a day. Early morning, late morning and in the afternoon. Mostly it’s a swim combined with a bike day or a swim combined with a run day. In all three disciplines it’s a combination of sessions that include strength work, interval work or aerobic pace. Every time it’s a surprise and the variety makes it so exciting! Where I can, I try to take my rest in between the sessions to recover and get my energy back. However, I can’t always take my rest.
I will finish my PhD thesis about oesophageal cancer surgery later this year in November 2019. I graduated medicine in August 2015 and continued working as a PhD student in surgery. After four years of research in the field of oesophageal cancer surgery, I will finish later this year. So, in between the sessions I’m trying to work on this as well. I also work remotely to earn a bit of money – I am the head of a medical student team in the hospital in my hometown Utrecht, the Netherlands. The students work on patients’ wards and it’s my responsibility to coordinate this, but triathlon has priority!
Ironman is both mentally and physically demanding. During tough moments do you have any strategies to keep you going?
This is what I love about Ironman. The one who crosses the line first is not the one who is in the best physical shape and best condition. It’s also the one who was mentally strongest during the race. Every race is different and there are always surprising moments in a race that you couldn’t predict beforehand – it’s how you deal with this. Are you able and flexible enough to make new plans and not stress about those situations?
For me, it’s both my medical background and my experience in Indonesia that really helps me to keep going during races. Throughout my medical studies, I have learned to stay calm and focused in very stressful situations. The experience in Indonesia was a big eye-opener for me in experiencing how strong the human body is and how strong we are to keep going. I survived over two days swimming in an ocean and being on a deserted island without any drink or food. Now, when I am in a difficult moment during my races I think about this, and then I try to put it in perspective: “It can always be worse, Els” and “There is no way to give up and you’re strong enough to keep going and handle this.”
Who are you sponsored by right now?
Although I am a newbie in the sport, I am very grateful to have a team around me. A team who is part of my Ironman journey and with who I can share all my experiences and adventures. It’s about a two-way partnership, so it’s important that I can help sponsors with reaching their goals as well.
HOKA ONE ONE, Funkita, and DT Swiss are main sponsors who help me with products.
Then I have a couple of sponsors outside the triathlon sport, but who are really connected with triathlon and who love to support my journey. They include: Van der Voort groep, Ouwehands Dierenpark, Andantino BV and Investe Group.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
I’ve recently designed my own items for training and races. I’ve designed my own personal logo and I’m working with ocean coloured stripes (see earlier photo). I love striped clothes and they also act as a symbol for me. Stripes move forward and are energetic. I’ve also included a heartbeat line as well since I am doctor and still have a lot of passion for my medical job. The stripes are coloured blue as a symbol for the ocean where I experienced my life-changing situation in Indonesia.
What are your hopes and goals for 2019?
My goal is to become the best I can be and get the best out of my body. I am hoping to have a consistent year of training and show my performances during different races this year. I’m also looking forward to finishing my PhD.
Next year I will be on the road to Kona, but if it happens this year, of course I will be there! (Els qualified for Kona 2019 shortly after our interview!)I also would love to put some time into helping communities. As a doctor I know how important it is to be healthy. I would love to help people to have a healthier lifestyle. This includes being more active and having the right nutrition plan. I see parallels in my job as a doctor and triathlete and hope that I can combine this to inspire people.
Els Visser is a HOKA ONE ONE athlete.
You can follow her journey in Ironman via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/elsvisser3, www.twitter.com/elsvissertri and www.facebook/elsvissertriathlete. Visit Els’ website at www.elsvisser.com.