Dutch-born endurance athlete Bonnie Van Wilgenburg has dabbled in pretty much every endurance sport you can imagine, from extreme distance triathlons and mega swimrun events to ultra-trail and skyrunning races. A regular on the podium, the 30-year-old’s wins include the XMan XXX Triathlon and Breca Wanaka swimrun, plus a podium on the crazy Ultra Tour des 4 Massifs run – 160km and 10,000m of ascent!
I put twenty questions to Bonnie about swimrun, triathlon and ultra-running – and shortly after answering she broke her shoulder! Wishing you speedy recovery, Bonnie.
#1. You’ve competed in some of the toughest events on the planet. How did you get into endurance sports?
I’m originally from the Netherlands, the flatlands, and my parents were not into sports at all. I also lacked affinity for sports at school. I was the kid who’d get picked last for teams. I did play a bit of football, my position was left back… in the training rooms! It was more of a social thing. I moved to England for my studies, where fell and trail runner Kirsty Hewitson introduced me to fell running, around 2012. I loved pottering around the hills all day and the endurance sport seed was planted.
#2. What is it about extreme endurance sports that you enjoy?
I love the “flow” I get into during extreme endurance sports and very much enjoy being outside in nature exploring unknowns. I view the sport as an on-going rewarding journey, which helps me live life in the moment.
#3. Your race calendar includes a lot of XTERRA triathlon events this year. Are you training specifically on a mountain bike for this?
I’m jumping in at the deep-end this year with mountain biking. I haven’t done much on the mountain bike before, so no doubt it will be a long journey with lots of riding to learn the skills. Cycling fast won’t bring me close to the finish line on an XTERRA race, skills will. Ironically, I just moved back to the Netherlands, which is flat and mostly below sea level, but there are plenty of good trails, especially for a beginner. Mountain biking on the hilly/technical trails in Europe will be tough, and I’ll take it easy on the races, using this year to gain off-road experience.
#4. Are any of your bike sessions indoors on a turbo?
During the winter I do bike sessions indoors on a turbo. I learnt to enjoy these sessions, especially with the feedback of power output. However, even though these indoor sessions are highly effective, I go outside to ride if I can. Maybe a bit too much, as last winter I slid and fell more than once on the icy roads!
#5. How do you pass the time on the turbo?
I normally start with an audiobook, but soon I lose the ability to concentrate, so then I switch to music which helps me to stay in the flow during the intervals.
#6. You’ve won plenty of swimrun events and extreme distance triathlons. How do the two compare?
The satisfaction of doing a swimrun race compares to that of an “extreme” triathlon, as it brings you to “extreme” places and both races feel like an exploration. The effort of the two races is different. Swimrun races are done in pairs, so it’s a team effort. That’s a major difference and one of the great things about swimrun races.
Personally, I think swimrun races can be more challenging as you need to be quite sharp at all times: technical terrain, sighting in open water over long distances, navigation on land (finding the sign-posts in rough terrain can be tricky), many transitions between swimming and running. Due to the many transitions in swimrun, there’s perhaps more changes in pace than in triathlon but also the challenge of regulating your own body temperature; sometimes avoiding becoming hypothermic due to cold swims; other times, avoiding over-heating whilst running in the wetsuits.
#7. What are your tips for runners new to swimrun?
Just do it! Sure, practice where you can, but the best way to experience the sport is by doing the race and making mistakes and figuring out what works for you and your team-mate. I wouldn’t worry too much about the swimming if you’re a runner. It’s an enjoyable break from the running, and if you’re a trail/off-road runner, you’ll notice you can gain a lot of time, especially on the technical terrain of the run sections. If you struggle with swimming, my top tip is to find a partner who knows how to swim, who can drag you along with a bungee cord. That’s how I do it – thank you Sam Clarke, Graeme Stuart and Stuart Macleod!
#8. Are there any swimrun dos and don’ts that you’ve discovered through your own experience?
Don’t forget to hydrate, carry water/food and take your time on check points.
Do communicate with your swimrun partner and make sure they’re OK as well.
Do take your time to look at the route before the race and take your time to navigate on the run. The course is signed, but the course marking is not always obvious.
Do take your time upon swim-entry to determine which line to swim and where to sight. Listen to the marshals.
Do use plenty of anti-chaffing [cream] and put on sunscreen.
#9. Do you still practice ice baths as swimrun prep?
One year I took ice baths in preparation for an extreme triathlon in the north. This was very effective and I now seem to mainly struggle with over-heating rather than hypothermia!
#10. You must have battled some challenging moments during your many events – what do you do when it gets really tough?
One of my favourite aspects of endurance events is the psychology. I find it beautiful to see how the body and mind adapts to the environment. Mostly, I get into the zone and I’m racing in the flow. Moments that I don’t, I do use mental strategies, including breaking down the race into shorter segments, and positive self-talk or just doing meditative/repetitive counting. Luckily, I mostly remain positive and I find that comes most naturally in swimrun races when I’m racing in a team; when racing alone, I become a bit more self-critical.
#11. What does a typical week of training look like at the moment?
I started a new job recently, so I’m finding a new balance having less hours to train. I struggle to get up early for the club swims at the moment but I’m currently striving for the following schedule:
Monday AM: Club swim
Tuesday PM: Club MTB
Thursday: Varies, could be bike/swim/run
Friday AM: Club swim and run
Saturday: MTB + short brick run off the bike
#12. What kind of running do you do?
When I was still living in England and doing more trail running, I would go to the hills in the weekends and have long days out. Now, in the Netherlands, my running training is much shorter, includes road intervals and 30-second hill reps. Any steady or longer runs, I always prefer to do on trails.
#13. Do you ever practice swimrun transitions in training?
Only just before the race do I practice swim-run transitions, mainly testing out the kit with my race partner. I swim mostly indoors, with an outside sessions once a week or less.
#14. What are your favourite items of kit for triathlon and swimrun?
I don’t have a particular item I favour, but I do very much appreciate having good/light/fast racing kit. I do have my favourite sunglasses, which were a prize for winning Celtman Xtri in 2016. Since then, I’ve completed many journeys with these bright-blue Celtman sunnies, including one race where I was enjoying the flow of the moment so much that I imagined the sunnies to be my time machine, as I was flying through time over the trails.
#15. Can you run through one of your favourite training sessions?
One run session I have done a lot over the years is a simple “build”, e.g. 15-15-15-15, each block of 15 minutes, starting easy, finishing hard, which taught me a lot about pacing. When I’m feeling good and energetic I look forward to acing the final block, but days when I feel more tired, I can also feel discouraged. Mostly, I find this a rewarding session!
#16. What’s the most challenging event you’ve completed?
L’ Ultratour des 4 massifs (Ut4M), is a 160km run around Grenoble with 10,000m ascent which I ran with Kirsty Hewitson in 2014. This was quite tough, as the furthest I’d ran prior to that was around 80km and my knees weren’t quite trained enough for the relentless terrain and distance. I don’t mind pushing through pain, but towards the end of the race my knees looked like balloons and I had slowed down a lot, becoming concerned that I would end up with a long-term injury. In the night, I also had a very bad patch and it was great to be running with Kirsty, who is a very good, supportive and experienced fell runner. Although I’m highlighting the tough bits, overall the race was fantastic. In the end it turned out just fine. No long-term injury and me and Kirsty Hewitson ended up in second place.
#17. You’ve run several skyraces and represented GB at the trail running World Championship. Do you have any tips for running off-road running or mountainous terrain?
I started by just enjoying long days out on the fell/hills. Take a backpack, nutrition, water (and all the right kit for safety) and enjoy the day, alone or with friends. Walking is fine, start jogging or running when you are ready for it, but time on legs on mountainous/technical terrain is valuable and fun. Another top tip is to find good friends who are good runners with a great sense of humour – such as my friend James Harris – who are willing to not only support you on races, but also dress to the occasion.
#18. What do you eat on the morning of an event and how do you fuel your races?
Like many ultra-runners and athletes, I used to struggle with GI-issues, so I’ve become quite cautious with my food choice, choosing rice cereal or rice crackers with honey, although I still have a strong coffee in morning. I prefer energy chews/blocks, e.g. HoneyStingers, over gels. For very long races and ultras I eat “real” food, but for shorter races and most triathlons I fuel myself with energy drinks and chews or gels. For extreme triathlons I will also have bars. Where possible I will try to go for the most organic/digestible option available.
#19. Do you do anything special to recover after a hard event?
After races (and in general) I like taking a nice warm bath or a sports massage, but overall I don’t do anything special, other than taking it easier with the training until recovered.
#20. Who are you sponsored by at the moment?
I receive support from Zone3, KTM Bikes, Fenland Runner and many friends. Also big thanks to Graeme Stuart (G-Squad Triathlon) who has been my coach since around 2015.
If you took any of the photos that were supplied to me for this interview please let me know so that I can credit you appropriately. Thanks!