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Former military engineer Caroline Livesey was a successful age group triathlete before turning pro in 2015, and subsequently racing to a 2nd place finish at IRONMAN UK the same year. More recently, Scottish-born Caroline took a nail-biting win at XTRI’s gruelling iron-distance Canadaman/woman race last year.
Dubbed one of the toughest extreme triathlons, the course races point-to-point across Quebec’s beautiful Mégantic region and includes a 3.8km swim followed by a 180km bike (accumulating 2500m of elevation) and, finally, a trail marathon with 1500m of vertical gain!
If you’re an Endurance Sports TV subscriber, you can watch how it all played out for Caroline (and her triathlete husband, Mark) via Together Alone, a set of three documentary episodes which follow Caroline as she prepares for and races the 2019 Canadaman/woman event.
In the meantime, enjoy this Q&A where Caroline shares insights into her training, her mental approach to racing, and her plans to take on the infamous Charlie Ramsay fell running round.
Last year you won XTRI’s Canadaman/woman triathlon. Can you explain what makes this race so tough compared to other iron-distance events?
Well, the short answer is the run. The swim and bike are fairly comparable to other tough long course events, although the roads have to be seen to be believed. They stretch out ahead of you into the distance, yet not a single mile is flat. But the marathon is another level of tough. There’s not even an easy first few kilometres to break you in. You get off the bike and go straight up a hill so steep it’s quicker to walk than try to run. Then there’s a mixture of road and trail until the final 10km which is so steep and technical it took me nearly 2 hours. I was on the run for nearly as long as I was on the bike.
You appeared strong from start to finish. Were there any moments you found particularly tough?
I was certainly strong mentally for the whole race. I had a day when everything came together for me. Fitness, motivation, a great team, good nutrition; I was on an endorphin high for the whole race and loved it. Of course, it was gruelling physically and there were times when I was in huge amounts of discomfort and pain. The final 10km of the marathon was really testing. Stepping up huge boulders on the steep trail required all my strength and my legs were shaking, threatening to give up at any moment.
It was the first time in a race that I have had muscle pain of that intensity actually during the race and I had to keep pushing as I knew I was being chased down. Mentally, I embraced it. I had gone into the race wanting it to be hard, wanting to push myself through pain barriers and find new limits. I would have been disappointed if it had been easy.
Prior to last year, you hated ‘trail running, yet this year you planned (then postponed) a Charlie Ramsay round. What led you to love trail running and how often do you run trails vs. road now?
I very rarely run on the road now, but until 2019 that was all I did. In 2014 I had sudden hearing loss and overnight went completely deaf in my right ear. With this came vertigo sensations (nausea, a spinning head, unsteady vision) which lasted for months and came with a total loss of balance. I had to learn to ride my bike again and running outside wasn’t safe for weeks. I kept running into things I thought were miles away. It really surprised me how much your hearing contributes to so many sensations which help you to function normally.
I adapted physically and the sensations eventually abated, but for a long time, I was scared to run off-road because running on-road was enough of a challenge. I told myself repeatedly that I was a terrible trail runner because I thought that would be true. Then I decided to do Canadaman and I knew I had to break down that belief and embrace off-road running again. It took time, but with perseverance, I gained confidence and grew to love it.
It is still a massive challenge for me though, and that’s why I wanted to have a go at the Charlie Ramsey Round. It is currently so out of my reach that it seems impossible. Typically, “impossible” things sneak into the back of my mind and tap at my skull until I listen. Nothing is impossible really, so tackling something that seems as though it is, expands your abilities and your mind. I managed to do some good recces in 2020, but an injury meant I couldn’t try for the round. I really hope to be able to give this a shot in 2021 or 2022.
You’ve also talked about successfully overcoming your fear of cold water swimming. Can you explain what triggered your initial fear and how you overcame it?
This is one of the things I have been the most amazed at in the last year. I suppose after the hearing loss I should have understood just how adaptable the body is, but I really believed I would always be terrible in cold water. Having been a tough Scottish girl in my youth, my fear was originally triggered by a bad experience in 2016 at Ironman Frankfurt. With a non-wetsuit swim, I made it to transition after around an hour in the water but my core temperature was dangerously low.
Many other pro athletes were stopped there (amateurs were allowed wetsuits), and a few were even hospitalised with hypothermia. I kept going, but I was getting colder with the 10°C wind chill on the bike, and I was barely conscious for the first hour. I was on autopilot and if someone had stopped me, I am sure I would have been taken to hospital. I did eventually warm up and finished the race, but after that, I hated cold water. It felt really intimidating and my whole body would tense up and start shivering after being immersed for just a few minutes.
I started to avoid cold water at all costs and I even had an aborted race when my body shut down after a cold swim. Then I won Canadaman and was offered a place to race Norseman in 2020. Norseman is notoriously cold, especially the water, and I had always said I would never do it. I remember standing on the podium of Canadaman, being told I had the place, thinking “Things that scare us are exactly the things we should be doing. Time to face that fear.”
Overcoming the physical and mental reactions I used to get to cold water has been a mind-blowing experience. It started with foundational mental strength work. Then cold showers and cold swims in Mallorca in January. I progressed to longer and longer in cold water without a wetsuit and this summer I was able to swim for 20+ minutes in 12-degree water with no wetsuit and no fear. Not by any means impressive, but a huge step for me. In fact, the more I did it, the more I craved to be surrounded by the numbingly cold water. I absolutely love it now. I was astounded by how adapted I became in what is quite a short time, and despite Norseman being cancelled in 2020, I know that I can adapt and do that race well even if it is seriously cold. Let’s hope in 2021 I get the chance to try.
You live part-time in Mallorca. Does your bike training include Mallorcan mountain climbs, flat speed work or a mix of everything?
I actually live full time in Mallorca now and have done for nearly 3 years. We are away travelling quite a bit and tend to spend some of the summer in the UK, but Mallorca is most definitely home. We live in a fairly flat part of the island, so my bike training is typically rolling and flat with one long mountain ride a week and some hill reps up our local climb (which is a solid 20-minute climb) when I am in training for XTRIs. I like to mix it up, but for XTRI races it’s important to get the hill work in.
When you’re not injured what does a typical week of training look like for you?
My training week varies a lot depending on my race programme. COVID has made training and racing difficult for everyone, so this year has been quite different. But in a good training block, I tend to swim 20-30km a week with a mix of pool and open water. Bike will be 8-15 hours a week with a mixture of steady long rides and shorter more intense efforts which include hill reps when I’m training for a hilly bike.
Running is where I am most prone to injury, so now all of it is off-road with the exception of some harder tempo runs, and I just get out and enjoy it for about 5 hours a week tops. My training has certainly changed hugely in the last few years as I have moved over to extreme triathlon. Adventures in the mountains (bike and run) are a key part of the programme and I’m also a big fan of strength training. I incorporate kettlebell and yoga work into my plan at least 4 times a week.
You’ve talked about ‘tapering the mind’ – how important is this to your racing? And should all athletes aim to taper their minds?
Training the mind and understanding the power of the mind is something the majority of athletes do not pay enough attention to. For long endurance events, your brain needs to be firing on all cylinders for hours on end. In triathlon, this is especially true as you switch sports, and conditions are constantly changing. You cannot afford to make mistakes when it comes to nutrition, and a bike handling error could cost you not just the race.
To put it in context, imagine being asked to take an exam for 12 hours. Your mind would wander, wouldn’t it? You would lose concentration, daydream, perhaps even feel sleepy or have a few seconds unplanned shut-eye. To have the ability to achieve laser-focus for such a long time takes training, and it also needs your brain to be rested and ready. That’s what I mean by tapering the mind. Resting it so that you have all your powers of concentration on the day. That looks different for each person and takes practice and knowledge.
Do you actively work on your mindset?
As I’ve just alluded to, I have worked on my mental strength and mental techniques for years now. I began working with Lee Evans of Mind Power Solutions in 2016 and the work I have done with him has had a huge impact, not just on my sport, but in all areas of my life. Mental resilience on race day is only a small part of it. It takes strength every day to be able to train effectively for these tough races.
Can you share any of the mental strategies you use when racing?
For me, the mental strategies start well before race day. My practices focus on getting me into a “flow” state for the race. It’s not always possible to achieve that full state of flow, but the practices ready me for the day and give me the best possible chance. During the race, I have key thoughts for each of the sports which keep me focussed and I run through them in my mind all the time. When I’m in the full flow state, as I was at Canadaman, I don’t need them as much, as I feel completely relaxed and in control. But they certainly come in useful for tough races when my body is not responding as I hoped it would.
What’s on your racing/challenge list for the next year (COVID permitting)?
2021 will be the 2020 that never happened! As I am sure is the case for many athletes, all the races that I was meant to do in 2020 were postponed into next year. I am hoping to tackle the Himalaya XTRI in May, then defend my title at Canadaman in July and follow it with Norseman in August.
I have also been asked to do the notoriously cold Scottish Celtman in June and now the seed is planted, I think I will be on that start line. It is my home race, after all. However, one long-distance race a month for four months is not realistic and I want to be in top condition for Norseman if it goes ahead. But with the travel restrictions changing all the time no one really knows how 2021 is going to pan out yet. I am crossing everything that we can do all or some of these races. If racing is not back to normal though, my husband Mark (The Brick Session podcast) and I have a few endurance adventures up our sleeves to keep us entertained.
What are your favourite items of kit and are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I am really lucky to have a few fabulous key sponsors. Orca and Orbea are sister companies, and they sponsor me for swimming equipment including wetsuits, race kit and training kit, and also for bikes. Coupled with another fantastic sponsor, Parcours wheels, I know I am on the fastest set-up I can ride for both TT and road bikes. Orbea have just released a new ORDU time trial/triathlon bike which I have yet to get my hands on. I will have one in the next few weeks and I’m looking forward to posting some reviews of it. They have put a huge amount of R&D into its development, so I’m expecting great things.
My husband also founded the online training diary and coaching platform XHALE. I record all my training there and I also coach my athletes with its coaching tools. I self-coach so it is a really crucial part of my planning and it helps me keep track of my progress and get fit for key races.
You can watch how Caroline’s winning XTRI Canadaman/woman race went down via Endurance Sports TV.
Follow Caroline’s triathlon training and racing via her social media: www.instagram.com/caroline.livesy, www.facebook.com/carolineliveseytriathlete, www.Twitter.com/tri_c_livesey and by visiting www.carolinelivesy.co.uk.