When Suzie Cave decided to try her hand at modern pentathlon, the 30-year-old had never touched a pistol or a fencing sword and had no swimming experience. As a result, she had to learn three new sports from scratch and juggle training for five (modern pentathlon includes fencing, swimming, show jumping, pistol shooting and running). All whilst working a fulltime job.
The dedication paid off and Suzie quickly qualified for the GB team, going on to win gold at the Masters World Championship. In 2019, the 361° ambassador made her debut in the newly created category of triathle, winning the title of British Senior Triathle champion before taking bronze in the European Championships and fifth in the Triathle World Championships.
Find out more about triathle along with Suzie’s training and experience in our interview below.
You didn’t take up modern pentathlon until you were 30. What inspired the move?
I come from a running and horse riding background. My family make their living breeding and training horses, so it was a way of life for me. Growing up, show jumping took me all over the world. But I took a step back in my mid-twenties after having to retire one of my best horses, Jetson.
I first saw modern pentathlon on TV at the Olympics. I knew little about it but it fascinated me. My family told me I should try it but with all the horses, I knew I just didn’t have the time. It took me a few years to convince myself to give it a go. I felt I was too old and wouldn’t be able to learn three new disciplines.
However, by my late twenties, I had returned to the track and my running was really improving after being away for over 10 years. With improved fitness I thought, it’s now or never. I discovered there was a Masters community in modern pentathlon (for age 30 plus). They took me in and helped me get started. I got on the GB Team and to this day I still go and train with them in England at East Pentathlon GB.
You had no fencing, shooting or swim experience. What were your biggest challenges?
Convincing myself to do it was the first big challenge. I knew I could ride and run, but had no clue about the other disciplines. I had never held a sword before, but luckily, my mum had been a competitive fencer in school. She was able to give me advice on how to get started with it and seeking out a club. There are no pentathlon clubs in Northern Ireland (where Suzie lives), so I’ve had to seek out individual clubs for each discipline, which makes training more complicated than it should be.
Swimming was the worst at the start; I hated it and couldn’t complete a length without having to stop at the end. I got frustrated and couldn’t understand why my run fitness didn’t give me any advantage in the water. Both pistols and swords were totally foreign to me as well, so the first year was very difficult. My body and mind hurt from learning three new sports and I constantly questioned if this was a ridiculous ambition to have at the age of 30.
You were also working fulltime whilst training across five sports. How did you make it work?
It has never been easy juggling all my training while also working fulltime. At the moment, I am working from home, which certainly makes things a bit easier! But normally I am based in Parliament Buildings.
I tried to organise things so that my training venues were all close to work. That meant I could train on the way in, the way home, and could easily nip out during lunch as well. Thankfully, my job has flexi [time] which makes that all possible. I found a fencing club nearby – Stormont Fencing Club. I became Secretary and we managed to relocate the club to the Civil Service Sports grounds on the same estate as my work. I swim at a pool five minutes away and can get there and back during my lunchtime. Most of my runs are done with my athletics club, Lagan Valley, at the Mary Peters Track. But I have great scenic grounds around work to use for my solo runs.
When did you realise, ‘I could be good at this’?
It took me about a year of training before I did my first competition. It was very difficult to stay motivated as I was devoting all my time to five separate disciplines, but I had never actually taken part in a full pentathlon. Once I got my first result at the Masters World Championships for Team GB in 2016, that was me hooked. I went out with no expectations, just to be there for the experience, and came home with an individual bronze and relay gold.
Last year you moved into triathle for the first time. Can you explain what this involves?
Triathle is a spin-off event from modern pentathlon. Unlike MP, it is done in a continuous format like triathlon. Only with Triathle, you shoot, transition to a 50m open water swim and then an 800m run. This happens in four continuous loops, where you finish on your 4th 800m run and it’s first over the line wins. It’s a great test of speed, power, endurance, focus and accuracy. It’s great to watch as the lead tends to change a lot.
As you’ve said, it’s a continuous event – how do you practice transitions?
Converting to Triathle was tricky. I only had the space between the end of one season and the beginning of the next to learn how to open water swim as well as practice the transitions. However, because it was winter, the water was so cold I had to practice using my coach’s indoor swim tank. I would shoot, then jump into it to swim, then run out the door to do my 800m around the neighbouring streets. All this in my hat, goggles and tri suit! It got me some very odd looks in the middle of Belfast.
Being a triathlete and Ironman himself, my coach was able to teach me all about the transitions. I was terrible at the start, falling all over the place! I also had to learn to sight in the water. Typically, for me, I had never actually done any proper open water swimming until my first race at the European Championships in Madeira. I quickly found out that the open water is a very different beast from the pool!
You came away as fifth senior at your debut triathle world champs, racing against athletes who compete in the Olympics. Did you come away having learned a lot?
I certainly did. I learnt not to underestimate the power of the conditions you are competing in. It was a very different environment [in the Florida heat] to what I’m used to. The temperature rose to over 30c with 90% humidity. Races before mine had to be postponed due to an electrical storm, so by the time I was at the start line, I can honestly say I didn’t know what was going to happen. During training, my coach had told me to sit in the sauna after all my swims. This helped teach my body to regulate itself under hot, humid conditions.
Also, seeing how the real pros compared to me did wonders for my confidence. It demonstrated that I did belong there, whereas going into the competition I wasn’t sure I did. It’s amazing what we are capable of achieving in a short space of time – considering 5 years earlier, I couldn’t swim or shoot!
Transitioning from the 800m run, how do you keep a steady hand to shoot?
This takes a lot of shooting practice, breathing control and interval training. I do a lot of static and dry shooting. This helps improve accuracy and builds up muscle memory. Because you’re trying to hit five targets as quickly as possible, a lot comes down to muscle memory. The longer it takes to aim, the more you’re likely to shake. But the real key is not to over-push in the run. You need to keep your heart rate at a level that allows you to keep control over the shoot. Push your heart rate too high and that laser will go everywhere but the target! And any ground you gained from going all out on the run will be lost in the shooting range.
Do you practice any mental preparation for triathle or MP?
I haven’t done a lot of this. I would have practised a bit in terms of breathing control for my shooting, especially on the start line. But this winter I have been working with a sports psychologist who is helping me on different techniques. So far, it’s going really well… we’ll see this year, hopefully!
What does a typical week of winter training look like for you now?
At the moment, I’m in winter training, which is my base phase. So a lot of longer, steady runs and swims. Plus, strength work in the gym. I swim 3-4 times a week, run 4 times a week, run & shoot once a week, dry shoot 2-3 times a week and gym 3 times. In 2020, I wasn’t able to do much fencing due to lockdowns, but normally I would fence twice a week (3 times on the lead up to a competition). This many sessions a week means I have to juggle multiple disciplines on the same day. Thankfully, my coaches make sure I’m combining the right sessions together so that one does not interfere too much with the next. Last year especially, I tried to add more mobility into my warm-ups and cooldowns.
What is the focus of your run training?
My run training is usually a mixture of interval sessions on the track, tempos and one long run per week. I’m currently in more of an endurance-focused phase to build a good base. We will soon be introducing more tempos, speed and hills into my training to build my power, strength and speed.
For the run/shoot phase, it’s all about trying to lower your heart rate as quickly as possible between runs, so interval training is a large part of my training for this. However, for the rigours of Pentathlon and Triathle you really can’t afford to neglect any aspect.
What are your favourite items of kit?
My favourites are my most important – my 361° trainers. I’ve had problems in the past with shin splints, so getting the right trainers to help keep me right has been paramount. I’ve never trained harder than I have over the last few years, and I believe my 361°s have helped aid that and allow me to train more consistently with less injury. I use their Sensations, which are a supportive trainer as I tend to overpronate. I also race in their flighty Feisus which are light, quick and speedy.
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
361° provides me with all my trainers, plus extra kit as well. They ensure I have the right fit and type of footwear for all the different training I do. They provide me with new ones as and when needed. This has made a huge difference for me. In the past, before 361° backed me, I had run in trainers that were past it, which didn’t help with injuries etc. 361° have a brilliant support team and network, and it has been a lot of fun and very encouraging having them behind me.
I’m also sponsored by Conscious Performance Nutrition sports nutritionists based in the south of Ireland. Aaron Finn from Conscious Performance helped me get into the best shape of my life for 2019. It really has been revolutionary for me. It has taught me how to fuel correctly for both training and competitions. This has allowed me to push harder and get the most out of myself. My coaches have seen a big difference – not just physically and with PBs, but I don’t suffer the same energy highs and lows I used to get.
I am an ambassador for U-perform, which has a range of sports collagen supplements. This has been my number one supplement for the past two years. It helps with my recovery between sessions on an ongoing basis and healing of any ligament, tendon or muscle injuries/niggles.
You can follow Suzie via her social media: www.instagram.com/suziebear_cave.