Undefeated in every event she lined up for in 2019, Dr Hannah Wells is determined not to be beaten by a pandemic in her goal to race in the ultimate Ironman
Dr Hannah Wells may miss her old job – the one she quit to take on the professional world of Ironman – just a little.
She made the decision to leave late last year, when juggling her work as a post-doctoral research fellow in biotech engineering with training and competing as a professional athlete became just too much.
“I certainly don’t miss feeling buggered all the time,” she says. Even if it hasn’t all gone to plan.
Wells had an incredible year in 2019 – unbeaten in every half Ironman event she lined up in, and winning her first marathon.
So, she decided it was time to put aside her work dissecting sheep arteries to find an alternative for human grafts, and take her sport to the next level. Not only becoming a full-time professional athlete, but trying her hand at the full-distance Ironman – the 3.8km swim, 180km bike ride and 42km run – for the first time.
Wells, 29, had her sights locked on her debut at the Cairns Ironman this month, and her training was going smoothly.
And then along came Covid-19.
But rather than seeing the interruption to her plans as a roadblock, Wells turned it into an opportune detour. “It might actually work out for the better,” she says.
The lull in competition may have her better prepared to take on the world’s best triathletes.
Last October, Wells went to the world Ironman championships in Kona as a spectator.
As she watched highly-tuned athletes breaking down in the gruelling event, bizarrely the full-distance Ironman suddenly became “an appealing challenge”. One which hadn’t really interested her before.
“I enjoy the half distance. Because it involves only a bit over four hours of racing, you can do more of them in a year,” Wells says of the 70.3 events. “You have to be very careful with the full distance – they’re too big to do too many.
“There’s also a lot more speed when you’re doing half the distance too, and I quite like that.
“Initially I figured I’d stay doing the half and specialise in that. But as time has gone on, the challenge of doing the full has grown more and more.”
It was Kona – the annual highlight on the Ironman triathlon calendar – that swayed her.
“It’s known to be a race that can break you, which makes it exciting. You learn a lot from watching how much people invest in that one race, which is kind of neat,” Wells says.
“You have to be realistic too – you can’t let it become the end of the world if something goes wrong. Honestly, you see 10 percent of the field have a good day, and the other 90 percent are so on the edge of overdoing it, that everything falls apart.
“It opens your eyes to enjoying the whole process of it, because come race day, everything can blow up. And that’s what makes it a such an appealing challenge.”
In just her second season of professional racing, Wells took 2019 by storm. She won all nine races she started, including the Sunshine Coast, Western Sydney and Taupō Ironman 70.3 events; the national triathlon championships (the first time she’d raced the Olympic distance) and the national middle distance triathlon championships, both at home in Tauranga.
She also put her legs to the test in running events – winning the Auckland Marathon, her first 42km race; setting a course record in the Waiheke Half Marathon; and being part of the winning women’s team in the 550km Speed Project relay from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.
Disappointingly, she missed the Ironman 70.3 world champs in Nice when a virus took her out of competition for five months mid-year. Her hiatus will be even longer this year.
She started 2020 well, defending her Tauranga Half Ironman title in January, two minutes quicker than the year before, and the following month, finishing second in the Challenge Wānaka event she’d won in 2019.
She then turned her attention to training for her first full Ironman, just before New Zealand went into pandemic lockdown.
In a bubble with her partner, former triathlete Nick Berry, Wells was still able to run close to home and cycle on a trainer in her garage during Level 4.
“The first five days were the hardest – there were a lot of unknowns about what we could and couldn’t do,” Wells says. “Those first few days of ‘can we swim, or can’t we?’ We got our hopes up, then we were told off – no swimming allowed at all.
“Once the rules were finalised and we realised what we could do, I worked with my coach [Bevan McKinnon] to make a plan.”
They introduced a big block of cycling – pouring all the lost swim hours onto the bike. She had fun racing against other triathletes online, with a TV screen parked in front of her trainer, and introduced more strength work and a little pilates, “which I never have time to do.”
Now training is almost back to normal. She’s back swimming in the pool but admits she’s yet to venture out on the roads on her bike. “It’s much safer riding in my garage,” she says.
“There are definitely times where I find myself feeling quite frustrated. It’s very easy to start thinking ‘what if…’ I’d quit my job so I could do more racing, overseas in particular.
“But even if I have six months of just training, I will be improving so much more than if I had races interrupting that training. It’s not the end of the world at all, and it might actually be a better thing.
“There are plenty of people in worse situations. I have friends who have lost their jobs. So you’ve just got to carry on.”
A small part of Wells misses her old job. She was working four days a week for Massey University’s School of Engineering and Advanced Technology, some of her time in a laboratory but mostly behind a desk. She was working on finding a natural graft to replace damaged arteries in humans.”
“I miss some parts of it, but I don’t miss the bigger picture of trying to fit everything in,” she says. “Now I look back to last year it was pretty hard. I’ve noticed so much of a difference this year in my energy levels.
“My training hasn’t changed a lot, maybe a couple more hours a week max. But it’s about having more time to recover. It’s crazy. I can go out for dinner and not feel like I want to fall asleep by eight o’clock at night.
“Now I’ve experienced the bliss of just training, it’s hard to think of going back.”
Her biggest gain has been in sleep – no longer having to set her alarm for before 5am every day to squeeze in training before work. And she’s getting more quality in her training.
“I’m turning up to sessions now and I’m not mentally fatigued like I was when I was working. Now I don’t use training sessions as a way to unwind – which is not always a bad thing, a lot of people find exercise helps them unwind at the end of the day. But when you’re trying to train as a professional athlete, you don’t want to be just going through the motions. It needs to be quality, you need to be thinking about technique.
“It’s allowed me to make sure every session counts, rather than it just being exercise.”
Training for a full Ironman isn’t a lot different from a half. The swimming is the same, with the bike and run sessions slightly longer, Wells says.
She’s still training towards the Cairns Ironman, which has been postponed to September 27. “I’m hoping we can go over to Aussie some time soon,” she says.
It’s likely she will come up against fellow Kiwi, Teresa Adam, in the Cairns event. The Ironman New Zealand champion, Adam has won in Cairns the last two years.
“She’s an incredible full distance triathlete, who doesn’t do halves anymore, which is wise. She’s done a great job specialising in the full,” Wells says.
“She probably wouldn’t want to pass on any tips to me, and fair enough! She’s so strong on the bike, that’s a big part of her game. I’ll be hoping to run faster than her if we race each other.”
If things still don’t go to plan, if the trans-Tasman border isn’t reopened or racing in Australia doesn’t go ahead, Wells is prepared.
“We have non-race goals as well,” she says. “I have a few goals on the bike, where I want to lift my power numbers, and on the run, bettering my pace versus heart rate. It’s a good way to keep myself motivated and keep things interesting.”
And she’s looking forward to a buoyant New Zealand summer of triathlon. While the Ironman 70.3 world championships – which were to be raced in Taupō for the first time in November – have been delayed, Wells hopes race organisers will still go ahead with a domestic event.
Her ideal season would be rounded out with the 2021 Ironman New Zealand in March, and qualification for the world champs in Kona in October 2021.
“That would be my ultimate, all things going well,” she says. “But it is what it is. And I’m still doing what I love.”