After recovering from burn-out, Kiwi triathlete Vanessa Murray is returning for a second shot at the giant of Ironman events in Kona.

Vanessa Murray’s first full-distance Ironman was at the biggest event of them all, the Ironman world championships in Kona, Hawaii, eight years ago.  

It was a surreal, and nervy, experience for the Kiwi triathlete. “It was easy to feel a little overwhelmed being around the best in the world at that distance, but I just focused on my race and plan and it worked out well.” She placed third in her 25-29 age group. 

Now, after a three-year break from full distance events, Murray is back training for her second attempt at the ultimate Ironman challenge. To give you an idea of the status of the Hawaiian event, there are hundreds of Ironman competitions in more than 55 countries around the world but the 226.3km race in Kona is the pinnacle event. 

And this time round, Murray qualified from the New Zealand Ironman last year, but secured a spot on a tri-team through a virtual cycling competition. Yes, that’s right, an online test where she made the cut from more than 130,000 others. 

In 2013, she qualified for Kona the first time by winning her age group at the Ironman Asia Pacific 70.3, a half-Ironman championship, in Auckland. 

Her progression through the sport might not be a common route, but Murray’s path has given her an edge she says she can use in her favour.

“I think not a lot of people do Hawaii as their first Ironman,” says Murray, who’s now 35. “At the time I was so nervous because I was like ‘How can I do my first Ironman at the world champs?’ 

“But I think it was almost to my advantage to be a little naive and to play everything a little bit safe. This time going back, I know what I’m in for, which I’m not sure is a good or a bad thing. But I also feel like I can push myself a bit harder now.”

Growing up in Christchurch, Murray tried many different sports as a child, like dancing, athletics and running, but triathlon was the one she’s stuck with the longest. She picked up the sport over 10 years ago as a hobby because her husband competed too, and she was instantly “hooked.”  

Vanessa Murray with husband, Shaun, at one of her favourite places to ride – the lookout point on top of Mount Buffalo in Regional Victoria. Photo: supplied.

“What I love about triathlon is you just see the gains, the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. But also it’s a lifestyle choice,” says Murray, who used to swim competitively. “I’ve got lots of friends in the sport, I just love the camaraderie.”

But it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Murray stepped away from full distance Ironman races for three years when she wasn’t getting the life balance quite right. 

“It’s really important in this sport…you put a lot in and I think it’s really important to still enjoy life,” she says. “I’ve got the balance right this time and I didn’t necessarily have it right before.”

One of the ways people can succeed in the sport and stay for a long period of time is to get that balance sorted, says Murray.

“That also comes with surrounding yourself with the right people because I think as important as training is, I also think it’s important that you see your friends and family.” 

In between triathlon stints, Murray coached athletes full-time for a year. But she’s cut down on the coaching side now and is working for the Victorian government after moving to Melbourne five years ago. 

Working with three to four women on top of her own training is really enjoyable, says Murray. “One of them is actually doing Kona this year as well,” she says. “I get a lot out of it and I guess I just like to share a little bit of my experience with others.”

Murray will be competing as part of this year’s Zwift Academy tri-team. She made the cut for the six-member crew from 134,000 people who applied for a chance to get on board the online global fitness platform’s team.

She went through 10 workouts, two bike and run races and passed a number of tests to get selected. Unlike some of her teammates, Murray had already qualified for Kona after finishing first in her 35-39 age group in the Ironman NZ event early last year.

“We did that race the weekend before pretty much the world went into lockdown so we were really lucky to get that race in,” Murray says. 

It was a relief in another sense that the win came off the back of her three-year hiatus. “I sort of came back to full-distance Ironman with the goal of wanting to get back to Kona so it was really great to seal the deal there,” says Murray.

“I took a break because I kind of burned out a little bit. And coaching sort of reignited my love of the sport. Obviously when you return to something you haven’t done in a few years there’s always going to be a bit of self-doubt but just to work hard and seal the deal and achieve my goal, I guess stands out to me as a key highlight.” 

Putting herself in the best possible position to be a top contender at Kona in October this year is what Murray is now focusing on. “I have this burning desire to do well there,” she says. “I really would like to go there with the intention of winning, so I guess that’s what my eyes are set on.”

The uncertainty around the globe with the Covid-19 pandemic has not dissuaded Murray from continuing to train – self improvement is the key driver regardless. It’s the kind of mentality she encourages through coaching and is one of the main reasons why she stays involved in the sport.

“I guess there’s still a lot of doubt in people’s mind as to how the rest of this year is going to go in terms of travel, so I think I just made the decision that you can’t control the uncontrollable,” she says. “So I’ll push hard, train well and do the races that I can do because I’m quite self-motivated.

“I’ve probably learnt that through lockdown as well. I don’t necessarily need a race to want to train and want to better myself. I get a lot of satisfaction just out of my own self-improvement.” 

She’s booked in for Ironman Cairns in June and will relish the opportunity to get back on the start-line after a disrupted year with Covid-19. Two years ago, Murray was the first female to finish Ironman Cairns 70.3 and earlier this year she competed in Ironman Geelong 70.3, coming first in her age group and the fifth woman to cross overall. 

Vanessa Murray on the run at Ironman 70.3 Geelong in March. Photo: Ally Duffy.

Being able to train indoors with Zwift has also helped even though the conditions are different to the real thing. “You get a great workout on the indoor bike because there’s just no reprieve,” says Murray.

“The trainer is a godsend, not only in bad weather but also during lockdown. I guess once upon a time no-one had trainers and now I don’t know how you would survive in this sport without one.” 

Trying to prepare for the champion of all Ironman events with teammates online is proving difficult, but Murray is up for the challenge.

The rest of her team are based around the world and, like Murray, hold down day jobs in a variety of industries. There’s a psychology professor from Oregon in the United States, a former competitive hockey player from the United Kingdom now a full-time pharmacist, and a computer programmer and network engineer in South Korea.

As part of their selection, all  will receive support in the form of bikes, equipment, apparel, and access to mentors from previous Zwift academy tri-teams. 

“Even just trying to tee up a time to talk to everyone is pretty challenging with all the different time zones,” Murray says.

“But I guess it’s kind of cool though because there are a lot of challenges so it’s going to be a testament to how we work together and get around those.”

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