A former triathlon world champ, a burnt-out Rebecca Clarke gave the sport away, only to return as a top Ironwoman. She tells Merryn Anderson why she’s happy to put herself through the slog and heat of the world champs in Kona this week.
Rebecca Clarke has finally found her happy place. And it’s not where most of us would want to be.
While the residents of Kona, Hawaii, wake up, go to work for eight hours and then settle down for the evening on Friday, New Zealander Clarke will still be racing on the island’s roads. Yes, that whole time.
Clarke will be competing in the Ironman world championships, swimming just under 4kms, biking 180kms and then running a full marathon (42kms), aiming for a total race time of around nine hours. It’s a unique Ironman Kona this year, with women competing in their own event – on a different day to the men – for the first time.
And it will be a big challenge for someone who stepped away from representing New Zealand in Olympic-length triathlons after a string of nasty setbacks in 2016, but found a new joy in competing over longer distances.
Clarke, a former world age-group tri champion, has found a new balance in life between her work and her sport, which she says is contributing to making her a better athlete. And she believes a happy athlete always performs better, so when she’s enjoying training and competing, then the results follow.
“I’ve really enjoyed these last several months, being able to travel and race again,” the 33-year-old says.
“There are times when I haven’t, and I think that shows if you’re mentally in a good place and having fun with it, then you’re a better athlete.”
Clarke qualified for the world champs after finishing second in Ironman Australia in May, completing the Port Macquarie course in 9h 7m.
“I was happy with the training I’d done, then coming second there and getting the Kona slot was definitely quite a bit of a shift of ‘Wow I’ve actually qualified’,” says Clarke, who’s the only Kiwi woman competing in these world champs.
“It gave me a lot more confidence after that performance the year before that I could actually race Ironman well, if I prepared and did things right on race day.”
In 2021, Clarke competed in Ironman Cairns, hoping for a Kona qualification spot, but struggled to be at her best.
“I just stuffed up my nutrition and made a few mistakes and paid for it later in the race,” she says. “I think for a while, I was like ‘I’m not sure if I want to do another Ironman again’.”
Clarke was a competitive swimmer throughout school, and stepped away when she went to university. Apart from a few triathlons during school, her first proper tri wasn’t until she was 22, competing in Auckland’s People Triathlon Series with her dad.
In only her third Olympic distance triathlon, she qualified for the 2011 ITU world championship grand final in Beijing.
“I went there for experience, for fun, and came away winning the 20-24 age group,” says Clarke, who was first out of the water by a full minute. “So that kind of sparked me carrying on and being like ‘Oh I could be potentially quite good at this’.”
Her triathlon journey took her across the world, competing in the ITU world series between 2014 and 2016.
Then in 2016, Clarke suffered a foot injury, and increased her cycling and swimming training to rest her foot from long runs.
One day training on the road, Clarke hit a speed bump on her bike flying down a hill and came off, landing heavily and injuring her face.
She spent two days in hospital after an hour-and-a-half in surgery to stitch up lacerations to her face. Five weeks after the crash, she was back to cycling and swimming, but was still dealing with her foot injury.
She missed the final selection race for the 2016 Rio Olympics, and decided to step away from racing triathlons.
“At that time, I wasn’t really feeling that happy in doing triathlon,” Clarke says.
“Elite sport is quite a cut-throat environment and when you’re not performing, there’s even more pressure to. And I think I was a little bit burnt out, not 100 percent healthy.
“It was a wake-up point that I needed to take better care of myself and decided I was going to finish with triathlon for a little bit.”
Her break lasted about six months, Clarke laughs, before giving the longer distance a go.
“The mindset was just about having a bit more balance, not having 100 percent focus on triathlon,” she says.
“I liked having other things outside of triathlon and some work, so it kind of took the pressure off having to perform every single race.”
Clarke also works as a triathlon coach, under Foot Traffic Endurance Sport Coaching, a company run by her own coach, Rob Dallimore. She also does admin work for physio business Sports Lab.
“It takes focus off myself and puts it onto others and uses my experience over a few years involving triathlon,” she explains.
For the first time in the history of the Ironman world championships, the men and women will compete on different days, with an increase in competitors due to many athletes deferring their entries over the last two years because of Covid restrictions.
“It allows us to have a lot more coverage, which is good for sponsors and friends and family watching,” Clarke says.
And for such a strong swimmer, Clakre won’t have to worry about catching any of the men on the swim leg.
When racing for nine hours, it’s a long time to think – both about the race and for a mind to wander.
“You’re always thinking, especially in the long distance, about your nutrition – do I need to take a drink, do I need to take another gel now? And that helps you keep on task,” Clarke says.
“Going through the aid stations, you’re just focusing in that moment on grabbing bottles and things like that. And super important for the heat in Kona is to be staying on top of hydration.”
When she’s not focusing on the technical aspects of the race, Clarke will play a song in her head or do some mental maths, to distract from the daunting task of running a marathon to finish.
“I find my best races are where I just stay more in the moment; you don’t want to be thinking too much about what’s to come,” she says.
Clarke also makes sure the voice in her head keeps her going. “Self-talks, trying to keep that as positive as possible, just little cues,” she explains.
“Simple things like ‘You’re doing well’, or ‘Relax’.
“If something happens, you run through a few scenarios. In a recent event, I had a bottle fly out so I was trying to keep myself calm about losing that bottle. Thinking as soon as you get to the next aid station, you’re going to have to take on some extra water, extra electrolytes, so we’re always running through scenarios.”
*The Ironman world championships will be streamed on Facebook on the IRONMAN now page, as well as YouTube and Twitch. The women’s race is on Friday 7 at 5.25am (NZT).