Caroline Ashby has recently joined the ranks of a very elite group in the triathlon world; those who venture out of the Age Groupers and into the Open Division! A mother of two, living and training in rural WA, Caroline is an inspirational example of how if you want it badly enough and are willing to work for it, you can make it happen. The fact that she’s loaded with the McClure natural athletic talent doesn’t hurt either!
Below is Caroline’s interview with her coach, Pete McKenzie of Race Pace Coaching, on the eve of the Trek Albany Half Triathlon – her first half Ironman racing as a pro.
Pete: Caroline, you came from a family of five girls , who are all very close, talented and athletic. How has your upbringing and background influenced you all?
Caroline: I had an amazing childhood growing up on a station 280km NE of Broken Hill on the banks of the Darling River with my 4 sisters and loving mum and dad. We attended the School of the Air until Year 7, and with no TV and our only source of power from a diesel generator, we had lots of time in the afternoons to be very active. We would ride our push bikes for miles going over jumps and going on picnics. We would spend long days on foot and motorbikes chasing sheep, jumping into the dam for a quick swim to cool off.
Training for Sports Day was a big thing at our house, with dad even making us a High Jump, which helped me win the High Jump throughout my primary school years. Gymnastics was another passion and I must have watched the movie “Nadia” about 100 times, copying every routine she did on the movie on my makeshift beam and bar set!
We are all very close and are very good at encouraging and supporting each other in whatever our dreams are; whether it be picking out a new wetsuit, a house or a new dress! We learnt from a very young age that through hard work comes reward; and we all have a never-give-up attitude!
P: I believe that you were a very good sprinter as a youngster. Can you tell us about this and what other sports have you played?
C: I loved sprinting and was very quick off the mark. I was strong; very strong; I think mainly from doing lots of sit-ups and push-ups as a child trying to be like Nadia! I would often compete with my male counterparts in push-up and pull up competitions and come out the winner. I am still strong but I think 50 pulls ups is probably a bit beyond me now! Since living in WA for the past 15 years, I have been long distance running and also thrown myself into netball.
P: You moved and have lived on a remote station at Eneabba in Western Australia for the past 12 years, where you are raising your two children. What is day to day life like on the station?
C: A typical day for me in Eneabba starts at anywhere between 4:00 to 5:30am depending on what session I have and what event I am training for but I always run or bike ride in the mornings and when the pool is open (November to March), I swim in the afternoon. I get our 2 kids ready for school and drive 2km to put them on the bus to school, I do all the book work for a large farming enterprise of 27,000 acres, with 5 full time workers plus part-time casuals during busy times of harvest and seeding crops. Obviously, I also do all the other chores that come with being on a farm and a mother of 2. In summer, I go to the swimming pool at 2pm, do laps, then take the Eneabba school kids for Swim Club after school. When the pool is not open, I join forces with other enthusiastic mothers and take the kids for after-schools sports including athletics, netball, hockey and basketball. In between all of that, I’ve done various courses including little athletics, swimming teaching and sports management, and I am also qualified personal trainer in group exercise. Eneabba is one of the hottest and windiest places in WA which makes doing anything on the farm or anywhere a challenge!
P: Following in the footsteps of your sisters, Alice and Grace, you made the change to triathlon as your primary sport. Given the remoteness of where you live (over 2 hours to a major centre), how have you coped with training for this sport? We are all interested to hear about the swim,bike and running options and the lack of a triathlon training squad anywhere close.
C: I made the transition to tri after doing a team event in the Geelong 70.3 where I did the run leg. With the help of Grace’s contacts with Giant, they fitted me out with a Trinity time trial bike at the beginning of 2009 and I haven’t looked back since! Due to our remoteness, all of my rides are done on a wind trainer during the week, and on the weekends I drive 12km to the nearest bitumen road, put my head down and just ride…battling the wind, heat, and the grain trucks! In the beginning, the bitumen rides were all by myself but then I managed to talk a couple of guys into joining me so that definitely helped, especally when I was doing 6 hour ironman training rides. When we do the longer rides, I ring a friend who lives along the road to leave water out for us as there is nowhere out there to pick up any hydration requirements! My runs are all solo running around the farm on gravel hilly tracks, again battling wind and heat, and in winter, wearing a head torch so as not to trip over anything! I also have a treadmill that I like to do speed sets on and my trusty Garmin always keeps me honest and tracks my progress. Swimming is great when the pool is open. This year I am lucky enough to have a swimming buddy, Shauna, who swims all my sets with me and we push each other along. From April through to October, however, my swim training is somewhat varied consisting of swim cords attached to our verandah posts and dam swimming. When it’s warm enough, and if enough rain has fallen, there is a dam I can swim in that is 200m in diameter. Problem is even when it’s hot, the water is stll freezing! I am also good at squeezing in a swim when I am in Perth (3 hours south) or Geraldton ( 2hours north). When I did the 70.3 world champs in Las Vegas in 2011, I use to travel to Geraldton once a week to swim just to keep me from drowning in the swim and get me through the rest of the race!
P: Tell us about your results in triathlon and running events whilst living on the station? What have been your most memorable results?
C: I started triathlon racing in 2009 with one of my first races being the Busselton Half Ironman. I came 5th in my age group with a a time of 4:48; and that included a 5min drafting penalty for blocking which I was totally unaware of due to my lack of knowledge of triathlon rules! My sister, Alice, then talked me into doing the full Ironman with her that same year. Actually, she said to come and watch but I thought, if I was going to Busselton, I might as well do the race as well! I followed a program set by the same coach Alice had at the time.
As we were very busy on the farm at that time of the year, and my husband was unable to look after our 2 young girls (who were 4 and 6 at that time), long rides had to be done on the wind trainer. A typical weekend training was a 3 hour wind trainer on Saturday, followed by a 18km treadmill run, then another 4 hour wind trainer session the next day, starting at 4am each morning. I got a glute running injury 3 weeks out and went into the race thinking I wouldn’t finish and just took each leg at a time. Alice was fantastic and mentored me and had my nutrition sorted for the whole race. I came 5th in my age and did a time of 10:38. I definitely felt my injury in the run; it was a very hot 38 degrees but luckily I was used to that. I kept chucking ice down my shorts just hoping I would get to the end. Alice had an excellent swim and bike and came off the bike nearly 30 mins in front of me, yet I somehow managed to make that up and ended up a few minutes in front of her! I definitely didn’t think that would happen as I knew she was such a great triathlete having completed 3 Hawaiian Ironmans. My husband Nick came to watch and he said he never wanted to see me in that much pain again…and I agreed. I said I would never do another Ironman again…..famous last words!!!!
Since then I have completed in various half ironmans, Olympic distance and sprint distance triathlons. I am normally in the top 3 in my age and, a few months ago, I won my category at the 70.3 Mandurah after spending the week on antibotics and not able to do any exercise at all leading into the race. I have also done various fun runs of distances varying from 5km to 21km. Running is my strength; usually winning and placing in some of these races and always amongst the top females. Ironman Melbourne stands out as one of the best races to date. I did the Port Macquarie 70.3 in 2011, again with my sister, Alice, however, again, we were both very sick and probably should not have raced. It was here that I met Pete McKenzie – father of Luke McKenzie and father-in-law of Amanda McKenzie all very good friends with Alice. I came 3rd in that race which was the Australian age group championship race and Pete was there all day, cheering away. He came up to me at the end of the race and he was amazing. He made me feel like a champion and we had a bit of a racing debrief. After that, we regularly talked online and he agreed to coach me for Ironman Melbourne. So we worked together with lots of emails going to and from each other, as well as the odd phone calls. I made it to the start line injury-free and the fittest I have ever been in my life. Both Alice and Grace were competing, as well as my trusty biking buddy, Will Brown, who I persuaded to do the teams event. My husband, Nick, and two girls were also there, who without their continued support, I would not have made it to the starting line, They see what goes into training for one of these events first hand, and without their help, I would not be able to do what I do. Mum and Dad were also there, which was amazing, as was my older sister Fiona and her son Henry. We had the most amazing support. Unfortunately, Alice had to pull out after the bike due to a knee injury, but she made sure she joined the others in the support car, cheering me on. I was so emotional on the run, trying to hold tears back as I went through each 10km and the announcers were saying I was 2nd and on my way to Hawaii. That, coupled with my husband, kids and family all cheering for me like I was a super star, I have never felt so special.
P: You have been coached by Peter McKenzie – Race Pace Coaching for the past 15 months. How have you coped with the on-line programming and mentoring? Why does on-line coaching suit you?
C: I love online coaching! Pete and I are constantly communicating with each other so he knows exactly what I’m doing, and if I ever have questions about what I am suppose to do (which I almost always do!), Pete is great at explaining everything he sets out. I have not been coached for triathlon any other way but, for me, living as remotely as I do, it is fantastic. I have improved my swim and bike enormously under Pete and even made improvements on my running. Pete has the most amazing belief in me and understands me and knows me better than I think I know myself sometimes. He holds me back when I think I should be going harder and pushes me when I think I am done. Mentally, he is constantly in my head with his inspirational comments and his triathlon knowledge.Even with time zone differences, I can email at anytime of the day and night and know there will be an answer from Pete waiting for me when I need it.
P: On my visit to Eneabba a year ago , I was quite amazed at the community spirit in a region of such a small population, particularly with your involvement with the kids in after-school swimming lessons and sporting activities. You are a tremendous example to them. How important do you think it is for kids of the Outback to get together and be active? And could we see more triathlon champions come from Eneabba?
C: I think it is very important for kids not only to stay active but to try different sports. I would have loved to have been exposed to triathlon at a young age so I am trying to give these kids a little taste of what it’s like. Hopefully, if they like it, they will go on to compete in triathlon and other events. Country kids are all very naturally talented athletes as they spend so much time outdoors. There are definitely some very talented young kids at Eneabba who could well be the next Chrissie Wellington or Craig Alexander! My two girls have just started competing in the iron kid events and they love it.
P: Your performance at Ironman Melbourne in placing Second in your Age Group in a time of 10hrs 4 mins was incredible, given the difficulties you faced in doing most of your training solo and only having the local pool open from Nov to March. Tell us a little about that race. I know that swimming in the Open water in a crowd and starting in the near dark presented some challenges, didn’t it?
C: Yes, the swim was a worry. It was dark and I could not see any of the buoys. Luckily though, it was as still as mill pond, unlike the day before when it was rough and choppy. My concern is always getting bashed up so I started on the outer side, just back from my sister, Alice. I took off when the siren went and just stayed in the pack hoping they knew where they were going because I couldn’t see a thing. Towards the end of the swim, I saw Alice and we swam together for a while. It was crazy – out of all of those competitors, we still managed to find each other and virtually exited the water together! I was thrilled with our swim; it set me up for the whole race. Whenever I swim well, it puts me on a high and it was great coming out of the water amongst the top competitors.
P: Unfortunately, you were not able to take your spot in Kona because of the lack of facilities back home to be able to do the amount of swim training you felt was necessary to complete the Ironman. Any plans for Kona in the future?
C: My husband and I discussed Hawaii before I raced and decided that if I got a spot, I wouldn’t take it. It is just too hard to swim train without an open pool close by and, if, or when, I do do Hawaii, I want to do the best race I possibly can, and that would include proper swim training. Swimming helps my other disciplines immensely and without that training, I know I would not be performing at my highest ability.
P: You lined up at Mandurah 70.3 and blitzed your age group on minimal swim training. How are you able to make the gains in swimming that you have, especially when faced with these issues?
C: Swim training for the Mandurah 70.3 consisted of cord training during the winter, with the odd ocean swim, as well as dam swimming for a month. It was hard get getting my head around swimming in the cold dam some days, but my determination to do well in the race after receiving 3 flat tyres in my previous 70.3 at Busselton, may have edged me on. I was determined to win my age group at Mandurah and, if that meant swimming in the cold dam, then so be it.
P: What are your future triathlon goals?
C: I would love to do Hawaii some day and, if I continue to do well in my age group and keep improving, I would consider taking it to the next level and racing Open in Kona. I am racing my first Open race at Albany half ironman this weekend so I am hoping I can be amongst the top contenders.
P: Why did you choose triathlon as your major continue to sport?
C: Triathlon challenges me mentally and physically and it keeps you well rounded as an athlete, having the 3 disciplines. I guess when you perform well at something, and enjoy it, and keep improving, it encourages you to keep on going.