Ironman superstar Caroline Steffen talks exclusively to TriRadar.com about her incredible season so far and her bid for glory in Hawaii. Having already clinched the Asia-Pacific and European Ironman championship titles in 2012, Switzerland’s Caroline Steffen is without doubt one of the hot favourites to secure the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii this October. Steffen managed a fifth-place finish on the Big Island in 2011 despite a chronic foot injury that plagued much of her season, but has fought back through it and come back stronger than ever this year.
“Last year I got my injury in January so pretty much couldn’t train for the whole year as usual, I couldn’t do anything like I’ve done in 2012. I did two Ironmans before Kona in Australia and Frankfurt and was pretty much walking the last 20k in each. The foot started hurting again a week before Hawaii, so I was just not sure what I could do.
“I missed all the big sessions last year, all the big Ks you need to do each week. I reckon that’s the biggest change for me this year – I’m not injured, I’m healthy so I can do all my training as usual. “One reason for that is that I’ve got a new shoe sponsor. I reckon I got injured because of the wrong shoes, so I’m very happy to have a new contract with On. I know when I’m running off the bike I’m running in a shoe which makes me feel comfortable. “The last year of running off the bike I was just thinking, ‘Oh no, this is going to hurt again,’ but when I spoke to Olivier [Bernhard – ex pro and On founder] for the first time before racing with the shoes in Abu Dhabi, he said, ‘Don’t worry, when you’re on the bike you can look forward to running in my shoes!’ So though I was really in pain on the bike, I thought, ‘Ok, ok, stay cool because Olivier told you to look forward to the new shoes.’ They were really great. I had them on in training and they felt good, but it’s different in a race – I was really happy even from the start.”
Steffen is part of the Alaska Team TBB triathlon team, a Philippenes-based offshoot of the original Team TTB, which was formed in January 2012. “It’s pretty much the same as last season, the only change is that I race in the Philippines too, so I’ll go there at the end of August for the 70.3.”
Coached by the notoriously hard taskmaster Brett Sutton, whose other charges have included British stars Chrissie Wellington and Bella Bayliss, Steffen thrives in a tough training environment thanks to her incredible mental strength, something she puts down to her years of experience in elite sport. “At college when I was a swimmer I had a similar coach and then I changed to cycling and I had a similar coach in that sport. I’ve always had coaches which ask for mental toughness so when I changed to Brett, from my 15 years in professional sport, it wasn’t very new to get myself through all the hard sets. “It hurts to go through the pain, but I say you have an amount of pain each year and if you get most of it out in the training, it doesn’t really hurt in the races!”
Steffen is obviously determined in training to undergo the suffering and it’s all in aid of one uncomplicated desire.
“I’m just a winner – I just want to win. It’s very simple: I want to be the best – that’s it. In the races, if I’m on the start line, it sometimes feels like I’m a different person. It’s like I’m a racehorse in a box and the gun goes off and I’m just in a different mode – I just go for it and want to win.”
Despite setting a world record 4:35:29 bike split at Ironman Melbourne earlier this year, Steffen still sees room for improvement in the second discipline while she continues to impress on the swim and run.
“I actually think my bike riding at the moment is pretty weak. I should get off the bike maybe five minutes faster and be 20 per cent fresher than I am at the moment. I’m happy with the swim – I’ll still improve it – but my swim’s ok and I’m very happy with my run, but my bike is not strong enough.
“Frankfurt was my first time on the Cervelo P5 – it was a really important big test for the bike. I still have the P4 at home and it was a bit jealous when I left for Frankfurt without it! But I have it just in case because it’s the 4:35 hour bike, but I can say I’m really happy with the P5 and ready for the next couple of races on it. “I’m riding strong and I’m riding hard but I’m jumping off the bike too tired for the run, so if I improve my bike I can run faster. That will be the key for the next couple of months, especially before Kona, to work on the bike.”
“We planned the year to Frankfurt and organised it around Frankfurt, so we’ve got to figure what to do now. There’s the option to stay in Switzerland until the end of September and then go over to Kona, or maybe have a camp somewhere to get ready – maybe the Canary Islands where we’ve been earlier this year.”
Though the next couple of months are perhaps a little less structured at the moment than the year of racing so far, Steffen is still gearing up for some serious racing before Kona. Her packed event schedule continues with the ITU Long Distance World Championships in Spain on 29 July, followed by 70.3 Philippines on 5 August, donning her Alaska Team TBB kit in front of the team’s home crowd.
“It’s a big programme, but we’re not tapering. I know it sounds stupid not to taper for the world champs, but I really want to take the race as big training day. I know some people just race two or three times a year and they’re happy with that, but I need races to get ready.”
The big race Steffen is getting ready for is, of course, the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, on 13 October, where she will be looking to go one better than her second place finish in 2010, though she admits competition will be fierce.
“I reckon there may be around five girls which I think will be fighting for the top prize. If you look at last year, the top five were so close together and that’s never happened before, so definitely Rinny [Mirinda Carfrae] – she’s always strong in Hawaii and she can run faster than pretty much everyone, Rachel Joyce of course, she’s done really well this year and Leanda Cave had an awesome race last year, and then myself!”
Steffen is mindful of going into the race under the burden of media expectation following her experience in Hawaii last year.
“I did way too much last year. In 2010 no one knew me so it was pretty easy to go to Kona, do the training and put my feet up all day. But then last year I felt I had to do all the media stuff, interviews and photoshoots, stuff like that. That was a mistake I learnt from that. So this year in Kona I will pretty much cut everything to the minimum and try to relax.”
Key in helping Steffen enter the race relaxed will be the knowledge that she’s done all she can to ensure she performs to her potential.
“This year I’ve done the work. When I went to Frankfurt, I was a little bit nervous because I was defending the title and everyone was watching me. I spoke to Brett and he said, ‘You’ve done the work, you have it in your bank, so just go and have fun.’ The most important part of the race is knowing you’ve done all the work – the race is just the cherry on top.”
Steffen will surely provide a huge challenge for other athletes seeking the Ironman World Championship title, making this year’s race even more exciting than ever.