TAKING IT TO THE TOP
Victoria-based pro Karen Thibodeau had a breakthrough race at Ironman Brazil in May where she finished eighth after coming off a nagging injury. The former Division I swimmer and Olympic trials qualifier is also a registered nurse working in mental health and addictions outreach.
Originally from Bridgewater, N.S., Thibodeau graduated with an honours degree in exercise physiology from the University of Pittsburgh followed by a degree in nursing from the University of Toronto. Thibodeau turned pro in 2011 and was second at Ironman Canada in 2012 and 2014. Thibodeau has been upping her game under the guidance of coach Clint Lien who co-runs the Mercury Rising triathlon club with Canadian pro Sara Gross.
Following a strong performance in Brazil this spring you were third at the Great White North triathlon in July among some very strong athletes. How did those races unfold? What is your main goal this year?
KAREN THIBODEAU: At Ironman Brazil, I executed my race plan which put me in the mix of a talented pro women’s field and resulted in a personal best Ironman time of 9:15:08. Great White North is a wellorganized, fun and relaxed race in Alberta that I’ve done over the last few years as part of a training block before Ironman Canada. It also gives me an excuse to spend time training in Canmore, where I used to live.
This year I’ve been working on gaining more race experience, establishing consistency and improving my run. Ironman Brazil and Ironman Canada were my two A races for this year. Next year, I hope to be in the running to qualify for Kona and hope to win my first Ironman.
How did you first get into the sport?
I decided to train for my first Ironman when I was living in Girona, Spain in 2011. My boyfriend at the time was a professional cyclist in Europe which provided a crash course in cycling. I started riding with some of the Canada National team women who were training there. Once I became comfortable on a bike I thought, ‘I can swim, bike and have run a number of marathons, so why not try an Ironman?’ The owners of Girona Cycling encouraged me to enter a local race and provided me with coaching. I won the race and decided to apply for my pro racing licence.
With your background in swimming, you’re often right out front after the swim. What does that do for you mentally in terms of race strategy?
I started swimming at the age of 10 on a local team in Nova Scotia, and then swam for Region of Waterloo in Ontario. I attended the University of Pittsburgh on a swim scholarship. Swimming is my strength, which offers some advantages in triathlon. Although it’s hard to gain a lot of time over the smallest portion of the race, it does allow you to be aware of exactly where you are and keep an eye on how the race is unfolding.
In addition to racing professionally, you work as a mental health nurse. Is there an aspect to your racing and training that gives you insight into your work as a nurse and vice versa?
Currently I work casually on various mental health and addiction outreach teams in downtown Victoria. My work helps create balance and perspective in my life, especially in regards to triathlon training and racing. As a professional athlete it’s easy to become self-focused, (and perhaps it is important to be so). However, I think it’s much easier to let a bad training day, or race, go after spending a day with individuals experiencing hardships beyond most people’s comprehension. It puts triathlon into perspective, keeps me from taking myself too seriously, and reminds me how fortunate I am.
Balancing work and training is always a bit tricky. But there are lots of people out there doing it, who also have families to take care of on top of training and work. It really just comes down to organization, time management and prioritizing. I’m lucky to have a job that makes it possible to work casually and only work 16 to 20 hours a week during hard training blocks.
You train with Mercury Rising in the pool. There’s a lot of talent in that group – how important to you is it to have a training group to work with.
One of my reasons for making the move to Victoria this year was that I wanted to be involved in training groups and be surrounded by like-minded people. MRT has one of the most solid triathlon swim programs in the country, and I feel fortunate to be surrounded by, and able to train with, such talented athletes every day.
How did you begin working with Clint Lien as a coach?
I had met Clint in 2010, before I started racing triathlon as I would spend a few months each year in Victoria and would train with the MRT group. In 2012, after finishing my first Ironman (Ironman Canada, where I finished second), I decided to take training more seriously and find a local Canadian coach. I wanted to work with somebody I trusted and who I felt understood my needs and Clint was, and continues to be, a good match.
What is it that appeals to you about long course racing?
Long course racing suits my abilities. I started racing at 32 and therefore missed the opportunity to develop the speed required for short course racing. But having come from a swimming background where 20-hour-plus training weeks seemed normal – the training volume for Ironman was manageable. I love the physical and mental test long course racing provides.–