Runner's Web Interview with Sharon Donnelly - October, 1999

Sharon Donnelly, 2nd place at Monte Carlo 1999 Sharon Donnelly, Gold Medal at Pan Am Games
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Sharon Donnelly is Canada's top-ranked Olympic distance triathlete. She was the first Canadian triathlete, male or female, to qualify for the 2000 Sydney Olympics where the triathlon make it's Olympic debut. She is a two time Canadian champion and the 1999 Pan American Games champion.
A long time resident of Ottawa, Sharon recently moved to Kingston, Ontario to join her husband, Captain Dave Rudnicki, who was posted to Royal Military College this summer.
The Runner's Web caught up with Sharon at the end of a very busy and successful year in which she placed 2nd at the ITU World Cup Triathlon in Monte Carlo, Monaco (left) and won the gold medal at the Pan Am Games (right).

1. When and where did you start competing in the triathlon?

My first triathlon race ever was in Grimsby Niagara (Ontario) in the summer of 1989. A friend (Doug Bruce) asked me to join him and I had to borrow a bike (another friend - Doris Bersheid) for the race. I placed 2nd in my age group! I drove 5hrs after the race to get back to CFB Borden (where I was on course at the time) and then I went out dancing all night with my course friends to celebrate! I did a few more that summer (still using Doris' bike). I bought my own bike a few months later for $350. I still have that bike at home - it is a commuter bike now!

2. At what age do you consider you became a "serious" triathlete?

I figure I became serious about triathlons when I chose to do it full- time. I wanted to do it more seriously while I was in the Regular Force, but Army life as an officer does not lend itself to consistent training and racing - so it would be too much to expect a lot of myself. I knew I had potential in the sport, I was competitive with some of Ontario and Canada's best elites, with very little training (and sometimes no training at all!) but I had to be content with having fun and keeping it all in perspective. I love to race, so no matter what my training was like - I always put 100% into my race.

3. When did you make the decision to compete full-time and try to make Canada's 2000 Olympic team?

I made that decision in the early part of 1995. A number of months prior, the announcement was made that triathlon would be a full medal sport. There were a number of factors that went into my decision. But the primary one was that I was being given another chance to try to make it to the Olympics. I had previously been a competitive swimmer and quit before I reached anywhere near my potential. When I was seventeen, I decided to concentrate on school, get my degree and get a job. I went to the Royal Military College of Canada which has a great degree program and guaranteed job after (obligatory service to pay for the education) The decision to try to make it in a sport that I was already doing well in - with almost no training, came at a the same time that my obligatory service was completed. It was not an easy decision, nor an easy transition. I was leaving the 'military family' and a secure challenging job, for a non-paying (read: high cost! ) insecure occupation.

4. Who has had the greatest influence on your triathlon career to date?

I would have to say my husband, Dave Rudnicki. He has been there for me every step of the way. During the ups and downs, during the difficult transition time from my decision to leave the regular army job to full-time athlete and the four years since that time. I would not be able to do what I am doing without him. When I have my lows, he is there to help me. When I have the incredible highs, he steps back to let me enjoy them. There are just too many things to mention in such a short space, but he continues to be the greatest influence

5. Could you discuss your training in terms of an average week's workouts in the 3 disciplines? Also could you review, at a high level, your macro program for a year?

There are two basic types of weeks, those in my base phase (ie: no serious racing) and those during racing season. The average hours per week in base training is 20-25hrs (I do not inflate these, I am probably more conservative). Basically, in swim training, I train 4-5 sessions per/wk with a minimum of 3500-4000m. I have 1-2 workouts which are 5000m+. They are necessary for 'swim endurance.' In the cycle training, I also do for minimum 5 times/wk. One of those is a long aerobic ride (minimum 3hrs - max 5hr) another is hill workout (continuous or repeats with big chain or regular - depending on the time of the year). Another workout will be intervals or tempo ride. The remaining rides are for recovery (1-1.5hrs). My run training is about 5-6/wk as well. I try to do one of these as a long run (for me that is 1.5hr or 1hr45). Another workout will be hill training, with a third workout being tempo or intervals. The other runs are easy runs or short 'transition running' (ie: immediately following a bike session). I may take a full day off/wk or if not, then it is very easy recovery day. I try to do all three sports everyday (sometimes that means only a 20min run after the bike or a 20min swim for recovery). But minimum two disciplines/day. Year schedule: For example my 1998/99 year. For one month is recovery in the Fall, then start to work on aerobic base (longer runs and rides) but maintaining some intervals with one per week in each sport as a minimum. Also strength straining (circuit training, etc). Then it progresses to more emphasis on the anaerobic system and doing workouts that aim at training below my lactate threshold, while maintaining my aerobic workouts. (this is for approx 3 months. Then I start to head into competitive season. I increase my interval training and back off a bit on overall workload, focus on recovery. Then is the peak period where I cut back on workload dramatically and increase the intensity of my interval sessions. Recovery, stretching and health is paramount during this phase. Then the big race!

6. You have now qualified for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Have you thought about what you want to do after the Olympics?

No I have not given it much thought - my whole focus is on Olympics. I am sure that after Olympics there will be a few roads for me to go down - I am not worried about that. I only have my thoughts on Sept 16, 2000!! (but I am sure I will continue to race for awhile after)

7. What do you consider your best triathlon race and why?

Monte Carlo World Cup 1999. Because it was a breakthrough race for me. I knew I had to get faster in the transitions and that I had to be able to lead the race! I had to "believe" that I could race with the best in the world. It was a mental barrier which I passed and I gained a ton of confidence from that race.

8. Can you see yourself becoming a coach after you stop competing?

I would really like to do that. However, there is nothing saying that it will be in the sport of triathlon. I have coached running, swimming and winter biathlon before. I may branch out into helping others with general fitness. On the other hand - I may do something absolutely different. I don't want to put any limitations on myself. (I could always consider being a "sales manager" at an IT consulting firm!!!!)

9. Drafting in ITU races is seen by non pro triathletes as changing the sport. What are your feelings regarding drafting?

It is different than the original format but one that I feel was necessary if it were to become an Olympic sport. A few reasons would be: better for spectators due to multi-loop courses (and non- drafting would be impossible to marshall on loops); the Summer Olympic calendar is very full and a non-drafting event that sprawls over a huge area would be a logistical nightmare and not as lucrative; Doing it in a time-trial format would be too time- consuming and take up too much of the Olympic schedule; Finally, if athletes are taking performance enhancing drugs to get to the podium - imagine the attempts to cheat by drafting which would not be detectible in testing or have no harmful affects on the body! With drafting allowed (from start to finish), everyone is on a level playing field. Some say that it negates the cycle leg. Tell that to many of the elites! Cycling skills have improved dramatically and we are now beginning to see good strategic cycling tactics. However, there is a need for the organizers to put on challenging courses, to promote these cycling tactics The argument about changing the sport is weak. Many, if not most sports, change over the years. For a most recent example one only needs to see the changes to the game of Volleyball. Or even in a pure sport like swimming, over the years the backstroke turn has changed, the breaststroke rules have been eased, the underwater start of a race is different: all of these changes have translated into faster times (allowing continuous records to fall). Finally, comments made by athletes that "triathlon doesn't need Olympics" and that changing a sport to gain entrance to the biggest sport event on the planet are simply jealous or do not see the whole picture. Lastly, I am not sure what the big deal is. Triathletes competing in the age group categories will never do this type of racing, so they have no need to complain. Only elites and juniors compete in drafting events and even then, there are so many non-drafting events for them to choose that they don't have to compete in drafting events either!

10. What do you consider your favourite race on the ITU circuit and why?

Ishigaki, Japan. For a number of reasons. 1: It was my first World Cup race when I went pro in 1996 (and I did well, placing 7th). 2: I have done well there (7th, 4th, 8th ). 4: It is a very small island and town that hosts the race as well as a big age group race in the morning. It makes is so much more exciting to have so many people out watching 3: Most important reason is that I have a great group of Japanese friends that I hooked up with in my first year there and with whom I continue to keep in contact. They include Japanese age group triathletes (team Hashikawa in Okinawa) and local shop owners like the family at the bakery who will not allow me to buy anything and insist on giving me bags of more items!!

11. Can you describe the feelings you had before, during, and after your Gold Medal win at this summer's Pan American Games in Winnipeg?

Before: I was confident that I would be on the podium - but a gold medal was something that I tried not to focus on. I thought only of what I needed to do each day to get me to the finish line. My shoulder injury was on my mind, but because I did not tell anyone, I did not have to answer questions regularly about it. By keeping it quiet, I think I helped by convincing myself that it was not a problem at all. When in fact it was! I had problems sleeping in the week prior to the race, because pain would shoot down the arm and wake me up. So three days before the race I took the advice of a my doctor and got a cortisone injection. It allowed me to get some good sleep for the two nights leading up to the race and my pain also subsided. Aside from that, I was amazed how 'busy' it gets at an athletes' village. I found everything takes twice as long as it should. I found myself exhausted for the first few days! But what a rush also! I saw and spoke with many athletes that I have only read about. It was definitely a great experience to live in the Village! Race Day: We had a long bus ride (1hr15) to get to the site. But everyone had to do it (except the Americans had organized air conditioned vans!!). Got to the site later than I would normally and thus had very little time to warm-up (read 10min cycle, 3min swim). I remember being quite focussed and not noticing much happening around me. The start of the race was tough. I either got hit on the shoulder or I did a jerky movement - but my shoulder suddenly went into pain. It was all I could think of for the whole swim. I was fighting to make sure that I was with the girls - usually they would not be able to hold onto me! I had a fast transition and got out first onto the bike and quickly found myself amongst two Americans, two Brazilians, and Carol Montgomery (Can). It was tactical from that moment on. The Brazilians did not want to do any work and they were too hard to shake off. One of the Americans tried to get away numerous times, usually after I had finished taking a pull into the wind and I found myself chasing down all of her jumps. I tried not to think of what this was costing my legs in terms of energy on the run! After the bike and onto the run, it quickly became a group of three, Carol, a Brazilian (who did no 'work' on the bike) and myself. It must have been tougher for the spectators than us competitors, because for the first 7km (three loop course) we were all running together! I had taken the lead after the bike and then I slowed the pace and tried to get the other two to lead. But they would not go ahead, so I decided to just push the pace as much as I could. I remember hearing Carol's breathing dropping off at 7km. So it was just me and the Brazilian. I remember thinking to myself - I am running for gold! This is great! I came up to the 9km point which I had seen the day before and had made a mental note to myself that if someone was with me at that point in the race, I would try to find another gear. Go broke or go home as they say. That is exactly what I did and she did not respond! That last 1km was pure adrenalin - I was running on clouds! The feeling was incredible to come around the corner, grab a flag and cross in first in front of a home crowd and family and friends - WOW! It was a highlight of my career! Post Race: I had to face more media than I ever have! And I tried to answer as many as I could. Then I was trucked to the downtown media centre, then to another radio interview. It was a long exhausting day! The next day, the military in support of the Games flew the triathlon team and a crew of media over the city of Winnipeg in helicopters and landed in the Forks to meet the public, press and radio. I flew home to Ottawa (First Class - a gold medal is a good incentive for upgrades!!) that evening, to a wonderful greeting from my neighbours, local businesses and friends.

12. The Ironman Triathlon gets more profile than the ITU circuit. What do you think of the Ironman event as compared to the Olympic distance and would you ever consider doing one?

I really don't think the two can be compared. They are totally different events. It is like comparing the 1500m runner with the marathoner. Yes, each athlete can do the other event but specific diets,and training is required. It is too bad that it gets more coverage, but that is only in North America. In Australia, Europe and other countries, Olympics is #1. If a sport is on the Games list it receives funding and mainstream coverage, if not, then nothing. I think that it will begin to change as we get closer to the Games, but it is unfortunate because most athletes committed to the Olympics have been training and racing for years with little publicity and financial support (which have gone to Ironman). Better late than never though! I come from a swimming background where this is the norm so, I can accept it easier than some triathletes who maybe were earning more prior to focussing on Olympics. I may consider doing an ironman. I will have to decide after Olympics. Though many other ITU athletes have expressed a desire to do it. The depth of field in the Ironman races is very very small and I look forward to the year 2000 and 2001 when many of the ITU athletes will swell the fields. I believe that the fastest times will not change much, but it will become a race - with maybe ten people head to head versus a one or two person show. It will be exciting to watch.

13. If you could design your own Olympic distance triathlon course what features would it have?

Swim: 2x loop (One large loop,and one small loop) no wetsuit preferably (but that depends on the weather of course!!) Wetsuits are an aid and no wetsuit would be ideal. But when the water is about 15 degrees as Sydney will be - there is no alternative! Transitions: Clean, large and open. It is not good for competitors nor to be cramped and colliding in transition. It looks unprofessional to spectators as well. Cycle:Approx 6 loops with numerous bends corners, hills and good quality pavement. (You do not want athletes DNFing at Olympics from flats due to poor roads). Must be challenging. Run: 2-4loops. No need to have crazy terrain, but challenging. Same requirements as cycling. The Sydney Olympic course has all of these. It is an excellent course. The only negatives is of course wetsuit which is unavoidable and also road conditions. In it's past World Cups on the course, the road was in horrible condition. No doubt it will be remedied for the Games in 2000.

14. Who are your sponsors?
Sirius Consulting Inc
Outdoor Gear Canada
Racer Sportif/Aquila Bikes
ORCA Wetsuits
Giro Helmets
DeFeet socks
15. Do you feel that Sport Canada should provide funding for the triathlon since it is now an Olympic sport?

They just recently added Triathlon to the carding program (I found out only one month ago). But it is only "A" carding and is based upon top eight in one race, being World Championships or world ranking. It would be great to have the other carding levels as the other sports, but I realize that they have been established for many more years and they have a larger base of participants as well. Hopefully with time, triathlon will grow to the same levels. With respect to Sport Canada funding to the federation - I have no idea - I am not privy to that information, although I have asked for it!

16. What do you do away from the triathlon to relax?

Spend time with my husband, Dave - we both love to relax with a cup of coffee. Also, I love to read and that is my favorite hobby!

17. What are your plans for leading into next year's Olympic race in Sydney, Australia?

I will head to Australia to train for 4 months in Jan of 2000. I am focussing on my wetsuit swim (ie: stronger upper body) and improve my run. Which means, improve my running time and my cycle fitness so that I can start the run fresher. I will head to Australia 6 weeks prior to the Olympic race as well.

18. Is there a triathlete that you would pick as being the "best in the world" right now?

I would say Michellie Jones and Simon Lessing. They are so consistent. Loretta Harrop would have to run a close second. But Michellie impresses me because she has been at the top for the past ten years, as has Simon Lessing.

19. Any other comments you would like to make....

I am so happy with how things are going. I have had the dream of Olympics since a child (as have most kids!) and I will be able to realize it less than a year away! It is so exciting! I have met so many great people along the way. With only one year to go, I look back to four years ago when I decided to 'give it a go' and race full- time, and realize how fast that time flew! It has been a wonderful experience and I hope that in this time I may have inspired others to try a triathlon or to challenge themselves to higher goals. That is success!

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