4-Time World Duathlon Champion Sets Her Sights High
British athlete Emma Pooley is a multiple Olympic & Commonwealth Games medallist; and World Cup, stage race, and British national road race and TT champion. But cycling is only part of the picture for this Cambridge graduate and Ph.D. Originally an accomplished runner, after over a decade at the top of women’s cycling culminating in a third Olympic bid in Rio, the Switzerland-based athlete has now shifted her focus to multisport racing. Known for her exceptional climbing prowess as a cyclist, she burst onto the multisport scene with a dominant victory at the 2014 World Duathlon Championships at Powerman Zofingen (10K run, 150K bike, 30K run), shattering the course record by over 16 minutes. Her long cycling career and three Olympics behind her, Emma now turns her undivided attention to triathlon, duathlon, and select single-sport challenges suited to her tenacity and climbing prowess, both on two legs or two wheels.
Healed from a bike crash that fractured her sacrum and derailed her Rio medal aspirations, the reigning three-time Powerman Duathlon World Champion flew out of the gate to start this season with commanding victories at the Ventouxman Triathlon (2K run, 90K bike, 20K run), European long-distance Duathlon Championships (10K run, 60K bike, 10K run), and the Haute Route Alpe d’Huez multi-stage cycling race. At the Haute Route Rockies cycling race in Colorado this July, she bested the entire field, male and female, to cross the line first in Stage Five on her way to winning the women’s category. Most recently, she claimed victory at the Inferno Half Marathon, a brutal uphill race with 2100m of ascent, in mountain terrain under conditions so difficult its website begins with a warning and disclaimer.
Leaving the competition far behind to fight for second seems to be a pattern when she races, and the season openers saw her continue that dominance with her closest challenger barely sniffing a gap inside 10 minutes. And most recently, after illness forced her out of competition at Embrunman, she rebounded to win her fourth straight Powerman World Duathlon Championships on September 3 by a nearly unbelievable margin of 27 minutes.
720armour is proud to sponsor this tremendous athlete and person, and we were thrilled to chat at length with her from her home in Switzerland recently to get to know more about this talented, dedicated, cerebral, witty and most humble athlete.
In Part One of our feature we get to know Emma as an athlete and person. We’ll let her catch her breath from the defense of her World Long Distance Duathlon Championship title and report back soon on her recent races and quest to climb to a second victory at the upcoming Taiwan KOM.
Snapshot of Emma Pooley
||Ph.D, Geotechnical Engineering from ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich)
||5’2” (157 cm.)
|Hobbies & Interests
||Collecting teapots, cross-country skiing, gardening
Fluent in English, French, German
720: You were born and raised in the UK, but now live in Zürich, CH. How did you end up there and what is it like for you living and training in Switzerland?
Emma: I came to Switzerland for post-graduate work after completing my degree in engineering at Cambridge, and have lived here ever since. I live in a village around 20 km outside Zürich, and I like to think I am a fairly well-adjusted expat, fluent in English, French, and German. I love the simple lifestyle and training environment with all the hills and mountains, and have no plans to leave.
720: Switzerland happens to be a mountainous country, whilst your native UK is generally flat. Which came first for you, the strong hill climbing, or the mountainous Swiss environment?
Emma: Living in Switzerland with the mountains all around is beautiful and makes training interesting, but I’ve always just been better at races that require a lot of climbing. You wouldn’t expect sprinters to run a marathon, and I also just try to do what I’m good at because it just makes sense to race to your strengths.
720: After juggling professional cycling and selected multisport events you come into this season as a triathlete. How is that working out for you so far?
Emma: I’m better at some things than I thought and a lot worse in others. It’s also satisfying because it’s such a challenge. I’m really happy to have had some successes, but I’m not satisfied. It’s never easy, which is a good thing because it keeps you hungry to improve.
720: What are some of the differences in terms of training and racing multisport as an independent athlete, versus concentrating on cycling?
Emma: So much of how you perform in long triathlons comes down to your mindset, and to be honest some races can be quite tedious!. You’ve got to stay motivated and pushing the pedals, which isn’t at all the case in a road race where you’re always focused on the tactics and interactions with other riders. It’s one of the reasons I prefer hilly triathlons and duathlons to flat courses - because it’s simply so much more interesting.
Q: Have you ramped up your running since you switched your focus to multisport?
Emma: I was surprised initially at how well I ran in triathlon. But some of it I have to chalk up to enthusiasm, and in 2015 I ended up getting injured again, which set me back a bit. So I probably didn’t run as well in 2015 or last year as when I was new to multisports because I still had this sort of fresh, uninjured enthusiasm.
When I started triathlon training I hired a triathlon coach. But perhaps I was a bit naive in thinking that having a program would lead to improvement. I learned a lot in my years as a cyclist about my body, and finally came around to the realization that the challenge for me is stepping up the run training during the cycling season and not losing too much from the cycling. I’ve always run during the offseason because I simply love running, but it’s definitely tricky to balance those two sports. So I now follow my own program, and aim to get the maximum run volume and quality I can without getting injured. Input from my advisor in Australia, who provides advice on strength training, has been especially helpful since I dealt with injuries in 2015.
720: Swimming is your main triathlon weakness. What’s your relationship with swimming like?
Emma: I attended a school that had a swimming pool so I learned to swim from a young age, but never joined a club team or swam competitively. I don’t think of myself as particularly coordinated, which makes me a bad dancer. Fortunately, I don’t care about dancing! In cycling the pedals guide you to move your legs, whereas in swimming your body moves in three dimensions, which is exponentially harder. Not having a strong swim background is a disadvantage, and triathlon poses extra logistical challenges with the addition of swimming, but I’ve got a system in place and I’m putting in the work in the pool to minimize the deficit to other competitors on the swim. It’s always going to be a case of damage limitation for me on the swim though, I’m afraid.
720: Now that you’re focusing on triathlon and multisport, what races are you targeting this season and going forward?
Emma: The main focus this year is a few pretty cool mountain triathlons. I’m going to go back to Embrun for the Embrunman long-distance triathlon, the Alpe d’Huez triathlon, and there’s a newer race called Ventouxman on the famous Mont Ventoux. Those are the triathlon goals. A new thing for me, which I’ve wanted to do for years but couldn’t get to because of cycling and the Olympics, is to try and get into mountain running - uphill, that is. I’ve done quite a few smaller races over the years like coming in second at the Jungfrau Marathon, and I’m definitely better at running uphill than on the flat, so I just thought I’d give a few races in the Skyrunning Series a try.
I‘ll also attempt to defend my World Duathlon Long Course Championships at Powerman Zofingen, which is like a home race for me as it’s close to where I live in Switzerland. I also look forward to returning to Taiwan to defend my win at the Taiwan KOM Challenge on October 20.
720: Apart from playing to your strengths with your prowess at going uphill, how did you choose this especially challenging schedule?
Emma: I think it’s really cool to support the independent races like Embrunman and Alpe d’Huez, which are huge in France. I want to do the sports and races that inspire and excite me, and what really inspires me is mountains and beautiful tough races - not rolling up and down main roads with my head down.
Another thing I like about doing those epic races is meeting other athletes and the sense of community we share. People are friendly to their fellow competitors - maybe because we’re united by that kind of voluntary suffering.
Super ultrarunning is not that compatible with triathlon training, but the uphill races are amazingly similar physiologically to cycling uphill, which has always been my strong suit. So I’ll try to fit in a few of the “vertical km” races in the Skyrunning series between triathlons. Overall, it’s a bit of a mixture, but the real overriding motivation is getting back to what I love - tough, inspiring races in beautiful places like the Taiwan KOM.
720: Speaking of Taiwan KOM, you described last year’s race as your “toughest day ever on the bike.” Tell us more about the experience.
Emma: I’m trying to encourage all my mates to come over and do this race. I was just blown over not only by how tough it was, but how beautiful Taiwan is. I had no idea!
For me it’s a real cultural adventure, and really beautiful.
I really enjoyed being in Taiwan apart from the race. This year I would love to spend at least a week in Taiwan cycle touring. I think it would be an interesting cultural experience, as well as physically challenging and good training, and I’m looking forward to bringing a few friends with me for that!
I tell my Australian friends, “If you want to train in the mountains, don’t go to the Alps, go to Taiwan!”
Taiwan is cycling paradise!
Q: Your palmarès is very impressive, with an Olympic Silver medal, Commonwealth Games silver, UCI World Champion, marathon championship, stage race wins, World Cup wins, and multiple national road and time trial championships. What is your proudest race result?
Emma: Powerman Zofingen 2016 was huge for me for two reasons. First, I had been focusing on cycling and trying to make the UK Olympic team, which I was fortunate to do, but then I crashed in July just three weeks before the Olympics and broke my sacrum. Between the injury and concentrating on cycling for my Olympic bid, I only did about a month’s worth of run training prior to Powerman, which has a combined total of 40 km. of running. On race day I ended up walking a bit on the second run, but still managed to defend my title for the second time. I felt proud and vindicated by my Powerman duathlon world championships victory, which gave me great momentum coming into this season now that I’m healed up. It wasn’t my best time at Zofingen and I don’t think it would rank as my greatest result, but in terms of the mental challenge it was pretty tough and I’m quite proud of it.
720: You join a long line of great British endurance athletes - track legends like Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, cyclists like Sir Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish, Chris Boardman, Chris Froome, Nicole Cooke, and triathlon legends like Chrissie Wellington and now the world-beating Brownlee brothers. What is it about your country that has been able to produce such excellent endurance athletes in general, and cyclists and triathletes in particular?
Emma: I’m not entirely sure, but maybe it’s because the British take their sport quite seriously! We’re very passionate and when people in the UK have a passion for something they do it properly - whether that level is “hobby” sport or elite. When you start out in a sport you have to do it because you love it.
Aside from that aspect, I think at the very top level everyone’s a freak, to put it bluntly. So Bradley Wiggins or Nicole Cooke, or Chrissie Wellington are clearly exceptions physically. And you can’t really draw conclusions back to the general population in that respect. But what I would say is that there’s a real love of sport in the UK. And cycling’s become pretty cool now in the UK thanks to the high-profile successes of riders like Wiggins, Froome and Cavendish, but it wasn’t when I started.
720: You’re primarily known as a great hill ascender, yet you’ve won the national and UCI world time trial championships as well as an Olympic silver in the TT in 2008. How does someone of your small stature excel at time trialling?
Emma: Climbing is about the power-to-weight ratio, whilst time trailing is primarily about power-to-aerodynamic drag ratio. Knowing this, I try to get as low as possible in my time trial position, and this year I’m excited to be working with a bike sponsor that’s designed my bikes with 650c wheels to achieve a lower front end. Together with Bond Bike and the wheel-builder GS Astuto, we’ve set up SENSE Composites which will produce fantastic modern wheels in 650c (and 700c) specifically designed for the smaller rider - so with a low rolling resistance and lower rim profile to reduce cross-wind problems.
720: If you went to a networking event and someone asked you, “What do you do?” what might you tell them? What interests outside sports and your academic and professional field do you have?
Emma: Triathlon has gotten so popular, and epic races like Swissman in Switzerland and Embrunman in France are big enough that people these days know what a triathlete does. Still, I would say I’m a “multisport athlete” or maybe even make it easy and say “self-employed.” Outside of training, my next passion is cooking! I’m writing a recipe book that is going to be partly autobiographical, called “Pocket Porridge” - with healthy recipes that I’ve invented for training and race fuel. So maybe if that goes well, I might be able to say I’m an author!
720: You have an intellectual and athletic side. But rather than pursue a Doctorate in something like Exercise Science you got a Ph.D in geotechnical engineering. What was it like juggling such high level academics and elite athletics? You must be a great power sleeper/napper!
Emma: I can’t claim to be very good about balance. In the winter I’m in Australia, and I do a bit of engineering consulting for an engineering firm. When I was doing lab work and teaching for my PhD, and writing my thesis, time was short and I was pretty tired all the time. Now I have a bit more breathing space - but being self-employed as an athlete still requires a lot of work behind the scenes. Unfortunately it’s not just about the racing and training!
Pressure forces me to be disciplined, which I appreciate. I love to learn new things, and recently finished a four-day intensive course in computer-aided design, which was a nice thing to offset the training and make me feel like I’m progressing and doing something useful apart from physically. Sometimes since finishing my PhDI feel like my brain has turned to jelly!
720: Is this something you’ll be pursuing after you’ve “retired” once and for all from competition at a professional level?
Emma: I’m pretty sure I don’t want to go into engineering research in the domain of my Ph.D, which was about the remediation of industrial waste to be able to rebuild on it. But I love the natural environment, and if I could find a job in engineering that was related to remediation I’d love to do that. I’ve been looking into internships in business consultancy, as drawing on my athletic background I’m quite keen on analyzing situations and figuring out what the most effective thing to do is. And languages, of course.
A Few Fun Questions
720: What fun or unusual fact could you share with us, like a hidden talent? In the professional world, I suppose that would be described as a “non-resume item”.
Emma: I’m really good at sewing. I’ve liked to alter my clothes since I was kid so they would fit me, and I like to make things for other people, like Teddies. I enjoy that creative aspect..”
720: What is your favorite post-workout food and/or drink?
Emma: I love a nice cup of tea, any time. As for post-workouts, my real favorite is really good coffee. I got addicted to it training in Australia. I know it’s not the ideal post-workout beverage, but at the end of a tough ride there’s nothing like a good cup of coffee with friends.
As for food, I really like training in the morning and then having brunch. Even if it’s a long ride and it’s the middle of the afternoon I still like to have brunch. My favorite would have to be chopped apples and other fruit with yogurt and some oats. It’s really simple, but I love it. Not only is it real food with a mix of carbohydrate, sugar and protein, but it just tastes great - and it’s simple!
720: Do you ever name your bikes?
6 Cycling World Cup victories
Silver Medal - Olympic Games Time Trial, Beijing
1st - Grande Boucle Féminine
3rd - UK National Road Race Championships
1st - UK National Time Trial Championships
4th - Giro d'Italia Femminile
1st - UCI World Road Championships, Time Trial
1st - UK National Road Race Championships
1st - UK National Time Trial Championships
1st - Flèche Wallonne Féminine
1st - Tour de l'Ardèche
1st - Trofeo Alfredo Binda-Comune di Cittiglio
2nd - Lucerne Marathon
1st - Swissman Xtreme Triathlon
1st - Lausanne Marathon
5th - Ironman Switzerland
1st - Powerman Duathlon World Championships
1st - Powerman Duathlon World Championships
1st - Alpe d'Huez Triathlon Long course race
1st - Embrunman
1st - Challenge Philippines
3rd - Ironman France
1st - Powerman Asia Duathlon Championships
1st - Powerman Duathlon World Championships
1st - Taiwan KOM Challenge
1st - Ventouxman Triathlon
1st - Haute Route Rockies
1st - Haute Route Alpe d’Huez
1st - Infernoman Extreme Half Marathon
Official Website: http://www.emmapooley.net/en/
Quotable Quotes from Emma Pooley
I never want to be a complacent athlete. The day you become complacent and you “know” you can win is the day you’ve lost it as an athlete.
For me, it’s about the balance between complacency and total neurosis.
I’m learning to concentrate on the process. It’s not always going to be a great big party the whole race, but all you can do is race your best, putting out the best effort you can, and you hope it will be good enough to win. And that makes it enjoyable, gaining a sense of achievement for that effort, which is all you can do.
I would be better off financially, and it would make my parents more relieved if I went back to being an engineer. But at the end of the day you should do what you love.
I think mindset is really important. It’s not about being a crazy positive machine. It’s also important to be the best person you can be. When I meet people at a race I’m the real me and I’m friendly - I love to meet other athletes.
My parents have normal jobs, my brother and sister have normal jobs… I feel like I’ve fallen off the cliff in terms of “normality.” But who knows what normal is anyway?!