Interview with Susie Cheetham
Rachel Joyce had an opportunity to talk to Susie Cheetham before Ironman South Africa. Susie, who turned pro in 2008, represents Great Britain. She has won numerous Ironman 70.3 events and placed 6th in Kona in 2015. On Sunday, Susie looks to better her 3rd place finish from last year at Ironman South Africa.
RJ: Hi Susie, Thanks for taking the time in race week to answer our questions. You had a stellar 2015 season: looking back on it how do you see it and did it go as expected?
SC: I made a lot of changes in 2015, all changes that made my life more triathlon focused. I transitioned into it slowly, going part-time at work and then dropping work completely. It was a risk but I feel it paid off. I was really happy with my season. At the beginning of the season I did my second Ironman and came third at Ironman South Africa. That result exceeded my expectations and it was after that I made the decision to do triathlon full time in the run up to Kona. Once I made that decision my main goal became Kona. I was going into the unknown and didn’t really know what to expect. I had my own goals but I can safely say I exceeded them with my 6th place finish.
RJ: There are probably a lot of people out there who don’t know about your impressive running background. Can you tell me a little about your running career? Was it a difficult decision to concentrate on your career over running?
SC: I started running when my PE teacher bullied me into running a cross country race. From the age of eleven I raced the County cross country every year. I was lucky as at that age none of the other girls really trained so I managed to pull off a win a few times.
When I was 17 I really stepped up in my running caliber I had started training a lot more and managed a silver medal at the English Schools 1500m. The next year I won the 3000m. I absolutely loved running and went on to run for Great Britain. It was probably just after my first GB cross country vest that I began to find running competitively a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Just when I felt I was running well and really getting some form I would get injured. I remember clearly running the best track session of my life and two days later getting a call to say I had a stress fracture. I also remember running my 5000m Track PB in racing flats as my Achilles wasn’t up to the pressure of running in spikes. It was frustrating to say the least and I never felt like I was able to achieve my potential, so I suppose finding a sport where your body doesn’t take such a beating was a bit of a relief!
RJ: Just a little bit of googling tells me you are a high achiever. When you decided to give triathlon a shot did you always have in mind that you would race professionally and believe eventually you would be amongst the best in the world – just 4 years after you took the sport up?
SC: No, not at all. I really couldn’t swim so racing professional triathlon initially was really out of the question. I had started doing a fair amount of cycling alongside my running partly to spend more time with my husband who was training for an Ironman. I figured it would be a waste not to use it so I entered 70.3 Antwerp. I did quite well, particularly on the amount of training I had done so thought I would look into racing in the elite category. It was only then that I learnt that in triathlon you either race as a pro or an amateur. I wanted to take it more seriously so thought Pro was my only option. It was only a couple of years down the line that I understood how the age group system worked. If I had known then I probably would have first looked into competing as an Age Grouper. Steep learning curve; but I’m happy with the way things have gone. I’ve worked on my swimming a lot since Antwerp!
RJ: You’ve been coached by your husband since you started triathlon. Is that an easy dynamic to manage? Did you decide together when was the right time to resign from your “day job” and train and race triathlon full time?
SC: I wouldn’t say it’s an easy dynamic to manage! We’ve just about got to a place where we know what works, both in terms our relationship and getting the most out of my training and racing. We’ve had a few arguments along the way but I think we are in a good spot now combining the two. Our relationship comes first and if we ever felt it was putting pressure on that I would look elsewhere for a coach. I know I could never get the same attention from a coach that I get from him. I joke that he’s my coach, psychologist, physiotherapist and general bike bitch but he really does put everything into it and I’m really lucky to have that.
We both talked a lot about leaving my job. He was keener on it than I was. He’s in the Army and moves every two years. When I was working he used to have to commute back to our house in Cambridge but after I left work I moved into an Army house with him so it’s also made his life a lot easier also!
RJ: What have you found most difficult in the transition from working full time to being a full time triathlete?
SC: I always find this question really funny. When I left work I thought I’d find it really tough to fill my day but to be honest I’ve really enjoyed it. The last two years at work were really tough, I was stressed and overtired. I was training at ungodly hours and really wasn’t sleeping or recovering well. I actually started to not enjoy work or triathlon as I felt I wasn’t giving either 100%, I think it was at that point that I realized I had to drop one. When I went full time I lost that stress and suddenly I wasn’t tired and grouchy which made leaving work a lot easier.
RJ: I followed your gutsy finish at Ironman 70.3 South Africa, where you finished the race despite breaking your elbow part way through the bike course. How has your recovery gone since January? What have you learnt from the whole experience?
SC: I’ve been completely amazed; the body is an incredible thing. I was really broken! My whole body had bad road rash and my elbow needed an operation to wire it together. I had to fly back to the UK the next day and felt really sorry for myself. When I got home and Rob (my husband) told me he wanted me to do Ironman South Africa in two months I think I swore at him, said there was no chance and he didn’t understand how much pain I was in. I couldn’t spread butter on my toast or tie my hair back so I was far from training.
Two weeks later I started running very slowly and with a sling and few days later I started doing some easy turbos. The swimming took longer as the road rash on my elbow was quite bad, but once that had gone I started doing kick sets and one-arm drills in the pool.
I think I’m nine weeks post-crash and I’m training 100%. My running is probably better than it’s ever been and the other two certainly as strong or stronger than they were this time last year. To be honest I think having a goal like Ironman South Africa has distracted me from what happened and feeling sorry for myself.
I also learnt about the impact that we have as professional athletes. There was so much support for me finishing the race and it meant a lot to a lot of people.
I’ve never looked to myself as the sort of person that inspires people, but I’ve had so many touching messages that I feel fortunate that on this occasion I have been able to inspire some people.
RJ: This is your third time racing Ironman South Africa. With a second and third podium spot already under your belt we are sure you eying the top spot. Have your tactics/approach changed at all for this year?
SC: It’s only the second time [I’ve race IM South Africa], but I’ve done 70.3 SA a four times or so.
If you had asked me when I was planning my season I would have told you the top spot was my target. A lot has happened since then and I have missed some training, I can’t hide from that! I think that a win could be possible but I will come up against a lot of unknowns. I have never gone into an Ironman in this position before. Having said that I was working this time last year and even with the missing volume I am definitely a better athlete than I was last year. I’m swimming better, biking better and running better. I will have to see how it plays out, it’s quite nice going into a race where nobody expects much from you. Who knows, the lack of pressure may work out for me!
RJ: Can you tell us how the rest of your season looks? Races, training camps etc.
SC: I will be based in the UK for the rest of the season. I left for South Africa just after the days started to get longer and the weather was heating up a little so I’m looking forward to getting back outside once I get back. I’m training out of the sports facilities at Bath University, I went to University there so it’s good to be back.
Race wise my focus will be on Challenge Roth and Kona. I will also do some 70.3s at the moment it’s looking like St Polten, Zell am See and Challenge Galway.
RJ: Who is your favorite training partner?
My furry person! Jasper the dog is by far my favorite running buddy. He just needs to work on his swimming and biking technique!
RJ: Has life changed much since last season? New sponsors? Training?
SC: So much! I’m really fortunate to have some incredible sponsors on board. I’m really proud to be with some of the best guys in the business. A running shoe that’s kept me uninjured for three years, thanks Saucony. The Go-To bike for any comparison in the wind tunnel, I’m happy to race on the Cervelo P5 and Roka the wetsuit I gelled with immediately.
Training wise I’m really feeling like a different athlete. I’m better aware of what I need to do in order to race at my best and after four years I feel like I’m able to absorb a lot more training than I have done in previous years.
RJ: Tell TriEqual supporters something surprising that people don’t know about you?
SC: I like to watch The Wizard of Oz in race week. It makes me feel calm!
RJ: What do you like to do that is not swim bike run?
SC: My family and friends. There are times when I’m training hard and racing a lot when I really neglect them. When I’m not busy I try and make time for being outdoors and spending as much time as possible with them. I also love a bit of mountain biking and skiing – but neither are that compatible with being an (accident prone) professional triathlete, so I do them a lot less than I’d like. Post IMSA we’re hitting some awesome mountain bike trails in Hermanus and I can’t wait!