Athlete Profile - Helen Vagnoni talks Kona 2012

This is our exclusive interview with Australia's F50-55 age group winner of the Asia-Pacific IM and Kona qualifer - Helen Vagnoni.

Asia-Pacific IM Champion F50-55

Helen Vagnoni (F50-55) from Perth, WA earned her slot for the Kona 2012 Ironman World Championships after qualifying with a 1st place finish in her age group at the Melbourne Ironman (Asia-Pacific Championship) in March earlier this year. In an exclusive interview with TriathlonOz below, we ask her the questions you all want to know. Read on for some interesting insights on what it took to get her slot, and what's ahead for the next few weeks as she prepares through a southern hemisphere winter for the race of her life!

Interview with Helen

This email-interview was done between TriathlonOz & Helen on 21-24th July, 2012.

How does it feel to have qualified for Kona?

HELEN: I was thrilled!! It took a lot of hard work to get there which makes the accomplishment even sweeter…. I pinch myself most days . It still doesn’t feel real.

What is it that has made it possible for you to reach this level in Triathlon?

HELEN: A combination of things for sure. I have a huge amount of support from both my husband and brother who is also my coach. I have a fairly persistent personality so I think that also helps.
Triathlon has been a sport that has allowed me to surprise myself constantly. So I suppose it’s these little surprises that spur me on to the next race or challenge. I’m always keen to see what this body is capable of.

How long have you been involved in triathlon?

HELEN: I started triathlon in the 2008/2009 season. Prior to 2008 I had never run! My first race was the Enticer at the City of Perth. I did a couple more races (including running in a team for the Busso Half) till the season ended and was biting at the bit to get into it properly for the following season. By the time 2009/2010 season came around I was raring to go doing as many races as I could. I loved competing! I never raced with a win as my focus but was always trying to better my personal times. My first IM was in a team (run leg)… I knew after that I wanted to do one on my own. By the end of the season I had somehow managed to come 3rd in my age group overall that season which was certainly a surprise. That season I also did my first Half (70.3) in Busselton and also competed in the World Championships in the Oct where I managed 8th place overall…. What a buzz that was as it was totally unexpected.

I entered my first Ironman in 2010 in Busselton where I placed 3rd, IM Busselton 2011 placed 2nd and Ironman Melbourne 2012 where I placed 1st and earnt my spot to Kona!!

Can you describe whats involved in chasing a dream How do you remain motivated? Is there something specific that drives you?

HELEN: To be honest Kona was never on my radar. I know for some people out there it’s a childhood dream, something they aspire to. I really never thought I was capable of anything like that. I suppose a light bulb moment was my first Ironman when I ended up on the podium. I never saw it coming. It made me look at myself a little harder and say “well hey maybe this is my thing!!

There is also a lot of hard work that goes into getting there. Our social life has taken a bit of a hammering too.

With regards to motivation, most days I don’t have too much of a problem with that. I work very well with a program so if it’s on my fridge and it says do such and such I just do it. Without a program I think I would struggle.

I’m also a big lover of quotes. I have a blackboard in my kitchen where I put up quotes that help me stay focused and think about what I’m doing. Currently I have a quote up by Emerson ...” The only Person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be “

I am also very inspired by people around me. Some strangers and some I know. My family, my friends, people in the triathlon club doing their first triathlon...people going thru hardship… there is inspiration all around. I take the fact very seriously that I am healthy and have the ability to at least go out there and have a go whatever the outcome.

I’m also getting a lot better at balancing my life with Ironman in it!!! My first IM was a little all too encompassing. I mentioned before that our social life took a bit of a hit… that’s true but I’m better now at organising to stay in contact a bit better with family / friends. I am also back playing my guitar (not very well I must say) but music was always such a big part of my life before triathlon and I missed it terribly , but now I can just grab my guitar which helps me chill and relax!!!

How has your lifestyle changed since starting long-course racing and have you made any further changes in preparing for Kona?

HELEN: It’s changed a lot but having said that I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t love it.

At what point did IM racing become a race for you, rather than simply surviving the day as best as you can?

HELEN: Up until Melbourne I can honestly say I have never really raced a race. IM 2010 I went in with no expectations and was extremely surprised to place 3rd. That was the most fun I have ever had in a race. I think I smiled my way around the course… what an experience!! It wasn’t until I raced in Melbourne that I can say I went there with one thing in mind and that was to try and get my spot to Kona. I have never been so aware of those around me than when I raced in Melbourne. I was very focused and determined to give it my best shot.

What have been your biggest hurdles and how do you handle them?

HELEN: Currently I would have to say my biggest hurdle is training thru winter and having to get up at 4am in the morning. As I previously mentioned my husband is a huge support and he will get up and run/ride with me so that certainly helps.

You placed first in your Kona qualifying race at the Melbourne IM in March. Can you tell us your goals for the World Championships?

HELEN: Firstly I want to try and have the best time ever.. Fun that is!!!!! I can’t wait to soak in the atmosphere. I have sat and watched so many dvds of Kona, crying my way thru them and now I will be there in person so I want to be able to take it all in and experience it!!
I have my own private goals on where I would like to finish but might just keep that to myself.

The World Championship course at Kona is notoriously challenging can you tell us what factors concern you the most and how your coach is addressing this in your program?

HELEN: The heat and wind for sure. That’s tricky training in the southern hemisphere for a Northern Hemisphere race but I’m not the only one and anyway Aussies are notorious for doing well over in Kona so there must be something going on there!!

I am doing my ergo sessions in the bathroom with a couple of heaters on to try and get the temp up and also doing a couple of Hot Yoga sessions a week.

Training in the winds is generally not a problem if you’re training in Perth September onwards but it’s been very still for most of our rides….can’t believe I am writing here that I am wishing for strong winds!!! But it is what it is and you just have to do the best you can with the conditions you have.

Can you tell us what part of your training program you find the hardest?

HELEN: The early starts for sure!!! Oh and running. I only started running 4 years ago so it’s not something I find comes really naturally to me.

Do you struggle with any injuries and if so how do you manage them?

HELEN: I am lucky really that I don’t have too much to worry about regarding that. I have had a tracking problem with my knee for a long time so the usual ITB exercises and taping.

I have quite severe Osteo Arthritis in my foot which can give me quite a lot of pain but I know that it’s not like having an injury where if I continue to run I am doing more damage. I will be getting a cortisone injection in my foot before I head to Kona otherwise I try and take anti-inflammatories before I head out on a long ride, creams etc. It’s certainly isn’t bad enough to stop me doing what I’m doing.

Do you follow a periodization schedule for the year? Can you explain how you structure your year, races, strength training, etc.

HELEN: For the past 2 years all I’ve really done is long course races. I leave the entire program up to my coach. He is very conscious of giving me the rest I need in between races.

Do you run with an iPod? Whats on your playlist right now?

HELEN: I used to. I remember rocking up to do my first Half Ironman and being told I wasn’t allowed to run with one. Goodness you’d think I’d been told I had 6 months to live. I was distraught. Didn’t think I could do it without the music, but now I pretty well just run with my thoughts. Maybe when I get to my longer runs I might pop it on to help pass the time.

I have quite an eclectic taste in music. I love African Harmonies, Mo town, Gospel, Eva Cassidy, Florence and the Machine… and so much more. Not much pop though! I spent 10 years singing in a choir so anything where there are 4 part harmonies I just love!!!

What gadgets do you use in training and how much do you analyse your records? Eg. running cadence, swim tempo-trainer, computer/HRM etc.

HELEN: My friends will attest to me being a bit of a gadget girl!! I have a Garmin for running and one for the bike but I’m not much in to analysing the data at the end at all.

How is triathlon different for people over 40/male/female etc?

HELEN: Oooh do I really want to go there!!!! I will speak only for myself here. I think the reason I enjoy IM racing so much is that it’s not about speed. I’m not real good on that. But I have stamina and I think mentally we get stronger as we get older.

Do you have any tips for anyone wanting to do a full IM for the first time?

HELEN: Sit down with your family first and talk to them about it. You will need the full support of those closest around you. There will be days where you will be so tired you will only have enough energy to cry. The journey is long, exciting, challenging, confronting, educational and extremely rewarding!!! It will be up there with one of the best things you ever do …. But it’s no fun if there’s no one to share the whole experience with.

So whats next for Helen? How does one look beyond Kona regardless of how you go on race day, do you see yourself continuing to have aspirations for more IM racing?

HELEN: I will definitely do another IM. I know I’m not good at training on my own . I just loved training for IM with the 6th Discipline Squad that my brother put together. However there are other things my husband and I are looking at doing . We are heading over to Europe next year to cycle thru France and Italy so I’m looking forward to that. I’ve always wanted to trek Cradle Mountain so that’s on the bucket list too.

But in the meantime I’m always up for something different …. Next month Will and I are off for Flying Trapeze lessons!!!!

About the Kona World Ironman

"Ironman" - this term refers to an endurance distance multisport event. The world's first ironman triathlon was held in 1978 on the island of Kona in Hawaii. Since the triathlon boom over the past 34 years, the Kona Ironman event has been the coveted race of the triathlon scene worldwide with athletes requiring a "qualifying slot" in order to be in the race.

Ironman has also become the major brand in the triathlon world scene, hosting races in both 70.3 distance and Ironman distance worldwide. Some of these races offer a number of qualifying slots within each age-group for the Kona event with the idea being that no matter where you live in the world, you have an opportunity to qualify for Kona. However, as many people soon realise this sport is highly competitive and with more participants and races on the menu it now means that more people are competing for those qualifying slots so you need to be at the very top of your age group to gain a slot. How it works is you must qualify at an IM branded race (either 70.3 or IM) in your age group based on finish place or getting a roll-down slot if someone over you passes it up. This means that qualifying is not time based - it is based on your finish place in relation to the rest of your age group on the day. There is also the Kona lottery, where some lucky 200 people gain a place with a winning ticket. The raffle is managed by Ironman so check their website for details. The third way to gain a slot is through Ironman’s charitable eBay Auction.

Overall, the full field is limited to about 1800 with competitors divided into age-groupings from 18-80 from over 50 different countries. It is estimated that over 50,000 competitors will attempt to qualify at Ironman qualifying races worldwide and about 5000 enter the race lottery. And of course, the age group champions each year at the World Ironman in Kona will automatically qualify to defend their title at the next year's race.

So clearly - if you want to qualify for Kona you need a strategy (or a lot of luck). Ironman distance racing is hard on your body and most age group athletes will usually restrict themselves to 2 or 3 per year so you need to carefully select your qualifying race and perhaps have a backup plan if you miss out on your first attempt. Realistically, you need to feel you have a chance of taking out a podium finish or near enough to cross your fingers for a roll-down.

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Created: July 2012
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