Interview with Lucy Gossage

Lucy Gossage is “the smiley one”. This year she’s had plenty to smile about, even if the enormous grin she wears whilst racing isn’t simply because she’s doing what she loves. A win at Ironman Wales 2013 opened up her 2014 KPR account, which she further bolstered with second in South Africa and another win in Lanzarote, securing her place on the Big Island early on in the season. Since then, she’s been a regular, smiley presence at many UK races. Elaine Garvican caught up with the beaming speed-machine.

How have you found this year, with the transition to being a full time professional triathlete?

I’m loving it. It feels like I’m permanently on holiday! I was a bit worried that it would all become a bit of a chore and I wouldn’t enjoy it and I might lose the love for it, but so far it’s been amazing. Obviously there are times it’s slightly harder – I didn’t really want to go out and do a long ride today, for example. But overall it just feels like I’m on one big holiday and I’m having a great time. I’ve been living the dream – it does sound cliché but I can genuinely say that. I’m going to all these places, doing races and making money from doing what I love.
I’m really surprised at how busy I am. To some extent that’s because I have very good sponsors, so I’m always do bits and bobs for them. Now I’m training full time, everything takes a little bit longer – I’m sleeping more, having a nap if I feel like a nap, doing a bit more stretching, all that stuff you can’t do when you’re working. I’m spreading out my sessions a bit more too, so I can get the most out of every session. I’m probably not training that much more but whereas before I would have woken up and gone straight out for a run, now I will get up, have a coffee and wake up properly and then go and do my run – the same run, but I probably do it a bit better because I’m more awake and more psyched up for it. My recovery is definitely a lot better, so that means I can get more out of each session, rather than needing to add an extra session in my week.

I’ve just had such an amazing time. My last day at work was March 31st, and then I pretty much got straight on a plane and went out to South Africa for a month and that was incredible, it really was a holiday. I did some training, but I didn’t really run, because I was a little bit injured, so it really did feel like a holiday! It just felt like we were riding our bikes for the fun of it! I was second in Ironman South Africa, then I came back and just had a week at home and then went out to Lanzarote. I know Lanzarote quite well; I’ve been there quite a lot, so it was always one I wanted to do. It’s so tough and hilly and hot and windy! My housemate and quite a few of my friends were doing it. It was a bit of a gamble, doing two so close together and especially so close after finishing my PhD but I thought that was a sensible strategy to get enough Kona points. I had a brilliant day in Lanzarote. I managed to get myself in a place where I just rode my own race and didn’t think about what anyone else was doing, which was a complete contrast to South Africa where I’d spent the whole time analysing what everyone else was doing and not really thinking enough about myself. This was a much better way to approach the race, I paced it much better. I was delighted to win it. It did give me confidence that I wasn’t a complete joker as a pro, but there’s a big step between winning Ironman Lanzarote and racing the really competitive races.
After Lanzarote I had a bit of time out. I was still training but I did lot of fun things, like Blenheim Sprint and some 5k races, relays and various fun things, so I was still staying fit, but it wasn’t focussed training. Then I went to the Alps with Emma Pooley and we did some big miles, just riding and running in the hills, again it wasn’t really that structured or focussed – it was a lot of training, but it was kind of a strength block. So I feel like I’m really motivated now to do the more specific sessions – the long, paced runs and bikes – so psychologically I’m quite up for it, because it could have been a really long season, but having that break in the middle I think has paid off for me.

Do you miss the intellectual side of your other job?

I miss being a doctor. I don’t miss my PhD though – I really struggled doing my PhD and that’s partly why I got good at doing triathlon! I do miss seeing patients and I feel quite lucky that I have a job that I really enjoy to go back to at the end; a lot of triathletes don’t have that. That makes this time out feel a bit more like a gap year, which helps me enjoy it a bit more. Being a professional sports person is quite a self-focussed thing and I miss doing something that’s useful for other people. It does sound a bit cliché and I’m certainly not claiming to be an extraordinarily nice person – I’m no nicer than any other triathlete! But having had a job where whatever has happened during the day, I could go home and know I’ve done something well, or managed something well, or even sometimes if it hasn’t gone exactly to plan, there’s still some sort of positive effect, whereas being a full time triathlete you are fairly selfish. That said, there are always things you can do to help inspire or encourage other people, and you can get little bits of satisfaction for example, by going into schools, or writing something – there are lots of ways to offset the selfishness.

Was it a difficult decision to take this time out?

The decision to take the sabbatical was quite easy. The hard decision was before that, going part-time at work. In 2009, I moved from Nottingham, where I’d been working as a cancer doctor, to Cambridge, to start my PhD. I was finding it quite tough, so I started training a bit harder, and as a result I got a bit better at triathlon. I went to Kona as an age grouper in 2010 and did quite well there. Then in 2011 I plucked up the courage to start racing as a pro. That was quite a hard decision because I thought everyone would laugh at me and say ‘what’s she doing racing as a pro, she’s not good enough’. I had a few decent results but I realised I wasn’t really juggling work and training very well; I wasn’t enjoying work and I wasn’t really enjoying training, it was all a bit much. The hard decision at that stage was to go to my boss and ask what do he thought about me going part-time. I thought he’d laugh at me and say ‘You’re doing a PhD, you can’t go part-time for this hobby’, but in fact he was incredibly supportive. By going part-time, I suppose I was making a statement to the world that I thought I was good enough at triathlon, to do that. Once I started to get good results, and I could see the end of my PhD, the decision to have time out after that was much easier – it was a good time in my career. I managed to get the support of the doctors and my hospital, so I’ve got a job to go back to. I felt like I deserved it as well – finishing the PhD was so hard. It was a natural progression though, I felt like I’d had some good results, and I’d only ever regret it if I never gave myself the opportunity to see if going full-time would make any difference.

What would it take for this 2 year sabbatical to be extended?

It would be really difficult. I don’t think I would really want to, although it’s so hard to say. I am loving it at the moment but I do love being a doctor and I have a job to go back to. Medicine has a pretty rigid scheme – I’ve got one more year of being a trainee doctor and then I can apply for Consultant jobs and at that stage if I had more time out it would be very difficult, logistically, to slot back into medical training at the level I am at the moment. Who knows in 18 months’ time where I’ll be, but I definitely will be a doctor in the long run and I really don’t want to sabotage that.

ironman wales finish

Is it an advantage or a disadvantage for a triathlete to have medical knowledge?

I think most doctors probably look after themselves a lot less well than lay people! Certainly I tend to shrug off injuries, or colds or illness. In some ways we’re maybe more blasé than other triathletes, who perhaps have a tendency to overanalyse every little niggle. I get a cold and just think “Oh, whatever, it’s just a cold!” Do I understand the physiology? Probably not as well as I should! I’m not particularly scientific in my triathlon training! So I don’t think that side of it has any benefit to me. I don’t see why there should be a difference between men and women triathletes, either, except for the obvious things like bike size, shorts design, that sort of thing. Physiologically, I don’t see why we should be any different.

Female long course triathletes have really stepped up their game lately – and there are many Brits among them. Who have you admired throughout your triathlon career and why?

I used to train a lot with Louise Collins. She started triathlon about 6 months or so before me, having come from a lightweight rowing background where she competed in the Commonwealth Games. We joined the club at about the same time and she was always a lot better than me, so I learned a huge amount from watching her – I would just turn up for the session, do it, and go to the pub afterwards, whereas Lou would train a lot more “professionally”. I learned loads from training with her and seeing what she did and how she made herself better. Certainly in the first few years, she was the person I looked up to the most; I didn’t know about any of the pros at that stage. With time, I looked up to Bella Bayliss a lot – she was winning all the British IronMan races when I started and I respected her hardwork, ‘make the best out of what you have’ attitude. I admire Rachel Joyce and her determination; I would love to see her win Kona one year. Recently I’ve been training with Emma Pooley. We’ve got similar backgrounds, although she’s done an awful lot more than me athletically, but we raced PhDs, finishing them at about the same time! I’ve got a huge amount of respect for Emma; I used to think I was amazing at climbing hills and then I rode with Emma and realised I’m not amazing at all! There are a lot of inspiring women right now – you can’t not mention Chrissie, she’s the pinnacle obviously!

What do you love most about triathlon?

The reason I fell in love with it initially was the people you meet. I felt it really refreshing meeting a bunch of people who weren’t all doctors! All different ages, all different backgrounds and walks of life, but with the unifying factors that we all like being outside and pushing ourselves and I think that’s what drew me to it initially and I thoroughly enjoy that, particularly now that I’m a little bit more well known, you meet people at races – people come up to you and you meet this whole diverse group. And people you can train with are people you would never meet in other walks of life. For me, the sport itself too, I love the fact that there are 3 different things but I also love setting challenges that you don’t know if they’ll be possible or not. And if you do achieve that… my first IM I honestly didn’t think I’d finish it, and to finish something that you don’t really think is possible is pretty amazing.

And the least?

Swimming! I find it really hard. I don’t actually hate swimming itself, I hate the fact that it takes so much work to get any quicker and the more I try, the slower I seem to go!

It’s not long to go till Kona now – how are you feeling about it?

I’m feeling really excited about Kona – it’s not long now! I feel like I’ve got nothing to prove and nothing to lose; I’ve achieved what I wanted to do by qualifying. I’m in quite a good place, mentally, for it. I want come away from Kona knowing that I’ve done the best race I can on the day. This year is kind of an experiment year, but it would be very disappointing to go and mess up nutrition, or get sick or injured a couple of weeks before. I really want to go and race knowing I’ve done everything I could have done and that my build up, has been as well controlled as is possible and I’ve executed my race plan, and see where that gets me. I honestly think that if I do all that, and it gets me 15th, then I’ll be happy with that. It’s the only race where you get to race the best in the world. At the moment, Rinnie is the one to beat and I can’t see anyone beating her in Kona if I’m honest. Having her in a race changes the dynamics – a lot of girls will be biking really hard to try and get a gap, but to beat her you really need at least a 10 minute gap and then you still need to run well! The depth in women’s triathlon is huge at the moment and this year I think the gaps between the top 20 at Kona will be even closer than they were last year because there are so many good, fast women.

How do you see these two careers (medicine and triathlon) knitting together in the future?

I think the skills I’m learning now as a professional – in terms of marketing, media, going into schools, public speaking, developing a business sense – all those skills will help me when I’m a doctor. I don’t know what I’ll end up doing, but I can picture having some sort of role as well as being an oncologist, maybe some kind of management within the NHS or Cancer Research UK. I’m getting all these skills that I would never normally get as a doctor and I don’t know quite where they’ll all lead to but in the future I think I’ll be able to put them to use. I don’t see myself staying in triathlon – I’d be a rubbish coach, and there are lots of athletes who could do stuff within triathlon a lot better than me. But I’ll get skills that other doctors won’t have. I don’t know where it’ll end up but I’m definitely learning as I’m going. When I told people I wanted this sabbatical, I told them I’d be learning all these things that I’d never normally do and I kind of thought I was just saying it. But actually I’ve found out that I am. For example, with sponsorship, you have to get sponsors to work together and there are definitely parallels when you’re running an oncology clinic, and trying to get a drug company to sponsor a trial in your clinic, so your patients get that drug. You’re marketing your clinic, you’re trying to get collaborations between drug companies – it’s very similar. There are lots of things that I’m doing that might not be medical but will help me in the future.

“Sprint” Qs:

Favourite gadget? My Garmin! I love being able to plan routes on it.

Describe your bike: A pink Vitus Chrono, to which we recently added DI2 shifters. It’s very comfortable, I love it.

Race you’d like to do in future? Roth – maybe next year, to get a good time, because that’s one of the things people ask you when you retire and if you just do hilly ones it doesn’t sound too good!

lucy smiling

Huge thanks to Lucy for her time. You can catch up on her latest news and results at: http://www.lucygossage.com/

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