Top British Ironman athlete Scott Neyedli talks to Elaine Garvican about good and bad luck, his new bike and training in Scottish weather.
Think of Aberdeen and what comes to mind is likely oil and inclement weather. As the UK city with the highest concentration of millionaires and one of the largest numbers of strip joints per square mile, chances are not many would make a natural association with triathlon training. Yet it’s also home to one of the UK’s most successful Ironman athletes. Now in his mid-30s, Scott Neyedli has been racing triathlon for almost 10 years. Like many, he took up the sport simply as a way to get active and lose weight. With a background in competitive swimming and rugby, he was no stranger to sport and, he explains, simply working out in the gym had quickly grown stale. “I was getting bored of the gym and I saw in the local paper that the Aberdeen Triathlon was that weekend – I got a bike, entered and got the bug for the sport from that. I found the other athletes really friendly and enjoyed the training because it was like cross-training; it wasn’t monotonous, like doing a single sport can be, doing the same thing all the time. With triathlon, your training week is a lot more interesting. I found it a lot easier to be motivated to do the sessions, especially since cycling and running were brand new sports to me. When I think back to the early races, it was also interesting racing people that came from such different backgrounds – some from a running or cycling background, some like me from a swimming background. A lot had never done triathlon before, but everyone had their own strengths and weaknesses which made for an interesting race.”
The next few years competing as an amateur saw him progress through a win at the 2006 European Long Distance Age Group Championships, 11th place overall in Ironman Switzerland (winning his age group) and an impressive 47th overall and 3rd in age group in Hawaii. The decision to turn pro seemed like the natural next step and the following 5 years of training full time delivered three podium finishes at Australia and IMUK, a win and course record at IMUK and a top 10 finish at the World Long Distance Championship in Las Vegas. But at the beginning of 2011, Neyedli returned to full time work. This could be considered a step back by many, but he seems generally happy with the decision. “I went back to my first profession which is as an engineer in the oil and gas industry. The pay is a lot better, I don’t have to stress about money. Triathlon had changed and WTC had changed how you qualified for the Ironman World Championships, as well as paying smaller prize funds and paying less deep, so it just wasn’t financially viable to continue to train full time. I’ve carried on racing I just pick and choose my races around our summer, because that’s when I can get fit. But now I can look after myself a bit better, in terms of things like paying for physio, seeing a chiropractor, things I didn’t always have the cash to fund when I was full time. There’s no support structure like, say, for a lottery-funded athlete, so you’re left to your own devices in some respects. I’ve probably got a better balance in terms of the overall package and support structure in place now. Plus, after 5 years of training full time, I know which sessions work for me and what doesn’t, so I try to optimise the sessions that I do around what’s worked best for me in the past – I obviously can’t do as much as I did before but I can make the most of the time I do have. It’s not like before I did “junk sessions”, but with that extra time I was able to fit in two extra swims a week, one extra speed session run maybe, that I don’t now physically have the time to do, and now there’s a bit less bike mileage. I guess the one thing I do miss is that I no longer get the sleeps in between sessions which helps with your recovery. That’s probably the one key thing I am now missing.”
More than the somewhat more optimal training weather of Western Australia, I wondered? With a full time job and family commitments to juggle as well, a training schedule must surely yield occasionally to the vagaries of the Scottish climate? “I don’t really do much over winter – fewer hours for sure, but maybe an increased frequency of running and swimming, with cycling at the weekends when I can. You can dress for the weather or do more stuff indoors, but you do see some really overenthusiastic triathletes that want to smash themselves all year round and I don’t see the point in that. In Britain, triathlon is a seasonal sport, so I don’t really start to kick things off until spring. When it comes to the weather you just have to wear layers, things you can peel on or off. I was lucky to be able to do a camp with Joe Beer in January, which gave me a chance to get some good bike miles done in good weather – that’s the thing that gets affected most in Britain, you can’t get as much bike mileage over winter compared to fairer weather countries, but if you can get away for a training camp at some point it does help”.
Most athletes look forward to certain sessions more than others, whatever the weather and in this Neyedli is no different. “The sessions I really like doing are the high tempo chain gang rides with the [Aberdeen based] Granite City Cycle Team who I ride with in the evenings from spring through summer. They’re quite intense, which helps push me in a way which is harder when you’re by yourself. That sort of ride requires a high degree of trust within the group as well. There’s a particular run session that I enjoy; basically it’s a long run, maybe a 2 – 2 ¼ hour run and then a second run later on the same day, on a treadmill, at IM marathon pace. When I can hit that second run with a low heart rate, feeling easy, then I know I’m ready to race.”
In his time as a pro athlete, Neyedli has seen support come and go, both personally and in the wider field of triathlon and here a note of frustrating creeps into his voice. “There used to be a long distance funding program before my time in triathlon, which there isn’t any more. All the funding is geared towards Olympic distance racing but triathlon is a lot bigger than that. It would be good if there was a proper structure that would feed down to other distances, because we have a lot of talented athletes in the UK across short, middle and long distance.”
Although too modest to verbally describe himself as one of those top athletes, Neyedli’s racing CV places him in firmly among that group of top British Ironman competitors. He is also accepting of the natural ups and downs of racing in a sport where so many external factors can have a profound influence on your race. What may be inconsequential in a sprint triathlon can be race-ending over 140 miles, so is there, I asked, a race he believes he could, or should, have won without some bad luck? “There are always things that don’t go perfectly. The very first time I did Hawaii, I had ITB tendonitis and I’ve been sick or ill on 3 other occasions. I rolled my ankle the week before my first pro start [IM South Africa] and tore the ligaments in my foot, but still came away in 7th. The year I won IMUK, my wetsuit zip broke and if it hadn’t been for the fact that the race was delayed due to bad weather, I would have missed the race start! I probably should have won one, if not both of the Australian races [Ironman Western Australia, 2009; Ironman Australia, 2010]. At IMWA I was 20 seconds behind the lead and comfortably running 2:45 marathon pace which had me on course for what would have been a British record at that time. Roughly half way through the marathon, I discovered that my salt tablets had dissolved and were totally useless. I made the decision to go for the win anyway and in the last 8km, I ran right up to Patrick [Vernay, eventual race winner] and I’d already won the race in my head – I was comfortable with the pace but it was 40 degrees that day and my legs locked up with cramp twice in that last 8km and I had to walk through the aid stations. I lost 4 – 5 minutes off Patrick in that last section. It was quite frustrating.
In IM Australia, I cramped up again towards the end of that race, but the dynamics of the race had changed right at the start. I’d planned to try and break Patrick in the swim – he was the defending champion and favourite for the win. But the race organisers had changed the start from an elite start to a mass start and Patrick made the front pack in the swim, which he hadn’t done in WA. But what had happened was a false start, initiated by a fan’s claxon and the whole age group pack started. I was held back by the starters and I had to hammer like hell to get to the front of the race. You can’t pull back 2000 people for a false start, once you go, you go. At the end of that sprint, I only just made it into that front pack, then we had age groupers coming through, bringing a few pro guys into the pack. I’d had two possible plans of attack, either make the break in the swim to create a harder bike for Patrick, or take him on in the marathon and although we did have a good battle in the marathon, I felt that my A game was taken away from me by not being able to capitalise on my swim plan. That wasn’t shown on TV or anything. I don’t really dwell on it, I’m still really proud of those two second places, but I do think that it changed the shape of that race.”
When it comes to sponsorship, though, a little good luck and networking goes a long way. Neyedli values personal preference in the kit he uses, as he explained when I asked about his current endorsements. “Usually I’ve applied to a company because I already use their products. If you’re looking for sponsors, you’ve got to be proactive and think about what you can do for them. My sponsorship deals tend to come from a kit I believe is the best and works the best for me, along with the associated friendships. I’ve been using Powerbar since 2005/06 and they began sponsoring me in 2007, so I’ve been with them for quite a long time. Bridgetown Cycles have sponsored my bike and bike-fit service this year which is instrumental in getting the best out of a new bike. One of the brands they distribute is Trek. They had a couple of other brands I liked, but I know that the Trek is one of the most aerodynamic bikes on the market. I think there are only 3 or 4 brands in the world that actively put money into real R&D and Trek is one of those companies. So this year I’m riding the Trek 9.9. I’ve been riding it for 2 or 3 weeks now and it’s out of this world. My bike is fitted with ENVE Smart wheels and Rotor QXL rings – I’ve been using oval rings for 5 or 6 years and it’s something that works for me, so I was really keen to continue to use them. The bike feels really stiff, the micro-engineering and design intricacies appealed to me – it’s a bike that’s been designed for triathletes, as opposed to a lot of time trial bikes which are designed for time trial riders. They’ve taken a lot of extra steps, like having an integrated bento box in the top tube, a speedbox on the seat tube that you can put your spares in and the front brakes are encapsulated into the forks. It’s got DI2 electronic shifters, so there are no cables or wires being exposed to dirty air. The whole bike is very slick and super aero! I was able to test ride ENVE Smarts about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been itching to get a set ever since. They’re lightweight, stiff and handle really well, especially in blustery cross winds.
I’ve been with ON running shoes since the company started, more or less. I was sent some samples, and took some out on a training run and really loved them, so I’ve been working with ON ever since 2010. That’s before Brett Sutton brought the ON brand into Team TBB, which is when a lot of people first heard of them. Olivier Bernhars, one of the co-owners, is a multiple Ironman winner and World Duathlon Champion and he’s also placed top 10 in Hawaii. The first time I went to South Africa to acclimate, a couple of weeks before my first pro race, I randomly met him, not knowing who he was, on one of my training rides and a few years later when I was sent some samples and found out who the owner was, I realised it was this guy that I’d bumped into in the middle of nowhere in South Africa! Oliver is such a passionate guy and pays enormous attention to every detail before releasing any product.”
With 2000 points in the KPR bank from his 2013 win at IM Wales, a trip back to the Big Island is this season’s goal. Although the early season points might at one stage have looked like a headstart, the pragmatic Scotsman knows he has work to do if he wants to stand on the beach as a pro. “It would have been nice to have raced in the southern hemisphere over the winter to earn some more points, but it isn’t financially viable without a main or travel sponsor. So I’m sort of putting all my eggs in one basket, doing IM Lanzarote in May and IMUK in July and hopefully two good results there might be enough to get a pro start in Hawaii. Unfortunately, KPR is a flawed system. WTC have improved it this year by scrapping the P1000 races but the prize money hasn’t resumed. I don’t know any other sports where your previous World Championship result counts towards the following season’s qualification. If you’re top 10 in Hawaii, the points you get are so heavily weighted that it’s really hard for anyone starting from scratch to qualify for that next season. Also, I don’t agree with 70.3 races starting towards an IM start, it’s a totally different event. You don’t have people qualifying for the marathon World Championships on the back of a race they did of half the distance. I think if you look at the World Championships over the last 2 or 3 years, they’re not made up of the world’s best Ironman racers, there are notable absentees. Yes, you’re probably seeing the cream of the crop, but the way the KPR is set up, it’s more for the athletes who can afford to travel and race abroad, chasing points, or those with the sponsors that allow them to get to races around the world. Also, you’ve got the 70.3 specialists in there, because they’re able to do more races and recover quicker.”
So what of the slightly longer term future? Here, it seems, Neyedli has his sights on the history books. “If I could go full time again, I would and in that case my aim would be top 10 in Hawaii. The best UK placing in Hawaii so far is Spencer Smith, with 5th place [in 1998]. That would be the ultimate goal, to surpass that. Otherwise, if I can win at least one other IM race in my career, I’ll top the all-time Ironman pro-UK listing. At the moment, I’m sitting second, with 2 IM wins and 3 second places. Stephen Bayliss has 2 wins and 5 second places, so if I win one more IM, I’ll have won the most official WTC IM events on the current British pro table outside of Kona, which would be a nice place to end on.”
We certainly wish him luck with that!
For more information, check out www.scottneyedli.com