Wednesday, February 3, 2016

In Our Corner: Marilyn McDonald

by Nick Mathers

We’re doing things a little different this month and are profiling one of the EC coaches: Marilyn McDonald. Marilyn is a former elite equestrian show jumper, a former elite triathlete with a win at Ironman Malaysia and multiple top 10 places on her resume, and most recently was an elite cyclist in the pro peloton. Marilyn is also married to elite triathlete and ironman champion Chris McDonald.


EC: You’ve had quite the robust athletic career to this point. The (not-even-remotely-secret) rumor is you’re working your way back to the triathlon ranks from cycling. Why the transition back to triathlon?
MM:
I did my last IM in ‘07 and spent the last two years to just bike race. I really like bike racing; it’s a sport that suits me well. But cycling is a sport in which you race a lot. The better you are means the better team you can race with, which means even more racing. In looking at that, it meant that Chris and I could be apart for up to nine months of the year. As I reached more and more of my cycling goals, the downside was I wasn’t getting to do as much of what Chris and I enjoy doing -- travelling the world together, going to these races together, being with friends together.

As much as I love the sport of bike racing, I really missed the lifestyle of triathlon with Chris. So we decided together that I would still do some of the bigger cycling races that suit our schedules such as the spring bike races in the States, but that I would return to my triathlon goals by focusing in the back half of the year on long course triathlon.

EC: So when will we see you back on an IM race course?
MM:
That’s the magic question. I’ve been managing a hamstring injury that I received from a bad crash a few years back. While it hurt during my bike racing, I was able to deal with it. But, it pretty much keeps me from running. So, I’ve spent a lot of time this year getting it professionally diagnosed, treated and healed. If I can never get it healed to a point that allows me to run competitively, then the decision will have been made for me and I’ll just bike race.

EC: You and Chris are known, at least among the EC readership, for training all over the world. Can you give an overview of how you make that work throughout the year?
MM:
We have a place in Australia -- although right now it’s fully rented out and we’ve only lived in it for three months. For us, the last six years have been about six months in Australia and six months back in the States, although we have done periods in Asia, New Zealand and Europe. We’ve spent most of the U.S. time in Boulder. This past year was different in that we spent spring and fall in Tuscon, Arizona. We also tried Boise, Idaho, for the summer this year.

We have our list of requirements for what makes a good place to train, and that’s how we pick where we want to live [editor’s note: check out Marilyn’s recent column about training venues].

So this year we did Tuscon, then Chris raced Ironman St. George, then we went to Boise, then we did six weeks in Europe for Chris to race Roth, then back to Boise leading up to Kona. For the first time ever, we’re going to stay in North America for the full year -- we’ll be back in Tucson for the winter.

We don’t have any races in Australia and no major reason to go back there this year. Flying is also really hard on the bigger guys like Chris, so it makes a lot more sense to stay in North America, where he’s going to be doing most of his races.

EC: You had a sort of “non-standard” athletic path to triathlon. Do you mind sharing how you got into the sport?
MM:
I grew up in Alberta, Canada. When I was really young I competed in gymnastics. My dad is a surgeon and he could see the pitfalls in gymnastics. He encouraged me to look into something else.

I had a friend who loved horses and I was spending more and more time with her and I started to love horses. Because I lived in southern Alberta, rodeo and cowboys are a big part of the horse world. But my mom, being that lady that she is, said, “My daughter is absolutely not hanging around with a bunch of cowboys. If you’re going to be around horses, you need to do equestrian.”

We found show jumping because it was exciting enough for me but made my mom happy because it wasn’t as rough and guts as being in the rodeo scene.

So from when I was 9 years old until I was 26 I competed in the show-jumping world. When I was 18 I turned professional and also worked under one of the top coaches in the world as an assistant. From 21 to 26 I had my own stable where I trained horses and trained people on their horses. By the time I was 21 I was a level 3 coach. While that seems young, it’s all I had done from when I was 9, so I had a deep background in the sport.

During all that I started running for fitness, building up from 5k to marathon. I picked up some running injuries and started cycling and swimming on the side while those healed. The tri stuff wasn’t really focused, mainly because I spent so much time coaching, training and competing in show jumping. In ‘99 I joined the local tri club and started racing in sprints.

EC: When did you shift to focus on triathlon?
MM:
I went to Penticton to watch Ironman Canada one year and thought, “That just looks crazy, who would want to do that?” So it certainly wasn’t an instant attraction to long course racing.

I did compete in a few half ironman races though; and did quite well. Because of that, someone came to me and said that I should really consider doing ironman. And because of the person I am, I thought, “Well, if I’m going to do one and I’m fast enough to do well, I’m going to do it professionally.”

So I did my first IM as a professional at Ironman Canada 2003, having earned my pro card off my half ironman results. In the beginning of 2004, I won Ironman Malaysia, my second IM-distance race. And from there Chris and I started travelling and racing around the world.

EC: During that time you must have made the decision to leave your stable. Was it a hard choice?
MM:
During the ‘03 season I was leaning to that decision. I sold the majority of my stable to my full time assistant and sent some of my top clients to the woman I had trained and worked under when I was younger.

I really took a huge risk -- I sold everything. I loved my job, I loved what I did and I was successful at it. It wasn’t that I was in a dead-end job and I was looking for something else. It had been a fairytale of doing what I had always wanted since I was 9 years old. But there was this voice inside me that was saying, “Never die wondering.” I really wondered if I had what it took to do well at triathlon. At that time I was 26 and knew that as I got older it would only be a harder decision to make.

EC: Growing up, did you know you always wanted to be involved in sport professionally?
MM:
It was always the horse world when I was growing up. Because I was travelling so much, I went to a self-study sport performance school for high school. From high school I went right into doing coaching and was on the track to open a stable, including taking small business courses in college to prepare me for owning a stable.

So sport was all I had done. Triathlon though? I had no idea what that was.

EC: When you did learn about triathlon and started training and competing, did you find that you were naturally strong on the bike or did you have to ramp up from nothing?
MM:
The thing about show jumping is that you’re essentially in a squat position the entire time. When I started riding a true road bike, I had no idea about the specific aspects such as clipping in and out, but I was developed in all the right muscles: my quads and hamstrings were strong, my calves were strong, my lower back was strong -- I was just strong from what I had done my entire life.

I wasn’t a gun cyclist by any means, but the people I rode with taught me the basics of sitting on a wheel and told me to turn around and go home when I couldn’t hang on anymore. As I got fitter and fitter, I found that I could hang on longer and longer.

I was also fortunate in that I was living in Calgary at the time and was able to be exposed to the elite track cycling coaches and athletes who were based out of the University of Calgary. So I learned really good things right off the bat.

EC: When did your passion for coaching come in to play?
MM:
I was always exposed to elite-level coaches, sports psychologists and athletes. I learned some great things from everyone I worked with and was able to gradually develop my own coaching philosophy and style. Now, I’m able to draw on all of that deep knowledge base to help the athletes I work with. I've been coaching in some form since I was 14 years old. I really enjoy helping bring out the best in people and helping them achieve things they never thought they could do. I'm pretty tough on the people I coach, I set high standards, but I care a great amount about them in return.

You can learn more from Marilyn by following her regular column and workout of the month here on Endurance Corner. You can also follow her on twitter @chychota. Along with former pro cyclist Kimberly Baldwin, Marilyn will also be leading EC’s first women’s only camp in Boulder in July -- if you’re interested, you can learn more on the camp’s page on EC.

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