Tuesday, February 2, 2016

In Our Corner: Mimi Winsberg

by Nick Mathers, EC Team Member

This month, we're talking with Mimi Winsberg, M.D., an Endurance Corner team member from San Francisco. A mother of two and a psychiatrist, Mimi recently qualified for her second trip to Kona at Oceanside 70.3 and also placed third in her age group at the inaugural Ironman St. George. Mimi took some time to share the story of her evolution from "triathlon participant" to elite age-grouper.

Endurance Corner: You've been having a great year so far. Was qualifying for Kona always a goal for you?
Mimi Winsberg: It was this year, but it wasn't a goal the first time I qualified in 2008. My first ironman attempt was in 2006 and I DNFed -- partly because I showed up at the start line with a bad injury and wasn't sure I was going to be able to run. Nonetheless, that was a pretty discouraging experience. After that I decided I wanted to take a more intelligent approach to training and racing.

I had my first successful race in 2007. In 2008, I raced Ironman Switzerland in July. I had just lost my dad to cancer and then I lost my mom right after Switzerland. That was a devastating time for me. I was actually worried about sinking into a depression. So I thought, "Well, if I have a race, that will give me something positive to focus on." I had a slot in Canada because I had raced there the previous year and I figured I would just keep training for a few weeks to give myself something else to think about.

I went to Canada and had the race of my life six weeks after Switzerland. I didn't think I was going to qualify, but I did. And the race was just driven on exhaustion, and all kinds of negative emotion. But hey, it did work.

EC: That's a long race to be channeling those feelings.
MW: Exactly, but it worked as a great outlet for all this emotion. And then a switch flipped: "Oh, I guess I can qualify. This isn't beyond me." Before that I had always thought, "Not in this lifetime; I'm not talented enough."

EC: What was that first Kona like?
MW: Not that great from a racing perspective. It was my third ironman in as many months and I was tired. But I had a great time there.

EC: Did you attempt to qualify for 2009?
MW: I did. I went back to Canada and had an even better race than the previous year, but I missed qualifying by one spot, which is just the way it happens. I chose to go to Kona anyway to volunteer in the med tent, which gave me another perspective on the race and helped me learn a lot about the sport.

EC: And at St. George?
MW: I definitely set out to qualify. I joined Endurance Corner to help with that goal.

EC: You've qualified for both Kona and the 70.3 Champs in Clearwater, right?
MW: I did qualify for Clearwater, but I didn't take the slot. It's a bit late in the season for me, especially with Hawaii in October.

EC: Let's talk a little bit about your background. Did you play sports growing up?
MW: I have always been a runner. I ran track and cross-country in high school in Canada. My best event was the 800 meters. I rowed in college at Harvard and then on a club team in Minnesota while I was in medical school. Then I got into rock-climbing and mountaineering. All that time I kept running for exercise. It was around that time that I started feeling more run down -- it wasn't until later that I figured out it was Celiac disease.

EC: Can you tell me what Celiac disease is?
MW: Basically, anytime you ingest gluten, which is a protein found in grains, your immune system reacts to that protein and attacks your small intestine. So the way to manage it is just to avoid ingesting the gluten. It's a very simple solution once you know what you're looking for. Now I just follow a diet and make sure to provide my own pre-race and race-day food.

EC: How did the Celiac disease affect you?
MW: I've always had symptoms -- at least as far back as college. In the first year of medical school when you and your lab partner practice drawing blood from one another I learned that I was anemic. So I tried to manage that with iron pills and diet, but we were never able to really diagnose what was going on. As I got older, the anemia got worse and worse. At the lowest, my hemoglobin was at 6.8gm/dl (normal is about 12-16gm/dl). The whole time my symptoms were getting worse, I kept training and running marathons, but I just never had much energy.

EC:I imagine that must have been frustrating.
MW: It was. And my doctor was frustrated with me as well -- mostly because I kept up the training and racing. But in 2004 I got the the blood test for Celiac disease and it came back positive. Once we knew, I could start moving forward with a plan.

EC: What was it like leading up to the diagnosis?
MW: In the year leading up to the diagnosis, I was getting more and more tired. I had always been an athletic person, but I just didn't have the energy. To put it in perspective, I took up knitting. Now, I had just had my first baby, so there was reason to knit, but my husband would look at me knitting and wonder, "what happened to my athletic wife?" And when I say I was tired, I mean tired -- if had to walk across the room to get something and there was anyway to avoid doing it myself, I would. At the time, I kind of blamed new motherhood.

I was trying to exercise and I could do things at a slow pace, but as soon as I tried any intensity, I'd get wiped out. I also started triathlon at that time. I remember going to the Wildflower olympic-distance race and just feeling awful at the start and throughout the run.

EC: Were you just training for participation at that time?
MW: That and fitness. I wanted to get back to my old athletic self. And one of the things I did to figure out the reason behind my fatigue was get the blood test.

EC: How quickly did things change once you figured out the reason behind your fatigue?
MW: It didn't take long at all. One of the challenges was I suddenly had so much top-end speed, but my biomechanics weren't at the same level. I had all this energy from the extra oxygen-carrying capacity. I needed to keep holding back so that I wouldn't hurt myself.

EC: Once you had this new capacity, did your sporting goals change?
MW: Not really, I was still in it for fitness and participation. I went to my first ironman in 2006 to give it a try, and like I said, I DNFed. So then the challenge became solving the puzzle of why I didn't finish.

EC: So what did you see as your potential in the sport?
MW: At that point, it was really just to have a good showing at ironman. I achieved that at Ironman Canada in 2007 with a respectable sub-12 and I ran a good marathon, which is what I wanted.

EC: Has your training changed much over the years?
MW: I'm a big believer in "what gets you here doesn't necessarily get you there." I think patience is important to progress, but sometimes you need to try something different. I've done things differently each year, especially working with Endurance Corner this year. The big difference with Endurance Corner is consistency -- doing something every day. To do that successfully, I needed to dial everything back just a little bit. My body really responds to that.

EC: What are your goals for Kona this year?
MW: My goals are to go in fitter and fresher than in 2008. That year I was tired from racing and from the emotional strain due to my family loses. This year I plan to be fresh, happy and focused on having a good, fun race.

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