TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
It’s not every day that we get to hear from the reigning Ironman World Champion, but today is one of those special days. I know you will enjoy this conversation with TCSD member Susanne Davis who won the women’s 40-44 age group at this year’s Hawaiian Ironman to go along with her USA Triathlon National Championship.
Craig: What was your athletic background before triathlon & who influenced you?
Susanne: Who knew I would be going 9:41 at the Ironman World Championships when quitting Cross Country after my first race in 7th grade. I thought running 1.5 miles was extremely long and painful! In 8th grade the coach encouraged & pressured me to try out again because he coached 2 of my older sisters and said we were given good genes. From that moment, I’ve been a runner. In Junior High I was brought up to the High School level to race Varsity! I ran with Suzy Favor – 4 x National & State Champion; but my passion and drive to be a runner came from the influence of my sister Beth. I was always competing to be as good as she was. I even went to the same college, University Wisconsin La Crosse. I loved the team atmosphere of people in Cross Country and Track. Everyone always supported and pushed each other to get faster. I was an NCAA All American in the 1500 racing (4:41) and in Cross Country which my top finish was 2nd Overall at the Regional Championships.
One of my favorite memories was running the Boston Marathon with my sister for her 40th birthday four years ago. She had a dream or running under 3:30. As a gift I said, let me coach and pace you! I’ve never ran a race and not “raced” it. The gun went off and we ran side by side for 26.2 miles in matching bright orange outfits I had screen printed 3:30 or BUST. We killed it and finished in 3:26! It was an epic day, memory and her personal best! The pride, joy and endorphins we experienced together gave me a new appreciation for running and coaching.
Craig: What was your experience like during your 1st career as a triathlete and what was your greatest accomplishment during this time?
Susanne: Before my senior year in college I did my first Triathlon. I borrowed my boss’s bike and signed up. I think the entry fee in 1993 was $25. I came out of the water almost in dead last and rode past 100 people. I sat down in T2 and tied my running shoes! I passed another 50 people running up to first place in the first triathlon I ever entered and WON $100! I quickly learned that the biking, swimming and cross training from triathlon was a big help in my running. I knew I had to become a better swimmer, so my senior year in college I joined the swim team! I learned how to do a flip turn the day before practice. This was the hardest sport I’ve ever done. I swam 3000 to 5000 sometimes 2x a day! I pulled myself out of the pool in front of the coaches and started bawling. “I’m going to drown. I’ve never swallowed this much water and I don’t think my legs can manage one more kick!” The coach laughed and gave me a hug. He liked my determination and worked diligently with me for 3 months, I took 10 minutes off my mile time! Think about that. A LOT of time. All runners who think they can’t learn to swim? Good news, you can!
In 1995 I packed up my Chevy Celebrity car and moved to Phoenix. Warm weather to train in and a job interview was the carrot I was chasing! I turned down the job and moved to Tucson to chase my dream and a 5 year journey of becoming a Professional Triathlete and Olympian!
As an amateur I won most of my races and set some new course records! Running was my strength and I became the top female triathlete and duathlete in the state of Arizona. This helped me decide to turn professional in 1996. My first Pro win as a triathlete was at one of my favorite races still to this day; the San Diego International Triathlon. I won a check for $800, which seemed like a big pay day! If you watch Seinfeld it was “gold Jerry, gold”.
In 1998 and 1999 I was selected for the US National Resident Triathlon Team. I was lucky to live and train at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and do camps in Chula Vista, CA during the winter. New names on the triathlon circuit back then but Olympians today were two of my teammates Laura Reback Bennett and Hunter Kemper. We all lived, trained, ate and travelled together for the 2 years hoping to make one of three spots on the first Olympic Triathlon Team. In summer of 2000 in Sydney, Australia, triathlon would become an Olympic Sport!
I raced and travelled every 2 weeks chasing points to build up to my 8th place in US and 42 in the World Ranking. I flew to Japan, Australia, Brazil, most islands in the Caribbean, many parts of Mexico and all over the United States. Five years of hard work, racing with lots of ups and downs due to winning or placing 50th in a World Cup culminated in reaching one of my dreams. I competed in the US Triathlon Olympic Trials, held in Dallas, TX in May of 2000!
Craig: How did you meet your husband, Scott?
Susanne: Despite the belief that being a professional triathlete is glamorous and a great life style, it was very difficult. I was constantly training and traveling to the next race with virtually no money. If you had a bad race you didn’t make prize money and had way too much time on your hands to think about it or question if giving up your college career job was the right path. It was really an emotional roller coaster now that I reflect back.
In June of 1999 I was scheduled to race at a World Cup Triathlon in Oceanside, CA. As I lived in Colorado and didn’t have a lot of money I reached out to the Triathlon Club of San Diego for a home stay. I headed to California and stayed in this guy’s house for a week with another athlete from Canada named Sebastian. The homeowner wasn’t even there and a neighbor let us in his house! I thought how trusting for a person to let 2 strangers live in their house when not even in the state! He was on a business trip in Charlotte, NC. I met him the night before my race for a brief 15 minute conversation before I headed to bed.
I raced terrible that morning, but that evening a group of athlete’s including my homestay Scott insisted we go out for dinner at Coyote’s Bar & Grill in Carlsbad. I made new friends and learned my homestay was from the mid-west, just an hour from where one of my sisters lived. Three months later Scott travelled to Tucson for work. I just moved there and we hooked up for an 8 mile run then had a 5 hour dinner! That spark lit the fire and he has been my husband Scott Davis of 12 years 🙂
Scott later told me he offered homestays as a way to give back to a sport that was so important to him. We’ve had many homestays since!
Craig: You have raced the Hawaiian Ironman 4 times now. How did your first 3 attempts go and what did you learn from those experiences?
Susanne: I never intended to race in Hawaii. It seemed way too long, hot and not something I could keep my focus on. My attention span for a 2 hour Olympic Distance race was hard enough. In 2005 I had a 2 year old son and was working to get the baby weight off (58 lbs). Vineman Half Ironman was an appealing goal because I went there when I was pregnant but couldn’t enjoy the camping and vineyards and always wanted to go back! It had the reputation to be a great race and seemed like a perfect vacation venue. In my first attempt, I earned a slot to Kona! After a 5 year break from triathlon and being burned out after the Olympic trials I earned a slot to the most prestigious triathlon! My gut told me- go for it! I didn’t really know how to train for these longer races. I had learned many tricks from great coaches all over the US, but they taught me speed for shorter races. Ironman was a whole new thing and now I was a mom on top of it! My first IM World Championships in 2005, I went 10:18 and proudly placed 3rd on the Podium in my age group! I thought that was it for Kona. I had an amazing experience and didn’t think I’d do it again.
After my second child, Brooke, was born in 2008 I again had baby weight to lose and went to the Honu Half Ironman with my family for a vacation in our favorite warm, sunny, beautiful place. I said to my husband that there is no way I’m going back to Kona, it was too much training and now we have two kids. He said, “Susanne, you’re 39 years old and you’re peaking, this may be the best you’ll ever be. Are you sure you don’t want to go?” “NO”, I said with authority. “Leave the checkbook at the hotel and let’s get to the awards.” My name was called and I went on stage to receive my Umeke bowl. Standing there the MC explained that “Umeke Bowl” symbolized honor & accomplishment. You athlete’s should receive this with great pride and respect. These sacred traits are what you hold within yourself”. That moment I decided I had to go back to the Ironman. I had achieved my personal victory and wanted to feel that again! Then my husband turned to me and handed me the check book. He just said, “told ya you’d go.” He knows me very well.
My second time in Kona was 2010 and I had an amazing race. I went 9:50 and was 2nd amateur in the world! I broke the age group existing World Record, but was beat on the day by another German girl in my age group! Can you believe it? Now the fire was lit! I was 6 minutes away from the Amateur World Record in the history of the Ironman. I knew I could find 6 minutes. The next year I joined Team Timex and our goal was to break the Amateur World Record. In 2011 I went back to Kona and I was slightly injured but had a strong race. This time I was in the 40-44 age group. I again broke my age group existing World Record going 9:51 but was 2nd again! Having a type A personality I wanted to perfect my performance and still had a burning passion to go for it one more time! In 2012 I was injured and couldn’t race. When you can’t do what you love it makes you appreciate what you don’t have even more. I strained my achilles and couldn’t run for 8 months.
This year I came back to Kona and finally won my age group and was the fastest woman over 40 with the result of 9:41. I didn’t break the all-time amateur world record, but I am the fastest American Amateur over 40 in the history of the Ironman which just celebrated its 35th year! Bucket list, check mark!
Craig: This spring brought lots of promise and hope into your life, but your family had to endure a terrible adventure that I would not wish on anyone. What happened that turned your life upside down?
Susanne: In 2000, the year before Scott and I were married he and I were perfect training partners. We loved running and biking together for hundreds of miles. We knew each other mentally and could help motivate each other to get in a 6am or 6pm workout even if tired. Scott was going to race in his life goal of Ironman California here in Oceanside and I was racing in the first US Olympic Trials. Athletics has been part of love and lifestyle which brought us together. A couple years later we took two bike trips across Tuscany enjoying Italy at its finest!
This April our world was turned upside down and the unexpected happened. My husband Scott had a heart attack at 49 years of age, in a friend’s garage, just before going biking. It was no doubt the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to endure. It took the EMT 2 shocks to bring back a hearty rhythm after a close friend had given him 10 rounds of CPR. I was called to the hospital and they had no idea what caused the arrest and if he would live or die, or live but experience brain or physical limitations after waking up.
We road 60 miles together the day before this happened climbing over 5000 feet in elevation. God really had his hand on Scott. Scott has been athletic his whole life. He grew up competitive in track, baseball, & football. His journey was cut short when he had his first open heart surgery in high school due to an imperfect valve in his heart since birth. They fixed it when he was 17 years old, but it leaked 25 years later and he had another immediate 8 hour open heart surgery with me at his side in 2007.
His heart attack this past April was due to genetics. He had a Double Coronary Bypass Surgery. 90% of his blood was blocked going in and out of his heart. When he first opened his eyes the first question I asked was if he remembered our children’s names? He said both of their names then added and you are banana. That is my nick name; Susanna banana, only to my husband. I took 3 months off of training to help him get back to health along with our two young kids Matthew 9 and Brooke 5 years old. God showered us with so many loving friends and people in the community to help us with meals, carpool and life’s daily demands giving me more time to focus on Scott. God and my faith has taught me to pray and turn toward him when life throws you a curve ball, explosion or just more than you can handle on your own.
Craig: Another terrible event happened in August. This time to your best friend’s family. What happened?
Susanne: Udo Heinz passed away. He and his wife Antje are 2 of my very best friends. We met due to triathlon when I first moved to California in late 1999. We bought dogs together, had our first child 2 weeks apart and basically went from singles to newlyweds to parents together. Udo was needlessly killed by a city bus while riding in Camp Pendleton. It was very, very difficult not just on me but also the entire cycling community. My husband spoke and honored him at his memorial service which attracted about 200 people from all parts of his life. It hit us so hard because it was just too close to home. That could have been any one of us. Also, it was the second funeral I had been to in 4 months of husbands and fathers being torn from their family. It’s just become so much more dangerous out there. It still stings and I’m certain it will forever.
Craig: How did you manage to go forward after these things happened to Scott and Udo?
Susanne: It was really tough. For 3 months my attention had been caring for Scott. He couldn’t work, drive or lift anything over 5 pounds and I felt so bad just leaving him home alone to go train. I questioned why I was even out training? What purpose did it have in my life and should I spend my time doing something else, being with my family or something that contributed to society in a more impactful way? But it always returns to God. He’s been a compass throughout my life that has guided me. It has with Scott also. I heard the pastor speak on Sunday about the gifts that God had given us. I thought about it throughout the coming weeks and found peace that my athletic abilities were gifts from God. The best way I could honor God was by using them. The contribution to society I was questioning was easily answered when my clients missed me and wanted me back. I was helping society in a very meaningful way. I was working with clients to make their dreams come true. They’re lives were changed and goals were achieved by going to Boston, getting a college scholarship, competing in the Ironman or standing on the podium for the first time. The positive energy which that brought into their lives was seen by others.
Craig: You won the USA Triathlon National Championships in Milwaukee less than 1 week after Udo passed away. How did that race go for you?
Susanne: Yes, and that was a very difficult decision. I didn’t want to go. I called Antje (Udo’s wife) and had a conversation about it. I didn’t ask her permission as much as I told her I wasn’t going to go. She insisted I should still race. Udo was an incredible fighter and so tough on the bike. He was one of the most perfect cyclists I’ve ever ridden with. She told me & I knew Udo would want me to go. So I did. I think the only reason I went was because it was in Milwaukee and my entire family lives in Wisconsin. They all came for the weekend to see and support me, as well as my college roommate Carrie and my amazing Timex Teammates and managers. If it were anywhere but there I don’t think I could have jumped on the plane.
The race went exceptionally well. It was a marker to see how well I was progressing towards Hawaii. I knew my engine was there but didn’t know if I had the extra gears to go hard on the shorter course. A 2 hour race is a lot different than 10 hours. All my numbers were right on the money and I finished so strong on the run with my family screaming at me along the entire course. In the picture below you can see me saying “Udo” as I came across the finish line. He propelled me and I thought of him much along the way. I finished in 2:09 and knew I left it all on the course mentally and physically for that day. I was now the US Master’s Champion and felt an amazing pride and appreciation for the human body and mind. My family was there to see it and celebrate with me. Thirteen years ago I raced in the US Olympic Trials and now I was the National Champion at 41 years old. This is when you realize that only God knows how the story will play out. You are just in it for the ride.
Craig: You won your age group at the Ironman World Championships in Kona in October. How did that race go for you and what challenges did you have to overcome to win?
Susanne: It went almost perfect. My husband is ridiculously detailed with numbers. He knew all my competitors, where they qualified and what their strengths were. He had me projected to finish anywhere from 9:30 to 9:44. That was a big jump from 9:50 and I was 3 years younger then! I went 58:30 for the swim which is was 1:30 faster! I dropped to 5:11 on the bike beating my previous time by thirteen minutes! I was on course record pace and feeling great. I changed my whole bike program which included big blocks of 300+ miles. I learned that I could hold my running mileage longer in my system than I could hold my biking. I consulted with a couple professional cyclists and they all confirmed my hunch. Then I hit my strong leg of triathlon, the run! I’d run 3:17 and 3:18 in Kona in the last 2 races and I knew I was in 3:15 shape. Running is usually my playground but not this time. Ouch! My hips, glutes, back and it seemed like my entire body was locked up. I ran 2 good miles and then things really started to go south. This is where I leaned on my life experiences you just read about and I sang the song, “He can move the mountains, my God is mighty to save he is mighty to save”. Others were walking. I was tight and running in discomfort for 24 miles but my heart knew that I could break thru that mountain of pain and persevere. Ironman is a personal journey and I am happy to share mine without filters. I crossed the finish line 10 minutes faster with a new PR (personal record) and set the fastest American Amateur Record for women over 40 in the history of the World Championships in Kona which just celebrated its 35th year.
Craig: How have your experiences in triathlon while you were in your 20’s translated to your success now that you are in your 40’s?
Susanne: I’ve actually been getting faster with age! I guess that means I probably didn’t reach my potential earlier. In your 20’s you are out to prove something. You want to earn a living, get sponsors and create a life for yourself that is solely based on how fast you went in your race last weekend. That is an enormous amount of pressure on a young person. If you didn’t race well, it stayed on your mind until you had a good race. In your 40’s you realize how unimportant winning is in the scheme of your life. You have a home, husband, children, relationship with God and the benefit of hindsight. Don’t get me wrong. I love to win and I am a tenacious competitor, but at the end of the day I realize that it is a piece of my life but not all of my life. In your 40’s as a mother, wife and coach you have very limited time which can be a benefit. You have to be well organized and planned. You only get a very small window for your training that day so you have to get it in. When you’re younger you can spend half the day procrastinating.
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you like to change?
Susanne: I truly love this sport and when I don’t have the passion anymore I will find something else to compete in or give my time and energy. I think there needs to be a drug testing program with the amateur athletes. The entry fee’s of Ironman have gone up from $350 in 2005 to $775 in 2013. I believe $20 of every person’s entry fee could be allocated to the cost of a drug test for the top 3 people in each age group at a championship event. I find it odd that when I was 2nd in the World at the 2010 Ironman World Championships that I crossed the finish line and they thought I was first and wanted to drug test me. They grabbed my arm but after 2 minutes when they realized I was second they let go of me and didn’t test me! This year I was top in my age group at Kona and wasn’t tested. Let me be clear that I don’t know the answer and I don’t know anything about how and when drugs show up in your system. I just see everyone getting so fast that it boggles my mind. A lot of these faster times come from improved competition, but course records are getting smashed. Records that have stood for 8 years are now getting faster by 30 minutes! The more people you have doing a sport, the faster it’s going to get. There should be some type of program in place to at least deter it. Again, I don’t have any knowledge that it exists at all. I simply feel that it’s gotten so competitive to get into Kona and it’s such a star in someone’s athletic career that some out there might consider a short cut. I just want that deterred in some way.
Craig: Who are your sponsors and how have they played a role in your success?
Susanne: Timex Mutlisport Team, Power Bar Elite, Shimano, Quintana Roo, Nytro, Blue Seventy, Skins and my husband Scott are the most wonderful sponsors. I am very fortunate to get support with the newest, fastest and best equipment. I’ve been sponsored many years, but what I’ve now realized is that these aren’t companies but people with a relentless passion. As a younger Pro, I didn’t have the maturity or self assurance to talk and get to know the people in the companies. Now I have tremendous relationships with the people that support me and they genuinely want to see me succeed and win, not just because of the brand but because they are friends.
When we say it takes a village it really does. Elite Care Chiropractic, Gina Rittschof Massage therapy, Studeo DNA bike fitting, Dr. Lumkong our MD who also takes my weekly spin class and numerous friends and family.
Certainly my husband Scott is my number one fan and my children. Scott’s more than accepting of me doing the sport, he loves it. After doing triathlons for 20 years he can now appreciate the sport in a different way even if he can’t race anymore. What he really brings to the table is a level of excitement and teamwork and sharing this with our children. I’m my own coach, but he’s an emotional coach to me. He knows me better than anyone in the world and he’s been with me for more than 100 races. He knows if I’m procrastinating, being lazy or if I need a kick in the butt to get out the door. I cannot mask or fake it with my husband.
Craig: In addition to mother, wife, and world champion triathlete, you are also a triathlon coach. What is your coaching philosophy and how can people reach you?
Susanne: There is no “one” best coach for everyone, but I may be the best coach for you. I’m clearly different than a lot of coaches out there according to the athlete’s I train. First, I like to work more one on one with clients. I don’t train 40 athletes at a time and give them all the same workouts. I don’t have cookie cutter programs and brief calls with my athletes once per week. I feel like everyone is completely different and balancing three sports with a job, travel, family and friends is very difficult. I like to eliminate that stress and help people reach their highest potential.
Some people are strong swimmers, cyclists or runners and some don’t have any experience at all. The focus and starting point for a person’s program varies and should be detailed toward where they currently are as an athlete. The first meeting with me is about finding out if we would be a good fit. You have to have explicit trust in your coach so it’s much more than just heart rate and power. It’s about communication. People come to this sport from all different backgrounds and therefore need more guidance in one area vs. another. I’m a technical coach and my plans are very detailed as well as my form of coaching. I tell my clients what route to run or ride because I know the terrain, what I’m trying to accomplish and the clients so well. I will run, swim and bike with you. When I run alongside you I can hear your feet and breathing and watch your form change over paces and terrain. I can see your attitude shift more positive or negative. I wait to see how you will deal with adversity then offer a few words of encouragement to see how you can self-adjust. I can see the heart rate and pace data each day when you upload it into Training Peaks which informs me immediately that you achieved or struggled to finish the planned workout. I know my clients extremely well, some of them have been with me for 10 years and most of them have become lifelong friends. I love the sport of running and triathlon. I race it myself and continue to improve or learn something. I’m faster now at 42 then I was at 32. Triathlon is a lifestyle and it’s a moment in life I hope to be part of and will always remember.
Craig: Susanne, you and Scott have been good friends for many years. Thank you for sharing your story. Congratulations on your accomplishments this year and always.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.