TCSD Conversation by Craig Zelent
I talked triathlon recently with TCSD member Alex Dreu. She has already accomplished a lot during her relatively short triathlon career and I know there is more to come. Alex has also done her share of giving back to the sport she loves. I know you will be impressed by what she has done for Women for Tri as well as serving as a guide for visually impaired triathletes.
Craig: What sports did you play when you were younger
Alex: I guess I did what many kids do when they are younger: try out different sports. I started swimming when I was fairly young and then all throughout high school. Mostly focused on shorter distances, the 50m and 100m. I wouldn’t say I was particularly great in it, but it definitely gave me an advantage when I started triathlon… I was comfortable in the water. I also did gymnastics for a few years (yes, gymnastics), but was definitely not good in that as I really don’t have the best coordination. In my teens and early twenties, I enjoyed ball sports, like tennis and basketball. And specifically liked badminton, really enjoyed that. It’s been ages since I played it ‘though.
Craig: How did you happen to become a triathlete?
Alex: I 150% blame Stacy Sauls for a) getting me into triathlon and b) make me do crazy things like Ironman races. I was running half marathons for a few years in my mid- to late thirties and really enjoyed it, although I wasn’t particularly fast. I actually did the first few while still smoking and about 30 lbs. heavier. That just didn’t sit right with me, I needed to make the decision for myself to either do it and do it right or not. So, I decided to quit smoking (cold turkey, yes it does work if you really want it) and lose some weight. Amazing how much faster you can run 30 lbs. lighter! That was about 6 years ago. Then 4 years ago Stacy Sauls convinced me to sign up for the Mission Bay Tri (I think it happened during a Friday evening happy hour). She gave me one of her wetsuits and goggles and such. And I only had a mountain bike at the time, so that was fun. My swim was a disaster, did the entire 500m or so on my back after a short freak-out moment, still finishing in a reasonable time. Swimming in the pool by yourself and then open water during a race with everyone swimming over you are two totally different stories. Nevertheless, I had a blast and got hooked. I did a few smaller races the following year, and I signed up for my first 70.3 (of course, Oceanside) and 140.6 in the same year, in 2016. Yes, the problem with IM Arizona is that you have to sign up very early as it sells out in like 10 minutes, so I actually did that before I had finished my first 70.3. That year I also joined TCSD and got more involved in the club as part of the Ambassador Team. That was a great experience and also contributed to me gaining proficiency in this sport. I can recommend to anyone who’s new to triathlon or wants to do their first race to join their local tri club and TCSD if you are local to San Diego. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people, people that are experts in this sport and get access to great training resources as well.
Craig: What have been some of the funny or dumb things you have done as an athlete?
Alex: As mentioned above, I did my first few half marathons while still smoking. Looking back, I really think that was dumb. I actually finished a few training runs and then lit a cigarette after. Yuk! Not good. Anyhow, that was then.
A funny thing happened in 2016 during the Desert Triathlon in La Quinta, CA. It was a very windy day (which seems to be the norm during that race, or many in the Palm Springs area) so they didn’t put up the large Finish arch (it would have blown away anyway). Well, at the end of my second loop on the run I just kept on running. I knew exactly that I had to cut left to go to the finish chute, but when you are in the moment you don’t think straight. And I was looking for the large finish sign. At some point, I realized something wasn’t right, so I asked someone where the finish was. “About ¼ of a mile back from where you came.” Darn. Anyhow, since the run course was a little short, I actually ran the full 10k and still placed 2nd in my AG. I doubt I’ll do that again…but you never know.
Craig: What have been some of your favorite destination races?
Alex: I love combining racing with exploring new areas. And making fun weekends out of them. I did Ironman Canada in 2017 and liked it so much that I signed up again 2 days after the race. Nuts I know. It’s a great race, although this year was hard hard hard, with 100 degrees and brutal hills on the bike. I’d still do it again at some point, as Whistler is just a beautiful location with great race support and a gorgeous swim in the extremely clean Alta Lake. However, so far, my favorite race has been Ironman Italy in Cervia (Emilia-Romagna) which I just finished this September. I was born and raised in Germany, so it was amazing to have my parents and a great friend from college there to follow me along the entire day. A friend of mine who works for Ironman Europe actually made it possible for my parents and my friend to greet me in the finish area, and my dad handed me my medal. That was very special. Ironman Italy is a very fast course… well, my run wasn’t as fast as I wanted it to be, but that didn’t have anything to do with the course. The swim was great… clear calm Adriatic Sea with a lot of jelly fish. I’d never in my wildest dreams imagine I’d finish an IM swim in under an hour, but I did in Cervia… I blame it on the jelly fish making me swim faster. If anyone is interested in an Ironman race in Europe, I can highly recommend it. Feel free to ping me if you have any questions.
For 2019, I added 2 fun destination races to my schedule. First Hawaii 70.3 (also known as Honu 70.3) in June and then Challenge Roth in July. I’m super stoked to have gotten into Challenge Roth for several reasons: it’s the biggest race in Europe (has anyone seen “We are triathletes”? I mean 5,000 participants or so) and again, I’ll have my family there to cheer me on and share this experience with me.
I also try to do smaller races throughout the season. BBSC puts on fun small races like Pumpkinman in October or Rage and Las Vegas Tri. The LA Tri Series is a great one too. June Lake in Mammoth is a great race as well, a tough one at 7,000ft elevation climbing up to over 9,000ft. Challenging yet rewarding with a great scenery.
Craig: A couple of years ago TCSD had an Ambassador Team. What did you like about being on that team?
Alex: In 2016, I was part of the TCSD Ambassador Team. I really liked this experience as it also was in my early stages of triathlon. It helped me learn a lot about the sport, share experiences with others, but also promote TCSD to people that are interested in triathlon and are looking for a community.
Craig: You have had some involvement in Women for Tri. What does that group do and how did you help them?
Alex: Women for Tri is an initiative that looks to increase female participation at all levels of triathlon. Their mission is to identify and diminish primary barriers to entry and mobilize triathlon advocates to encourage and engage female athletes across all distances and representing all athletic abilities. Although the participation of female athletes has increased over the last years, it’s still a very valid initiative if you ask me. For instance, at Ironman Italy the share of women was only 12-15% of overall participation. Together with the Ironman Foundation, Women for Tri is giving out grants to triathlon clubs for programs that will support their mission.
I saw this on Facebook (amazing how much we find out now through social media isn’t it) in 2016 and shared it on the TCSD Ambassador Team page. Paula Munoz, then TCSD Vice President, responded that yes, TCSD should apply for the grant. So, her and I together mobilized the application process. We conducted a survey with members and potential members of TCSD to identify what they see as the main barriers to enter triathlons. The majority brought up their fear of the swim and that they feel intimidated in joining masters sessions at times. With this information, we put together a swim program coached by women for women, that allowed us to apply for the grant. Which we received. The grant money was used for an initial fun social kick off event that Paula organized, which included multiple topics, from open water swimming to nutrition, to bike changing clinics to talking about more personal female topics (I leave it at this LOL). Then we scheduled several swim clinics together with the La Jolla YMCA, which allowed us to rent lanes. We had awesome female coaches (big thanks to Julie Dunkle, Carol Gasaway, Holly Stroschine and Dawn Casaday Prebula) who dedicated their evenings to work with mostly beginner swimmers. I know that TCSD kept the Women for Tri program running and extended it beyond the 2016 swim sessions to focus on other areas of triathlon in 2017. I very much enjoyed being involved in this and making it happen for TCSD. If we only helped 5 more women to do their first triathlon, then we’ve succeeded.
Craig: How did you get involved guiding visually impaired triathletes?
Alex: At the end of 2017, I saw a post from Amy Dixon, a bad-ass US Paratriathlete, looking for female guides for her triathlon camp in January of 2018. I had met Amy during a Braveheart camp a year before. Knowing that January was still my off season and that I’d very much enjoy this new challenge, I messaged Amy. We met twice so I could gain some experience on a tandem bike, once for a ride and then for a turn session in a parking lot. Her camp was amazing. It took place in January 2018 at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. The agenda consisted of many great sessions swimming, biking, running, strength and other lessons about nutrition, recovery, etc. I met so many amazing people at this camp. But the best part is that Amy is an excellent match maker as she paired me up with Rachel Weeks, who’s another bad-ass Paratriathlete from Florida. Rachel is a very experienced triathlete and had completed several 70.3 and 140.6 races before camp. She taught me so much and helped me get confident as a guide. We totally hit it off and have since participated in several camps and races, most recently at the ITU Sarasota Paratriathlon World Cup. And more to come in 2019. My hope is that Rachel will decide to do Oceanside 70.3, so I can guide her here locally.
Craig: What criteria did you need to meet to be a guide?
Alex: I’d say the most important criterium is to be able to handle the tandem bike, so ideally you should have strong bike skills to begin with. And you need to be very aware of your surroundings (which you should be anyway when swimming, biking and running), as you are responsible for the safe-being of another person.
One other thing that may sound trivial but isn’t, is that guiding an athlete means that the entire event is not about you. It’s all for them. So, if you have a strong ego and like your own name always on top of podiums, guiding may not be the thing for you, regardless of how strong as a triathlete you are. Don’t get me wrong, I like to race hard for myself and hit the podium every now and then, but when I train or race with Rachel, it’s the opposite. My whole purpose switches to making sure that she has the race of her life and makes it through it without any hick-ups.
Craig: How can people get involved to become a guide?
Alex: The best way is to reach out to local organizations or join certain Facebook groups. In San Diego for instance, we have the Blind Stokers Club that helps getting more people comfortable piloting tandems. On Facebook, you can find “Blind/Visually Impaired Triathletes & Guides” and join them. Also, on a national level USABA (United States Association of Blind Athletes) and also USAT (USA Triathlon) are great resources. If you are interested, feel free to reach out to me through Facebook under Alexandra Dreu. I truly believe, this could also be a great way for TCSD to get involved in Paratriathlon by being a go-to group.
Craig: What athletic accomplishment are you most proud of?
Alex: For sure, completing my first Ironman in Arizona in 2016 is very high up on this list. Up until 6 or so years ago, I’ve never heard of triathlon. You’d think with so many strong German triathletes, we all start it once we are able to walk, but that’s not the case for me. I didn’t know of this growing up in Germany. So, going from a random runner to finishing an Ironman in 2 years is definitely something I’m proud of. Another accomplishment is shaving off almost an hour on my best half marathon time. I ran my first half in Carlsbad in 2010 – while still smoking – and finished in 2:43. Then 6 years later, in 2016 I ran it again and finished in 1:45 and then 1:44 at Rock ‘n Roll New Orleans a few weeks later.
Most recently, completing 2 races as a guide to a PTVI (paratriathlon visually impaired) athlete is one of the most rewarding accomplishments. Rachel Weeks and I raced Paratriathlon Nationals in Wisconsin in June, where she placed third to qualify her for the ITU circuit. Then again, just a couple of weeks ago, I was honored to guide Rachel again at ITU Sarasota World Cup. Through the races and camps I’ve joined as a guide, I’ve met so many amazing athletes that don’t let their situation hold them back from following their dreams. I also know they can’t do it without having a strong guide so being just that is a great way to give back and support this amazing community.
Craig: Do you have any sponsors?
Alex: 2018 is my second year being part of the Nytro Women’s Racing Team, which consists of 10 badass female triathletes. We have multiple great sponsors… most importantly Nytro bike shop in Encinitas, Betty Designs, Gatorade Endurance, Jaybird, Surface Sunscreen, Law Firm of Richard L. Duquette, Foodsense Now, San Diego Athlete Massage and Argon 18. We couldn’t do it without them. In addition, through my coach Julie Dunkle, I’m also a member of D3 Multisport, which is a national coaching group out of Boulder, CO.
Craig: If you could waive a magic wand over the sport of triathlon, what would you change?
Alex: Reduce the entry fees to Ironman races… just kidding. There isn’t much I’d change for myself. The one thing that I’m really not happy with is that paratriathletes aren’t able to qualify for Kona like us. The only way for them to get a slot is through a lottery which gives out 5 slots every year. If you want to annoy a triathlete, ask any visually impaired triathlete, what they think of this. It cannot be very hard to also make a qualifying event for them, by either selecting certain Ironman races that are qualifying ones or set a certain time goal that needs to be achieved to be selected.
Craig: What are your future triathlon and endurance sports goals? (This is really a wide open question. It does not have to be all about race performance goals.)
Alex: My main goal is to finish an Ironman race and be fully happy with my performance. In all of them, I had issues on the run that made me walk quite a bit. My goal is to work mostly on my nutrition to keep any stomach or GI issues from happening. And also, on the mental side as this is still a weak point for me. I start walking way too easily.
A dream of mine would be to guide an athlete in an Ironman. That would be something I’d love to do at some point in the next few years. As mentioned earlier, hopefully Rachel decides to do Ironman 70.3 Oceanside so I can guide her there and gain more experience in longer course guiding.
I guess most triathletes have the goal to qualify for Kona at some point. I’d lie if I say I don’t. I do, but I don’t want that to control how I approach this sport, or which races I choose. Alaskaman is also high on my list.
Craig: Alex, thank you for sharing your story. You are a special person who recognizes the value of paying it forward. We are lucky to have you in our community.
Craig Zelent is a USA Triathlon Level 1 Certified Coach. Craig can be reached at 760-214-0055 or email@example.com.