Ed. note—Rachel "The Purple Tiger" McBride has been with Wattie Ink. since the beginning. An athlete who has raced at all distances and formats, she's a fascinating personal study, too, with a background in genetics and counseling, and a constant threat to win any race she enters. Today we talk about last season, her newfound love of Iron-distance racing, and more.
You raced your first Ironman in November. How did the experience both align with and depart from your expectations of the distance?
The biggest surprise from my first full distance experience was that it really didn’t feel like I was out there for twice the time and distance as I’m used to with the half distance. In many ways it was over before I knew it! That being said, that was definitely one of the most brutal running experiences I’ve ever had. I was solid until 15km into the run. Then the last 27km of the race I felt like I was just hanging on for dear life. It took so much mental fortitude to head out on the last 14km loop knowing it was going to be at least another hour of running. But I guess that is Ironman, from what I’ve been told!
Did you do anything differently in your approach to Cozumel than you did in your approach to 70.3 races, or, say, ITU LD Worlds, a hybrid distance (4k, 120k, 30k) that you raced about two months prior to Cozumel?
Honestly, my training leading up to the race didn’t feel all that different aside from a bit more volume, especially on the bike. I have still been having to hem in my run volume significantly as I continue to safely build things up, which likely contributed to me demise on the run. I also tried to sort out what to do for nutrition as I know that is a huge component of this distance. Still have a lot of work to do on this! My race nutrition is far from dialed.
Did you do anything to prepare for the heat in Cozumel?
Absolutely. I call it sauna torture. Basically in the 3 weeks prior I spend anywhere from 30-50 minutes immediately post-workout in the sauna. Truly I last about 20 minutes straight, take a 1-2 min break, then try and struggle through the rest. It’s horrible, but I did it before ITU LD Worlds as well, and it seemed to make a big difference. So I’m sold on the protocol!
Did you change your approach to race day nutrition?
I worked with my dietician Dana Lis on my nutrition for the full distance, but I really didn’t feel like I had had enough time to test it all. I didn’t really change the total calories per hour, but did try and front load things on the bike a bit, as well as include some different forms of calories. I definitely need a lot of work sorting out my nutrition for this distance as I had WAY too many portapotty stops on the run. But I think also not being able to do my super simple food in the days before the race also affected my gut. It is challenging when one has such a sensitive stomach and is limited to hotel buffet food. Definitely learned my lesson on that one.
You've been training without a coach for some time now. Could you take some time and reflect on that process? What have been the positives? Negatives? What have you learned from the process?
I feel like I come with pretty good sense of training and exercise physiology, so when I was still in 70.3 mode I was pretty confident in what I needed to do. However I knew I needed help moving up to full distance, particularly in how to get the biggest bang for my buck with low volume run training. From my personal coaching situation, I think the toughest part is having confidence that the plans I lay out for myself are the best to allow me to be able to race at the top of my game. It can also be challenging managing everyone. Sometimes these guys have different ideas of what is best and so it can be hard for me to manage that potential conflict. I hate rocking the boat and prefer to try and keep everyone happy! However ultimately it’s my body, my performance and my career, so it’s up to me to make the tough calls sometimes.
For swimming, I’ve just recently subscribed to the Tower26 subscription workouts under the tutelage of Gerry Rodrigues, after swimming with a with a local Masters group for the past couple years. I’m currently working with a few coaches, specifically for cycling and strength. For the past year I’ve been working with my partner and cycling coach Shane Savage on the bike. Incredible strength coach Joe McCullum has gotten me incredibly strong, and my podiatrist Adam Janke was providing run programming. However there’s been a recent shift in my team as I have gone "all in" on a new approach to endurance work that I'd been thinking about for a while. This winter I read a book called Unbreakable Runner. Basically the book provides an argument for using high intensity strength training in the place of high volume running. So recently at the suggestion of Janke, I started working with Matt Ward of Primal Performance here in Vancouver. It’s really brand new, but the work I’m doing feels very productive, especially as i am yet again sidelined with foot pain.
What did you like about Ironman-distance? What did you despise?
I really only have one under my belt, so I feel like I still have so much to learn. I love having the new and exciting challenge of figuring out how to race well at this distance. I love the challenge of having to focus for so long out there and how deep you have to dig to keep going. I despise that I can’t race more than a few in a year! My mind is ready to rock, but doing all the races I want to would destroy my body.
What was the best thing you ate in Cozumel?
The best thing I ate was probably this octopus salad at that little cafe we went to after the race. But then there was all the fresh papaya...Oh, and the days of margaritas on the beach. So many margaritas on the beach…
You have a hard science background, with an advanced degree in genetic research, I believe. Two questions, here. A) how do people respond when they learn that about you, and B) do you feel like your science background has influenced your triathlon life?
Yup, I have 2 different masters degrees in genetics. People are always like “whoa, so you’re smart too!” or “guess you are not doing much with those right now!” I think the biggest influence my science background has had on my tri life is the ability to read and understand the science of human performance. It’s given me the ability to be able to understand and interpret the results of sport science research.
The next few questions have to do with gender and gender identity. I'm likely to say something offensive or half-baked in the next few questions, so I apologize in advance. You're someone I turn to when there's something I don't know about gender identity or terminology (you taught me what the word "cis-gendered" means, for example). In what other ways have you educated others in the triathlon world about gender identity?
No apology necessary! When people who are coming from a place a respect ask questions about sex and gender, it is never offensive - it’s always a pleasure to engage in conversation from people who want to understand and connect. I think that’s what I have tried to do with my own gender identity daily and on social media. I’m basically just out there being me. Since I was very young, I’ve always appeared pretty androgynous whether consciously or not. It’s just naturally my most comfortable self. As someone who is more visible in the triathlon community, I feel honoured to have a platform to open up a conversation about gender. I hope to provide a space for others out there to feel comfortable expressing themselves in whatever form they wish to take as well as challenge people’s ideas of gender expression and identity, of masculinity and femininity. I think the overwhelmingly positive response so far shows how incredibly accepting the tri community can be. I’m always happy to engage in meaningful conversation with people who have questions or need an ally.
In what different ways has the triathlon world responded to you, a person who isn't necessarily cis-gendered?
The response from the triathlon world has been 100% positive and supportive. What a great community we have created! There may be some negative things being said that I don’t hear, but I don’t really concern myself with that.
What's the one thing no one ever asks you about gender identity that you wish they would ask you?
Well I know the one thing I wish complete strangers did not feel compelled to ask me anymore and this is “are you a boy or a girl?” This is not at all because I am embarrassed by the question or can’t answer, but because I would love to live in a world where it just didn’t matter. Why does it matter to this stranger where on the gender spectrum I identify or what kind of genitals i have? It should have no bearing on how you interact with me on a superficial personal level. To be clear, this is super different than for example asking a person what pronouns they prefer instead of assuming. To me this shows a high level of respect for a person’s chosen identity. (I prefer she/her by the way ;))
What are your triathlon plans for 2017? What are your triathlon plans for the next five years?
2017 has already gotten off to an awesome, but rocky, start. I’ve had some amazing training camps in Costa Rica and Tucson. My early season schedule was all focused on qualifying for Kona. Missing my first Ironman of the year has meant a shift in the schedule, so right now things are a little up in the air! But on the radar are a few 70.3s to start the racing then Ironman Canada, ITU Worlds, and a fall Ironman or two.
For the next 5 years? Winning! Racing Kona as much as I can and hopefully hitting up some of my bucket list races like Challenge Roth, Challenge Wanaka. I can imagine I might set my sights on Ultraman at some point too.
What are you going to be doing when you're 50?
Hopefully still kicking ass at some sport (maybe still in the peak of my ultra distance trail running career!) or exploring distant mountain trails and kayaking remote inlets. Possibly living in a van or off the grid somewhere with lots of animals.
What do you eat for breakfast every morning?
1 cup of oatmeal (yes, I measure), almonds, berries, non-dairy milk. And I have a beloved ritual of making one nice cup of strong, dark coffee in my Moko, that I drink after my oatmeal. Not before, or with.