Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fiona Docherty - triathlete turned runner

Some former pro swimmer or cyclists turn to triathlon after their previous career has come to an end. They might have become too old to be competitive but at the same time still feel like having some good racing in them. While swimmers tend to peak out in their early twenties and cyclists in their mid thirties, triathletes - and in particular Ironmen - can excel into their forties.

It is a rare sight though to find a triathlete turn a swimmer, cyclist or runner. "Wait!", you might say, "Lance Armstrong was a triathlete!". That's right. And he's a very illustrious example. But who else comes to mind? Some experts might know one or two others - feel free to post some names below, we like good discussions - but maybe we don't have to look any further soon.

Kiwi Fiona Docherty is a seasoned triathlete and - probably even more so - duathlete. She won the most prestigious duathlon out there, the Powerman Zofingen. One could argue that she would have won Zofingen at least five times if she would have raced that often instead of trying to improve her swim. While "Fee", as her friends call her, is a solid cyclist, her running is extraordinary. And yes, that is why she is giving running full time a shot now, eying a spot in the New Zealand Olympic marathon team for London 2012. Preliminary step: 2010 Commonwealth Games.

In a recent article on Slowtwitch she explains why she decided to turn to running: "At [2008 Ironman] Hawaii I had a bad race and felt I needed a break from triathlon. I’d been struggling, having a bad time physically and financially. I’d always wanted to give marathon a good go, and I’d been putting it on hold. So I thought this was my chance. I wanted a life outside sport, which you can’t have training for Ironman. With running, you can have enough energy left over to work and have a personal life."

Possibly her decision was supported by a debilitating injury she suffered before last year. Fiona consulted doctors in Auckland and Australia. Unable to ply her trade, she received some New Zealand disability benefits. Finally, former elite New Zealand duathlete, Dr. Matt Brick, cracked the mystery. Piriformis syndrome. (The piriformis is a flat pyramid-shaped muscle lying almost parallel with the back of the gluteus medius, located partly within the pelvis and partly at the back of the hip joint). Docherty's piriformis was clenched and touching the sciatic nerve. "I had pain shooting down from the butt down to my ankle," she said, wincing at the memory.

“It was awful,” she recalls. “I was in this massive depressed state. You are doing well and all of a sudden it is all stripped from you. I felt lonely, like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I hated life basically. I didn’t want to be around people. I treated my parents awfully. I pretty much ignored them. I went all quiet. I just didn’t what to do anything. I’d be a mess. Crying. Especially when I didn’t know what was up.”

Her friends stuck with her. “They were wonderful,” said Docherty. “They put up with a lot, too. They knew I was so down but they were always there. That is the great thing about parents, family and true friends. They were great even though I was trying to shut them out and tried to deal with it myself.”
Fiona fully recovered although it was a long road back to normal training and, finally, racing.

After spending 2008 as a triathlete and giving Ironman Hawaii a shot, she made up her mind and turned to running. On a hilly course at the 3M Half Marathon in Austin this January, Docherty finished 8th in a tough international field in 1:15:56 at a pace of 5:48 per mile. “Her time was very encouraging,” said her coach Steve 'Jonesey' Jones. “She got top 10 in a very competitive road race. For someone who is not part of the road circuit, that was a great blooding. It indicates she has a great chance of going where she wants to go.” A 56:47 at Washington's Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in April indicates what she will be capable at this weekend's Ottawa Marathon.

Jonesey is hesitant to make predictions but when pressed said that her first half marathon indicated that “2:44 to 2:45 would be close to the assumption where she might be right now." That estimate is not faster because she lacks the experience of running at that fast a pace for that length of time.” Docherty’s main goal for 2009 is to run the Chicago Marathon this October for a benchmark time to signal if she has a realistic chance to make an Olympic qualifying time. “Right now, everything is a positive for her,” said Jones. “She trained hard, had a good result, and will of necessity train the next four or five months with the group. Her half marathon was an evenly paced race, which indicates the strength she brings from Ironman. I do not put it past her to run a low 2:40 marathon in Chicago.” Although a low 2:40ish marathon would be a great achievement, she has to be looking at a low 2:30 marathon if she wants to be part of New Zealand's London team. Right now, Docherty is running with a squad of Jones' runners in which most women run the 5k in the range of 19 minutes. Jones’ elite group includes internationally experienced Eduardo and Jorge Torres, and 2004 Olympian Shayne Culpepper, whose 5km PR is 15:01. “Hopefully some day Fiona will graduate to that group,” says Jones. says: best of luck at this week's Ottawa Marathon, Fee!
Readers, stay tuned for her race report and a exclusive interview soon.