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Aussie girls conquer Kona for their little slice of Ironman history

Aussie girls conquer Kona for their little slice of Ironman history

Emily Loughnan and Nancy Cullen have conquered triathlon’s holy grail, winning their respective Ironman World Championships in Kona this year and in spectacular fashion.

October 14, 2017 was a red-letter day for the two Australians with 29-year-old Perth-based physiotherapist Loughnan powering away to win first amateur female overall and her 25-29 years age group at only her second attempt.

For 59-year-old while Canadian-born, Adelaide-based doctor Nancy Cullen her breakthrough victory came in the 60-64 years female division at her eighth attempt in 10 years at the world’s most famous Ironman.

Ian Hanson spoke to both Emily and Nancy and learnt about what led them to their Kona triumphs and how they mix their busy professional and sporting careers. (Thanks also to the Intelligent Racer Podcast, where you can listen to Emily’s story.)

Loughnan, at 29, was a former middle distance track runner who admits to losing her way in Perth and who needed to get away from her all- consuming athletics career, six years ago

She booked a one-way ticket to London and began working in her chosen field of physiotherapy before meeting coach Julian Nagi after treating some of his athletes.

She joined Nagi’s swim squad before realising she still had so much to offer in her sporting life before returning home. Nagi stayed in touch, encouraging her to buy her first bike.

“After two years I realised I had not fulfilled my potential in competitive sport and I still yearned for that fulfillment,” said Loughnan, who has been under Nagi’s expertise via correspondence ever since.

“I sat down and discussed it with Julian and he encouraged me to join his swim squad and he planted the seed; he encouraged me to buy the bike when I returned home and one thing led to another and here we are today.”

Loughnan said racing Kona in 2016 had paved the way for her 2017 campaign.

“It was all about the race and we had a clear race plan; I had qualified early so it was a big build up but we never really discussed the result we wanted,” said Loughnan, who got sick and had seven days off training in the lead up and also had to overcome her demons at the start of the run.

“I had been there in 2016 and we knew what it was all about but (deep down) I knew what I wanted; I was hungry for my age group title and it all came together on one of those days.

“It was pretty smooth sailing; I had a great start in the swim but my bike was the focus and I was pleased with how that went and if anything I struggled with the sense of the enormity and overwhelming feeling before the run.

“Kona can be so brutal and I let that get to me mentally at the start of the run but I pulled it apart piece by piece and it turned out a good day, I can’t complain.”

But she now believes, after her and coach Nagi dissected the run leg that if fact “she got it all wrong.” 

“I paced the run wrong and it wasn’t a “true” reflection of what I am capable of; even though I went out way too hard I was able to hang on,” she said.

“I’ll be better at pacing it (next time) and able to get onto the run course and not fear the heat and the elements and confidently run to my potential and have no regrets. I guess you learn something from every race and apply it next time you head out there.”

She improved her time by 22 minutes on 2016 – clocking just under 9 hours 45 minutes for the grueling, unrelenting 3.8km swim, 180km ride and 42.2km run.

And Emily believes that she still has so much more to give when she returns to Kona next time, but not in 2018.

“I’ve got a fair bit left in me and I want to do it properly and commit the time required to make that commitment to the sport. I have always had a relentless desire to work and compete, but knowing I am willing to commit 100 percent.”

Loughnan’s next major challenge will be in Busselton WA in May 2018 over 70.3 before heading to Europe for Ironman Austria in July and then Ironman WA in December, saying she will also gather experience in races closer to home admitting next year would be a different year.

When it comes to Kona she says: “I’m not done yet; I’ve got plenty more in me but I need to make some changes so I can take it to the next level.”

When Kona number three comes around for Emily Loughnan it will be well worth waiting for.

As for Nancy Cullen, her victory was very much an early 60th birthday for the Windsor (Canada) born native who has been in Australia for 25 years after meeting her husband while on a scholarship posting for 12 months.

She took up triathlon and with her friends set themselves to do an Ironman before she turned 50, which meant learning how to ride a bike aged 49.

The goal to do “just one” Ironman has turned to 19 Ironman races in 10 years – eight of them in Kona – a remarkable achievement.

“But I can’t just leave it hanging at 19 – I will have to round it out and make it 20,” said Dr Cullen, a practicing orthopedic surgeon from West Beach in Adelaide, who completed her first Ironman at Port Macquarie in 2007.

So here is Nancy’s impressive Kona record: 2008 (10th); 2010 (10th); 2012 (3rd) after suffering a dislocated elbow six weeks out: 2013 (5th); 2014 (5th) and 2017 (1st).

“I knew at one stage that the leading woman was 10 minutes ahead of me on the run so I just put my head down and kept going, not knowing I had won until well after crossing the finish line,” said Nancy who’s husband John and sister Angela were in Kona cheering her on.

“With early darkness falling and the race finishing in the night I didn’t realise I had passed the leader – the previous world champion - until I went to the timing tent and they told me I had won.”

But something great never comes easy.

The good doctor had to wear a back brace on the bike and run after suffering a bad back.

“It is always hot and windy – especially for the women age groupers and I had the back brace on which made it a little uncomfortable especially on the hill climb,” said Dr Cullen, who is coached by Nigel Pietsch at The Lakers Club, West Beach (Nancy has been with Nigel for almost all her triathlon career)

“And then on the run I had to walk-run the first 10km before getting into a rhythm.

“In the end I finished in 11 hours 56 minutes – which wasn’t my best time but also wasn’t my worst and I was thrilled to take the win.”

But another Kona, as much as she loves it, is not yet on the drawing board but next year’s Paris Marathon is in April.

“I’m doing it with a group of friends and it will be fun just to have single discipline event,” she said.

But she will have to find another Ironman race – just to tick off number 20.

And to Nancy and Emily, on behalf of everyone at Triathlon Australia and in the broader triathlon community, we salute you for your amazing efforts and inspiration.

For Nancy, happy 60th birthday for December 9. Take time out to celebrate. You deserve it.