In 2012 Great Britain’s Leanda Cave won both the Ironman 70.3 and the Ironman World Championship titles. In doing so she became the first woman in history to pull this amazing feat. Cave is no stranger to winning races and won her first major title in Cancun at the 2002 ITU Olympic distance world championships. Cave made her debut in Hawaii in 2007 after earning a slot at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships the year before. After finishing in eighth place at her first outing in Hawaii she vowed to come back and win the race, and that’s exactly what she did. We caught up with Cave during a Thai cookery lesson in Laguna Phuket to find out more…
How did it feel to win the Ironman World Championships?
It was a surreal feeling because I had visualised winning for so many years. When it actually happened it didn’t materialise how I had it in my head. I didn’t see myself as winning for much of the race and was thinking I could get a podium spot. Even late in the race when I passed Caroline (Steffen) and all the way to finish line I didn’t know whether she was chasing me. I didn’t want to let up or look round all the way to the line.
Some people said I didn’t celebrate over the last kilometre but I thought Caroline was still right behind me. It’s world the championship and you have to fight. If Caroline hadn’t fought back I would have been disappointed. I kept racing all the way to the line.
What did it feel like when you finally broke the finish tape?
I just thought, “oh sh*t, I’ve won!” I really didn’t know how to respond to that. It was kind of similar to when I won my first world championship in Olympic distance racing in Cancun in 2002. In that race I passed Barb Lindquist with 200 metres to go. You don’t get the time to actually live the moment as you might expect it to be. In that race I was racing all the way to the line too. The actual finish and what it should feel like winning didn’t really come into play. In Kona it was only five minutes later when I was walking to the media gathering that I suddenly thought about the fact that I’d actually won. It was then I was screaming and dancing but no one saw this excitement. There was a crazy amount of emotion coming out. Winning Kona puts you in this almost legendary status and I didn’t know just how big it would be.
What’s it like now you’re Ironman World Champion?
It’s weird because more people recognise and talk to me. I feel like I have been around a long time and achieved a lot, but you really haven’t made it until you win Hawaii. Winning Hawaii is far and above anything I thought in my wildest dreams. I didn’t think it would be this much of a big deal. The fact that I am still racing after Kona I haven’t had time to let it sink in. I still haven’t digested it. At the end of the day the race is about racing and that’s a process. In performing that process I was simply doing my job. My job is to race professionally as a triathlete and try to win.
Do you always target the big events each year?
The pinnacle of my year is always the world championship events and that’s what I target. My whole career I have always targeted the big races. I always try to win every race I do but it’s the big events that matter. I’m just doing what I do and that’s all I know how to do. I sculpt and train my body to be in the perfect shape to win these big races. It’s amazing getting recognition for this, but I am really just doing my job.
How was it in the final stages along Ali’I Drive in Hawaii?
The crowds are crazy on Ali’I Drive. I was running behind the lead motorbike and hoping the crowds were going to move because it’s crazy running along the road just before you hit finish chute. Luckily they did move, but I was still worried that I might have to do a sprint finish. I hadn’t looked behind and didn’t want to give up.
In Arizona I was there to validate for next year and I passed a girl in the latter stages of the run to move into fifth. Then my leg cramped in the last 300 metres. The same girl passed me again and I finished sixth. People can say what they want to say about not recognising the crowd in the finish chute in Hawaii, but if I had come second no one is going to remember that.
How hard is to be part of a race rather than just doing your own thing when you’re racing?
I think in the past I have always responded to what other athletes are doing in the race. Sometimes I have bolted because I have not been strong enough as an athlete. This year I felt I was the one other people were judging their pace off. It felt like there was a shift in the control of the race. I was more in control of the race than I have been in the past and that felt good. It meant I could control how the race was developing.
It has been a rollercoaster few years with injuries, illness and issues in your personal life. It must feel good to finally achieve what you have after all of this?
It has been one of those crazy years where I have been through everything. I never thought I would come out of this year winning Hawaii. At the beginning of the year it was the last thing on my mind or what I expected for myself. I honestly felt I just had to get through this year, but triathlon is my comfort zone and that helped.
Is triathlon your escape?
Everything else can be going crazy in my life and around me, but triathlon is what I know how to do and it helps me centre myself. For that reason I can let everything else fall by the wayside, get on with my job and do it well. There were stages during the year when I was injured or ill and I couldn’t even train or race, which meant I went south mentally. I don’t do that often. I realised then how much triathlon consumes me as a human being and how big a part of me it is. It has been great to end the year on top regardless of everything else.
How long do you see yourself racing?
I have at least four years in the tank. That would mean I am 38 then when I retire. I’ve said a few times I’d always like to make the Olympics and who knows whether as a 38- year-old I have that in me. I am racing Hawaii next year and that is a big priority. I’ll never count out trying to give the Olympics a shot. In recent years I always wanted to win Hawaii and if that happened then thought I could maybe give the Olympics a shot. In the past I’ve never been in a position in my career where I could put everything else aside and just go for the Olympics. I’ve always been trying to earn money to pay bills or sustain a lifestyle. Now I have won Hawaii I feel there’s almost a sustainability that would give me the chance to go for it. Chris McCormack gave it a shot and I think the ITU likes it when athletes cross over because it adds a little more to the racing. I think they will encourage this.
Would you like Chrissie Wellington to return to racing?
Absolutely. I’m a competitor and I love racing. I love the competition between us and I have never shied away from racing her in the past. I have a bee in my bonnet that she didn’t race Hawaii this year. I wanted to have a show down with her. I’d love her to come back. We’re friendly to each other but we’re not friends outside of the sport. There’s a healthy competition between the two of us. I’d like to utilise that and showcase it. It would be fun.