Shawn Connell on endurance sports
Shawn is a Triathlonist, Marathonist and Ironman and thrieves on challenges. She isn't in it for the glory or to impress others, but truly lives for the sport. Originally from Rhode Island, she has been travelling around the globe for years. I met Shawn about 5 years ago in Valencia, Spain - where both our husbands worked for the America's Cup. Her outgoing personality, positive attitude and her strong conviction for endurance sports makes her instantly likable. I am in awe of her achievements and learned so much more about her through this interview:
How old where you when you got into sports and how did you start out?
I come from an athletic family, both my parents were runners. We went to all the running races with them. When I was 6 years old I couldn't swim, but had a babysitter who was a champion swimmer. I admired her so much and wanted to show her that I could swim. That's how it all started out. From there I joined the local swim team and swam all through High School and then got a scholarship to swim in University.
How did you get into endurance sports?
In my third year at University I burned out and all of a sudden had 5 spare hours - so I decided to switch and train for Triathlons instead. I had lots of energy to burn off and always needed something to keep me occupied.
I loved that triathlon was harder than a running race and a swimming race. It took GUMPTION. That has always been a word I use. I have always been a water person and the swimming came to me naturally. The running came next , to add lung strength and endurance to my swimming and then the cycling was the last to enter. The owner of the gym I trained in took me to my first Olympic Triathlon when I was about 22 years old and I won the event for women, which I thought was great. I didn't understand why everyone was laughing at me though - until I figured out it was because of me using a mountain bike instead of a road bike. So I left quite embarrassed. But from that moment on I was hooked.
Where did you go from there?
After I met my husband, who is a professional sailor, we moved around the world and I would look for a challenge wherever we were. In South Africa I did another Triathlon, where I came 3rd. From there I just got more and more into it. I did many more Triathlons and one day, back home in Rhode Island I met someone who said I should try to do the half Ironman. That was at a time both my kids were still very young - so I did a bit of training around the babies, gave it a go and absolutely loved it. By now I've done 17 half Ironmans. Last year I did my first full Ironman in Arizona, which took my just under 11 hours and I finished in the top 10 of my age group.
What is your strength?
I'm a strong swimmer and typically make most gains in that discipline. But I'm not that strong when it comes to biking and running - that's when others catch up with me.
How do you prepare for a race?
When I was younger, I would just do them without much training. After I had my children that's when I started proper training. I started using an online training program with "Training Peaks" and for the Ironman I hired Matt Dixon, from Purplepatch Fitness in San Francisco and he wrote a training program for me.
What are your biggest achievements?
My biggest achievement so far has been the Ironman. It was a major time commitment and I managed to balance it with my family life. I always wanted to feel what Ironman feel when they cross the line and the announcer calls out their name and says "You are an Ironman!" And I also won 6 Olympic Triathlons.
How much training to you do?
I normally train 5 days a week - but not always long distance. I try and do 2 days each of swimming, running and biking. I am a morning person, so I like to do my training first thing in the morning.
Does it get harder when you get older?
Yes, the last few years were harder. My knees hurt when running, but I thrive on endorphins and just push on.
Do you take any supplements or sports food?
I struggle taking any of that - I definitely prefer real food. I'd rather have a peanut butter & jelly sandwich stuffed in my cycling jersey than eat a Clif bar. All that artificial food seems to upset my stomach and I feel better if I eat real food.
I do use some sports drinks sometimes - especially here in Bermuda, when it gets really hot and humid. But I try to stick to water and just squeeze some lemon or some fruit juice into it.
For Ironman events I usually carry some dates, peanut bars or boiled potatoes with sea salt with me on the bike.
What were some of your most memorable events?
My favorite races have been the swim from Alcatraz to the city of San Francisco. Scary fun! Also the Auckland, New Zealand swim series - racing from Rangitoto to the mainland. Every time I hear about it, I want to do it again!
Another great one was a race called "Race the State" in Rhode Island, where you have to cross the entire State by kayaking, cycling, running and stand-up-paddle boarding. I won the womens race and am thinking of going back next year to defend my title.
What's driving you to do all that?
For me it's a substitute for not working. It's something to accomplish and makes me feel good about myself.
What are you planning for the future?
My goals forward are to keep challenging myself. I enjoy entering a race and meeting and blending with like minded people. We are out there to prove something to ourselves and in the process, we build our self esteem and feel strong. That's addicting. I love entering a race that I don't know. Destination races and new races add a new challenge. Keeping it ever changing, keeps it interesting.
I will definitely do the Sprint Triathlon in December and the Bermuda Half Marathon in January and I also aim to do 2 more full Ironman.
I would also really love to be a guide to a disabled triathlete. That is one thing left on my list. To bond with another athlete, who is disabled (for example blind) and compete together side by side. That would complete my racing resume.
What's your advice for newbies?
I do feel exercise is for everyone. You have to start and that's the hardest step. Give a workout of any type a try for more than three times. The more you try , the more you grow comfortable. Mix it up. If you have a plan to train, don't feel you can't mix the days off or supplement with another form of movement. Take it day to day and do what feels best on that day. Just don't skip. The benefits are plentiful. If you have kids, their exposure to your integrity and gumption will last a lifetime. I don't go on girls weekends per say. I spend the money on a race weekend and I leave my family and enjoy my time doing the race, meeting people at the race and hearing their stories. It motivates me to go home and train more. The outlet that sports has given me, has helped in all struggles of my growth as a person.