10 Questions with Meredith Kessler: America’s Most Decorated Ironman Athlete

photo courtesy of Meredith Kessler
photo courtesy of Meredith Kessler

Ohio-native Red Bull triathlete Meredith Kessler has been a sports lover since she was a kid—but it wasn’t until 2009 that she became a professional athlete.

One of the most decorated professional triathletes in the country, Kessler has won over a dozen triathlons and was named USA Triathlon’s 2014 Non-Drafting Athlete of the Year.

The Clymb: You come from a profession that has nothing to do with sports. What did you do “in your previous life” and how/why did you make the jump?

MEREDITH KESSLER: From an early age, I always dreamed of being a professional athlete. In what sport, I didn’t know yet, but it was always in the back of my mind that a career in sports was a possibility. After high school and college athletics, I made the jump to the ‘real world’ starting off as the second employee at the Ritz Carlton Half Moon Bay, before the hotel was even built. There was a lot of responsibility for someone so young out of college, yet I embraced the challenge, eventually working my way up to Spa Manager once the hotel was in full swing. From this, there was a small stint as a General Manage at Club One and then working 60+ hour weeks in finance at RBC Capital Markets in the investment banking division.

During all these years, I continued to exercise and train as I had done in my youth. I discovered triathlons right after college and I was hooked. There were times I would complete an Ironman on a Sunday and be back at work at 8am the next Monday. Not ideal for recovery, but you do what you can to be able to compete!

Making the jump to being a full-time professional was a long time in the making. My husband and I drew up a five-year plan to build the foundation so that, if something drastic happened, we could still support ourselves to weather any storm. When I became a professional, I was still working full-time at RBC, teaching cycling classes, and I also was a triathlon coach; so four jobs to pave the way. After finally letting go of the steady pay check at RBC, I DNFd (did not finish) my next two Ironman races, so building that foundation was imperative to helping out during these tough times.

THE CLYMB: What kind of sports did you enjoy as a kid?

MK: My parents threw me in sports ever since I can remember and sport has always played such an integral role in shaping who I am today.

Sports were a big part of my life as a child and I did everything under the sun to stay active. This included swimming teams as early as five years old with my parents driving me at 6am to practices. Field hockey, soccer, lacrosse, and track; these were all a part of the repertoire. It was a way of life to be active and I enjoyed every minute of the daily routine. I was also that very strange individual who would swim 5k or run 10 miles before high school every day. What was even more weird was that my mom wouldn’t let me run outside that early in the morning, thus I would run indoor at a gym that had a track that was 16 laps per mile—like a hamster in a cage!

I almost swam in college—yet, again, playing a team sport was more attractive to me and I was fortunate to get a scholarship at Syracuse to play Field Hockey. I also think I subconsciously knew that once I was out of college, I may not ever be able to play on a team in that capacity ever again!

I graduated from Syracuse in 2000 and used my college graduation money to purchase my first triathlon bike and (again, so strange and silly) slapped myself into a full Ironman two weeks later at 21 years old. I caught the bug of triathlon from that point on; this nutty hobby became my job and now career for the past eight years. Next month, I will be lining up at my almost 60th full Ironman triathlon in Kona, Hawaii—so that bug still lies within me as much as it did when I was running around that indoor track.

THE CLYMB: How did your high school and college activities shape your current life as a triathlon athlete?

MK: High School and College were all about team sports. This is where you learn hard work, how to train, teamwork, and dedication. Exercising was ingrained in me like brushing your teeth; it is just something you do to keep yourself healthy and feeling good! This was my thinking time and I thoroughly enjoyed the physical activity above and beyond what was required in the team setting. I also remember hiding my extra exercise from my college field hockey coach who, for some reason, didn’t like me working out as much as I did. However, this was my normal and what I incorporated in my daily routine.

This outlook carried on into life after college and holding down multiple jobs. Yes, I swim, bike and run for a living yet this was a profession that was 30+ years in the making.

meredith kessler by chad riley
photo by Chad Riley

THE CLYMB: What was your first race like?

MK: My first race was shortly after my college graduation as mentioned previously. I then entered a full distance Ironman race near my hometown in Ohio. The biggest memory was riding 112 miles on the bike in loose-fitting soccer shorts. I was such a newbie to the sport of triathlon, especially cycling, I had no idea that you needed to wear spandex to cut down on extreme chaffing. Needless to say, that race was a long one!

The training from this first event was virtually nothing as far as specifically for triathlon. With my daily routine and college athletics, I was fit—but mastering three disciplines in a tri race is a whole different ball game! I think I rode one time on my bike before racing (having never even been on a tri bike) so this was definitely the hardest part of the event. However, I have been hooked by the sport ever since!

THE CLYMB: In the last few years, you have won an impressive number of Ironman competitions. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

MK: I love to race; as an athlete, this is why you compete—the thrill of competition! There is such a small window of years you are able to compete at your peak level that I want to get out on the course as much as the body and mind allows! The key is consistency and balance. If you can do an adequate job and controlling and overcoming these things, you hopefully will put yourself in a quality position to race more often than not. As with any sport, there are injuries and setbacks but, through preparation and confidence, you try to avoid or limit these pitfalls. As an athlete, especially one competing in a sport with three distinct disciplines, you are always learning from every training session.

As you can imagine, it’s been a journey. There have been epic highs; There have been very goth lows. The peaks have been priceless and cherished and the valley’s have been understandably challenging and bleak. There has been success that will never be taken for granted, and there has been failure that has created a fabric of possibility to really realize how much we need it in order to prosper later. This failure taught me how to really value and appreciate the saying: “You can’t control the waves of the world but you can be the captain of the boat.”

I view sport as a constant evolution of progression: learning, fine-tuning, re-calibrating. Racing specifically is filled with the most intense moments—ones that also bring us the most extreme and raw possibility. These moments enable us to craft meaning in what we have been doing—with effort, stamina, gumption, fortitude and of course, failure. If we don’t fail, if we don’t lose—what will drive us to be better?

THE CLYMB: You were also named USA Triathlon’s 2014 Non-Drafting Athlete of the Year; can you tell our readers about the award and what it means to you?

MK: This award is presented by USA Triathlon and it recognizes the American athlete who has performed well in long distance triathlon racing; 70.3 and full Ironman distances which is non drafting, a lot different than Olympic distance racing. It was such a privilege to be awarded this honor in 2014 because it became apparent that all the hard work for 30+ years had been paying off in the form of recognition from others. You compete in sport for family, friends, and yourself. However, it feels good to be recognized by others in an activity you have dedicated so much of your time to — every day.

THE CLYMB: Any particular race/win you’re proud of?

MK: Winning Ironman Canada will always hold a special place in my heart because it was my first Ironman victory as a professional in 2010. Things were a lot simpler then! The raw beauty of going to a lovely location, competing in an Ironman, barely knowing what to expect or what you are doing, and coming out victorious was a feeling I will never forget. My husband and I were so naïve as to what to expect; it feels like ages ago.

Taupo, New Zealand also holds a very special place in my heart because it is our happy place. We will be going for our 6th win in a row there in 2017 and each time it has been special in its own right.

meredith kessler
photo courtesy of Meredith Kessler

THE CLYMB: What is your training routine?

MK: Our new book, Life of a Triathlete: Race Preparation (which she co-wrote with husband Aaron Kessler) has detailed workout, training, and nutrition routines. We relay to individuals my trials and tribulations navigating a difficult sport so that athletes can reduce the time it takes to reach their goals! With that being said, the life of a triathlete is not glamorous on paper yet to us, it’s a real dream. We try to swim, bike, run, strength train, recover, rest, hydrate, and eat healthy. We do this and then repeat the next day. There is also the business side of our job which takes a good chunk of time.

There is always some form of running, biking, and swimming in my routine every day/week. Triathlon racing is one continuous journey with races as blips on the radar along the way. Our brand is balance, so I try to be as efficient as possible with my routine so that I still have hours in the day for family and friends, the things that make life special.

THE CLYMB: What is your favorite and least favorite activity in a triathlon?

MK: My favorite activity is the swim; this is my chi or yoga time! It calms the nerves. I enjoy riding the bike a lot. However, in Ironman racing, being out on the road for 112 miles gets to you and your rear. When that transition comes around to get off the bike and begin the run, I am extremely happy to change disciplines!

THE CLYMB: What lies ahead for you?

MK: We have been rehabbing an injury for the past eight weeks that I have been dealing with for the better part of two years. To be clear, we means husband Aaron Kessler and I, plus my inner circle (friends, family, swim coach, strength coach etc). I’m really just the technician in it all. There is a team of people that helps me get to the start line, ready to fire!

It was time to put the body in the body shop for a bit—this is part of our job description as a professional triathlete. It is so nice to be coming out on the other side of all of that and properly preparing for the next race. We can never take for granted: health. Having had many injuries in sport in the past and in my job now, I constantly think about the times when I could not. When I’m in dark pockets out there on the course, the very first thing that comes to my mind is how I feel when I cannot and that is one of many things that drives me to get up with gusto even more. You wont ever hear me say: “OH, ARGH—I have to go out and run 10 miles, or GUH—I have to go do a hard interval swim”. NEVER. No one is making me do it. I do it because I want to do it. It is what makes me thrive.

In that respect, the second half of the season for us is just beginning! We have the Kona World Championships coming up in October, then it is the Island House Triathlon in the Bahamas the end of October and in November, Ironman Arizona, and then we’ll end the year at Ironman Taupo 70.3. We will then reassess the year and get ready for 2017!