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!