Physical Activity

Helle Frederiksen: Race to the Top

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On Saturday, October 13 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, the IRONMAN World Championship triathlon, known by many simply as Kona, took place. Over 2,000 athletes flocked to the Big Island for the ultimate test: a 140.6-mile journey consisting of swimming, cycling and running. One of these athletes was Puori ambassador Helle Frederiksen.

As one might expect of a race of this length, it was full of literal and figurative twists and turns, ups and downs, successes and tough lessons learned. Those not competing themselves can only imagine what such a journey must have felt like. Now, Helle is giving us an inside glimpse of her own personal experience.

“Well, I did it. I got myself to the finish line of the IRONMAN World Championships. A 16th-place finish. Well outside what I went to Kona for, but now, when looking back, it is a result I have, and will, learn so much from. I came to Kona as prepared as I could have been, given the circumstances. This gives me a sense of calm despite a finish position that doesn’t reflect what I am capable of. That said, having now raced at the front end of the field in Kona, I can see clearly what is required. Whilst I thought I was well prepared coming in, the truth is I have so much to improve upon, which makes the pursuit of Kona very exciting.”

helle cycling at ironman

Frederiksen discovered triathlons in 2004; and, after she graduated from the University of Copenhagen in 2008 with a Master of Science in Physical Education and Human Nutrition, she went pro. She burst onto the international racing scene almost immediately, with three victories at ETU European Cups and a 2nd-place best finish at an ITU World Cup. In 2012, she qualified for the London Olympics.

And she hasn’t stopped climbing since.

Of Kona, she says, “I was swim- and ride-fit (or so I thought) but lacked a significant amount of running in the five weeks leading into the race. As you all know, my foot gave me some challenges and my lead in was far from ideal, but I persevered through and am thankful I did so. Having now completed my first Kona, I feel I return back home to Denmark with a book on ‘what it takes’ to be successful on the Big Island.

“This experience, whilst very humbling, has given me so much. It has made me even more hungry to pursue a top position in Kona. If my career history is anything to go by, once I gain a little experience, I can find the formula for what it takes to become better and succeed on an objective. This can also be said for Kona. I’m hungry to return and I am committed to putting out my best on the Big Island in the near future. It is my objective over the coming years to compete for the podium in Kona.”

Frederiksen’s career record to date is nothing short of impressive. She is the current ITU Long Distance World Champion, a 9 x IRONMAN 70.3 winner. She holds the fastest time in history for the half-distance and set a national record on her debut at the IRONMAN distance.

helle competing at ironman

She went into Kona with high hopes. Her finish was awe-inspiring, to say the least, but she still walked away having learned quite a bit.

“The learnings from this year’s race are almost endless. I take a lot of confidence from my swim. Ben (manager and husband) and I specifically trained for the very scenario that unfolded. We implemented swim training that pushed my swim to a very high level. This showed and gives me confidence that I know what it takes to lead out behind the likes of Lucy Charles and Lauren Brandon, who are the sport’s leading swimmers. This year’s swim has given me confidence that I am capable of starting the bike leg toward the front of any race and in contention. I kind of knew this from my Olympic and half-distance racing but it would be wrong for me to assume it was a given at a competitive IRONMAN. I was never pressured during the swim in Kona.

“Looking back now, I have work to do on the bike. Strength and conditioning, aerodynamic/positioning gains and my mindset of how to ride a 180km are something that can be improved. Once out of the water, I rode too conservatively. I gave too much respect to the distance and was not assertive enough in the early stages. I felt fresh after the swim and should have forced the pace rather than sitting in. This I put down to inexperience and something I am aware of for the future.

“Upon reviewing my power file, I could have put out 20% higher output in the opening stages and it still would not have been on par with some of my 70.3 starting paces this year. A confidence booster nevertheless.

helle swimming

“The race seemed to get going at around the 30-40km mark. Many attacks came and the ride became a very interrupted tempo. It requires both a steady state output and spikes. You need to be capable of managing both. This type of riding is something that differed greatly from my first IRONMAN in Arizona back in November of last year. In hindsight, Arizona didn’t really prepare me at all for how the racing dynamics were in Kona. So, the ‘Rookie’ status was very real.

“I ‘comfortably’ positioned myself in the front group throughout the ride until the 140km mark. I covered the odd break and always put myself within the first few riders. At 140km, my back started to give me problems. I was in major discomfort. I could no longer push out power whilst aero. I found myself only able to access higher power numbers when seated. Suddenly, I was losing contact to the group. My herniated disc is something I have lived with for 9+ years now and I’ve always been able to manage it. In the days leading into the race, it started to irritate me. Unfortunately, it seemed that as the race developed and the onset of fatigue kicked in, my back couldn’t hold. A major lesson here is that I need my therapists with me in Kona. It was an expense and investment I felt I could spare this year. But the reality is as I load the final weeks of work into the body, having my therapy team around is a necessity, not a luxury. A learning for next time.

Helle training

“Onto the run, I was in a whole world of discomfort getting off the bike. Not to mention I was deflated that my body did not allow me to remain in contact with the leading group. That said, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. The run objective very quickly moved away from being a contender for the top spots. It was now all about keeping the body moving. Sure, there were times where I was unsure if it was even smart that I was moving at all. But I felt I needed to honor this race and I needed to get the full experience if I was to stand any chance of success at Kona in the future.

“So, the run was a case of survival. My slowest training run isn’t as slow as I ran in Kona, but despite having to persevere on a whole new level, I’m proud I was able to somewhat hold it together. There is not too much to say about the run other than so much was learnt and I have every confidence I can produce a Top 5 run split in Kona.

“So now, my very first Kona is in the books. I can’t thank you all enough for enabling me to get on the start line equipped and ready to compete. I am very excited about what the future holds for me in full-distance IRONMAN racing. With two races to my name, I am hungry to execute a good IRONMAN and pursue a top position in Kona.

helle smiling at ironman

“I will now take some weeks to allow the body and mind to recover.”

She may already be an Olympian, nutritionist, and one of the fastest women in the world, but Frederiksen is still just getting started.

To top it all off, Frederiksen has been nominated for Åretssportsnavn — Denmark’s equivalent of Sports Name of the Year award — and shortlisted for the BT Guld Award. Puori wishes you the best of luck, Helle!

Visit Helle’s Facebook page and website to learn more about her.

All photography by Jesper Grønnemark.