There are a few female Pro athletes that already have enough points to be able to book their flight in early May for the Ironman World Championships in October. Most of them are big names such as Mirinda Carfrae, Jodie Swallow, Caroline Steffen or Meredith Kessler. In addition there is one name that only a few people will know: Susie Cheetham. In his 2013 article about Susie on Tri247.com, John Levison calls her “perhaps be the best British long course athlete you’ve not heard of. Yet.” Not that much has changed until this season: With 5.650 points from 70.3 World Championships, 70.3 South Africa and two third places at IM Barcelona and IM South Africa, she is well above last year’s qualifying threshold of 4.800 points while still flying under the radar. I wanted to learn a bit more about Susie, her background and her plans for this year.
Getting Started with Triathlon
Growing up in England, Susie was a runner: “I started running when I was thirteen. Running doesn’t take that long to train for; I trained once a week until I was about fifteen, at fifteen I started training twice a week. And then at sixteen I think I fancied one of the guys at the track so I ran a little more. I really improved, I won the English national’s schools in the 3000 meters on the track and was second in the 1500. I got selected for British juniors for the world championship. Three or four weeks before I was supposed to go I had a stress fracture in my sacrum – at 17 it is quite a wake-up call to have a stress fracture at the bottom of your spine.”
Similar to a lot of runners that increase their mileage when growing up, she was injured a lot. “I had calf injuries quite a lot and I think the final stroke was my Achilles. I had far too many injuries and spent half my time aqua jogging or feeling sorry for myself that I couldn’t be training or racing.” Even with her injuries, she was part of the British U23 team that won the gold medal in the 2007 European Cross Country Championships and posted a 10k PR of 33:55 at the 2009 BUPA Great Ireland Run. “I could have carried on, but I was having problems with my Achilles and also started working full time as a Brand Manager at Volac, a dairy nutrition company which supplies whey protein to the sports nutrition market. So it came quite naturally that I put it on the back burner for a bit. I was still running and started cycling a bit, partly for cross training and partly to spend time with my (now) husband Rob who was training for an Ironman. I couldn’t believe the amount of training he was doing. I was competing internationally and he was ‘giving Ironman a go’, yet he was training double the hours I was. I still think the amount that we train is ridiculous, but I love it.”
Fellow Pro and friend Lucy Gossage still remembers riding with Susie in 2010 when Lucy was training for her 9:53 at Ironman Germany as an age grouper: “I first met Susie when I was becoming a good age grouper and she was an amazing runner doing a bit of riding – I remember on our first ride together being a bit put out that she could stay with the group quite easily, even on the hills! I think it’s indisputable that she has a huge amount of natural talent but she also has an incredible drive, determination and I think far more self belief than me.”
In 2011, Susie was ready to tackle her first serious race: “In mid 2011, I figured I had done enough ‘cross training’ to give a Half Ironman a go and did fairly well. I did Antwerp 70.3 in July, loved it and won my age group. Although it’s not a comparable race I would have come 6th pro.”
Transitioning to Pro
After her great result in Antwerp, Susie immediately took her Pro card. “There is no age group system in running, so you either run as a fun runner or you’re serious, and I wanted to be serious about it. I didn’t realize you could be serious about it and not be a pro. Also in running, even in elite, prize money is not a given, missing out on it meant I raced my next race (70.3 South Africa, 2012) as a pro. In hindsight, if I had understood the age group system I may have stuck at it a bit longer as I developed as a triathlete.”
One area where she felt she had to improve was her swim – her swim time in Antwerp 70.3 was 30:23, more than five minutes behind the leaders. “I had no background in swimming. I grew up on the coast so I always swam, but I never swam in a lane until 2011. Going into Antwerp, I used to swim a kilometer and a half just to make sure I could do the swim. I didn’t do any reps, I just swam to make sure I could do 1900 meters. After Antwerp I realized I wanted to take this more seriously. I’m quite fortunate, my husband is a very good swimming teacher; he’s done amazingly with me. He broke everything down; he probably has four or five things that he looks at. He effectively just simplified it for me, just basic things such as not crossing over my arms, not dropping my elbow, and he has been working on those ever since. I’m still working on my swim and continue to make big improvements, but it hasn’t shown in any of my long races yet, which is really frustrating.”
Lucy thinks a lot of Susie’s development has to do with Rob: “They come as a pair and you can’t talk about Suse without crediting Rob too. He’s her other half in every sense of the word.”
Even after turning Pro, Susie continued to work as a Brand Manager and helped to launch Upbeat, a fresh whey protein drink that is available in all the major UK supermarkets. “The next three years I worked full time and competed as a Pro – those years were tough! I was regularly training at 5am and 9pm so I can definitely relate to any age groupers that take the sport seriously with a full time job.” She still managed to place on a few podiums and won her first Professional race, 70.3 Aix en Provence in 2013.
2014 saw some big changes for her: “I’ve been with Rob for the last eleven years, we got married in April and I went part time at work.” She now splits her time between Cambridge where she works and Oxford where her husband works. “We have a house in Cambridge that we own; actually I rent one of the rooms to Lucy [Gossage]. We don’t train together that much; when I’m in Cambridge I’m working, so she’s training during the day – but we’ve been on a lot of training camps together.” Here is Lucy’s view: “Susie and I have become very good friends, though our training together always seems to be thwarted by one of us getting ill and injured.”
Working part time allowed Susie to step up her training, winning the 70.3 Norway.
Susie breaking the winner’s tape in Haugesund.
In September 2014 she also participated in the 70.3 World Championship in Mont Tremblant, Canada, and finished a respectable twelfth place in the Pro category.
By that time, she had already registered for her first full-distance Ironman race, Ironman Barcelona in October. “I had decided at the beginning of the year I might try an Ironman, but definitely at the end of the year. I’m not going to lie, anyone close to me will know I was terrified about my first Ironman.” Then why did she do it? “I remember when I got into running I was terrified of going down to the track and running club. I was 13 and it’s such a big life lesson for me: Do the things you are uncomfortable with and actually you’ll benefit in the long run.”
Even with a full Ironman on the calendar, her 2014 season was focused on 70.3s. “I did the Ironman off the back of a season of 70.3s racing and training just to see what it was all about and see if I had any potential at the distance. After the 70.3 World Champs I had about two weeks of training to get some miles under my belt. I remember a horrible ride in Canada after Mount Tremblant; it was horrible weather and I wanted to do 180 kilometers. It was cold, I didn’t have the proper kit and my husband was following in the car. I was beginning to question whether I wanted to do an Ironman, but it wasn’t too bad in the end.”
Even though she had never run a marathon, she felt a lot more confident about her run capabilities. “One of my favourite sessions are some longer runs. Every couple of weeks I try to do a longer run at a progressive pace, first hour is fairly steady and the second hour is building the pace up to 70.3 pace. I just love running; that certainly wasn’t a struggle.”
First Ironman: Barcelona 2014
In October, Susie finished her first Ironman in Barcelona. “I didn’t have many expectations except double the distance must mean double the pain. I knew I was fit but I also knew I probably hadn’t done the volume I would have liked to. Going into the race with no preconceptions meant there wasn’t too much that surprised me. Tamsin Lewis did her first Ironman just before me and she said that it’s not as bad as people say; it’s all in the last hour, maybe two hours that it hurts. What I found really mentally taxing was that the bike course is three laps; so the first lap was fine, the second lap was mainly fine, but by the time the third lap came, it was just really mentally taxing to be going past athletes at the back of the field. They are not the worst because you can just pass them, but when you start passing male age groupers, they have got big egos, it’s quite stressful because then they overtake you again after you’ve overtaken them. You even get that with some of the pro men as well; there was one pro man that came absolutely pelting on the first lap of the bike, and then on the second lap of the bike I thought I was catching one of the girls but it was him; and as soon as I overtook him he overtook me and then he put the power down. Funnily enough he died on the run. I got really frustrated and I was quite upset with all the drafting after the race. Thankfully I surprised myself in the sense that it didn’t hurt as much as I thought. I suppose if anything, the whole race flew by and I hadn’t expected that.” She finished in third place with a quick time of 9:03, one of the fastest debuts by a British woman.
Susie on the podium in Barcelona, soaking winner Eva Wutti.
Next Ironman: SouthAfrica 2015
Going into IM Barcelona, Susie hadn’t given qualifying for Kona much thought. “I knew a decent result combined with my points from Mt. Tremblant would put me in a good position to qualify for Kona. But at the same time I had never done an Ironman and it seemed like a very long day ahead of me. I wasn’t even sure if I would want to do another Ironman again, let alone Kona!” After her great result in Barcelona, she decided to tackle Kona qualifying in earnest. “My Barcelona build up and race was very much experimental and a bonus. For Ironman South Africa I was committed to the goal of qualifying for Kona. Do well in South Africa and the pressure is off, don’t do so well and I’d have to think up a new plan to qualify under pressure!”
How did she go into the race compared to Barcelona? “My approach to IM South Africa couldn’t have been further from my approach to Barcelona. I had South Africa 70.3 (in January 2015) and Ironman South Africa (in late March) on my race calendar from November 2014 so I was able to focus on it and build up to it as a priority race. My sessions were tailored to Ironman from February after the 70.3 in January. This time if I didn’t do well there were no excuses of lack of prep!”
“As a Regional Championship race the build up for South Africa was slightly different as the field was so much stronger. Both Eva Wutti and Camila Pedersen who had beaten me in Barcelona were racing in addition to about another eight or so who I felt on a good day could contend for a top ten at Kona. As nobody expected me to be on the podium my build up was probably easier than the other girls as I didn’t have many commitments the days before the race. I knew my training had been going well, but I wasn’t sure exactly how that would play out on race day.”
She was able to deliver another great performance at IM South Africa – all day she was racing very smart.
Susie on her cool Falco beam bike.
She came off the bike in sixth place and then had a great run. “When I heard that Lucy [Gossage] was in second, I was in fourth at the time, and I thought ‚Lucy can’t get on the podium and not me.‘ And then I was running and she saw that I was gaining on her and then she ran harder. I think we both ran each other onto the podium.” With the fastest run of the day (3:03, almost six minutes faster than her marathon in Barcelona) she was able to run herself onto the podium with a time of 9:33, in a stronger field and on a much slower course than in Barcelona. With 2.890 KPR points for her third place, she was able to increase her total score to 5.650 points – in safe territory for a Kona slot.
Working towards Kona
Susie won’t be racing another Ironman before Kona. “I don’t know how some athletes do so many Ironmans. They’re brutal and although I’ve loved them it’s taken me some time to recover. I will focus on shorter races through the summer. At the moment I will definitely do 70.3 Staffordshire (June 14) and hope to defend my title at 70.3 Norway (July 5). I plan to race the 70.3 Championships (Aug 30) assuming it fits with where I am for Kona prep. It’s in Austria so I’d love to do it. Then I’m going to Kona two weeks before; I’ve just booked my flights.”
“I’m not sure at the moment how to prepare for Kona (Oct 10). In terms of training I will most likely follow a similar plan as the run up to South Africa building in some learning points from the build up and race. The UK’s climate isn’t exactly well known for its heat and humidity so I will definitely be taking some time to train somewhere hot and humid.”
What expectations does she have for Kona? “I’ve always raced well in the heat and I think the course suits me, but predicting my end result is too difficult. What everyone tells me is it takes a long time to learn to race well in Kona. Think Chris McCormack and all these amazing people that have done incredibly well at Kona, it took them a good few years to really get it right.”
A lot of people also say that the race is much more mentally taxing as there is a big strong field that will be close together for most of the day. “I remember at Mount Tremblant, I came out in quite a big group after the swim, it makes it really hard to find a space where you are comfortable and you are not surging to get past ten girls. It will be interesting to see how that affects the race dynamics.”
Any plans for 2016? “Ask me at the end of October. I don’t really know at the moment. For this year, my goal was to qualify to go to Kona and see how I get on.”
What will Susie be able to do in Kona? As always with Kona, it’s almost impossible to tell. She is aware of this herself: “From what I hear about Kona it’s such an unpredictable race even for athletes that have already raced Kona.” She has a few things going in her favor: She has raced well in the heat, and her run strength will be an important asset to do well in Kona. Tri247’s John Levison agrees: “She is not a front pack swimmer, so that will perhaps be magnified a little in Kona, but she is solid and not ‘weak’ – so will likely have some good company with her. Kona is always a lottery – but if I look at 2014 and see [slower swim] splits for [front finishers] Julia Gajer (6th), Liz Lyles (7th), Corinne Abraham (11th, and not really a good day for her), then a Top10 doesn’t seem impossible if she can be strong across the board. Her South Africa run (faster than Lucy) was very impressive, and suggests she’s got increased strength, fitness and confidence since Barcelona.” Lucy is also quite optimistic for Susie’s potential in Kona: “Susie’s very very strong on the flat on the bike and now she’s cracked her run I definitely think she’s got a chance of a top 10 in Kona this year. In the future who knows – I think it depends how much her run can improve. Definitely top 5 one day if she doesn’t get injured. I’ll be watching from the oncology clinic when she does!”
I’m a bit more cautious about Susie’s chances in Kona 2015. Her slower swim will probably leave her a few minutes behind: Based on her swim times so far (58:43 in Barcelona and 57:52 in South Africa) I expect her to swim at slightly over one hour in the slower Kona conditions. She’ll loose some more time on the bike, and even with a 5:15 (she rode a 5:25:54 in South Africa) she’ll be outside of the Top20 into T2. Having only raced in the smaller and less competitive fields in Barcelona and South Africa, this will be a new situation for her, and it’s impossible to tell how she’ll be able to deal with it. If she runs at the level she has shown, she’ll run under 3:10 and should finish around twentieth place with a total time of 9:30. In Kona a few minutes can make a big difference, so with a few more improvements in the remaining five months to Kona and maybe a good day in October, she could finish between tenth and fifteenth place. Anything beyond that is probably not realistic for her first Kona appearance.
A big thank you to Susie for taking the time to answer my questions through email and Skype. All photos have been provided by her.