Karen Barrow: From Commonwealth Games Cyclist to Triathlete

Karen Barrow competed at the 1998 Commonwealth Games in the 3000-metre individual pursuit and finished fourth in the 24-kilometre women’s points race. Now she’s an age-group triathlete based in Melbourne, competing in the local Gatorade Series in a bid to work her way up the ranks. We caught up with Karen to discuss the similarities and differences between the sports and her triathlon goals for the future.

You have a recognised background as a cyclist, but what prompted you to add swim and run to your repertoire? When did this happen?

I’d like to say that I woke up one morning and said, “Let’s give triathlon a go!”, but that’s not true. I’d like to say I’ve always run and have been a swimmer since a child, but that’s not true either! It really wasn’t that straightforward. I was a full-time track endurance cyclist at an international level but I retired from all competition in early 2000. I felt quite burnt out at the time, so when I hung up the bike, I really hung up the bike. For the next 12 years I did virtually no exercise and yes, put on several kilos to show it!

Living in Kinglake West, I was affected by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. It was a life-changing event for many people, including myself. Gradually, following the fires, I came to realise that I was fundamentally unhappy with my lifestyle and myself. Initially, change was slow, but by 2012 I had started running socially and was beginning to take an interest in obstacle course racing. I then made the fundamental mistake of trying to do too much, too soon, before my body was ready, the result being a stress fracture in my foot. The specialists told me that I was not allowed to run or ride for six weeks and I was devastated. I hadn’t actually started cycling again at that stage, just running a bit here and there, but the threat of complete inactivity floored me.

I had only just engaged the services of my running coach (Paul Ford) and when we were discussing my injury and my inability to train, he simply suggested – why don’t you do some swimming? Obvious suggestion and a simple question; except I couldn’t swim – not a stroke! And I’ll confess I had a very healthy fear of water. A fear that I still have to this day and have to manage every single swim session.

But the seed was sown and I was keen to turn a negative experience into a positive one. I enrolled in swimming classes at MSAC and got lucky – I was the only person enrolled. This meant I had a few months of one-on-one instruction, learning to swim in the 25-metre pool with a kickboard and blowing bubbles. Swim classes were only every Saturday but I was determined to learn, so I also practised every week before work. Week by week, stroke by stoke, I began to learn and am still learning to swim.

After six weeks I was allowed to take off the moon boot and was told I was able to ride my bike but not yet allowed to run. I still owned a road bike but it was literally covered in dust and cobwebs. I had to brush the bike down with a broom and spray it with insect spray before I was brave enough to clean it and give it the TLC it needed. I then went for my first bike ride in 13 years and it was a renaissance. I. Could. Not. Stop. Smiling.

Now that I was swimming, cycling and running, the ‘transition’ to triathlon was then a matter of logic but not a matter of course. One of the first triathlons I entered, the weather conditions were terrible and the water was extremely choppy. I didn’t make it through the swim, and instead suffered the indignity of a ride back to shore in a boat. But I was permitted to continue with the bike and the run leg and I am very grateful to the TOs for allowing me to do that. Despite feeling emotionally despondent from the swim, I posted the fastest bike leg and a pretty quick run leg.

That was the only encouragement I needed. I haven’t looked back since that day – only forward.

How have you found the transition from professional cyclist to age-group triathlete?

Triathlon is such a different sport to what I was doing that it makes it easy for me not to compare.

That said – despite being so new to the sport, despite still learning to swim and despite still developing as a runner – I still look on at the elites with a pang of envy and I regularly look at their race times and wonder, ‘What if…?’

It is an unfortunate prerequisite of being an elite athlete that you need to have a bit of an ego in order to succeed. You need to believe in yourself 100 per cent at all times. There is absolutely no room for self-doubt. Despite no longer racing as an elite athlete physically, I still think and feel like one mentally and emotionally.

You’ve been a part of the Commonwealth Games; are you able to use that ‘big race’ experience to your advantage on the triathlon scene?

That is a great question. It helps in that I know how to prepare myself for a race – I am extremely well organised, I list all of my equipment requirements and I write down a planned schedule. I’ve learnt not to panic when things get in the way of that golden schedule and I’ve learnt to adapt quickly when things go wrong, including with equipment.

The big question – am I any less nervous? No. But racing over time has helped me manage those nerves. Time has even helped me appreciate those nerves. They are a fundamental part of racing and without them you won’t perform your best. The trick is to not let nerves control you. You are in charge.

In the simplest terms, if you are not nervous, you are not ready to race. And yes, I still go to the toilet at least 10 times before a Gatorade sprint – just as I did when racing at the Commonwealth Games.

Purely from a cycling perspective, how do your experiences as a rider compare specifically to riding in a triathlon?

Firstly, you drag yourself out of the water and all the blood flow is around your shoulders. You go from horizontal to vertical and your heart rate spikes.

Personally, I struggle a lot with dizziness at this stage, so watching me trying to pull my wetsuit off is definitely a source of entertainment for spectators.

When you hop on your bike there are a number of things your body is trying desperately to do. It needs to redirect blood flow to your legs, which at this point feel pretty sluggish.

You are soaking wet, including your chamois. If the water was cold, your feet are most likely numb. Through all of this you somehow have to get going – at just the right pace.

Apparently there are rules too! I already knew it was illegal to draft but I hadn’t read the rules before I started racing. This resulted in some interesting conversations with some TOs about passing on the left. In bike racing, any gap will do. In triathlon, only ever pass on the right.

Do you have any goals you want to achieve in triathlon or is it completely recreational for you?

I once went fishing with my partner, Frank. Let’s just say I had never been fishing before but I caught the most fish! I am a pretty competitive person in just about everything I do. I have set myself a goal to qualify and compete in both sprint and Olympic-distance events at the 2016 World Championships in Cozumel, Mexico.

The sprint is a bit of an unknown as the event will be draft legal this year. This puts a lot of emphasis on the swim and takes away my strength – the bike.

The Olympic distance should be a little more ‘user friendly’ for me as the bike leg is not draft legal and double the distance.

Simply put, I hope to be at the pointy end for both distances.

What are some common mistakes you have seen riders make during races in your experience as a triathlete?

There’s some that spring to mind straight away:

I frequently see people who have racked their bike in a really hard gear. This means that when they try to mount, the gearing is really hard for them to pedal and it takes a long time for them to build up speed. Similarly, many people don’t change gears when approaching a turn-around, resulting in the same problem.

Another obvious error is trying to get your feet into your shoes too early. This only relates to people who are trying to mount their bike with their shoes already clipped into the pedals. If you plan to use this technique, place your feet on the top of your shoes and just get going. Once you have a good speed up, only then put one foot into one shoe. Then pedal for a bit again before trying to do the same with the second foot. The whole idea is to get your speed up and maintain some momentum so that you can maintain balance.

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