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Hilary Cairns {March 2009}

This month, we talked with DC Triathlon Club member Hilary Cairns.

Hilary is a superb distance runner who has transitioned very successfully to triathlon. She was at age 36 the female winner of the 2006 Nation’s Triathlon, a bike/run event that year. She placed fifth in the Nation’s Tri in 2008, and second in 2007, with “descending” splits of 25:27, 1:06:36, and 37:54, respectively. The mother of three, Hilary has also finished first in her age group at the challenging Columbia Triathlon. 

You started out as a runner, correct?
At Williams College in Massachusetts I was Division III All-American in the 10,000 meters. I still consider myself to be a runner who dabbles in triathlon…I'm happy to report that I'm running almost the same times I ran when I was solely a runner, so the break from the miles hasn't hurt me.

Are you a “speedy” long-distance runner?
Egads, no! My legs have completely lost any fast-twitch muscles I may have once had.  I've only done a 400 race a few times and my fastest time is quite slow (74 seconds!)

What got you into triathlon?
I started triathlons after numerous running injuries, including tendon issues and multiple stress fractures. I was spending a lot of time in the pool and I figured I should put all the laps to good use. Triathlon saved me!

What surprised you about competing in triathlons?
How good I feel running. I had heard about the dead-leg feeling, but I honestly sometimes feel better running off the bike than I do running an open road race. I'm also surprised by how my perspective on exercise has gotten when I run just a 5K or a 10K I feel like a wimp, and I need to get in a swim later in the day!

Which of the three legs do you find the most difficult?
Swimming is probably hardest--and for me, the weakest. I love swimming though, and I swim more often than anything else. I have a lot of room to improve on the bike, but I'm not a fan of biking. I pretty much see the first two legs as prep work for my real race, which is the run. I can't wait to get off the bike and start running.

What is your training regimen?
I probably shouldn't admit this, but I haven't taken a day off in four years, the last time being the two days after the birth of my third child…I basically try to get in each week a track workout, hills or tempo run, and a 60-minute bike ride followed by a 15-18-mile-long run; 4-6 swims. To prepare for a half-ironman, I make sure to do at least three 3 hour trainer sessions. I supplement training with the elliptical trainer. I average about 13-15 hours of training each week…I've found a great group of early birds--including Mayor Fenty--who are willing to go to the track bright and early, and squeeze in swims when we can.

What kind of bike do you have?
I have a Specialized Dolche with aerobars. I know nothing about bikes, but I do know my bike is inferior to most others I see at races. That said, one of my absolute favorite things in the world is passing people riding super fancy bikes with the loud disk wheels.

Do you use any accessories like heart monitors?
I'm technologically averse. I don't use a hear rate monitor (although I have three sitting in my basement), and my bike doesn't even have a computer-thingy to tell me how far I've gone, how fast I'm going, or what my RPMs are (it used to, but the battery died a few years ago and I've never gotten it fixed).

My understanding is that people who use the word “thingy” are indeed technologically averse…What nutrition do you take during a race?
I've struggled with this aspect of racing. I have a pretty sensitive stomach and I don't like really sweet things. I've gotten so I can handle some bars, gels, and drinks. I try to eat and drink immediately after workouts even if I don't feel like it.

Have you found the DC Triathlon Club helpful?
The DC Tri Club was extremely useful when I first started doing triathlons and had no clue what I was doing. I love the summer training tris, which I try to do each year. I really appreciate all that the club does to encourage people to try the sport. The volunteer turnout is great and I know I've become a better triathlete because of the club.

Some have commented on your unique running "style" in triathlons! You seem to almost zero in and the runner in front of you, pass him, then zero in on the next runner, pass her, and so on.
By ‘style’ I thought you meant my awkward form, which includes a distinct kick-out with my right foot! My kids and husband like to joke that they can see me coming from a mile away because of my ‘style,’ which gets worse the more fatigued I get.

Where did you get your competitive juices?
My mom ran marathons, which was quite unusual for women in the early 1970s. I was a complete ‘tomboy’ (which I know isn't PC to say now, but that's what it was called way back then), and I played soccer, tennis, ice hockey and softball…I was a pretty bad sport when I was little. I threw my tennis racquets, yelled at myself. Ugly stuff.

You seem to have a slender “runner’s physique”. Do you weight train to build strength for triathlons?
Ha!  I'm sure not as slender as I used to be. I occasionally do curls, push-ups, planks and crunches, but I don't know where I could fit in more exercise. Plus, my arms and back are usually tired from swimming, and my legs are tired from running and biking. I also never stretch, except for one minute standing in the pool after swimming.

What are your favorite or least-favorite races and distances?
I've done a few half-ironmans and really like that distance… I'm probably best-suited for the Olympic distance because I can maintain a high level of effort for a long time and I'm not super weak in any of the three disciplines…I've never done a full Ironman and I'd like to, but I worry that my family might run my bike over with our car or burn all my running shoes if I attempt training for one.

(Ed. note: Last’s year’s Eagleman half-ironman race was terrifically hot.)

My hardest triathlon was Eagleman last year when I completely misjudged my fluid needs, dropped a water bottle, got very dehydrated and, as a result, started walking four miles into the run. It was ugly. My worst moment was making the stupid decision not to stop and pick up my water bottle (or any of the hundreds of others I saw strewn on the road), thinking I'd lose too much time. Dumb…And my trip to the med tent didn't please my family and, in my delirium, I promised never to do another half-ironman again.  Of course, I signed up for Eagleman again…

Any injury problems in your career?
I suffered several stress fractures and lots of IT and hamstring issues during my running years.  Since switching to triathlon and just getting older and wiser about my training, I've been relatively injury-free. I no longer attempt to train through injuries, and just do alternate activities when I feel an injury coming on. Most of my injuries these days are more life injuries, like tweaking my back while carrying a kid.

Tell us about being a mother and a triathlete.
I'm a mom of three: Page (age 9), Teddy (7), and Grant (4). It definitely takes some planning. I do a lot of my workouts when everyone is sleeping, and I also have an extremely supportive husband, Malcolm Lester. My training and racing are good examples to our kids, except when I do crazy things like run in torrential rains. But they also know that I get pretty grumpy when I don't get in a good workout.

Sometimes I do feel like my training is self-indulgent, so I try to check myself and make sure that I'm training the ‘right’ amount--enough to feel good about my racing plans, but not so much that I'm interfering with our family life and exhausting myself.

Do your children take after you as an athlete?
My daughter has already run a sub-7-minute pace 5K and a 6-minute mile. She can also swim almost as fast as I can. Our older son is a complete sports junky, but much prefers ball sports, particularly football, basketball, and lacrosse, the latter of which my husband coaches. Our youngest son does whatever our oldest son does! My husband isn’t a triathlete, but he is a great runner who can crush me even when he's running a 15-mile week.

Tell us about your life outside of tri and family.
I have lived on Capitol Hill for 16 years.  Originally I’m from Minneapolis.  I work part-time as a court-appointed lawyer for child abuse and neglect cases in the Family Court in DC.  As you can imagine, the work is at times pretty frustrating, but I do feel like I'm helping children and parents.

What are your race events and goals for 2009?
I'm doing a lot of straight-up running races, the Duathlon Nationals, the Philly Triathlon, and my favorite, the Nation's Tri, in September.  I may do SavageMan, if it's not too late to sign up and I can convince my family to road trip with me!

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