Kessler talks crashes, Kona and comebacks

American Meredith Kessler is a veteran of the 46 Ironman events. Steve Godwin

American Meredith Kessler has been riding quite the wave –- though experiencing one of her best triathlon seasons to date, Kessler's training and race efforts have been peppered with crashes, including one which forced her to DNF at the Ironman World Championship in Kona. As Kessler prepares to race her final Ironman of the year, Triathlete.com chatted with the 46-time Ironman competitor to learn more about the highs and lows of 2012.

Triathlete.com: It's been quite the season for you! Let's talk about some of your highs: Seven top-three finishes, including five wins. What's changed this year that has allowed you to get on the top step of the podium so often?

Kessler: The past three years have been an unforgettable ride that I continue to learn from and enjoy. I was so thankful to have three podium finishes in 2010, six in 2011 and seven in 2012. It is always a goal to try to be as consistent as possible in sport while being able to do what you love to do: RACE. I am definitely a different athlete than I was in 2010 and it is due to an increased focus on nutrition, hydration and recovery. It is also massively due to following the plan that my coach, Matt Dixon, and I have concentrated on for the past six years on this journey. Unfortunately, the improvements don’t take place overnight and there is a long period where you need to steadily improve. There are only a handful of special athletes that can burst on the scene and make a mark in this sport. The majority of athletes (myself included!) need time to learn and get incrementally better over time. It is a continuous progression of constant learning.

It's also been a year of obstacles. Tell us about your bike crash this summer. How did that affect you, physically and mentally, going into 70.3 Worlds and Kona?

Ah yes, indeed! I devote a chapter on the bike crash and adversity in our book that is coming out soon, "Life of a Triathlete." You cannot participate in the sport of triathlon without having some sort of setback that derails your training. We do a lot of bike training indoors and I had avoided a serious crash for 12 years until early August. The rider in front of me lost control as we were going 40 mph down a steep incline. I fell to avoid him and ended up breaking my T9 vertebra. I did a lot of physical therapy and training to try to fully recover for the 70.3 Worlds and I was able to toe the line. My back had nearly healed but my race preparation was less than ideal. I had been taking Advil four to six times a day for six weeks to deal with the pain, which left me in a dehydrated state. Couple this with the 98 degree temperatures and my body was fully dehydrated halfway through the bike; lesson learned.

We felt my Kona preparation was not affected by the bike crash and I went into Kona race ready, having trained in the heat prior to the event.

Those who were watching the Ironman World Championship race were excited to see you in fourth place on the bike, and then ... nothing. It was briefly mentioned in the coverage that a crash occurred, but not many other details were shared. Many people want to know: What happened?

It was great to have been in a good position on mile 50 of the bike sitting behind the leaders when wind and another bike rider caused me to fall, knocking my head on the pavement. I was feeling great on the bike and things were going exactly as we envisioned and were hoping when discussing our Kona plan. Coming second out of the water behind the amazing Amanda Stevens was promising and I was just so happy to start the bike with the main pack of fantastic ladies.

I was riding with the lead pack and in fifth position within sight of the leaders when the crash occurred. A slow-swimming but fast biking male pro, riding a little close, unintentionally nipped me (no blame intended -- perhaps I could have held on tighter!) along with a simultaneous wind gust; I imagine he didn’t know what had happened as he rode past and kept going. We were going up a gusty incline battling the winds when it happened and it was just an immediate head-to-pavement situation.

I got back on my bike, thinking everything was OK, and kept on riding. Shortly thereafter, the concussion symptoms reared their ugly head. My eyesight was compromised, my head was pulsating and I had trouble controlling my bike. In reality, I should’ve pulled off but I wanted to keep going and finish the race; this is the competitor inside every triathlete. I was weaving all the way back to T2 and I want to thank all the concerned female pro riders who saw something was wrong and inquired about my health as they passed me -- so nice; I must have looked like a drunken biker indeed -- just so glad I didn't hurt anyone else in the process!

I changed into my running gear and set off on the course. Obviously there was something wrong as I had gone from fifth to 20th in the span of 55 miles. My husband and Matt pulled me off the course and quickly saw something very wrong with me and unfortunately, my day was over.

Disappointing to say the least, but I am glad that nothing more happened and I continue to race another day. I do believe that this type of adversity is simply part of our job description as triathletes and thus we learn to adjust and adapt the best that we can. Once again, the silver lining is I didn’t endure further damage from my injuries.

Have you made a full recovery from both crashes of this season?

I have made a full recovery back from the two crashes. It was great to race and finish IMFL to see where the fitness is and to be able to conquer an Ironman again. No matter how successful your season is, if you have a setback, there are always lingering doubts in your mind if you can toe the line effectively and we wanted to see where we panned out.

Was racing Ironman Florida originally part of your season plan? Were you satisfied with a fourth-place finish there?

IMFL was not part of the original plan. The legs were itching to get out and compete and after Kona, it really just made me happy and excited to go out and race again pain free -- a luxury that I do not take for granted. Once again, anytime a race doesn’t go your way, the triathlete wants to race as soon as possible to validate their intense training and love to race competitively. My coach agreed that it was a good idea to race and we took the plunge.

You are always happy to get a fourth-place finish in an Ironman, let alone cross the finish tape. Having competed in now 46 Ironmans, I never take a finish for granted, no matter what. IMFL may have been the second-fastest time I have completed the Ironman distance (9:08) but unfortunately, it wasn't my best performance. It seemed like I left my running legs in San Francisco but it was great to be out there again -- crash-less, ha! -- and it was yet another learning experience. When going back to the drawing board with Matt asking "what happened to my run legs" ... we may have undervalued the physical and mental toll that Kona took as when returned from Kona, we went right back into Ironman training. We think we may have gone into IMFL a bit too cooked -- now we know and we can make adjustments accordingly for the next one.

What is your mindset going in to Ironman Arizona? Do you feel like you still have something to prove this season?

As a professional triathlete, we always have something to prove; this is what keeps us going. While I am so thankful for the five victories this year, they are in the past. My focus is to string together a consistent swim, bike and run to get back to where I was pre-bike crashes.

Ironman Arizona is a fantastic race to close out the season -- it's one of my favorites on the circuit and I'm really looking forward to it!

What are you most looking forward to in the offseason?

We seem to treat the regular season like the offseason; there is not a drastic difference in the training. I still will enjoy those glasses of wine and time with friends just like I did during the season. I look at the offseason as a time for improvement. I would love to enter some Olympic-distance triathlons next year in effort to improve speed, so this will be a good focus in the offseason. Hopefully this pointed training will help in the shorter distances and translate to increased speed in the Ironman distance as well.