How I Got Started as a Professional Triathlete

Written by Hillary Biscay

I won’t waste your time here with a treatise on the benefits of exercise, of getting in shape, or of having an athletic goal. Once you set foot out your door, having conquered the temptation of an extra hour of sleep, or of the sofa and a nightly cocktail, you will understand…Instead, I want to share some thoughts about getting that foot out the door: getting started.

I happen to run, bike, and swim for a living. That is, my job is training for, and competing in, Ironman-distance triathlons (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run). It has only been my job, however, for the past five years; prior to that, it was a hobby that I juggled with work and other commitments.

I often think that I arrived in this place---making a living doing what I love--as the result of a healthy but prevalent sense of delusion. Both my career in triathlon and my previous one in competitive swimming were propelled by my inability to be deterred from goals to which I probably had no business aspiring.

As a teenage swimmer, I envisioned myself someday being part of the historic event that is the U.S. Swimming Olympic Trials; I watched the videotape of the 1992 event so many times that I would recite the words along with it. While a number of the athletes I idolized were teenagers themselves, it didn’t seem to occur to me that I was “behind.” In fact, far from being headed towards Olympic-hopeful status, most would have considered me a lost cause: a fifteen-year-old breaststroker who had been at it for seven years and not yet attained the Junior National level. When I made the decision at this age to join a more competitive team that required spending four hours each day traveling to my four hours of training, even my new coach seemed to doubt that this was a smart decision. While implying that he respected my work ethic, he informed me that I would “never have enough speed” to qualify for even the Junior Nationals.

I don’t think I bothered to argue with him, instead just smiling and nodding while planning to prove him wrong with my actions. It took 10 years of swimming for me to become a late-bloomer, finally qualifying for Junior Nationals, then Senior Nationals, a college scholarship, and the 2000 Olympic Trials. And my old coach was more than happy to see me prove him wrong.

My triathlon career was marked by similarly humble beginnings; I completed my first Ironman in 2001 in 12 hours and 29 minutes. I was absolutely thrilled simply to finish; it wasn’t until I had actually made it to the pro level a few years later that I realized that most of my peers had Ironman debuts of 10 hours or less! And when, as a young pro, I finally enlisted the help of the world’s winningest triathlon coach, he was also accustomed to working with more naturally gifted athletes: he was quoted as saying that he “believed I was sent to him as a true test of his coaching genius.”

In fact, the first time he watched me running on the track, this normally gruff man seemed overcome with an uncharacteristic sympathy. “Love, how did you decide to get into triathlon?” he asked, as if this must’ve been the most unlikely choice of profession for someone who ran the way I did. After listening to my unconvincing response, he replied, “Well, we will get you in the top-5 at an Ironman somewhere, and then we’ll see what we want to do.” As in, “I’ll find some obscure race with a weak field for you to achieve at least one of your triathlon goals, and then we will have a reality-check talk and I will convince you that it is time to find a job for which you are better suited.”

By this time, I had perfected the smile-and-nod technique, and I was intent upon showing another expert that I had more in me than he thought. I think I did prove him to be a certifiable coaching genius, because the following season I managed to earn a top-5 finish in each of the 6 Ironmans I did—and even finished in the top-3 in four of them... and two years later, I even earned the opportunity to stand on that top step of an Ironman podium. This coach, too, was happy to see that underestimating me hadn’t stifled my development at all. 

There are still many triathlon milestones that I have yet to reach, but I firmly believe that what I have accomplished thus far has resulted from my inability to see the numerous obstacles in my way. I clung to what most others would have considered unrealistic goals and struggled doggedly towards them until they were within my reach—only to then look back and see all of those mountains in the distance.

“Where had they been when I started?” I wondered. The fact is that the obstacles were there all along, but if I had taken too much time to think about them, I wouldn’t have had the time, energy, or belief to move towards my goals.

Where do you want to go? What is your goal? Are you going to get stuck thinking about what stands between you and your goal, or are you going to figure out how to get there? Do you want to think about why you don’t have time to jog three times per week, or are you going to decide which days to set the alarm clock 30 minutes early so you can set yourself on track towards your goal? What is it worth to you?


There are few athletes who enjoy training and competing as much as Ironman champion Hillary Biscay. Hillary's peers, some of the toughest athletes in the world, will even admit that Hillary eats better, trains harder, and takes care of her body like no one else. Hillary loves, in her own words -- "a smashfest" -- an intense training day where she tests herself physically and mentally to new limits. She's racing 8 Ironman distances this year and set a precedent by becoming the first athlete to record six top-five Ironman finishes in one season in 2006.


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