When the canon goes off this Sunday morning in the South Okanagan, it will announce the return of Ironman Canada to Penticton after an absence of 10 years.
Unlike the Ironman, local professional triathlete, Jeff Symonds never left town. Although he traveled for a lot of races during that time, when the sun rose on the last Sunday of August, he was in Penticton, being Jeff Symonds – the pro triathlete who took third at the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in 2011 and won the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championship in Melbourne in 2015. For some of the years Ironman wasn’t happening in Penticton, Symonds was there as a triathlon warrior, picking himself off the pavement after a high-speed crash and winning the race anyway, in other years it was as part of a relay team in some obscure full distance event, while in other years it was as a cheerleader, handing out beverages and high fives along a desolate patch of gravel and sage on the run course in a triathlon that featured less than a dozen racers.
This year when the cannon goes off, Symonds will be jump into the lake as the race favourite and as a student. Triathlon Magazine Canada’s Kevin Heinze, spoke with Jeff Symonds, a man in transition.
Triathlon Magazine Canada: After you placed third at the 70.3 World Championships, a triathlon publication wrote a piece on you. One of the comments they had was “this is a guy that never stops smiling.” Here it is, a decade later and you are still, always smiling, what’s the deal?
Jeff Symonds: I think in general, I’m just a pretty happy guy and it’s Ironman race week in Penticton. It’s an exciting time and I think everybody is smiling.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room or Symonds on the start line. This race in Penticton is not a pro race, what are you doing here?
That’s a complicated question. To boil it down I had to make a choice between Mont-Tremblant, which was last week and Penticton, this week. My heart just wasn’t in Mont-Tremblant. There’s reasons and pros and cons on both sides. My decision to race here comes from the reasons that I got into the sport, wanting to be part of the Penticton triathlon community and having that tradition continue. I also wanted to race here as an inspiration for the kids who I coach in swimming and to see a lot of my friends racing back here for the first time in 10 years. All that made it more meaningful.
It is race week, what are some of the sessions you do leading up to an Ironman?
Today I swam with a local triathlon squad. The main set was 6 x 300 m intervals in Okanagan Lake. For the fast stuff, I was just trying to hang on because most of the people were using wetsuits and I wasn’t. I also had a short bike ride on which I had a flat. I’m hoping that leads to good karma and I don’t have one in the race. I also used the flat as an opportunity to think about how I would overcome that, or any other mechanical adversity in the race. After this, it’s just a few easy sessions to keep sharp. I do a short bike on Saturday before checking it in, just to make sure that it is working right.
What do you eat during race week?
I keep it the same as usual, except for Saturday. I usually switch to more bland foods. Two nights before, I’ll eat a spaghetti dinner, but that’s usually to get more into the hype and of tradition of race week. And because I like eating spaghetti.
Growing up in Penticton in the 1980s and 1990s, it was one of only a few places that had an Ironman. Did you have any triathlon heroes?
Yes, Mr. Reimer. Frank Reimer. He was my teacher. I remember getting into grade 4 and he had just done Ironman. I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. I also remember meeting Shingo Tani the year he did well. He was this little Japanese guy and my friend and I were blown away.
Chris Lieto was a huge inspiration. I remember watching him beat Simon Lessing in 2005. I was a kid at that time and my job was to ride with the third place male. I got to see the race unfold. I saw Simon Lessing puking in the bushes as Chris Lieto was passing him and some other changes in the lead in the final few kilometers, so it was right then that I decided I’d become a professional triathlete.
What have been some of your most satisfying races?
One thing that I learned in this sport is that the most satisfying ones are not always the ones that you do the best, or there is the most glory, or prize money. In the end, it’s the ones that you can overcome the most adversity. In that way overcoming the crash and winning the race at Challenge Penticton in 2013 was very satisfying. Other satisfying races are ones where you have a lot of challenges, like a lack of good preparation. or an injury leading up to the race, and you do well anyway.
The training for an Ironman is tough, not only physically, but mentally as well. I’ve had bad dreams about getting lost doing an Ironman for 25 years now. Do you have bad dreams about racing?
Definitely, me too. You get your crazy dreams, and some of those you can forget, but I can remember before one of my last races, it was a half-Ironman, in Victoria. I was in bed obsessing over whether I should use a short or long sleeve tri suit. It kept me up fretting over a small detail when what I should have been doing, was just sleeping. I think it is just pre-race anxiety manifesting itself in a particular way. Having butterflies in your stomach before a race is part of the sport and I think one of the reasons that we do it.
Earlier this year you announced that you were going back to school and your goal is to be a teacher, but do you have any unfinished business in triathlon?
Plenty! I would like to win the professional race here when it returns. I’d like to earn a plaque in the winner’s circle at Rotary Beach. I would certainly like another crack at Kona too. The only time I did it, I had that mechanical issue that forced me to ride using just one leg for the last part of the course. I had a chance to look at my school schedule and it looks good for me to be able to train well and have a really good crack at Ironman Canada 2023.
Thanks for your time Jeff, have a good race on Sunday.