Athlete's Corner 1: Emma Bilham
We are delighted to welcome today our first guest in the brand-new Athlete’s Corner feature on ToeTheLineProject.com. Emma Bilham is a professional triathlete from Switzerland, and she graciously agreed to talk to us about her career and the path she took from being a swimmer bored of staring at the black line at the age of 15, to a professional triathlete on the start line of the biggest race of her sport at Kona 2019. Read on below to find out what we talked about and share your thoughts with us in the comments.
TTL: Hi Emma, thanks for taking the time to speak us today, how about we start at the beginning and you tell me how you got into sport and the path you took to becoming a professional triathlete.
Emma Bilham: Hi [TTL], well I started swimming at the age of 9, and by the age of 15 I was pretty bored of swimming laps and frustrated at my lack of progression. I actually followed in the footsteps of another girl in my swim club, and her new coach took me into the Swiss Junior triathlon circuit for a few years. I was a much better triathlete than I was a swimmer, but after a few years of intense competitions I reached burnout when I was 18 and didn’t take it back up again until 2010. I jumped back in at the deep end, qualified for the IM 70.3 age group worlds where I finished 2nd in Vegas and then took another leap of faith in taking my pro card before falling flat on my face that first season in the professional ranks. I kept dabbling in ITU racing, but didn’t like that type of racing, so I focused on half distance and long distance to work my way up the rankings as a professional.
TTL: So, having experienced burnout at such a young age, why did you come back to triathlon and why are you still a triathlete today?
EB: Maybe it’s easier to say why not? Deep down I just love being outside, training, and being active. Another part of me gets a kick out of racing and the endorphins that it brings, it’s like an addition. I also enjoy the lifestyle that it gives me; I can’t imagine doing anything else at the moment.
TTL: Looking at the first part of your career, I think we can say that 2016 was a breakthrough year for you – what do you think made the difference that year compared to previous seasons?
EB: My training volume and style changed dramatically when I joined Brett Sutton’s squad in 2016, in just a few months I’d come along leaps and bounds and he threw me into IM Nice, IM Zurich and Embrunman all in the same summer. I did three IMs, seven 70.3s and two Olympic Distance races between April and September. Whilst it was exhilarating to race and to see the results, I was on my knees and exhausted by the Autumn.
TTL: And did you find yourself putting more pressure on yourself the following season?
EB: I was self-coaching the next year, and I had definitely adopted the approach of racing more often without much tapering or consideration of the consequences. I paid the price for this with a long interruption from racing due to injury followed by a struggle for motivation and a lack of structure. Thinking back to it now, I can see that I was cooked, and since then I have never managed to string together and manage such a high training load consistently again.
TTL: Those of us following you on social media noticed that you decided to go back to working part time again later that year, did this relieve some of the pressure from your training and racing?
EB: Well I’ve worked alongside school, university and training since I was 16. Aside from the year with the Sutto Squad I’ve always had a job to bring in a few extra pennies and mostly to give my head something to think about other than being solely Emma-focused. Whilst it has stretched me at times, I’ve always found it valuable and important. In 2018 for example I was struggling to get over a foot injury, in the end I got a job as PE teacher at a local school and the injury cleared up in just a few weeks despite being on my feet all day – all it took was to switch my attention, and I ended up winning Alpe d’Huez Triathlon in July! Setting up my own business was another project that came along, and whilst it doesn’t necessarily relieve the financial stress since I am now working independently on two fronts, it is great to be able to focus my attention on something else between training sessions.
TTL: You mention your win in Alpe d’Huez, and like you said it seems that with a little bit less racing-focussed pressure on your shoulders you pulled off some good performances these last couple seasons?
EB: I think the results came from a mix of different things. My body seems to have finally gotten over the impact of that 2016 season (whilst it takes years to build up good IM fitness, I found it also takes a while to recover from the fatigue created by all that training and racing). I’ve ended up racing a lot less and picking my races more carefully to suit me, my training and my attributes as an athlete – doing a race you really want to do makes a difference on the start line.
TTL: So, taking a step back from identifying as a full-time athlete has benefited you!
EB: Yes, and I see so many professional (and amateur) athletes struggling with the same thing, to the point where any small blip in the road can seem like a mountain to overcome. If you have something else to turn to, where you can draw self-worth and focus your attention, then you can toe the start line in races and give it your all without that looming thought of having to prove anything to anyone. I’m not sure it’s something that I would have been able to understand or express a few years ago, but the learnings come with the experiences!
TTL: Turning our attention to the 2019 season, what was your preparation like leading into Ironman Ireland?
EB: I spent two months in Mallorca between February and April building a really strong base, then came back to Switzerland and split my time between work and training. From April to June I was training an average of 18h per week, with more of a swim-bike focus as I was still very cautious with running. Race-wise I did a couple of odd distance races early in the year (Portocolom & Cannes) the ITU long distance worlds in Pontevedra, then a 70.3 two weeks before Ireland. I find that doing a 70.3 two weeks out often works well as the last hard session in an IM build-up.
TTL: What does a typical training/work week look like for you then normally?
EB: I don’t have a fixed schedule, and that suits me – it saves me from getting bored and going crazy. Work goes in waves; when there’s a lot I start at the computer around 6am to get the biggest items off the to-do list, then do the first session around 11am and the second about 5pm – just like most office jobs really. On quieter workdays I’ll do the training first and then work in the afternoon.
Most weeks will have around 15-20km in the pool, 350-550km on the bike and around 30-60km running, for a total of anywhere between 15 and 28 hours. Intensity and number of sessions varies depending on how much time and energy I have. There is no point in thrashing myself if I’ve only had 5 hours’ sleep.
TTL: What were your expectations and race plan pre-race in Ireland?
EB: Quite honestly, zero! I was meant to go to IM Nice a week earlier but about a month out I realised that I was putting myself under way too much pressure for Nice. Nice had been my very first IM, I had done well, and I was expecting a lot of myself going back. I decided the torture wasn’t worth it, so chose another race I knew could potentially be tough and suit my strengths. I also love Ireland despite the weather and have loads of friends there. I had no expectations aside from getting through my first full IM in three years.
TTL: Well I think we can say you did more than get through it! You battled the elements and won the race in horrendous weather conditions. The Swim was cancelled but the Marathon was almost like a Swim anyway. Was there any hesitation before taking the Kona slot?
EB: My triathlon journey has never been fuelled by Kona. I qualified back in 2016 (when it was still a points system but turned it down on Brett’s advice). I was surprised to win in Ireland and had never actually thought of what I would do if I got a slot… but when it came along I grabbed it, because I didn’t want to have any regrets further down the line.
TTL: Before COVID-19 came along had you set your eyes on trying to get back to Kona? (For the readers who don’t know, Emma suffered a bike crash shortly before race day in Kona and wasn’t able to complete the race)
EB: The idea in 2020 was to do some big races and build a good base to try and qualify for Kona in 2021. I had planned on doing Ironman Nice and then either Embrunman or Ironman Mont Tremblant.
TTL: Sounded like a great plan! But it seems we’ve all been trying to reassess and replan this year! Thanks for your time and your valuable insights Emma, we really appreciate it and want to thank you for being the first guest on our Athlete’s Corner. Do you have any final thoughts on the subjects we discussed to leave the readers on? Anything around performance, work life balance?
EB: I’d say that I really admire and respect the athletes who have sustained a consistent level of performance throughout their careers, because I know from first-hand experience how much work and inner strength that requires. I don’t think I’ve achieved that yet and it’s something I’m still working on. Having other activities to focus on is one part of the puzzle for me. Having said that, I have also noticed it is very difficult to give 100% to a job whilst applying 100% of energy to training – or vice versa. You can drink as much coffee as you like, there is only so much fuel in the tank. It’s a fragile balance, one that requires a lot of patience, trial and error, and acceptance that things will rarely go to plan. But it’s worth it!