Learning from the best: Annie Emmerson

Annie Emmerson picture

Annie Emmerson is a well known name within the Triathlon community. The former ITU triathlete and duathlete is now a Coach, BBC Commentator and still a pretty speedy runner (in her mid 40s she is still running times which would give her a place on the London Marathon ‘Championship Start’ line). I chatted with her about the mindset she had when racing and how that has changed now she trains ‘for fun’! We also chatted about pre-race nerves, the preparation she puts into her commentary and who she’s looking forward to commentating on in Rio this year. Grab a coffee and learn from one of the best…

You raced as a professional very well but you still race exceptionally fast now. Do you think there is anything in your psychology that helps you do that?

I think that often it is something you are born with. But I think that it is something you can learn too. People can learn to push themselves and deal with the pain that is bought on by exercise. Today, when I was doing my brick session I’m thinking: “I don’t have to bike, it doesn’t matter if I don’t hold the same wattage for each one.” But there is something that kicks in, the chimp in the brain kicks in and says “well you will know if you don’t hit 185 for that last lot” so you do it properly. Initially the first minute or so I think “god this is hurting” and your quads are throbbing and you can’t keep pushing the power but as the blood starts flowing in the right direction you just suddenly just go: “I can do this” and the weak side of my brain is overtaken by the stronger side of my brain. We definitely have two sides to our brain so that other side tends to override and that is what happens with me.

Why do think you are able to override that weaker side when others may not be able to?

I think it is that whole nature nurture thing isn’t it. I can remember from a very young age, not that I had a killer instinct to win and I think the majority of people racing are far more competitive than I am, but I am competitive and I do want to win but I don’t have the killer instinct that someone like Loretta Harrop had. I kind of want to go: “oh sorry, I didn’t mean to push you, oh sorry.” That’s me on the start line but I’ve always wanted to push myself physically. Always.

And that hasn’t changed since you stopped being pro?

No. Not really. And that is why it is really hard to strike a balance because I keep thinking I really want to just do something different; go and do hot yoga, go and do circuit training and re-sculpture my body and come much less of an endurance looking athlete and much more solid but then that kind of thing just bores me. I love the adrenaline and endorphins from the endurance I think.

Do you think that is your motivation then?

Yes it is a feel good thing. Definitely. It is like drugs. You do a great session. On a day to day if I am walking around and not exercising I don’t feel like my body is taut. I want to feel like its exercised. I believe we should be strong and fit.

Does that help you in other bits of your life then with your body in the right place your mind feels in the right place and able to take on other things?

Yes. I don’t feel comfortable in anything if I’m not fit. I’m not a gym junkie. To train four times a week is enough for me. I tend to go and do something like 4k in the pool or this morning’s brick was an hour and a half and I’m gonna do a 10k at the weekend and another run and that is all I will do. So I’d never want to perceived as someone as a gym junkie because I see them in here, they’ll be here for an hour swimming and then an hour in the gym and they are here every day, for years.

So you still have the competitive element and the drive for it?

I think it is a bit like, maybe just not giving in. It is a bit of an age thing. It is not about the way I look but I think that once you give in to becoming older once you give in and say “I can’t do this”, you lose yourself. With the marathon I think running 50 / 60 miles a week just doesn’t work for me, I’d be really scraggly, skinny and I’d just lose power and it doesn’t really work for me and it never has done in fairness so I think you have to adapt as you get older. Someone like Eddie [Brocklesby] is amazing for that reason. I see a lot of people who are giving up at quite a young age and I think it is really important not to.

Was there a time when your were a pro that you realised you didn’t want to carry on or was it decided for you through injury?

No.  I did get an injury that kept coming back and was never really properly diagnosed. It was really painful and when I went to my last race in Newcastle, Australia I was in so much pain, oh my god it was ridiculous, and then that is the amazing thing about the body; I couldn’t walk without a really bad limp but I wanted to be on the start line because I wanted the points so I could win the series ad as soon as the gun went I did not have one pain in the race. I had bad cramps so I didn’t manage to go with Catriona on the bike and I didn’t have a strong enough second run but I got fifth and I got the points so I can’t blame my injury. It probably did hinder me in training but I didn’t feel one pain for two hours, but the moment it stopped it was all there. It is amazing isn’t it. I was just incredible.

So why did I give up? Triathlon is really one dimensional in the sense that you just sleep, eat, train, sleep, eat, train and I just thought “I just want to go out there and do different things”. And I did want to have kids and I did want to find someone – and I didn’t want to find a triathlete! So I just think it was a bit of an age thing and I had probably had my best years and while I think that I probably could have still been fast and strong and Brett Sutton [former coach] always wanted me to go to Ironman I didn’t have the mentality however hard I am and good at pushing myself. I would never want to go to Ironman ever.

What do you see as the difference between that mentality and what you have?

It is not that I like short term pain but I can deal with it. But I can’t sit on the bike for 180k, it bores me so much. I like a bit of speed, that is not to say the Ironman athletes are not pretty amazing and fast. It just didn’t appeal to me.

Do you ever feel any envy when you are commentating?

Not now. The only time I do is when I see someone like Non Stanford running along – she looks so perfect and so neat and the way she runs is lovely and I think “gosh that is a great feeling”. That is the only feeling I miss in triathlon. I did ok on the bike but it is quite chaotic, especially in drafting races, so you never really get a chance to be comfortable and then the swim I hated anyway and then the run was the thing that I just love and you’d get off the bike and think: “it’s going to be a good run day today”. So from that point of view I do but no – I’ve had my time.

Do you ever feel for the athletes when you watch them on the startline?

Oh my god. All I want to say in the commentary is “Oh my god I’d really hate to be there. I really feel for those poor people. How can they make them start on that pontoon, oh my god they are going to have to dive into that cold water.” And the music the ITU use, that bom, bom, bom, it is like – it is horrific. I was just like the worst racer from that point of view. I would just want to stand on the start line and want to vomit.

Did you have any strategies you used to help with that?

The only thing I used to think was like “remind yourself that in 12 hours time you’ll be sitting having dinner and you’ll have a cold glass of white wine and this will all be over” which isn’t the best coping strategy really.

So you enjoyed the training much more than the training?

Yes. And you can’t beat an amazing race. You know what it is like when you accomplish something that you set out to accomplish that is amazing and nothing beats that. But yes, I really liked the training more than the racing.

When you are racing now do you get any of that anxiety or that build up before hand?

A little bit. This Sunday I did a little half marathon with a friend of mine and I did have a little bit of anxiousness and that is sort of nice.

So the good anxiousness, the one which gets you hyped up about doing it rather than the other one which makes you feel sick to your stomach

The totally sick one I had a lot when I raced but now I don’t. So when I was driving down to Kingston on Sunday morning I did have a nice bit of adrenaline going on but nothing nasty. 

Because there are different pressures or different reasons for doing it?

Yes – because it was really fun on Sunday because I was at a pace I knew was going to be really comfortable and I was running with a really good friend and it was all about just running and having fun and I’d been out till 2 o clock in the morning in the Arts Club for a friends 50th and was still a bit hungover really.

In any of your races, such as your big marathon last year, do any of them make you feel like you are back with the nerves?

When I go and do my marathon with my aim to go under 3 hours, people will ask why but it is just a little goal I set myself. People say you could run that backwards and I will say maybe 10 years ago I probably could but not now. I don’t train enough and I don’t have enough time and so it gets harder. It is just a little bee in my bonnet of wanting to see 2:59:59 on the clock, and go “ok I did that in my forties – that is something good to look back at.” But I’m not really nervous even though I’ve told everyone I’m going to Manchester. I don’t find anything like the same amount of pressure I used to have on the start line at all.

Do you find telling people what you want to do helps or hinders.

Now it helps. But in my time when I was doing triathlon properly I would be always wondering what to tell people when I’d had a bad race?

Did you work that out during the race, thinking what is my excuse going to be?

Yes. Definitely. I’m pretty sure most people will if they are having a bad day. That is the hardest thing. I think my dad was a bit of an armchair sportsperson – he thought he knew it all. He was my best friend and I was where I was because he loved sport, but if I was having a bad race I’d be like “what am I going to say to dad”? I remember when I rang him and told him about my first win it was in a European Cup in Germany and I smashed it and had a really good race and that was the first time Brett saw me racing and I remember phoning my dad telling him I’d won and he couldn’t speak because he was just crying. So I know he liked to brag about his daughters but also he was really happy.

So you trained for a marathon last year – what was your motivation for that?

Just a target. Something just drives me to have a goal to aim for because in fairness I would be like everyone else if I don’t have a real goal I’m just not motivated and things take priority because there is always work, kids, social stuff, families, whatever. So if I don’t have something that is a target then it is easy to go from four training sessions to two, to one and then the next week there will be stuff on so I think it keeps me on track.

Annie commentating

Are there things you learnt in sport that you have used in other parts of your life.

Probably not enough if I think about it. Though when I think about the work I do for the BBC I do use it. Last year I got a really great email at the end of the season saying we thought you did an amazing job and it hadn’t gone unnoticed how much hard work I’d put into it in terms of contacting athletes, contacting coaches, it just in doing that prep it makes a difference.

So the preparation you used to put into preparing for a race you now put into that role?

Yes. I’d never just turn up at the BBC in Manchester with a few notes and just spend a few hours in the hotel on them. I’ll always be at home in advance with the races on from last year listening and will be contacting coaches and going through social media to see what the athletes have been doing. And then you’ll pick up loads of stuff. Like Adam Bowden has just done a 14:09k somewhere and you wouldn’t pick on that stuff without that work and it is a 2 hour race so you’ve got to have interesting things to talk about?

You have to be a fan of the sport?

Yes. Exactly. And some of that comes from performing myself. I am a bit of an odd character as I always think I’m shit at everything.

Is there anything you use to validate that you are not? Like that BBC letter? Or do you just think they are being nice to you?

Yes. I remember being in Bolder with Siri training and there was a girl out there training. She had got an Olympic Bronze. She was a great athlete, a really good swimmer. And I said something to her like I did start a few races but you wouldn’t have noticed me. She said to Siri afterwards “what on earth is wrong with Annie. Did she not realise if she was on the start line of a race she was suited to, we would all sit up and take notice”?

Finally, which of the current athletes that you will be commentating on for the next six or so months do you think have a really good mental approach to their racing?

Javier Gomez. He is just the whole deal. He knows his body. He really knows his body. I mean the Brownlees maybe they do know their bodies. Al might be an incredibly smart academic guy with an incredible engine and all the rest of it but the whole time is jeopardising and being right on the edge of injury. Gomez is just smart and he just doesn’t give in. He is hard as nails. You don’t see a lot as he always has glasses on but he is stubborn to the bitter end, he really is, I’m a big fan of his.

On the girls side, I love watching Nicola Spirig race. I know there is a bit of a link there with Brett [Annie’s former coach] but she doesn’t have it all easy as the swim is a bit unpredictable but she is amazing to watch on the bike and she doesn’t ever look that comfortable on the run. I think you buy into the character of the person as well and so hard to get behind those who don’t show that. And I like watching Rachel Klamer, the Dutch girl, she is really nice to watch, good biker, bit of an underdog and coming through. And Helen Jenkins. She is amazing. I guess those are the people.

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