Missy Kuck, Professional Iron Woman!

Missy Kuck became a pro triathlete at the age of 35 after racing for 15 years as an amateur. Her motto, “Learn to race, not compete,” is what drives her in a new class of racing.

In 2011, Kuck’s first season as a pro athlete, she raced 13 races – 11 Olympic distance, 2 half Ironman distance – and ran the Columbus marathon with her sister. Kuck then chose to switch to shorter races so she could race more often, focus on speed, and get out of the long-distance rut.

“That was the biggest difference I saw in the pro versus age group divisions when you race as an amateur: The women are there to win, not just ‘have a good race.’ Every moment in the race is an opportunity to get ahead of your competitor. Personal records are no longer the focus; the goal is to win.”

With that type of competition, in 2012 Kuck has competed in four 70.3 Iron distance races, two Olympic distance races, and has qualified for the Vegas 70.3 World Championships to be held on September 9, 2012/

ERM caught up with Kuck between races to find out how she got to where she is today.


ERM: How did you get into racing?

Kuck: A friend challenged me to race an Olympic, half, and full distance triathlon in the summer of 2002. After that season, I saw the longer races as something to conquer and shorter races as stepping stones during training. I told myself I would follow a pattern of two seasons racing long distance (half and IM distance) followed by one season of shorter racing (Olympic and half distance). I kept that pattern through two cycles, but veered from it last year when our team decided to race the full Rev3 series.

After getting serious about triathlons, I never focused solely on the shorter races.

I think my first steps toward endurance sports started in college. I swam for Ohio State University and my coach, Jim Montrella, was all about quantity. For example, we did 100×100 freestyle as a morning workout…meaning we had an evening workout too. His workouts weren’t creative, but they tested your mental game and endurance. I found I was good at keeping a steady pace once I could dial in the right intensity. I tried my first triathlon after my freshman year in college. My brother and I decided one day to sign up, and we raced two days later. I did one short race a summer for the next 4-5 years while in college. After competitive swimming, I decided to run my first marathon and vowed never to do it again. That was in 1998.

Since then I’ve done seven Ironmans, a couple dozen half Ironmans, three marathons, 160-200 mile bike races, numerous of triathlons, and a mix of “other” races.

ERM: When did you decide to go pro?

Kuck: I didn’t get serious about triathlons until 2002, when a friend suggested we try an Ironman distance event. After that I began exploring races in the area and around Ohio. I began traveling for bigger races in 2005, and qualified for Kona on my first attempt at a WTC event. Ever since then, I’ve focused racing/training on longer distance events. In recent years I’ve revisited shorter races in an attempt to up my intensity of training and racing. It worked: I now know a new level of intensity, and challenge myself to reach new goals. I plan to return to the Ironman scene – I’ve taken the past 2 years to focus on some shorter racing…if you consider a 4.5-hour race short – but am enjoying the change of pace and hoping for good results.

ERM: So what is the biggest difference now that you’ve gone pro?

Kuck: Racing in the pro division is a privilege, but it takes racing to a whole new level! Most athletes eligible to race in the professional division are used to winning as an age grouper; when you race in the elite division you are suddenly a small fish in a big pond…everyone there is capable of incredible race splits. You may be racing faster than you ever have in your life….and get passed during the race like you’re standing still. It’s incredible to watch, but can be mentally deflating. The mental aspect during a race is so important.

ERM: What about the mental aspect of training?

Kuck: I think it’s one of the most important factors in this sport. It takes a certain personality to stick to a training regimen that has you up at o-dark-hundred nearly every day. You’ve got to be willing to put in the hours, even when you’re tired. During the race, you’ve got to have the mental focus to stay alert to the details around you, but “shut down” your mind so you’re not staring at the clock each passing minute and focusing on the pain. There’s nothing worse than watching the lines pass on the road, knowing how much better it would feel sitting down, looking at the clock and realizing it’s been only 3 minutes since you last looked. If you split the race into sections and give yourself mental breaks – and these can come in various forms – an endurance race can become more bearable. Coming up with mental strategies during training is key to a successful race.

Personally, I would love to train with headphones; but I know they are not allowed on race day, and therefore I don’t wear them (except in the off season). I have songs or quotes in my mind that I repeat over and over to help me stay alert and often keep a cadence. I know the “signs” when things are starting to change in terms of nutrition, mental focus, and so on, and I’ve come up with strategies to deal with these scenarios. For example, when I exhale long and slow, I know I am mentally bored and therefore will likely begin to slow down, even though my body is not necessarily worn down.

ERM: So how do you train?

Kuck: I typically train by myself. I try to make adjustments to this, knowing the benefits of being pushed by other athletes, but find it difficult. My schedule is tight with work, so I don’t have the luxury of sleeping in, getting key workouts in at optimal times, or planning my schedule to fit another’s timeline as many professional triathletes do. I have a couple hours in the morning and after work to get everything in. My race schedule is quite different these past couple years racing shorter races – I race more often and workouts are geared toward specific goals. In the pool, I know the pace at which I need to train to reach my target time in a race. I watch the clock and create workouts to meet those needs (yes, I train myself in the pool). As for the bike and run, I have had a couple people coach me to help get me out of my comfort zone. In endurance racing, it’s all too easy to settle into a pace. When training, it’s just as easy to settle into a pace, but without the adrenaline of other racers you go much slower. My recent coaches with Veritas Endurance Coaching and E2 have helped guide my bike and run workouts, including intervals, pacing, intensity and focused workout goals.

ERM: What role does nutrition play in your training and racing?

Kuck: I have never paid particular attention to my diet. Some nutrition basics I adhered to in the past seemed more like common sense to me rather than a “diet”: stay away from fast food, pop, processed foods and junk food as much as possible. I brought my lunch to work instead of buying from the cafeteria, to avoid unknown calories, ingredients and sodium. I’m not saying I avoided these foods completely – but this was my “diet”. Typically I would eat these “bad” foods when they were brought to work, during holidays, when I was traveling, if my fridge was empty, or when I was eating at someone else’s house.

Then I did some basic research and read articles outlining “essential vitamins/minerals for athletes” and “superfoods.” I tried new recipes, attempting to incorporate some of these foods. (Thankfully, I am part of a weekly dinner club where I can test my new creations.) I talked with other athletes and learned some of their habits to see if it would be something I could adopt. One athlete told me about chia seeds, and I spoke with representatives from MILA at a race expo. I gave their product a try, and it was easily added to many recipes – adding the benefits of omega-3, fiber, potassium, and magnesium to my diet.

Other than MILA, I stayed away from supplements and pre-made shakes. Just these minor adjustments made a huge difference. I feel more confident that I am fueling my body with foods richer in nutrients needed for performance and recovery than I was before.

Not only am I more aware of the nutrients in the foods I am ingesting, I feel different. I don’t have the food craving spikes that came with eating unbalanced meals. My taste buds have changed dramatically! I am trying new dishes all the time to keep things interesting. My “sweet tooth” has been recalibrated, meaning I can have significantly smaller portions of sweet foods and be satisfied. When I get busy and don’t plan ahead, I find myself slipping into old habits of “easy foods”; but if I plan ahead at the grocery store and take the extra 30 minutes to prepare a healthier meal, I can keep things in check.

ERM: Tell us about your recovery regimen.

Kuck: I am a firm believer in recovery and in listening to what your body is telling you. If I need a 30-minute nap before a workout, I take one. If I go to the grocery store and notice everything in my cart is liquid…I must be a little off in my hydration. If something hurts, I find out why – and take steps to fix it quickly! I see a massage therapist and chiropractor on a regular basis. Thankfully, my occupation as a therapist allows me insight to the body and to what may be going on (and proximity to another professional to run things by if need be). I am a firm believer in wearing compression gear after workouts, when traveling, and at work. (I chose 110% gear that combines compression and ice therapy…great stuff.)

ERM: You work full-time too, right?

Kuck: Yes. I have a full-time job as a pediatric occupational therapist. This job fits my personality: goal driven, focused on making small improvements, repetitive :

ERM: Do you have a budget you follow?

Kuck: I have to budget for races and gear. I get creative (in terms of making money, finding sponsors, and finding cheap ways to get things done). Triathlon is an expensive sport – you’ve got three sports to that require different types of gear, travel details, and race entry fees (not cheap). It adds up quickly! Many professional triathletes have chosen to forego their careers in pursuit of their athletic dreams. As I’ve learned, the majority (meaning 90%…not 60%) of professional triathletes do not make enough money each year to make a good “living” out of it. And even if they are making ends meet, they are working hard at securing sponsors for essential gear and using prize money to pay everyday bills. As for me, my full-time job pays for my “hobby” as a triathlete.

ERM: What’s next for you?

Kuck: I would like to make some adjustments and eventually return to my coaching roots, but for now will stick where I am until further opportunities arise.