How Ellie Salthouse came back stronger than ever 15 months since her last win
Triathletes are impeccably in tune with their bodies. Their sport is nominally a head-to-head competition, but the on-course results more accurately reflect how well they’ve mastered their internal selves, pushing their physical and mental capacities past their previously established limits.
Competing at the highest level of triathlon requires a meticulous regimen of nutrition, training and rest. A global pandemic, as one might imagine, can really mess with the craft. Triathletes entered 2021 almost entirely uncertain of their form after a year in which nearly every major race was canceled.
For that reason, Ellie Salthouse stood terrified on the startline for her season opening race at Hell of the West in Goondiwindi, Australia, this past February.
“It had been well over a year since I put together a great race, probably 15 months at that point,” Salthouse says. “It feels like you forget how to race and you don’t know what to do. So standing on the startline, you just hope that it comes back to you, and hope that your muscles remember how to do everything.”
To be honest, I had no idea this would happen.
Salthouse’s last win had come in October, 2019, at Ironman 70.3 Coquimbo. After that, she missed a string of planned starts to close the year, then had her 2020 plans derailed because of Covid-19. She returned to racing last November for the Hervey Bay 100 after more than a year off, but she contracted a parasite from a local swimming pool a week before and felt ill during the race (still finishing third).
Hell of the West could have been another slog. Instead, Salthouse dominated the competition, posting the second fastest women’s time in each of the swim, bike and run segments for a nearly five-minute overall win ahead of New Zealand’s Amelia Watkinson.
Then she kept winning — next at the Husky Triathlon, then Ironman 70.3 Geelong, and most recently at Challenge Shepparton on April 3. All by comfortable margins.
Salthouse’s incredible run of form caught her off guard.
“To be honest, I had no idea this would happen,” Salthouse says. “To come out guns blazing like that was incredible, and then to be able to keep it going across four months — for me, that’s unheard of. Typically, I’ve struggled to put together a string of really solid races, so for me to be able to put together four in four months is a dream start to the year.”
Salthouse will return to racing in June when she heads stateside for Ironman 70.3 Des Moines. In the mean time, she caught up with the Trek Race Shop to discuss her hot start, and how she weathered a near total lack of racing in 2020. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
I've struggled to put together a string of really solid races, so for me to be able to put together four in four months is a dream start to the year.
Four wins in a row! That’s great. What do you attribute that success to?
Ellie Salthouse: Well, thank you. I think, honestly, having last year as a year without much racing, it gave us the opportunity to just put in a really good solid foundation, and then just have a really great base and really work on my weaknesses, and it’s paying dividends on the race course now. So really, I think it was just having an entire year of just training and no interruptions, no taper weeks, and just being able to put in some good work.
Did you anticipate this kind of start at all coming off that offseason? I reckon not many people knew what their form was like.
Salthouse: To be honest, I had no idea this would happen. I went into the first race obviously super nervous because, you know, I hadn’t raced in a long time, and when I did race last year I was very unwell. So I think I hadn’t raced essentially over a year. And yeah, I was really nervous, I had no idea where my form was at, and so to come out guns blazing like that was incredible, and then to be able to keep it going across four months — for me, that’s unheard of. Typically, I’ve struggled to put together a string of really solid races, so for me to be able to put together four in four months is a dream start to the year.
You mentioned having a full offseason just to focus on training and weaknesses. What were some of the things that you improved on?
Salthouse: I think the biggest thing for me was being able to strengthen my bike legs. Typically in the past I’ve been able to be in that front group, but I haven’t been able to make any of the plays from the front group, so I wanted to be more in control and more able to make the moves, rather than just react to them.
And then also being able to run really quick off of the bike. So I’m in a position now where I feel like the faster I ride, the better I run. So yeah, that was a big thing, and it’s a great position to be in. And obviously I had to work hard to get there, but now that I’ve got that feeling, it makes race day a heck of a lot better.
What was your 2020 program like? How did you change your routine with no races to gear towards?
Salthouse: Basically when Covid started, we had a hope that racing would come back sooner rather than later. Obviously, no one knew the timeline of this. So I pretty much kept my training the same for the first few months, as if I was going to be racing mid year, but that didn’t happen. So once everything started getting canceled for the remainder of the year, we really went into a big base block, so it was just a lot of miles.
And a lot of training for enjoyment. There was not a whole lot of structure so I was able to just go on really long rides, and take friends and stop off for coffee, and just do things that I really enjoyed, just to keep me motivated and keep things interesting.
Then as we honed in to the end of the year, we thought there was gonna be more racing in November or December. So then we started to add some speed work back in and a little more structure to the training. I guess that also paid off come February when I started racing this year.
What’s the plan now? What are you doing the rest of 2021?
Salthouse: I hope to come back to the US to race in June. Obviously it’s not as easy as just jumping on a plane at the moment, so I have to organize exemptions and vaccines and that kind of thing from here before I can go. But the plan is to race 70.3 Des Moines in Iowa and 70.3 Mont Tremblant a week later, both in June. And then I’ll go to Boulder and essentially start my championship season prep over there. Then I’ll head to Collins Cup in August, and then World Champs in September in St. George, Utah. And then I’ll finish the year with Challenge Daytona in December.
It's a bit more special being able to race this year, so we we don't take it for granted.
Do you think how you approached training in 2020, doing more enjoyable work, will change how you train in a year with a full race schedule?
Salthouse: I think my mindset changes more than anything because, obviously, you’re never guaranteed a race, we found that out last year. So I think it’s a bit more special being able to race this year, so we we don’t take it for granted and we race it every opportunity now.
As far as my training goes, and my race block training, I think that I’m going to race a lot more often this year, just because we can and I’ve missed it, and so I think I’m gonna have less of a base block this year and be more honed on that top end speed, just to really hone in those skills for race day, because I’ve put in a good 12 months of the base blocks. I’m able to just put in a really specific race training block, as opposed to having to keep having 12-week base blocks throughout the year.
In your career, have you experienced anything like this before? Just a run of really solid athletic performance? What does that feel like?
Salthouse: I think in 2016 I had a really great year in my first year of racing the half distance. And I did, I had a string of really great events, but not to the extent that I have this year. I think I won four 70.3s in that first year of my half distance career, and I’ve won four this year as well.
I’ve never been able to put together a solid block of a few months and four races in a row, all at a really high level, so I’m really proud of that. And I think it’s a testament to my coach Siri [Lindley], and also my mindset and mentality over the last couple of years.
I mean, I’ve really had some ups and downs over the last couple of years, and to be able to come out on the other side, it feels really special. And I think that not taking that for granted is something that’s really helped, and hopefully will continue to help for the next few years of racing.
You mentioned your coach. How long have you worked together now?
Salthouse: Since 2014, seven years now.
So that’s a long relationship. What is that relationship like, and how does she keep you on the level?
Salthouse: Yeah, we have an incredible relationship. We don’t have a lot of face to face time, particularly this last year with Covid, but I hope to head back to the US in June this year, where I’ll be in based in Boulder where she lives, so we’ll have a lot more face to face time there.
But just from afar, Siri and I are in regular contact. She always knows how to get the best out of me. We just have an incredible coach-athlete connection that allows us to just see eye to eye and discuss things, and be able to plan according to my hopes and dreams. And I think that’s really important that we understand each other, and we understand what we both want out of the training and out of the racing and the ultimate goal for us.
I definitely wouldn’t have had these successes without her.
You mentioned not feeling great last year. Can you expand a little bit? Were you sick or hurt?
Salthouse: Yeah, so last year I had the opportunity to race again in November. So that was basically my first race back in 14 months with the pandemic. But a week out from the race I got a parasite from a local swimming pool. I’ve never been so ill in my whole life [laughs]. Not a great way to start back my racing campaign, I guess. I don’t really look at that race as what I was capable of, or my fitness levels. So I kind of write that one off, and 2021 is a fresh start.
I've really had some ups and downs over the last couple of years, and to be able to come out on the other side, it feels really special.
Going into that first race, were you nervous at all that your form wasn’t where it should be, especially coming off a sour taste from your last race?
Salthouse: It was very nerve wracking that first race of 2021. Obviously, it had been well over a year since I put together a great race, probably 15 months at that point. You have no idea. It feels like you forget how to race and you don’t know what to do. So standing on the startline, you just hope that it comes back to you, and hope that your muscles remember how to do everything.
They do, luckily. But yeah, it’s very nerve wracking, especially not knowing where everyone else is at form-wise, either. So there’s all these questions hanging over your head, and you’ve just got to do what you do and kind of switch to autopilot.
Over this long process, a long year certainly in 2020, what do you think you learned about yourself? What are you proud to have accomplished yourself, and how do you think you’ve improved as an athlete and person?
Salthouse: I’ve added a lot more specific strength training, and I really focused on getting stronger as an athlete, particularly to improve my bike power. So I’m really proud of where I’ve come with that. I have an incredible team around me both here and in Boulder. So I think I’ve just been able to put together this team that I’m proud of, and who support me and have my goals at the forefront.
And I think I’ve just become a much more resilient athlete, and that’s the thing I’m most proud of. I mean, obviously the race results are coming as a result of that, but I’m really proud of the work that I’ve been able to put in, particularly this last year and a half while there was no racing and I was able to keep my motivation high, and just put my head down, and put the work in.