This week, we were lucky enough to have a conversation with Marni Sumbal about her race at the 2017 edition of Ironman Chattanooga, where she was the first place overall amatuer.
Tell us a little bit about yourself
Marni: Professionally, I am a Board Certified Sport Dietitian with a Master of Science in Exercise Physiology. Through my business, Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition, I work with athletes of all fitness levels on nutrition to help reach performance, body composition and health goals. On the coaching side, I work with my husband Karel (who is also a RETUL bike fitter) where we coach over 45 endurance triathletes. My job keeps me extremely busy but it’s very rewarding to help athletes reach athletic excellence. Our approach to training and nutrition is based on the belief that a healthy body and mind will perform at its best so we strive to build athletes who are fit and prepared for race day and in a great state of health. This means that we do not believe in extreme training methods or restrictive styles of eating but we take practical guidelines and apply to real-world settings and also consult with other professionals for a more well-rounded and holistic approach for our athletes.
Athletically, I am a 14x IM finisher and recently won my age group at IMWI and qualified for the 2019 IM World Championship. I have qualified for Kona 6 times but deferred my slot to Kona last year at IM Chattanooga where I placed overall amateur female. Between me and my husband Karel, we have a combined 24 Ironman finishers and have qualified for Kona a total of 10 times. I grew-up as a competitive swimmer and transitioned to a long-distance runner while in graduate school and then competitive triathlete. I have been racing in long-distance triathlons since the age of 24 (in 2006).
We have three furry children and live near the mountains in Greenville, SC.
Tell us about your 2017 experience with Ironman Chattanooga?
Marni: Well, this is an interesting story. I had not planned to race IM Chattanooga as 2017 was my year “off” from Ironman distance racing to focus on the half IM distance in an effort to try to get faster. I qualified for the 2017 IM 70.3 World Championship in Chattanooga at Haines City, FL (April) and made that event (the WC) my key race of the year. As someone who loves to race on challenging courses (hills), I was really looking forward to my first IM 70.3 WC event and on a very tough course. On race day morning, I had an accident where I fainted with a few minutes of getting out of bed. This has never happened to be before so it was a very scary experience – after I woke-up from my black-out. I ended up smashing my face on the kitchen floor after I fainted and soon after waking up, I told my husband Karel (who was racing the next day) and we both made the hard decision that I should not race that morning. It was a very sad moment but my health was top priority. I immediately made a few doctor appointments to get checked-out and to my relief, everything came back normal. The only conclusion that due to my menstrual cycle or just getting out of bed too quickly, my blood pressure was thrown off. Once I received the clear to return to normal training, I decided that I had unfinished business in Chattanooga. Seeing that IM Chattanooga was a key race for our team and we would have 14 athletes racing, along with Karel, it only made sense for me to do that race just 2 weeks later. The race was closed for general entries but they had foundation slots available for an extra fee. I didn’t want to end my season on such a low moment so the extra price was worth it for another opportunity to put myself into a race environment. Even though I didn’t specifically train for an IM, my overall training would not have been much different as I usually do more intensity than high volume when preparing for an IM. Most of all, I wanted to celebrate being out there with my athletes and enjoy racing for 140.6 miles.
Was this your overall amateur Ironman win? Tell us about that experience.
Marni: I had no expectations for the race but deep inside, it was hard for me not to be competitive. With a lot of IM experience and years of endurance training behind me, I felt very strong for both the swim and bike and above all, I was having fun doing something amazing with my body. When I got to the run, I received word from one of my athletes who was spectating that I was leading the amateur female race and winning my age group. I never expected to hear this, especially since I didn’t train to do an IM that year, but I was feeling strong and healthy so I just gave it my best effort and raced smart to the end. It was an incredible experience to cross the line as the first amateur female, especially since I had such a low moment 2 weeks early at Worlds. It’s just a reminder that life will give you setbacks but no matter what life gives you, don’t ever give up. I also won my age group but declined my spot to Kona for 2018 so that I could focus on my upcoming Ironmans (IM Austria and IMWI) and support my husband in Kona ’18 for his 3rd IMKona.
What are your favorite aspects of this race?
Marni: There are a few reasons why I would recommend this race:
1) Aside from normal big-town traffic, the race venue is very easy to get to. There are parking garages available and street parking. Plus there are many hotels within walking distance. Getting to and from the race venue is very stress-free if you are staying in the downtown. There are also many restaurants and grocery stores nearby.
2) It’s easy to walk-around and train on most of the course.
3) The community supports the race which is nice to see.
4) The course is very spectator friendly with the swim and run. With a two-loop bike, there’s also an opportunity to see athletes out on the bike course.
What was your overall impression of the course?
Marni: The course is relatively fast, until you get to the run.
With a downstream swim, expect fast times. For us in 2017, it was not wetsuit legal which was just fine as it was a very warm day. The overall weather for the race can be warm or unseasonably cooler but expect warm conditions.
The bike course is a two loop, 116 mile course with gentle rollers. I didn’t feel there was anything steep to climb on the course but enough terrain changes to change up your position on the bike. The road conditions on the bike are not great so look out for bumps. But the course was well marked. There’s plenty of opportunities to settle into a rhythm and enjoy a little downhill before the finish of each loop. I found very little car traffic and the course was very safe. It got a little windy out there but it wasn’t extreme wind.
The run is very challenging. Probably one of the toughest IM marathon courses I have raced on. In addition to a climb out of the transition (which you only do once on this two loop course), the way out on the run course feels long as you run straight on the main road with gradual inclines and declines. But the volunteers are amazing at the aid stations and will give you lots of energy. On the way back, you get to enjoy the views of the water before making your way up a steep climb before heading out on the bridge to cross the river to the backside of the course. This is where the big climbs occur. And they feel bigger on the second loop. But as I mentioned before, the community really supports this event so expect a lot of cheers. My favorite part of the course was running over the pedestrian bridge (wooden bridge) as it was a neat experience to have it lined with spectators and to know that after running over it twice, all that was left was a downhill to the finish.
Things that you disliked about the race?
Marni: The railroad crossings! I lost both of my rear bottles after the first railroad crossings which was not how I wanted to start the bike. I ended up using on course nutrition until special needs (Plus the one bottle that I still had on my bike with my nutrition). My tip is to slow down and to go over the railroad crossings very slowly. Only on race day do they cover them, which I feel makes them even worse and more bumpy. There are a lot of bumps on the course so be on the lookout as there can be more opportunities to lose bottles.
I suggest to have someone wait at the swim start for you so you don’t have to get there super early and wait around. The shuttle bus takes you to the swim start very quickly (2 miles away) but the waiting is a little bothersome. Not a huge fan of this style of swim start. I arrived at 6:30am and jumped in line with a few of our athletes. Suggest to bring running shoes and comfortable clothes so you can continue to warm-up while waiting for the swim start. You drop off your morning clothes bag right before you get into the water.
What are some things that make this race more challenging than other IM races?
Marni: While you do need to have good climbing skills and know how to ride your bike well on rolling terrain, the bike course is not technical or overly difficult. The run, however, is extremely challenging. And on a very hot day, it could be a very tough run. My advice is to train to get stronger, not necessarily faster. Have a good fueling and hydration plan for both the bike and the run that is easy to execute on hilly terrain and in the heat. Don’t underestimate the hills on the run, particularly the backside across the river. They grow on the second loop!
Do you have any recommendations for first timers on this course?
Marni: As with any first timer Ironman, don’t put pressure on yourself or go into the race with expectations. Treat it like a long training day and remind yourself that once you get going, your nerves will subside and you’ll have support from volunteers, spectators and other athletes for 140.6 miles. Don’t rush the day as it will go by very quickly. Stay in the moment instead of chasing an outcome and don’t forget to thank your body.
When athletes get into a dark place in this race, what do you you recommend doing?
Marni: Every athlete will enter a dark place when the finish line feels like an impossible destination that will never come. Whenever I feel a deep low, I remind myself that I trained for these uncomfortable moments so I welcome them as I know it’s part of the journey of becoming an Ironman. I also think it’s important to keep yourself moving forward. Even if your race strategy needs to change, never give up on yourself. Try to get energy from other athletes, enjoy the scenery, remind yourself why you signed up for the event in the first place and tell yourself that it will all be worth it when you earn your finisher medal.
Outside of the Ironman, what would you recommend doing in Chattanooga?
Marni: I suggest to take yourself up Lookout mountain and check out Ruby Falls. There’s also a lot to do in Downtown. Chattanooga has a lot of bike/run paths around the water edge so it makes for a great place for your active friends and family who are spectating.
Are there any coffee shops or restaurant you would recommend going to in Chattanooga?
Marni: They are all good! You won’t have any shortage of options in the downtown area.
We saw that you just published your first book!!! Tell us a little bit about the book and where we can get a copy?
Marni: Thank you for asking! Yes, I just wrote a book on sports nutrition, designed for athletes and fitness enthusiasts of all levels, sports and with different dietary needs/desires to understand and apply simple and effective sport nutrition guidelines.
If you are an athlete, fitness enthusiast, coach, personal trainer, parent of an athlete or someone who lives an active lifestyle, my book Essential Sports Nutrition offers the most up-to-date nutritional guidance along with 24- delicious recipes to make it easy to eat right to support an active lifestyle and to reach your performance goals.
As a Board Certified Sport Dietitian and athlete, I realize how difficult and time-consuming it can be to dial-in your daily and sport nutrition to achieve your health, performance and body composition goals. With this in mind, my book Essential Sports Nutrition provides realistic, appropriate and simple strategies so you can learn how to nourish and fuel your body to support your exercise and fitness goals.
What can you expect in the book?
A nutritional overview on exercise physiology and sport nutrition in an easy-to-read format.
Detailed information on how to put together a healthy and performance-focused diet, without being extreme, obsessive or restrictive.
Nutrient timing application - what and when to eat before, during, and immediately after exercise for the best results.
24 recipes for before exercise or competition, during and after exercise, plus recipes for rest days.
Nutrition guidance to help you develop a healthy relationship with food and your body.
How to use nutrition to minimize risk for GI issues, reduce inflammation, protect yourself from a heat-related illness and keep your body thriving.
With a holistic approach, everything in this book is easy to read and to apply to your own lifestyle and athletic journey.
Whether you train for endurance, high-intensity or team sports or engage in recreational exercise, Essential Sports Nutrition offers the guidance and recipes you need to eat, compete, and succeed, all while staying in great health.
You can order the book here: http://bit.ly/EssentialSportsNutrition
If you are looking for more helpful triathlon hints and tips, be sure to check out our blog-> Crew Racing Blog