Madeleine Pesch ’16 likes to joke that she would never have found Grinnell if it weren’t for the “amazing pool” she first saw in a swimming-and-diving brochure. She went on to record plenty of stellar accomplishments in the Russell K. Osgood pool during her four years, but the double major in chemistry and gender, women’s, and sexuality studies (GWSS) meant taking academics just as seriously. Pesch’s balanced effort won her both the Honor G Scholastic Award and the President’s Medal, which is presented annually to the senior who exemplifies the ideal Grinnell student in terms of scholarship, leadership, poise, maturity, responsibility, and service.
Pesch’s sights remain set on becoming a women’s health care specialist, but a funny thing happened on the way to medical school. A surprising silver medal performance in the amateur world triathlon championships in Rotterdam, Netherlands, last September qualified her to compete as a professional against some of the world’s most elite athletes. She talked about the opportunity from her home in Madison, Wis., where she was preparing for her first pro triathlon season.
GM: What led to your becoming a professional triathlete?
MP: Triathlons started with encouragement from Erin Hurley, my coach at Grinnell. In the spring the swim team always put on a triathlon as a community service fundraiser. I really enjoyed it, so Erin encouraged me to start doing triathlons in the off-season because I was burned out on swimming year-round. I trained for the Olympic distance* triathlon in summer of 2013 and qualified for nationals, so my first nationals was my second triathlon ever. I totally felt intimidated, felt like I didn’t belong there, but I ended up qualifying for the world championships for my amateur age group.
The rest of my college career, I trained for swimming between September and February; from March to August, I focused on triathlon. After college I thought my athletic career was over because swimming was over. I had planned to take two gap years and then go to medical school, but it was devastating to me not to have an athletic goal in my life.
Through Erin, again, I got connected with a high-performance triathlon coach, Siri Lindley. Working with Siri has been the opportunity to pursue athletics on an entirely new level. Having a coach and without NCAA restrictions on when I could train, 2017 was a breakout performance year for me. Siri coached me to the national championship, and then I took second at the world championships. I just had to seize the opportunity when it came. It was a hard decision because I didn’t know if I was going to improve or not, but taking that risk and putting my full effort into it took me to the point I’m at now.
GM: What does it mean to have professional status as a triathlete?
MP: I’m racing in the professional field for prize money as opposed to the amateur field for age group awards and rankings. I am pursuing sponsorships — I’m already sponsored through an Elite racing team called Tri365; but as a professional athlete there is no guaranteed compensation and no guaranteed sponsorship. I have to seek that on my own.
GM: Your Rotterdam time of 2:10:55 last September was only 11 seconds behind first place. Do you think about where those seconds could have been made up?
MP: Ultimately I don’t focus on that. Let’s say I was in transition 2 and someone says, “If you do this faster then you’ll win.” Obviously I would have done something to make that difference, but you just don’t know in a race that’s two hours long. I focus on doing my very best in every moment. I feel confident that I did that the whole time. I wasn’t expecting to get the silver medal, so it was a big accomplishment.
GM: Do you study your competitors and try to strategize about who is stronger in what stage?
MP:I really don’t. What I’ve learned from my coach is that you have to expect the competition to be strong. My performance is totally focused on what I’m doing, what my pacing is, and what I can do to go faster. I would never hold back on a certain discipline because I think I have a strong lead. You just have to stick to your own plan.
GM: How do you approach training for the three segments?
MP: My training schedule in-season [March through November] is very balanced, with swimming about five times a week, running four or five times a week, and then cycling about four times a week. The beauty of triathlon is that there are three disciplines and there’s so much variety in your training schedule.
GM: Do you focus more on running and cycling because you’re a strong swimmer?
MP: Swimming is my strongest, but my running and cycling are quickly catching up. I do very intense running workouts — those are the hardest on your body and the highest injury risk, so I’m grateful to also get in intense sessions with the bike or the swim. Just because I’m a strong swimmer doesn’t mean I spend less [focus]; I actually spend quite a bit. I use swimming for intense sessions where I’m improving my speed and strength but also as a recovery component. When I need to recover from an intense running session, I go to the pool and get my muscles working without the pounding of the pavement.
GM: Do you strength-train?
MP: I do strength sessions twice a week. I’ve been working on my lateral stability and strength as well as strengthening muscles that I don’t necessarily use in the motions of triathlon. Running and cycling are all in the forward plane of motion, so I have to work on my balance and on the muscles that stabilize so I don’t get injuries.
GM: How much do you eat?
MP: I definitely eat a lot, but I don’t count calories. I don’t believe in portioning things out. A big part of my sport is making sure that I am in tune with my body all the time, so whenever I start feeling hungry I eat. I eat balanced meals throughout the day and never let myself get too hungry. I always have food along on workouts if they’re going to be over 90 minutes. My coach tells me that nutrition is the easiest thing you can do for your body. The hard thing is excelling in the session, but if you don’t have proper nutrition you’re throwing out that session because you haven’t given your body what it needs to perform at its best.
At the same time, I make sure that I’m enjoying what I’m eating. I love dessert, so I pretty much have something sweet every day. I just don’t eat things that I know are going to make me feel bad during my workouts.
GM: How much do you rest?
MP: During the season, every other week or so will be a full rest day. I have days that are very light for active recovery. If I have a really hard run the day before, I’ll have a long, easy ride on the bike so my muscles get a chance to stretch out and get the blood flowing to them.
As I’ve become a more serious athlete, I do recovery things every daily, like foam rolling, stretching, and massage. At Grinnell I never had time to foam roll in the evening; I had to do my studying. Now I’m able to do things that really pay off in training the next day.
I also sleep a lot. I try to get about nine hours and keep that schedule consistent. I always slept pretty well at Grinnell, more than a lot of other students. It’s just the difference between priorities in my life now and what they were in college.
GM: What does your pro schedule look like going forward?
MP: In the off-season, I’m training at a more relaxed schedule, focusing on the relationships in my life and having balance. I raced my first half Ironman distance* race in January in Naples, Fla., and I won the HITS Triathlon series race to start off 2018. When my competition season starts up, I’ll have about one race per month. Most races are going to be Olympic distance, and then I’ll do a few half Ironman distances. Other professional races I have planned for 2018 include St. Anthony's Triathlon in April in Florida, IM 70.3 Chattanooga in May, Escape Philadelphia in June, and the New York City Triathlon in July, the Real Racine triathlon in Wisconsin in July, IM 70.3 Boulder in August, and more races into the fall. I am most excited for the Real Racine triathlon in Wisconsin since it is close to where I live in Madison, so many of my friends and family will be able to watch. Right now I’m doing what I can to build my confidence, because my competition field is going to be the highest it’s ever been in my athletic career.
GM: What are your goals for your first professional season?
MP: The goal of my season is to do the very best I can and establish myself in the pro fields. My long-term goal is to get into draft-legal*, big-distance racing at the pro level.
GM: What, specifically, attracts you to triathlon?
MP: Triathlon has given me a platform to grow in confidence and belief in myself. I have learned to challenge myself, take risks, and push myself beyond what I think is possible. I’ve been able to achieve things in triathlon that I never thought I was capable of. I’ve learned that progress is not linear, and that if you keep putting in your full effort, it will pay off in the end. That lesson translates to the rest of my life as I work toward my future goals, what I want out of my life, and what I can do in my community and for other people. I have less anxiety about the future, and I’m able to see the process of working toward goals.
Also, I am an ambassador for USA Triathlon, so it is my job to recruit new individuals to the sport. I want to use triathlon as a platform to motivate other women to go beyond any preconceived limits they have for their own athletic ability and mental strength. This is a way for me to continue part of what I learned as a GWSS major at Grinnell in my athletic career.
I also wish to motivate other former collegiate athletes to try triathlon or other endurance sports. Swimming, cycling, and running are all lifelong sports that former collegiate athletes can continue throughout their lifetimes. When I left Grinnell, I felt a bit lost without athletic goals to pursue after having so much of my identity revolve around being an athlete. This is something many athletes struggle with following retirement. I wish to help other former competitive athletes continue to stay healthy and motivated toward athletic goals post-college. Athletic goals help structure the rest of our lives as we in turn become more motivated toward our other goals as well, in our careers, relationships, and in our larger communities.
Finally, I would like to increase access to the sport of triathlon for low-income individuals. One way I do this is by volunteering once a week coaching a youth triathlon team for low-income middle school kids. My goal is to find avenues to help those who otherwise couldn't afford it get the equipment and financial resources necessary to train for and participate in triathlon. It's not just about the training and racing for me. It's also about the community connection and the ways that it allows me to be a leader in my community.
GM: Are you setting deadlines for your triathlon career prior to medical school?
MP: My life used to be a lot about structure. I had the two-year timeline for medical school. Now, I’m learning to take opportunities as they come. I don’t have a deadline for triathlon as long as I feel I’m continuing to grow in it. It’s something that I’m passionate about, and I’m going to take it as far as I can.
I’m always about giving my full effort forward. When I go to medical school I want to give it my all. I know that everything I’m doing in triathlon is preparing me to be an even better doctor, through the lessons I’m learning and the ways that I’m able to connect in the world. In our changing world, I think we can’t really follow linear career paths. Those paths are a lot more individualized and fluid. When the right moment comes to transition to medical school, I’m going to be totally ready for it.
*A Triathlete’s Lexicon
Olympic: 1,500 meter (.93 mile) swim, 40 km (24.8 mile) bike, 10 km (6.2 miles) run.
Half Ironman: 1,900 meter (1.2 miles) swim, 90 km (56 miles) bike, 21.09 km (13.1 miles) run.
Draft-legal: a style of bicycle racing that allows athletes to reduce drag by following the lead bike’s slipstream, typically resulting in athletes riding in packs. Most triathlons in the United States are nondraft, requiring three bike lengths between competitors except when moving to the side to pass.
Foam rolling: self-myofascial release or self-massage; the application of pressure to trigger points that aid in returning muscles to normal function.
Follow Madeleine Pesch’s triathlon career at www.peschmaddy.wordpress.com.