Julie Dibens has had a busy month or two, with third place at her first Ironman (Hawaii, of course!) and second at the XTERRA World Champs. Mat Brett caught up with the defending 70.3 World Champion earlier this year
Crossing the finish line in Clearwater, Florida with arms aloft and the biggest smile you’ve ever seen across her face, the 2009 Ironman 70.3 World champion was one happy athlete. She’d just chalked up the biggest win of her decade-long career and set a new world record time to boot. But more than that, she buried some ugly demons along the way.
That was last November and things could hardly have contrasted more sharply with the same race in 2008. Julie finished fourth then in her major event of the year, agonisingly close to a medal. Or the year before when, having led by four minutes off the bike, she was chased down on the run and, in her own words, “totally fell apart”. She finished fourth on that occasion too, just 30 seconds off bronze. But that’s all history now.
“Running down the finishing chute was everything I’d dreamt about,” say Dibens. “It was awesome. There was a lot of built-up frustration, all the doubts, all the nightmares from previous races. More than anything, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. And when I did, it was the best feeling ever – a feeling I’ll never forget.”
Major highs and lows are nothing new in Julie’s career. In fact, they’re something of a theme. Having swum from the age of nine and made the GB team as a junior, she went to college in the US on a swimming scholarship, but after four years she’d had enough of cocentrating solely on the pool.
Making the switch
Wanting to stay competitive, she made the switch to triathlon and got off to a flyer in her first season by winning the 1998 Age Group World Championships. she raced as a pro the following year and, incredibly given her limited time in the sport, qualified for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. That’s when she suffered her first major disappointment.
“I really had only one fulkl year of proper racing under my belt when I qualified for the Olympics, so it happened pretty quickly,” she says. “In hindsight, that was probably a bad thing. I was fit from all the swimming, but I didn’t have the biomechanics down on the run side of things and ended up getting one injury after another.”
Dibens has had a total of five knee and toe surgeries over the years, going into each of them not knowing for sure whether she’d be able to continue her triathlon career afterwards. But she enjoyed top-level success at Olympic-distance drafting races along the way too – and plenty of it. She’s won Windsor and London, got a European Champs bronze medal, had World Cup and World Champs top 10 finishes and competed at two Commonwealth Games. She achieved her Olympic ambition by racing in Athens in 2004 and was British National Champion in 2007 as well.
That’s an impressive haul. But Jelie’s real assets are her swim and the cycling strength that she quickly built up – he finished second in the national 10-mile Time Trial as long ago as 2002. In drafting raees those talents often get nullified as strong runnesr hang on to the back of the pack for the swim and bike, only to smoke past on the final leg. So in 2006 Dibens decided to change tack.
“I have no desire just to make up the numbers. I’m in it to win it. I was working with [coach] Richard Hobson and after the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne we decided to look for other things to do, so we started looking at non-drafting races, 70.3s and XTERRA.”
The XTERRA factor
Dibens finished second in her first off-rad triathlon, XTERRA France, and followed that up with a win at XTERRA Denmark but couldn’t go to the world champs – always held in Maui, Hawaii – because of a toe operation. She’s raced there in each of the four years since, and won every time until 2010 (when the race fell just a few weeks after her super-human effort in her Ironman debut).
“My goal [up to 2009] has always been to win both the 70.3 and the XTERRA World Champs, although XTERRA is still a bit of fun more than anything,” says Dibens. “That’s no disrespect to the other girls, but I don’t spend enough time on a mountain bike to say that I’m a mature XTERRA athlete. I’m a bit fortunate in that the Maui course seems to suit me and my riding style.”
The 70.3 World Champs were definitely Dibens’ priority and her so-close-yet-so-far results had left her with a feeling of unfinished business going into the 2009 race. So what changed?
For a start, Julie – who has coached herself for the past three years – upped sticks and moved from her long-time UK base of Bath to Boulder, Colorado in early 2009, and she credits the shift with a step up in her training and race results.
“Boulder seemed like a good place to be because I knew there would be automatic trainin gpartners and people around who could show me where to train. In the summer months you show up for masters swim practice and there might be Crowie [double Ironman winner Craig Alexander], Chrissie [Wellington], Simon Lessing… a whole bunch of world champions.
“I do a fair amount of swimming and biking with Chrissie. Some days I ride with Laura and Greg Bennett, and I probably do the most training with Mary Beth Ellis, who came second at Clearwater. I don’t train with everybody every day, but I think you have to use people in a selfish way – use them when you need to use them and disappear and do your own thing when you want to. It’s so nice to know that there are people there to train with if you want that.”
The new training environment helped her arrive at Clearwater in the form of her life. Race day itself went pretty much to plan. “I just put my head down on the bike, and by mile 20 mylead was up to three minutes. But then the next split I got, at mile 30, it was down to one minute. The big male pro group had caught the other girls – and you can’t help but get pulled along a bit when ther eare 30 guys spaced 10 metres apart.
“Then that group of guys caught me and the head referee told me I had to drop back. You’ve got 30 guys, and when each one passes, you’ve got to slow down to let the gap open up. It took me out of my rhythm.”
But Dibens still managed to extend her lead again to nearly four minutes by the end of the 56-mile bike leg, and actually widened it over the half-marathon run.
“Until I hit the run I really don’t know how my legs will feel. It’s still a bit inconsistent, but a good lead allowed me to settle into my own pace. After nine miles I knew I was holding them, and th eonly reason I would lose was if I blew up big time, so I held back on the throttle a little bit. I was hurting, but I think I could have run faster if I was under pressure.
“And when I crossed the line it was a better feeling than when I qualified for the Olympics, better than when I won Maui for the first time when it wasn’t expected… The best feeling ever.”
So that’s one amateur and four professional and world titles Julie has won. Oh, and there’s the fact that her 3:49:33hrs finish was the first time a female athlete has ever ducked under the four-hour mark in a 70.3. Will anyone be able to better it this year? Find out on Saturday…