Athlete Inside: From 335lbs to World Class Triathlete

By Chris Knight | 7 Minute Read

American triathlete Sue Reynolds recently reached out to Precision Hydration for a video call to discuss her hydration strategy for racing. Our chat with Sue revealed that her route into the world of swim-bike-run was far from straightforward. 

In fact, she's written about her experiences in a book called The Athlete Inside: The Transforming Power of Hope, Tenacity and Faith

Sue's journey has been remarkable as she went from weighing 335lbs to representing USA at the World Triathlon Championships in the space of four years. We interviewed Sue to find out more...

 

Hi Sue, so what was the turning point in your life that motivated you to lose 200lbs and go on to finish 6th in your age group at the World Triathlon Championships?

My first motivation was to have an attractive appearance. I found that was enough motivation for me to start losing weight, but not enough to keep me on track long-term.

The result was a lot of yo-yo dieting where I’d lose 20 pounds, but then gain 30.

At 335 pounds, my motivation changed. At that point, I was so big that I couldn’t do everyday things like fit in a restaurant booth, go for a walk, wear a seat belt in a car, fit through a turnstile, roll over in bed, or put on my own socks and shoes.

One morning, something just snapped inside of me, and I said, “Enough!”. At that moment, I started making different choices.

Later, when I discovered triathlon, my motivation changed again. I knew running would be a whole lot easier if I lost weight!

 

Sue Reynolds before and after photo
Image credit: Sue Reynolds ©

 

And why specifically was it the sport of triathlon that attracted you?

When I started thinking about triathlon, it was just a daydream. I didn’t think I’d ever actually do a triathlon, but thinking about it gave purpose and direction to my exercise.

As I walked, swam, or rode my bike, I pretended I was training for a triathlon. I liked how that thought made me feel courageous and tough. There was something about the challenge of doing something that required physical persistence that made it a perfect capstone activity for my fitness journey.

Once I did my first triathlon, I fell in love with the joy and kindness I found within the triathlon community.

 

The triathlon community are a good bunch. Can you tell us a bit about that first experience of racing triathlon?

I was clueless and terrified as I set up in transition for my first first triathlon.

I found a young man who seemed to know what he was doing (he had disk wheels) and asked for help. That was my first experience of the kindness of the endurance community. He dropped what he was doing, showed me how to rack my bike, and helped me place my gear under my bike.

I was still obese and had many misgivings about wearing my bathing suit in public. I also didn’t know if I could finish the course. But I told my pride and fear to go away, and stepped across the start line.

In my first transition, I walked from the swim to my bike, sat down, ate a sandwich, and brushed my hair! I wanted to be sure I was ready for the bike.

 

SUe Reynolds at finish line of Nationals in 2018
Image credit: Sue Reynolds ©

 

The bike course was hilly and I quickly learned that if I peddled fast down the hill, I could coast up part of the next hill. At a couple of intersections, I yelled “Wheeeee!” to the police officer who was stopping traffic so I could pass. One of the things I love most about triathlon is that it makes me feel like I’m ten years old again!

The run was challenging for me as an obese person but I was determined not to walk. As I passed one little boy on the sidelines, I heard him say to his father, “Look Daddy! She’s going real slow!”

When I got to the finish line after more than two hours of being on the course, the awards ceremony was over and almost everyone had gone home. I was dead last, but when I crossed the line, I held one finger in the air. In my mind, I was number one.

By the end of that race, I loved everything about triathlon. As soon as I got home, I registered for another.

 

Sue Reynolds at World Triathlon Championship finish line
Image credit: Sue Reynolds ©

 

And from there, you went on to finish 6th at the World Championships three years later. What inspired you to go ‘all in’ with swim-bike-run? 

I was often the only one in my age group at my small, local triathlons. So, during my second season I decided to race at the USA Triathlon National Championship to see how I compared to other women my age.

I figured I’d come in dead last, but that would be ok. My attitude toward triathlon changed in a split-second during the swim.

My hand came down in the middle of another woman’s back, and I wasn’t sure what to do. I thought about popping my head up and saying, “Excuse me!”. But this was a race. I kept my arm rotating to propel me forward, and in the process, I shoved the woman under water and swam over the top of her.

As her body disappeared below me and I raced forward, I was shocked to discover that I loved that feeling. A competitive beast had been hiding inside my obese body.

At the end of the race, I was shocked again when I learned that I finished in the middle of the pack. I became curious about what would happen if I really committed to triathlon.

When I got home, I asked my coach if he would train me as an elite even though I was still a beginner. I knew I would never be an Olympian, but there was no reason that I couldn’t train like an Olympian.

My coach agreed, and my mantra became:

“No excuses. Whatever it takes. Find a way.”

While triathlon had revolved around my life, now my life revolved around triathlon.

 

Sue Reynolds with bike
Image credit: Sue Reynolds ©

 

In relation to that "no excuses" mindset, I understand you hold yourself accountable by being very "data-driven"...

I love data. Without data, we make decisions based on our hunches about what is best. I set data-based goals at two levels.

1. Data-driven outcome goals identify where I hope to place at my “A” races - for example to finish in the top-X at Nationals. Once they’re set, I don’t focus on my outcome goals other than to let them drive the direction of my training. I can’t guarantee that I’ll reach my outcome goals because so many things that impact the outcome are out of my control (like the weather, flatting on the bike).

2. Data-driven process goals relate to the things that I will do every day to put me in the best position of obtaining my outcome goals. I set goals like: complete 100% of my workouts each week exactly as my coach intended or get eight hours of sleep for seven nights each week. I can guarantee that I will meet them, and when I do, I’ll be in a great position to nail my outcome goal.

I monitor perceived effort, actual effort (bike and run watts), and heart rate (the impact of the effort on my body). I love searching for clues in my data. Recently, my perceived effort, watts, and heart rate didn’t align, pointing to a hydration issue which you guys at Precision Hydration helped me address.

 

Sue Reynolds enjoying running
Image credit: Hendrik Eland courtesy of Sue Reynolds ©

 

Excellent, can you tell us a bit about how you first heard about PH? 

I learned about you guys after listening to Andy speak on several triathlon podcasts.

The benefits of having a tuned-in hydration strategy are huge. On easy runs during hot and humid days, my heart rate was often way above where it should have been based on the effort (watts) that I was exerting. I took the online Sweat Test and arranged a video call with a Sweat Expert.

Based on the information I received, I increased both my water intake and the strength of electrolytes in my water. That made all the difference in the world.

With that hydration plan, I was able to maintain an easy run for a long period of time without my heart rate becoming a limiting factor. 

 

Glad we could help! I imagine it must be remarkable to sit back and reflect on the changes in your life during the past few years?

I still shake my head in wonder every day when I think that a few years ago, I couldn't even tie my own shoes, and now I’m representing the United States at World Championships. I'm abundantly grateful for all who have helped me along the way. I’ve learned that kindness has the power to change lives.

People have been so kind to me, and I’d like to pay that forward. That’s why I’m donating the book’s proceeds and proceeds from my speaking engagements to organisations that support fitness for those who have an extra challenge.

In addition to supporting USA Triathlon Foundation’s programs for paratriathletes, I’m supporting Fund Her Tri - a nonprofit that provides small grants to cover the registration fee for women doing their first triathlon - and Dada Rides - a non-profit in Kenya that promotes cycling for women in a country where riding a bike is not considered proper for girls and women. I know my blessings have come from a kind and loving God, and I want to use those blessings to do good.

With regard to my own triathlon, I’ve qualified for the 2021 USA Triathlon National Championship in Milwaukee and the 2021 ITU Triathlon World Championship in Bermuda.

My hope (and plan) is to meet each of my daily process goals and make good decisions while racing. If I do those things, I will be a winner no matter where I place in my races.

 

Sue Reynolds before and after run photo
Image credit: Sue Reynolds ©

 

Your story has inspired so many people and I understand you're helping other athletes achieve their goals?

I founded a non-profit organisation twenty years ago that teaches community leadership teams how to develop and implement vision-based and data-driven plans for change.

The same change process can be used by individuals to obtain their personal goals - whatever those goals might be. My website includes a free tool called Start Your Journey that helps individuals prepare for success as they begin their own personal journey.

I love doing no-cost virtual “Meet the Author” events for triathlon clubs, race directors, sports shops, and book clubs across the country. It’s a great way for groups to come together to talk about fitness and endurance sports when social distancing is keeping us apart. 

 

Thanks for sharing your story with us Sue! 

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