The Road to Geelong, an athletes journey… Rachel Dols

Athlete Rachel Dols shares some of her training journey and lessons, her training build, a recent medical diagnosis, and how she plans on celebrating after Geelong 70.3 !

Give us your back story – who is Rachel and how did she get into triathlon?

I love myself a challenge and having something to focus on all the time. Being brought up swimming before and after school everyday I think I need something that consumes my life outside of work, in a good way, of course. I took a bit of time off sport in my early 20’s having lived and breathed it growing up. Then I decided I wanted to run a marathon, got a stress fracture from over training and during my rehab from that was told I should do triathlon, so I did. Got myself a TT bike (which was my first ever road bike), did some uneducated training and dove straight in.  One sprint distance, one olympic distance the one 70.3 distance in my first season.

You recently had a medical diagnosis that has finally given you some answers to some unanswered questions. Care to fill us in?

Yeh, so for 3 seasons of triathlon I was struggling through races and hard training sessions. Over the course of a hard session or race I would get cramping like pain and fatiguing in my right quad that would gradually get worse. It would get to a point where the muscle would feel like it was tearing in half and would eventually seize up and make my leg feel like a dead weight. I would experience mild symptoms on the bike, but the run is where I really suffered. I had finished races where I was at a hobble because my quad had stopped working. The first time I really experienced it bad was at Geelong 70.3 in 2020, I got 4kms into the run and it started. I was running a low 5min/km pace and my pace eventually dropped to 8min/km and I had to keep stopping and walking. I remember having pain before Geelong during sessions, but didn’t take much notice of it. I thought to myself I must have torn my quad. It eventually got better and anytime I did a hard session or ran up a hill it would come back. It plagued me during the 2021 season and again now during the 2022 season. Over the last few years I had seen multiple sports medical professionals for second opinion upon second opinion. I have lost count of the amount of different practitioners I had seen, but the general consensus was muscular imbalance or biomechanic issue and strength training a soft tissue therapy was the answer. This obviously didn’t work, so fast track to January 2022 about 4 weeks out from Geelong and I had a pretty bad “episode” during a long bike to run effort. I told Sarah about it and she said she thinks she knows what it might be and that she has coached another athlete years ago who had a very rare condition known as External Iliac Artery Endofibrosis…

After a review of symptoms I thought this actually sounds spot on, so I went to see a sports doctor and told him I wanted to get tested for it. So he referred me to Melbourne Vascular who specialise in testing and treatment of those sorts of conditions. An assessment was done where I rode my bike flat out on the trainer and they took ankle blood pressure and an ultrasound on the artery and it was 100% confirmed. The artery that connects from your aorta to your femoral artery, the walls thicken and harden from repeated stress. They believe this is from constant hip flexion or hypertrophied muscles pressing on the artery. The artery is narrowed preventing normal blood flow, the artery also cannot dilate during exercise as it has hardened therefor essentially starving your muscles of oxygen. It’s like wrapping a belt tight around your groin to restrict blood flow and going for a run.  Unfortunately, the only fix is surgical intervention to replace or patch the artery, something I am considering doing, but not right now. 
(Bravo young lady for your outlook and dealing with such a diagnosis. If anyone thinks that they may have similar symptoms and wants to reach out to Coach Sarah or Rach, please do so. Or if you feel like this story sounds similar, you may have heard of professional triathlete Mel Hauschildt who was also diagnosed with this in 2017. You can read her story here.)

You started with CPC back in May 2021 with some big goals how has your build gone and how are you feeling now with your recent diagnosis?

Building up to Geelong has been really good. I have had a large focus on building up my bike leg. I feel so much stronger and more confident on the bike since being coached by Sarah and that was my weakest leg. I am definitely starting to feel like it is becoming my strongest leg. I had a few setbacks with running this year with shin splints (which I could not shake) so we have been conservative with running. 

I am not going to lie and say I am still as confident as I was before I got the diagnosis of EIAE, to be honest it has shattered most of my confidence because I know for what I have built up and all the hard work we have put in I can’t unfortunately beat it especially when it comes to the run, it does literally stop me in my tracks eventually. Before I was diagnosed with it I was sure I would be a contender with the top girls. 
I will say though that I am so much fitter and stronger than I was when I first did Geelong in 2020 and I am confident I will have a much better race than then.

With Sarah being your first coach for long distance, how does this lead up feel compared to how you trained previously?

In a nutshell so much more confident. I have been able to sit back and take the guess work out of it because I have someone who has been there, done that many times in the past and is incredibly knowledgeable guiding me through the process. 
In the past I have mostly winged it, never knowing if I was doing too little training, too much training, enough speed work, enough easy sessions (let’s be honest I never did easy sessions.) I kind of went hard for pretty much the whole year. Now I have built up a base phase, build phase and race phase which has been a lot more manageable and I’ve made more gains with so much more easy, slow aerobic training than I had just banging away at full gas all the time. It has been so much easier mentally when someone is writing your program for you and all you have to do is trust in the process.

What have you learnt new along the way – whether it be about training or even yourself?
Consistency is key, if you can turn up day in day out and get the work done you WILL improve. Easy sessions are the holy grail, and rest days or missed sessions aren’t the end of the world. I have realised I still have the drive and discipline to put in hard work consistently when I want it bad enough. 

What parts of your program / training have given you the most confidence leading into Geelong?
Definitely the bike, I had a very average bike leg of around 3:15 during my first Geelong race. It was my 3rd triathlon race ever and I had done hardly any biking, so my time on the bike was fair for the amount of effort I put into it. I reckon I could take 30 minutes off that time this year. 

On race day itself, is there anything you know you will do differently to previous race/s? (ie what have you learnt from racing before)

Not to over do it on the fluids. I smashed the fluids last time and had to stop to pee 3 times, mate no one needs or wants that, precious seconds being wasted by a tiny bladder and too much fluid.  

And importantly – how do you plan on celebrating / rewarding yourself? 😊

I probably will cry when I cross the finish line, mostly because the last few weeks have been testing emotionally. I wanted to cry in my last Olympic distance a week ago when I crossed the finish line. I didn’t, but I spent a good minute hyperventilating!
I am going to smash the free ice cream though (there better be some!) and probably eat a family sized pizza all to myself. Maybe I will get myself a new garmin watch, she’s getting on the old girl! :-p

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